I once listened to a city council meeting where one party was seeking exception to a rule. Other parties opposed the notion of such an exception, arguing it negatively impacted their lives. Residents and Council Members shared their thoughts. Some supported the exception, some did not. One Council Member gave an elaborate explanation of why the exception was the right thing to do, highlighting benefits to the public and effectively validating the arguments of the supportive party. Surprisingly, he then said he couldn’t support the exception.
He cited the law which, unless changed, clearly and effectively stated it couldn’t move forward. As I recall, others seemed to agree, even if begrudgingly. The meeting soon ended, and that was that. What had this council member done? He’d started by focusing positive aspects for the idea, validating and perhaps even empathizing. Couldn’t he have skipped all that, opening by citing the law? Yes, but those present might have had a very different experience.
Is focusing on problems inherently negative? I don’t think so. If we avoided anything negative, controversial, or potentially offensive, how would we learn, grow, and progress? The MITRE Innovation Toolkit Problem Framing and Rose, Bud, Thorn activities, for example, give permission to have difficult conversations about what’s going wrong, what’s going right, and opportunities for improvement.
When facilitated correctly, these hope-centric tools can be used in a space where participants feel safe, free to share their thoughts, and with an underlying theme that things will get better because of it! Like the council member described above, these tools can give people a chance to highlight the positives and negatives of a given situation.
People understandably become invested as the outcomes might directly impact their lives. They might become defensive, resistant to change, and even oppositional. I previously wrote an article, What Still Works, offering that by focusing on the things that work, we can sometimes deduce what’s actually wrong. In this article, I want to offer that in addition to identifying that which is broken, spending time thinking about what is right can also disarm, dissuade, and draft.
People have opinions. That’s something to celebrate! What if you want people to have the same opinion on a given topic? Anyone who has tried to create such a reality knows how difficult it can be. One method is to explain what you think the correct opinion is, and then to tell everyone else they are wrong. You might not get any awards in resolving conflict, but an approach it remains. What if you started by highlighting the merits of both opinions? Like any conflict between two or more parties, starting with genuine empathy goes a long, long way. It might even disarm what could otherwise be a defensive party.
With defenses down, people might be willing to hear opposing viewpoints. If empathy, kindness, understanding, and acknowledgement of the positive aspects of others’ opinions continue, it could dissuade further negative actions and start paving a path for progress.
Feeling validated goes a long way. Validation might be the single most overlooked gift that can keep on giving. Asking oneself, “why might they feel that way?” or better yet, “have I ever felt that way?” is the beginning of real, positive change. Not only might an opposing party be disarmed from defensiveness and dissuaded from close mindedness, but they might also start seeing alternate viewpoints. At risk of using sports terminology incorrectly, perhaps someone might be drafted to a new team.
Focusing on what others are doing right, in addition to what they might improve upon, creates an empathetic space where both parties can feel validated. What do you lose by giving away such a gift?
Today’s blog post is by Niall White.
In the oft quoted comedy classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are repeatedly met with roadblocks on their quest. These roadblocks are often in the form of gatekeepers who demand the knights participate in some sort of “bring me a rock” exercise. Whether it is to bring an obscure plant, answer a seemingly simple question (e.g., what is your favorite color), or to cut down a tree with a herring, the knight’s journey seems fraught with unusual challenges.
Contrast this with the more recent Jumanji films, where the heroes meet a guide rather than a gatekeeper. Nigel Billingsley enthusiastically introduces himself and provides instructions, tools, and even gives them a short, slightly odd, drive towards their starting point. Rather than making one or more requests of his companions before allowing them to start their journey, he provides insight and guidance – even if a bit confusing – ushering them along.
Whether or not you are in a formal leadership position, you likely will have many opportunities to be either a gatekeeper or guide for others. These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, and there may be a time and place for each. The real opportunity is finding a way to help those around you progress in their endeavors, and advance towards becoming their best selves.
