Can People Change?

“Can people change?”

A great learning experience, like a memorable play or an important book asks a central question.

And this is the question I’ve been mulling over for the past 15 years. Though this notion of ‘change’ has always been a central theme in my work, it has bobbed and weaved through several different creative pursuits: from the behavior of television characters to the behavior of organizations.

What propels someone or something to change either alone or with another? What magical forces of power, will, circumstance, emotion, or luck get us from A to B? (Hint: it’s not a gantt chart). Whether we write the experiences to propel change for others, or face it head on ourselves, change is constant but never comfortable.

Having just led a major change initiative in my organization I was reminded of what it takes to hurl yourself into the middle of a ‘change’ tornado and the high-stakes risks you face when you take the lead. When you’re no longer just the writer behind the scenes, but the writer, producer, director, actor, and editor too… how can we ensure a fairytale ending?

We all want to belong

Groups are powerful players in the change game, often much stronger forces than individuals alone. At the end of the day, we crave belonging. A sense of belonging and of not being alone is often overlooked in why we do or don’t change. Yes you can pull on someone’s heart-strings, but a pull towards being a part of the in-group is often an even more powerful motivator. Relatedness is your friend, not your foe.

Make it universal

There’s a reason why we remember fables and the morals of our favorite films – they are relatable, digestible, and universal. How can we lower the risk of change or translate jargon into something meaningful? Use a metaphor, analogy, or a story. Like attracts like, and our brains attach to what we already know.

Be wary of the resistance

Who said change was easy? Change that truly transforms a company (or a person) demands that people give up something they care about (habits, ways of working or thinking, etc). Movies have villains (or the change resistors that will get in the way), but at work we have equilibrium to go up against. It’s natural for people to resist change – this reaction keeps us safe, whereas the new invites discomfort. Thwarting tactics may appear, but it’s only done out of aversion for the new, loss of the old, and a desire to maintain what’s familiar. As the saying goes, it’s (usually) not you…it’s them.

But just like the classic Hero’s Journey there will be someone who comes along at your low point to remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing (Thank you Adam Grant).

Use your voice

As a writer it was easy to hide behind a laptop and let my characters say the hard things. But when you’re leading change the risks don’t disappear – instead, you learn to say the hard thing and to be alright (over time) with others not wanting to hear it. The more visible we are, the more we open ourselves up for unwanted feedback or projections. If leadership is about taking risks, bolder choices come with the territory. So does criticism.

Being able to understand change for what it is, with all of its intricacies and dynamics allows us to be both observers and participants at the same time.

Change can be incredibly rewarding. Whether you’re the one going through it or helping facilitate behind-the-scenes, it is a process of asking people to move to a place they are often frightened to go. But, there is a more promising future on the other side and it is that hope that reminds me that yes, people can and do change with the right amount of support and challenge.

The story secrets of organizational change

In the world of Storytelling and Organizational Consulting, similar mantras are drilled into us – different words, similar meaning:

1. Make the audience the hero

2. Meet the client where they are

Both of these mantras speak to empowering people and companies, to help them feel, think, do, and see things differently so that they are called to action to enact change.

What this boils down to is – I see you (the client, the character, the company), where you are, for what you are…and I believe in you.

What this requires of us (those who lead change efforts and write the words to inspire) is patience, and a bit of scaffolding.

The best example I’ve seen of living out both of these mantras was Columbia University Professor William Duggan. I write about him often, and, nope, I probably won’t stop.

He had important words say, to teach, and to share. He drew us in carefully and artfully, by speaking the audience’s language (read, mostly MBA students), and skillfully partnering with them to help students come to important realizations themselves. Three acts. Small steps. A slowly built narrative balanced with equal parts logic and emotion at just the right times, each chapter asking for a bit more of us as we went.

In awe of his art, I asked him how he crafted his semester-long class. What was his secret?

Make the audience the hero. Meet them where they are.

He was teaching a slightly unconventional topic and wanted his students to come along for the ride. How often have we too had a great idea, something we care deeply about sharing, and want others to join in on? Hands up, everyone! I see you.

His reminder – you can’t do that by forcing an idea. That’s all head, no heart. He metaphorically held the idea and the a-ha out for his students in his out-stretched arm. And carefully crafted a sequence of steps where they’d be encouraged and motivated to keep reaching. One class after the other.

