July, 2011 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
This month has the Anecdote team immersed in staff engagement and strategic stories. Lots of travelling and lots of story collection; we are hearing some amazing anecdotes.
A theme we discover time and time again is the vital importance of the small thank yous, the unexpected appreciations and the heartfelt recognition that makes all the difference to keeping people enthused about their work.
A small task for you today is to compose that hand written note for someone you really appreciate at work and you will immediately create a new story in your workplace.
In this edition, we have:
Book Review - Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries
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Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries
- by Peter Sims
Chris Rock is a stand-up comedy mega-star, voted in the US as the 5th greatest stand-up comedian of all time (just behind Woody Allen, and one ahead of Steve Martin). But did you know that developing an hour-long stand up act takes him up to a year, working 5 nights a week? How he has to go through an exhausting process of continuous, mostly failed, experiments, constant modification, and subtle refinement?
Rock picks venues where he can experiment when beginning work on a new show, arriving unannounced at small comedy clubs not far from where he lives in New Jersey. He will do a 45 minute set with his notepad beside him: watching the audience intently; noticing heads nodding, shifting body language or where the laughs come from attentive pauses, all clues to where the good ideas reside. He may think he has come up with the best joke ever, but if it keeps missing with audiences, then he has to accept that is his reality. Other times, a joke he thought would be a dud will bring the house down. Most of the jokes fall flat, and it is almost painful to watch, with the audience laughing at him, more than with him, but this is the process he knows he has to go through to create the polished finished product.
The story of Chris Rock and how he tests, tests and re-tests every joke, before he takes his act on the road kicks off this great book by Peter Sims: Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. For Sims a little bet is a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea - exactly what Rock does in his local comedy club.
The book outlines the process Sim believes you should go through to create new products or even new businesses, but for me I think it also fits very well into how to create change within organisations.
In this regard, I took four main ideas from the book:
(1) Understand complexity
What you start with and what you end up with are normally two different things. Sim uses the story of Pixar as an example.
Pixar originated in George Lucas's Lucasfilm where it focused on making computers for viewing complex images. When Steve Jobs bought the company in 1986, it included a tiny team focused on animation, who were there only to show off what Pixar's hardware could do. But then Mr. Jobs endorsed a series of small film projects - little bets - from this division. The animated shorts were well-received, and the team behind them was able to refine its technique and eventually win an Oscar for their short film, "Tin Toy". This in turn, led to "Toy Story," a film that went on to gross more than US$360 million world-wide (and a firm favouritre with my 3 year old son!).
Pixar began without a clear view of where it was headed, but it ended up in a very different place. The same is true of Starbucks, with founder Howard Schultz began with a quaint vision of an Italian coffee house (i.e. baristas wearing bow ties, opera on the stereo etc.) - rather different to the Starbucks we see today.
To be able to be able to make these kind of changes, changes that have made both Pixar and Starbucks very successful, Sims outlines a number of key attributes needed, which include:
Your mindset - moving away from a 'fixed mindset' where individuals believe their abilities are set in stone, to a 'growth mindset' where people view failures as an opportunity for growth. For more see Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Failure being part of the process - for example the writers for the humour publication the Onion , known for its hilarious headlines, propose roughly six hundred possibilities for the eighteen headlines each week. That's just a three percent success rate for headline writers!
Feedback - being an integral part of how you work, embedded into your culture
Play - brining humour, fun, child like curiosity and laughter to your work
(2) Immerse yourself
To be able to crate successful change you need to close the distance between the people making the change and the people 'receiving' the change. Sims celebrates the practices of Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster in Tal Afar, Iraq and Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh, both of whom lived among the people they were trying to help, gleaning what Mr. Yunus calls "the worm's eye view".
When Pixar was developing the idea for "Cars" they sent the writing team on a road trip across America with Michael Wallis, author of "Route 66: The Mother Road " and went working on "Finding Nemo" they all went on scuba diving trips in Hawaii with marine life expert, Professor Adam Summers.
For me, this idea of immersing yourself ties in with a key concept in lean manufacturing - Gemba. The idea of gemba is that the best improvement ideas will come from going to 'the gemba', a japanese term meaning "the real place." In business, gemba refers to the place where value is created; the factory floor, construction site, sales floor or where the service provider interacts directly with the customer.
(3) Use your passionate advocates
Sims does a great job of showing the benefits that can be gained from getting your passionate advocates, your 'extreme users', your 'early adopters' involved in your change process or product develeopment.
He talks about how Procter & Gamble tests out; "low resolution prototypes made from duct tape or cardboard" with select groups of iusers who are passionate about that specific area, or how up to 50% of all software improvements that are made within SAP, come from suggestions from its most actice users.
