Communication lessons from the census debacle

Communication lessons from the census debacle

Anyone who has ever tremulously hit the Go Live button on a new system prior to a big event with a lot riding on it can empathise with the folks at the Australian Bureau of Statistics right now.

For those not in Australia who might not know what happened, Tuesday 9 August was census night, an event that happens every five years. For the first time, the ABS was using an online form to collect census information, and everyone was encouraged to use it. Paper forms were provided only upon request.

But on Tuesday evening the system couldn’t handle the load, whether from legitimate use or from a denial of service attack isn’t yet clear. And what could have been just a minor nuisance for people (can’t get in now, I’ll try again later this week) turned into a public relations nightmare for the ABS, with the Prime Minister saying that ‘heads will roll’.

There are of course technology lessons to be learned, but I’d like to offer some thoughts on what we can learn about communications.

Spread the love

Try to avoid piling everything into one intense, make-or-break moment for your system rollout. There was no need for everyone in Australia to log in Tuesday night to complete the census.  The deadline for completing it is 23 September, so there is still plenty of time, but the communications from the ABS gave the impression that Tuesday night was the night.  Really, they were asking everyone in Australia to log in at the same time. One colleague told me he completed his a day early. I didn’t even know that was an option. Many people became concerned that they would be fined for not completing it that night, which added to their angst and may have caused some to panic.

Have some empathy

Put yourself in the user’s shoes and imagine what they will feel if there are problems. Then use that to guide both your advance communications and your responses to problems. The ABS only gave people a phone number to call if they were experiencing issues, and that was quickly swamped too. Early on, their advice was to wait 20 minutes and try again, and people became even more angry by following that advice and spending the whole evening trying and failing to connect, when they would much rather be watching the Olympics.

Consider what else is happening concurrently with your rollout

Did census night have to be scheduled during the Olympics?

Have a backup plan ready to go that doesn’t create extra work for the users

What if the ABS had issued everyone a paper form along with the instructions for completing the census online?  Yes, they would have been blasted for wasting trees, but at least people would have had a simple alternative ready to go. Instead of trying over and over again to log in, they could just complete the paper form and be done with it.

Technology is going to fail sometimes. But thinking through the communications more carefully and having empathy for the users can help to keep them from turning into an angry mob of villagers with torches and pitchforks.

Three things people need to believe about your strategy

Three things people need to believe about your strategy

Even the best strategies and initiatives encounter internal resistance that can easily prevent them from getting off the ground in the first place, or send them plummeting earthwards once they are in the air.  

A big part of getting the buy-in you need from your team and your stakeholders is the way the strategy is communicated.  Too often it’s presented in terms that are not meaningful to the people who will need to make it happen, or to the people it will happen to.

Here are three things people need to believe about your strategy in order to engage with it.

1. It’s worthwhile

If people are going to put in the effort to go somewhere, they need to believe that the destination is somewhere worth going. What will be different at the end than it is now? What will be better, and for whom?

2. It’s urgent

Past success can lead to a feeling of contentment with the status quo, which means that many people will not see any urgent need to change.  Building this sense of urgency is the first step in leading change. You need to show them the opportunity that’s available, through a window that’s about to close.

3. It’s possible

There’s no point in striving for something that’s just not achievable. People need to believe that what you are proposing is possible, and that it can work here with people like us. One of the best ways of showing this is to find examples where people just like them achieved something a lot like this, and that it worked.

If you can get people to feel these three things, not just in their heads but in their hearts and imaginations, the strategy will become meaningful for them, and they’re much more likely to want to be part of making it happen.

What stories do

What stories do

People often ask me what stories do. After all, it seems counterintuitive that something as simple as telling a story can have a profound impact on your business.  In fact, learning to use stories effectively as a leader and as part of your organisation’s culture can help you to build trust, engage with your customers, innovate and inspire meaningful change. Here are some scenarios to give you a feel for how this story thing works.