It’s not too much of stretch to equate this art to leadership.

But how often does our desire to push and prod instead of join and co-create take over our best impulses – especially under stress and threat?

How often does our desire to be seen as the hero and to not quite understand or empathize with where the client could be force us to push too far and stop the story? I’m certainly guilty.

To meet the client, the student, the reader where they are and to help them see that they are the hero is to recognize that we aren’t writing the story by ourselves. It’s not our story. It’s theirs. It’s not my change effort. It’s ours. Or, in many cases… it’s just theirs. And that’s a happy ending.

One small step for spontaneity…

In a recent podcast interview with my friend Mark Guay, I touched upon the myth that Improvisers are merely “winging it” and perhaps wildly unprepared.

Behind the scenes, we practice (and practice some more) a set of principles that guide us and give us a wonderful structure to navigate the ambiguity we have on stage when we are improvising.

When it comes to presentations and speeches, it is possible to over-prepare and in doing so, squash opportunities for spontaneity or connection with your audience.

If you want to add some spontaneity to your presentations, classes, or public speaking opportunities, completely throwing away a script isn’t necessary either.

Patricia Ryan Madson, Improv Guru and author of Improv Wisdom offers a spectacular tip for morphing scripted notes into an opportunity for more spontaneity:

Her advice? Turn your notes into a series of questions to answer. For example, your notes might look like this: 

1) Why am I here today?

2) What is the learning objective?

3) What am I most excited to share with you?

This small change still gives you the comfort and clarity that comes with a structure to fall back on, while also allowing room for a conversational, breathable, and perhaps more empathetic approach. Try this out and let me know how it goes!

Learning, and the importance of personal relevancy

“See them first” is a phrase I learned several years ago from an incredible, kind, mentor of mine.

I admit, when she first shared this phrase with me, (and others, in her book) I didn’t really understand how to put it into practice when facilitating or designing an experience for others.

To her (and now, to me) “See them First” is a critical piece of gaining psychological safety, trust, and clarity with a group or an individual up front, whether it’s in a coaching, training, or leadership capacity.

So what does this phrase mean? Do I just need stronger contact lenses? Perhaps. Ask your doctor. But also:

At the core of it, I need to ask myself these questions:

  1. Do I, as a Leader, a facilitator, or a coach understand my learner? Have I made this understanding clear to them?
  2. Have they given me an opportunity to share something that matters to them? Read: Have they shared a learning objective, or told me something that I’m missing knowing about them at the start of a session? When a professor who was absent for the first day of a 2-day workshop walked into the class she asked, “what do I need to know about you, as a group of learners?”. Perfect example.
  3. Do your learners have “skin in the game”? I see this time and time again. Give them an opportunity to make the learning personal. It needs to matter to them. Framing and context matters, but more so is an opportunity for the learners to identify and latch onto something personally relevant to help them make meaning of the material. Seeing them first means encouraging personal relevancy.
  4. Have I started with where the learners are instead of where I want them to be?
  5. Have I made it clear I’m listening? And do I incessantly tie back to what I heard, and what I’ve promised?

Turn your learners, clients, and mentees into collaborators immediately by making it clear that you have listened and allow space for personal relevancy. Open the door to allow and encourage them to join you in co-creating the experience.

Show them that you “see them first” and then let your learners have a peek inside your process by allowing them to see YOU too. Show them the roadmap for the learning and continue to make your thinking visible as you progress, (“here’s what we’re going to do today, here’s how we will get there, and let’s talk about why”).

After all, everyone deserves an opportunity to be seen and heard.

What’s the drill – February 20: A creative confidence booster

According to Tom Kelley of IDEO, a fear of being judged is the number-one reason why we’re not more creative.

It’s not due to a lack of ability…this is a matter of creative confidence.

We all have the natural ability to come up with novel ideas (yes yes, even you shaking your head in the back of the room). But not everyone has the courage to act on these ideas.

What if we did? How could increasing our creative confidence change our self-image and our capacity to have influence on the world?

Kelley’s mission to boost (nay, rocket fuel) the creative confidence of others is one I find myself equally passionate about.

Unlocking your creative potential can start with a simple re-frame of how you present your creative ideas. Here’s an example straight from Professor William Duggan at Columbia Business School:

When we present ideas we often end by asking the age-old question, “so what do you think?”. A useful question, yes, but one that can open the door for negative feedback and instant confidence deflation.

