Don’t just listen to the bits you want to hear

In 1965, the United States was the most powerful country on earth, with a vast, technologically-advanced and lavishly-funded military.

But, in the Vietnam war, they found themselves facing an unusual kind of enemy. No tanks, no jet fighters, no conventional tactics. Just skinny guys in straw hats popping out of holes in the jungle and blowing things up.

So the Americans set up a specialist unit in Saigon called the Vietnam Motivation and Morale Project. Its job was to interview captured Viet Cong fighters to understand what motivated them. How did they perceive the US and the war? Did they really believe they had any chance against the most powerful army on earth?

Leon Goure, the head of the Project, became hugely influential. He sent regular briefings to all the American top brass and his conclusions were instrumental in developing US policy in Vietnam (apparently, President Lyndon Johnson used to walk around with a copy of Goure’s latest report in his back pocket).

The conclusion Goure kept feeding them, based on his analysis of 61,000 pages of prisoner interviews, was that the Viet Cong were severely demoralised and that, if pushed just a little harder, they would give up.

But there was another highly respected defence analyst, called Konrad Kellen, who disagreed. He went through the same interview transcripts as Goure and came to precisely the opposite conclusion: America could not win.

When asked why, Kellen highlighted one particular interview, in which a senior Viet Cong prisoner was asked whether he thought the Viet Cong could win the war. The prisoner said ‘no.’ Later in the interview, he was asked if he thought the USA could win the war. The prisoner said ’no’ again.

Kellen’s point was that Goure stopped listening when he got to the first ‘no’. He knew that the United States was the most powerful military nation on earth and that the Vietnamese could not possibly win – all he was looking for was confirmation from the enemy that they knew it, too.

To Kellen, however, the second answer was far more telling than the first, because it revealed an enemy who did not think about success in terms of winning or losing at all. This was a much more dangerous enemy: one who understood the hopeless odds against him and saw it as irrelevant to whether he should keep on fighting. An enemy, in other words, who would never give up.

Unfortunately for both Vietnam and the United States, no one listened to Konrad Kellen. They preferred the story Leon Goure was telling them.

Convinced they were about to break their elusive enemy’s will, the US military boosted troop numbers massively and stepped up their carpet bombing campaigns. A beautiful country was scarred beyond recognition. Hundreds of thousands of people died. And the world’s most powerful nation suffered a humiliating and generation-defining defeat at the hands of farmers in straw hats.

That’s the thing with research. If you only listen to the answers you want to hear, you’re better off not asking the question.

Moving pictures

More than 10% of all the photographs ever taken were taken in the last twelve months. That’s not because technology has changed our instincts. Quite the opposite. It’s made it easy and cheap for us to communicate in the way that’s always been most natural.

According to John Medina, the molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules, the likelihood of us hearing a piece of information and remembering it three days later is about 10% on average. If you add a picture, that likelihood goes up to 65%.

The real power of pictures, however, comes when we combine them with our other senses. The more senses we use to communicate information, the greater the chance that the audience will take it on board and remember it.

Our ancestors understood this long before they learned how to talk. They used to come together in caves deep underground and tell stories by using pictures they had painstakingly etched into the wall. You find this in every aboriginal culture in every part of the world: Africa, America, Australia, Europe, Asia.

Some of the most famous examples are from the Chauvet cave in Southern France.

For years, scientists were puzzled by the repeated patterns in many of the cave drawings: shadowy outlines of the animals and hunters in slightly different positions, as if the artists had changed their minds but been unable to erase the earlier versions.

One day, instead of the usual electric lights, they lit the cave with kerosene torches – and, as the flames flickered, it suddenly all made sense.

One of the researchers stood in front of the wall and moved his torch slowly around. His colleagues watched open-mouthed as the pictures sprang to life: the emphasis shifted from one outline to another, giving the same impression of movement that you get by tilting a flat 3-d image. 15,000 years before Pixar opened its doors, our Neolithic ancestors had invented motion graphics.

Young people entering the workforce today have grown up in a world of visual communication, where everyone has cameras on their smartphones and a choice of social media platforms to share their pictures instantly.

As someone who earns their living from writing, it’s uncomfortable to say this – but, if you’re fighting against visual communication, you’re not going to win.

Context is everything

How long would it take you to cover five miles on foot?

Depending on your level of fitness, your answer would probably be somewhere between 30 minutes and three hours.

And you’d be wrong.

Because what I didn’t tell you is that the five miles start at Everest base camp in the Himalayas and go straight up the world’s highest mountain. Even if you made it to the summit, you’d be most unlikely to cover the five miles in less than two days.

That’s the thing with information: it’s all about context.

