Why Are Your Executives in the RoomTime for leadership sessions! Before you head into days-long meetings, ask yourselves: what question are you trying to answer?
Don’t schedule your strategic planning session until you figure this out.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Time for those leadership sessions we use to plan for the future. But before you clear those calendars and head into days-long meetings, ask yourselves: what question are you trying to answer?
We’ve helped many leadership teams plan for the following year. It’s surprising how many companies schedule an off-site or a series of working sessions without clarity on exactly what problem they’re trying to solve and what objectives they want to hit.
So before you schedule, figure out which questions you’re trying to answer.
- Who are we and where are we headed?
Every executive team must align around their purpose, vision, and values. But not every team knows how to align. It takes practice. The process builds relationships as team members discuss, work, collaborate, and agree on a singular view of the future.
This work might seem unnecessary; most organizations already have a purpose, vision, and values. But it’s worth asking whether these “truths” require revision. Triggers include acquisitions, changes in leadership, and significant market shifts.
- Are we organized to achieve our vision?
A good operating model is the blueprint of your organization, It shows all the key components that contribute to the organization’s value stream, including inputs, outputs, processes, metrics, and technology. It highlights the interdependencies within teams and processes and how they deliver value.
By constructing the model together, the leadership team develops a greater awareness and appreciation of all contributions and understands the importance of acting in unity.
Again, you probably already have an operating model. Or do you? Many of our clients are surprised to discover they don’t have it documented, and certainly not accessible to the company or used as guidance for day-to-day work. Even a strong operating model is worth refreshing every few years.
- How do we get there?
“There” is wherever you plan to go—the mission, the vision, the operating model… Businesses thrive when the organization knows what it wants to achieve and by when. Every company should have a roadmap.
Executives are responsible for identifying the high-level “what and when.” The session should include representatives of key business functions to determine the “how.”
- What is our message to the organization?
If an organization must change in any way, it needs a message. As the executive team creates the message frame—the four key words that anchor the message—they clarify and align on the change.
The message frame ensures all leaders and advocates tell the same compelling story, consistently and authentically, without relying on written materials or PowerPoint decks. Each communicator customizes the story with details and data that mean something to that particular audience—this is what gets your entire organization pulling in the same direction.
- How should we work together?
We all have natural patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Effective teams understand how these patterns impact the overall team dynamic and how to use the strengths of their members to deliver results and move the organization forward. Smart teams create working agreements that take into account different working styles and reduce conflict. Agreements should be simple and direct, created by the team, and present at all meetings.
One of our favorite tools to craft these agreements: the Clifton Strengthfinder™ Survey. We work with a team to find each member’s unique contributions and leverage them in service of the strategy. Then we define team agreements, taking working styles and culture into consideration.
- How do we sharpen our performance?
To make improvements in business processes, org structure, and behaviors, leaders need to know what’s working and what’s not. A working session can pinpoint what should change, and determine how.
Some of the tools we use as a first step: 1) SWOT analysis, which identifies strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, and 2) the Start, Stop, Continue exercise. Then we take those findings, prioritize, and plan implementation.
Many executive teams blend these types of sessions into something custom that works for them. What’s most important is clarity—understanding your problem, the process you will use, and the outcomes you want—before you start.
Your Change Program Can Bring Home the GoldWe don’t think an organizational change project can touch the level of enjoyment we get from a vacation or watching the Olympics. But could we at least try?
Why do we love the Olympics?
Have you ever thought about it? What if we told you we could break it down and help you make your next change project feel a little bit more fun?
It all starts with behavioral research. In “The Best Vacation Ever,” Drake Bennett looks at the psychology behind the definitive fun activity – a vacation – to explain the four factors that make something enjoyable.
- Anticipation: We enjoy looking forward to an experience more than actually experiencing it.
- Intensity: We remember intense highs, intense lows, and novelty – how our experiences “Peak” and “End.”
- Adaptation: We quickly acclimate to our current experience. If our positive experience is interrupted by reality, we have heightened enjoyment when we return.
- Deadlines: We tend to procrastinate on activities, even fun ones, if they have extended timeframes. We have more fun if it’s on a schedule.
Per Bennett, “….how long we take off probably counts for less than we think, and in the aggregate, taking more short trips leaves us happier than taking a few long ones. We’re often happier planning a trip than actually taking it. And interrupting a vacation – far from being a nuisance – can make us enjoy it more. How a trip ends matters more than how it begins, who you’re with matters as much as where you go, and if you want to remember a vacation vividly, do something during it that you’ve never done before. And though it may feel unnecessary, it’s important to force yourself to actually take the time off in the first place – people, it turns out, are as prone to procrastinate when it comes to pleasurable things like vacations as unpleasant ones like paperwork and visits to the dentist.”
It turns out that the Olympics are a great proof of these principles.
- Anticipation? How long does NBC, the US home of the games, spend hyping the Olympics? We get months and months of previews on NBC’s outlets, and disseminated across social media. By the opening ceremonies, we know what new sports will be included, who’s expected to medal, and what the US team uniforms look like.
