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Buy In: Saving Your Good Idea From Getting Shot Down
— by John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead
Great ideas require tremendous toil to turn them into workable solutions that change people's lives. One of the standout features of the great inventor Thomas Edison was his insistence on having his researchers work side by side with his manufacturers at the famed Menlo Park Laboratory. Take the incandescent light. Hundreds of filaments were tested before finding a solution that worked and was affordable (bamboo fibre). But he didn't stop there, he then worked on getting the idea accepted across the USA. Edison was a master of getting Buy In.
But in a way Edison had it easy. The problems he was working on had a small range of possible workable answers and after the work was done it was clear to all that a good path was taken. Today we face more complex problems with a myriad of possible trade offs and possibilities such as the biggies of climate change, sustainability and economic growth, to the smaller but also important decisions in organisations such as strategic direction, engagement and customer service. Many challenges today have no single right answer. Rather we need to inspire a group of decision makers to buy in to an idea and head in the same direction.
John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead's book, Buy In, is a practical little volume that you can read in a jiffy. It's premise is simple: if you want an idea to be implemented you need to get buy in from the important stakeholders and the best way to do that is to expose the idea to critics and supporters alike and respond to the naysayers and nitpickers. You just need to understand and know how to respond to their attack strategies.
Some might think it's best to keep your idea hidden from those people who'll shoot it down and only get on board people who'll support it. The problem with this approach is that the dissenters will feel ostracised and work even harder to undermine the idea. White-anting from a big, powerful termite (never mind a whole colony) is mostly catastrophic.
Putting your idea out there for scrutiny has a distinct advantage of getting everyone's attention, especially if there's some controversy involved. With so much flying past us these days, attention is a valuable commodity.
Kotter and Whitehead make the good point that you need more that 50% support to get your idea implemented because during implementation you'll hit rocky patches and you need those extra supporters to push through the difficult terrain. At the same time you don't need and will rarely get 100% support. Strong critics will remain so throughout the life of the idea. You're just going to have to live with that and work with your supporters.
The majority of Buy In is focussed on the attack strategies critics will use to derail your idea. The four common strategies are:
Death by delay: Endlessly putting off or diverting discussion of your idea until all momentum is lost
Confusion: Presenting so much distracting information that confidence in your proposal dies
Fear mongering: Stirring up irrational anxieties about your idea
Character assassination: Undermining your reputation and credibility
When presenting your idea the authors suggest preparing responses for all four types of attacks and they provide descriptions of 24 attacks and 24 responses. One of my favourites, which I was subjected to just this week, is #6 "What about this, and that, and this, and that ...?"
Attack: Your proposal leaves too many questions unanswered. What about this and that, and this and that, and ...
Response: All good ideas, if they are new, raise dozens of questions that cannot be answered with certainty.
One of the main lessons for me in how they suggest you should respond is to not dissect and respond to every point in the attack. Rather use a combination of logic and emotion (in the form of stories) to respond. Keep it simple.
It's clear that the authors believe in the power of stories. Buy In is presented as a series of narratives to demonstrate what good and bad examples look and feel like. It was interesting however that they didn't explicitly discuss stories as a response approach yet talked about providing examples.
Buy In is a practical book that is simple to apply. It's definitely worth a read and I'm confident you will be able to apply what you learn from Buy In.
During my first week here at Anecdote I sat in on an Anecdote Circle which Shawn was running. It was the first time I had seen one of these run by Shawn and I was therefore very keen to see how he did it, and anything I could pick up and use myself in the future.
One of the things I noticed quite early on was that Shawn would start by asking one of the pre-prepared, scripted questions and if that did not get him any stories from the group, he would follow it up by turning the more formal question into one that contained an idiom. So "think of a time when you saw somebody manage (x) roles in a way that made you think, "Wow. If everybody worked that way, things would get done a lot more smoothly around here". Got followed up with; "when have things gone as smooth as clock work?". There were many more examples of this throughout the session, and each time it seemed to get great results at eliciting stories.
