Month: November 2017

The Three-Word Phrase that Helps Unlock Group Creativity

Let’s say you’re in a meeting, and you want to help your group think more creatively. Which of these phrases should you use?

1) “What if we….”

2) “Why don’t we….”

3) “How might we….”

If you guessed (3), you’re right. For why, check out this cool story on how designers at IDEO (who — you guessed it — are featured in my new book, The Culture Code) ignite team creativity.  The core insight: starting with how might we sends a signal that failure is okay.

“The beauty of the phrase ‘How might we do this’ is that it eliminates fear, stress, and anxiety by supportively implying that there may be more than one solution, and that nothing more is needed at the moment than ideas,” says Jean Greaves, an organizational psychologist and CEO of TalentSmart. “This is the language that primes our mind for having fun exploring, and pushing beyond what’s already known.”

In other words: if you want creativity, start with safety.  

Why Smart Leaders Use Corny Catchphrases

Tip for leaders: stop focusing on inspiration, and start focusing on navigation

Catchphrases have a bad reputation. They are corny. They are over-obvious. They sound dumb. As a result, we tend to avoid using them.  (Think about how you reacted the last time someone suggested you “work smarter, not harder.”)

But here’s the funny thing : When you visit highly successful cultures, you’ll notice they use a lot of catchphrases. I mean, they use tons of them. You can’t walk around for thirty seconds without hearing or seeing a corny-sounding catchphrase.

For example, here are a few you hear around Danny Meyer’s wildly successful restaurants: Creating raves… read the guest… finding the yes… collecting and connecting dots… planting like seeds in like gardens… one size fits one… the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.

And here’s what you hear and see at KIPP, a hugely successful system of charter schools: All of us will learn… work hard, be nice… read, baby, read… no shortcuts… don’t eat the marshmallow… be the constant, not the variable… prove the doubters wrong… privileges are earned.

If you spend time with the Navy SEALs, IDEO, Pixar, and other great groups, as I did during my research for my new book, The Culture Code, the pattern is the same. So the question is, What is going on?

The answer is, successful groups use using catchphrases in a highly targeted way: as cognitive scripts to define specific challenges they face. They aren’t catchphrases as much as navigational aids.

When you look closer, there are four types of catchphrases, each with their own guidance function. Let’s call them the North Star, Do’s, Don’ts, and Identity.  

Here are KIPP’s:

North Star: Work hard be nice

Do’s: Read, baby, read… if there’s a problem, we look for the solution… all of us will learn

Don’ts: No shortcuts… don’t eat the marshmallow 

Identity: Be the constant, not the variable… prove the doubters wrong… privileges are earned… every detail matters

And here are Danny Meyer’s:

North Star: Creating raves for guests

Do’s: Read the guest… finding the yes… collecting and connecting dots… planting like seeds in like gardens… one size fits one… the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled… mistakes are waves, servers are surfers… turning up the home dial

Don’ts: Skunking… your emotional wake

Identity: Athletic hospitality… the excellence reflex… loving problems… are you an agent or a gatekeeper?

See the pattern? The North Star provides the Why — the highest priority, the group aim. The Do’s and Don’ts describe the path on how to get there, and Identity defines key traits that distinguish the group from the rest of the world.

This pattern is not an accident. It’s essential, because it creates a “culture story” that captures the soul of the group — or, if you like, a narrative algorithm that provides the crucial connections between the Why, the Who, the How.

In other words, catchphrases aren’t corny — they are genius. Because purpose isn’t just about inspiration, but also about navigation. It’s about building a vivid, accessible roadmap with a set of emotional GPS signals to define identity and guide group behavior. 

Here are some tips for building your group’s roadmap:

• Seek to build a lot of catchphrases, all the time. Crowdsource the process. Use the ones that stick; ditch the ones that don’t. 

• Aim for simple, vivid images. Good catchphrases deliver one, simple, vivid idea.

• A good place to start is to clearly define the problems your people routinely encounter. If you can define the problem you face, you have the seed of a catchphrase.

