How to Get Your Team to Remember Your MessageFacts don’t create memory or movement. Powerful associations do.
Recently forget your friend’s name? Your phone number? Your home address? Well, fantastic news from Dr. Michael Ramscar of Tübingen University. Turns out, as we age, we forget not because we’re increasingly addled, but because we’re remarkably knowledgeable! The richer our experience, the more we forget. Because our library of experience is stuffed, it takes our librarian longer to remember what we need than if our space were sparely stocked.
This reminded me of a startling workshop by Scott Bornstein. Scott illustrated that readily retrieving information had nothing to do with the age or health of our brain. It had everything to do with stories, association and repetition. And the assumption that remembering is easy and fun.
When we first encounter information, we evaluate it by associating it with what we already know. Here’s how I first evaluated Scott’s credibility, during his workshop:
First, Scott says I can remember anything. That morning, I had left my cup of coffee on top of the car. Then I drove away. I conclude that he’s smoking something.
Then, Scott says a story or association matters. I suddenly remember My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto). There’s no actual pizza, but score one for Neil deGrasse Tyson.
At that point, I began to trust Scott and let him teach me something useful. Within an hour, Scott had a room of executives accurately recalling more than 50 stranger’s names, 30 grocery items, multi-digit numbers, lists of arbitrary objects…in sequence. And then in reverse order. Then randomly. Cool party trick, eh?
We evaluate by comparing and associating. Those comparisons become hooks for retrieving information later.
Our time-starved, oversubscribed colleagues often want to do what we ask. Unfortunately, they forget the process, procedure, and protocol. Their “librarians” are taxed, and they might not have encoded our message in a way that works for us.
Consider what they are comparing against. Give them associations – metaphors, stories, mnemonics, images — that reinforce the behavior you want. Then repeat it.
Let’s say an executive wants his people to document what they learn from projects. He might discuss how a project closeout saved the day, share a mnemonic for the steps (“Collect, Reward, Evaluate, Archive, Tell, Empower” = CREATE) and then put that in his weekly team emails. (“Have you CREATEd anything lately?”)
Harvard economist Henry Rosovsky once said, “Never underestimate the difficulty of changing false beliefs by facts.” So don’t forget: facts don’t create memory or movement. Powerful associations do.
Cut the ChatterDon’t let the noise distract you. It’s not the initial chatter but the results that matter.
Someone broke into my house, repainted the walls and rearranged the furniture. That’s how a friend described his response to the new iPhone OS. As a number of my friends compared notes, we decided we didn’t like moving from our familiar OS to a new one. But we don’t discard our phones. We deal with it, and even learn to appreciate new features. And then we complain about the next iteration.
A common refrain: once you get used to it, it’s fine.
People are remarkably adaptive. We adapt to altitude within four days and extreme altitude within 46 days. It takes four weeks to adjust to an artificial knee. It can take six months to adjust to a new job, four months to a year for a new culture – and of course, there’s adapting to returning home, which experts claim can take just as long.
Yet, despite our remarkable ability to adapt, we tend to resist. We have not evolved to embrace the very adaptation that promotes our survival.
Implications? Don’t mind the whine. Focus instead on getting the change to work. If you’ve done your work and your solution is a benefit to the organization, people will come around.
I met with the founder and president of a multi-billion company who had installed an ERP system, with disastrous results. As a conglomerate, the company had up to seven sales people calling upon a single customer; they hoped the new system would allow one salesperson to meet a customer’s needs. But due to a rough implementation, they can’t fulfill orders. The founder asked whether they should yank out the system and start over. My advice was this: you’ve already got employees hating you, so don’t cross that bridge twice. They don’t like what’s happening, and that’s valid. But you’re still in charge of finding the right solution. Don’t start over — focus now on fixing the system as a quickly as possible.
President Obama is facing this very issue with the healthcare exchanges. What’s interesting is that this is presumably something millions of people want. People voted for the legislators who passed it, they re-elected the President who authored it, and they are trying to get into the system. Here again, the best course is focus – focus on fixing, and focus on the right voices. The loudest voices are currently not those of users – they are the voices of those who derive power from the drama.
Don’t let the noise distract you. It’s not the initial chatter but the results that matter.
Your Vacation Can Change People’s BehaviorHow to design a change program based on the principles of vacation.
Taking time off this season? Plan on having fun while on vacation? At last! A blog that simultaneously improves your personal and professional lives!
In “The Best Vacation Ever,” Drake Bennett takes research from psychology, economics, and behavioral economics to explain how people derive pleasure from their vacations. The following factors matter:
- 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, with extended timeframes.
“….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.”
— Drake Bennett
This is all about focused attention, the primary tool for changing behavior. What if, as we design a change program, we incorporate Mr. Bennett’s principles?
- How have we heightened anticipation for this program?
- Is the program broken into short pieces?
- Does each breaking point end with a unique or positive experience?
- Do we incorporate tight timelines for action?
I love studies like these, that challenge me to look at behavior change in a new way. There are plenty of opportunities to be creative while being serious about our work. Have you seen or developed programs that use these principles? I’d love to hear examples!
For more about Drake Bennett’s article “The Best Vacation Ever,” take a look at this chapter from The Learning & Development Book: Make Your Training a Day
A Simple Tool to Create MomentumTo paraphrase the law of inertia, an organization at rest tends to stay at rest.
To paraphrase the law of inertia, an organization at rest tends to stay at rest. And an organization in motion tends to stay in motion. If you need to move a large number of people in the direction of an important change, you need that momentum.
But how do you get it rolling? With two levers: getting immediate action that drives our desired outcome and creating visible success to reinforce it.
Action. Pick easy behaviors that are important to the change. Support people, so they know exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to know when they get the behavior right.
