Category Archives: Change
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.
My understanding of coaching is that it is a bit like art – you may not be able to define it but you know it when you see it. Or was that pornography? Some people try and narrow down its definition by specifying what coaching is not. Coaching is not training, leading, managing, facilitating or mentoring. Training implies that the trainer knows something that the trainee doesn’t know but needs to know and it’s up to the trainer to fix that. Managing is about tasks and things and almost certainly has an actual or implied hierarchy and power imbalance. Leading is about hearts and minds, providing inspiration and motivation to someone, who in the leader’s opinion, requires more motivation but seems to be unable to generate it themselves. Facilitation involves directing or controlling an individual or group. Mentoring demands a relationship between an experienced expert and someone inexperienced and / or inexpert who wants to do or be what the mentor does / is.
A common metaphor for coaching in business is coaching in sport; it’s easy to say that. People get it quickly but it’s not a fitting comparison. Sports coaches are the boss. They’re in charge. They’ve got extensive expertise and experience. More likely than not, they’ve been in the team being coached and after their playing career, they’ve logically moved into coaching. Though not every player has been able to make that transition.
Business coaching or professional development coaching are different. There’s no power imbalance (or there shouldn’t be.) There’s no expertise imbalance. A coach is an independent force there to observe, listen, reflect, probe, prompt. A coach probably doesn’t know the answers or have the direct experience of the issues and opportunities of the person being coached. You need permission to coach. The coach is not in control. The coach need not have all the answers and better not pretend that they do. The coach does need to keep the person being coached honest, focused and aiming at development that is genuinely necessary and attainable.
Most employees, most of the time, will do what they are directly told to do. That’s management and if that is all there was, then managers would have to be omnipresent because that’s the limitation of the command-and-control hierarchical power-based model. The reality is that managers have lots to do and places to be. Tom Peters wasn’t wrong when he said that the true test of your leadership is what happens when you’re not around. (Unless it wasn’t Tom Peters who said that? In which case, it’s me who’s wrong. Leave Tom Peters alone.) The baseline assumption behind coaching is that it’s ongoing, progress is expected, that progress is the responsibility of the person being coached, and the coach is responsible for the coaching process. Ongoing professional development can genuinely benefit from an effective and frequent coaching programme. A Bersin study found that companies with an effective and frequent coaching programme improve their business results by 21 percent as compared to those who never coach.
Can a manager also be an effective coach in an employment context? Sure, why not? They’re doing everything else. Bosses can wear rotating hats with labels like ‘coach’, ‘manager’, ‘leader’ or whatever and that’s probably pragmatic. But, there’s a value especially for coaching in a real and / or [perceived independence, coupled with a perspective and helpful naiveté born of being an outsider. Sometimes, it’s worth hiring someone to do the coaching. (I don’t do much coaching myself. It’s hard work. Genuinely that’ll put me off most things. But I do some coaching. Client companies sometimes ask me to coach after I’ve spoken, facilitated or trained. They like the other things I do, the results I get and just plain like me. ‘Like’ is probably the wrong word. Both the client company and the individuals being coached have to trust and respect the external coach. There have definitely been times where whatever emotion was being directed at me, it wasn’t ‘liking.’)
Coaches are about ‘ask’ not ‘tell’. A coach’s focus is the employee not a task. Coaching is not fixing anyone. Coaching has clear accountability. Coaching can be scheduled but it’s more an ‘as need when needed’ thing. Coaching is about a set of processes, more than it is about a coach. That said, a coaching toolbox is useless, and sometimes dangerous, if operated by someone calling themselves a coach who lacks the wisdom to know when to use which tool. In that regard, coaching is like every single DIY activity I’ve ever done that resulted in a heated towel rail power switch being installed upside down, a door handle going in inside out or a chainsaw that’s now more functional as a doorstop.
Coaching is a journey, like ‘Lord Of The Rings’ was a journey. And like ‘Lord Of The Rings’, not everyone finishes the journey. And if you’ve got giant eagles available for your coaching process, use them right away, not at the end when otherwise all else seems lost. Duh.
There is no ideal model workplace culture and no single path to get there.
I’m writing a new book and am at the research stage. The most obvious visible behaviour for me at this stage is not writing. So much reading! The book will be about adding ten productive years to your life and a section will be about extending our healthy lifespan. As a result, I’m reading a lot of inherently contradictory information, much like we’re all lambasted with constantly. Eggs are good for you. Eggs are bad for you. Some bits of eggs are good for you and some bits are bad for you. Some eggs should face trial for war crimes. That sort of thing.
There is some absolute quackery about miracle cures for aging that, no doubt, someone will try and sell you in pill form very soon. Telling us that there is a restorative compound in red wine is useful. Finding out that we’d need to drink a bathtubfull a day to get enough of that compound is less helpful. I’d need to refer back to my notes but I may have read somewhere that our wine limit should be 2 glasses a day. Perhaps there is a market for glasses the size of bathtubs? That is definitely one bathtub where you’d want to utilize a non-slip bathmat. Perhaps several, for the footpath for your long walk home?
