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Archive for April, 2008

I was in Detroit and Chicago last week, which means I spent a lot of time in airports and a little bit of time in hotels. My hotel in Chicago, which was on the campus of McDonald’s (!) was pretty nice. But the bathroom kind of freaked me out.
Take a look:
Do you notice that there are 5 grab bars in the picture. There were 2 more on the other side of the shower that I couldn’t get a good picture of.  7 grab bars in one regular sized shower. I know that it’s supposed to imply safety, having so many things to grab onto so that you don’t fall. But all I could think of is, what’s wrong with this shower? Is really dangerous? Why all the precaution?

I’m pretty sure that “danger” isn’t the message that Hyatt wants to be sending to its guests in the shower. Many of us already have jarring associations with showers, thanks to Hitchcock and Psycho. In fact, given the amounts of granite, soft white towels and scented bath products, I’m pretty sure that Hyatt wants me to be thinking about luxury, pampering, and relaxation when I’m in the bathroom. But those grab bars tell a different story.

Businesses have to be very careful about the messages that experiences with their brands convey. The human brain is wired to pay attention to incongruity. So we’ll notice the things that stand out more than the things that fit into a complete picture. This means that people might actually be paying more attention to the message that you’re accidentally sending than to the one that you mean to send. A couple of extra grab bars ruin the hard work that Hyatt has put into telling me a positive story about their bathrooms and their hotels.

This experience makes me think of other messages that we send indirectly, especially surrounding safety. When the monkeys were little, I spent one anxious hour and too much money on the One Step Ahead website, buying safety products. I bought a power strip cover, cabinet locks, outlet covers, door knob covers, toilet seat locks, latches, and a wire guard. It was completely overkill, and I only bought about 5% of the products that you can buy to ‘protect’ your infants and toddlers.

I think it’s important to protect your kids and to make your house a safe place to play. But I didn’t end up using half the stuff I bought. And I’m really glad. When I fill my house with locks and bumpers and plastic protection devices,  what message am I really sending to my children? Am I telling them that the world is a safe and fun place to explore, or, like Hyatt, am I reinforcing the fact that the world is dangerous and scary?

There are ways to create safe play environments without posting large signs that say “danger lies here.” Removing dangerous objects from a room where kids will be playing, securing furniture to the walls, and putting dangerous items out of reach are effective ways to create a safe environment for play. In fact, they’re better than buying a bunch of so called safety devices because they’re less expensive, they don’t call attention to danger, and they send a neutral or positive message about the world.

I didn’t like the feeling that the shower was a dangerous place that I got from all the grab bars in the shower. Why would I want to tell my kids that our living room is a dangerous place?

 

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Unfortunately, even if you’re sharing a great idea, you can’t just walk into a boardroom and tell people what to do and know that they’ll do it. There’s this little thing called credibility that you need to ensure that people listen to your idea, and that they give it weight.

Some common techniques that people in the corporate world use to get credibility are endorsement and statistics. “Oprah says my product is great, so it must really be something” actually sells a heck of a lot of products. And statistics can work well, too, provided they’re relevant. But statistics are often less compelling than we think they are – as they carry little emotional weight. And endorsements can be hard to get.

The Heaths say that case studies and stories about delivering results from an implementation that you’re suggesting can work wonders. These stories tend to be stickier than statistics, and come in handy when you can’t find Oprah or Tiger Woods to promote your idea for you.

In my world of innovation strategy, case studies do work wonders. And even if we can’t get Oprah on the phone, telling clients that I’ve been successful working with the likes of Target and GE is a powerful way to build credibility.

Of course, my kids don’t care about any of those things. Still, I do borrow the credibility of others to make my point stick. When we’re in a restaurant, and the monkeys are eating their favorite pancakes, I can often get them to be on their best behavior just by telling them that the restaurant staff won’t let us stay and eat unless they’re quiet and calm. Invoking the power of the waiter makes my threat credible.