Consider a fictional example of Joan and Tressa. Joan is a manager with the ear of many senior leaders. Tressa is an early career professional who is enthusiastic about her assigned role and willing to take initiative in tasks outside her role. Tressa recognized a need in the department to build greater belonging amongst the employees that worked both locally and remotely. After coming up with a plan to hold monthly in-person and virtual gatherings and getting some early feedback from a few colleagues, Tressa proposed the idea to Joan.
Joan could respond in several different ways. One way is to enthusiastically receive the proposal, offering praise and gratitude for Tressa’s initiative, pointing out the positive aspects and providing recommendations for areas that can be improved. Joan could offer support, ask helpful questions, and even put Tressa in contact with a few people that might assist. Or Joan could focus on pointing out the flaws in Joan’s idea rather than the strengths. Joan could ask Tressa to come back with a revised proposal, and do that several times. Joan could also ignore Tressa’s request, and then forget about it altogether.
These options highlight several key themes. Joan’s first “guide like” response exhibited a “Yes, and” mentality of validating and acknowledging Tressa’s proactivity, building on the proposal with ideas, suggestions, questions, and resources to succeed. This “let me get out of your way” approach, when managed well, is likely to produce a positive experience, whether Tressa’s proposal succeeds or fails.
Joan’s second response is more “gatekeeper” in nature, and eats up Tressa’s time, lengthening the process, and introducing more opportunity for Tressa to become discouraged and drop the idea altogether, even if the ordeal was deemed a “good learning experience” in Joan’s eyes. The gatekeeper experience tends to be discouraging, and Tressa might hesitate to make recommendations in the future. Questions and criticisms to a proposal aren’t inherently bad and can even prevent heartache and challenges down the road.
The difference is how the feedback is presented – a guide’s questions and critiques are quite different than a gatekeeper’s One enables and encourages, the other disables and discourages. Joan’s third response, ignoring the request, is the most damaging. This communicates, even if unintentionally, that Tressa’s idea doesn’t matter and by extension, neither does Tressa.
Of course, gatekeepers and guides aren’t only found in movies. They show up in the workplace too, in a variety of combinations and arrangements. The real opportunity is finding a way to help those around you find positive success in their endeavor, while taking one step further towards becoming their best selves. How might we be more guide than gatekeeper?
(Image credit: Woodcarving of Maximilian talking to German knights, public domain)
This week’s post is by Niall White
My family recently acquired a very old, sparkly blue boat. Being somewhat new to boating, just about everything is an adventure! The boat operated very well the first few times we took it on the water, but we later found ourselves troubleshooting an elusive problem for nearly two hours before we could embark on our evening foray into the wake. The symptoms were simple…when turning the ignition key, nothing happened. After many online instructional videos, forums, and moments of frustration, we finally discovered a very small fuse, only about ¾’ long, that had blown since our last excursion. After diagnosing this, it wasn’t long before we were back on the water.
Obvious Symptoms, Hidden Problem
Though seemingly small and insignificant, this inexpensive part stopped the engine from running. The problem wasn’t obvious at the outset (though perhaps it would have been to someone other than a novice…), but upon discovery, made complete sense. We noticed that other functions on the boat were working, like the radio, gauges, and even the starter (when jumped with a wire), not to mention that the boat still floated and boasted it’s 1980 glitter, but a key component, the engine, would not start.
In ITK, we talk about problems a lot. Typically, the word “problem” can be a very positive word to us, as we spend a lot of time helping ourselves and others find, frame, and mitigate problems. The Problem Framing Canvas, for example, asks questions like “why haven’t we solved” the problem, “who experiences the problem”, “who does not have it”, and “what assumptions and biases surround this problem?” Interestingly, as I scoured the internet for an answer to my boating dilemma, I came across accounts of others with similar symptoms, though they were experiencing them with new and modern boats! Answering the question “who else has it?”, this can be helpful to narrow things down, as in this case, it led me to believe that it wasn’t a catastrophic engine failure (at least I let myself take a sigh of relief in believing so).
What Still Works?
Our problem framing canvas doesn’t really ask questions about what IS in fact still working. This isn’t necessarily the intent of the canvas, but I noticed that while diagnosing my problem, it was very helpful to note the functions of the boat that were still operating correctly, as noted earlier. Not only can it be positive and reassuring, remembering the things that ARE going right, and DON’T need fixing, but it can help narrow down the problem set, making it easier to diagnose the root cause. Maybe your team is struggling in one area but still has very strong talent, is good at their core function, and successfully brings a positive energy to their customer engagements. This could and should be celebrated!