- Intensity? “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” (Are we dating ourselves?) The games are jam-packed with highs and lows, and the coverage really exploits them. Simone Biles is out, and we all feel it. Lydia Jacoby’s gold has her entire Alaska town jumping up and down. We’re on a rollercoaster for weeks.
- Adaptation? Yes, the Olympics are interrupted by reality, especially for those of us watching from home. We end each normal day living vicariously through the glories and disappointments of the athletes.
- Deadlines? They come with the schedule. If Americans want to watch Tokyo events live, and remain unspoiled, they’d better get up in the wee hours of the morning.
Now, we don’t think an organizational change project can touch the level of enjoyment we get from a vacation or watching the Olympics. But could we at least try?
Could we nudge it in the direction of fun?
What if, as we design a change program, we incorporate these principles? Ask yourself these questions:
- How have we heightened anticipation for this program? What will be enjoyable or satisfying about it? How can we help people look forward to the good parts?
- Can we celebrate milestones and highlight better-than-expected performance? How can we end with a bang?
- Is the program broken into sprints? Can we build in periods of focus, hard work, and celebration, alternating with periods of business as usual?
- Do we incorporate tight timelines for action? Does everyone see the big-picture schedule and understand the urgency and the benefits of reaching the end?
It might feel like a stretch to try to create fun in the midst of an organizational change project. But just look at the impossible feats on your TV right now. You can do it!
Why People Are Quitting Their JobsMany people are quitting their jobs. Why? We can sum it up with one word: control. So what’s a company to do?
And How To Stop Them
Vaccines are here. Hopeful for post-pandemic normalcy, employers across the country are bringing their employees back to the office. But not all of them.
Many people are quitting their jobs. The March 2021 resignation rate was 2.4 percent – the highest rate of quitters recorded in any March of the last 20 years. Some of this is the release of a backlog—would-be leavers who kept their jobs in 2020 to fend off pandemic-driven hardship.
But that backlog is clearing. And, as businesses welcome everyone back to the office, many are saying, “No, thanks.”
Why? There are several reasons. One is increased savings and debt reduction. Another reason: people hated the pandemic, but loved working from home. Faced with a choice between going back to the office and quitting, some people will quit.
And, if they have another job option, why not? During remote work, they saved a lot of money and a lot of time—no commute, no travel costs, no dry cleaning, no costly lunch, no co-worker-you-hate, no drop-ins from the boss, no sharing the bathroom with dozens of strangers… I could go on, or I could sum it up in one word: Control.
Yes, pajamas are comfy and your dog’s head resting on your lap makes a meeting more bearable. But home is greater than the sum of its perks—working from home (or a coffee shop, or a beach) gives humans the autonomy we crave. It’s not the fuzzy slippers; it’s the choice to wear the fuzzy slippers.
So what’s a company to do? Create control.
In our change management work for clients, we use the concept of control to create momentum and improve adoption of a change.
We do this by making people feel in control of a change. That doesn’t mean we’re tricking them, just building in autonomy where we can and focusing their attention on those autonomous feelings.
Here are a few ways you might create feelings of control to entice workers to stay with you.
- Flexible Hours. Giving people their choice of shifts—earlier, later, or even a four-day week—might soften the return to a commute.
- Goal-Based Weeks. Don’t make people sit at their desks eight hours a day, regardless of what they’re doing. Set realistic performance milestones and give employees the remainder of the week off after they hit them.
- Work-at-Home Days. Schedule all-hands-on-deck days, for in-person work, and let them work from home the rest of the time—but only if they want to! Choice is the point here.
- The Comforts of Home. Think about what workers will be missing when they come back to the office, and give them alternatives. Cheap lunch? Pay for it. Privacy? Create pods for people who want to get away. Kids nearby? Set up a day care. A better view? Think of your office space as a campus. Open up new spaces to work, so people can curl up on a sofa near a window, or feel like they’re at their favorite coffee house as they work.
The keys to making any of this work are genuine choice (not a top tier for some choices and a slower track for others) and communication (clear, consistent messaging on choice before they decide to quit… so get on it).
Some of these ideas sound costly, don’t they? Maybe not more costly than turnover and productivity dips.
A final thought: As they contemplate bringing the work force back to the office, the C-Suite might ask itself why. Why do you need them in the office? Is it because seeing the work and the workers right in front of you makes you feel in control?
Starbucks & Supply Chain StrategyIt’s not just Starbucks. From computer chips to ketchup packets, business bounce-back has been stalled by supply chain issues. Our advice? Assess where you are today vs. where you need to be.
Tasha Leverette was sitting in the drive-through of her neighborhood Starbucks in Atlanta, jonesing for her usual drink. They told her they couldn’t make it; they didn’t have any peach juice. So she drove to another store. And another. And another.
“I said to them, ‘This is the Peach State, right?’ … It’s surprising because Starbucks always seems like it has anything and everything you need.”
Across the country, customers and baristas are taking to social media to bemoan not only shortages of key ingredients for popular Starbucks drinks, like peach and guava juices, but also a lack of iced and cold-brew coffee, breakfast foods and cake pops, and even cups, lids and straws.
