Breaking Institutional Biases: Lessons from Working With Transportation Authorities


Breaking Institutional Biases: Lessons from Working With Transportation Authorities

November 25, 2019

The larger and more complex an organization gets, the more it falls into certain patterns of behaviour. These patterns typically develop over a long period of time—years or even decades—and encompass a set of knowledge, beliefs, and behaviours that are entrenched within the organization. As time goes on, the patterns are reinforced, whether or not they are actually good for the organization, until a time comes when no one can imagine doing things any other way. This can lead to outdated processes and beliefs and may stifle innovation and growth.

In previous roles, both Michael and I have worked on projects with some of the biggest and most complex organizations of all—North American Transit Agencies—and have seen firsthand the challenges these organizations face when looking to break from established patterns and incorporate human-centred design and analytics into their way of working. We’ve learned that it’s important to complete a type of organizational anthropology to understand these patterns of behaviour and beliefs and create internal discussions that will lead employees to question false beliefs for themselves.

To show you what we mean, let’s look at two examples: a time when attempting to break from entrenched behaviours went wrong and a time it went right and what was done differently the second time.

Example One:
At one transportation authority, an analysis of riders revealed that stations could no longer be viewed with a static model applied throughout the city—the results showed that primary users with operational performance needs, e.g. students, car pickups, and long journey riders (+1.5 hours travel times), were not satisfied by a generic design.

A data-driven project was initiated to supply station managers with station profiles that would give them more detailed analysis of the target customers on an ongoing basis. One of the key goals of this project was to provide managers with a tool that would allow them to request changes and plan actions to better fit customer needs over time. It would provide additional information for managers who believed that on-time schedules and staff capacity planning was their primary role.

The project was driven by the data and a solution was developed that had the potential to radically change the way the transportation authority understood their customers, communicated with them, and developed future services and infrastructure to meet their needs. Unfortunately, it was developed without input from the end-users and, due to poor communication and a reluctance from end-users to adopt new technologies and processes, this project was ultimately unsuccessful and never got out of the pilot stage.

The lesson: If you don’t let employees test beliefs on their own they may reject solutions that could be valuable.

Example Two:
The same transportation authority was looking to develop new customer service standards.
As part of this project, the project team facilitated a series of workshops that brought together frontline staff and customers and allowed the customers to discuss their pain points when interacting with the transportation authority’s employees.

Both groups sought to understand why certain behaviours had become entrenched in their interactions and employees started to question certain ways of interacting with customers. Outside of the normal work environment, they started to empathize more with the customers’ situation. They developed a deeper understanding of how their actions could impact customers in positive and negative ways. This understanding was instrumental in creating an openness to change. We were able to work with the union, with the support of the employees, to set out new standards for the organization.

The lesson: By talking directly with customers outside of the work environment, the employees started to question their beliefs. Having these employees spread their new perspective influenced others and helped carve a pathway for change.


Recognizing patterns within an organization, especially ones that are holding the organization back from growth or stifling innovation, is extremely important. A good way to do this is by enabling the organization’s employees to recognize and question these patterns of behaviour on their own and then work with them to affect meaningful change.

In our first example, the failure to communicate with the end-users, i.e. the transportation authority employees, led to a project that was doomed to fail. Although the solution may have been appropriate, failing to involve the employees in its ideation and execution meant that entrenched patterns of behaviour were never properly confronted and examined. This resulted in the transportation authority continuing to do things “the way they’ve always been done.” By contrast, in the second example, meaningful change came about as a direct result of involving employees throughout the entire process and allowing them to confront and question the established patterns of behaviour themselves.


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