Another tool you can use that does specifically identify “those things that are going well” is Rose, Bud, Thorn (RBT). For example, if you wanted the context of those “Roses” while you solved your problem, you could use RBT, and then trim down the “Thorns” (or problems), perhaps using a trimming tool like Stormdraining and then begin your problem framing canvas. We could call this the Not Just Problems Framing toolchain!
As ITK facilitators, we can often experience just a bit of tension as we push ourselves and others to dig deep into a situation to discover a problem. While I was trying to fix our boat, I felt feelings of frustration that my family was waiting, embarrassment that I wasn’t making any obvious progress, and discouragement that we were losing precious time on the water. Similarly, a team might feel frustrated that a customer is left without a solution, embarrassed that their team can’t seem to make decisions, and discouraged that funding, trust, and momentum might be dwindling. Perhaps it’s helpful to ask yourselves in this situation, “what is still working?” or “what are we doing right?”. As was the case with our boat, you might find that many things still work, eventually deducing that the problem is just a $1 fuse.
*Free reader tip: Read this article with headphones on, listening to something catchy. That’s how this article was written after all…*
Every decent superhero has a theme song. Some go “NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA BATMAN!” while others are more like “Call me, beep me if you wanna reach me.” To each their own, right?
As you are most certainly a superhero yourself (why else would you be reading this?), you may wonder why said musical melodies don’t sing your name when you face sudden peril, risk ridicule, or tantalize a triumphant victory as you open a kitchen drawer with your left hand while drying a dish with your right and close the dishwasher with your toes (#kitchensuperherostatusunlocked). Well, in this article’s whimsical world, let’s just assume that smooth backup vocals, brassy trumpet sections, and impromptu dance offs are a regular daily occurrence in your life.
Since you’re a superhero, you and your team also have a brand. It may be strong and intentional, or perhaps less strong and less unintentional. Said brand is more than the logo on your business card, or the letter painted on your caped blue and red spandex onesie. It’s at the core of why you your team, project, or service exists in a given context.
What does your brand look like? Are you innovative? Helpful? Dependable? Open-minded? Socially conscious? Are you growth oriented? Perhaps you have a brand you want to change. Doesn’t matter. First and foremost, you need to be aware of what your brand is. How you figure this out is a different topic for a different day. THIS DAY, however, is about that song that plays when you enter a room. It’s the key to your brand!
Let’s take a look at three techniques to establish your brand/theme song: 1) Moving the needle, 2) Rewind, and 3) Anti-Shock. First, we must set the stage.
Setting the stage
You enter the conference room, nervous about your presentation (Yes, in person…if you can remember what that felt like…). Chatting dies down and you’re introduced. Faces stare. You begin your presentation on _________(fill in the blank. “Single track trail vegetation after wildfire and regrowth???”). People seem to disengage. Energy suffers. The camera stops on your face. Your head voice starts to sing softly (like, the voice inside your head, not your head voice when trying to reach a higher pitch). Your eyes narrow into a heroic squint as lyrics fill your head, energy rising. You slam your laptop closed, slide into a stagger stance, point to the audience, and sing a powerful, head bobbing, foot stomping of a question to the first person that catches your gaze.
The room goes silent. The person stares back; timidly looks around the room. As the music begins to swell, with a rush of confidence, the person replies with a soulful wail, words expressing that they were in fact paying attention to your presentation, and only appeared passive, as they had a late-night doing housework.
You nod and tap your foot as the music backs them up. Two more join in, and soon you’re pointing to slides, kick-ball-changing to get your point across, maybe even a little jazz-hands from time to time. Choruses break out, and soon everyone is spinning their chairs in sync.