A video on TikTok this week featured what appeared to be a group of employees screaming in frustration over a list of ingredients that the shop had run out of—including sweet cream, white mocha, mango dragon fruit and “every food item.” The caption also said they were low on cold brew and the “will to live.”
Starbucks is hardly the only company struggling with supply issues. Earlier this spring, ketchup packets became hotter than GameStop stock. Automakers have slowed production because there are not enough computer chips for their vehicles. And homeowners are waiting weeks, if not months, for major kitchen appliances.
It’s not just Starbucks. From computer chips to ketchup packets, business bounce-back has been stalled by supply chain issues.
Phil Knight, the legendary founder of Nike, said “supply and demand is always the root problem in business.” Weak demand for a product is a bitter pill for any company to swallow. But inability to meet booming demand based on supply problems is maddening.
Coronavirus has highlighted just how fragile our supply chain has become.
In some cases, the chain is very complex. Even seemingly basic products like disinfectants, not to mention higher-end products like automobiles, can have many links in the chain of component ingredients or parts. Other times, there are too few links. For example, grocery stores may not able to meet the consumer demand for meat because there are relatively few animal processing plants. Production disruption at only a handful of major plants can leave meat displays nearly empty.
A global pandemic is a black swan event, but large-scale supply disruptions are becoming more common due to events like natural disasters, changing economic policies, and geopolitical disruption. Managing risk differently is a must. Tactics include:
- Identifying alternative sources of origins of component materials
- Diversifying suppliers
- Moving to nearshore or even onshore suppliers.
New solutions often mean new processes and digital technologies, and they always require people to perform differently. Change management—the people-centered interventions—are crucial.
The Case for Change Management
Coronavirus is a trigger event for supply chain transformation and transformation is complex. Digital technologies like analytics and artificial intelligence are part of the solution. New processes are part of the solution. Employee behavior change is part of the solution.
In the face of a big, complex change, employees might be confused and fearful—they might disengage or actively resist the new way of working. But you need that behavioral system to work just as well as your processes and technology. Managing this change is crucial.
Messages must be clear and concise in times of complex change. We help clients boil down their message to four words—one to describe the problem, the solution, the approach, and the result. Together, the four words anchor the message. Leaders and other advocates need only remember these four words to ensure a consistent message. To make each communication compelling, add supporting details that are relevant to the audience.
To guide the organization through a change you need to understand who is impacted and how.
Any change management novice knows how to identify stakeholders. We typically define them by team or department and design custom communications, training, and performance support for each group. But this type of analysis is incomplete. Teams and individuals should be categorized based on their disposition to change. Some stakeholders emerge as early adopters, who are pre-disposed to embracing new concepts. They make the change safe for the next segment of adopters: the early majority. The early majority makes the change feel like “this is how we’ve always done business” to yet another segment of the population: the late majority. Identifying, enlisting, and deploying the right people creates a bandwagon effect, until you have the momentum you need to engage the entire organization.
Behaviors, Habits, and Culture
Peter Drucker said “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s true. Results are marginal if your supply chain strategy doesn’t fit your culture.
How do we know whether a strategy aligns with culture? The sum of organizational habits form a culture. Habits are regularly repeated behaviors. We have to identify the behaviors that enable the desired business outcomes, and then decide whether those behaviors do or could align with the dominant culture. New behaviors can become part of the culture if they turn into habits.
Assess where you are today vs. where you need to be.
- Identify the behaviors that drive the to-be state.
- Consider what triggers or prompts each behavior.
- Make sure there is a positive consequence to reinforce the behavior.
- Ensure that employees have the ability to execute the behavior.
- Develop a plan to practice the behaviors and start creating habits.
We’ve heard the phrase “What gets measured gets rewarded, and what gets rewarded gets done.” Consider this when engineering behavior change. Are employees rewarded for managing risk? Probably not—at least not yet. Cost control or cost reduction has typically been king in the decades-long quest for efficiency. But performance ratings or bonuses tied to cost savings may not reinforce risk management behavior. It’s pretty basic: leaders must ensure that KPIs and employee reward structures match the business outcomes they want.
The global pandemic and other natural disasters may be changing the business landscape for good. But one thing that will never change is our need for a venti caramel latte with an extra shot. Business leaders need to get it together —we have no choice but to change supply chains to be more nimble. Mastering the change might be the difference between good and great outcomes.
Fogg, B.J. Tiny Habits,
Rogers, Everett. Diffusion of Innovations
Four Ways to Get the Traction Your Org Change NeedsYou need action, but employees aren’t listening. Here’s how to cut through the noise and get the results you need.
You are up to your eyeballs in change. The US pandemic is waning, but markets are still recovering, workforces are shifting, and the imperative of new technology hasn’t let up.
But you’re on top of it. You are clear on the initiatives your organization needs. Now you’re trying to manage a suite of overlapping rollouts, so you need a strong communication plan to get employees on board.
Your senior execs have delivered PowerPoint presentations, participated in talking head videos and sent sponsorship emails. You have a network of people to answer questions and send you feedback. You’ve branded the projects, distributed swag, launched apps…
But you’re not getting the traction you hoped for. People seem unaware of the key points, or just plain unaware. Execs are frustrated; they say, “We told them. Why aren’t they getting it?” Employees are not using the new tools and approaches you’re trying to deploy. Why not?
