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Influencer Institute

Influencer Institute: Hey Lone Ranger…It's Time for a Braintrust

Andrew MaxfieldAndrew Maxfield is director of the Influencer Institute, a private operating foundation that seeks to increase humanity’s capacity to change for good.

Influencer Institute

I love to think—quietly and nonstop. My wife says I’m nuts for spending so much time in my head, and of course, she’s probably right. I’m intrigued by stories of individual artists and problem-solvers—the great minds of our era. I like the idea that one brain operating in isolation can do so much.

While this image of the solitary genius seems to be true sometimes, my recent experiences persuade me that even the brightest individuals—and especially average folks like me—benefit from the influence of groups. And very frequently in unexpected ways.

In his management memoir, Creativity, Inc., Pixar founder, Ed Catmull, describes a key group that evolved within his legendary animation studio called the “braintrust.” The braintrust is a team of creative individuals that convene at intervals to review storyboards for movies in production—from the earliest sketches to the final features we enjoy in theaters.

Catmull makes the surprising claim that every Pixar movie was “terrible” at its inception. He explains that the genius of Pixar—the recipe for their many hits—is integrating the genius of the braintrust with the genius of the individual as part of a routine product development process. Invariably the braintrust spots holes in the narrative or contributes ideas to improve the storytelling in ways that no individual could. Importantly, however, the braintrust doesn’t prescribe solutions; choosing a path forward is left to the film’s director. Pixar leverages the group dynamic for diagnostic activities and ideation but stops short of groupthink.

This lesson about the power of groups was reinforced for me during a recent workshop with one of Influencer Institute’s partner organizations. This organization operates one of the largest and most rigorously scrutinized and validated child sponsorship programs in the world. They have helped to release millions of children from poverty over the last sixty years.

On this occasion, our consulting team gathered with their leaders to design strategies to influence their many thousands of sponsors—folks who live in developed countries and who give time and resources to help children in the poorest places on earth. Although our meeting was driven by good research and excellent communication, the real secret to its success was that our partners had invited a large handful of actual sponsors to join the process. Imagine that: co-creating an initiative with the very people who will be served by it.

We had formed our own braintrust, and it paid off before we were even an hour into our meetings. By sharing their experiences and points of view, these sponsors helped unearth obstacles to implementing our partner’s strategy and provided ideas for improving it. Similarly, the diverse team assembled from within the partner organization gave the strategies breadth and depth that no individual could have created.

As a consultant and writer, I’ve seen my own work routinely and immeasurably improved by the insights of team members and colleagues. Used well, groups can be a windfall for creativity, and a bolster for motivation and accountability.

Trainer QA

Measuring the ROI of VitalSmarts Training

David Maxfield 

David Maxfield is coauthor of two bestselling books, Change Anything and Influencer.


This question was first asked on our LinkedIn Training Community. To Join visit us on LinkedIn.

QHow can I measure the ROI of a VitalSmarts training?

AThe challenge with any kind of skills training is that people can learn the skills, but then either fail to use them or use them in areas that don’t produce a return on the organization’s investment. For example, a participant might use the skills to save his/her marriage, jumpstart his/her career, mend a broken relationship at work, or resolve a long-standing customer problem. These are all positive outcomes, but they may or may not produce a return for the organization. This post is designed to show practitioners how to develop measuring and implementation tools that make sure their training results in significant returns.

1. Identify Crucial Moments, Failure Modes, and the Costs of Failing. Conduct an organizational assessment to identify leverage points where improvements lead to bottom-line payoffs. In addition, get a clear picture of what failure looks like in these crucial moments, and what it costs.

Example. We are working with a joint venture between two Fortune 500 firms. Their collaboration has great potential, but they’ve also identified six Crucial Moments when their teams tend to fail. Below are three of these six Crucial Moments.

