I’m going to tell you the secrets of the universe

But first, a story…

I even remember the bench. I had walked out of the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park in a trance, in need of a seat. I immediately texted my friend Kelly but the exclamations points didn’t do the experience justice. Though we had just finished watching famous actors recite Shakespeare, my mind was fixed on the “performance” that followed; Harvard Professor Michael Sandel brilliantly facilitated an 1,800 person conversation on morals, ethics, and morality. A few microphones, some well-placed questions, and just the right amount of context created a beautifully moving piece of art. That night, I had found real inspiration and possibility for my work.

People often label what I do as training. Though I want to correct them I hardly ever do.

Instead, my mind races back to that night, almost four years ago, and to other work I’ve studied and borrowed from, from great musicians, to comedians, professors, executives, religious figures, and performers.

We seek to bring groups and people together around a common goal.

Though their vehicle is different, the greats I admire have a few things in common that apply back to the classroom:

  1. They have the reigns: 
    • People want to feel that you’re in control. A professor once advised me on the perils of Improvisation. “Yes, leaders need to be in the moment and often improvise…but “improvisation on the spot” can be seen as insufficiently thoughtful and attention seeking”, he said. Safety is important to learning, and providing your students with some certainty quiets the brain enough to help them feel safe and pay attention to what matters. People don’t just want to know when the breaks are – they need a sense of the path, and confidence that you’ll help them get from A to B.
  2. They build community: 
    • The beautiful thing about live theater, live training, live…anything, is although we all experience it differently, everyone in the room is sharing in something similar. Great craftsmen and women use this to their advantage to create a strong in-group sensation that binds a group of people together in time. Words fuel emotion which fuels connection and a sense of relatedness and togetherness, contributing to powerful dopamine spikes that open up the thinking centers of our brain with lasting positive effects.
  3. They are experts in motivation: 
    • The key to “pull” learning is to draw in people who want to learn or experience what you have to offer. Master teachers expertly play upon the gap between where students are and where they want to be. They play with suspense, and scaffold the learning in such a way that you want to stay on the journey until the end. A professor once described how he taught a subject that was often met with early skepticism and cynicism: “there is a golden ore I’m holding out for them the entire semester. But I can’t force it on them, I slowly reveal more and more of what it is until they can and want to reach out and grab it”. 
    • At a recent show, Comedian Mike Birbiglia appeared on-stage with a journal in his hand and carefully set it down at the edge of the stage without explanation. The audience didn’t forget it was there, but when he picked it up and read from it 45 minutes into the show, the build-up to that moment was so satisfying. By putting the journal on the stage, he was signifying an implicit promise to his audience and delicately toying with our curiosity.

Trainers and teachers who promise the moon-and-stars, guarantee perfect performance, and the secrets of the universe may truly want to do these things, though I am weary of the ones who declare a guarantee. Those whose work I admire most seek to create a genuine connection with their audience and leave them changed for the better. Sometimes that change takes months, weeks, or years to transpire, but if you’re like me, you remember its lessons forever. 

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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 Readiness Factor

“I’m ready! Let’s change. It’ll be easy, welcomed, and very smooth for everyone.”

This is rarely (ok, never) how change happens, whether it’s personal, interpersonal or organizational.

How it usually happens: good-intentioned people whisper in our ear, give us data, ask meaningful questions, tell us what’s coming, or hint at the need for change and patiently wait for someone or something to click. It’s the old, ‘know better but don’t do better’.

This year I’ve witnessed and experienced my fair amount of change and it got me thinking about the so-called ‘readiness factor’.

Aka, when does change happen, when do people and organizations decide, “I’m ready!”. Why is now the time – how did we finally move the needle?

