Kerrying On

Life's a Speech

When John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd started rehearsing the 1981 film Neighbors, one of the greatest casting errors in the history of movies was set into action. John, true to type, had been cast as the zany neighbor and Dan as the conservative one. For reasons only the two of them will ever know, Belushi and Aykroyd insisted on reversing roles. Now, thousands of fans would be able to watch John Belushi—the greatest maniac of all time—acting controlled and normal. What a disaster. By the time the director shouted, “It’s a wrap,” everyone associated with the film was convinced they had just created a train wreck that couldn’t be saved in post.

Sure enough, when the producers previewed the movie with audiences, they quickly learned that John Q. Public wasn’t in love with the new movie, hated the fact that John Belushi was the normal character, and were generally underwhelmed. Critics universally panned the film.

To avoid losing their investment, producers came up with a scheme that served as a marketing model for years to come. They chose to hype the movie with a deluge of ads for the two weeks immediately preceding the first showing—spending the entire marketing budget early on, knowing there would be nothing to market later. The plan worked. Hordes of adoring fans went to see Aykroyd and Belushi opening night, and for the first couple of weeks, the producers earned their money back—then the movie tanked as people told their friends not to go.

As this was going on in Hollywood, 1,370 miles away in Detroit I was about to give a speech. Fortunately, the audience I’d be facing was made up of people who didn’t expect much from me as a speaker. I met their expectations—delivering a presentation that was lukewarm at best.

Then to my surprise, I was invited to give the speech again—apparently I was the only game in town. Based on the reaction of the first speech, I now had an inkling of what the audience liked and disliked. So I altered a few slides, added a story here, clipped a silence-inducing concept there, and eventually delivered a greatly improved presentation.

Based on this upgraded performance, my speaking requests skyrocketed. Soon, I was giving a weekly presentation all around the country—each speech benefiting from the previous one. By the time Neighbors was pulled from the theaters and critics had hurled their last invective, I was being heralded as a decent orator who delivered a crackerjack speech.

As I’ve thought about these two events, my heart goes out to filmmakers. Producers spend tens of millions on a production, show it to audiences, and then wait for the fall out. There’s not much they can do if it doesn’t go well. The sets have been demolished, the people behind the cameras have moved on to new projects, and the principal actors have scattered to the wind. With a movie, you have one chance to get it right and then it’s on to the next one. At best, you can tweak a little here and cut a little there but nothing more than that.

My speech, in contrast, provided ample opportunity for me to improve on my original disaster by running short-term mini-experiments. With each new speech, I’d try out new ideas or methods, watch the reaction, make changes, test them, and then repeat the process until, by golly, I had a finely tuned, widely accepted, finished product. In fact, that’s not even true. With a speech, you never have a finished product. With each new delivery, you’re provided one more opportunity to make improvements based on your latest audience’s reaction.

And now, the reason these stories are relevant. From 1980 until now, I have received hundreds of papers from students and dozens of projects from young people I work with developing training products. I have observed that, far too often, individuals approach creative tasks as if they were producing a movie. They work hard to create a finished product and hand it to me—ta da!—never (or only barely) having tested it with an audience and too late to be altered.

I suppose we develop this life-is-a-movie attitude early on in our education. We work on our first science project or term paper, hand it in, and pray for a good grade. We’re lucky to get it handed in at all, let alone tested, changed, polished, and refined. As a result, by the time I work with students in graduate school, they’re used to dashing out a project, doing the least amount possible to receive the grade they want, and then moving on. They have neither the time nor the inclination to polish anything.

Unfortunately, when it comes to producing a noteworthy product, polishing is everything. Just ask professional writers about their craft. They’ll eagerly tell you, “Writing is rewriting.” And if they’re smart, they’re rewriting based on the reaction of members of their target audience. This lesson can be hard to learn. I have a talented friend who published a book that was universally criticized for being slow moving and lengthy. When I asked what had happened, he sheepishly reported that only his editors had read the book before it was released—and then solely for grammar. Life is a speech, not a movie. We’re almost always given a chance to rework our projects. Unlike movie makers, people who collaborate with us don’t disappear into the wind. It doesn’t cost millions to return to our initial work. It just takes the guts and humility to share our ideas with others—early on—and then ask for honest feedback.

