Why change is so hard

Upton Sinclair was an American poet and political activist, who ran for the Governorship of California in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression.

His campaign slogan was ‘End poverty in California’ – EPIC, for short. His policies were radical, socialist solutions, based on collective work and shared food resources.

At the time, California was full of extremely poor people, with no jobs, no money and very little food – so Sinclair’s ideas generated plenty of interest and support.

But, when it came to the crunch, voters rejected him in favour of a more mainstream candidate with more familiar policies. They just couldn’t get their heads around the idea of such radical change.

As Sinclair himself put it, ‘it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’

I thought about that this morning, as I was picking my way through the tent village erected by Extinction Rebellion activists at the bottom of Trafalgar Square.

The ‘rebels’ I encountered were, broadly, likeable and articulate people.

Their demands seem reasonable: tell the truth about climate change and set up a citizens’ assembly to take the lead on what we should do about it.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with their cause. The science is compelling and the clock is ticking. Nobody really wants the planet to be irretrievably damaged, or their grandchildren to have to travel to Mars to create a habitable environment.

So why are we not all pitching tents alongside them?

I don’t have a good answer for that. But I suspect it’s a combination of self-interest (my salary depends on the status quo), fear of radical change (I don’t trust well-meaning hippies to come up with a better social system) and the nagging suspicion that none of it will make any difference until the people at the top of the world’s big economies adopt these ideas as their own.

Which is, of course, what stops change working in most businesses.

Even when confronted with the burningest of burning platforms, most of us will still wait for a signal from the people in charge before we jump.

In other words, the single most important factor in making change happen is credible leadership.

The voters of California decided that Upton Sinclair didn’t have it.

But, when Franklin Roosevelt adopted a lot of Sinclair’s ideas into his New Deal, he had the power and credibility of the Presidential office (as well as a Congressional majority) to back him up.

The question for Extinction Rebellion – and all of us – is: where will that credible leadership come from today?

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

What’s your bottom line?

Two weeks ago, something quite interesting happened in corporate America.

B Corp, a group of around 30 CEOs from leading US and international corporations (including Ben & Jerry’s, Danone and Patagonia) took out a full page ad in the New York Times, urging their peers to commit to a more ethical way of doing business.

The ad was in the form of an open letter from the group to members of the influential Business Round Table, which is made up of 181 of the most prominent CEOs in America, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook.

B Corp describes itself as ‘a fair trade label for companies – a global movement of people using business as a force for good’.

Their underlying idea is to shift from a culture that prioritises shareholder profits above everything else, to one where employees and the environment get equal billing: a ‘triple bottom line’.

B Corp argues that this encourages longer term thinking. Which, as well as making for fairer and more socially-useful businesses, ultimately delivers more sustainable long-term value to shareholders.

It’s hardly a new idea. In fact, just a week earlier, the Round Table had issued its own statement, re-defining the ‘purpose of a corporation’ to give equal weight to social and environmental interests. In other words, the same triple bottom line.

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan and the Round Table’s Chairman, said he hoped the statement would ‘help to set a new standard for corporate leadership.’

So why did B Corp feel the need to press for a firmer commitment?

Perhaps because the Round Table hasn’t always been consistent in its thinking.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, when the US economy was booming, they promoted a similarly inclusive definition of a corporation’s purpose.

But, in 1997, when the global economy started to look a little more challenging, they rowed back on this progressive thinking and defined corporate purpose in much narrower, shareholder-first terms – and that’s where they’ve stayed ever since, until last month’s statement.

Which is why the B Corp open letter is so interesting.

They’re essentially challenging America’s biggest businesses to put their money where their mouth is.

Don’t just talk about a better model of business, they’re saying.

Commit to it.

Sign up.

Become a B Corp member.

It’s an interesting challenge because, if you do sign up, you’re changing the way decisions are made in your business.

For instance, using tricky loopholes to get round inconvenient tax rules (good for shareholder returns) would no longer be something you could justify (bad for the wider community).

And what happens when the global economy goes through another downturn – as economic indicators seem to suggest may happen soon?

Will your shareholders accept lower profits and smaller dividends, while you reinvest to protect your workforce and make your business more sustainable in the long term?

Or will they fire you?

As Bill Bernbach used to say, a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.

