The Impact of a Good Story is Greater than the Effort to Tell It

The human brain is wired for stories. It focuses, concentrates, imagines, and it learns through narratives. Our power of observation is magnified by the affect of relating oneself with the experience of others. You can’t have their experience, but you can imagine a version of it.

Throughout history, story telling has been of utmost importance. The masterful art of it has been obscured of late by the science of business i.e. measurement, evidence, and math. But as Dan Pink has stated in A Whole New Mind, a good story teller will be at a premium in the near future. Why, because the impact is still greater than the effort. A good story resonates.

For instance, Peter Bregman in his How We Work blog for the Harvard Business Review tells a tale of an interaction he had with a senior leader of a professional services firm. This firm wanted to change the culture of its organization. Most of the time when people say they want to change the culture of their company, its lip service. The company is the way it is for a reason. But as Bregman describes, it can be done:

She was a senior leader in a professional services firm, where peoplereally are their most important asset. Only it turns out the peopleweren’t so happy. Theirs was a very successful firm with high revenues,great clients, and hard working employees. But employee satisfactionwas abysmally low and turnover rates were staggeringly high. Employeeswere performing, they just weren’t staying.

This firm had developed a reputation for being a terrible place towork. When I met with the head of the firm, he illustrated the problemwith a personal example. Just recently, he told me, a client meetinghad been scheduled on the day one of his employees was getting married.”I told her she needed to be there. That the meeting was early enoughand she could still get to her wedding on time.”

He paused and then continued, “I’m not proud of that story, but it’show we’ve always operated the firm.” Then he looked at me, “So, Peter,how do you change the culture of a company?”

He goes on to pinpoint a super valuable tool – stories:

We tend to conform to the behavior of the people around us. Which iswhat makes culture change particularly challenging because everyone isconforming to the current culture. Sometimes though, the problemcontains the solution.

“Stories.” I said to the head of the firm.

“Excuse me?” he responded.

“You change a culture with stories. Right now your stories are abouthow hard you work people. Like the woman you forced to work on herwedding day. You may not be proud of it, but it’s the story you tell.That story conveys your culture simply and reliably. And I’m certainyou’re not the only one who tells it. You can be sure the bride tellsit. And all her friends. If you want to change the culture, you have tochange the stories.”

I told him not to change the performance review system, the rewardspackages, the training programs. Don’t change anything. Not yet anyway.For now, just change the stories. For a while there will be adisconnect between the new stories and the entrenched systems promotingthe old culture. And that disconnect will create tension. Tension thatcan be harnessed to create mechanisms to support the new stories.

To start a culture change all we need to do is two simple things:


  1. Do dramatic story-worthy things that represent the culture we want to create. Then let other people tell stories about it.

  2. Find other people who do story-worthy things that represent the culture we want to create. Then tell stories about them.

For example, if you want to create a faster moving, lessperfectionist culture, instead of berating someone for sending an emailwithout proper capitalization, send out a memo with typos in it.

Or if you want managers and employees to communicate more effectively,stop checking your computer in the middle of a conversation every timethe new message sound beeps. Instead, put your computer to sleep whenthey walk in your office.

Or if you’re trying to create a more employee-focused culture, insteadof making the bride work on her wedding day, give her the week off.

We live by stories. We tell them, repeat them, listen to them carefully, and act in accordance with them.

We can change our stories and be changed by them.

Two Year Anniversary for Working Thoughts – Part 2

Yesterday was the two year anniversary of Working Thoughts. I’m very proud of this blog and I feel like any success that comes with it is deserved. But the reality is, the hard work is the reward in and of itself.

So on to the interesting facts and opinions I’ve pulled over the last 731 days (leap year).

