February, 2011 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
Story work is definitely in the air. We say story work instead of storytelling because telling is such a small part of what you can achieve with stories. We hope you're getting that picture reading Anecdotally.
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One Small Step Can Change Your Life
— by Dr Robert Maurer
I've been fascinated over the last few weeks watching the Australian Biggest Loser TV programme - on a purely professional basis I must add! They use a number of techniques to change the contestant's behaviours around eating and exercise and I'm interested to see how they do it, and what works. One of the things that has really got me interested is how you get someone who the day before was eating three times their recommended calorie intake, had not exercised in 20 years and weighed, in one case, 134 kgs over his recommended weight, to suddenly exercise for hours a day, eat a healthy balanced, calorie controlled, diet and stick to it.
This sudden, dramatic change approach is the complete opposite to the one recommended in a great little book I've just finished called One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Dr. Robert Maurer. Dr. Maurer is an Associate Clinical Professor at the ULCA School of Medicine, and an expert in Kaizen, the Japanese technique of achieving lasting success through a series of small, steady steps.
Maurer argues that all changes, even positive ones, are scary. Attempts to meet goals through radical or revolutionary means often fail because they heighten fear. But the small steps of kaizen disarm the brain’s fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play.
In this book he lays out six strategies which underpin Kaizen and applies them to everything from overspending, beginning an exercise program, managing stress, to keeping the house clean.
The six strategies are:
1. Asking small questions to dispel fear and inspire creativity
Maurer argues your brain loves questions, so use this to shape behaviour. So instead of writing down all the things you should be doing to improve your health, ask yourself small questions like: "what is one way I can remind myself to drink more water?" and let the brain come up with, and implement the answers. He uses the example of Michael Ondaatje , the author of the English Patient , who says he doesn’t start by asking; "What kind of characters would be fascinating to readers?” Instead he takes an incident, say a plane crash, and asks himself a few very small questions, such as “Who is the man in the plane?” “Why did the plane crash?” “What year is this?” The answers to these very small questions lead him to create his rich, emotive and ultimately prize-winning novels.
2. Thinking small thoughts to develop new skills and habits
Maurer believes that this philosophy is enhanced by "mind sculpture," a concept developed by Professor Ian Robertson and outlined in his book Mind Sculpture: Unlocking Your Brain's Untapped Potential . Mind sculpture is a kind of guided imagery designed to train the brain in small increments to develop new social, mental, and even physical skills, just by imagining yourself performing them.
3. Taking small actions that guarantee success
This is all about empowering yourself with simple small steps to start the change process. He uses plenty of examples including the following:
Reduce spending. Remove one object from the shopping cart just before going to pay.
Keep the house clean. Pick an area of the house, set a timer for 5 minutes, and tidy up. Stop when the timer goes off.
Get more sleep. Go to bed 1 minute earlier at night, or stay in bed 1 minute longer in the morning.
Reduce your chocolate intake. Break off the first part of the bar and throw it away before you start eating the rest!
After reading this chapter I personally worked out that if I cut my sugar intake in my coffee from 2 teaspoons to one teaspoon I could reduce my calorie intake by 340 calories a week. This amount of calories would require the equivalent of running for 60mins to burn off. Then again if I reduce my coffee intake by one cup a day I will save myself 1890 calories, but he did say small steps!
4. Solving small problems, even when you are faced with an overwhelming crisis
When something happens that does not work properly, Maurer argues we should spend the time and energy right then to solve it before it produces unwanted results. "Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts." Tao Te Ching.
5. Bestowing small rewards to yourself or others to produce the best results
Maurer believes that small acts of recognition and small meaningful rewards are much more effective than bigger or more structured rewards.
6. Recognising the small but crucial moments
This is all about understanding that small things make a big difference, especially at crucial moments. He tells a fantastic story about Psychologist Dr John Gottman and his study with couples on the small acts that make a huge difference whether they stay together or not.
I absolutely loved this little, and it is little book. Maurer presents his arguments in an engaging and well structured way by using examples and telling great stories to back it up. As well as loads of his own personal experiences he tells stories about everything from how the microwave was invented, how incentives differ between the US and Japan to why people leave the US Navy.
I believe this book gives the rest of us that don't have personal trainers, dieticians, TV cameras and the social pressure that comes from being on a programme like the Biggest Loser a chance to create meaningful change, one small step at a time.
When someone meets you for the first time, they have two questions in mind: Who are you? and What do you want? The best way to connect with the person and answer these questions is to tell them about something that happened to you or that had an impact on you - a moment that reveals a little about who you are, your values, your background. As Terrence Gargiulo says, "the shortest distance between two people is a story".
The same concept applies whether giving presentations, talking to your team or in a meeting. Having a few of these 'who am I?' moments can be very handy. But how do you find them?