And that’s why the first job of everyone who communicates inside a business – whether you’re the CEO or a junior project manager – is to provide a context that will make the information meaningful.

What do people need to know? What’s it got to do with them? Why should they care?

Until you can answer those three questions clearly and simply, you may as well not bother communicating.

Beware of shortcuts

In 1576, an English sailor named Martin Frobisher set off in search of the Northwest passage. It was the height of the Elizabethan craze for exploration – anyone who could find a shortcut round the obstacle of North America would have been made for life.

Unfortunately, Frobisher didn’t find the passage: after several months of frozen hardship, he was forced to give up and come home.

He didn’t come empty-handed, though. In the course of his exploration, the local Inuit tribes had given him a large lump of rock, which glittered when it caught the light. One of his officers excitedly identified it as gold ore.

On his return to London, Frobisher presented it to the Queen, who was delighted at the prospect of a gold supply to rival that of the Spanish conquistadores.

Frobisher was sent back for more. He returned with three shipfuls, to a hero’s welcome. The ore was carried up to Dartford to be smelted (something they hadn’t bothered trying with the sample), at which point they discovered it was just worthless iron pyrites – fool’s gold.

You see the same thing happen in businesses every day.

Even the most hard-nosed executives find it hard not to be seduced by the idea of shortcuts: silver bullets (if you’ll forgive me mixing my mineral metaphors) that will magically solve the business’s problems.

The trouble with silver bullets is that, every time they turn out to be duds, a little bit of credibility dies. The people who work in those businesses become so used to hearing about ‘the next big thing’ that they switch off and stop listening.

They also stop thinking about the job they were supposed to be doing (in this case, finding the Northwest passage). Because, let’s face it, if your leaders don’t seem to be thinking about it any more, why should you be?

That’s the point. You can’t expect your people to be focused on your priorities, if you keep distracting them with shiny new ones.

(In case you’re worried about Frobisher, the good news is that he bounced back from this embarrassing setback to have a distinguished and successful naval career.

The fool’s gold, meanwhile, was melted down and used as a road-covering for the area around what is now the Bank of England – which is where that story about London’s streets being paved with gold comes from).

Big data will drown you if you let it

You hear a lot about Big Data these days: using powerful computers to collect and analyse information on a massive scale.

There’s no doubt that Big Data can be a very good thing. It’s made our weather forecasts much more accurate; it’s helping scientists to model and predict natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis; and it’s giving brands the opportunity to understand and connect with customers in a more helpful and personal way.

But too much data can also be a bad thing. It can paralyse decision-making, distract attention and confer an unwarranted legitimacy on bad ideas.

IBM recently estimated that some 2.5 quintillion bytes of information are created every day. That doesn’t even sound like a real number, so perhaps I should tell you that it’s 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. Or, to put it another way, 350Mb of data for every man, woman and child on the planet. Every day.

I don’t know how long it would take you to fill up 350Mb of spreadsheet, but that sounds like quite a lot of data to me.  And, since I’m pretty sure there are some toddlers and people in the Amazon rainforest who aren’t using up their daily data quota, that means the real number the rest of us are getting through is even larger.

We generate vast amounts of information in almost everything we do every day: from the items on our supermarket checkout bill to web cookies to the CCTV cameras that follow us around town. And, increasingly, that information is being used as the backdrop and justification for nearly everything we do in business.

So, is it helping us to make better decisions? Or is it just creating confusion?

The reality is that, in many cases, the sheer scale of information available to us is overwhelming. We don’t know where to start looking – or where to stop. We often carve out data at random. And, worse, we often draw entirely the wrong conclusions from it.

I once saw the same data used in the same business to tell two totally conflicting stories. Not just opposed, but 100% diametrically opposed. What’s odd about this is that the people on both sides were acting in good faith. They didn’t hide anything. They didn’t make anything up. It’s just that they were both interpreting the data according to what they wanted to hear.

Twenty years ago, information was power. Now we’re drowning in the stuff.

The real power lies in being able to explain what it means.

Repeat after me

Repetition makes things easier to remember.

That’s one of the first things they teach you at advertising school. Most of the great brands were built on slogans that have endured for years.

Candy Cane shaped cookie cutter cutting sugar cookie dough

It must also be one of the first things they teach you at politician school. No-one who lived through the most recent UK general election can have failed to hear the words ‘strong and stable leadership’ repeated ad nauseam by anyone in a blue tie or dress.

The problem with repetition is that it’s only half the story. Getting people to remember your slogan does not necessarily translate into persuading people to buy what you’re selling. For that to happen, your slogan also has to be compelling.