Another way to win credibility that I think is equally useful, whether you’re trying to get an idea across to your kids, your colleagues or your clients, is to communicate by setting an example with your own behavior, instead of just using your words to shape the behavior of others.

The other day, I made a comment that really pissed Mr. Daddy off. I knew he was angry, and I kind of new why. I also felt a little justified in what I had said. So I waited until after we finished making lunch to go talk to him, and when the monkeys asked where daddy was, I told them he was upstairs because he was mad at me.

They raced upstairs to find him and confirm that he was, in fact, angry. Yup. And then they came back downstairs to me. Mommy, they said, you have to say sorry to daddy. I am, of course, constantly telling them they have to say sorry to anyone who they hurt, either accidentally or on purpose.  So I sucked it up and apologized, even though I didn’t feel like it, because I knew that I had to set an example for them.

And the next time I told a monkey to apologize for hitting his brother, he actually did.

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I’ve written before about the power of emotion, and about the importance of leaders not hiding their emotions but using them to motivate and inspire others. The Heaths say that good ideas and good messages, too require emotion. 9 out of 10 dentist agree that a healthy dose of emotion helps get your message across – and helps people remember it.

In the workplace, one way to get that emotion across is by showing folks the actual people that their businesses impact. We do a lot of social research, and we video tape the research so that we can go back and analyze the data that we collect. We also use video of our research participants in our presentations, because they tell stories so much better than we do when we paraphrase people. Just last week we presented findings that were controversial and surprising to our client. Normally, we put 3-4 clips in an hour long presentation. This time we put 8. The more controversial the ideas, the more important it is to use multiple tools to bring emotional resonance to your words.

We don’t use a lot of PowerPoint presentations at home, but emotion does show up in a couple of places. First, I let the monkeys know when they’ve hurt me. I’ll yell ouch, or sometimes even tear up if they’ve really bonked me. I think that showing them that they can hurt other people by showing emotion is a really powerful way to teach them not to hit and to roughhouse with caution.

I think it also has to be OK for them to show emotion – and to let them experience emotions, even if they’re not comfortable ones, to make a point. They cry when I get angry, and so I try not to get angry over little things. But sometimes, I’m angry and I do let it show. In a store, for example, when they’re not listening to me and playing hide and seek. I get angry. That kind of behavior goes beyond just being annoying, it can also be dangerous. I let them experience the emotion that my anger causes, so that they’ll remember the lesson I’m trying to teach.

This works both ways, of course. When they’re behaving well, being nice, getting along, engaged and curious, I make sure to hug them and kiss them and tell them how much I love them and how much I love being with them. Hopefully, the positive emotion will reinforce those behaviors, too.

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I’ve written about feeling guilty for being a working mom – both about what I can’t do at work and about not always being around for my husband and my kids. This week, though, I found a couple of things that as a working mom, I get to not feel guilty about. So, let’s stick it to the should be’s and celebrate not feeling guilty.

1) Having someone clean my house. I have some friends who are stay at home moms with household help. Mostly, it’s someone doing the heavy cleaning once every two weeks. I think they have nothing to feel guilty about, as even stay at home moms can get really busy. But they all seem to feel like they should be doing it themselves. We now have someone coming to clean our house every week, and I am loving it. And I don’t feel an iota of guilt. Minor victory.

2) Outsourcing most of our Seder to Whole Foods. I am very excited to be hosting family and friends at our house for Seder on Saturday. And while I love to cook, I’m getting most of the food from Whole Foods. A Passover Seder requires elaborate preparation, with special foods, special table settings, and a special ceremony. I’m going to be out of town for most of this week, which means I won’t have a lot of time to prepare. I did take time to find a Haggadah, or guide to the ritual meal, that I’m excited about using. And I’ll make a brisket. But everything else is coming from Whole Foods. It’ll be delicious and I won’t be exhausted. A fabulous combination in my opinion.