According to the Radicati Group, 281 billion emails are sent worldwide daily. With 3.8 billion users, that’s 74 emails per person. Every day. Bain Consultants estimated in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article that 15% of company time is spent in meetings. Verizon commissioned a study that found people attend over 60 meetings per month, accounting for 37% of their time. The WSJ found that we are distracted every 3 minutes.
So what’s going on?
Your employees are being assaulted by information and demands on their time.
You are not in the communication business, you are in the ATTENTION business. You have to help people cut through the noise and focus on what’s important. To do that, you have to rise above the fray. Everything you deploy should grab attention. Your messages must be obviously different, relevant and worthy of people’s limited time.
Here’s how to focus attention:
1. Keep it simple.
Distill your point to its essence. It’s your three-word theme for the year, the mantra that gets you to the project end, the political platform statement, or the four words that capture the problem, solution, approach and results.
A childcare company was implementing new technology. Here’s how they distilled it to four words. “Our caregivers are overwhelmed. The solution? Make sure they are connected. They deserve a thoughtful approach to this implementation. What do we want in the end? Energized people.” These words were easy to remember without relying on PowerPoint. Anyone from any department could provide examples for those words, and they did. Simplicity creates clarity.
2. Use visuals.
Researchers have found that people can remember 2,000 pictures with 90% accuracy, likely because visuals engage more of the brain. It doesn’t matter whether a person is trying to memorize the images or is casually exposed to them. There’s an extra, unconscious leap needed to translate an image to a word, which is why words are harder to remember. Line drawings are particularly easy to recall, perhaps because they are more visually complex. Crude hand drawings are more memorable than stock images. Dan Roam has a great book, Draw to Win, which can help you overcome your self-consciousness and create your own powerful visuals.
When he ran Farmhouse Rice Company, Peter Molloy created a “visual vision” to convey company direction. It was so effective, he used the same technique again when he became CEO of La Terra Fina.
3. Use novelty or contrast.
Subconsciously, we are constantly looking for threat. That’s why anything unusual piques our interest. When you create disruption — whether in stories, process, color, structure, volume – makes people notice.
Years ago, an IT department in a Chicago hospital implemented a standard approach to requesting support and custom reports. People were accustomed to paging their favorite IT person to fulfill the request. (Yes, it was that long ago!) When they moved to the new process, they changed all IT pager numbers. A small disruption signaled a new way of working. Look for variety and surprising ways to make your point.
4. Use environmental cues.
Look for elements in the workplace itself that can serve your purpose, like the physical space, processes, screens, codes, reporting relationships, and job titles. The real world encodes the conceptual. And often what people encounter every day contradicts what the company is telling them.
Chevron did it right. Years ago, they decided to create a culture of safety. That meant asking introverted engineers to be a little confrontational if they saw something unsafe. All the communication in the world wouldn’t address that behavior. So they made a point of starting every meeting with a “Safety Moment,” where each person had to identify one thing they saw that day that was unsafe. Over time, they layered it with other activities, such as assessing each person’s work station to ensure it was ergonomic, or confronting one another for driving while talking on their cell phone. These environmental cues reinforced behavior in ways no email campaign could.
Traditional communication plans fail because they don’t use the best thinking on human behavior. Don’t churn out information and hope it sticks. Focus attention on the behaviors you want and you’ll achieve your business outcomes.
Organizations: Get Your Teams On the Habit WheelHow do you push through the bad inertia and get your team humming again? With three time-tested tricks: trigger, action, and reinforcement.
Simple ways to engineer your team’s momentum in 2021.
To paraphrase the law of inertia, a team at rest tends to stay at rest. And a team in motion tends to stay in motion.
For some organizations, 2020 slowed us down. While we haven’t been at “rest,” it certainly hasn’t been business as usual. Many organizations have slowed due to lower demand, inefficient virtual collaboration, sluggish cash-flow, and uncertainty about the future.
We now see a shift. People are optimistic about a return to normal. But we can’t just flip a switch. How do you push through the bad inertia and get your team humming again?
With three time-tested tricks: trigger, action, and reinforcement.
Does that sound familiar? Maybe you’re flashing back to Psych 101? Yes, we can use the principles of operant conditioning to change behaviors and create new habits that drive momentum.
The Habit Wheel
Quick refresher: we experience a trigger, we exhibit a behavior, and we get rewarded. If we repeat that cycle enough, it becomes less intentional and more automatic. That’s when we have a habit. Habits are powerful, because they sort of run on their own. So good habits are powerful; harnessing good habits creates positive momentum for a group.
So how do we use this to create team momentum?
- Behavior. Pick actions that are easy and important. That’s the sweet spot.
- Trigger. Make it clear and distinct. When people experience that trigger, they should know exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to know when they get it right.
- Reinforcement. Reward those who complete the behavior successfully. The reward depends on the situation. It might be a system response, a tangible reward, feedback from a supervisor, or public recognition. For extra credit, spread success stories. Focus the team’s attention on these “wins.” It’s another layer of reinforcement.
