Genes, themes and memes—quickly forming relationships so people speak up

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 11, 2012
Filed in Collaboration

Two stories came together recently that gave me an insight about the importance of forming quick but stronger relationships so people can speak up.

A couple of weeks ago I presented at the Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals (ASAP) community. This community  is coordinated by Phillip Sack and Chris Elliot. Chris is a striking fella who I reckon must be at least 6’8″. A seasoned practitioner, Chris often helps alliance partners (typically people from construction and engineering firms coming together to build a road, railway or some other large bit of infrastructure) bond and form as a team. He told me that one of the first things he does with a new alliance is get all the blokes seated in a circle and do an activity he calls Genes, Themes and Memes. He asks them to share something that’s happened in their life that’s really shaped them (genes), tell something that’s a repeating theme in their life (theme) and recount a story they often tell (meme). The session can take two to three hours but at the end everyone has an insight in what makes the others tick and from that point on they are less likely to slag off at each other. They know each other as people not just roles and companies.

Then a week later I was talking to David Green, a remarkable leadership consultant, and he was telling me about one of his clients who were trying to get to the bottom of a failure that occurred on site. This engineering firm is contracted to maintain a railway line and they were called out to fix a problem with the line. It was a delicate job and if they caused the line to be closed they would be penalised $10,000 per hour it was out of action. To do the job they needed to gently lift a set of cables adjacent to the line so they decided to do it by hand. After the job was complete they had to carefully lower the cables back into place at which point one of the workers said, “I’ll just use the forklift” and jumped into the machine, wheeled it around, placed the forks under the cables and then lifted them up not down and they snapped. No one said a thing.

When the supervisor arrived and asked people what happened everyone agreed they thought it was the wrong idea to use the forklift and they all could see what was happening yet no one said a thing. When the supervisor asked why no one spoke up the bystanders said they didn’t really know they guy, we was new to the shift and he seem to kind of grumpy.

I wonder whether in these high risk environments if a cut down version of genes, themes and memes could be done so everyone knew each other as a person rather than just a name and a face. Perhaps then people would be more likely to speak up, especially when they thought something dangerous was about to happen.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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