Thanks is good business

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 11, 2010
Filed in Changing behaviour, Communication, Employee engagement

When we collect stories in companies one of the most common anecdotes is the one about the boss who fails to recognise their staff’s work. People want to be thanked, appreciated, recognised regardless of their level in the organisation or their level of skill or expertise.

Dan Ariely conducted a simple experiment described in his latest book, The Upside of Irrationality, which shows that a simple nod of appreciation is more than a nicety, it’s a business necessity.

This is how it worked. Imagine a room where you might have a university exam–hopefully this doesn’t send chills down your spine. Sitting up front is the invigilator keeping an eye on your every move and ready to collect your paper at the end. In this case each person collects a single sheet of paper from the invigilator that’s covered in words. Your task is to circle any two letters that sit side-by-side and are the same. When you finish one page you return it to the invigilator and get another sheet until you can’t be bothered doing it any more.

There are three groups in this experiment.

For the first group when they return their sheet the invigilator gives a friendly smile and a nod of thanks.

People in the second group returning their paper are ignored. The invigilator doesn’t even look up. Their sheet is turned faced down onto a pile and without a word a new sheet is given.

The invigilator for the third group takes the sheet and without looking at the contents shreds it in front of the participant before handing them another sheet of paper to work on.

On avergae the first group that gets the nod of appreciation complete 9.03 sheets. Not bad for such a boring task.

The third group are ritually humiliated by the invigilator by shedding their work complete on average 6.34 sheets.

So what do you think happened for those people who were ignored? Are they somewhere in between groups 1 and 3?

Group three who received no feedback completed on average 6.77 sheets, very similar to those people who were practically abused as their efforts were destroyed before their eyes.

It would seem that authentic appreciation for a job well done goes along way to boost productivity and if you are one of these bosses who figures, “hey, they’re smart people who know what to do. They don’t need my praise.” think again. You could be really holding them back.

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Book Review: The Power of Positive Deviance

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.

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Digital Habitats—book review

EtienneNancyJohn200.pngDigital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith

I’m often the technology steward for communities of practice (CoP). I create the Ning spaces and configure ‘em, I setup the email lists, I work out whether we should have a wiki or a blog or a discussion forum or some other combination of communication technologies. As you can see I’m quite a geek: I really do love it.

And whenever I get stuck I’ll contact my friends at CPSquare: Etienne, Nancy and John. And while I know they all have a deep understanding of CoPs I tend to ask Etienne the theory questions, Nancy the technology questions and John the group dynamics questions. Together they are a formidable team. Sadly I think their new book, Digital Habitats, will give them strong cause to suggest I should RTFM: Read The Flipping Manual.

Digital Habitats (DH) has a single goal: to help the reader understand the role of technology steward in cultivating a community of practice: what is it, why you would do it, are you are cut out for it, how to do it and where to find help. But it is not a shoppers guide nor a roadmap for technology selection.

There is a lovely photo of Etienne, Nancy and John in the preface and I feel that reading DH is like have a friendly conversation with them on a sunny balcony. They provide the context, a little theory, then lots of practical tips supported by real life stories to ground it and make it memorable.

For me there are three ideas in this book I have already put into practice with great effect.

Experience shows us that all know that communities of practice are different, and sometimes poles apart. DH introduces the idea of community orientations to help us understand where the emphasis might lie and therefore what technologies make most sense.

There are 9 orientations: meetings, open-ended conversations, projects, content, access to expertise, relationships, individual participation, community participation, serving a context. With my engineering communities, for example, I’ve asked the members where they see their current orientation and then ask them to identify where they would like to be. A community might start off very content focussed but realise that the real benefits will come from providing access to expertise. By understanding this orientation gap the technology steward can start introducing tools to facilitate the future orientation needs.

The second idea I find useful is how my friends (I was going to say ‘the authors’ but it didn’t feel right) describe the range of activities a community might be engaged in. The axis range from informal to formal and learning from to learning with. This diagram helps me ensure I’m thinking about the full range of possibilities when helping communities members design their CoP.