In our workshops we often help people find and develop these moments into a coherent 'who am I?' story. But the start point is to find the moments. Here are a few questions to help you identify moments that can form the basis of your own 'who am I?' story:
Where did you grow up (as a kid, teenager)? What are some key moments from these years?
What events had a big influence on you early in your career?
What are some of your best or worst moments?
Think of key events in your life. What happened?
Once you have identified a few of these moments, tell the story to a trusted colleague/partner etc. Ask them what they liked about the story. Ask what they inferred about your character.
Its also worth bearing in mind that the story you use might vary in different circumstances. Think about the different scenarios you might be faced with: one-on-one meetings; informal team meetings; formal meetings (clients, stakeholders, superiors etc) or presentations. Different versions of the story might be required for each.
And don't be surprised if your 'who am I?' story doesn't come easily. It can take a while to coalesce into something that comes across comfortably and authentically. But, its well worth the effort.
We have a a whole swag of new projects to tell you about.
We just got the green light from one of our long-term clients to develop a year-long leadership program for high performance leaders.This will build on the management develop programs we currently run for a number of clients and the front-line manager communication training we developed last year.
We are finalising the strategic story for a well-known international not-for-profit organisation
Rolling-out communications training for front-line managers for a national utilities company
Developing strategic stories for an Australian icon in the financial sector and a major telecommunications company
Upcoming Events - Anecdote Business Storytelling Workshops:
Announcing our business storytelling workshop series for 2011. It's been a few years since we publicly ran our workshops in Australia. We've been focussed on delivering them internally to our clients. But in May this year we are running Storytelling for Business Leaders workshops in Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney.
Click here to find out more and to buy your tickets. Lots of different early bird prices to take advantage of.
We're helping an electricity utility deliver a program to improve the communications skills of their front line leaders. In a project like this we often start by collecting stories from the field using anecdote circles . I was facilitating one of the anecdote circles and asked whether a multicultural workforce creates any challenges.
This is the story I heard:
"A while back one of their guys, who is originally from Malaysia, was driving to work on a particularly cold and rainy morning and he lost control of his car. While it didn't cause any damage it scared the life out of him. So the following day when the weather conditions hadn't improved he rang work and told them he wasn't coming in because he had four beers. Well, his manager was not impressed and couldn't believe he chose to stay at home and drink and not come to work so he escalated the situation to his manager who rang the employee and gave him an ear full. The staff member took great offence at the accusation that he was drinking. As a Muslim this was an intolerable slur so he made a formal complaint to HR. It got way out of hand. Everyone was left scratching their head. After some more discussion they discovered that he didn't say that 'he had four beers' but that 'he had phobias."
At this point in the anecdote circle the rather distinguished gentleman on my right piped up and said, "well, that not what happened exactly. I was his manager ..." And he then retold the story from his perspective.
And when he finished a young fella half across the table said, "I'm a good friend and was there on the day and this is what happened ..."
We all heard three tellings of the same story. And while all of them had variations the central plot remained the same: the staff member was misheard, people jumped to conclusions and overreacted.
It reminded me of how resilient stories are and how their content can change yet the core message stays the same. It also is a great reminder that truth is a slippery idea in a human system. It's what people believed happened. So there are many truths and hearing multiple versions provides richness.
If you read this blog there is a good chance you firmly believe in the power of stories. You might have also come to the conclusion, like I have, that it's mighty hard to find stories when you need them. A better strategy is to collect stories when they're told, index them and be able to re-find them when they are needed (see how Joan Rivers does it). You can check out Zahmoo as a way to keep track of your stories.
For this strategy to work you need to be places where stories are told. Better still, you need to create the conditions for stories to be told.
Here are five conditions that are important for stories to be told.
A caring listener. The person listening to the stories cares about and is interested in them. People have a finely tuned sense of whether others care about what they are saying and if they detect disdain or even a little boredom they'll truncate their stories or just stop altogether.
Free time. Remember those times when you had a long road trip with a friend or colleague and the stories you heard. Stories seem to emerge when we are not under pressure or constrained by formality. Loose meeting agendas are more likely to encourage stories than highly structured gatherings.
Common ground. A while back I called my brother. He lives in Arizona. He's a wine salesman (a bloody good one) and he was telling me what a talented sales manager he has. I asked him to share an example of what this talented guy did. My brother hesitated. In fact he kept giving me high level descriptions rather than a story. Then I realised I didn't share his wine sales rep knowledge and might not appreciate (or get) his story. So I said, "just pretend I'm an experienced wine guy." He then shared a great example. Common knowledge and language is needed at some level before stories are shared.
Tell stories. Stories beget stories. One of the best ways to encourage someone to share a story is to tell one yourself.