        Let’s say someone listens to a story you tell from your experience about why the work you are doing is important to you. This might be a customer or a colleague. As they hear this story, they identify with it. They may think of similar experiences they’ve had in their own life or times when they have felt like this too. They see you’re human, that you have things in common with them. They like and trust you a bit more than they did before. They remember this story more than anything else you said to them. Instead of resisting the ideas you have to share, they’re now much more open to supporting you.

        Here’s another scenario. Let’s say your team listens to a customer’s story. The customer isn’t just giving you a score out of ten, they’re telling you exactly what happened during their customer experience, how it affected them and why they felt that way. As your team listens to the story, they identify with it. They start to empathise with the customer and understand their perspective more clearly. They start thinking of new ideas for how your team’s services can be tuned to meet the customer’s needs more effectively, or new ideas for products the customer would love, or ideas for ways you can collaborate. You’ve created a much more effective customer focus and you’ve stimulated innovation.

        Now let’s say you tell your team a story about a real person who has actually succeeded with some aspect of digital transformation. Your team identifies with the person in this story. They like how the story turned out for that person. They learn from what that person did, and it gives them ideas and confidence about what they might be able to do for your organisation’s digital transformation. They start to put their new story into action. You’re on the road to meaningful change.

        Do you see where we’re going with this? The stories create connection and generate insights, which can turn into ideas, which can turn into actions. The actions then generate new stories to start the cycle again.

Shadow stories

Shadow stories

Shadow stories are the stories people tell themselves and other people that run counter to your messages of transformation. They’re a bit like cockroaches in that most of them are hidden. For every one in the open you can bet there are a hundred others living in the walls, breeding like crazy. Australia and New Zealand have relatively polite business cultures, and only the most straightforward people will tell you directly what they are thinking if it’s unpleasant for you to hear.

Some shadow stories people might be telling themselves are these:

‘He’s been promising the same thing for two years and nothing has happened. There’s no reason to believe him now.’

‘The IT group don’t have any understanding of what we really do. They spend a lot of money running big projects that don’t bring us any benefit.’

‘They’re just using us until the new automation systems are up and running. Then we’ll all lose our jobs.’

‘They tell us self-service is about working smarter not harder, but it just seems to mean I don’t have my admin staff anymore and I have to work longer hours to get things done.’

‘I’ll nod as if I’m going along with it, but really I think it’s a bad idea. I’m not going to take any action on it.’

‘There's just something about her I don’t like.’

‘Their new tagline is Exceeding Your Expectations. What a joke.’

Shadow stories express things that people are mistrustful, fearful, angry, frustrated or confused about. Shadow stories stop people from making positive changes. They can bring any transformation, project or good idea to a screeching halt.

Being aware of the things that attract shadow stories can help you to avoid them, neutralise them, seed more positive stories to replace them, or even just bring them into the light so you can talk about them openly.

Here are a few questions to help you identify where you might be attracting shadow stories:

  • Where do your actions not match your message?  

  • Where are your messages and stories only partly true?

  • In what ways might people be unclear on your message and what it means for them?

  • Where are you missing opportunities to make a more human connection with others, so your messages will be better received?

Address these issues and you’ll go a long way towards making those shadow stories disappear.

Creativity, Inc. and the Value of Learning from Experience

Creativity, Inc. and the Value of Learning from Experience

One of the most valuable aspects of stories is that they help us learn from our experiences. Through the stories of what happened, we can make sense of our past and allow others to learn from where we’ve been, without reducing the rich context of experience to simplistic platitudes.

This week I have been reading Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull. Catmull is a computer scientist and president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios. He co-founded Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter.

The book is Catmull’s exploration of what he has learned about creativity in business and leadership. What sets it apart from other business books is that it is told almost entirely as a thoughtful narrative of his experience, and he tells us not only what happened but also how he felt about it -- discouraged, lost, angry, elated, surprised, under pressure, let down, in awe, frightened.

At the end, he does provide a set of principles he holds most dear. An example:“Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.” And, “If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.” But it’s the stories behind the bullet points that make the principles meaningful.