Blog Stats:
371 entries or about an entry every other day
81 different countries have at least viewed Working Thoughts once
48 states (no Alaska or Wyoming)

Top Entries:
Too Many CEOs Think They are One of the Very Few  – 5.20%
Bubbles are Bursting – 3.17%
Sizing Up the New Guy – 3.13%
Education is Getting an Overdue National Review – 2.80%
1st Blog Entry – 2.27%
Dyslexia and Entrepreneurs – 1.97%

Interesting Facts:
For the US to add jobs it needs its GDP to be at least 2.5%
For China to add jobs it needs its GDP to be at least 7.5%
The top 400 wealthiest Americans have the same amount of wealth as the aggregate of the bottom 51% of Americans
Chinese exports account for 80% of toys, 85% of footwear, and 40% of clothing
7.5% of American spending on consumer goods is from China

The middle class in China is expected to multiply sevenfold by 2020 to 700 million people
The middle class of India is expected to multiply by tenfold to 583 million people
Wal-Mart’s (WMT, Fortune 500) international sales grew 17.5% this year  (triple the US) and now constitute 24% of the company’s total revenue, up from 8.9% a decade ago
Health Coverage: In 1993 – 35 million Americans without insurance. In 2008 – 50 million Americans without insurance
Wealth Distribution: In 1980 – the top 1% richest Americans accounted for 8% of total national income. In 2008 – the top 1% richest Americans account for 20% of total national income.
The last time the top 1% accounted for 20% of total national income was 1928
Adjusted Tax Returns:

Total income increase by $619.2 Billion, an 8.3% increase

Average Wage:

Alex Rodriguez’s is paid $20,000 an inning
At the City University of New York philosophy majors are up 51% since 2002. At Rutgers the number of philosophy majors has doubled since 2002
The group born from 1977 and 1997 (Net Geners) is 81 million people: 27% of the US population
The group born from 1946 to 1964 (the baby boomers) is 77 million people: 23% of the US population
Baby Boomers watch TV 22.4 hours a week
Net Geners watch TV 17.4 hours a week but spend between 8 and 31 hours a week on the internet
Problem solving comes in differentflavors. It can be analytically, procedurally, relationally (collaboratively), and/or innovatively

Predictions:
Most proud of Peanut Butter and Pasta because I nailed the recession start period. I observed it starting at the end of October of 2007.

  • The group that determines recessions said the US began its recession in December of 2007

Olympic Prediction (not for the reasons I state but pretty close nonetheless. I claimed the US economy would fall off a cliff on August 25th, 2008. It went down two weeks later.
My jobs prediction for a V shape isn’t correct just yet (we’ll know a good deal more on Friday). And my depth isn’t correct. I certainly
hope my theory that the US has gotten pretty good at allocating personnel resources.
In my Productivity Pays – The CEO post I state that I’m dismayed that gains from productivity aren’t currently affecting the US consumer. I then wonder what will change this course. In September of 2007 I realized that borrowing was way out of whack with pay checks.

Interviews (more in the future):
Norm Bogner of 4Refuel
Robin Fisher Roffer of The Fearless Fish Out of Water: How to Succeed When You’re the Only One Like You
Joy Bergmann of Fahrenheit 212

Reviews:
The Fearless Fish Out of Water: How to Succeed When You’re the Only One Like You
Grown Up Digital
Glassdoor.com and Jobschmob.com
Johnny Bunko
Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions

I have another great year planned. I have several reviews coming down the pipe and some interviews lined up.

Two Year Anniversary for Working Thoughts – Part 1

Today is the two year anniversary of Working Thoughts.

Events like this remind of why I started this blog in the first place. It was a tumultuous time in my career. I reached a point in my job where I learned everything that role had to offer and I was frustrated. I eventually found a fit where I could expand my experience and learn new skills. But it was entirely more difficult than I thought it should be.

During this period I did a lot of self reflection. I thought to myself “Why weren’t they bending over backwards to give me challenging projects?” and “I just finished a program that will have a multimillion dollar and lasting save impact for this company.” It wasn’t  my work habits or my skills that were holding me back (they are more than adequate for this point in my career). I realized corporate growth depends on timing and relationships, not just ambition and over achievement.