Remember, our goal is habit—behavior that is self-perpetuating. Once you layer the right habits across the team or the organization, you have momentum.
Send an email, reminding your team of the reason you need change, and telling them you’re taking small steps. Lay out your momentum plan and highlight the benefits for the team.
Then, every Monday, email then team with one small action you want to see that week. Include examples and ways to tell when they’ve done it right.
Subject: This week, open all meetings with your intended outcome.
We’ve been talking about taking our meetings to the next level. Now it’s time to put it into action.
This week, please open every meeting by defining your intended outcome. For example, “The goal of our meeting today is 100% agreement on the project timeline.”
On Thursday, I will ask you for examples of how it went – good, bad, or indifferent. I’m looking forward to your stories!
Throughout the week, informally recognize the behavior when you see it.
Thursday, send an email asking for stories about how it worked during the week.
Subject: How did your meetings go?
This week I asked you to open every meeting by defining your intended outcome. How did it go? I’m interested in specific examples — good and bad — of your experience. Thanks!
Then, on Friday, feed the stories back to the team and call out great performers.
Subject: FW: Pam did a good job starting her meeting.
Here’s John’s experience from Pam’s meeting (see below). Good learning here for all.
Pam, I love your idea of the flipchart page and circling back at regular intervals.
John, thanks for sharing! I appreciate the leadership from both of you.
Make sure to follow through by responding to your team’s reactions. You asked for both positive and negative, right? So help individuals get unstuck, exhibit the behavior successfully, and address any concerns they have.
It might seem incredibly simple, but these small disciplines can unlock your team’s momentum. Try it.
A Home on the Innovations CurveYou might say companies are doing some fast math to predict the best way to respond to recent events, or that they’re searching the corporate conscience. We think they’re firming up their place on the Diffusion of Innovations Curve.
Help your company find its voice on social change.
Recently, Georgia legislators put new restrictions on voting. On Friday, Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star game from Atlanta and moved it to Denver. Two of Georgia’s corporate giants, Coca-Cola and Delta, finally broke their silence and made statements opposing the new laws.
And it’s not just Georgia companies who have decisions to make. Lawmakers in more than 40 states have plans for new restrictive voting laws. Rich Lesser, the chief executive of Boston Consulting Group, says, “…business leaders are still facing challenges on how to navigate a range of issues, and the elections issue is among the most sensitive.”
You might say companies are doing some fast math to predict the best way to respond to recent events, or that they’re searching the corporate conscience. We think they’re firming up their place on the curve.
In the early 1960’s, Professor Everett Rogers developed the Diffusion of Innovations Curve to describe consumers who adopt new products. We use the curve to identify and enlist people within our client organizations who will mobilize others for a change initiative.
The same curve can be applied to any kind of new thinking or behavior. Let’s break it down.
- 2.5% of people are all-in, no matter what you introduce. They are the Innovators. They often come up with the ideas in the first place.
- 13.5% are keen to adopt change. They are the Early Adopters. They make it safe for others to buy in.
- 34% are generally positively predisposed to change. They’re the Early Majority. Once they see the change is safe, they’re in.
- 34% are generally resistant to change. They are the Late Majority. When they see others adopting, they will start thinking about it and eventually come around.
- 16% will never willingly buy in. They are the Laggards.
We lump together the left side of the curve. Innovators build the band wagon and Early Adopters jump on. They create momentum that brings the rest along.
Let’s stipulate that certain social changes are not going away. That, however long it takes, those forces will someday represent the majority opinion. As it relates to these movements, like protecting voting access, it’s worthwhile for organizations to find a home on the curve.
Start by answering a few questions.
Who are you?
What is your brand? What is your company culture? When you think about those questions, do words like “innovative,” “adventurous,” and “fresh” come to mind? Or are you hearing “traditional,” “safe,” and “reliable” in your head?
Think about your organization and place it on the curve. Consider your placement when you make decisions relative to powerful national currents.
Nike is a company that knows exactly who they are and where they land on the curve. When they launched an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who knelt during the anthem to protest police brutality, there was a backlash. But the boycott and the social media sneaker burning were utterly inconsequential; Nike’s value quickly increased by $6 billion and sales jumped 31%. Said Nike founder Phil Knight, “You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something.” Spoken like someone who lives on the left end of the curve.
Who is your customer?
Are you serving the masses? Is your market more specialized? Is it age-based? Regional? Does your product or service serve a faith-based customer, or a particular ethnic community? You certainly feel you know your customer. Try to place them on our curve.
Companies like Coca-Cola and Delta are definitely selling nationally (if not globally). They want a lot of people to love them, but they are most solicitous of the 18-49 demographic. Donny Deutsch, the marketing guru, points out that big companies generally don’t care about him, because he’s in his 60s. But he calls being on the “right side” of social issues the “price of entry” for a millennial customer.