For instance, when we develop a new training product, we don’t create two days of training and then test it with a beta group. We work feverishly on one hour of the training and then test it. Then we make changes and test it again. And again. Next, we combine two one-hour segments into a quarter day. By the time we release a finished product, every element has been vetted by real audiences, dozens of times.

Working and reworking a project until it appears professional, smooth, and “effortless” can be misleading to the casual observer. When I first saw Woody Allen perform a stand-up routine on the Tonight Show, I was astonished by his ability to deliver one hilarious joke after another. Years later, I learned that before performing that remarkable set, he had put together ten jokes and tried them out at a local club. One joke survived. Then he tried out ten more and then another ten until he had the “effortless” set he delivered on TV. Mr. Allen understood that he wasn’t producing a movie, he was giving a speech—and a speech can be easily tested and improved until the finished product looks effortless.

Understanding this idea gives us hope. It frees us from the frightening challenge of “getting it right the first time.” Instead, when it comes to working on complex projects, we should produce a first draft, run tests, make changes, and repeat. So I’ll say it one more time: life is a speech, not a movie.

And thank goodness for that.

Crucial Conversations QA

Speaking Up To A Coughing Coworker

We’re excited to announce that Emily Hoffman, a Senior Master Trainer as well as VitalSmarts’ VP of Development & Delivery, will become a regular contributor to the Crucial Skills Newsletter.

Dear Crucial Skills,

A friend of mine works in a small office. She has a new coworker who sits on the other side of her cube. They face each other and the cubes are very low. This new office mate is very nice and she would like to have a good relationship with her, however the young woman continuously coughs without covering her mouth. My friend sometimes feels the cough on her face and it has become extremely difficult to work next to her. Is there a good way to approach this situation?

Friend of the Coughed upon Coworker

Dear Friend,

Congratulations to your friend! She has already done two incredibly important things right. First, your friend recognizes the need to have a positive working relationship with her office mate. Second, she is addressing this quickly, while the coworker is still “new.” Allow me to explain why these two things are worthy of congratulations.

First, she has positive intent. So often it is our intent that gets in the way of holding effective crucial conversations. We quickly jump to conclusions about others (e.g. “What bad manners she has!” and “How rude and inconsiderate of her!”) We consciously or subconsciously bring this to our dialogue, often through our non-verbal actions. Then, after judging the person in our hearts, we are astonished when they become defensive. Of course they become defensive! They can sense our judgment. I’d become defensive too if I thought someone was out to judge and criticize me. So, your friend has taken this crucial first step; she has withheld judgment and has a positive intent.

Next, she is facing this issue while her office mate is still new. Why is this so important? Not only does it keep the problem from festering, which will almost inevitably erode any good intent she might have, it also creates more defensiveness in the other person. If you are the one coughing, it is easy to think, “Why didn’t she say something about this before? I am so embarrassed, I could die of shame!” Or, along different yet equally predictable lines, “Gee! What’s the big deal? It’s never bothered you before. Or has it? Have you been holding a grudge all this time?” Either way, your friend is significantly better off addressing this early, before emotions escalate.

Okay, so enough with the back-patting congratulations. What should your friend actually say? First, start with a positive statement of intent that builds directly on what we have just discussed. “I wanted to chat with you about something. It’s been so nice working with you these past few days/weeks and I am looking forward to continuing that. I just want to catch something early.”

Then, be specific without being accusatory. “I noticed you coughed several times without covering your mouth. Sometimes I have even felt the cough.”

Be careful here. The tendency will be to use absolute language like, “you always cough . . . ” or, “every time you cough . . . ” You don’t need to go to extremes to open up this dialogue, and doing that will likely provoke even more defensiveness.

Create additional safety by demonstrating you haven’t judged your coworker. “My guess is you aren’t even aware of this, which is why I thought I would bring it up.”

And then, just five sentences into the dialogue, stop. Wait. Listen. If needed, prompt with a question like, “Can we talk about this?” Remember, this is dialogue. The surest way to demonstrate good intent and your commitment to hearing the other person’s perspective is to close your mouth. Do that quickly and consistently and you will be amazed at what you will learn.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “That sounds great, but what do you do when the person coughing responds? Cries? Yells? Shuts down? Starts coughing on me right then?” The thing that typically causes the most anxiety when preparing for a crucial conversation is not thinking about what we will say, it is thinking about what the other person will say.