I’m keen to believe the probiotic yoghurt propaganda. (The theme of this month’s issue of Employment Today is, after all, culture.) In case you’ve missed the infomercials, here’s the downlow on the lowdown bugs in our guts. There are bugs in our guts. There are bugs all over our bodies. (And, no, I’m not talking about the imaginary ones you’ll hallucinate when you try to cut down on your two-bathtubs-a-day red wine habit.) There are bad bugs which is why we should wash our hands and good bugs which is why we should not smother ourselves inside and out with disinfectant drugs and chemicals. For decades as a society, we’ve been pointlessly amping up on anti-biotics for sniffles and viruses which is useless and increasingly diminishing the effect of antibiotics and breeding antibiotic-resistant hospital-loving superbugs. Antibiotics also fail to distinguish between good and bad bugs, killing both in a broad spectrum kind of way.
So, the sales pitch goes that this lifestyle, plus our sad, beige diets has led to imbalance in the gut bug world and a lot of our ailments can be attributed to this. Please buy our brand of probiotic yoghurt or pills. I’m prepared to partly accept this because I like yoghurt and I’m always a lot more open to new information when it in no way conflicts with my existing beliefs and behaviours. You know, like virtually everyone.
The thing I didn’t know about our gut bugs is that we don’t all have the same ones or the same mix. At some point in our early development, we get colonised and that type of bug is ours for life. It’s a bit like blood types with types A+ and O-. Some researchers are mooting that in the not-too-distant future, there will be probiotic cafes where you can get customised smoothies with the gut bug that’s right for you. I’m guessing that they’ll get the marketing department working on a better brand name than ‘gut bugs.’ (GB?) Knowing my own gut bug type is currently a level of self awareness that I have failed to achieve.
This might be the longest bow I’ve ever drawn, or the most tenuous of metaphors, but, in a way, isn’t workplace culture a bit like this?
So many books, blog posts, LinkedIn articles and conversations revolve around the premise that there is this mystical, magical and elusive one-right-way to generate a successful results-oriented, customer-focused, highly engaged workplace culture. Implicit is that there is one ideal model culture to which to aspire. There isn’t. It depends.
Like gut bugs, workplace cultures need to evolve. Like the probiotic cafes of the future, we need to know what workplace culture we want before we start any efforts to build one or improve one we got stuck with. And, we need to stop poisoning our workplace cultures, killing the good alongside the bad, with broad spectrum shotgun efforts.
How anyone thinks there can be a uniform and constant workplace culture is beyond me. Just driving around with your eyes open displays sharply that contemporary New Zealand is multi-cultural and increasingly so, in the more usual demographic sense of the term. Workplaces are reflecting diverse racial and national cultures and you can throw in age, attitude and other demarcations too. The point here is that there is no point – not a single point anyway. What’s needed is an openness amongst employers to diversity, coupled with an acceptance that the now and the future need a lot more personalised approaches to workplace culture than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
Is there a red wine yoghurt? Asking for a friend.
It’s the uncertainty of change and the way it’s gone about that causes the problems, not the change itself.
You know when you’re in a conversation and the person you think you’re in a conversation with is having a different conversation, even though you’re both speaking with each other, and at some eventual point, one of you realises before the other that you’re talking at cross purposes? At that point, you have to either stop talking and backtrack, or you have to interrupt them. You know that look in their eyes just before they get what’s been happening, that confused, almost pained expression? Remember that face. That’s the face of change.
I recently needed to visit a firm that dealt in air conditioners. I was told it was in William Pickering Drive. I didn’t bother getting any more specific details such as the name of the firm or the actual street number. I drove along and saw in the distance a big red sign saying “34C” and a much smaller black and white sign saying “Climate Control.” In a brief conversational exchange with someone in passing in the reception area, I glibly commented that “34C” was a clever name for a firm dealing in climate control, although probably a tad warm for my tastes. I wouldn’t say what followed was a heated exchange (pun intended) but there was certainly escalated confusion, as I was sure the name of the company that dealt in climate control was “34C” whereas the reality and the other person’s perspective was that the company was called “Climate Control” and “34C” was their street number.
At some eventual point, the other person realised what had been going on and interrupted me. The few moments either side of that was the conversational equivalent of when you’re sitting in a chair and leaning back and you get to a point and you don’t know if you’re going to fall or stop yourself falling. I’m sure there was a confused and almost pained expression on my face – the face of change.
The theme of this issue of Employment Today is ‘Managing Change.’ It’s the uncertainty of change and the way it’s gone about that causes the problems, not the change itself. Research shows that worrying about losing your job causes greater ill health than actually losing your job. Sarah Burgard from the University of Michigan has shown that job insecurity (fear) causes more illness than the eventual reality of unemployment.
So, what can canny employers do to prevent, or at least mitigate, any harm caused by potential change, actual change or the perception of the risks of possible change in the minds of the employees to which the changes happen? Let’s look to Hollywood for some answers.