When I raised this with Shawn afterwards he wasn't even aware he used this as a technique, but by talking it through and making him aware of it, he began to realise he actually uses it all the time. He even relayed a story that Mark once told him of doing some story eliciting work and asking the question; "When have you been most elated at work, or most disappointed?" He got a load of blank stares and shaking of heads, until one of the guys piped up; "We don't get 'elated' or 'disappointed' we either get 'stoked' or 'gutted'".
I think the use of idioms and slang work in eliciting stories for a number of reasons. They give a far greater richness than can be delivered from just words alone. 'Gutted' has a far greater impact than 'disappointed' for example, it has a far greater emotional reaction. Also by using the right idioms for that audience it shows them you are 'talking their language' therefore building rapport, trust and the relationship. It shows you understand them and are part of their 'community'. It also increases your chances of the question being understood.
This technique really came to the fore when we started collecting stories at a large electricity generating company. We ran the workshop on location, out in these huge power stations, with the guys (and they were mainly guys) dressed in their work boots and protective clothing, with a natural distrust of us as "city boys". Using idioms and slang in the majority of our questions really worked as a way to get them to tell stories. It put them at ease, used language and terms they understood, and created a degree of informality that seemed to help them tell their stories.
We have also used this insight into some of the questions we have developed for eliciting family stories in Zahmoo, which can be found in the Online Resources section. Examples of using idioms include things like; "Do you remember a time when Mum or Dad went through the roof over something you did?", "What was something your spouse has done that just blew you away?", "Did you ever get off on the wrong foot with someone who then became a good friend?" or "Have you ever been at death's door?".
We have also used slang to get people to recall moments and tell stories about them. Examples include; "When did you really come a gutser as a kid?", "What did you put the kibosh on that you wished you hadn't?' and "Can you share a time when you were a real klutz?".
I would therefore strongly recommend trying to consciously use idioms and slang when asking questions to elicit stories. The results I have seen in different settings, groups and people have proven to me they really do work as a way to help people recall moments, and therefore be able to tell stories about them. Go on, have a crack!
Do you collect stories to reinforce your company's values, or evaluate projects, or share safety practices? Perhaps you collect stories to tell in your presentations or convey elements of your strategy. Most people who collect stories have them strewn across computers and Excel spreadsheets so they are impossible to find when you need them. We had this problem at Anecdote but now we store and collaborate on our story collections using cloud computing (web-based application) called Zahmoo.
There are three pricing plans: the family plan at US$5/month for managing all those stories from your parents, siblings, aunts and uncles. A great way to bring the family tree to life. The community plan at US$16/month for communities of practice, associations, clubs and networks. And the business plan at US$49/month for companies and government departments. Everyone gets a 30 day free trial. For more information and to sign up, visit www.zahmoo.com.
Consulting Engagements and Projects:
Developing the strategic stories for a State government department and for global non-profit
Exploring the importance and impact of fires roles for a government department
Diversity and building your brand as a woman in an international company
Ongoing project helping a consortium of local government organisations collaborate more effectively around sustainability
Leadership program for a technology and services company
Storytelling and communications skills for a global software company and for a financial services company
Collaboration workshops for a government network
Shawn's Going to London
Shawn will be in London in February to deliver a Business Storytelling for Leaders Workshop on Wednesday, 16th February.
As he said in his recent blog post advertising the event "Last year when I ran this workshop in London two participants, Kevin and Greg, moved their families to Australia and Kevin is now working for Anecdote. Such is the power of storytelling." Seats are limited and last year we sold out quickly. To register for this workshop visit http://anecdote-sbl-london-2011.eventbrite.com/
Last week Shawn and I were together in Canberra for a few days working on some of our methods. We were constantly bouncing ideas off each other which then triggered a bunch of stories about things we have learned from our projects. Many of these stories had disappeared from our accessible memory but were triggered by the context of the conversation.