Doubling down on the demographic pressure, black business leaders coalesced in response to the Georgia laws; they made their position known and urged others to join them. On the Wednesday following passage of the Georgia bill, Delta CEO Ed Bastian released a “crystal clear” memo opposing the bill, stating for good measure, “The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie.” A like-minded statement from Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey soon followed.
These companies have decided who their customers are and what they want to hear. Did that perception nudge these companies from early majority to early adopter? Maybe, but they have chosen a spot for now.
What will you do?
Or not do? It seems that organizations like Nike, the MLB, Coca-Cola, and Delta determined that silence was not an option. And, true to the curve, they are making the way safe for other companies. Over 100 organizations have made similar statements in the wake of the news from Delta and Coke.
No matter who you are, who your customer is, or what change is sweeping the nation, it’s smart to know where you stand, on the curve.
Build Your Team’s ResilienceHow do you get top performance from your teams while supporting them through these crazy times? Brain science has the answer. Emerson CEO Trish Emerson explains how leaders can use hacks to build people’s strength and resilience.
Hacking Human Biology to Improve Performance
According to the Harvard Business Review (1), employee productivity in most organizations dropped by at least three to six percent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders have a particular challenge, balancing employee output with supporting them through today’s very real issues. But there are hacks we can use to help our people be more resilient, all based on our biology.
It’s hard for our brains to process stress and think strategically at the same time. (2) When we see or hear something, our brains try to make sense out of it and determine a response. If we perceive a threat, our amygdala gets involved. You might know the amygdala from its biggest hit: Fight or Flight. If the threat seems strong, the amygdala might react quickly at the expense of the frontal lobes, which are trying to make sense of everything and compose a rational response.
Stress impacts our capacity to perform. Stress physically changes our brains. (3) It steeps our brains in hormones that change its physical structure: neuro-processors get shorter and the prefrontal cortex gets smaller.
These physical changes impact everything. Science writer Virginia Hughes elegantly explains this relationship in Nature. In Stress: the roots of resilience, (4) she writes that those with PTSD have an underactive prefrontal cortex and an overactive amygdala, and that resilience depends on the communication between the two.
But we are built to bounce forward.
Researchers took MRI’s of the brains of stressed students, and observed physical damage. Then, they measured those brains after one week of vacation, and found their neuro-processors and damaged dendrites had regrown. But here’s the interesting part: they did not end up just as they were before. The repairs suggest that the brain increases capacity to address future stress.
So our teams are under unusual stress, which diminishes performance, but they have the capacity to be resilient. How can we promote this resilience?
The Leaders’ Role
We can do two things to promote resilience: 1) give the team agency, and 2) give the experience meaning.
Agency is the sense that person can impact an outcome. People with active control over their experience are resilient—they feel stronger and more resistant to challenges. Here are three ways to create agency.
- Engineer progress. It is imperative to give people simple tasks that show progress. Focus on a simple, observable activity that produces an outcome—not on the ultimate results themselves. It’s like the doctor pushing us to stand soon after surgery. She doesn’t say, “Heal!” she says, “Stand!” Because standing will get us walking, and walking will return us to full health.
For example, if we know that sales come from relationships, focus the team on contacting one client a day. That’s it. Then celebrate the completion of that step. It’s something they can control—it’s achievable and they can report success. Over time, the constancy of those moments will create results that matter. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest we reap but by the seeds that we plant.”
- Play the part. The physical and psychological are intertwined. Alison Wood Brooks, (5) at Harvard, studied reactions to certain types of fear, like stage fright or falling. She found that the sensation of fear and excitement are closely related. When she asked her subjects to say out loud, “I’m excited!” or “Get excited!” before a scary event, they reduced their anxiety.
Actors have known this trick for a long time. If we act happy—if our body language is open and we smile—we can actually produce that emotion. During COVID-19, a good number of us have been acting sad—withdrawing from friends, not dressing, and staying home. Small wonder depression has risen during COVID.
What can we do? We can model a bright mood and dress like we care. It might seem superficial, but the mirror neurons on our colleagues’ brains will encourage them to catch the positive emotion.
- Create fresh starts. It’s hard to move forward or express positive emotions in the face of daunting obstacles, like a global pandemic and lockdown. One way to clear those hurdles is a reset. Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, (6) tells us we have a wellspring of opportunities for resets. Look at the calendar for the start of the next year, quarter, month, week, or even the next new day. Look for holidays, birthdays, new team members, anniversaries of shared success. And we can manufacture resets, too—this is one reason software development sprints work—a long project becomes a series of kick-offs and accomplishments.
As leaders, we can create agency to promote resilience. We can give people active roles in a change, including choices and options. We can also engineer events that promote the expression of positive emotions and the feelings that come with fresh starts.
How we interpret stimuli determines our responses. We act based on the stories we tell ourselves. For example:
Is this picture good or bad? If you’re a dog person you might think this dog is playing. If you’re not, you might think the dog is vicious. We filter information through our own lens, and construct stories about the world.
Martin Siegelman is the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who gave us the idea of learned helplessness. He describes this process of interpretation in his 3P model. (7) He says that, when we encounter an experience, we might define it as personal, , and pervasive. For example, let’s say we’re struggling with an assignment in a computer science course. The table below are the alternative interpretations, according to Siegelman’s model.
