This article is from comedian / writer / director / actor Mike Birbiglia about getting started in show business. I love his comedy and his films, and I think his advice about show business is just as applicable to business in general:
- Don’t wait
- Learn from the failure
- Maybe quit?
- Be bold enough to make stuff that’s small but great
- Cleverness is overrated and heart is underrated.
Workplace culture is a phrase that gets bandied around. Small workplaces probably don’t have the time to think about it or consciously and proactively affect it. They’re the same workplaces that roll their eyes at terms like ‘proactively’ and, most of the time, fair enough. They’re rightly more focused on getting things made or services provided and getting paid. Large workplaces spend lots of time, money and effort to mold their people and processes into something they’ve benchmarked against that’s supposed to be productive, or support engagement or blerby blerdy whoop.
I think workplace culture is a real thing not just a passing buzzphrase. It might’ve been called different things over the years and might be called something different in two years. Sports, music and other analogies abound. The recent NBA finals went 7 games and whichever team was going to win it would’ve inspired articles abound team culture or chemistry or locker room morale. New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team is the winningiest longterm team in the world ever. (Evidence neither cited nor provided, neither am I sure on the word ‘winningiest’). The current coach is in his 5th year and has a winning percentage in the mid 90s. That includes winning a world cup so these numbers are not generally inflated by playing bunnies. All these teams place a huge credit on team culture by selecting the right people, putting ongoing effort into helping them fit, focusing on shared goals and managing consequences when things go well or poorly.
To me, wandering in and out of organisations as an outsider, the thing done least well in both small and large workplaces in that consequences thing. A real test of how good a leader is, or how effective a workplace culture is, is what happens when something goes wrong. All talk of inclusiveness and learning from our mistakes gets put to the test when a client is lost or an expensive failure strikes.
Rather than wait until you get put to the true test, how about a pre test – a litmus test if you will? A means by which you can gauge the temperature of your team or organisation as to how much of a non-blaming culture you really have. I like this article’s suggestion. At meetings, or away from meetings, or indeed, away from work entirely, try asking: “Tell me one thing you think I don’t want to hear…”?
Think about what that implies and how you reckon it might go at your work. Then think about how it should go, how it would go if you really had an effective workplace culture, that has accountability and responsibility without the base and non-productive human instinct to blame.
I performed some comedy shows in Singapore a few days back. Such a diverse crowd and real fans of comedy. It really reinforced to me the power of, and need for, humour as a means for humans to express and provoke. Express thoughts. Express opposition. Express alternatives. So, to me, offending through humour is less about topics such as race etc as much as context, purpose, timing and style. And it better be funny. And, if the joke has a ‘victim’, that victim should be an idea. Never “punch down”.
No one’s ever complained to my face that I’ve been offensive. I’m not trying to offend and I’m not trying to not offend. I do try to challenge and provoke. I’m never going to mock someone directly for being overweight or what I might consider to be overweight. I’m not going to mock a group that I might label the ‘overweight’. But I do think society generally need to be healthier and eat smarter. My only platforms to express my views are my presentations, my writing, my comedy and my social media. That’s how I try to tell the emperor he has no clothes. I’ll direct the joke at a behaviour not a person or group. I did do a few race-based jokes in Singapore, a highly multicultural society. I wasn’t going to initially but it became clear that not only was it OK, it was expected and demanded. It was almost an act of inclusion. But, again, it wasn’t attacking people or groups, it was drawing attention to behaviour and ideas. Why did the racist chicken cross the road? Out of ignorance and fear.
That said, I’m a professional, so if you book me to entertain at an event, you’re not looking to change the world. You’re looking to fill a gap before dessert. I get that and don’t fret. That said, maybe your company should tell your emperor a few things and maybe humour is a means. Several native American tribes such as the Navajo and the Lakota have a great system of ‘Sacred Clowns‘ to drive improvement and often survival through humour. Pointing out flaws with purpose – kind of a useful application of humour and one that a few corporations and Governments could benefit from. Although Mr Trump seems oblivious and impervious to it.
This is getting way too deep for me. I’m clearly putting off shifting that half tonne of lime metal into the boggy patches by the barn. Barn owners – you know what I’m talking about right?! Barn owners, make some noise.
I’m currently working with a company that wants to implement a sustainable and managed programme of organisational storytelling. They’re convinced it isn’t silly nor is it just a ‘flavour of the month’ magic leadership blue pill. They see it as a fundamental human communication tool and they’d like to leverage it for their own communication strategy’s objectives and enable their people to use it to better move people around them to change. They had no problem with the concept, the practice or the potential cost-benefits of organisational storytelling. Their primary concern was that it would become just another change effort that didn’t stick.