Do get your hands on a copy of Creativity, Inc. It’s likely to be one of the most informative and most enjoyable business books you’ve ever read, and it’s a storytelling stunner. It’s worth it just for the gems about Steve Jobs from someone who worked closely with him for 26 years.

But you don’t have to breathe the rarified air of Pixar or hang out with luminaries to have experiences worth reflecting on. Talking about small things that happen every day at work can provide enormous value and insights for your team.

Meetings are perfect opportunities for learning from experience. How often are your team meetings a waste of time? How much more valuable could they be if people shared and reflected on their experiences rather than just providing vapid information updates?

Where do you find stories?

Where do you find stories?

Let’s say you’ve decided to add some stories to your presentations, meetings, and conversations, so that what you have to say will be more memorable, real, engaging, and meaningful.

A question people often ask me when they’re getting started is, “Where do I look for stories?”

A story is simply something that happened, that’s interesting enough to be worth reflecting on and telling someone about. Like anything you tune your attention to, once you become more aware of stories and start looking for interesting things happening around you, you’ll start finding them everywhere. But here are four excellent places to start looking.

1) Things that have happened to you, or that you have noticed happening around you
This is my favourite place to look for stories, partly because your own stories have the greatest impact, and partly because--not to get too heavy on you here--looking for stories in your own life causes you to reflect on your experiences and what they mean. It’s a marvellous antidote to a frenetic pace of life.

The events you look for can be things that happened today, or things that happened many years ago. They can be small and mundane (“I tried doing something a little differently today at work. Here’s what happened and what I learned from it. You might like to try it too…”) Or they can be very personal. (“When I was 24, I had an experience that changed the course of my life…”) In general, the more personal a story is, the more inspiring people will find it. But it’s not necessary for all, or indeed any, of your stories to be like that. Simple, everyday occurrences--anything you’ve noticed that’s interesting--make really useful stories.

2) Things that have happened to people you know
I’m often asked, is it OK to use other people’s stories? The answer is a qualified yes. The caveats are that first, you should never pretend it happened to you if it didn’t. If it happened to someone else, say so. And second, you need to be confident that they wouldn’t mind you telling the story. Use your judgment about whether you need to ask permission, or whether you need to protect identities. Treat other people’s stories with respect.

3) Case studies, scientific experiments, history, biography and current events
Business books, biography, history, popular science, newspapers, journals and magazines are a treasure trove of stories. If you find an event interesting, and you learn something from it that’s relevant to your work or life, other people will too. Remember, you’re not just looking for facts, you’re looking for things that happened.

4) Movies, novels, myths and folklore
Fiction is also a good source of stories you can use at work. For example, have you seen The Martian with Matt Damon, or read the novel by Andy Weir? If you haven’t, do it now. I’ll wait.... Good. Now, how many things could you learn from how Mark Watney approaches being stranded on Mars? Plenty, I bet. In fact, according to some theories this is one of the main functions of fiction, and it’s why we are so hooked on it. Fiction lets us learn vicariously from other people’s extreme experiences, even if those other people never really existed. One caution here though--make sure most of your stories are taken from real life. If you’re looking for a guideline, I’d say use 80-90% from real life, 10-20% from fiction.

Stories are everywhere, happening all around you. You only have to begin noticing them to start building your own collection of stories you can use at work. What have you noticed happening today that’s interesting?

Convert your message to your audience’s currencies

Convert your message to your audience’s currencies

Last time I talked about the importance of asking, “How can I help my audience?” rather than, “How can I communicate my message?” 

One of the first steps in helping your audience is to find their currencies. In other words, what is of value to them?  What’s important in their world? Whatever you communicate needs to be converted to these currencies in order to be useful or meaningful to them.

For example, you might be excited about cyber security, the Internet of Things, digital literacies, or virtual labs. Your audience probably isn’t. Don’t make them do the hard work of figuring out how to convert your message into something they can use; make it easy by doing the currency conversion for them.

So what are their currencies and how do you find them?  Matt Church in The Thought Leaders Practice talks about currencies that people value, including money, time, happiness and status.

