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040 – Moving forward on a backwards bike

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 26, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

As easy as riding a bike? Karen Stanton will bet you can’t ride this bike. 

backwards bike

This week, Karen Stanton, the Global Branding and Marketing Director at IFF (International Flavours and Fragrances), joins us from New Jersey. She shares the story of the ‘backwards brain bike’. 

When riding the backwards brain bike, you have to turn the handlebars to the left to go right, and to the right to go left. This sounds simple but is difficult in practice. The story suggests that while we might understand something on a cognitive level, that doesn’t mean our behaviour will change. Behaviour change requires dedicated time and practice.   

You can learn more about the origins of the backwards bike here, and you can purchase your own backwards bike here. 

For your storybank

Tags: behaviours, change, insight, practice, story-triggering 

The ‘backwards brain bike’ was created by a welder named Barney, as a challenge for Smarter Everyday’s Destin Sandlin. When riding a backwards brain bike, you have to turn the handlebars to the left to go right, and to the right to go left. Karen Stanton, the Global Branding and Marketing Director at IFF (International Flavours and Fragrances), purchased a backwards brain bike and brought it into IFF for several meetings discussing organisational change. At the beginning of each meeting, she would roll in the bike and place $50.00 on a table at the front of the room. She would explain the concept of the bike, announcing, “Anyone who can ride this bike gets $50!”

Each time she did this there were lots of volunteers, but not one person could successfully ride the bike. The concept was simple to understand but difficult in practice. It went against instinct.

Karen would then use the bike as an example of how difficult change can be. She would explain that while we might understand something on a cognitive level, that doesn’t mean our behaviour will change. The answer is not to assume it is too difficult and give up, but to allow time and practice.

The only person who successfully rode Karen’s backwards bike was the son of one of her colleagues. He spent about an hour getting a feel for the bike, then was able to ride it.

Podcast transcript

Shawn:

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking- a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:

And I’m Mark Schenk. And this week we have another guest storyteller on the podcast. You might notice some differences with the audio because Shawn has been doing a bit of experimentation; a dangerous thing, we all know.

He’s been using Zoom and recording over the internet so in this episode Shawn was sitting in Melbourne, Australia and our guest was in New Jersey.

Shawn:

Yes, so we are trying this out and it seemed to go pretty well so we’d love to hear any feedback, what you think about it.

Mark:

Well we hope there is no feedback.

Shawn:

Yeah exactly, no audio feedback. So this is one of our customers and she’s come along to tell us a story so I’ll let her introduce herself right now.

———————————————

Karen:

Hi, my name is Karen Stanton, the global and marketing and branding director for IFF which is International Flavours and Fragrances. It’s a pretty cool company and everybody has probably interacted with one or more of our products at least once or twice today.

So if anybody has taken a shower and used shower gel or shampoo or had a beverage or snack today you’ve probably interacted with one of the ingredients or flavours that come from our fragrance business.

So the story I want to share today is the story of the backwards bike. The story of the backwards bike is one from [00:01:44 inaudible] every day. So it’s a bike and actually a wielder was playing a trick on this engineer initially. So it’s a regular bike but he wielded the handle bars on the opposite way.

So you know everybody knows how to ride a bike but if you wanted to turn right you turn the handle bars to the right and if you want to turn left on a bike you turn the handle bars to the left.

But if you can imagine a backwards bike means that if you want to turn right you actually have to turn the handle bars to the left. And if you want to turn left you have to turn the handle bars to the right.

So I can explain this to you and you can say, conceptually I get it but when you get on this bike I guarantee you that you can’t ride the bike. Because instinctually every one of us who knows how to ride a push bike is, you get on, get your balance and then you start to ride.

But because this is a completely different mechanism, instinctually everything goes against us to make this bike work. So it takes a lot of training and a lot of concentration to rethink and learn how to ride this bike.

So actually what I ended up doing was getting one of these bikes and every time I would go into one of these meetings I would bring this backwards bike. I would simply start off by explaining if you want to turn right, turn the handle bars left, if you want to go left, turn the handle bars right. Everybody got that?

Everybody said yes, of course, no problem.

I put $50 on the table and said anyone who can ride this bike gets $50. I had lots of volunteers as you can imagine and a lot of people who wanted to ride the bike, $50 is $50. So a lot of people tried and 99.9% of people couldn’t ride it.

So I was able then, post telling the story, having people experience the story, to talk about how difficult change is. And how the first encounter with doing something that’s so different than what we are used to doing is to say, I don’t know how to do this and give up.

But actually with some perseverance and some attention and concentration and purposeful attention we can actually learn how to do things in a different way. So what it enabled me to do was to actually tell a story, bring the story to life and actually have people reflect and say, ‘it’s okay that I know why I want to change. Instinctually I want to do that but my very nature is to not do that.’

So actually being okay with that, so saying I need to purposefully change some behaviours in order to move in the direction I want to move in.