What comes next? you guessed it: You’re having a tap dance off with Terry (you didn’t know she tap danced…). Dang she’s good. Never before had such a presentation taken place in the history of conference room presentations. You call out a question and the chorus responds. You air guitar a few slide bullets and are greeted with a slew of opinionated dance styles. Suddenly, Barrie walks in the room, late, as is his brand. Everyone stops. The room stands still. A few papers float to the floor. Next thing you know, Barrie is electric sliding his way into the room and yes, a musical life dream is fulfilled. Time to pick your next technique.
1) Moving the Needle
When I was a kid, my dad had a really nice record player that we’d, on rare occasion, pull out (‘twas the era of CDs and Laserdisks. Yes, we had not one, but two Laserdisk players…which was awesome). Record needles were hard to find at that time, so we had to learn to delicately move the needle to select the songs.
I remember us playing the LP version of Kansas, Leftoverture’s “Carry on My Wayward Son” on one input, while playing the CD version on another. We’d switch inputs back and forth, determining which sounded better. May be memory bias, but I seem to remember the vinyl having more presence, warmth, and life. After all, that record had surely been played a lot, and probably had its fair share of scratches from the needle. These imperfections are what made it so special!
Establishing your brand can be a delicate process. It might take time, multiple tries, and perhaps even scratching the record a time or two. This is ok! Your team, company, product, or service likely has a diverse set of experiences, talents, and ambitions. You don’t have to get it right the first time. You may think you’ve landed on what defines your identity, and realize you were not only wrong, but on Side A when you should definitely be on Side B (tracking what I’m saying?? Pun intended. You’re welcome).
Don’t be afraid to change! Experiment! At the personal level, if your brand is based off of a lifetime of habits and behaviors, it’s ok to change! You may find that you’re a lot happier playing the deep track than you are the greatest hit that everyone knows. The deep track might have the best musicianship on the album. Do what resonates with you. At the end of the day, you’ll be happier spending your time on something that excites you. You’ll also likely bring more positive change to others by sharing your passionate energy.
Hold on, back up, what was that? I remember listening to Blues Traveler’s “Four” album. After enjoying a dose of Runaround, I discovered the 90’s blues rock, adrenaline inducing, Playing 4s example of Crash Burn. Part way through the song, John Popper breaks off in a harmonic (like, with his harmonica..) solo, followed by a competitive riptide guitar riff, followed by bass and then drums (hence, Playing 4s). My mind was blown! Rewind! Listen. Rewind! Listen. You get the picture.
If you find something that works for your brand, study it! Repeat it! Ask yourself why it works, why it energizes you, why it brings your team together, why it makes your customers adore you for your niche offering. Odds are it is a big contributor to your brand.
It might be fair to say that a large part of today’s workforce has no idea what I mean by Anti-Shock. This was a symbol of audial status in days gone by! I’m pretty sure my portable Panasonic CD player had 90 seconds of Anti-Shock. I could mow the lawn, bouncing hip pack and all, and make it through album after album without any skips or screeches emanating from my (corded) headphones. Those without anti-shock weren’t so lucky…
Similarly, your brand will exist in a challenging environment, full of bumps and skips. You may experience a brand identity crisis! A competitor offers similar services. An executive takes the company in a new direction. A key team player leaves for a new opportunity (necessitating a key change? OK OK I’ll stop…).
This or something similar IS going to happen. You may be forced to rethink your mission, vision, purpose. Your strategy might not make sense anymore. This being said, the foundational parts of your brand identity can remain strong and immovable through preparatory “Anti-Shock”. Have you empowered your team with a shared leadership model? Have you learned to celebrate failure? Have you baked in a key ingredient: Fun? These tools will provide “Anti-Shock when your brand is challenged. You may still experience jolts or skips, but your audience, the listener, may not even notice as your theme song continues to play.
Listen, Kronk got it right in The Emperor’s New Groove. He may not have called it his “brand”, but he understood the need for a theme song. Be intentional. Drink your “Gummi Berri Juice”. Write the notes down. Experiment. Scribble out what doesn’t work and write something new. Move the needle. Rewind. Establish foundational, immovable aspects of your brand identity that can withstand the shocks of change.
“All the world’s waiting for you, and the power you possess.” When you enter the room, throw your hands in the air and look boldly at those before you, for your theme song begins.