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Outliers: The Story of Success
— by Malcolm Gladwell
It's common for us to think of successful people as self-made, rising to prominence by dint of their natural talent and drive to succeed. But is it right?
Gladwell's first two books were 'The Tipping Point' and 'Blink'. Both books have a clear and simple message, an engaging storyline and lots of examples that communicate and reinforce the message. This combination makes the books very readable and memorable. His third book, 'Outliers' continues this successful formula.
In 'Outliers,' Gladwell challenges our understanding of what it takes to be successful and how we need to look beyond the typical storyline of 'a hero who was born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his or her virtue and grit fights their way to greatness.' Gladwell provides lots of examples to show that there is a lot more to success than natural talent and he debunks the myth of the self made man (or woman). These people "... may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways that others can not." Gladwell uses examples such as The Beatles, professional ice hockey, Bill Gates and others to demonstrate his argument.
You need a few breaks along the way. In the mid 1980's, a Canadian psychologist noticed that a disproportionate number of professional ice hockey players are born in the first few months of the year. It had nothing to do with astrology or chance, it was a direct result of the design of the system that selects junior players for development. The junior system is based on an age cut-off of 1 January. A boy turning 10 on 1 January could be playing against boy who doesn't have his 10th birthday for another 11 months and 30 days. At that age, the difference in physical maturity represented by those 12 months is significant. The boys with birthdays earlier in the year have a greater chance of being selected by 'the system' for advanced coaching and development, and its almost impossible for those not selected to close the gap.
The '10,000 Hour Rule.' Gladwell detailed his 10,000 hour rule in a presentation in 2007 and it caught our eye back then. In essence, you need 10,000 hours reflective practice to become expert at something. The Beatles had an unprecedented opportunity to hone their skills in Hamburg where they went five times and played 8 hour gigs 6 and 7 days a week for months on end. Through a series of coincidences, Bill Gates had almost unlimited access to a time-share computer in 1968 as a teenager at a time when computer access was very rare and very expensive. Mozart composed his first master-work at age 21, by which time he had already been composing for 10 years. During those years he wrote many works, but mastery only came after his 10,000 hours of 'practice.' Shawn touched on this in his recent post on The Importance of Deliberate Practice - make sure you read the comments as well.
The essence of Gladwell's argument is that success requires you to be 'good enough' (you don't have to be exceptional), work hard (the 10,000 hour rule), have a few breaks (like your birthday if you are an ice hockey player) and have access to opportunities. So basically, there is hope for all of us.
In summary, a good book that is well worth reading, and one you are likely to finish. I am looking forward to reading 'Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else' by Geoff Colvin and comparing it with Gladwell's book.
The World Cafe is a simple process designed to generate conversations around topics that matter to us. We have several variations that use World Cafe as the core ingredient but with a few modifications to meet particular requirements. For us, the core components of World Cafe are:
an initial set of table-group conversations that capture key ideas from the group
a table host or representative
a series of rotations where participants build on the previous table conversations
It's an important technique for getting wide socialisation of ideas in a short time and exposing ideas to the collective knowledge and perspectives of the participants. These features help create a shared understanding and ownership of the issues and help build resolve to implement ideas (this last point is particularly relevant when using the process within organisations to tackle complex problems).
One of the variations is where every table group explores a different question or issue (the normal process is to have one or a few key pre-determined questions). In sessions where groups identify and prioritise actions we ask people to self-organise into table groups to tackle issues. Another variation is that we will often give the group a template (such as for action planning) to help focus their conversation and outputs. Through the rotations more ideas and perspectives are applied to build on the ideas of the initial table group. A third variation is where a representative from each table takes the flip charts etc. to other tables - rather than having table hosts that stay put. We call this variation the 'Reverse World cafe' and it's very useful when either time or space is limited.
As with other techniques we use, we think of World cafe as a 'pattern.' Once you understand the basics of the process you can use parts of the process or variations on the process either on their own or in combination with other 'patterns.'
We have seen lots of organisations respond to the challenges of the Global Financial Crisis by retreating to a command and control, CFO-dominant mindset reminiscent of the 80s and 90s that focusses almost entirely on performance. At the same time, some organisations are positioning themselves to succeed post-GFC by concentrating on building culture and making any changes required with their eye on both performance and engagement. Thankfully, we find ourselves continuing to do very interesting and challenging work with this latter group. Some of our current projects are:
Strategy implementation for an ICT services organisation
CoP Mentoring in a large Federal government agency
Ongoing delivery of management development programs for large corporations
Culture Change/Change management for medium size organisations using our Narrative Insight process for Making Strategies Stick.
Delivering our Storytelling for Business Leaders workshop for a wide range of public and private sector organisations.
Exploring values in action in the education sector.
Upcoming Events that we're running or attending:
Shawn will be debating Dave Snowden at KM Australia on 6 August. The topic is 'Storytelling for leaders is an ethical minefield; there are better uses of narrative within an organisation'. Shawn and Dave have been 'warming up' sparring on Twitter and it should be a fascinating session.