DH envisages three types of readers: deep divers, attentive practitioners and just do it-ers. The just do it-ers are directed to chapter 10 which contains an action notebook. It is a series of checklists to help you think about the role of the technology steward. What I love about chapter 10 is that I can jump in and start learning about the role by doing things and then come back to the descriptions contained in the rest of the book when it is more meaningful for me. DH makes the job of finding the relevant descriptions in the other chapters easy through a multitude of cross-links from chapter 10 to the relevant book section.

There are very few practical community of practice books available (I can think of 3 others) and Etienne has already had a hand in writing one of them. So Digital Habitats is a valuable addition to this exclusive club. It’s highly readable and practical and will definitely help make a difference to the quality of your technology support for your community of practice.


Narrative or story-based approach to employee engagement

Posted by Mark Schenk - August 8, 2009
Filed in Changing behaviour, Employee engagement

Late last year, a company approached us on the topic of employee engagement.1-key They’d received the results of their biannual engagement survey and, as with previous years, realised that the data pointed them to strengths and potential weaknesses but didn’t help understand what was really going on, or what to do about it. The data might show that 63% of staff agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I am proud to work for this company’ and this might be down 6% from the previous survey. On its own however, the data doesn’t help with the question “what does this mean and what should be done? ”

Narrative approaches are excellent for exploring these sorts of issues and helping organisations find out what is really going on, and what actions they can take to reinforce things that are going well, and improving things that need work. The survey data is vital ‘targeting information’ but on its own it is an insufficient basis for planning. Thus, exploring employee engagement is a natural marriage of traditional approaches such as surveys and the emerging practice of narrative.

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Posted by Shawn Callahan - April 30, 2009
Filed in Communication, Employee engagement, Leadership

Last year I wrote about how the skill to apologize will become even more valuable as the world get even more complex and speedy. Things will go wrong.

Well it looks like some books are being published on the topic. Here’s what Tom Peters has discovered.

In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, Marshall Goldsmith proclaims: “I regard apologizing as the most magical, healing, restorative gesture human beings can make. It is the centerpiece of my work with executives who want to get better.”

All I can add is:


I believe that skill at Apologizing is nothing short of a “strategic competence”!

“Strategic competence”? Absolutely! Customers lost for want of a timely and sincere “I’m sorry. My fault” number in the billions, from restaurant diners to aircraft engine purchasers.

And now there’s an entire book on the topic arriving May 1, Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, by John Kador.

Read a whole book on the topic?


Damn it!


In addition to being an excellent “how to” guide, the book also captures hard evidence. For example, with a new policy on apologies, Toro, the lawn mower folks, reduced the average cost of a claim from $115,000 in 1991 to $35,000 in 2008—and the company hasn’t been to trial since 1994. The VA hospital in Lexington, Massachusetts, developed an astonishing approach to apologizing for errors (forthcoming—even when no patient request or claim was made). In 2000, the overall mean VA system malpractice settlement was $413,000. The Lexington VA hospital settlement # was $36,000—and there were far fewer per patient claims to begin with.


How to tell a story about yourself without sounding like an ego-maniac

To paraphrase Annette Simmons, “People won’t listen to you until they know who you are and what you want.” And one of the best ways to introduce yourself and answer these two questions is to tell a story that reveals something about your character and experience.

The challenge for many people, however, is to find and tell a story that doesn’t sound like you are just blowing your own trumpet. One approach is to take the spotlight off yourself and make someone else the lead. You can then play the supporting role.

When I introduce myself to a new audience I often tell the story of how I got started in storytelling by meeting Dave Snowden. Dave is a world leader in knowledge management and narrative techniques and is an impressive speaker and storyteller.

At this point you might want to have a look at this video below where I tell the story of how I met Dave. After you’ve watched the video, and before you read on, please jot down what you inferred about me after hearing the story and pop your answer in the comments. This will help illustrate a key point to this approach.

For those of you that didn’t watch the video, here’s the basic plot. Dave comes to Canberra and presents at a seminar I organise. He captivates the audience for the whole day with stories and new ways of seeing the world. I’m so taken with the performance that I resolve to do similar work one day and that night write a story and send it to Dave. He admonishes me for missing the whole point of his work, which is to help organisations make sense of their own stories, not to craft stories. We become friends and I join to lead his research centre on complexity in Australia and New Zealand. Then I leave IBM to set up Anecdote in 2004.

