June, 2012 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
Facts alone are generally insufficient to influence somebody to change their mind. Effective political campaigns understand this and develop narratives to influence voters to move towards them, and away from their opponents. A very recent example of this is an ad campaign that started in Canberra last week titled 'ACT Health - 11 years under Labor'. It's a good example of how stories convey facts, coupled with context and emotion
There are likely to be many more examples of these political narratives in the coming year with Australian elections coming up (ACT Oct 2012, Australian Federal Election before the end of Nov 13, WA in early 2013) and the US presidential election on the 6th Nov 2012. We'll keep out radar our for emerging political narratives and would love to hear from our readers if you spot any.
In the meantime, enjoy the June 2012 issue of Anecdotally.
In this edition, we have:
Technique - A practical activity to increase creativity
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A practical activity to increase creativity
I first heard about functional fixedness from Dan Pink's TED talk on the surprising science about what motivates us. He described 'the candle problem' where you are given a candle, a book of matches, and a box of tacks and the instruction is to attach the cable to the wall in such a way that the wax doesn't drip onto the floor. Most people take a surprising amount of time to solve this problem, mainly because we see the box holding the tacks as exactly that–a container for the tacks. Its function is fixed in our mind. As soon as we break through this functional fixedness the solution to the problem becomes obvious.
A simple technique has emerged from recent research which shows that overcoming functional fixedness - decoupling the names of items from their uses - can lead to a big increase in people's ability to generate ideas and to solve problems. The first step in this technique is to break down the items at hand into their basic parts and then rename them in a way that doesn't imply a function. For example, a candle becomes wax and string. The key is to see the wick as a piece of string; calling it "a wick" implies that its function is to be lit, but calling it "a string" opens up new possibilities. In the same vein, a screwdriver becomes a four-inch length of metal.
Tony McCaffrey, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, describes this approach as the ‘generic parts technique (GPT)’ and it was published in the March edition of Psychological Science. He advocates breaking down (mentally is fine) each object in your problem and then asking two questions:
Can it be broken down further?
Does my description of the part imply a use?
McCaffrey's research shows that people trained in GPT solved eight problems 67 percent more often than those who weren’t trained,
McCaffrey Studied over 1000 innovative inventions. In every one, he found, the innovator discovered an obscure feature or an obscure function. McCaffrey cites this example: “In a very poor section of the Philippines, people living in shanties were using electric lights inside while it was sunny outside,” he says. How to save money on electricity? “Take a 2-litre Coke bottle, stick it through a hole in the roof, fill it with water. The water reflects the light around the inside the house.” A simple idea, using an overlooked feature of water: “It refracts light 360 degrees.”
Another very practical example of this is the classic scene from the 1995 movie Apollo 13, when engineers needed to make a carbon dioxide scrubber for the stricken spaceship using a mishmash of materials that were available to the astronauts.
It must be the end of the financial year as things are hotting up:
Developing the strategic story for the environmental division of a global resources company
Improving employee engagement for a national technology company
We are finalising the project on exploring customer experience for a national media organisation
Upcoming Events that we're running or attending:
Kevin has just returned from running several Storytelling for Leaders workshops in the US and attending an 'Immunity to Change' program at Harvard University run by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. I'm sure he'll have lots to share in the coming months.
Shawn is presenting at the KM Australia 2012 Congress on developing knowledge strategies and he is also on the debating panel where the topic is 'Using digital devices for knowledge transfer and training'. Shawn is on the 'nay' team and it should be lots of fun for both panel members and the audience.
We have just set the dates for a series of workshops in New Delhi, India. On 25 Sep 2012 we are running our 'Storytelling to influence, engage & persuade' workshop and on the following day (26 Sep) we are running our 'Influencing change with the natural power of stories' workshop. Both Shawn and Mark will be delivering these workshops.
Mark is a keynote presenter at the National Future of Local Government Summit in Australia in mid-July, talking on the subject of making strategies stick.
Our leadership programmes normally commence by immersing participants in anecdotes about the impact of leader behaviour collected from their organisation. The next major step is to use a most significant change process to identify the best and worst examples. Participant feedback is always very positive about these 2 key activities that set the scene for the program. That is until February this year.
In the February program we changed the sequencing of the 1st half day. We inserted a session about how leaders can communicate more effectively using stories after the immersion activity and then ran the 'Most Significant Change' (MSC) process as usual. It just didn't feel right and the participant feedback was lukewarm. That got me to thinking about why this very different feeling had emerged.
After the second glass of red wine that night I had a little epiphany. The 'immersion' and MSC activities are much more about what participants feel (right-brain, emotion, narrative-based) than what they think (analytical, left-brain, technical). By inserting a presentation-style activity in the middle we shifted them from working at an emotional level back into their normal analytical (thinking) style. It was then hard for them to re-adjust back into a narrative mode for the MSC activity.
