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.
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.