Money and time are valuable currencies for everyone. They are a safe bet. If you can save or make money or time for people, you are helping them.

Happiness and status are also very important currencies, but these take different forms for different people, and you’ll need to get to know your audience to find out what forms these take for them. For example, I started using Uber recently. I know, I’m not exactly an early adopter. But the thing that pushed me over the line to try it was a stressful experience where I almost missed a flight because the taxi I had booked took ages to arrive at my pickup address, and I had to make several panicked calls to the taxi company while the driver tried to find me. Since trying Uber, I’ve found it gives me a much less stressful experience in getting where I need to be, and that freedom from stress is valuable for me--more valuable than the cost savings of the service and the time savings of automatic payment, even those those are both very nice. But you’d have to get to know me and my world in order to know that.

Anything people measure about themselves is a currency for them, so learning what their Key Performance Indicators are is a great place to start. For example, researchers are usually measured on research impact. If you can show a researcher how to demonstrate greater research impact, you’re helping them.

Once you’ve found your audience’s currencies, you’ll be in a much better position to help them by converting your message into something they can easily use.

“How can I communicate my message?” Is the wrong question

“How can I communicate my message?” Is the wrong question

Whenever we’re creating a presentation or getting ready for a meeting, it’s natural to think about what we want to say and the best way to say it. It’s normal to think, “How can I communicate this message effectively?” It’s usually what I’m thinking.

But when I catch myself thinking this, I remind myself that it’s the wrong question.

It’s the wrong question because the subtext, the unspoken version of it, is “How can I get my audience to agree with me and do what I want?” And if this is what we’re thinking, this is the intention we’ll unconsciously convey.

Humans have hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary experience in judging one another’s intentions. We’ve become quite good at it. If your intention towards your audience is to get them to do what you want, they’ll know.  

The question we should be asking is, “How can I help them?” How can I be of service? How can this message give them something of value, or take away some pain for them?

When I ask this question instead, this small shift in perspective completely changes my approach. Paradoxically, it helps me convey my message much more effectively. The audience senses my intention to be of service to them, and you know what? It just feels a whole lot better.

Of course to do this, you actually have to find out what’s of value to your audience and what kinds of problems and challenges they have, and that means you have to get out there and talk with them to get to know them better.

In my work, I help people learn to tell real stories to communicate their business messages. But the thing about great storytelling is that it’s not your own story you’re telling, even when you’re sharing your own experiences. You’re telling the audience their story.

What you can learn from Airbnb's backstory

What you can learn from Airbnb's backstory

Every company or organisation has its own backstory: how it began and why; challenges, successes and failures; characters who made important contributions; values that were important at the beginning; values that emerged along the way.

It’s worth finding yours because these stories can provide a powerful source of identity and loyalty for both employees and customers. They help to create a tribe.

Joe Gebbia, one of the founders of Airbnb, gives a beautiful example when he tells The Airbnb Story.

Notice how it starts with two particular people in a particular place and time. They had a problem, and they came up with an idea to solve it, which had some challenges. Along the way they met some other very interesting people, discovered values that became a part of the fabric of the company, dealt with more challenges, emerged transformed, and brought something good into the world. This is a perfect structure for your own backstory.

Here is just a small excerpt from Gebbia’s story to give you the flavour of it. It’s worth watching the video.

“Brian and I both quit our jobs to become entrepreneurs. We let go of the salary and the benefits, and we took the plunge into the unknown. There was a problem. The minute [we did that] our rent went up, and suddenly we found ourselves unable to afford our own apartment. We had to think and we had to think fast.

"It just so happened that same weekend a design conference was coming to San Francisco that was so big all the hotels had sold out in the city…. So we’re sketching away [in our Moleskines] in our living room and we started to think, hmm, we’ve got some extra space here [on the floor and the sofa].

"We started to come up with this idea, what if we were able to blow up an air mattress, put it in our living room, and rent it out to designers who need a place to stay for the conference?  We could go so far as to cook them breakfast.