The key lesson is that in future I will be very conscious about the thinking style required by activities and avoid designing sessions that require participants to shift from narrative mode to thinking mode and back again.
How can we work out our corporate values and help everyone know what they really mean?
Most organisations I know have a set of stated values. You know what I mean, things like integrity, professionalism, respect for the individual. And in most cases they've been developed for the wrong reasons. And when developed for the right reasons, most employees don't understand what the values mean anyway. Let me explain.
Often the starting question for establishing a set of organisational values is, "Which values should we hold each and everyone accountable for so our organisation thrives?" This gets translated to "What values do our stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers) expect us to hold?" The list is then drawn up and the result is a moribund list of words.
I was reading a paper by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras and they suggest an alternative set of questions (in my words): "What values do we deeply hold that reflect the essence of our company?" and "Would we still hold these values if they created a disadvantage for us if things changed?" If you can answer these two questions in the positive then you've identified your core values.
What I found really interesting was looking at some examples Collins and Porras gave and noticed how each company held a different set in that the usual suspects weren't repeated: they didn't all have to value innovation, or customer service, or integrity. The lists I'm seeing are starting to look the same.
Elevation of the Japanese culture and national status
Being a pioneer - not following others; doing the impossible
Encouraging individual ability and creativity
Corporate social responsibility
Unequivocal excellence in all aspects of the company
Honesty and integrity
Profit, but profit from work that benefits humanity
Nurturing and promulgation of "wholesome American values"
Creativity, dreams, and imagination
Fanatical attention to consistency and detail
Preservation and control of the Disney magic
Collins and Porras' research shows that companies who have enduring values and a clear purpose out perform their competitors. But here's the thing, their core values are not chosen because they think they will be competitive advantages, rather they are chosen because they are held deeply by the core group. Art Kleiner, who wrote a terrific book on core group theory, makes the good point that "The organisation goes wherever its people perceive that the Core Group needs and wants to go. The organisation becomes whatever its people perceive and want to become." And this is double true for organisational values.
Values and meaning
When I worked at SMS (Australian consulting company) in the 90s we had three values: add value, maintain unity, enhance reputation. I knew what the 2nd and 3rd values meant but 'add value' was a bit fuzzy for me. Value fuzziness is a common problem. And you've probably guessed what I'm going to suggest as a way to provide meaning: that's right, STORIES.
Imagine if for every value everyone can tell one or more stories to illustrate what that values means. I often ask people to give me an example to illustrate a value and in many cases all I get is a very intense look of someone desperately trying to remember a story to tell. I've said it before but if a company values [insert value] then it should be teeming with [insert value] stories.
Tyco has worked this one out. Tyco is a global business involved in fire safety, security and manufacturing. A few years back they released a booklet called Doing the Right Thing: The Tyco Guide to Ethical Conduct . For each ethical guideline they included one or more stories that either illustrated what the ethical value means when it's working or what it looks liked when it is broken. For example, Tyco values safety and a healthy work environment and here are their stories of that value when it's broken.
Unsafe Behaviour Related to Health, Safety, and Environmental Issues Looks Like ...
To save money at his plant, Sam provides half the number of safety goggles as there are employees on the line and instructs them to share.
Piette, the plant operations manager, instructs her people to dump used machine oil on unused acreage at the back of the facility.
Al, the plant manager, allows the contractor responsible for the removal of organic waste material to dump it in a local lake.
At Anecdote we do a lot of work helping organisations find and tell the stories that illustrate their values and also help design systematic ways to embed those values throughout the consciousness of everyone in the organisation. It is only by working at this level of values and purpose can people make the best decision possible in a complex and dynamic environment. Rules don't cut it. And if we think about what really makes an organisation it's those thousands and thousands of decisions are made each and every day, each one guides by the values in action.
Collins, J.C. & Porras, J.I. 1996, 'Building Your Company's Vision', Harvard Business Review, vol. September-October, pp. 65-77.
Kleiner, A. 2003, Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success, Currency Doubleday, New York.
Here are some reasons why journaling works as a productivity tip. It:
Helps gather your thoughts – journaling is a great way that lets you write down your thoughts. It doesn’t matter whether you record the things you have done, things you want to remember, or things you want to do in the future. Your journal can be a place to simply collect your thoughts, freeing up your mind to focus on other things.
Holds you accountable – When you write down what you want to achieve, you are much more likely to accomplish them. Seeing your goals in writing can be powerful.
Allows you to reflecting on what’s most important – journaling lets you confront what is most important to you. Inside we all kind of know what's important. But, sometimes it takes putting it down in our journal to make our priorities crystal clear.