While I’m happy to acknowledge that I can do these things without feeling guilty about it, I think they are things that everyone should be able to do without feeling guilty. I am aware, of course, that there’s a vocal, strong, ongoing debate about what a good mom should and shouldn’t outsource, even if she works. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, check out the response to this post, on Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist blog. It’s an extreme example, but it gives you an idea of the vehemence of opinion on this topic.

To me, being able to focus on the things I care most about (like the Haggadah, spending time playing with my kids, or giving a talk at a conference) and being able to have someone else do the things that I love having done but don’t like doing (matzoh ball soup or cleaning the bathroom) goes beyond being just a privilege I can enjoy because I can afford it.  

It becomes a way to acknowledge my limits, and to be OK with those limits. I know that I can’t do it all, but if I prioritize my energy, I can do what I enjoy and get done what needs to get done. Without sacrificing myself, my husband or my children’s well-being. And that’s something that all parents, and all people, should be able to be comfortable doing.

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This is one of my favorite of the Heath’s suggestions because it is so true. I tend to be an abstract thinker, and often, no one has a clue what I’m talking about. Until I take the time to get specific and concrete. And then, of course, everyone sees how brilliant I really am.

I’ve actually become a lot more concrete since the monkeys were born. My company uses the thinking style assessment based on the work by Anthony Gregorc. It assesses your thinking styles based on two metrics: whether you tend to order or organize information sequentially or randomly and whether you are better at processing or perceiving information that’s abstract or concrete.

I’m off the charts random, which I’m pretty sure is never going to change. And I have always been more abstract than concrete. But soon after the monkeys were born, I retook the test and found that I’d become more concrete than abstract. Which makes sense when you think that very young children don’t yet have the capacity to think abstract thoughts. So if you want to communicate with little kids at all, you have to start being more concrete. Which has served me well, since I’ve also found that the more senior my client, the more likely it is that he or she responds better to information that’s concrete than information that’s abstract.

So how do you get more concrete? Well, for starters, think of all of the times that we talk in abstractions of time to our children whose concept of time is not yet well developed. “Oh, wait just a minute, honey,” I’ll say to a monkey who is trying to get my attention. Or, “No, we don’t have tumbling class today, it’s another few days until tumbling class.” Even if I get to a level that I think is concrete – naming the days of the week, my monkeys will nod, and agree with me, but not really know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes it’s OK for a notion to remain vague and abstract, but other times it’s really important to convey an actual sense of duration and time. When we’ve got hot food on a plate, and the monkeys need to wait before biting into it, for example, I found that “wait 2 minutes” didn’t work so well. No surprise, since 2 minutes is an abstract notion to a two-year-old. Finally, I caught on. Now I tell them how long they need to wait by telling them how many times they need to sing the ABC. “This is really hot, honey, you need two ABC’s before taking a bite.” And they launch into song. We now use ABC’s whenever we need to ask them to wait a minute or two. It helps them mark time and they really know those ABC’s.

And how does this translate into sharing ideas in the workplace? Even I’m not crazy enough to suggest asking your clients or your colleagues to start singing ABC’s. But I do think it’s worthwhile to take the time to ensure that your ideas are concrete. Especially those really fun, ambiguous, big ideas. 

Sometimes, it’s relatively easy to get concrete just by forcing yourself to get specific. But when you’ve got an idea with lots of nuance and complexity, a great way to make it concrete is through a metaphor. Two of my all time favorite metaphors come from the parenting world, but you get the idea.

  • From a parent of twins, on having a singleton: taking care of one baby is like taking care of a goldfish.
  • From a pediatrician in Manhattan: three kids is the new Hummer.

I know, these are both kind of obnoxious sentiments. But they’re sticky. I love that each metaphor is immediately evocative, conveys a ton of information, and is memorable. Finding equally specific metaphors to capture your big ideas will help them stick.

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It might surprise you that the second principle of stickiness is unexpectedness.

According to the Heaths, the element of surprise is a way to keep people engaged with an idea long after the first telling. Unexpectedness can drive repetition, turning an idea from something you heard once to a legend that continues to be told over and over again.