‘Strong and stable leadership’ was not a compelling slogan: it was just a rather dull claim. Worse, it wasn’t even a credible claim. As Theresa May’s gaffe-laden campaign rolled off the rails and into the ditch, ‘strong and stable’ began to sound not just patronising, but needy, desperate and lacking in substance.

By contrast, ‘for the many, not the few’ was a much more compelling slogan. It was a promise that sounded like it might be worth listening to – the promise of a better, fairer country. It was positive. It was meaningful. It resonated with more impressionable, younger voters. And, unlike ‘strong and stable’, its credibility grew over time, as the words coming out of Jeremy Corbyn’s mouth seemed to chime with the promise he was making.

I don’t make this point because I have a political axe to grind (for the record, I didn’t vote for either of them).

I make it because there’s a vital lesson in here that the leadership team in every organisation can learn from. The lesson is that you can’t expect to engage people with a message that’s dull, meaningless or lacking in authenticity. You can make people remember it, but you can’t make them believe it – and you certainly can’t make them buy into it.

Repetition is part of making a message memorable. But the first, and most important, part is to have a message that’s worth remembering in the first place.

There’s a good, chemical reason for this. Whenever we see or hear something that stimulates or excites us, it sets off a little charge of dopamine in our brains. This acts like a kind of mental post-it note, making it easy for our sub-conscious to access the memory. But, if there’s nothing interesting, there won’t be any dopamine and you’re going to have to work very hard to get people to remember your message, let alone care about it.

In other words, learn from Theresa May’s experience.

You can’t bore people into paying attention, so don’t waste time worrying about whether you’re ‘on message’.

Worry about the message you’re on.

What we can learn from chickens

About 20 years ago, geneticists at Purdue University in Indiana set up an experiment to learn more about natural selection, by studying the egg-laying productivity of two groups of chickens.

In the first group, the ‘free flock’, chickens could roam and mingle as they pleased, with no pressure to produce. The second group, by contrast, was made up of all the most productive hens, housed together and encouraged to compete. The idea was to see whether increasing competition would increase productivity.

Several generations later, the free flock was laying eggs at a brisk and productive pace.  The hens seemed happy, the atmosphere calm and contented – and they passed their days doing pretty much as they pleased (which often involved laying eggs).

In the high-achievers’ flock, by contrast, the story was a rather less happy one. Many of the hens were dead, pecked to death by rival birds that had identified them as a threat. Those that survived were eking out a strained and unproductive existence, focused more on protecting themselves and harrying each other than on laying eggs.

The researchers had made a fascinating, if accidental, discovery: when you create a competitive culture among chickens, not only does it not make them more productive – it can have seriously destructive side-effects.

William Muir, the world-renowned geneticist who conducted the study, said that when he showed the carnage to one of his colleagues, she said: ‘That reminds me of my department.’

I suspect a lot of people in business might say the same.

The chicken story is one of the examples quoted by Margaret Hefferman in her book A Bigger Prize, which is a compelling deconstruction of the traditional view that competition is always a good thing.

Hefferman argues that the importance of competition in sport (fuelled by financial incentives) has prompted an epidemic of cheating, bad behaviour and destructive drug use. If you want examples, consider the chequered recent history of FIFA, the Olympics and the tour de France.

Similarly, the world of business – and particularly, in recent years, financial services – is littered with examples of bad decisions prompted by a culture of competition. Bankers offloading toxic mortgages to boost their bonus pot. Executives holding back profit, so they can hit their target in two consecutive quarters rather than declaring it all in one. Managers claiming credit for the work done by others.

As tasks and ways of working become more opaque and complex, we’re effectively encouraging people to ‘game’ the system and to put short-term self-interest ahead of bigger and more worthy motivations.

Which is not to say that competition is always a bad thing.

Just so long as we remember which flock of chickens we’d rather belong to.

The power of the tribe

Every Saturday, millions of people across the United Kingdom get dressed up in the brand uniform of a business they don’t work for.

They make tortuous journeys to get to the workplace of that business.

They give up hours, sometimes days, of their time.

They put up with appalling conditions – rain, sleet, snow, overpriced beer, dodgy burgers, personal abuse – and they’re happy to do it.

In fact, they’ll even hand over a significant portion of their income for the privilege of doing it. (By ‘it’, of course, I mean watching 11 employees of that business kick a piece of leather round a grass pitch, while 11 employees wearing a rival brand’s uniform try to take it off them).

On Monday morning, those same people walk through the door of a different business. A business where they don’t have to put up with rain driving into their faces, or questionable catering facilities. A business that pays them, instead of the other way round. A business that develops their skills and offers them a pension to look after them when they’re older.

And they’re probably quite happy to work for that business.

But they all know, deep down, that if they had to choose, they’d always choose the first business.