(4) Focus on small wins
Sims use the defintion of a small win from organisational psychologist Karl Weick, who defines them as a "a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance". He then spends a decent chunk of time and space talking about their importance in the change process.
One of the key things he tries to get across is that; "we can't plot a series of small wins in advance, we must use experiments in order for them to emerge". That is, conduct lots of small experiments (betting small amounts of time and money) and then, as small (modest) "wins" occur, increase the "bet" and see what happens, or doesn't.
This process is iterative and never ends. The fundamental advantages are obvious. It allows people to discover new lessons through an emergent, organic process of small investments, and, it allows for all manner of adjustments (course corrections, additions/deletions, increases/reductions, etc.) at any point throughout the process.
Overall, Little Bets is an enthusiastic, example-rich argument for creating change and innovating in a particular way by deliberately experimenting and taking small steps. I throughly enjoyed it, and would strongly recommend it to anyone looking to change the way they lead change in their organisation.
Its a busy time at Anecdote. There are lots of projects happening across all of our core business areas - developing strategic stories, employee engagement, making values stick and leadership development.
We have just produced new brochures for these areas and if you want a copy please let us know and we can email out a pdf.
Consulting Engagements and Projects:
Kevin, Helen and Mark are green with envy...Shawn is off to Sri Lanka in early August to facilitate a conference for one of our multi-national clients and will help them develop their strategic story. He'll be in Singapore in early September and he is also heading over to the US in September/October to run our Storytelling for Leaders workshop. Looks like he has got the travel bug.
Other exciting new projects include:
making values stick for a national high technology organisation, focussing on how effectively their teamwork is across divisions and across the country
developing the strategic story for a federal government department undergoing a major structural and cultural change
exploring customer engagement for a media company
developing strategic stories for the IT departments of a national energy retailer and for one of Australia's biggest financial institutions
exploring employee engagement for a 'big 4' professional services firm
running our Storytelling for Leaders workshops for two banks, a mining company, CIO forums, local councils and state government organisations and an insurance company.
Upcoming Events that we're running or attending:
Shawn is running a workshop in Singapore on the 5th of September with Gary Klein and Patrick Lambe. The workshop is titled 'Releasing Insight in Your Organisation Through the Power of Story' and more information is available here
On 27 September, Shawn is running our Storytelling for Leaders workshop in New York. There are still places and you can get more information and book your tickets here
Mark is speaking at the actKM conference in Melbourne on 10 and 11 October on the topic 'Collaboration - More than just wishful thinking.' He is also speaking at a dinner in late July for one of clients - singing for his supper!!
Last week I was in Mandurah, just south of Perth, working with 80 bank branch managers helping them bring their strategy to life with stories. I had them working in table groups of six and they were doing a great job of working out the spine of their story. The spine is the big story, it tends to not have the detail but plots the major happenings. Their spines sounded something like this:
Before the GFC we tended not to worry too much about customer satisfaction. If people wanted to bank they had to come to the bank and that was that. Then we were all affected by the GFC and we saw the lay offs and the tightening up. Then the new GM arrived with a totally different way of thinking about our business and now we are making changes all the time to improve our service.
Story spines alone lack colour. You need to add the flesh with personal anecdotes to make your story both interesting and personal. Anecdotes tend also to recount moments in time which usually conveys imagery, and the really good ones touch all our senses.
With the story spines developed it was quite easy for everyone to remember times when those events effected them personally, when they first met the GM, when they were impacted directed by the GFC, when friends lost their jobs or when they felt things were turning around. These moments provide the emotion that transform the interesting to the inspirational.
Is really listening to someone about your listening abilities, or is it about your motivation to listen? Is it about the 'skills' of listening or is it the desire to want to listen that makes the difference?
I have been running a series of workshops lately where we do a very simple listening exercise that gets the participants to actually feel what it is like not to be listened too. The exercise takes it from being a purely rational/logical thing (i.e. "I know that not being listened too isn't nice") to one where they actually feel the anger, frustration and almost diminishing sense of self worth that comes when you are not being listened too.
At the end of the exercise I do a de-brief and one of the questions I ask is; "What do you think is more important when you listen - your ability to listen, or your desire to listen?"
You can see people have this light bulb moment as they realise it is not the ability side of listening that they are struggling with, it's the motivation to want to listen in the first place.
When asked they can all tell you what you need to do to be able to listen better, from a skills perspective - mirror body language, lean forward, make eye contact, avoid distractions etc. etc. A good outline of some of these were covered in a blog Shawn did in May last year.
