Let’s catch up over coffee
Last October, I received a call from Shawn Callahan, to see if we could catch up over coffee when he was next in Auckland.
Shawn and I had been colleagues at IBM and he came to New Zealand in 2003 to help with a major client engagement where we used anecdote circles (where people tell their stories about their experiences with a particular organisation or series of events) to help that client better understand the multiple perspectives their stakeholders had.
The narrative techniques were a particularly effective way to engage with a wide range of stakeholders.
A Trans-Tasman collaboration is born
Shawn and I had remained in contact over the years after he left IBM to set up Anecdote in 2004, and so when he asked if I would like to become a Partner of Anecdote, to sell and deliver Storytelling for Leaders programmes in New Zealand, it didn’t take too long for me to say “yes”.
I had recently left IBM to set up my own consulting business in the areas of organisation design and change management, and I saw the SFL programme as being very complementary to what I am doing for my clients.
The projects I’ve done for clients in the past 18 months have been quite varied. I’ve helped one organisation in the Distribution sector, which is going through a massive transformation, to develop a change strategy and framework, which they are using to build capability for leaders and HR Business Partners to more effectively deliver change.
Over the years I’ve shown a clever little animation in our workshops to illustrate our propensity to tell ourselves stories when things are ambiguous and unclear. It’s how we make sense of the world. But in running this video, perhaps hundreds of times, I think I’ve discovered another interesting use for it. It seems to give an indication of group fear. In other words, I reckon it reveals whether a group is well connected and feeling secure where members can take risks or the other end of the spectrum where there is fear, uncertainly and distrust.
Let me give you a little background on how I use the video and show you how the indicator works.
The video is about 90 seconds long. Just watch it and at the end describe what you saw happening. There are no wrong answers so whatever pops to mind.
So, what do you think the video was showing?
Just take a moment and jot down what you think was happening.
OK, most people ascribe human emotions and actions to the shapes. They say things like, “the big triangle was bullying the little triangle and the circle but the little triangle saved the circle.” Or they will ascribe roles to the shapes saying things like “the father didn’t like the boyfriend but despite being pushed away the boyfriend still went out with the girl and the father was angry.”
We like to tell ourselves a story to explain what’s happening rather than merely say they are geometric shapes moving on a two-dimensional plane. And because we tell ourselves a story we feel emotions as the story unfolds. And depending on our surroundings, we will verbalise these emotions.
So here is what I’ve noticed from showing this video to groups of people in organisations across the globe.
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Here at Anecdote we focus on oral storytelling. Our network of partners around the world help leaders find and tell business stories to influence, engage and even inspire.
The thing is, there are very few examples of business oral storytelling on the net so we’ve started a little project to tell the stories that are catalogued in our Story Finder collection. In case you haven’t seen it, Story Finder are all the stories we’ve written in our blog that we think a business person might find useful to tell categorised by leadership topics like innovation, resilience and incentives.
Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a great storyteller but what I’ve learnt is that you only get the benefits of storytelling when you are telling a story. So here is our first example. Please let me know what you think.
The media and business worlds love experts with strong opinions and the ability to explain them confidently and authoritatively. We hear them on TV and read them in newspapers and online every day. Yet a 20-year study shows that these are the very people who are least likely to be accurate in predicting what will happen in the future.
In 1984, Philip Tetlock commenced a study to examine the accuracy of expert predictions. He found these experts fell into two main groups that he called foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs who know one big thing. Foxes draw on many ideas and sources of information and are quite tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. Hedgehogs tend to interpret the world using their favourite theory or dogma and are very confident in the ‘rightness’ of their view of the world.[Tschoegl et. al. 2007]
Tetlock, a psychologist, is Professor of Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. His research found that, in the main, experts were no more accurate in their predictions than ‘a monkey throwing darts’. But he clearly showed that foxes produce much more accurate forecasts than hedgehogs. He also found that when faced with their erroneous forecasts, foxes tended to acknowledge their error and adjust their thinking. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, rationalise their errors away on the basis that they were ‘nearly right’ or ‘unpredictable events interfered in the outcome’ or by pointing to the few occasions when they had got it right.
The implications of this research are many, but one that that reinforces my own experience is to be wary of highly confident people proclaiming a view and running down those with alternative perspectives.
It’s my view that Tetlock’s findings are also relevant in our organisations. We love to treated complex (wicked) problems as if they are technical problems that can be predicted and solved. The experts who stridently proclaim their opinions as being facts are often wrong. The people who stride the corridors and make the most noise are not necessarily the stars. The leaders who are most confident they are excellent at leading people are often the worst leaders.
In media and in organisations, the hedgehogs get the airtime. But the foxes are the ones to listen to.
- Tetlock, P. (2005): Expert Political Judgement: How good is it? How Can We Know?, Princeton University Press.
- Gardner, D. (2011): Future babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless, and You can do better, Dutton, London.
- Tschoegl, A.E and Armstrong, S., Review of Philip E. Tetlock: (2007): “Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know?” in International Journal of Forecasting, Volume 23, Issue 2, 2007, pages 339-342
Read this today and thought, right on! (is that too Tom Peters?)