At one stage, we were talking about triggering new stories in an organisation and I recalled seeing the CEO of a primary industries business introducing the organisations new sustainability statement/policy. The statement itself was quite impressive - several long paragraphs describing what the company needed to do and why. He read out the statement then walked over to the screen and hit it with the back of his hand and said "I don't want to be part of a company that doesn't do this". As he walked back to the podium he looked at the audience and said "and I don't think you do either." When he said these words he unconsciously had his hand on his heart. At the dinner that evening I canvassed a few people and asked them about the sustainability statement. None of them could remember the statement itself, but everyone remembered what the CEO did. The new story in the organisation was how seriously the CEO was concerned about sustainability and how they all needed to go on board.
One of the key ways to learn from our engagements is to notice, and record, stories as they occur. We have blogged about our 'practice' of telling each other about the stories we notice and discussing what they mean and how we might use them. This helps embed the stories in our minds. We realised the value in having a place like Zahmoo to store these examples as they occur. We found ourselves repeatedly saying 'that's got to go into Zahmoo' and we would quickly create a new story and jot a few notes to jog our memories so we could write them up later. We were doing this so frequently I was reminded of the movie The Castle when everything of value was 'going straight into the pool room'.
Why do some business storytelling efforts fail spectacularly? I hear sponsors of some of these failed attempts (they're brave enough to call us in after their bad experience) saying, "storytelling just didn't suit our culture" or "we just didn't click with the person we brought in to help us." I suspect these are merely superficial explanations.
The storytelling spectrum is a simple but useful idea I learnt from my friend and storytelling expert Mary Alice Arthur. Imagine a spectrum of storytelling. At one end is Big 'S' Storytelling which includes those beautifully crafted stories we see in movies, novels, plays and even the latest Playstation games. Big 'S' Storytellers understand plot structures, character development, scene design and a myriad of other storytelling principles and practices. At the other end of the spectrum is Small 's' Storytelling where we find the stories we tell on a daily basis in conversations, anecdotes, recounts and examples.
We've focussed our attention on the Small 's' end of the spectrum (the anecdotes, the real life experiences) and have inched our way toward the Big 'S' end, but not too far for reasons I'll explain in a moment. There's lots to learn from the Big 'S' end but business people don't need to be screenwriters or playwrights. Putting too much storytelling craft in how you communicate can lead you to fall into an even bigger trap. And this trap is similar to one discovered in robotics in the 70s.
In 1970 a Japanese robotics researcher, Mashahiro Mori, noticed that as he made his robots more humanlike their attractiveness increased, but only to a point. After that they became creepy. It was only when it was impossible to tell the robot from the human did they become attractive again. Mori called this dip in comfort levels (Shinwakan) the Uncanny Valley.
Source: Crossing the uncanny valley, The Economist, Nov 18th 2010.
We witnessed the impact of the Uncanny Valley at the movie theatres in 2004. Pixar released The Incredibles at the same time Warner Bros. released The Polar Express. The Polar Express used live action performance capture techniques to make almost humanlike animated characters with an eerie result; not what you want for a Christmas tale. The Incredibles were clearly animations and it became a box office hit.
There is something like an Uncanny Valley of Business Storytelling. We can improve our storytelling with techniques applied from the wealth of storytelling techniques used by the best screenwriters, playwrights and novelists, but only to a point. After that business storytelling drop into an Uncanny Valley. At the bottom of the valley the storyteller's efforts seem artificial, forced and clumsy. Sometimes this happens when people in the organisation believe they need to understand sophisticated plot structures, vocalisation techniques and beats and scenes to apply storytelling. Frankly, I think you can love storytelling too much and try too hard. Sometimes a storytelling professional believes that to be a real storyteller you need to be a performance storyteller. This often results in the storytelling voice. You know that one that sounds like the person has just started a children's story with Once Upon a Time. Again the result is the Uncanny Valley.
Yes, you can learn a lot from Big 'S' Storytelling but it's folly to try to apply too much. In the end so much can be achieved just helping people to be mindful of their experiences and the experiences of the people around them and work out what these experiences mean. With this understanding recounting an experience can be a powerful illustration of what you believe is important. And told as a story on the gentle hills above the valley will mean people will remember it and maybe even be inspired to take action.