Shawn:

Hey, tell me, you said that 99.9% couldn’t ride it, suggests some one could ride it. Had they experience with a backward bike or what?

Karen:

Yeah, no I still can’t ride a backwards bike. It’s very embarrassing. So we had the son of somebody who was working in the organisation here and he just happened to walk past and saw the bike and said, ‘oh can I ride the bike?’ And I said, ‘if you can.’

He spent about an hour in the hallway just really paying attention to what it would take and just got the feel for it and ended up being able to ride the bike.

—————————————————-

Shawn:

So what do you reckon Mark, do you think you can ride a backwards bike?

Mark:

I do. I saw the YouTube video in December. I was in Amsterdam running a programme for one of our clients over there and I saw that backwards bike video and it’s fantastic. It goes for about ten minutes and you can’t ride it.

No one could ride the backwards bike and I heard Karen’s story there and I know logically I can’t ride the backwards bike but there is a little voice inside me saying yeah, that $50 is mine, I can ride it.

But it kind of goes with the point of what Karen is making with that story, even though we know things at a cognitive level it doesn’t mean that our behaviour changes. Even though logically I know I can’t ride it there is a little voice that says I can do it.

Shawn:

Interesting and I really do love the idea. It reminds me of that story that I think we’ve told before around the gloves on the table.

Mark:

From John Kotter story, the heart of change.

Shawn:

Exactly and sometimes you really need a visceral experience of something to really understand it.

Mark:

And I’ve not had it with the backwards bike.

Shawn:

Right, I think your mind would be changed rapidly if you jumped on the bike.

Mark:

Definitely, which is the reason Karen uses that experiment to demonstrate on stage so that people have the experience. Imagine the stories people are telling after having had that experience.

Shawn:

Indeed, it’s very much what we call a story trigger, isn’t it?

Mark:

Indeed.

Shawn:

The thing too about this story is that it kind of provides a model for any listener, any leader to try themselves. So they can go, I’ve got a big transformation, I really need people to understand that you can listen to this logically and rationally and think the transformation will happen.

Reality is change is hard. We are going to have to put some concerted effort; we are going to have to probably do a bit of practising. You are going to have to put it into play and try it out.

Until people understand that and see the whole thing happening using the backwards bike. The nice thing is, I reckon a leader would hear that and go, I wonder what our version of the backwards bike might be. There’s some really interesting innovations there perhaps.

Mark:

When you told me that Karen had gone and bought a backwards bike to do this demonstration, I was really impressed. It’s a great idea.

Shawn:

Apparently you can just jump on the web and you can buy one and get it delivered to you. Shipping via Amazon. I think that’s a fantastic element of this as well.

Mark:

And that principle of show, don’t tell.

Shawn:

It’s a vital one.

Mark:

And it’s the one we use all the time. Change is hard, change is hard, we’ll have to work very hard to get this change.

Shawn:

I think the other thing I really love about this story is that I can visualise it. I can see Karen up there, I can see her with the backwards bike, maybe because I’ve seen the video like you saw of the backwards bike in operation so I can kind of see those cogs in the sort of steering element that send the wheels in the other direction.

Mark:

The one the wielder stuck in.

Shawn:

It’s quite a sophisticated little bit of jiggering there isn’t it to make that happen. So I can see that, I can visualise her standing up there and giving that presentation and I just loved the way she set it up.

‘Okay guys this is the backwards bike, you turn left, it goes right, yeah, yeah, you understand that, you turn right it goes left, everyone got that, everyone understand? So you can ride the bike, you’ve got the instructions, yes I can ride the bike. $50 you can’t ride the bike.’

You can just imagine people going, there’s a challenge I’m up for that. So in terms of the visual impact of the story, I reckon it’s quite good. I think you could go one step further though.

Mark:

And really hone in and focus on a time when.

Shawn:

Like when you get one of the people up, you can imagine the cocky young fellow from engineering jumps up and goes, ‘yeah, I can do this’ and how he jumps on the bike and he’s sort of shaking because he can’t get it up and running. Next thing you know he’s practically running over Karen on the stage. Something that relives that specific moment. This is something that leaders have a lot of trouble with I find.

Mark:

Yeah, just getting down to the details. We have to change the way we think, it’s the opposite of what we think. The normal way we think is we have to take something to a higher level, to a more conceptual level, but no, you need to go the other way.

Shawn:

I was just yesterday at a meeting of senior executives and we were helping them with their strategy story. And one of the senior executives told his version of the story and he wasn’t 100% happy with it. At the end of it he turned to everyone and said, maybe I need to bring it higher level and really tighten it up.

So his, if you like, gut reaction is to go higher level but in fact what he needed was to go deeper in a few moments to get a lovely richness. It would have changed his voice, changed his excitement, his people would lean into him, all the good things that happen when you tell a specific concrete moment.

So these leaders have been taught over and over again, abstract, get higher level, be more conceptual, be your words and it’s working against them.

Mark:

Yeap.

Shawn:

So I think that could make a big difference.