Senator Bill Bradley defines a movement as having three elements:
1. A narrative that tells a story about who we are and the future we are trying to build
2. A connection between and among the leader and the tribe
3. Something to do—the fewer limits, the better
Too often organisations fail to do anything but the third.
From Godin, Seth (2008). Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Portfolio Hardcover. p. 26. ISBN 1-59184-233-6.
Two stories came together recently that gave me an insight about the importance of forming quick but stronger relationships so people can speak up.
A couple of weeks ago I presented at the Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals (ASAP) community. This community is coordinated by Phillip Sack and Chris Elliot. Chris is a striking fella who I reckon must be at least 6’8″. A seasoned practitioner, Chris often helps alliance partners (typically people from construction and engineering firms coming together to build a road, railway or some other large bit of infrastructure) bond and form as a team. He told me that one of the first things he does with a new alliance is get all the blokes seated in a circle and do an activity he calls Genes, Themes and Memes. He asks them to share something that’s happened in their life that’s really shaped them (genes), tell something that’s a repeating theme in their life (theme) and recount a story they often tell (meme). The session can take two to three hours but at the end everyone has an insight in what makes the others tick and from that point on they are less likely to slag off at each other. They know each other as people not just roles and companies.
Then a week later I was talking to David Green, a remarkable leadership consultant, and he was telling me about one of his clients who were trying to get to the bottom of a failure that occurred on site. This engineering firm is contracted to maintain a railway line and they were called out to fix a problem with the line. It was a delicate job and if they caused the line to be closed they would be penalised $10,000 per hour it was out of action. To do the job they needed to gently lift a set of cables adjacent to the line so they decided to do it by hand. After the job was complete they had to carefully lower the cables back into place at which point one of the workers said, “I’ll just use the forklift” and jumped into the machine, wheeled it around, placed the forks under the cables and then lifted them up not down and they snapped. No one said a thing.
When the supervisor arrived and asked people what happened everyone agreed they thought it was the wrong idea to use the forklift and they all could see what was happening yet no one said a thing. When the supervisor asked why no one spoke up the bystanders said they didn’t really know they guy, we was new to the shift and he seem to kind of grumpy.
I wonder whether in these high risk environments if a cut down version of genes, themes and memes could be done so everyone knew each other as a person rather than just a name and a face. Perhaps then people would be more likely to speak up, especially when they thought something dangerous was about to happen.
This question pops up regularly. Shawn blogged about the differences between collaboration and cooperation here and here. The Economist Intelligence Unit provide a paper here describing the difference between collaboration, coordination and cooperation, using trust as one of the key differentiators.
Yesterday, I came across this excellent short video from Phil Culhane of the Collaboration Lab in Ottawa. It describes the difference between communication, consultation and collaboration. In this construct, the main differentiator is accountability. In essence, collaboration will only occur where both (all) parties are accountable for what happens.
Last week I was in Yeppoon in Queensland delivering a keynote and workshop on collaboration at an innovation in government forum. In the workshop I used an activity mentioned by Bob Sutton in his new book ‘Good Boss, Bad Boss‘. Bob is also the author of ‘The No Asshole Rule’ that we have blogged about a few times.
The activity used an age-old prioritisation game called Survival on the Moon (you can find the instructions here). Groups are asked to prioritise fifteen items to survive after a crash-landing on the moon. Everyone does it individually, then they do it as groups (hopefully getting a better result). The interesting twist in Sutton’s book is organising the groups with a hierarchical spread (executives through to junior staff) and then giving the most junior person the answers in advance. They are asked to argue strongly for what they know to be the right answers without revealing they have the correct answers. The scoring system is based on the variance of group priorities from the NASA-provided ones.
In my workshop there were nine tables with about six people at each one. Five tables had one of the junior people with the correct answers. The results were very interesting.
- Groups with answers at their table scored an average of 31 (NASA rates this score as ‘good’)
- Groups without answers scored an average of 36 (NASA rates this as ‘average’)
- The best score was 21 which NASA rates as excellent. This group observed that the reason they did so well was because there were no men in their group
- Two groups scored 26 – one group had the answers and one of them didn’t
- Two of the groups with the answers scored relatively badly. In both groups, the person with the answers observed that “no-one listened to me” or “I couldn’t get a word in”.
- Several groups commented that people who were more senior, and people with higher educational qualifications, tended to dominate. This is consistent with Sutton’s observation on page 131 of Good Boss, Bad Boss’ that some bosses ‘wield excessive influence…even when they spew out nonsense…and insisting they are right even when they are dead wrong’.
So, none of the tables that had the answers got anywhere a perfect score, though they scored, on average, better than groups without the answers.
One thing this highlights for me is the need to do some more reading on the effect of gender on collaboration. I will definitely do this exercise again. Next time I will record the individuals scores as well as the group ones.
I have just finished The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin) a book I have been waiting for some time to come out. I am very glad to say the wait has been well worth it.
Positive deviance has received a lot of attention since the concept was laid out in a series of articles way back in 2000 – one in the Harvard Business Review and the other in Fast Company. The concept has recently received a new boost since it was covered in both Influencer: the Power to Change Anything and by Chip and Dan Heath (where they called them ‘bright spots’) in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.