However, these things only become useful if you want to listen in the first place.
For me listening, really listening to someone, is an issue of motivation first and foremost. Once I want to listen to you, then my skills and abilities to listen can really kick in.
I don't know about you, but I find starting to write anything - be it proposals, blog posts, training material, or even this article, really tough. The blank page steering back at me seems to be taunting me, raising all my self doubts about my ability to get down what I want to get across, let alone do it in an elegant and powerful way. I recently discovered a technique that seems to be helping me in overcoming this.
"I'd sit down at my desk with my notes, and try to write a review", she recalls. "Even after I'd been doing this for years, panic would set in. I'd try to write a lead, but instead write a couple of dreadful sentences, XX them out, try again, XX everything out, and then feel despair and worry settle on my chest like an x-ray apron." Despair was the right word. "I'm ruined. I'm through. I'm toast. Maybe, I'd think, I can get my old job back". She'd look in the mirror, remember to breathe, and then sit back down. For Anne every time, the answer would come: "The only way i get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts."
Another example I read of this concept recently was how Bob Dylan described writing "Like a Rolling Stone". In an interview with CBC radio in Montreal, Dylan said that he found himself writing "this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long, and out of it I took 'Like a Rolling Stone'..."
When I was writing I was almost expecting to write the finished product straight off the bat, and was either unable to even start, or getting frustrated if it didn't came out right. The concept of "shitty first drafts" was such a powerful, but simple insight for me. It gave me the freedom to just write, in most cases really badly, but once i had something down, I could change, move around and add too. You can't do that when you have a blank page!
Winter in Canberra is freezing. The last two years I have escaped the cold for a few days to enjoy the wonderful weather of Darwin during dry season, and to stay with some old friends. Ian and I joined the Air Force on the same day in 1979 and spent three years together in Toowoomba in Queensland doing our first degrees as cadets. Toowoomba was a unique environment. There were only about a dozen cadets selected each year and because there were so few of us, we did not have separate facilities. We spent three years eating and socializing in the Officers' Mess, interacting daily with the officers who were doing the job that we were being groomed to do in the future. in most military establishments, large numbers of cadets live, eat and socialise with themselves in what are largely segregated facilities.
While in Darwin, I asked Ian a question that I had been contemplating for a while. “Why is it that the graduates from Toowoomba were universally regarded as the best logistics officers, were always in high demand, especially for the tough jobs, and were generally promoted faster and higher?” Without an instant's hesitation Ian responded: “that's easy” he said “every day we were in Toowoomba we heard the stories about how the officers at the unit were doing their jobs. By the time we left Toowoomba, we had the best part of three years experience, both as air force officers and as logistics specialists. It was an incredible advantage.”
Empirical evidence demonstrates that an effective way to learn is through the experiences of others; through their stories. Some recent neuroscience research (*1) using functional MRI (fMRI) technology, provides scientific evidence that stories are very effective in building empathy and transferring ideas, thoughts and emotions into a listener's mind.
The research was conducted at Princeton University in 2010. Researchers Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and Uri Hasson recorded the brain activity of a woman telling an unrehearsed real-life story and the brain activity of a group of people listening to a recording of the woman's story. The woman was instructed to speak as if telling the story to a friend. The fMRI, which records brain activity, showed that when the listener understood the story, their brain activity was synchronised with the woman's (neural coupling). When the woman's emotions were high (indicated by activity in the ursula area of the brain), the same happened for the listeners. When her pre-frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. When you listen to someone's story and understand it, your brain activity mirrors theirs.
One of the key findings was that the more the listener understands the story, the more the fMRI showed their brain activity dovetailed with the speaker's. There was a negligible neural coupling when the communication was poor, demonstrated when listening to the same woman telling the same story in Russian. This has significant implications in our organisations. Often we transmit information that is abstract, and therefore difficult to understand. We might as well be communicating in Russian. In such cases, there is little transfer of information from the speaker to the listener. Using stories [examples, experiences, events etc.] we can increase the listeners' understanding and therefore the extent to which we are able to transfer information, embed ideas and influence emotions.
I would love to run a similar experiment and see the difference in the extent of neural coupling when a strategy is communicated using a traditional 'powerpoint-style' method versus when it is communicated using our strategic story method. I wouldn't mind betting that the powerpoint method would have a similar result as when talking in Russian.
And I am eternally grateful that my first three years in the Air Force were spent in Toowoomba rather than a massive institution like the defence academy.
*1. Stephens, G.J, Silbert L.J and Hasson, U: (2010) "Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication". Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences USA. 2010 Aug 10;107(32):14425-30.2.