With the synchronisation in recent years of movie release dates around the world and the tsunami of streaming and downloading or movies, a lot of our friends are seeing a lot of movies before we do. And, good friends that they are, they’d love nothing more to share their experience with us and encourage us to see their recommended films. The term “Spoiler Alert” has thus fallen into common usage as our good friends give us notice if anything they are about to say might ruin a critical story point or narrative twist.
This is the lesson from Hollywood for employers – DO THE OPPOSITE!
Provide spoilers at each and every stage that you can and repeat them more often than you think is necessary. The less uncertainty the better when it comes to managing change. It’s the uncertainty that causes the problems and damages the relationships and the mental and physical health. Change isn’t going to stop – both the change you’re deliberately and proactively provoking and the never-ending stream of reactive changes in today’s economy and workplaces. That’s the reality and will continue to be so. What you can control to a greater degree is the level of uncertainty. So, sprinkle out those spoilers like salt on takeaway French fries (way more than a normal person thinks is necessary.)
I’m performing in the NZ International Comedy Festival this year in a show called ‘The Grin Reaper.’ While it’s an hour of stand-up, its theme is about how to live longer, based on a great book on longevity studies called ‘The Blue Zones’ by Dan Buettner. Learning some life lessons from those who’ve lived the longest, they’ve distilled the research down into nine key things you can do to add ten quality years to your life. ‘Having purpose’ was one. ‘Wine at 5’ was another so that’s good news. A couple of others related to ‘a sense of belonging’ and ‘handling stress.’ That’s where change presents itself. Managed badly, change can literally affect the quality and quantity of our years. Managed well, it can enhance both. Also, you should totally watch the movie ‘The Sixth Sense.’ It’s not so much about longevity but definitely about spoilers.
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.
This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach, repeated over and over:
- Frame the activity
- Conduct the activity
- Debrief the activity
I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory sunday night family dinners.
To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…
The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:
- Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
- Create a learning environment
- Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing? (I’m a big fan of stop / start / continue; That’s the name of one of my books ‘Stop Start Continue’!)
- Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)
Here’s a recent podcast of mine about the Dunning Kruger Effect. It’s a useful phenomenon to be aware of when leading different types of people, especially when needing to give performance feedback of any kind. There are two sub-groups of people who are least accurate at assessing their own levels of performance: the very excellent and the very non-excellent. Most people are average or either side of it and their self-assessments are ‘there or thereabouts.’ The high performers become high performers because they underestimate how good they are (or should / could be) and try harder and smarter as a result. AND they continue to improve through deliberate and focused practice built on feedback.
The best illustration of the other end of the scale where poor performers never improve because they either never receive feedback (or effective feedback) or they are closed to it are the auditioners for any of those Idol-type shows where security has to escort them off the premises. They characterise perfectly the Dunning Kruger Effect. They simply cannot believe they’re being told “No” and that they’re not the next Mariah. Their dramatic OTT response is great for these shows and symptomatic of why they’re never going to get any better without a substantial external intervention in their lives. Or never. How many of these people have you worked with over your career? Here’s John Cleese’s interpretation.
All sweeping generalisations but an interesting lens through which to look at your team.
I blog about engaging people – employees, customers, people generally. One major tool for achieving that is feedback, in the broadest sense of the word. I also have a bit of a sideline as a stand-up comedian. I have a show in the comedy festival coming up in May. As part of that, the festival folk run a series of shows beforehand as mini preview workshops. It’s a weird and surreal experience as a performer. Performing stand-up isn’t that normal generally but this is really putting ourselves out there.
The format has an MC who’s more of a facilitator. The ticket is free and the show is advertised as what it is – not a normal show. The crowd on my night was a whole lot of people who seemed to really know their comedy as consumers or fans or officionados. They were a good test crowd generally. They laughed if they thought it was funny and they didn’t if they didn’t. Which is what you want as a performer trying out stuff en masse for the first time. Each performer did 15 minutes then sat on a chair on stage for 10 minutes while the MC facilitated out questions to the audience. I’ve been doing comedy for 10+ years and I regret not having an experience like this sooner – undiluted, instant, specific reactions. Plus a fair few new ideas to build the content.
I thought it might be a good blog topic as I walked away, abuzz to get writing and re-writing the comedy but with a parallel thought as to how much this would be a useful idea to anyone in any kind of job. Plumbers, salespeople, neuro-surgeons (they don’t like being called ‘brain surgeons.’ You know what they say about brain surgery? It’s not neuro-surgery!)
The very next day I was running a training workshop (or as I like to call them, a ‘learning workshop. It was on communication for a team of sales reps for a wine brand. I told them the comedy lab story and they took it on board and put it in play for their own workshop.
It really worked.
Maybe ask yourself, how can you set up an environment at your workplace for newbies or not-so-newbies to bolster their ‘performance’ and hone their ‘material’ in a safe but constructively challenging way?