The strategy most people take is to expand their network and step up their self promotion. This works very well because it improves the odds of being in the right place at the right time. But I took a step back and thought to myself “that’s a tiresome process. If I’m going to do it, then I might as well do it globally.”

This requires a thorough plan, which I have and won’t get into now. But my first step was to create a blog. I figured a blog about macro level Human Resources would be a good fit. It’s what I have my degree in and I still follow it daily (my day job is technology based). This would result in expanding my knowledge base in the field of personnel as well as help me learn how to improve my writing. A half hour to an hour every other day practicing research, forming opinions, and writing can’t be a bad thing.

Other parts of my global plan are now underway and you can read about them in the coming year, but in the mean time check out Two Year Anniversary for Working Thoughts – Part 2 for some fun facts, findings,and insight I’ve discovered over the last two terrific years.

One View of Control and Circumstance

“… ain’t this just like the present, to be showing up like this”

“Blood Bank” by Bon Iver

We take snapshots of our lives all the time. The concept of a blog exemplifies this notion. We can think we have everything figured out; we can plan, and we can prepare, but most of the time your life is altered by something you couldn’t predict. Which gets me to the point of this entry – control.

The reality is circumstances shape the situations we face day in and day out. To ultimately change those circumstances you have to do two things you can control: take a risk to escape them and be disciplined with the follow through. In other words, you have to sacrifice all of the aspects that aren’t so bad to really separate yourself from the part that is. And of course, there is no sure thing, so you are risking an outcome that isn’t any better than the life you just left.

But here is where perspective comes in. If you take a daily stock of all the positives in a bad situation, then they seem to add up to  something worthwhile. But that is on a daily scale. When you look at it over a time period of say five years, you realize that all those daily positives don’t really add to anything. They were all fleeting. Both  views take into consideration control.

There is something to be said for being self reliant and seeing a goal materialize within minutes or hours of beginning the effort. We all have some internal clock that says if it takes longer than a month for example then it all of sudden gets much harder. And the only thing that changed was the length of time. We just struggle to envision something, in realistic terms, that far out.

To compensate, we break up our work into chunks that add up to something more grand. For me, its this blog. 30 minutes every other day doesn’t seem like much, but over two years it really adds up to something substantial.

For example, here is an excerpt that I like on the subject. Its by Leonard Mlodinow in an NY Times blog entry called The Limits of Control:

My mother had always feared domestic animals, but now as a plumpneighborhood cat ran up our driveway, she gazed at the feline, andrevealed that 70 years ago she had had a pet cat. Her 87-year-old eyesteared up. Her cat was white, she said, and so thin you could see itsribs. Still, she loved to cuddle it. It wasn’t a house cat – itcouldn’t have been, because she was imprisoned at the time, in aforced-labor camp the Nazis set up in Poland, the country where mymother was born and raised. Back then she was as emaciated as the cat,but still she shared her food with it. It gave her comfort she said,and it was a way of fighting back, to help this animal that, like her,the Germans planned to let die.

My mother’s illusion came to an end when, one day, her labor camp catstopped coming. She never learned exactly what happened to it.Unfortunately, that became a template for nameless outcomes by whichher sister, her father, and most of her friends disappeared. Of hermany illusions of youth that the Nazis snuffed out, the feeling thatshe could control her destiny was one of the most difficult to accept.But for my mother, and for all those who lived through similarexperiences, surviving meant not only possessing a special toughness ofbody, but also of mind. She found a way to face the world without theillusion of control, of dealing with life as it comes, day to day,without expectation.

It’s not that my mother hasn’t lost money, or that she doesn’t need it.She isn’t bothered because her early experiences of utter powerlessnesstaught her to give herself up to what she calls fate. Understanding myown need for control – and exactly why I cannot have it – I now takecomfort in letting go of the illusion, and accepting that despite allmy efforts and planning some aspects of my future are beyond my sphereof influence. That realization has given me permission not to kickmyself for the losses I have incurred. That can be a liberating thoughtin trying times like these, or any times at all.