So how do I actually do it? Here are four tips from Amabile and Kramer on how to actually use journaling to improve your productivity:
Start Small. You can try out journaling for a set period of time, may be start for a month – to see if you like it and find it helpful. And don’t set yourself up for failure by making it a lengthy chore. Just write for five or ten minutes a day
Create a Ritual. Use the power of habit to help you keep your commitment to writing your journal. Try to do it at the same time each day, when you’re not likely to be interrupted. Whether it’s before work, with your morning coffee, on your lunch break, or just before bed, find the time that works for you. The format (electronic or paper) doesn’t matter, just focus on doing it every day.
Don’t Overlook the Positive. It’s easy to use a journal as a way to vent your spleen (if, unlike me, you still have one!) – and that can be useful at times. Teresa Amabile says; “even if the day was frustrating or difficult, try to pull out at least one positive thing.” Remembering something good – even if it seems small – can help you shift your perspective and keep you moving forward.
Review the Past. Simply writing down your experiences can be cathartic. But, says Amabile, “it multiplies in utility if you use it to review your personal history. You can find insights or pieces of ideas beginning to emerge that you might not have realised if you look back a week, a month, or a year ago.”
When not to tell a detailed, emotional and human story
Suicide ranks as the 10th leading cause of death globally.*1
On top of well-established risk factors for suicide such as depression, previous suicide attempts, negative life events, socio-economic disadvantage, there is considerable evidence that the media can significant impact on the number of suicides. Specifically this relates to how they tell the 'story' of that suicide, and its impacts on copycat suicides.
The occurrence of copycat suicides following media stories is known as the “Werther effect”. This is taken from Goethe’s novel 'The Sorrows of Young Werther' published in 1774. In the novel the hero, Werther, committed suicide causing many young male suicides who employed the same method as Werther. This lead to the novel being banned in many European states.*2
In their 2010 paper "Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v. Papageno effects'' Thomas Niederkrotenthaler et. al. undertook research in Austria to understand how the way stories were told by the media impacted on copycat suicide rates.
They obtained reports from the 11 largest Austrian newspapers that included the term suicide between 1 January and 30 June 2005. They found 497 items with which to base their research. They then examined these reports based on several media reporting characteristics they have previously been shown to be associated with an increase in suicides. These characteristics were:
Quantity of reporting (i.e. repetition and density)
Main focus of the article (i.e. completed suicide; attempted suicide; initiative to prevent suicide, or suicide-related research)
Reported method (how the person actually committed suicide)
Prominence (where in the paper the story was i.e. located on the front page).
They then did a quantitative analysis aimed at measuring associations between item contents and suicide rates. They got daily data on suicides for each Austrian federal state and measured the difference between the suicide rates (suicides per 100 000 total population) in the week preceding the publication date and in the week after publication.
A summary of their main findings were:
1. Suicide rates went up when:
there was repetitive reporting of the suicide
there was reporting on the method of suicide (especially if it was jumping)
items explicitly stating that societal problems related to suicide are increasing
items reporting several independent suicidal acts
there was language referring to a suicide epidemic
2. Suicide rates did not go up, or even went down, when there was:
a main focus of the item was on suicidal ideation (i.e. thoughts about suicide, without the suicidal act itself)
a main focus on suicide research
items containing contact information for a public support service
the reporting of expert opinions
The things that made suicide rates to remain the same, or even go down, after reporting of a suicide, the authors have labelled the “Papageno effect”, after a character in Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”. In the opera Papageno becomes suicidal upon fearing the loss of his beloved Papagena; however, he refrains from suicide because of three boys who draw his attention to alternative coping strategies. They believe this is where the media should be focussing their attention.
So what you focus on and how you tell the story directly impacts whether other people who read the story will, or will not commit suicide. The more human you make the story (i.e. the name of the person) the more likely you will trigger other suicides. The more detailed you make the story (i.e. the method used, the location) the more likely other people will use the same method or go to the same spot. The more you talk about the emotional impact of the event (i.e. the effects on the family or friends of the victim) the more likely people will commit suicide to make their family and friends feel that way too.
These are some of the elements we talk about on our blog and training courses that make up a great story - human, emotional and detailed. However, in the case of reporting suicides, these are the last things you want to do.
Note: For advice on media reporting of suicide in Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA please refer here
For help or information on suicide (within Australia) please visit beyondblue.org.au, or call Lifeline on 131 114.
*1. Murray, C.J.L., & Lopez, A.D. (Eds.) (1996). The Global Burden of Disease: A Comprehensive Assessment of Mortality and Disability from Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors in 1990 and Projected to 2020. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
*2. Niederkrotenthaler T., Voracek M., Herberth A., Till B., Strauss M., Etzersdorfer E., Eisenwort B., Sonneck G. (2010). ''Role of media reports in completed and prevented suicide: Werther v. Papageno effects''. British Journal of Psychiatry, 197(3), 234-43.