If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake

I spoke this morning at the LSx/Well London “Not another behaviour change conference?” Having been asked to do a little scene-setting in 8 to 10 minutes, I decided to say three things about cake.

The first thing I talked about was the difference between buying a cake and baking a cake. Most of us, when we imagine either of these scenarios, experience far more positive connotations in respect of the latter than the former. Yes, there are some wonderful cakes for sale out there, but we when we think about baking a cake we imagine the delicious smell and the effort we put in and the sheer loveliness of a freshly-based cake that you made yourself and compared to the act of simply choosing and buying a cake, we know, almost instinctively, that baking is better than buying. Few of us bake as much as we’d like, perhaps; but most of know that baking is better.

I suggested that there is an important analogy with behaviour change: traditional interventions are like buying the ingredients for a cake – you wander down the aisles of policy options, choosing the items that suit your needs, each clearly labelled with impact data and such like, and you are encouraged to believe that you need merely to use the various ingredients and you’re guaranteed an outcome.

In reality, though, every community is unique, every individual is unique, and when we’re dealing with modern, complex problems – obesity, mental well-being, climate change – it’s in the act of baking that we create something authentic. Rather than think of ‘behaviour change’ as just another policy tool, better to think of it – I suggested – as part of your baking repertoire.

The second thing I talked about is that you can’t reverse-engineer a cake. Which means: you can take a toaster apart, or a car apart, or even a shop apart, and you can stare at all the pieces and you can figure out how it works and you can think about how to improve this piece or that piece and then you can stick it all back together again and you’ll probably have a better toaster, car or shop. But you can’t do that with a cake. If you want to understand what makes a good cake – well, yes, you’ve got to have some idea of the ingredients, but you’ve also got to understand baking.

And whilst you can learn a lot from reading books about baking, or watching celebrity chefs on television, in the end the only way to get good at baking cakes is to actually bake cakes. It’s experiential stuff.

And the same goes for behaviour change. We know – not least from Brook Lyndhurst’s own research and evaluation studies – what the basic ingredients for successful behaviour change interventions look like. But it’s in the specifics in each case – the actual individuals involved, the actual shape of local partnerships and institutions, the actual style of leadership and so on – where the real difference between successful and less successful projects lies.

Which got me to the third thing about cake: namely, that the best way to learn about baking is to spend time with other people who are also learning. Picture it: a whole load of you, in a great big kitchen, everyone experimenting and tinkering slightly with the recipe, everyone tasting everyone else’s cake and agreeing that this one is good, but this one is slightly better. How did you do that? Well, I sieved the flour for quite a long time… and I only put the vanilla essence in at the very end rather than half way through.

And that, again, is what it’s like with behaviour change projects. Yes, keep up with the literature and the guidance and the latest evaluation findings; but, most of all, make sure you spend time with other people and projects, sharing and learning, by doing things like attending LSx/Well London conferences.

(Incidentally, and by way of close out, there’s quite a bit of interesting theory about the process of learning and improving in complex environments, much of it guided by evolutionary theory. The work of Eric Beinhocker is very accessible (he talks about the way in which modern bicycle design has emerged through a process of trial and error rather than top-down design); and, from a completely different angle, Baba Brinkman’s rap “Performance, Feedback, Revision” also provides some powerful and entertaining insight.)

Meanwhile, enjoy baking the cake.

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  1. [...] cake. A blog containing some of the content and David’s reflections, can be found here: http://www.brooklyndhurst.co.uk/blog/?p=1217 . Alternatively, you could watch the short video here:  David Fell of Brook Lyndhurst at the [...]

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