Enter the Gleicher organizational change formula: C = (abd) > x

  • C = Change
  • a = compelling, vivid, vision of desired future state
  • b = Dissatisfaction with status quo (pain message)
  • d = Practical first steps, strategies or action plans that can close the gap
  • X = Perceived costs of change (personal / organizational)

Everyone loves a good theory. But, here’s what experience has taught me:

  1. Make it real – The need for change has to be specific and baked into the work. Abstract picture painting of the future rarely works because blank slates and ambiguity are almost as scary. We’d rather hang on to what we know.
  2. Don’t do it alone – change may start with one person but it takes an army. Find your soldiers. Remember you’re not the hero – they are.
  3. It was their idea – speaking of, it’s hard to change minds. Remember that friend who has told us the same advice for years, but we only act on it when it was our idea? Same thing in organizations.
  4. Don’t be a threat – change feels safer when it comes from someone in our in-group. If you’re in the out-group (foe, not friend), bring others with you who aren’t.
  5. Utilize momentum – change happens in small bursts and people need a sense of progress and small wins. But, once we (or our organization) have let go of something that doesn’t serve us anymore it is transformational.
  6. Change is everyone’s job. So, be wary of a scapegoat – spread the ‘pain’ around so that one person in the group isn’t holding it, or the problem, or the solution by themselves. Change is easier (not harder) in groups, but only if everyone does the work.

Ready. Set. Change.

Sometimes people complain to me

As a Learning and Development professional I am lucky to be able to help support people and organizations through growth.

Another way of phrasing this is, “sometimes people complain to me”.

They are often frustrated by someone else, by a policy, by a decision, by a lack of progress, or by not knowing the answer.

I know that their confusion and frustration signals that growth is right around the corner… if they choose to recognize it. I know this because I’ve been there too.

If people were apathetic, growth would be stagnant and stuttering at best. And that’s no fun.

Change (and learning) comes from feeling just enough yearning, a slightly wider gap between now and what could be, and a way forward, to be motivated to do something different.

But, frustration met with inaction makes for an admittedly tough situation.

And through hundreds of these conversations, and some of my own with close friends and family I’ve realized a few common themes pop up in nearly every growth conversation and opportunity:

  1. Learning what you want
  2. Learning to ask for what you want
  3. Learning to be alright with not getting what you want

There is usually something holding us back from each of these levels. Sometimes the growth is chronological – we have to learn who we are and what we want before we can ask for it.

We often don’t ask for what we want because we’re afraid of how it will look, or we want others to like us or agree with us. We can’t make everyone like us, but we can earn the respect of others by respecting ourselves first enough to speak up.

Sometimes we are masters of the first two, but can’t let go of our expectations to recognize we are holding on to them too closely. Or, we expect too much of someone before they themselves are ready.

Our expectations fail us when we know exactly how we want the story to end and then are displeased it didn’t turn out how we’ve written it in our heads. You can’t force growth, you can only model it for others.

Growth, like anything else good that appears before us or our company happens first when we are patient with ourselves and with others. It comes from letting go of our expectation to change anybody else, and instead notice, and maybe modify ourselves.

When we care about something or believe in something or someone it can be even harder to do one of the 3 above.

There is a power, confidence, and a steadiness that comes from being masters at all three – one that lets us ride the wave of uncertainty and volatility much easier than forcing change or controlling the uncontrollable.

The best lessons, the deepest learning, and the most growth whether as individuals or parts of a larger system happen with patience, support, and readiness.  If growth were easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding.

The Beauty of the Blank Page

Resistance to change shows up in many different ways. Many want to know the steps it’s going to take, the path we should expect, the guarantees of success.

It’s often when we’re the most nervous, impatient, or feel like we have the most to lose that we want to flip to the end of the book or the last few minutes of the movie, and skip the muddling middle to know with certainty, was everything “ok”, did things go as planned, did this work. Tell me now.

We’ll do the “tough thing” if we’re sure it will go alright, we’ll say how we feel if we know the person will respond well, we’ll… you get the point.

But we know, life is hardly this certain and stable, this linear, and this accepting of our desire to control.

If we look back at our most important experiences, and look to favorite stories or improv scenes, they are the ones highlighted by change.

The best improvisers, and often some of our best leaders look for opportunities to be changed every day and in every interaction. They find a few pillars to keep them stable (read: values, principles), but also find comfort in the certainty of knowing that change is constant. And, by being open to it themselves they allow space for others to enter the scene or the story, and for that change to trickle, to transform a person, a group, a company.

In times of transition or when something is new (read: uncertain), the default is often to hold on tighter. 