As we can see, a negative event seen through the three Ps is potentially harmful to a person’s self-image and ability to perform. But reframing the experience to show that it’s impersonal, impermanent and specific is compassionate and can help people bounce back.
As leaders, we provide the context. We don’t need to twist a bad experience into a good one—we can simply acknowledge it. Then, depending on the event, we decide whether to reframe it. Some bad things are so horrible, we should just affirm people’s feelings and be with them. But for your average, everyday failures: reframe it.
Take it out of that personal / permanent / pervasive space.
Retell the story as a bad experience with a finite context that doesn’t confer blame or foretell the future. Give the experience meaning.
In business, we can tend to focus on intellect and will. Old school, Type A winners flourish on vending machine food, florescent light, and four hours of sleep, right? To fix performance issues, we have told our employees (and ourselves) to power through. So it’s inconvenient to acknowledge that we, and our teams, are basically animals with a strong connection between what we experience, how our bodies respond, and how we create organizational results.
Today, we have the knowledge and tools to do something about it—to foster resilience and high performance. It’s a strategy not only for these tough times, but for sustained success.
- Recognizing resilience: Learning from the effects of stress on the brain – ScienceDirect
- Stress: The roots of resilience : Nature News & Comment
- Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement – Article – Faculty & Research – Harvard Business School (hbs.edu)
- When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing
- Martin Siegelman’s Positive Psychology
President Biden Gets an A in FCSWhen Emerson helps organizations manage change, we make it feel Familiar, Controlled, and Successful (FCS). Here’s how President Biden used FCS in his COVID-19 speech.
Co-authored by Mary Stewart
How the President’s Primetime Address Used Brain Science to Unite the Country
On Thursday, March 11, 2021, much of the country tuned in to President Biden’s first primetime address to the nation. His challenge was clear: unite the country to act according to his plan, and bring on the end of the pandemic. The audience, no doubt, was diverse in its attitudes toward Biden and readiness to follow his lead. How would he persuade resistant Americans to do the right thing?
We are in the business of aligning organizations around a change and creating positive momentum. So we feel you, Joe. And we think you did the right thing. You used the principles of brain science to your advantage, just like we do.
When we help our clients manage a change, we make it feel Familiar, Controlled, and Successful (FCS). Here’s how the President used FCS in his speech.
Our brains see new things as dangerous. Any change generates fear, which causes resistance. Creating connections between your change and other experiences makes people feel it is familiar, which turns off fear.
One way to do this is to compare your initiative to something people know and remember as being successful.
“I’m using every power I have as the president of the United States to put us on a war footing to get the job done. Sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it, a war footing. …It’s truly a national effort, just like we saw during World War II.”
”The development, manufacturing, and distribution of vaccines in record time is a true miracle of science. It’s one of the most extraordinary achievements any country has ever accomplished. And we all just saw the Perseverance Rover land on Mars. Stunning images of our dreams that are now reality.”
See what he did there? He didn’t just talk about the Trump administration’s initiative, or even invoke other pandemics, like H1N1 or Ebola. He used winning WWII and landing on Mars. He tapped into familiar, positive feelings and attached those feelings to the current initiative.
We don’t like to move forward in the dark. Our brains crave control. Adding choice, structure, and predictability makes the change feel controlled, so people feel less anxious, more engaged, and feel free to take action.
One way to create feelings of control is to give people information, so they aren’t surprised.
“I met a small business owner, a woman. I asked her, I said, ‘What do you need most?’ …and she said, ‘I just want the truth. The truth. Just tell me the truth.’”
Another way to create feelings of control is to talk about milestones. Tell people what is going to happen, and when.
“I said I intended to get 100 million shots in people’s arms in my first 100 days in office. Tonight, I can say … we’re actually on track to reach this goal of 100 million shots in arms on my 60th day in office… All adult Americans will be eligible to get a vaccine no later than May 1.”
A third way is to give people something to do, so they feel like they have a part in the change.
“But I need you, the American people. I need you. I need every American to do their part. And that’s not hyperbole. I need you. I need you to get vaccinated when it’s your turn and when you can find an opportunity.”
Finally people who have clear instructions and tools feel in control because they know exactly what to do.
“…in May, we will launch…new tools to make it easier for you to find…where to get the shot, including a new website… No more searching day and night for an appointment for you and your loved ones.”
He said he’d give accurate information, previewed the road ahead, told people how they can take action, and promised them support to do so. All of those messages grant control to the listener.
Winning releases dopamine—the feel-good neurotransmitter. Sharing successes releases oxytocin—the connection hormone.
One way to create a feeling of success is to create and highlight small wins.
“You can drive up to a stadium or a large parking lot, get your shot, and never leave your car, and drive home in less than an hour.”
“Millions and millions of grandparents who went months without being able to hug their grandkids can now do so.”
Another way to foster success is to celebrate collective wins.
“When I took office, only 8% of those over the age of 65 had gotten their first vaccination. Today that number is 65%. Just 14% of Americans over the age of 75 …had gotten their first shot. Today, that number is well over 70%.”