Mark is running a workshop on 29 July at the Intelligence 2009 conference in Canberra. The topic is 'Soft skills for tackling complex problems.'
We have been running our leadership/management development programs for over three years now. In each program we ask participants to identify their key take-aways from the program. Some clear themes have emerged in these key take-aways and a few of these are listed below.
Every interaction with staff is an opportunity to build engagement or to destroy it
There is no 'one size fits all' approach, you need to know your staff in order to know what interests and engages them, and vice versa
What you walk past becomes the new norm. Managers must 'call' unacceptable behaviour from staff, peers and superiors - if they say or do nothing, they are endorsing the unacceptable behaviour. Another dimension to this theme is 'do the right thing, not the easy thing'.
It's not what you do, it's the way that you do it. Managers have to do difficult things at times. They can do them in a way that destroys engagement (and performance) or they can do them in ways that are sensitive to the needs and aspirations of people. At the heart of this theme is the difference between thinking of people as objects and thinking of them as people.
The single biggest driver of performance is fair and accurate informal feedback - managers need to know their people and what they are doing in order to be able to give this feedback; management by walking around. I recently had a round of golf with a previous participant who had 'get out from behind the command console' as one of his key actions from the program. "It's amazing what you find out!" he said.
Culture is not something determined from on high. It is created and re-created with every interaction by every manager.
As you can tell, these things are not rocket science. Everyone gets this stuff at an intellectual level. The real trick is changing behaviour to make this 'bleeding obvious' stuff a day-to-day reality.
A company that values customer service should be teeming with customer service stories. But what do you do if this is not the case? The Ritz-Carlton has developed a narrative-based approach for ensuring customer service is in the minds of all their people. It was described in this Business Week article but I first discovered it reading Maxwell and Dickman's The Elements of Persuasion. This is what the Ritz-Carlton has done.
Everyone in the company is encouraged to submit stories of RC people going above and beyond. Each week a story is selected and sent out to all the RC hotels around the world and this story is read out at the Line Up meetings, the gathering of staff before starting a shift. Here's an example of one of these stories as told by Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman, which RC call their WOW stories.
Like a lot of good stories, it starts on a dark and windy night. In this case, a blustery February when the downstairs bar that Fran tends was largely deserted. "The only one in the room was an older gentlemen, the sort of executive that has been drinking the same scotch for the last fifty years." A young, good-looking couple--we'll call them Dick and Jane-- came in dressed in laua shirts despite the weather and ordered mai tais. They seemed a little morose, but Fran is the sort of bartender who can get anyone to open up, and soon they told their story. Dick and Jane had just been married. They had always planned to honeymoon at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua, Hawaii. In fact, they had a reservation already booked for six months in the future, but Dick had just been diagnosed with cancer--a particularly nasty form of Hodgkin's lymphoma--so they pushed the date forward and were in L.A. for chemotherapy. This might be as close to Hawaii as they ever got, so they were bravely trying to make the most of it. When Fran tells the story, at this point her eyes take on that slightly stunned look that comes to cancer patients as they struggle to find the right balance between hope and denial. Obviously, the couple's story touched her deeply.
Fran got someone to cover the bar and sprang into action. She found Don Quimby, the manager on duty and together they went to the banquet hall prop room and collected anything that reminded them of Hawaii--a fishing net, a collection of starfish and seashells, a poster of Hawaiian hula dancers at a luau--and quickly gave the couple's room a make over. They even filled a cooler with sand and stuck in a sign that read "Dick and Jane's Private Beach." Then Don found an electronic key from the Ritz at Kapalua that a previous guest had left behind by mistake and reprogrammed it so it worked on Dick and Jane's room door. Don put on a Hawaiian shirt and went out to deliver this new key to them. He led them to their "new Hawaiian Honeymoon Suite," where a complimentary bottle of Champagne was waiting. And for the next three days staff of the hotel did everything it could think of to make the couple feel like they were on a Hawaiian honeymoon of a lifetime.
Three times a week staff recount WOW stories in the Line Ups, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Each time a WOW story is told it triggers a conversation about what everyone sees as significant in the story and often prompts the retelling of other stories of things that have happened in their own hotel. So rather than receive a corporate directive on how to behave staff vicariously experience behaviour that everyone recognises as exemplary.
You receive a $100 if your story is selected and at the end of the year there is a competition to select the top 10 stories.
This approach has many of the features of Most Significant Change except that the conversation around the stories happens at the coal face rather than among the decision makers. Mind you, someone in HQ is selecting the stories and this process could be expanded to include a MSC style selection process with the decision makers.
If done well your organisation would definitely be teeming with values in action stories.
David is an inveterate traveller and September sees him coming to the antipodes. He will be in New Zealand from 21-25 September and Australia from 14-18 September and/or 28 September to 2 October. Get in touch with David if you are interested in a knowledge cafe, a knowledge cafe workshop, a social KM cafe , or to have a coffee, lunch or dinner. Contact David via email at firstname.lastname@example.org