So Dave is front and centre in this story. He is the star but I play a significant supporting role.

When I ask the participants of our storytelling for business leaders workshops (which I’m giving in London in June) about what they infer about me after hearing this story (I tell the story at the beginning of the day and ask for their feedback in the afternoon), they say the following:

  • you are passionate about storytelling
  • you are willing to take risks
  • you have large organisation experience
  • you’ve worked for a highly respected company
  • you are confident to share your mistakes
  • you are experienced in storytelling

I never get the sense that they think I’m a poser (mind you, that might not be saying). To the contrary, it feels like we make a connection quickly and the workshop is off to a good start.

So think about those times when you’d lent a helping hand, where you’d help create the conditions for others to succeed, and tell these stories to introduce yourself and build rapport. These stories speak volumes about who you are, what drives you and they reveal your character; the pre-requisites for trusting collaborations.


Gaining insight with archetypes

Posted by Shawn Callahan - January 12, 2009
Filed in Changing behaviour, Employee engagement


To change the way we work we need to change our mental models, and that requires insight.

In The Neuroscience of Leadership David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz describe how our improved understanding of the brain is helping to reorient how we design organisational change initiatives.

The article recommends leaders create situations where their people get a new insight into how they view things: what is the dominant mental model?

Myrtle.jpgOne of the most effective technique to help create this insight is archetype extraction. It involves collecting anecdotes from people in the organisation on a theme such as customer service and extracting the archetypes from the many stories.  

An archetype is a embodiment of the organisation’s culture in the form of a complex yet familiar character. An archetype is usually partly good and partly bad; a complex mix of traits. Not to be confused with a stereotype, which is typically an oversimplification based on simple categorisation or role: “Oh, he’s a librarian.”

We take these anecdotes into a workshop of 10-20 thought leaders and influencers who could benefit from an alternative perspective.

Indiana Jones.jpgThe workshop participants identify the characters and their character traits from the collected anecdotes on customer service and using a facilitation process they morph into the archetypes, which are often drawn by a cartoonist for greater visual impact.

The cartoons in the post depict some of the archetypes that illustrated the culture of a large Australia organisation. Once the archetypes are identified people can then use them to discuss some of the un-discussables without getting personal.

Most importantly the participants will have obtain a new insight on how the organisation views itself or another group.


Hearing, or not hearing, what you expect

Posted by Shawn Callahan - March 18, 2005
Filed in Anecdotes, Employee engagement

My friend Michelle turned 30 a couple of weeks ago and we all went to her house for a BBQ. I got talking to her sister who told me she was learning Chinese. She was amused to find that if she attempted to speak the language to her Chinese-speaking (mandarin) friends they had no idea what she was saying until she said something like: Ni hui shuo zhongwen ma? (Can you speak Chinese?)

It’s difficult to hear or see patterns we’re not expecting. This is a big problem for consultants, or anyone else for that matter, who rely on interviews to assess a situation. While an outsider, such as a consultant, can provide new perspectives, they also are constrained by what Umberto Eco calls their background books. We only hear what is in the realm of our possibility. So how do we see and hear the new patterns?

New patterns are only revealed by adopting new perspectives. New perspectives appear when we apply a fresh set of eyes, adopt new frameworks of understanding, create new experiences, propose new questions, adopt new scales or viewpoints, or adopt a new identity. For example, in the process of a project, a fresh perspective may be created by looking at the high-level purpose; this may reveal patterns which were previously hidden at the detail level. We do this naturally in some circumstances while doggedly sticking to ‘the way we do things around here’ for the majority of situations.

Organisations need to build their toolbox of techniques. Obviously I see narrative as an important tool and closely related is the use of metaphor. But there are a myriad of other approaches we will need to become familiar with which will feel uncomfortable at first but will be essential in helping us fully harness the complexity we currently inhabit. We need to get ready to get out of our comfort zone.


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