When we transition to a managerial role we have to learn to let go of much of the work of the past to make room for others to learn. The easier choice is to retreat back to the familiar for the quick fix and hit of certainty and safety.

We can also choose to let go of our status, or our desire for someone else to change instead. Because, deep down we know that other person has their own story to tell and uncover.

The truth is control narrows our focus and could keep us and those we lead from greater adventures, bigger stories, and profound and lasting change.

Because learning and change are synonymous, this letting go of old habits, frames, and ways of working are what deep, transformational learning looks and feels like. Change is rarely about taking on more – we can instead view it as letting go of what we no longer need.  

Letting yourself be changed doesn’t mean letting go of caring about what the change produces or who it affects. It just means not being afraid of the blank page and the story that has yet to be told.

On Choosing to “Go First”

I’ll go first.

As kids, we watch our parents for cues as to what’s safe, what’s off-limits, and what we should stay away from. They go first, so we don’t have to.

They’ll test the food to make sure it isn’t too warm. They’ll look for the monsters under the bed.

As we get older, those cues change or disappear, and the instinct or idea that something is safe, un-scary, or worthy of taking a risk on is not a sure bet…especially in our professional lives.

Leadership and risk

As we grow up and into Leaders, there is a moment when we discover that the very thing we crave…is what we need to create for others.

You say you want safety? Well, work to make things safe for someone else. Want a more joyful work environment? Lead from a place of joy.

We make a conscious decision to complain less about what we don’t see, and create more of what we want to see.

I’ll Go first.

We feel safe when we see others take the risk for us. This sacrifice goes beyond “acting the way you want to feel”. It’s taking responsibility…so that others can succeed. Instead of relying on someone else to go ahead or grant permission, take the stage.

This is not an easy transition. But it starts with a choice. You go first.

From nothing to something: How to create learning experiences on the fly

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Creating learning experiences on the fly is one of the many talents of Master Facilitator and Performance expert Thiagi.

Here’s just one example of an experience he recently created, and highlighted in his monthly newsletter. What you’ll find is that facilitating meaningful discussions on leadership, communication, and teamwork doesn’t necessarily require a 50-page slide deck or months of instructional design time.

What it does require, is a willingness to a) use what’s in the room (not just the materials, i.e. chairs… but the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of your participants) to co-create a meaningful and impactful learning experience.

Here, Thiagi recounts a recent training session where he walked into the room to see the chairs arranged in a single line.

I took one look at the room set up and thanked my lucky stars for providing the perfect arrangement for an experiential exercise. I told the participants to organize themselves into four groups of six. I asked one person in each group to act as a non-participating observer. I assigned myself the observer’s role for the group that had only five members. I asked each group to spend 7 minutes to plan how to rearrange the chairs in the room to permit teamwork and small-group discussions. I called the observers and gave them specific suggestions on what to watch out for.

After the 7 minutes of planning, I asked members of each group to hold one-on-one conversations with the members of the other groups. After about 5 minutes, I asked the groups to revise their original plans to please the members of the other group. Each group presented its final plan. The plans included removing all the chairs to the hallway and conducting a stand-up session, arranging the chairs in six clusters of four, arranging 24 chairs in a large circle, and letting each participant own a chair and carry it around whenever a new configuration was required. We conducted a poll to choose the best approach (which turned out to be each participant lugging his or her chair around) and spent 5 minutes implementing the plan.

This activity provided valuable experiences related to communication and leadership. I conducted a debriefing discussion with these types of questions: Who assumed the leadership role? Who talked the most? Who came up with the best ideas? How did you listen to the others in your group? To the people from the other groups? How did you attempt to persuade the others? Who kept track of the time? Who took notes? What would have happened if I assigned the leader’s roles to specific participants?

These questions and the responses from the participants and the observers formed the foundation for leadership and communication principles and procedures that we explored for the rest of the day.

Instead of lecturing about leadership to begin the session, Thiagi designed a simple experience for his participants to learn by doing – and to guide the debrief towards specific learning outcomes.

Simple, yes. Effective, yes…  if we can create the conditions and ask the right questions to pique curiosity and spur reflection, then we have more tools already at our disposal than we realize.

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.