Love the Experiment, Not the Idea
This article was originally published in People Science Journal in January 2019
Russians smoke. A lot. With nearly 60 percent of men and 22 percent of women identified as smokers Russia leads the way in the European Union. So much so that when ordinary Russians were hit hard by a recent economic downturn, average Russians tried to grow their own tobacco rather than quitting. This makes public health initiatives around smoking cessation all the more precarious. Nevertheless, several years ago, the Gift of Quit, a behavior-based program that activates friends and family to help a smoker kick the addictive habit, was launched with intriguing results.
The Gift of Quit was born out of chance circumstances. A number of years ago, our commercial innovation team was invited to pitch for internal venture funding if we could demonstrate a project that could “disrupt”, or significantly impact, the trajectory of a disease. This was no small task. After all, if we had a disruptive idea, why would we have been keeping it a secret from everyone all this time? I was the global marketing head of smoking cessation, and we were working on increasing quit attempts by smokers. In the world of smoking cessation, smokers who attempt to quit face steep mental and emotional hurdles because of the addictive nature of nicotine. Furthermore, what compounds the quitting experience is the loneliness and isolation of making a quit attempt and the feeling of letting your loved ones down if, and when, you fail. With the average smoker making 6 to 11 attempts before succeeding, most smokers will fail at some point and most acknowledge that they avoid telling friends and family.
Enter stage right – sweaty, but from stage right – the long distance runner. Marino, a competitive long-distance runner, was preparing to run the New York City Marathon. His friend was asking colleagues and friends for a small financial sponsorship in exchange for sponsors to track and encourage his training. Anyone who cared about him, and even those who were mildly ambivalent but pretended to care were quick to sponsor his training. After my $75 gift and the related surge of Dopamine and Oxytocin, I had a mini-epiphany related to our smoking cessation problem: What if friends and family could sponsor, or “gift,” a quit attempt to a beloved smoker? What if friends and family members could act as sponsors and micro-payers, financially and emotionally supporting a loved one’s quit attempt. Recent neurobiological research suggested that the concept could have positive health benefits for both parties given that “both receiving and giving social support were associated with reduced vulnerability for negative psychological outcomes.” Furthermore, the Gift of Quit would attempt to overturn the long-standing assumption that quitting should be an individual and isolating mission. Both the giver and the receiver would benefit from the relationship – the receiver would have an increased level of commitment and financial support while the giver would derive personal fulfillment for giving a life-changing opportunity and receiving updates that reaffirm their intrinsic goodness.
To Russia, With Love
With idea in hand, but the clock ticking on the funding opportunity, the team solicited the Russian market, one of our most frustrated and eager partners, to team up on a series of preliminary experiments. The experiments were designed to test a few critical assumptions that were both highly uncertain and would have a significant impact on the viability of the concept. In particular, we set out to understand if:
Friends and family would be willing to contribute to a loved one’s quit attempt
Receiving the “gift” would motivate smokers to visit a clinic to make a quit attempt
Knowing friends and family have a stake in your quit attempt influences the quitting experience
In partnership with the Russian market, our team designed a simple digital platform that enabled friends and family to redeem a gift to support a loved one’s quit attempt. The concept encouraged family and friends to pool funding together and provide the financial and emotional support for their loved one’s quit attempt. The smoker could redeem the gift at specific health locations where smoking cessation treatment was provided. To facilitate meaningful comparison, the program was launched in multiple Russian cities while others were intentionally left alone, our geographical control group. After several months of testing, the results were intriguing. There was an unexpectedly high redemption rate, a marked increase in visits to the active test cities, versus the control cities and survey research strongly suggested that familial support was positive and extremely helpful in supporting quit attempts.
Institutional Setback and a Reset
Armed with this exciting evidence, our team applied for further venture funding but was unsuccessful at winning the additional funds. We were surprised by the funding committee’s hesitancy given the rich behavioral insights and the implications for behavior change. The decision was made because executive leadership worried that there was a risk of overgeneralizing the Russian experience to the rest of the world.While our team was disappointed by this decision, we decided not to let the experiments and the insights be in vain. Instead, the team focused on socializing the behavioral insights extracted from the experiments, rather than the Gift of Quit concept itself. We believed that the tested assumptions and learnings could serve as the foundation of a follow-on global patient support initiative. We were right.
Within a couple of years, the Gift of Quit reemerged. This time it was a joint effort between the American Lung Association and Pfizer and was known as The Quitter’s Circle. The Quitter’s Circle – built on the shoulders of the Gift of Quit – evolved into a mobile app and online community designed to help smokers form a team with friends and family to connect with medical and educational resources and to fund the cost of a quit attempt. The Quitter’s Circle ultimately made a positive impact for smokers and validated the hypothesis years after that initial epiphany.
The experience with the Gift of Quit was a powerful warning not to fall in love with our ideas. While I strongly believed in this concept, if my focus had centered exclusively on proving that the Gift of Quit was a winning idea for that specific problem – rather than testing and learning about the critical assumptions – our efforts would have ended up on the trash heap. Instead, the Gift of Quit is a reminder that we must learn to love the process of experimenting. Ideas are commodities. Learning is the premium. By staying open to the possibility that our ideas will change through experimentation, we become more flexible and nimble at creating winning solutions to mighty challenges.