I have just downloaded and started to use a fantastic iPhone application called Viber (www.viber.com). It is an application that lets you make free phone calls to other iPhone users that have Viber installed.
Not only are all your calls free, but Viber claims that the sound quality is also better than a mobile call, and from my initial experiences I would have to agree with them.
All you need to do is download Viber from the Apple App Store, have your phone connected to an internet connection (3G or Wi-Fi), and have friends who have an iPhone do the same and you can talk for free - that simple!
I think this application will do to mobile phone calls, what Skype (www.skype.com) has done to chatting from your computer, particularly when they launch Viber for Android phones and for the Blackberry (which are currently under development).
You can probably tell that we are pretty excited about Zahmoo. There are a couple of reasons for our enthusiasm. Firstly Zahmoo brings story collection and management to everyone for a very low price. Other story software requires expensive per seat licensing and setup costs. With Zahmoo you just sign up and pay a low monthly cost each month. If you want to stop using the service you just export your stories and stop the service. No lock ins. No ifs or buts.
The second reason we are excited about Zahmoo is that it enables groups of people to work on sets of stories (we call them collections). You're no longer confined to working on your stories alone and you can build and share a collection of stories as a group.
Our society faces a significant challenge in the years ahead dealing with an increasingly ageing population. This means more elderly people suffering from depression, loneliness and general difficulties around their psychological well-being. The scale of the problem becomes clearer when you consider that up to 15% of all older people currently suffer from some form of depression and that up to 84% of the American population over 65 experience some degree of loneliness (1).
It is increasingly important to understand the efficacy and costs of treatments for these conditions. I have just read two articles that measure the success of getting older people to tell stories about their lives on their rates of depression, loneliness and other aspects of their mental well being.
Chiang et. al. (2010) undertook a study amongst 90 nursing home residents in Taipei to measure the effect of reminiscence therapy on levels of psychological well being, depression and loneliness (2). Reminiscence therapy is a process whereby elder people review their past, recalling memories and sharing their experiences, either in a group setting or individually. Of the 90 people in the study, 45 undertook reminiscence therapy, with the other 45 being the control group.
The results of the study showed that reminiscence therapy reduced participants; depressive symptoms (as measured by the CES-D); psychological well-being (as measured by the RULS-V3) and improved their sense of loneliness (as measured by the RULS-V3 and MMSE).
These results reinforce those of Bohlmeijer et. al. (2003) who undertook a meta-analysis looking at 20 different studies to look at the effects of all aspects of reminiscence on depression in older adults (3). The results of their meta-analysis indicated that reminiscence and life review are effective treatments of depressive symptoms in older adults. The mean effect sizes they found were comparable to the effect sizes found for well-established treatments, such as anti-depressives and cognitive behaviour therapy. This study also points out that getting elderly people to reminisce, review their life and tell stories about it, offer a number of benefits over other interventions. They can be easily delivered, do not stigmatise people and are far less expensive than other alternatives.
For me, these two papers, and the supporting evidence contained within them, really show that encouraging elderly people to tell the stories of their lives improves their psychological well-being.
(1) Lauder, W., Mummery, K., Caperchione, C., & Jones, M. (2006). A comparison of health behaviours in lonely and non-lonely populations. Psychology, Health, and Medicine, 11(2), 233-245 (2) Kai-Jo Chiang, Hsin Chu, Hsiu-Ju Chang, Min-Huey Chung, Chung-Hua Chen, Hung-Yi Chiou and Kuei-Ru Chou (2010): The effects of reminiscence therapy on psychological well-being, depression, and loneliness among the institutionalized aged. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Volume 25, Issue 4, pages 380-388 (3) Bohlmeijer, E; Smit, F and Cuijper, P (2003): Effects of reminiscence and life review on late-life depression: a meta-analysis. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2003; 18: 1088-1094.