In that regard, their concerns are warranted. Something as uncommon and potentially nebulous such as organisational storytelling is no different from any large-scale change project like a force-fed software roll-out.
Research from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, later popularised by Chip and Dan Heath in their book ‘Made To Stick’ focused on the power in change situations of combining the rational and the emotional. They’re the ones who got the ball rolling on the phrase ‘The elephant and the rider.’ It’s all a wonderful oversimplification and neuro-scientists must be rolling in their hammocks but it’s a simple and useful mental model. The elephant is your emotional brain. The skinny feeble dude on top of the elephant is the rider – your rational brain. The rider knows the rules and your goals and what’s good for you in the long run and learns from experience. The elephant wants what it wants. The rider will see a pile of chocolate and say that you shouldn’t have any but could probably have a little bit. The elephant will say it can’t hear you because of the noise it’s making eating all this chocolate.
Apparently, a key to success in life generally and change in particular is to get our elephants and riders working together. The third element is to ‘shape the path.’ We need to give them a degree of autonomy but with a limited range. Some of you will be thinking that this makes sense. Some of you will be thinking that elephants can’t talk. That’s just your driver speaking.
One of the things that constrains or delays change is paralysis by analysis. People obsess over making the right decision and end up making no decision or a too late decision. There’s a classic study where researchers set up stalls at several farmers markets. Half the stalls offered three jams for sale with three taste test pots. The other half of the stalls offered twenty four jams and twenty four taste test pots. Which stalls do you think sold the most jam? Far and away the three choice stalls sold significantly more jams. Haven’t we been conditioned to think that we want choice? That more choices are good choices? You might think that but that’s not what the research shows.
Why is that? Regret, or the potential for it, is a powerful driver and constrainer of human behaviour, although not so much for elephants. We want to choose the best jam. The chances of making the best jam choice out of three are pretty good, especially if the three choices are very diverse, say, a berry jam, a marmalade and something with low or no sugar. (Ha, just kidding. I think stevia is straight out of Professor Snape’s lab at Hogwarts and causes flavour to become invisible.) But, with twenty four options, many quite similar, those odds of making the best choice plummet. And our brains, emotional nor rational, don’t like that. We probably wouldn’t construct elaborate decision matrices on complex spreadsheets for jams but that’s exactly what we do for a lot of decisions are work.
John P. Kotter is the world’s leading expert on change. He’s got that middle initial thing going on so there’s that for a start. Seriously, his book’s a classic and I highly recommend it. I MC’d his off-sider from Boston at a conference recently and I was impressed by their research-based but very practical structured approach. They have an eight-step process; Look it up. The first step to minimising the chances of your change initiative failing is to create a sense of urgency. If paralysis by analysis is a brake on change efforts then creating a sense of urgency is smart. Go on, the idea is only available for a limited time!!
They say we’ll never know which came first – the chicken or the egg. I say it’ll become a lot clearer once KFC starts serving breakfasts. Is it that restaurants don’t offer a wide range of vegetarian meal options because diners don’t order a lot of vegetarian meals or do diners not order a lot of vegetarian meals because restaurants don’t offer a wide range of vegetarian options? It’s a chicken and egg situation.
I love bias! And by loving bias, I mean understanding more about the tricks, filters and timesaving tools our brains use to preserve energy that were probably great in caveman times but are often unproductive, counterproductive or just embarrassing these days. This article and the following infographic capture neatly quite of few of them. I’m a sucker for the first two, even though I know they exist. Awareness helps but it’s not a foolproof solution. Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast And Slow’ is great on this topic and I found it reassuring that he too confessed to falling prey to biases even though he’s a nobel winner. His best advice for us and himself was to slow down.
I read an article about shameless self-promotion via Twitter and getting engagement on your tweets. I only ever signed up in the first place to see what the fuss was about but over the years, I’ve had bursts where it’s prompted me to write a joke, or make an observation, or share a useful article or resource. I’m primarily a trainer and speaker around engaging people at work but I do get a lot out of my comedy sideline.
So, as a test, I plan to tweet a self-written joke a day using an image and see what it does to my social media engagement. I’m posting the same images on FaceBook and LinkedIn. Today is day 4 and they’re getting a lot of ‘likes’. Ideally, there’d be a lot of ‘shares’ but we’ll see.
Anyways, here are the first four. Let’s see what happens. Worst case, I end up with 30 new jokes.
