Intervention design – an example

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —May 16, 2006
Filed in Anecdotes

I’m always on the lookout for intervention design examples and I found one last week I think you’ll like. But before I describe it, remember what we mean by an intervention: a discrete action designed to improve the system but you can’t predict exactly how things are going to turn out. It’s not a project in the sense that there is a clear objective, and a set of milestones over sometimes lengthy periods.

This example is from Pfeffer and Sutton’s Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths & Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-based Management [pp. 116–117]

A classic demonstration of the power of external reinforcements was a study in the early 1970s at Emery Air Freight, a freight forwarder. Before the development of large package companies with their own airplanes, freight forwarders picked up packages and shipped them on airlines. They got a better rate to the extent the packages were placed in larger containers that were easier to handle. So Emery management wanted employees to put as many packages as possible into larger containers to cut freight costs.

The company conducted a performance audit and found that, although managers thought they were using larger containers 90 percent of the time it was feasible, only 45 percent of the eligible packages were actually being put into larger containers. So the company announced a new program that provided rewards such as praise—not financial rewards—for improvement.

On the first day, the proportion of packages placed in the larger containers increased to 95 percent in about 70 percent of the company’s offices. The speed of this overwhelming improvement suggests that a change in performance derived not just from the rewards that were offered, but also from the information provided that the current performance level was poor and this action—consolidating shipments—was important to the company.

Pfeffer and Sutton are careful to point out that rewards and recognition approaches don’t work in all cases. It’s one of the dangerous half truths they explore. In this case recognition is used to convey a message to staff about what is important to the company. I think it provides a useful pattern (one of many possibilities) for intervention design: identify a desired improvement that can be measured (of course many cannot—have a read of this) and heap praise on those people who are adopting the desired behaviours.

For example, if you are a scientific organisation and are unhappy with the number and quality of the papers being published, management might communicate the importance of, for example, publication in tier 1 journals then heap praise on people who succeed in publishing their papers in these journals. This is a better option than just saying “we should provide better feedback and praise to our staff.”

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Designing the right intervention

    Shawn Callahan writes Intervention design – an example of the power of focus. The Theory of Constraints spends a lot of time helping people focus on the right thing.

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