  • Absence of Move to Action (lack of ownership and follow up). This crucial moment happens when one party believes they have a commitment from the other party to take action, but then they don’t see the action being taken. Sometimes there is ambiguity over who owns the task or has responsibility for executing it. Other times there are disagreements about the priority of the task, the timeline for the task, the resources that will be put toward the task, etc. In summary, people are not seeing the cooperation and responsiveness they expected.
  • Willingness to Increase Shared Pool of Meaning (Trust and Humility). This crucial moment happens when people begin to suspect they are being given a “sugar-coated” version of the truth. Often they believe others are hiding bad news from them, or that others are overly focused on protecting their reputations.  In summary, people are beginning to question whether they are getting the full truth. They want the good, the bad, and the ugly, and they don’t’ think they are getting it.
  • Unwillingness to budge on requirements. This crucial moment happens when the business or the project is unwilling to budge on requirements or timeline when more obstacles or difficulties are encountered than were assumed during initial scope.

In this particular case, the typical Failure Mode is silence followed by violence. People build up grudges for several weeks, often until a key milestone is missed, and then launch a round of blame directed at their business partner.

Measurement. We measure these Crucial Moments along four dimensions: frequency, severity, dialogue, and solvability. We ask participants how often they find themselves in each of these Crucial Moments; how costly the Failure Mode is when it happens; how well participants engage in frank, honest, dialogue during each Crucial Moment; and how quickly and successfully they solve the problem.

Our expectation is that the frequency and severity of the Crucial Moments won’t change. They are a function of working in a tough environment. But we expect dramatic improvements in dialogue and solvability. In other words, problems still happen, but now people solve them quickly and successfully.

2. Train to the Crucial Moments. If you haven’t identified high-leverage Crucial Moments, then participants will select their own targets—based on what they care about most. While their targets may produce excellent returns for the organization, they are usually too varied to accurately measure.

Instead, identify Crucial Moments and then use the applications and contracts in the training to focus on these moments. Make sure participants practice the skills to solve the problems you have identified as highest leverage. Of course, participants will still use the skills to improve their marriages and get their kids to complete their homework, but there will be a much better chance they will also use the skills to create a return for the organization.

Measurement. Build assessment points into the training. We measure participants’ efficacy expectations—their confidence that they can use the skills to solve the problems described in the Crucial Moments. For example, “How confident are you that you can use these skills to solve XXX when it happens?”

3. Employ all Six Sources. Often, training is the final puzzle piece that makes change happen. These are cases where the organization has built alignment around the need for change, and has removed the barriers to change, so that individual skill building is all that’s left to do.

But, other times, training is relied upon as silver-bullet solution to a problem that requires more than individual ability. Make an honest assessment of the non-training barriers that could prevent your training solution from working, then take action to remove these barriers.

Example. We often work with clients who need front-line employees to speak up to their managers, and who need managers to speak up to executives. We use our Influencer approach to help them discover the range of barriers—beyond training—that can prevent the honest dialogue they need. The intervention then addresses all of these barriers, often using the training as the context. For example, we might have the training led by the participants’ manager and focus the applications and contracts on speaking up to him or her.

Measurement. We work with the client to identify potential obstacles in each of the Six Sources of Influence, and then use surveys to track our progress at removing each of these obstacles.

4. Measure Return and Investment. It’s difficult to estimate returns. We focus our measurement on the Crucial Moments, and ask, “If this problem becomes one that is quickly and successfully solved, what would that be worth to your organization?” Often the benefits aren’t purely transactional; they also include benefits to the brand, to reputation, and to opportunity. And this makes them a bit subjective.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Get the best estimate of dollar returns that you can. Involve multiple stakeholders and combine their estimates.
Investments are somewhat easier to measure. We usually include the costs of the training, of the time spent by trainers and participants, and any travel included. When a Six Source approach is used, then we add in the costs of the various non-training solutions.

Influencer QA

Celebrating our Newest Bestseller

Thank you to all our readers and fans who have helped us launch our new book Change Anything to bestseller status. The book has been an immediate hit on all the major bestseller lists and we couldn’t be more ecstatic. See for yourself:

#3 New York Times (Hardcover Business)
May 1, 2011

#3 New York Times (Advice, How-to)
April 20, 2011

#1 Wall Street Journal (Business)
April 23, 2011

#1 USA Today Money

April 10, 2011

April 11, 2011

#7 Publishers Weekly (Hardcover, Non-fiction)
April 21, 2011