Success. Reward those who complete the behavior – the reward depends on the situation. It might be a system response, a tangible reward, feedback from a supervisor, or public recognition. Spread stories of team and individual success. Focus the organization’s attention on these “wins.”
Our goal is habit – behavior that is self-perpetuating. Once the right behaviors are a habit, and you layer a number of those across the organization, you have momentum.
Example Momentum Plan for Change
- Send an email, reminding my team of the reason for the change, and telling them that we’re starting in small steps. Lay out my “action-success” plan for them.
- Every Monday, email my team with a behavior I want to see that week. Give examples and ways to tell they’ve done it right.
- Throughout the week, informally recognize that behavior when I see it.
- Thursday, send an email asking for stories about how this behavior worked, during the week
- Feed the stories back to the team. Call out great performers. Be enthusiastic! Create some buzz!
- Every day: Remember the key to focusing attention: Keep it simple!
Weekly Action Plan (sample)
Subject: This week, open all meetings with your intended outcome.
We’ve spent eight hours discussing effective meetings. Now it’s time to put it into action. We’ll take this in small steps that add up to our vision.
This week, please open every meeting by defining your intended outcome.
On Thursday, I will ask you for examples of how it went – good, bad, indifferent. I’m looking forward to your stories!
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.
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.
Set Up Your Project for SuccessHow to ready your change management initiative to succeed.
“You have one opportunity to create a first impression.” This truism is particularly relevant for major change initiatives.
It’s human nature to wait – to reserve support until you see whether a program will be successful. If it reeks, the team takes the blame. If it’s got legs, there are 10,000 owners.
Establish that sense of success in the first three months – immediately after the initiative has been blessed and announced. That’s the window of opportunity to create adoption and momentum for the change.
Here’s what must happen:
First, create reference points. Describe what this change will be like, and what it will not be like. We compare every new experience to what we already know. Comparing is a hard-wired survival skill: Will this experience bring food or death? It’s absolutely critical to create the right comparison, or our stakeholders will create it for us.
Which projects had that sheen of victory? Describe how this new change is like those. Which left a bad taste behind? Describe the critical differences between your initiative and the duds. Be specific. Tell stories. As soon as it begins, plant your project on the right side of your organization’s history.
Years ago, a major retailer hired me to help implement PeopleSoft. For the third time. And guess what? Virtually every stakeholder I encountered asked the same question: “How is this different from the other implementations?” In the absence of the right comparisons, people had decided this project was like those that had failed. I was in a defensive position and damage had already been done. Since then, I’ve learned it’s more powerful to find positive examples and metaphors that resonate with my stakeholder groups. I jump into that space they’re trying to fill, and provide the right comparisons. It changes the conversation.
Second, capture those who are already “all in.” Every organization has a small percentage of people who are weirdly and enthusiastically drawn to anything new. They are the daredevils — the first penguins to plunge into the icy Arctic; if the daredevils aren’t devoured, the early adopters enthusiastically follow. Identify those who might be most positively predisposed to your project, and give them a feel-good interaction with the change. It’ll tip organizational momentum in your favor.
Third, use “operant conditioning.” Define the trigger, the behavior, and the immediate reward. A trigger is the context that causes a person to respond in a particular way. The behavior is what we want people to do in response. The reward is anything good – positive feedback, a happy interaction, or a treat. According to Dr. Edgar Schein, if a group engages in a new behavior, and has an immediate positive experience, they will repeat it. If they repeat it often enough, their behavior creates culture. Driving behavior through conditioning directly impacts culture and enables the ongoing success we’re looking for.
We can actually design adoption and momentum for our change. Defining reference points, getting the early adopters, and rewarding the right behaviors – regardless of the change – creates that early glow of success.
“A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”
“Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.”
The Performance Dip MythMyth: there has to be a drop in performance after a change event. There doesn’t.
The first performance dip myth: that there has to be a drop in performance after a change event. There doesn’t. And there shouldn’t. The fact that we expect one creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Remember the four-minute mile? It was assumed to be an absolute limitation of human performance until Roger Bannister broke it. He broke it because he did the hard work of preparation, and because he believed he could. And after he believed, other elite runners followed. Roger Bannister had taken the teeth out of 4:00.
Setting the expectation that there will be a drop in performance is giving your power away, just as those runners used to. It’s creating a haven for sloppy change interventions. Drops in performance don’t have to happen. They happen when we have not:
- Clearly defined the performance required after the event. In other words, we have not described the specific actions each person must perform differently on Monday morning.
- Mapped the before and after, from each individual’s point of view. For example, where are the resources people used to depend on? What new resources are in their places?
- Let people practice the skills needed for these new actions. We haven’t let them try, fail, use the new tools and resources, and find a way to succeed.
- Convinced our people that they need to perform these new actions – that the change is vital to the organization and there’s nowhere to go but forward.
- Demonstrated success, so they won’t be afraid to go “all in.”
Anything new here? Nope. But here’s the issue: we have spent our days believing in the performance drop, and working to minimize it. What if our change planning made the drop unacceptable? What if the metrics we talk about, but never measure, included an immediate timeframe to adoption: start-to-success within three months?
These steps take significant effort and attention to detail. They require a pitbull’s commitment. I suspect we’re afraid to step up to the task. And we’re afraid to demand the same of the sponsor whose neck is on the line for delivery.
We’re afraid because we’re looking down. We expect hard times, lower performance, and lots of confusion and adjustment after the change. So our sponsors and our people hesitate.
What if, instead of asking them to weather the dip, we ask them to move upward and only upward? What if we tell them that, after all that ground work (in the bullets above), we’ll be stepping UP, not down? When an executive has gone to the board for a transformational change, make sure they know how to lead the team in this way. Their careers are in the balance. Give them the option to support you in doing the right work so your organization steps up — only up — to new levels of success.