Design for behaviour that’s more Mardi Gras than military parade

Design for behaviour that’s more Mardi Gras than military parade

Military precision is the exception, not the rule

Have you ever seen footage of a military parade on TV? Hundreds of soldiers marching in unison, stopping and about-facing with precision in response to a few brief, crisp commands. I find it fascinating, and I’ve finally worked out why.

It’s exceptional.

I don’t mean exceptional in its quality, though it is, I mean that this kind of behaviour is the exception. It’s just not how people naturally behave.

So why do we run our businesses and our lives thinking it is?


We’ve been doing it wrong


Military parades are a display of solidarity and strength, designed to show the unit’s discipline and that no one person is more important than another. And guess what? It takes years and years of practice and to behave like that, and even then, soldiers who are not on parade don’t walk and act that way.

It’s a bit like how we’ve been conditioned to try and get people to change their behaviour.  

  • Give them instructions and wait for them to fall into line. “This is what I do, now buy”.
  • Assume that it’s just a matter of discipline and pointing out right and wrong will be enough. “It’s not difficult (…to save money, lose weight, leave your job). You have to try harder.”
  • Expect they’ll be happy to be part of a pack. “Everyone else does it this way so it’s just the way you’ll have to as well.”

In other words, we’ve relied on some flawed assumptions about behaviour. No wonder we’ve had a tough time convincing customers, staff, stakeholders and suppliers to do what we want.

The truth is people don’t like to be treated as a number.

The truth is it’s less a matter of discipline and more a question of designing the environment to support change.

The truth is that knowing and doing are very different, and a rational argument very rarely influences action.


How to get it right


When it comes to influencing others, we need to think more Mardi Gras than military parade. Around the world Mardi Gras parades are celebrations of culture, humanity and life, and as such provide insights into how we should think about behaviour.

Recognise tribes

Instead of treating our target market as a homogenous mass we need to think about the tribes within – the people with whom they identify – and how they will want to express what makes them different. In my business for instance, I need to think about how the problems accountants face when influencing clients are different to retailers. While the behavioural principles underpinning a solution might be the same, the solution needs to be tailored to that tribe.

Acknowledge individuality 

The uniqueness of individuals is on display at Mardi Gras as people shimmy down the road in their version of costume. People want their uniqueness to be acknowledged. It can be as small as addressing people by name in an email or on the phone, or as large as personalising a Prada, but people need to be given the opportunity to be seen and heard.

Move toward something 

Progress is an innate drive, and people want to feel they are moving towards something. Where a military parade seems to go around in circles before dissipating (remind you of business meetings?), Mardi Gras parades move towards a destination. You need to get clear on where the person you are trying to influence wants to go – their objectives – so you can formulate a pathway to get them there. Funnily enough this is a lot of what I do with websites – clarify the pathway for the visitor.

Structure within chaos

Unlike a military parade, life is not static, and you can’t control all conditions. It means that one week your marketing campaign might dazzle, and the next it might flop and you can’t work out why. Which is the reason behavioural economics offers so much upside – it reduces uncertainty because you can build a website, campaign or interaction around behavioural principles that are, in fact, constant. Indeed, Dan Ariely captured this potential beautifully when he called his book Predictably Irrational, and by building your business around science-based insights into real behaviour you are providing structure within the chaos.

So when next you come across vision of a military parade, remind yourself that this rigidity is unnatural and that barking commands like “Buy now!” and “Do this!” is not the path to success. Instead, think of Mardi Gras with colour, energy, diversity, music and emotion because that’s the world we really live in.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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