An Interview with Joy Bergmann of Fahrenheit 212

I  recently had a comment on my website from the people at Fahrenheit 212. They are a company that offers firms a means of coming up with innovative ideas for their markets. Since I think business models that successfully turn ideas into more than just ideas, I asked Joy Bergmann to do an email interview with me and she agreed. Here is our exchange:

1) What is Fahrenheit 212 all about?
At Fahrenheit 212, we’re all about bigger ideas, faster to market.

Fahrenheit 212 is an innovation consultancy that helps major companies to define strategic growth opportunities, to create and develop new products/businesses and to commercialize those ideas in the marketplace.
 
http://www.fahrenheit-212.com/#
 
We’re leaders in the “outsourcing of innovation.” We bring fresh,“outsider” perspectives to our clients’ toughest growth challenges.More importantly, we don’t just weigh in with strategies. We create a fully dimensional portfolio of big, doable, fast-to-market ideas that deliver top-line growth.
 
http://www.fahrenheit-212.com/#/innovation/what-we-do/grow-your-top-line/
 

2) What range of client size do you serve?
Fahrenheit 212 works with Fortune 500 global companies in every sector. Our clients include Capital One, Starwood, Coca-Cola, Samsung, Nestle,Gucci Group, Fonterra, and adidas to name a few.
 
http://www.fahrenheit-212.com/#/innovation/what-we-do/who-we-work-for/
 

3) Is it true that Fahrenheit 212 co-invests in the solutions they offer? If yes, how does this work?
We’re an outcomes-driven business. Rather than get paid for time on task, we deploy a performance-based business model.  
 
Two-thirds of our potential fees are contingent on hitting agreed project milestones. This frames every engagement as a genuine commercial partnership where we all have skin in the game. Clients love that we are incented to deliver “ideas on the money.” And do so!
 
http://www.fahrenheit-212.com/#/innovation/how-we-work/our-business-model/
 

4) What would you say is the biggest success of the company?
That’s like choosing your favorite child! We have dozens of ideas either in market or on the path to market.
 
One recent success – our Samsung LCD innovation project. Samsung came to Fahrenheit 212 looking to unlock new markets for its LCD screens –markets capable of moving 600,000 additional screens [over 10”] annually.  We delivered a portfolio of 10 big, doable ideas; each oneoffering that level of opportunity.
 
Two of these ideas are now in market:  Samsung ID [an interlocking display system transformingthe trade show and retailing industries] and Samsung uVending[revolutionizing the vending machine sector through networked,multimedia technology.]
 
We’re now working with Samsung on other initiatives. Very exciting!
 
http://www.fahrenheit-212.com/#/innovation/about-fahrenheit-212/case-studies/
 
 
5) During tough economic times, how do you communicate your business proposition to potential clients?
We believe in innovating for the recession. We’re advising clients that they have an opportunity to‘win against the hill’ during this crisis. While their competitors stay inert, they can race ahead with bigger – if fewer – growth initiatives and come out far ahead of the paralyzed pack.  
 
We’re especially keen on helping clients unlock new revenue from their EXISTING assets. The Samsung project above is a great example. Samsung already had the LCD infrastructure; Samsung needed fresh ideas on new markets and applications to drive entirely new revenue streams.
 
We invite you to learn more about “Unlocking Hidden Assets” and“Innovating for a Recession.” Check out these and other thought pieces here:
 
http://www.fahrenheit-212.com/#/innovation/about-fahrenheit-212/our-thinking/
 

6) What is the typical time horizon for an engagement?