"By the end of that night we had this concept called AirBed and Breakfast. So naturally we wanted to list our airbeds somewhere on the Internet and we made the logical next move. We went and looked at Craig’s List. This makes sense, right? No! These people are going to be sleeping in our living room. We want to know who they are.

"So we decided to make our own site. We made [the first version of Airbed and Breakfast] in 24 hours. We put the site up and we encountered our next problem, which was, how are people going to find out about Airbed and Breakfast?

"So that night before bed, Brian and I emailed the top design bloggers that we could think of. And when we woke up the next morning it felt like Christmas. There we were at the top of some of our favourite blogs. … And suddenly this idea we had 48 hours earlier was now live on the Internet. And we had people start writing us from around the world who wanted to stay in our living room.

"So think for a minute, what type of person do you think would want to sleep on an airbed in somebody’s living room? Probably dudes. Probably pretty young. Strapped for cash, just out of college. That’s what we thought too. We were totally wrong. We had three people stay with us, all over the age of 30. … Together the three of them helped us solve our problem. We made our rent that month. We made $1000. They saved our apartment.

"But they actually did more than that. They shared their stories with us. Amol, a grad student in India, told us about his amazing thesis project. He was doing artificial intelligence. Kat’s a web designer from Boston who gave us tips on how to improve the website. Collectively the three of them inspired us to make Airbed and Breakfast real."

Gebbia goes on to talk about more challenges, failures, and successes along the way. He tells some customer stories. And he finishes by sharing the values that have emerged over time.

"We're actually connecting the world with each other. So what started in our apartment is now this. [Shows connection graph] Every line you see here is an idea that got shared, an experience that got created, a friendship that got made between two people from two different cities. All we did was scale what we did in our apartment.... I can't yet say that Airbnb is going to change the world, but based on this I can tell you that we're changing the way people experience it."

If you had heard this story in 2011 when the talk was filmed, how would it have made you feel about Airbnb--as a potential customer, a potential investor, or a potential employee?

What’s your own company’s backstory?

The meaning in meetings

The meaning in meetings

As leaders, one of our most important tasks is to frame context, so that the people who follow us can appreciate the significance of their work. However, we often miss opportunities to do this.

My friends Katherine and Sax are masters at turning a small event into something more meaningful, and I think there’s a lot to be learned from their approach.

Their daughter turned one last week. Katherine being Katherine, there was no way she was going to let an occasion as momentous as her child’s first birthday go by with just some cake and balloons.

Here is what the invitation said:

"I’m turning ONE and you’re invited to celebrate with all of us at a party in our backyard. I already have everything I need—except good advice. Rather than more toys, what I’d really like is for each of my guests to tell me one thing my parents won’t. Please bring it written on a piece of paper for Mummy and Daddy to collect in a scrapbook for me. (I’d love you to send something even if you can’t come to my party!) If you’re at the party you’ll also be asked to read it out on camera for posterity."

I wasn’t able to make it to the party, but I did send in my own piece of advice.  The day after the party, Sax sent around a video montage showing the guests recording their advice on camera. (You can’t hear what they’re saying in the video because it’s a personal message for their daughter.)

I was struck with the way this simple activity turned a child’s party, which she won’t even remember, into something much bigger for everyone.

  • It gave the guests an opportunity to reflect on our own lives and the advice we’d like to offer to future generations. Plus it was a lot more fun and interesting than shopping for a present for a one-year-old.
  • It created a sense of community and shared humanity among the guests, and a sense of being a part of this child’s life. I can feel this from the video, even though I wasn’t there. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt disappointed at missing out on a kid’s party.
  • I’m sure it was both moving and fun for Katherine and Sax to listen to the advice their friends were offering their daughter.
  • Their daughter will have something wonderful and meaningful to look back on when she’s old enough to appreciate it, in the form of both the scrapbook of advice and the video.