What if instead we simply said, “anything to add to my idea?”.

Presented in this way, we’re immediately signaling that there is room for the initial idea to expand. We still expect and desire honest feedback, but with a slight re-frame we are boosting collaboration, and hopefully over time, creative self-efficacy.

What facilitators can learn from Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show debut

Last night as I watched Jimmy Fallon make his debut as new host of The Tonight show, I was struck by the ease, comfort, and safety that Fallon exhibited as he welcomed a presumably new audience to his show.

It was akin to the skill a great facilitator utilizes when beginning a new learning experience with his or her participants.

Though these two roles are inherently different, and stylistic differences are what help make both jobs a real art form, there are fundamental choices Fallon made that educators, speakers, presenters, and facilitators can absolutely learn from:

Fallon helped create psychologically safety and established a dialogue with his audience in these 2 ways:

  • He made his thinking visible – Strong facilitators know how to engage adult learners by showing them the learning path and extravert-ing their thinking. Fallon told us the basic structure of his show, how long his monologue would be, and even where he’d stand when he delivered the opening set of jokes. Though it seemed like a small gesture, it worked to set a new routine and let the audience know what they could expect each night, and how they would get there.
  • Auto-biographical disclosure – This is perhaps the most impressive technique Fallon utilized, and the most direct application to what we do as facilitators. Fallon spent several minutes at the top of his show, introducing himself, his background, his band and his announcer to bring people into the experience, add authenticity and personalization, and put new viewers at ease. As Dr. Stephen Brookfield theorizes, the more an educator or facilitator can use appropriate autobiographical disclosure, the quicker you can bring adults into ‘the learning’. For example, in a class on adult learning a facilitator can use autobiographical disclosure to briefly talk about his or her experience as a learner and how its framed his or her approach. By telling the story of his own history of watching and admiring The Tonight Show, Fallon also exhibited experiential credibility, by letting the audience know that the experiences (and perhaps new-ness) he dealt with are similar if not the same.

Journalists, bloggers and critics are praising Fallon for these specific, ‘smart’ choices — but they don’t need to be reserved for talk show hosts. Think about the last time you felt “safe” in a new learning environment. Chances are your facilitator exhibited some, if not all of these same techniques.

The power of re-framing

Ask someone if they want to learn how to be an Improviser and you may not see too many hands get raised. It is down-right scary for many people and we can spend a lot of time de-bunking the myth of what Improv is or is not.

Ask someone if they want to learn how to think on their feet, communicate more effectively, and heighten their listening skills and chances are their reaction will change. Hands go up because the connection to every-day life is more tangible.

Sometimes, we need to re-frame our question.

If we focus too much on Improv, it’s common for feedback from sessions to land in the Level-1 reaction stage, “it was fun”… etc. Fun is great, but the stronger path towards application and learning transfer is to focus on the result of what these tools can achieve and to practice them right there in the room.

So, what questions are you asking to prompt deeper learning? How are you framing learning initiatives that get to the root of what people will walk away with as opposed to focusing on the tool itself?

On Michael Bay, and finding the problem before the solution

By now you’ve probably had your fill of social media posts about Michael Bay’s, shall we say, “issue” at CES last week. Allow me just one more viewpoint.

In the days that followed the “issue”, many people noted Bay’s seeming inability to Improvise. And, friends reached out to me to say much of the same and to suggest he take an Improv class so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again.

Not so fast. 

While I would love it if Michael Bay took an Improv class, I paused at their reaction.

Instinctively it might seem as though Michael Bay doesn’t know how to Improvise and that learning how to would solve the problem.

The same suggestion could be made for other skills like Mindfulness, for example. We could pitch a myriad of solutions to him. But we can’t be sure they will actually help.

We can’t pitch a solution without first finding the problem.  

My knee-jerk assumption used to also be, “Improv will fix this”. But I’ve learned to check some of those assumptions at the door.

As learning and organizational development professionals we need to understand and find the underlying problem, and not just treat the symptom.

A symptom of the larger problem in this particular case might be that Bay can’t Improvise. But, what’s the problem? We can’t be so sure without testing some assumptions and asking more questions.

By not doing so, and simply solving for the symptoms and not the larger issue we’re stopping short of what this work is capable of.