Let’s see if the Business Round Table are really willing to live up to the bold words in their statement.

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

 

 

You have to give people a reason to care

If you go in the men’s bathrooms at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (and I realise some of you never will, so I’ve attached a pic), you’ll notice there’s a fly hand-painted on the ceramic of every urinal.

The flies are there because airport bosses had become concerned about the amount of time and money being spent on cleaning round the urinals.

It turned out male passengers were too distracted or in too much of a hurry to pay attention to their aim. Over time, these little spillages added up to a sizeable cleaning bill and a fairly unpleasant experience for travellers.

The airport’s facilities team tried a number of different ways to encourage urinal-users to be more fastidious: from polite cajoling to threatening notices to spot fines. Nothing seemed to make any difference.

Then some bright spark came up with the idea of the flies.

Men are instinctively competitive creatures, they suggested. You can keep giving them rational reasons to improve their aim and they’ll just keep tuning them out. Whereas, if you give them a target to aim at, they won’t want to miss.

The bright spark was right.

Accuracy in the trial urinal areas improved dramatically. Cleaning costs fell like a stone. And, since the painted flies have been rolled out to the rest of the airport, savings now run into many millions of Euros.

It’s a good example of the ‘nudge’ theory in action.  It’s also an example worth bearing in mind next time someone asks you to run a ‘serious’ communication campaign.

Because the best way of getting people to change their behaviour is not to keep banging on at them with rational arguments that they’re not interested in.

It’s to reframe the problem in a way that makes them want to engage with it.

It’s not (just) about the money

Ten years ago, management guru Daniel Pink wrote a book called Drive. It was a provocative book, because it challenged the received wisdom that the best way to get people to try harder is to offer them more money.

Pink quotes a study from MIT, in which students were given a series of different tasks to perform – first with no incentive and then with the incentive of a monetary reward. There were three levels of reward: low performers would only get a small reward, middling performers did slightly better and those who performed each task best would get a significantly higher reward than the others – the classic pay-for-performance reward model you find in most businesses.

The results were intriguing.

For simple, mechanical tasks, the rewards worked exactly in line with the received wisdom: performance improved where there was a financial incentive to do better.

However, as soon as there was even a small cognitive element to the task (solving a puzzle, for instance), the average performance actually got worse when a financial incentive was introduced.

That may sound surprising. But there is now a substantial body of evidence to support the conclusion that, for heuristic tasks – tasks that require some degree of conceptual or creative thinking – greater financial incentives actually lead to poorer performance.

Worse than that, they can turn your employees against each other.

In a separate study by the American psychologist Kathleen Vohs, half the subjects were primed beforehand with subtle cues to put the idea of money unconsciously into their brains: a stack of monopoly notes on a table, a computer with a screensaver of dollar bills floating in water, and so on.

The researchers then carried out a series of experiments. In the first, one of the researchers ‘accidentally’ dropped some pencils on the floor. The money-primed subjects were much less willing to help pick them up than the control group.

In another, the subjects were told they were going to have a get-to-know-you conversation with a fellow participant and asked to set up two chairs facing each other. The money-primed subjects set them an average of 118cm apart, while the others set them an average of just 80cm apart.

In other words, people who are distracted by financial incentives are much less likely to be empathetic and much more likely to act from self-interest.

Which means that, if you’re relying on money to motivate your people, you may be unconsciously undermining your own performance.

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

 

If you can remember it, you weren’t there…

This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival – widely regarded as one of the most important musical events of all time.

Woodstock allowed people in Vietnam-era America to believe another world was possible. It defined a generation and became a catalyst for a different way of thinking.

It brought liberal ideas into the mainstream, as people who’d spent their lives cast as outsiders suddenly realised there were plenty of other people who felt the same way they did.

Of course, that’s not how everybody experienced it at the time. In amongst the dewy-eyed reminiscences of peace and love, you’ll find descriptions of 15-mile traffic queues, basic sanitation that was quickly overwhelmed by a crowd ten times larger than anyone had anticipated, scheduling delays, sound problems – and a devastating storm that ripped through the festival on Saturday night and turned the field into a quagmire. If it happened at Glastonbury, people would be wanting their money back.

So it’s probably just as well that the song which best articulates ‘the spirit of Woodstock’ was written by someone who wasn’t actually there.