For some reason my doctor has this thing about preventing illness, as opposed to exclusively waiting for people to get sick, then charging them for treatment. A couple of years ago, my medical centre’s database sent me a ‘Dear middle-aged guy’ letter (I paraphrase.) “Give us some blood and we’ll predict your future.” (Again, I paraphrase.)
I gave the blood. Although, to be more accurate, I showed up and they took it. I had to show up in person for the results. As they read them out, I thought to myself that this is proof I’m even more amazing than I thought I was. Less than a 2% chance of a heart attack? I’ll bank that. And the 2% is probably just them covering their butt statistically. I was about to stand up, thank them and exit to applause (I presumed.) Hold on cowboy, we’ve saved the best for last. Let’s talk blood glucose. Why don’t you talk blood glucose – I don’t know what it is but it sounds delicious.
It turns out there’s a scale. 50 or more is actual type 2 diabetes. Less than 40 is cool. (I initially said “Less than 40 is sweet” but they said that was just mean in a blog about diabetes.) I was a 41. The nurse said 40-50 is technically termed ‘pre-diabetes.’ But 41 could be a statistical blip so let’s not get crazy. Let’s re-test in a while. A year later of avoiding the issue and figuratively wandering round with my hands over my ears going “La la la la la la la!” (Sometimes, literally doing that.) I figured that as a trainer, speaker and comedian, constantly travelling, sometimes with a suitcase containing kilograms of candybars – you know, for workshop prizes, that I probably ate most of those myself and I should probably not do that.
Last July I got re-tested. They tell you that if the results are fine, they won’t call. If the results are non-fine, they’ll call. I appreciate that many people have genuine health problems and genuine life-and-death test results coming through. I’m not dramatising my situation. But I do now have a greater appreciation of the Pavlovian effect of hearing the phone ring.
As at last July, I was a 43. Again, they play the ‘let’s not get too fussed’ card. But I’m a trend guy and I didn’t like where this was going. They said if it gets any higher, we should consider medication. I’m not a medication guy. I just told you before – I’m a trend guy.
At about the same time of the original test, I was writing a book called ‘Live Work Love’ about how to add ten quality years to your life. Having written it, I can’t actually swear on a bible (not written by me) that I’ve ever sat down and read it. I did a stack of research for that book and interviewed some smart people. I read it. I appreciated the irony.
I wasn’t fat and was gymming or basketballing 4-5 times a week. Inactivity wasn’t my problem, yet still my blood glucose was ikky. I didn’t do any additional exercise but I did stop eating stupid carbs. From July to November I religiously went over-the-top – definitely consuming no obviously sugary things, not any floury, ricey things. I still probably ate too much at times portion-wise and had the odd cornchip orgy. But, generally for those months, I was saint-like. (One of the good saints, not one of the many reprehensible ones.) I’m pretty sure I annoyed my family. From a non-chunky base, I lost 10kg. But, come December with Christmas and me losing interest cos I have a short attention span etc, I fell off the wagon a bit. January, I spent most of the month in the USA on a predominantly Denny’s-based diet. Did a lot of walking though. I gained none of the weight back.
On my return, I decide to get a re-test. Knowledge is power. I then discover than the test somehow magically can tell your blood glucose level over the previous three months! OK I think, my saintly months are off that timeline but my Christmas party and Disneyland churro period are on that timeline. (Note – I never ate a churro but I did inhale.)
A week goes by and I hadn’t heard back. Is this because my results are below 40 or because they’re being passed around the office out of morbid amazement? I call them…
Now, I’m a 39!!! (Totally appropriate use of exclamation points.) My first impulse was to eat 47 TimTams to celebrate. (Cos I’m worth it.) Then I wondered if I tried hard enough, could I get my blood glucose level to zero. If 50 is terrible, zero must be awesome, right? Probably, if you’re a piece of paper.
I’m not entirely sure what the moral of the story is. But I would like to share with you the photo at the top of the blog. It’s my entree and main from espnzone in Anaheim. I also had a pint of Stella with it. Those pulled pork nachos have cornchips of three different colours. Three! Say what you like about America but they put a man on the moon and who knows how many colours of cornchip they’re capable of, even if they can’t spell colour correctly? (The hotdog and side of fruit are my son’s.)
I think my points are:
- measure things that are important and that you can affect
- walk more
- don’t eat stupid carbs (if you have to ask what a stupid carb is, you’re a stupid carb.)
You know how you walk in a room and you get a whole bunch of things done and then, just as you’re about to leave the room, you realise that you didn’t do the main thing that you actually went into that room to do? Now think about that, but instead of a room, it’s your life.