Mark:

Just adding in that time when. It would make it more interesting.

Shawn:

We do bang on about the fact it is so important to have a relevant statement at the beginning. Now I think Karen had a relevant statement at the beginning. Maybe not as strong or as clear as we would like to hear it to really guide that story.

Mark:

But I am pretty sure that on stage.

Shawn:

And on the day.

Mark: Karen would have a really clear relevant statement because she’s doing it for a very specific purpose, but in the telling that we have just heard in the podcast.

Shawn:

Yes.

Mark:

I think you are right, there’s opportunity for a clearer relevant statement.

Shawn:

I think there are some really nice elements to that. I can really picture it and I love the fact that people can then take this and they could do their own backwards bike version.

What do you reckon, where would you use it, do you think?

Mark:

I guess before we move on to that one, the other thing I like about this or maybe the opportunity to make that story better is I would love to know where Karen first saw the backwards bike and how she felt when she saw it and the moment when she realised she could use it to make this point. That insight that you would get from that piece of information, doesn’t have to be much, but that would be a valuable addition.

Shawn:

Yeah, people would like to hear that. I think you have to be thinking about how much you reveal at the beginning of the story as you are doing the presentation. You want to reveal it in such a way that you are in full control of that situation of them going, yeah I can do it. Then you might do the other reveals later.

Mark:

Now in terms of how to use it, for me I automatically had an idea of how to use it. I’m working with an organisation on a big pitch, a $50 million deal working on their pitch so one of the aspects of the deal is the change management component.

Big project hasn’t changed management component and one of the anti-stories that the assessment panel will have is do we need to put that much investment into the change component of the project.

Roll out the backwards bike and say Blah, blah, blah. This is why this is so big.

Shawn:

That would be cool.

Mark:

I’m totally going to do it.

Shawn:

I think we might pump up the sales of backwards bikes here.

Mark:

Well I’m going to get one and use it because that will totally make the point about why
we are putting so much effort into this. The whole thing will fail because we’ll all sit there saying it all makes sense but unless people realise the amount of effort it takes to change behaviour, they won’t get it.

Shawn:

I love the fact that in most cases you actually do the story as opposed to tell the story but when you are telling the story in any of those situations where you are talking to a group of people who are doing a big change programme or transformation programme and you want to give them ideas, just like the idea you just got. You want to give them ideas to do something different, get people on board with it.

Mark:

Definitely. So as part of that encouragement you go and by the way here’s an example of a leader who has done that. Here’s a senior leader who’s made a really great point using a backwards bike.

What’s our backwards bike? What can you use to really emphasis your point and make it more memorable that people tell stories about it afterwards.

Shawn:

The other thing is if someone else was to tell the story about Karen Stanton is you’d want to put a little bit more effort on IFF. So who is the IFF? You want to sort of be able to point out this is one of the big companies in the world. It’s one of the oldest American companies; I have a feeling it was started in the 1700’s. I hope I’m right on that, I could be mistaken.

Mark:

You keep talking and I will Google it.

Shawn:

But the thing about it is this is a corporation that is a global business and give some examples of fragrances and flavours. Karen did mention that you’ve probably had already experienced at least once for the day, but it would be nice to give some examples of that, so that when people hear it they go, ‘this is a big organisation’. If you are in a big organisation, people again like to hear stories of companies that are a bit similar in size and shape.

Mark:

Adds credibility.

Shawn:

Exactly. So we’ve gone over things we like.

Mark:

1889.

Shawn:

1889, I knew it was an old company.

Mark:

So maybe not 1700’s. Just a little exaggeration.

Shawn:

It’s a little bit of a habit. My daughter says, ‘I think you’ve gone a little bit too far, dad.’

So we’ve gone through the key things we like to do so we get to the point of story
rating, and what do you think?

Mark:

I’m going to give it an 8 because I’m totally going to use it. To flatter Karen,
imitation; I’m going to pinch that idea and going to use it. I think it’s going to be extremely powerful, so I really loved it.

Shawn:

I think it’s an 8 too, I’ve already told that story multiple times. I know it works.
People are interested, they scratch their head, it gives an idea, so that’s what you want.

Fantastic, is there anything we need to cover of things that are going on, things that
people need to know about?

Mark:

I’m going on a dive holiday. That’s one of the most important things that’s going on.

Shawn:

Where is it again?

Mark:

I’m going to Raja Ampakt so it’s a very remote part of Indonesia and one of the great
dive locations in the world.

Shawn:

That sounds awesome.

Mark:

Very hard to get to which I kind of like.

Shawn:

Are there sharks involved?

Mark:

There’re sharks, there’s always sharks involved.

Shawn:

You seem to be attracted to sharks, that’s all.

Mark:

They are an important part of our planet, I do like them.

Shawn:

Okay, send us a message if you have any questions we’d love to answer them. Just
keep listening because we really love it when you tune in and listen to Anecdotally
Speaking. Next week we will have another episode for you on how you put these
stories to work.

Bye for now.

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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