Memorabilia. One of my most enjoyable projects involved helping an energy company collect stories from retiring specialists. One was Mike, the network controller. His job was to keep tabs on the entire electricity grid and solve problems as they happened. His office was filled with maps, computer screens and whiteboards filled with notes and sketches. Storytelling was easy for him. He would grab a map of the grid and tell me the story of how a substation went down and how they fixed it. Unfortunately Mike retired before we had finished the story collection but he invited me to his home a couple of months after retiring to finish the job. We were in his lounge room with pictures of his family on the wall and keepsakes from overseas trips on shelves. When we got started I quickly discovered he struggled to tell me his work stories and when he did have one they weren't as rich with detail as the ones from his office. Picking places and artefacts that remind people of their stories can make all the difference.
We have been trying out a new technique here in our Melbourne office to improve how we work and manage our time.
Created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is a time management approach that aims to provide the user with maximum focus, thereby allowing them to complete tasks faster and more efficiently. The process is simple with five basic steps;
decide on the task to be done
set the pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes. Each 25-minute work period is called a “pomodoro” (Italian word for tomato). The story goes that Francesco Cirillo used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato as his personal timer.
work on the task until the timer rings
take a short break (5 minutes) and this really means a break, not just checking your emails or doing another smaller task.
every four "pomodoros" take a longer break (15–20 minutes)
How can it help? The idea is that frequent breaks keeps your mind fresh and focused. If you have a large and varied to-do list, using the Pomodoro Technique can help you work through tasks faster by forcing you to adhere to strict timing. Watching the timer wind down can spur you to wrap up your current task more quickly. The constant timing of your activities makes you more accountable for your tasks, and minimises the time you spend procrastinating. By also noting down how long you spend completing a task you gain visibility of where your time and effort are going.
Overall, it is still early days for us both using the Pomodoro Technique. However the results are promising. It forces you into action and you seem to get more done. Having a focussed 25 minutes with no distractions seems to actually increase the amount I achieve, than say an hour of less focussed attention.
The downsides for me are that the countdown timer is supposed to be played out loud, and a constant ticking can do your head in! It also reduces interaction and conversation in the office for that period. I had a question the other day that Shawn could have answered straight away and allowed me to move on, but because of both of us being in a "pomodoro" (and we did start by being strict on following it) I had to wait, which seem to make my working less efficient.
One of the best things about the Pomodoro Technique is that it’s free, so even if you try it and hate it, you haven’t lost any money. The process isn’t ideal for every person, or for everything you do, but if you need a systematic way to tackle your daily to-do list, the Pomodoro Technique may fit your needs.
People who tell more, and richer, stories are more likely to display higher organisational commitment than those that who don’t.
Research by John F. McCarthy, Associate Professor of Organization Behavior from the Boston University School of Management, has shown the direct correlation between storytelling and organisational commitment. (McCarthy, 2008).
Organisational commitment reflects the relative strength of employees’ attitudes towards identifying with, and being involved in, their organisations. It is shown in such things as acceptance of organisational goals and values, willingness to exert extra effort, and desire to maintain membership in the organisation (Mowday et. al., 1982). McCarthy's study sought evidence for the relationship between storytelling and varying levels of members’ organisational commitment.
The research was undertaken with staff at a major Scandinavian-based global ocean transport shipping company.
McCarthy's primary data collection was accomplished through face-to-face semi-structured interviews. Organisational commitment was measured using the Organisational Commitment Questionnaire (OCQ). The OCQ consists of 15 statements describing participants' attitudes towards their organisations. Items include statements such as "I am willing to put in a great deal of effort beyond that normally expected in order to help this organisation be successful" and "I am proud to tell others that I am part of this organisation" (Mowday et. al., 1982).
He had a number of hypothesis to test in his research with the one of the most important being; ''Organisation members who exhibit higher storytelling (e.g., tell more stories or tell richer stories) are more likely to display higher organisational commitment."
Through analysing the interviews undertaken he:
identified the stories told within the interviews;
assessed the overall tone of each story (in terms of positive, neutral, or negative connotations from the narrative); and
rated the the stories strength (relating to its length, depth, and emotive content).
He then compared the results from this analysis with the individual scores from the OCQ.
What he found was that organisational commitment and storytelling were highly interrelated. When members told more stories, especially stories with a positive tone, they were far more likely to exhibit heightened commitment to the organisation. He also found when stories were more value laden, storytellers separately expressed much higher levels of organisational commitment.
McCarthy concludes with a clear messages to all leaders about the power of story, based on his research findings; "Contemporary leaders must pay attention to the powerful relationship between strong, positive storytelling and strengthened organisational commitment."
McCarthy, J.F (2008): Short Stories at Work: Storytelling as an Indicator of Organisational Commitment. Group Organisation Management 2008; 33; 163-193.
Mowday, R., Porter, L. & Steers, R. (1982). Employee–organization linkages: The psychology of commitment, absenteeism, and turnover. Academic Press. New York.