As leaders, every time we gather people together for a purpose—to kick off an initiative, to give a quarterly update, to celebrate the end of a project—we have the opportunity to create meaning for everyone from the event. This might be a sense of reflection, of community, of solidarity for challenges ahead, of shared difficulties overcome, of honouring the past, or of adventure for the future. But most of the time we let these opportunities slide by and just conduct them in the usual humdrum way that has no impact: a slide deck and sometimes maybe some cake. Even worse, often we don’t acknowledge these events at all but just move straight onto the next thing because everyone is so busy.

What if even a few of our meetings were as meaningful as this child’s birthday party? Think how it would change the way everyone in the organisation approached their work.

Connect first, then inform

Connect first, then inform

Leaders need to be deliberate about making a human connection before presenting information.

A story from the 1992 US Presidential election illustrates what happens when we don’t. The 1992 election was unusual because there were three major candidates instead of two. In addition to the Republican incumbent, George H. W. Bush, and Democrat challenger, Bill Clinton, there was a third candidate, Ross Perot, running as an independent, and in mid-1992 he was leading in the polls and seemed unstoppably popular.

Frank Luntz was Perot’s director of research, and Luntz was running focus groups to test Perot television ads and find out what people liked and what they didn’t like about him.

In the focus groups, Luntz played three short videos. He played a biography of Ross Perot, some testimonials, and a policy speech. Then he would ask people questions and poke around to see how he might be able to influence their opinions.

What he found in every focus group when he played these videos was that people loved Ross Perot, and there was nothing he was able to say to swing people against him.

Until he ran one focus group in Detroit, and the videotapes (they were tapes then) hadn’t been rewound, and so he played them in a different order. He played the testimonials first, then the speech, and then the bio. In this focus group, no one liked Perot. Not at all. And there was nothing Luntz could do to make them like him.

What he found when he experimented with this was that the results were very predictable. Play the bio first, everyone loved Perot. Play the speech before the bio, no one liked him at all.

The lesson, Luntz says, was that “the order in which you give information determines how people think."

The bio let people form a human connection with Perot. Once they liked him as a person, they were receptive to anything he had to say. But without that human connection, they were resistant to his messages.

Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman explains this in his wonderful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s rare for people to make decisions based on logic. We have to slow down and think very deliberately in order to do this. Almost all of the time, we make rapid decisions based on our intuitions and feelings, and then we manufacture rational-sounding explanations to justify these decisions.

What this means for us as leaders and influencers is that we need to make a human connection with people before we start hitting them with our ideas. If we do this, they’ll be receptive to almost anything we have to say. If we don’t, we’re just asking for resistance.

You can read more about Frank Luntz in 'The Word Lab: The mad science behind what the candidates say’ from The New Yorker, 16 Oct 2000.

Are your employees hearing radio static?

Are your employees hearing radio static?

 Last week I posted about the Four Levels of Leadership Communication. Here is the diagram.

 Digital transformation, Leadership, Information Technology, Storytelling

Now the thing about those levels is that your leadership team might be communicating at different levels with different groups. Communication may not be at one level all across the board.

But how can you tell if at least some of your leadership communications are at the Noise level, where the leadership team isn’t delivering consistent messages, and all employees hear is radio static?  

Here are seven clues that can tip it off.

  1. Leadership team meetings are sporadic. They’re often cancelled because members of the leadership team have other priorities.
  2. Employees only hear about big picture strategic priorities once or twice a year.
  3. There is no documented strategy, OR the strategy document is 50 pages of dense text and no one can understand it or even bear to read it.
  4. There’s nothing that joins the dots between the high level priorities and what employees actually do.
  5. Employees in one group say they have no idea what employees in another group do.
  6. Employees often spend time and effort working on something, only to be told that it doesn’t matter after all.
  7. Everyone’s diary is filled with meetings that don’t seem to achieve anything.

Moving up to the next level of Information means making sure that priorities are clear and that employees hear about them regularly and consistently from the leadership team.  

ut influence really begins at the Connection level of leadership communication, where employees have a real understanding for what the priorities mean, and they know exactly how to apply them to their own work.