That’s what emotional engagement really looks like.

That’s what it means to be part of a tribe.

You can’t build a tribe by sending out all-staff emails, tinkering with identity refreshes and polishing your values statement.

If you want to get close to that kind of connection with your workforce, you need to focus on building a different kind of culture.

One based on human stories and shared experiences.

Leopard focus

A few years ago, I met a man by the name of Stephen Fear.

Stephen was 15 when he left school to start his first business. The trouble was that he needed a phone and, on the council estate in Bristol where he lived, nobody could afford a phone. So he stuck an ‘out of order’ sign on the red telephone box at the end of the road and turned that into his office.

After a while, he got friendly with the operator and persuaded her to pretend to be his secretary, so that he could talk an American cleaning products firm into making him their European distributor.

By the age of 20, he’d made his first million. Pretty focused.

Stephen Fear is now a multi-billionaire who owns more than 60 businesses. He also enjoys the rather exotic title of ‘entrepreneur in residence’ at the British Library, a role which sees him act as mentor to a wide range of budding new businesses.

One of the first things he does is to tell them this story.

A female leopard, out hunting to feed her young, will sit for hours perfectly still, watching her prey and waiting for the perfect moment to pounce.

However hot or tired or hungry or uncomfortable she becomes, the leopard will not move, will not shift her eyes, not even for one second – because, in that second, the perfect moment may be lost.

Flies buzz around her head; the leopard doesn’t move. The flies get bolder, edge closer and eventually land on her face; the leopard doesn’t move. The flies start sucking the water from inside the lids of her eyes; the leopard doesn’t move.

For hours – days, sometimes – the leopard forces herself to ignore a series of almost unimaginably torturous and uncomfortable distractions without once shifting her gaze. All she’s allowing herself to think about is catching a meal. Because, if she doesn’t, her cubs will starve.

None of the budding entrepreneurs mentored by Stephen Fear is likely to have starving children, but they all get the point. If you want your business to succeed, you have to cultivate that same leopard focus.

The trouble is that, as any business grows, it’s likely to become more complex, which makes it harder to stay focused on one thing. People get so caught up in executing detailed processes that they lose sight of why they’re doing it in the first place. They make bad decisions.

That’s why Stephen Fear keeps telling the people he’s mentoring about the leopard.

So they’ll stop getting distracted and focus their attention on the one thing that really matters.

What empowerment really looks like

Carwyn James was the Brian Clough of rugby: a brilliant coach who never managed his national team, but who was right at the heart of the golden age of Welsh rugby.

Back in the days when rugby was still an amateur game (which meant he didn’t get paid), James was the coach all the players wanted to play for – and all the other coaches secretly wanted to be.

He is still the only coach to lead a victorious Lions tour of New Zealand. In fact, he made a habit of beating the otherwise all-conquering All Blacks. He beat them with his club side, Llanelli, in 1973. A few months later, in perhaps his greatest triumph, he beat them with a scratch Barbarians side in a legendary encounter in Cardiff.

Before the Barbarians game kicked off, James wandered over to have a quiet word with Phil Bennett, his gifted, but nervous, young fly-half.

‘You’ve got a lovely sidestep, Phil’, he said. ‘But I don’t suppose you’ll use it today. Which is a shame, really. These All Blacks were built to be side-stepped. I reckon you could side-step them off the park.’

A few minutes into the game, the All Blacks kicked the ball deep into the Barbarians’ half. Bennett caught it near his own goal-line and looked up to see three All Blacks bearing menacingly down on him.

In a moment of breathtaking brilliance, he side-stepped all three and began a daring counter-attack, which resulted in a try still regarded by most rugby lovers, even 45 years later, as the greatest ever scored.

It’s a moment that perfectly sums up what made Carwyn James so successful: brilliant tactical insight, combined with a willingness to let his players express themselves – and the great gift of making them feel confident enough to do it.

He made it look effortless but, in fact, he worked very hard at it. Long before video analysis became fashionable, James used to spend hours poring over old newsreel footage of his adversaries, working out what made them tick and where to find the chinks in their armour.

But he never burdened his players with any of that detail. He told them what he’d worked out and which areas they needed to focus on. Then he gave them the freedom and confidence to make the most of his insight and their talents. He made it simple.

That’s why his players loved him. And why the crowds would always flock to watch any team he was coaching.

Sadly, Carwyn James died in 1983, when he was just 53. If he were still alive today, though, it’s a safe bet that he would be earning a very comfortable living as an ‘empowerment’ guru.

You hear a lot of businesses talk about empowerment these days.

The trouble is: most of the people who work in those businesses are so busy trying to follow the manual that they never have a chance to show off their sidestep.