Our process is structured in four phases – Immersion, Development,Evolution, Actualization. Most engagements typically run five months from kick-off to size-of-prize assessment ­– spanning the first three phases.  Most projects extend into the fourth phase – Actualization –advancing ideas into and through the commercialization process.
 
http://www.fahrenheit-212.com/#/innovation/how-we-work/our-process/
 
7)If Fahrenheit 212 helps other companies be innovative, then you must have some very talented individuals working there. How would you describe them or what characteristics do they have?
The Fahrenheit 212 crew is without question the most remarkable group I’ve ever encountered. Everyone here is witty, well-traveled, energetic,caring and madly CURIOUS.

Lots of companies like to think of their culture as collaborative, but ours is relentlessly so. Teams propel each other to smarter strategies, better ideas and bigger wins.What’s extraordinary is how constructive, fun and supportive the whole vibe is.

We’re also quite diverse. Though a small firm, we hail from five different countries and celebrate our differences. For example, one innovation director was born in Lebanon, raised in France and Canada, studied architecture, has a foodie blog, aspires to be a perfumer and considers a typical morning to include revolutionizing consumer banking, inventing a new cocktail category and designing a necklace. One illustrator is also a licensed massage therapist, a weekend taxidermist and a museum-worthy oil painter. We’re not a dull group!

8) Suppose someone was considering applying for a job at Fahrenheit 212, what advice would you give them?
Showcase your breadth of experiences, your deep intelligence and your vibrant personality. We love individuals who enjoy contributing to a clever group, but don’t fall prey to “group-think.”

It’s a dynamic, exciting business to be in. We encourage you or your readers to contact us to find out more. Thanks, Ben!

Using a Math Equation to Push for Change

I’ve been thinking about math a lot lately, especially as it pertains to business. I ran across one simple equation in Alan Webber’s Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self that I really liked (I’ll do a review of it at some point). It is:

C(SQ)>R(c)

which can be read as the Cost of maintaining the Status Quo is greater than the Risk of the change. Basically, nothing is getting done unless this formula can be proven. Sometimes the left side is drastically increased through events like mergers and sometimes the risk of a change is tempered by preparation practices like having standards in place. Either way, it’s important to get your company management to see this equation. And the more lopsided it is, the better.

Working Thoughts 06/18/09
Electronic Medical Records Domino

Resilient Attitudes are Rare

I’m a few months away from launching a project. My first foray into entrepreneurship. It’s something I think about through every day. I’m somewhat at a fork in the road in regards to preparation though. I have the product coming along and I know I need to do a solid business plan, but I also don’t want to get wrapped up in the scholarly aspects of it. So far I’ve let this project evolve, but I might be getting to a tipping point with it.

With this in mind, I ran across a great blog post by Scott Anthony over to hbr.com. In his post titled Four Lessons from Y-Combinator’s Fresh Approach to Innovation he highlights four lessons that big companies can take from incubators. Here is an excerpt:

  1. You can do a lot for a little.
  2. Tight windows enable “good enough” design. 
  3. Business plans are nice, not necessary. Y
    Combinator doesn’t obsess over whether entrepreneurs have detailed
    business plans. Again, the focus is getting something out in the market
    to drive iteration and learning. After all, if you are trying to create
    a market, most of the material in a business plan is assumption-based
    anyway.
  4. Failure is an option. One
    of the benefits of the Y Combinator approach is it forces quick
    decision making — if the team can’t produce a prototype, or the
    prototype bombs in market, the end comes quickly. And the low, up-front
    investment makes it easier to wind down ideas. Corporations that say
    they lack resources often have those resources tied up in the wrong
    projects. Saying no is not a bad thing.

I particularly like the last two. The business plan one I like because it reinforces my decision about how much I currently need to give to it. And the Failure is an option one is right in line with what I was thinking recently. There are so many high school and college graduates out there right now that have the opportunity to play it safe or take the exciting path. Most will play if safe because then they won’t fail. But others will take the exciting path and along the way fail. But they will also succeed. This resilient attitude is rare.