Reducing Inhibiting Pressures and Behavior Change in Business: Insights from Matt Wallaert, Chief Behavioral Officer at Clover Health

This post was written by Sameer Jain. Sameer is the co-organizer of Action Design San Francisco.

If there is one thing to be said about Matt Wallaert, Chief Behavioral Officer at Clover Health, it’s that he practices what preaches.

When a fellow Action Designer put me in touch with Matt, I was intrigued by his background, but daunted at the thought of juggling event logistics and orchestrating his talk during an especially busy period. Then Matt offered up what was essentially an Event in a Box -- a choice of two interesting talks ready to go, and a venue to host us, to boot -- I immediately jumped at the opportunity.

It was only when I heard his talk that I realized this was a devious example of how he approaches designing for behavior change:

Start by writing a behavioral statement, considering the following factors:

  • Population: the organizers of Action Design SF
  • Behavior (make sure this is clear / measurable): get them to host a Meetup with Matt (rather than, say, “get them excited about Matt as a speaker”)
  • Limitations: scarce time to help speakers develop a compelling presentation and find a venue to host
  • Motivation: interested in bringing compelling insights to the Action Design community

Focus on removing inhibiting pressures.

Matt approaches behavior change using a “competing pressures” model which examines the forces promoting and inhibiting the desired behavior. People tend to bias towards creating promoting pressures, but it’s often more effective to target people who’re already motivated to take action, and remove the barriers to their doing so. (Instead of focusing on amping us up about how awesome his talk was going to be, Matt correctly determined that the most effective approach would be to make it super easy for us to take action.)

If people aren’t sufficiently motivated to do exactly what you want them to, see if you can take advantage of the power of identity and emotion through “drafting” -- connecting your desired behavior to the things people already care about.

Another neat trick for applying this model: start by determining the steps to persuade someone to do the opposite of your target behavior, and then reverse what you came up with!


Beyond his general approach to designing for behavior change, Matt also shared some great insights on driving behavior change within your organization and its processes:
Act as an enabler rather than a magician.

Empower people, “upskilling” them with knowledge and tools they can use themselves, so that the behavioral team isn’t a bottleneck. Use intuitive models people can understand.

Let the project owners you’re working with (rather than the behavioral officer/team) claim the ROI. How to demonstrate the behavioral team’s effectiveness? Measure NPS (willingness to recommend their services)!

Reduce inhibiting pressures! Invest in systems that make it as easy as possible for people to pilot and test behavioral interventions.

Pilot, measure, and scale.

The literature typically focuses on assessing individual interventions, but determining the optimal combination and configuration of interventions as applied to real-world problems is an unsolved problem: it requires testing and iteration.

Start with an “operationally dirty” pilot (one requiring some manual work). Then, if results are promising, invest in making it more efficient and testing on a larger population.

Include both quantitative and qualitative assessment for a richer understanding.

Pay more attention to real world significance (effect size) and less attention to statistical significance (p-values) than you would in the lab. If your results suggest a big effect, even if there’s a 10% probability they could be due to chance, they’re worth exploring further.

Continue to monitor even after you’ve scaled. Effects can evolve over time (for example, badges are less effective now that gamification is everywhere).


Where to learn more

In the spirit of reducing inhibiting pressures: Matt shares many more great insights on applying behavior change to business (and how and why to create a Chief Behavioral Officer position) in his interview on the Action Design Podcast -- to listen, just click here! You can also find the podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, YouTube, or wherever else you get your podcasts.

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