So, here is what you do: Imagine the absolute worst response you might get. Got it in your head? If you’re like me, you probably picked one of two extremes. Either the person coughing gets upset and responds defensively—“That is the rudest thing anyone has ever said to me! I can’t believe you would say that!” Or, perhaps worse, they get embarrassed but seem to be okay—“I am so sorry. Thanks for pointing that out. I will do better”—and then shuts down i.e. feels uncomfortable around you or is overly sensitive.

Once you have the worst possible response in your head, make a plan for dealing with it. If they become defensive and angry, clarify your good intent. “I didn’t mean to be rude or disrespectful. I sincerely enjoy working nearby you. I am sorry if that hasn’t been apparent. I want to be able to have an open, productive, collaborative relationship with you and talk about any concerns either of us might have.”

If they takes the second option and shut down, do the exact same thing as above—clarify your good intent. This time it may sound more like, “It seems like maybe I have made you uncomfortable or embarrassed. If I have, I am sorry. That was not my intent at all. I really value you working here and am looking forward to a great working relationship.”

Having someone point out bad behavior (such as fanning a coworker’s face with your lungs) is bound to create vulnerability. Be aware of that, and be willing to admit to your own vulnerability. After all, speaking up to someone about bad behavior creates a vulnerability all its own.

Good Luck,

Influencer QA

Changing the Culture of a Government Agency

Dear Crucial Skills,

How can you change the culture of a federal agency with constant political leadership changes? Because of constant change at the top, no one actually follows through on strategic plans. Long-time federal employees know that if they just wait it out, the leadership will change and they won’t have to.

This Too Shall Pass

Dear This Too Shall Pass,

Confucius was once asked what changes he would make if he were emperor. His answer: I would change the language. Confucius’ argument is that language is the most fundamental influence of all; what you think, how you think, how you feel, and ultimately, how you act, are all shaped by the liberties and constraints given you by your language.

Measurement is the language of organizations. If you want to change organizational behavior, start with the language. Some have tried to blame inefficient government bureaucracies on the bureaucrats. They assume the reason service stinks at the DMV and is stellar at Nordstrom is because of the people themselves. That’s baloney. We’ve done plenty of research in government agencies and found inspired, capable leaders as much in abundance as in many Fortune 500 companies.

The primary obstacle to influence is that there is no external forcing function that demands accountability for results. Consequently, prioritization becomes political rather than natural. In a commercial enterprise, owners and customers create natural accountability. Organizations that don’t serve them well suffer—sooner or later. Hence, commercial enterprises are generally observant of measuring how they perform for owners and customers.

In government agencies, there is no demand to measure service to owners and customers; it becomes the prerogative of leaders to measure what they will. For example, a new law can be passed demanding that having a paperless office is of higher priority than getting road projects done on time and on budget.

Now I know I’m not telling you anything new here. But this background is important because my central recommendation is to focus your influence on this one key change. You’ll never change the fact that every four years or so you’ll get a new photograph on the wall to match the political appointee at the top. But what you can do is try to build support for an internally imposed measure that aligns with the needs of those you serve.

A few years ago, I worked with a governor of a state in the US who was remarkably effective at driving change. Her primary influence was requiring senior civil service staff (and her appointees) to develop stakeholder aligned scorecards for their agencies. She didn’t have to reach down and micromanage much of anything. Her mantra was, “If you don’t have data, you lead by anecdotes.” And she was right. By simply requiring every agency to identify mission-aligned metrics that they would track religiously, she created a sense of accountability and a motivation for change that had been lacking previously.

You don’t have to be a governor to influence in this way. For example, Bill Patrick, from the State of Michigan’s Department of Human Services was able to influence a very important change. Bill worked in a state office in Fort Wayne, MI that offered financial services to low income residents. Customer service was pitiful—terrible wait times for counseling, inconvenient scheduling process, etc. Yet within a matter of months, customer satisfaction rose from 23% to 82%. The first influence key Patrick used was simple measurement. If you want to create awareness and motivation for change—change the language. Create credible measures that align with the fundamental mission of the organization and people will have a hard time resisting their effect. By simply documenting the degree of the problem, Patrick rallied support for his effort to influence change. And he succeeded spectacularly.

The main thing commercial agencies have that you don’t, is a forcing function. But good leadership doesn’t wait for a forcing function. Introduce a new language (measure) that is inarguably mission-aligned, and you’ll open the possibility of dramatic change.

Best wishes,