Joni Mitchell was supposed to be playing a small set at Woodstock, but her manager, terrified that the traffic gridlock would disrupt a scheduled TV appearance, made her pull out. She wrote the song ‘Woodstock’ in a Manhattan apartment.

David Crosby (who was at the festival and later became one of 347 artists to cover the song) described Mitchell’s song as ‘the perfect description’ of what Woodstock represented, rather than what it actually was.

When Crosby, Stills and Nash released their version of it, it went straight to number one – alongside the three-hour film of the festival, which filled cinemas up and down America, as an entire generation suddenly wanted to be a part of what was becoming a cultural phenomenon.

So, when baby boomers talk about Woodstock, they’re not usually talking about the festival itself. They’re talking about the spirit of the festival, as articulated in the song and the film.

That’s the thing about change. When you’re experiencing it, it often feels difficult and uncomfortable and chaotic.

Which is why, sometimes, you need to just take a step back and make sense of it. If you can do that, if you can articulate the change in a way that captures what it means, why it matters and how it feels when it’s at its best – that’s when you’ve got a chance of making the change stick.

If all anybody remembers is the mud and the traffic jams, you’ll never change anything.

When gestures trump words

Whatever else you may think of Donald Trump (and, let’s face it, even by his standards, he’s had a bizarre couple of weeks), it’s hard to deny that he’s an effective communicator. A large part of that is to do with the way he uses his hands.

The BBC made a short film about it when he first won the Presidency, which you can still find online.

The key point is the way he uses big, vague, airy movements, to characterise his opponents’ policies – then follows up with very precise, focused gestures to characterise his own. ‘Chaos’ versus ‘clarity’.

What’s interesting is that, even though a lot of what he’s saying doesn’t stand up to robust intellectual scrutiny, it doesn’t matter – because most of the audience is more influenced by his hands than by his words. His gestures make people believe him.

‘Wow’, they think. ‘This guy really knows how to cut through the bullshit and make stuff happen.’

Now, I’m not suggesting Trump is a leadership model you should copy. But I do think there’s an important lesson in this for all of us – and last month’s Harvard Business Review includes an interesting piece of research to back it up.

Joep Cornelissen is a Professor of Communication at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

He and his team contacted a large number of established investors and, posing as entrepreneurs, asked if they could send a video pitching a new piece of medical tech.

They sent out four different versions of the video, all featuring the same ‘entrepreneur’ (actually a Dutch actor).

Version one used a lot of figurative language to describe the new invention.

Version two included regular hand motions to help explain the idea.

Version three used both.

Version four used neither.

The results were striking: investors who watched version two of the video were 12% more likely to invest than any of the other groups. In other words, when you’re pitching an idea, gestures matter a lot more than what you say.

This was not what Cornelissen and his team had been expecting. Given the widespread reliance on analogies and storytelling when pitching ideas, they’d assumed use of language would be key.

In fact, the investors said they had a much more tangible sense of what the product was, and how it would work, when they saw the hand gestures. It reassured them, in the same way Trump’s audience is reassured by his repeated ‘wave and pinch’ gesturing.

The trick, it seems, is to use gestures selectively. Not just waving your hands all the time, but finding one or two killer gestures that lend weight and conviction to your key points.

Of course, it’s also important to remember who your audience is – and what they’re likely to be focused on.

When Cornelissen repeated the experiment with his students, he found they were much more likely to be swayed by the figurative language, because their primary interest was to understand the idea. Whereas investors are more interested in understanding the person pitching it: Do I believe them? Am I confident they can deliver?

A point worth keeping in mind for any CEO with a change agenda they need to engage their business with.

The right stuff

If you visit The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, one of the exhibits you’ll find in the space exploration section is a stopwatch.

At first glance, it seems fairly unremarkable.

Until you discover it’s the watch used by NASA flight technician Bob Carlton, to keep track of how much time was left before the fuel on the Apollo 11 moon landing craft would run out.

The clock is stopped with 18 seconds remaining.

In other words, after over two hours spent trying to find a safe place to set the landing craft down, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had just 18 seconds left before they would have to abort the mission and return to earth.

Man might never have set foot on the moon.  The world we grew up in might have felt a very different place.

So those 18 seconds are incredibly significant.