Want Stronger Culture? Stop Leading, and Start Designing

Every leader wants to create strong culture. After all, culture drives group performance (a tidy 756 percent increased in net revenue over 11 years). As the old saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack.

The problem, of course, is that creating culture is a wildly mysterious process. It’s hard to measure, impossible to mandate, and easy to mess up. As such, it’s easy for leaders to fall into the trap of treating culture as something slightly beyond your control; to presume that certain people are born with the uncanny knack for creating culture; others aren’t.

There’s a better way. And I recently bumped into an excellent example, on the big island of Hawaii, home to a unique gathering called The Lobby.

The Lobby is a three-day gathering of 200 or so tech people and investors. It began eleven years ago when a venture capitalist named David Hornik grew weary of sitting in darkened rooms listening to people speak, while all the fun and useful conversations happened outside in the hallways. So Hornik hit upon an idea: to create a conference that flipped the conventional model on its head. No speakers, no auditorium, no official theme or agenda; just the lobby.

I can report that Hornik has succeeded to a wildly impressive extent. To put it simply, The Lobby is a complete blast: a high-energy gathering that leaves you brimming with new ideas and new friends. If my new book weren’t already written, I’d be tempted to include The Lobby as a case study because, to use the term that many longtime attendees use: it’s addictive. Hornik has built an amazing group culture, seemingly out of thin air.

The key is that Hornik doesn’t “lead” in the conventional sense of the word. He doesn’t outline a vision, or mandate actions from the top down. Instead, he thinks and behaves like a designer, engineering the culture from the bottom up. His main tool is a set of what psychologists call signaling behaviors: actions that carry the power to influence others.

Here’s how he does it:

• Before you go, Hornik’s team helps attendees create and share something personal with the entire group. It might be a postcard with biographical details and a photo of their favorite place, or short video tour of everyone’s office, or a baseball-type “trading card” — the only rule is that it conveys their personality and backstory.

• When you arrive, Hornik sets out the prime directive: everything said at The Lobby is 100 percent private. No social media, no journalists, no publicity.

• The first morning, you are randomly combined into six-person teams to play The Game, a three-hour series of puzzles and riddles. It’s silly, fun, complex, and creates high levels of cooperation, effort, and excitement.

• The core of the conference consists of “User-Generated Conversations.” These are questions, suggested by attendees, which focus on questions that people really want to talk about. (Examples: Is a 4-year college a waste of time and money? What does the future of work look like? How can we help kids deal with anxiety?)

• In the conversations, there are no chairs; just beanbags strewn on the lawn or in a room. People carry them to choose what conversations they want to be part of.

• Through it all, Hornik plays the role of pied piper, donning goofy outfits, connecting people, and modeling a kind of openness that creates more openness (he even brought along his parents).

When you look closer, Hornik is using two core signaling behaviors:

  • Signaling Behavior 1: You are safe.
  • Signaling Behavior 2: We share risks. 

Every element of the Lobby — the sharing of bios, the rule of secrecy, the shared games, the shared conversations, the beanbag chairs — toggle between two these core signals, either creating a sense of safety (we are connected; we share a future) or shared vulnerability (we take interpersonal risks together).

When combined, they create a feedback spiral of interactions that generates every-higher levels of group closeness and cooperation. Safety generates vulnerability, which generates even more safety, which generates even more vulnerability, and so on. The group chemistry and connection this creates might feel magical, but in fact it’s closer to inevitable.

So if you want to think like a culture designer, here are a few pointers:

• Make sure the leader is vulnerable first: this grants the group permission to do the same. One trusty method: share an embarrassing story.

• Ruthlessly eliminate default forms of status and power: the best way to do this: give each person a voice and a genuine opportunity to use it.

• Beware bad apples: they can destroy group safety in an instant. As Hornik puts it, all the social engineering in the world won’t fix a dysfunctional group of people.

PS – If you want to read more about Hornik, please check out Adam Grant’s terrific book, Give and Take).