The Heath’s give the example of Nordstrom, communicating their message of exceptional customer service within the company through telling stories of exceptional and unexpected acts. These serve as models for how its done that people can remember, retell, and get excited about.

My husband (Mr. Daddy) has used unexpectedness to get the monkeys excited and motivated. In fact, he does it almost every day. When he first started picking them up from school, they didn’t want to leave. It made pick-up drag on, and was demoralizing to boot. What kind of dad was he if his own kids weren’t excited to come home with him after a long day of school?

It turns out, he is the good kind. After a few days of the monkeys reluctantly going home with him, Mr. Daddy started bringing them a new ‘surprise’ every day. He’d bring a snack that he knew they would enjoy to pick-up and leave it in the stroller. At school, all he’d tell them was that he had a surprise for them. Knowing that there was something fun, unexpected and delicious waiting for them, the monkeys began happily leaving school every day.

Sure, you can call it a bribe. You can also call it adding in an element of fun and surprise into every day, luring them with the promise of something unexpected.

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I’ve been reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. The book is about how to make your ideas sticky, so that people immediately get them, remember them, and act on them. The Heaths describe 6 ways make your ideas more sticky: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and stories.

I was reading about their principles as I was preparing for a couple of presentations, thinking about how I can frame things so that a business audience immediately relates to and embraces my ideas. But of course, I’m also constantly conveying new ideas to the monkeys, and it’s equally important that those ideas are sticky.

In fact, the ideas that I’m sharing with the monkeys are even more critical than then ones I share with businesses – they are ideas about how to be in the world: how to be good people, how to get along with others, how to avoid getting hurt, and how to accomplish new tasks. Stickiness is critical if I’m going to get a couple of 2.5 year olds to learn new ideas.

So I’ve been asking myself – what are some things that I do that make ideas sticky for my kids? And how can I do more of it? Over the next few days, I’ll be diving into each of the six ways to make ideas stick, providing examples of how I do it at home, and drawing lessons for work as well.

Lesson 1: SIMPLICITY: Distill your message down into the most basic principles, and reinforce that message over and over and over.

This is one of the hardest principles to follow at work, because the more information that you have, the more you feel that you need to share. We have a hard time letting go of data and information, even if it obscures an argument instead of making it clearer. Moreover, simplicity at work is hard to achieve because it can’t just be about making something rock dumb. It has to be about clarifying the idea, conveying richness and nuance, and still making something easy to understand. No small task.

Simplicity is actually one of the easiest principles to employ with your kids, though. Little people don’t really understand complicated concepts. And they won’t sit still to listen to a 40 page PowerPoint presentation. Kids force you to get mind-numbingly simple if you want to get your point across.

Recently, for example, we had a little incident with scissors. One monkey cut the other monkey’s finger, deeply, with a pair of scissors, resulting in an emergency dash first to the doctor’s office and then to the children’s hospital to see if he needed stitches. Luckily, he didn’t, and he’s just fine now. But the monkeys still beg to use the scissors on a regular basis. And since sitting at the table cutting paper and catalogs can keep them busy for almost half an hour, I really want them to be able to use the scissors.

In order to safely resume cutting with scissors, I had to get a message across. The idea: Scissors can be dangerous if used for the wrong purpose. Cutting people can cause some real damage.  If we’re going to be able to play with scissors, we have to use them safely. It’s not super complicated, but it is a bit nuanced. Instead of having a long conversation, I’ve created this mantra that the monkeys and I repeat on a regular basis: What are scissors for? Paper. What are scissors not for? People. Simple. They get it, and no one’s been cut since we started using it.

For work, it doesn’t make sense to try and think, how would I make this simple enough for a 2 year old to understand. That’s going to far. But it does make sense to think about making an idea so simple that someone outside of the field or outside of the industry can understand it. Although my mom is very bright, she’s a museum educator, not a business person or an innovation strategist. So for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to work on making my ideas so simple and clear that my mom can understand what I’m talking about, the first time I explain it. Simple.

 

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