The position of the hands on the stopwatch is a permanent reminder of the moment when mankind became a species that could define its future in terms of more than one planet.

And, recognising the significance of the moment, Bob Carlton was determined to preserve it.

He put the watch in a box, took it home and locked it in his desk drawer.

A week later, he took it out and was perplexed to see that the hands were stopped at 22 seconds. Had he called the wrong time – made a mistake under pressure? Alarmed, he put the watch back and resolved not to mention it to anyone.

The following week, he looked again. This time, the hands were on 31 seconds. What was going on? Was the mechanism faulty? Had there been a risk to the mission? Did he need to report it?

The real explanation was more prosaic. Carlton’s teenage daughter was a drum majorette – she had found the watch in her dad’s desk and, not realising its significance, had used it to time her baton-twirling routines.

So the hands on the stopwatch you see in the Smithsonian are not stuck in the precise position they were in at the historic moment of touchdown.

They’re in the closest approximation Bob Carlton could get them into, before handing the watch over to the Museum 50 years ago.

Does that matter? Does knowing it reduce the significance of the watch – or its authenticity as a historical record?

Not really.

The point is not the watch. The point is the story – and what it tells us about the guts, determination and ingenuity of people who were prepared to fly hundreds of thousands of miles in a metal can to set foot on a totally alien environment.

You could melt the watch down and replace it with a fake one made out of cheese and it wouldn’t make any difference.

Because it’s not the symbol that matters. It’s the story behind it.

That’s something worth keeping in mind next time your business sets out on a mission to ‘rebrand’ itself.

People will agonise for weeks (or sometimes years) about the best colour ways, the ‘right’ font, the optimum balance between the logotype and the end-line.

And none of those things will make the slightest difference, if the business doesn’t also stand for something meaningful to the people who work there and the customers it serves.

Real brand is never about ‘branding’. It’s about having the right stuff.

Photo – The Smithsonian Institution – Museum of Space and Aeronautics

How to sabotage your own reputation

When you buy a ticket for an airline flight, what do you think you’re buying?

The ability to travel from A to B at the date and time on your ticket?

Not according to British Airways.

(Regular readers of this blog may sigh to hear me bring up that name again – but bear with me. I promise there’s a point…)

When I complained to BA recently about bumping me off a flight back from Texas, they handled it every bit as badly as the original incident (which is to say, they ignored it completely, until I sent a second stroppy letter to their CEO – at which point, they offered a grudging apology and a few quid off another flight).

The most interesting part was that they denied liability for any losses caused by the delay, because they said they weren’t contractually obliged to carry me on the flight they’d sold me the ticket for.

This didn’t seem to make sense, so I checked twice, to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. I hadn’t. They said: ‘BA reserves the right not to let you on the flight if we’ve oversold it.’

In other words, when you buy a ticket from BA, what you’re actually buying is the ability to travel from A to B at a time that suits the airline, even if it totally disrupts your own plans.

Or, to put it another way, if you’re counting on BA to get you to a meeting, or a concert, or a family wedding on time, you’d better hope you’re one of the lucky ones that doesn’t get bumped off when they sell more tickets than they have seats on the plane.

You might think this is a rather odd policy for an airline that claims to pride itself on customer experience.

Until you remember it’s the same airline that, this week, got hit with a £183m fine for letting hackers access its customers’ confidential data.

‘This fine isn’t fair’, whined BA’s management. ‘We’re all about customers – we’ve just spent loads on some new bag drops at Heathrow. How can we be the bad guys here?’

And that’s the point. BA just don’t get it.

You can have the best bag-drops in the world. The fanciest menus. The softest cushions.

And none of that matters if you can’t get the basic elements of customer experience right. Such as taking people where they want to go when you said you would. And not exposing their personal and financial data to criminals.

If your customers can’t trust you, nothing else matters – and, if BA really cared about their customers’ experience, they’d know that.

But they don’t. And that’s why they’re now £183m worse off.

Time for another tea party?

Alex Morgan

Winning the world cup on Sunday was the second most interesting story involving the USA women’s football team last week.

The most interesting was the unlikely twitter-storm that erupted when USA striker Alex Morgan celebrated her winning semi-final goal against England by pretending to drink a cup of tea.