“…if we do this together, by July the 4, there’s a good chance you, your families and friends, will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day.”
The President talked in vivid terms about success—individual success through quick shots and warm hugs, and collective success through high vaccination numbers, culminating in a national day of celebration.
Mr. President, we’re big fans, both of your pandemic plans and the way you convey them. Brain science to message and epidemiology to protect—that’s a winning team.
Three Ways to Use Agile Principles in Your Learning ProgramAgile, as you might get from its name, is all about speed and flexibility. Here are a few ways to use Agile principles in learning programs.
Agile principles can improve your training.
Agile is not just a software development methodology, but a mindset. One that can transform any kind of work, including learning program development.
What is Agile? Well, what it’s not is “waterfall”—the traditional development approach rooted in the industrial economy. Waterfall projects plan everything at once, then move on to design everything at once, then develop, and so on. Some of the benefits of a waterfall approach are consistency and accuracy—the team has a set of standards and it takes great pains to maintain them, across the initiative. That’s good, but it can take a very long time. And, by the time the end user sees anything useful, they have lost months (or years!) of benefit, and the landscape has probably changed.
Agile, as you might get from its name, is all about speed and flexibility. It reserves the right to be smarter today than yesterday. It’s about failing fast, adjusting course, and trying again. It’s about getting better and better, while effecting real-world change.
Here are a few ways to use Agile principles in learning programs.
Size. Here we’re talking about size of scope, size of teams, and size of the “batches” of work. Often, our teams are responsible for an entire curriculum. Subject matter and technical experts are available to the entire team. Once an instructional designer completes design of one module, they move on to the next one. When design is done, they start developing courses. The entire curriculum reaches each milestone together.
Instead, try micro. Build a team of one instructional designer, one SME, and one technical expert. Focus them on one course, to deliver one tight set of learning objectives to one set of learners. And then let them run; Agile teams call it a sprint. They should design, develop, pilot, and launch the training as fast as they can.
Worried your courses will be “all over the place?” First of all, they might, and that’s ok. Second, all consistency is not lost. As you gather feedback on course drafts and tests, craft a prototype module. This will be your gold standard – all great, client-vetted and universal design ideas go here.
Agile will deliver skills to your learners, fast. And the team will learn a lot; they aggregate lessons learned so all can benefit in the next sprint.
Focus. Learning team members often serve many masters: learning executives, business function leaders, technical team leads, project sponsors… Each entity wants oversight, to ensure consistent quality, style, format, and learner experience. Reviews ripple through the curriculum as it’s being designed and developed, requiring revisions and new standards. Subject matter experts might have to swallow changes that have nothing to do with their learners, but serve the program as a whole or please a particular executive.
Agile is all about the customer, and no one else. One of its lessons is “Be willing to disappoint.” That is, disappoint anyone but the customer. Using an Agile mindset, the learner is king. The SME represents the learner on the micro-team for the course. So if the SME believes a piece of content, a delivery method, or a particular style works for the learners of the course, you use it.
To sharpen your focus, create a “learner persona.”
Work with your SME to build a profile of the learner for this course. The learner’s responsibilities, location, technical acumen, etc. help you choose the right stories, metaphors, interactions, and delivery modalities.
And Agile would say let the learner tweak your product. So if you get quickly to a pilot test and then a launch of your course, let learners into the process. Ask them how to make it better; go beyond the “smile sheet” and let them be designers for a day. Then build their best ideas into the next version of your course and share it with the other teams, so they can benefit as they sprint.
Mindset. Does this all sound messy? It is. That’s why everyone involved must understand and adopt the Agile mindset if this is going to work.
It’s easy to frame Agile in a positive light. Chaos breeds creativity. Get comfortable with uncertainty. It’s an opportunity, not an obstacle.
But we have to accept that it’s a big change. Agile requires people to give up traditional control, watch as things fail and get better, tolerate inconsistency, and be part of a process that feels chaotic at times. How can you get everyone on board with Agile?
Here’s where we bring out our change management tools. Once you have the main decision-makers on board with this shift, make it familiar, controlled, and successful.
- Our brains see anything new as dangerous. To dampen fear, make this change feel familiar. Compare the new approach to other innovations that brought great things to your organization. Don’t dwell on the old learning development approach; frame the new Agile learning approach as another big success story—whatever success story resonates with them. That makes this change feel familiar and safe.
- People crave predictability and control. So give them something solid to grab on to. Roll out the shift to Agile using a timeline, and let them know what’s happening as you hit each milestone. And give people choices whenever possible. For example, you might ask for volunteers to try the Agile approach first. Any “early adopters” in your group will make the next steps feel doable for the rest.
- Winning feels good. So engineer success into the transition. Call out and celebrate your first Agile course achievements. And remember to reward the new mindset—we embrace failing fast, right? So, when you find problems in the first pilots or conducts, congratulate those teams for their boldness, courage, and valuable lessons learned.
Remember: Familiar, Controlled, Successful
Agile is a big change, with big benefits. Our software brethren have gone there, but why should they have all the fun? Learning teams who use Agile principles can deliver big benefits, fast.