You might think that sounds fairly tame, but England’s players – and most of the UK tabloids – were outraged. ‘Distasteful’ and ‘disrespectful’, they fumed.

Morgan herself tried to deflect criticism with an unconvincing explanation that her celebration was linked to the expression ‘that’s the tea’, which has recently become a thing in American popular culture.

The US tabloids, however, were in no doubt what she really meant – and they loved it. ‘Not since Boston dumped it in the sea has England been dissed with tea like this’ crowed the New York Post.

To understand why such an apparently innocuous gesture should carry so much weight, you have to understand the significance of The Boston Tea Party in defining America’s national identity.

This was the night, in 1773, when colonists in Massachussets sneaked aboard an East India Company ship and tossed its cargo of tea into Boston harbour.

The colonists were furious that the East India Company was being allowed to sell tea in the American states, without paying tax – while local tea importers, who did have to pay tax, found it impossible to compete.

The British authorities responded with fierce reprisals – and many see this as the catalyst for the War of independence which followed three years later.

So Morgan’s gesture is interesting for three reasons.

First, because it reminds us how important storytelling is as a way of defining identity.

Second, because it reminds us that facts are much less important than interpretation. In this case, the actions of the colonists might be seen as heroic and defiant. Or they might also be characterised as drunken hooliganism, criminal damage and even racism (many of them were dressed as native Americans, arguably in the hope that any repercussions would fall on the already-oppressed original owners of the land they had colonised).

The third reason is because the Boston Tea Party reminds us how angry people get when they see wealthy, powerful corporations being allowed to skirt around the tax rules that apply to all their smaller and less well-connected competitors.

Something a few large American corporations (Amazon, Google, Apple) might care to reflect on when deciding how much tax they ought to pay in the United Kingdom.

That’s the thing about fairness. It’s much more fun to talk about when you’re not the bad guy.

Why the world’s favourite airline doesn’t like passengers

British Airways has always prided itself on its customer service.

Its website tells you that ‘the British Airways experience is more than a flight. For us, it’s about making every single journey special’.

So, when I booked a flight back from Texas to London for last night, I knew I was in safe hands.

I knew there was no way I’d miss the concert I was going to in Oxford tonight.

Well, I suppose there was always a chance the flight could have been spectacularly delayed. Luckily, that didn’t happen. The plane took off bang on time.

The problem is: I wasn’t on it.

I was standing at the gate, watching it leave, because my seat had been allocated to someone else – even though that seat had been booked for over a month and even though they’d checked me in for the flight four hours earlier.

The BA ground crew frowned at the computer screen and pretended to be ‘trying to understand’ what went wrong. Their suggestions varied from ‘you must have booked late’ to ‘there must be a glitch in the system’.

They didn’t really think any of these things was true, of course. They just wanted to keep me and the other unlucky ones quiet until the plane had left.

If you fly regularly, you already know what really happened. BA ‘oversold’ the flight – they sold tickets to more passengers than there were seats on the plane.

This is a fairly common thing for airlines to do, because their data tells them a small percentage of passengers will usually drop out of a flight at the last moment. So, rather than fly their planes with empty seats (which costs them money), they oversell the flights and gamble that the numbers will balance out.

Sometimes (like Thursday night), the gamble doesn’t pay off and they have to figure out what to do with the spare people.

The first thing they can do is upgrade you (no one minds that, right?) But, when there are no empty seats in first class, that doesn’t work.

So the next thing they do is choose some unlucky people (in this case, me) and just don’t let you on the plane. They tell you they’ve got no idea how ‘the system’ got it wrong, but they’ll put you on another flight that will get you there not much later and they’ll give you some money to compensate you.

Only, in this case, the other flight wasn’t working either. Which is why, instead of watching Lauryn Hill in Blenheim Park with my girlfriend on Friday night, I am typing this in a nasty hotel on the outskirts of Austin.

I realise that sounds a bit self-absorbed (‘poor me’), so let me get to the point.

The point is that it doesn’t matter how many times you tell your employees ‘nothing matters more than our customers’, if your processes teach them to screw those customers over and tell them lies when it suits you.

BA stopped calling itself the world’s favourite airline a few years ago.

My advice? You may as well save yourself a bit more money and cut out all that ‘customer experience’ training for your staff.

Trust me: they know it’s bollocks.