Live learning at TED

IMG_6382If you are a keen online user of the TED talks then, like me, you might have been quite excited at the prospect of getting along to a live TED event. So when Leamington held its first ever TED last weekend I was very pleased to be able to go along.

It was highly instructive.

It wasn’t just the content of the talks (which addressed topics as diverse as AI and music, overcoming fear, the Bloodhound world land speed record attempt and sex addiction). The quality was excellent and readily repaid sitting in a darkened auditorium on the only sunny day of the week.

In total, there were 16 sessions including 13 speakers, music and the alienZoo dance troupe. The talks followed the standard TED format – short and punchy, with the speaker stood on a circular rug in front of the big red letters of TED and the name of the location.

However, as much as the talks were great and the subjects and their narrators fascinating, the overriding learning from the day for me was not in the content, it was in the event itself. I came away with several lessons…


Action your passion

Frustrated, inspired or restive? There were several reminders throughout the event of the value that one person can create by running with an idea.

The event was organised by volunteers (for those who didn’t realise the ‘x’ at the end of a TED means independently organised) who, though working to a prescribed format, just decided one day to organise a TEDx in Leamington. Similarly one talk was given by someone who helped organise the video games ‘Backspace’ exhibition in Leamington a couple of years ago – and indeed launched her own business off the experience. Another had followed his own dream and used his experience to become a successful author.

In an era that can become hidebound by the need for training, qualifications and methods, the event showed just how powerful and vital it is to turn ideas into action and simply ‘do it’. The power is in the action.

Failing? Most people would want you to succeed

The event requires talks that must delivered with precise timing and a honed message. This ensures the quality. The result is that many speakers effectively memorise their script and deliver it on the day.

At Leamington, one person stumbled and stuck one minute into their talk. Despite trying to work around it, they could not remember what they had planned to say next.

They stopped and asked to restart. The audience?

From the very first moment of their difficulty, you could sense a deep well of support for them, willing them to remember their next line. Their request brought a huge round of applause cheering their decision to go back and try again. Next time through, no stumble and, at the conclusion of the talk, the biggest round of applause both for the talk and for the courage that fuelled its delivery.

When we read articles in magazines and newspapers which are often hugely cynical about people, it’s great to see that  in reality most people want each other to succeed and not to trip up, to prosper not to fail.

A spark is worth sharing

Quite a number of the speakers started on their subjects, sparked by something in their lives: challenges their children faced, problems they personally had to overcome, learning how to use a skill in new ways, loving a particular school subject. The immediate spark then became a flame.

We have great freedom to pursue our interests in leisure time and even in paid work. This privilege enables us to enrich our own lives as well as those of others. Too often we may not pay attention to those activities in which we really sparkle. Yet these can often be a source to steer a new path that benefits everyone.

Worth thinking about if you are engaged in something that produces little spark for you.

The nature of being human

Seeing so many speakers one after another reinforced the message that despite the importance of facts, analysis, organisation and logic, effective communication critically depends upon making an emotional connection with an audience.

This can be done in many ways: expressing genuine emotion, talking with engaging honesty, resonating with the values of the hearers, articulating what really matters. Each of these approaches caught the hearts and minds of the audience on Saturday.

It is easy to forget that we are not just human because we are smart but also because of our emotional makeup. Compelling human arguments make that emotional connection, in conversation and presentation.

I was left with a final phrase; a healthy little challenge to those of us who might  sometimes slip towards complacency…. “What’s your idea that’s worth spreading?”.

Now there’s a good question to ponder….I am sure there is a TED talk in that.



Principle 6: Work where you care

shutterstock_274488008The first five principles I have outlined are actions that leaders can undertake but the final one is a foundation that is much more difficult to create. It is a condition of success: If you want people to commit wholeheartedly to change, it is essential that you really care about them and the outcome for the organisation.

Care: verb ‘feel concern or interest; attach importance to something.’

This is not a technique nor an approach but it is something fundamental to the leader and their role …where and with whom they are engaged.

It can’t be faked. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to tell if someone really cares about something or the impact on someone? I have discovered this myself. When I have been in an organisation with someone who clearly cares about both what happens to the organisation and to me, I have found it a lot easier to commit to what we are doing. Where it is absent I have found it almost the kiss of death to commitment.

This leader’s ‘care’ is not the same as care about personal success or an organisational outcome from their own viewpoint. It is about care for something bigger and broader: the human organisation, its purpose and its people.

The impact of a lack of care

When leaders don’t care about people and purpose it sucks the heart out of a team. It destroys the meaning (and hence value) of what is begin done and relegates strategy and activity to insignificance. A key part of the leader’s purpose is to help capture the aspiration behind the activity and articulate the ‘something bigger than ourselves’ that is part of being an organisation. The same is true if leaders don’t care about the people in the team.

Leaders communicate their attitude regardless of their intent. Touchstone actions demonstrate it.

Where leaders are seeking commitment to a change, they are looking forward – to the future of the human organisation. As such they need to care about the people and the purpose of the organisation. Without this, commitment is dissipated. Leaders who don’t care alienate people from the organisation and its goals.

The challenge

1 Go where you care

I have been fortunate to be able to lead for the most part where I have found it easy to care about both the people and the outcome for the organisation. Yet it is too often a cliche when leaders describe their staff as ‘our most valuable asset’.

People can tell whether you mean it.

Therefore it is vital to perform a leadership role in a place and with people whom you genuinely care about. If, as a leader, you no longer have this where you are then it is time to move on. As a friend once expressed to be me – you need to be where your energy and heart are.

If not, then move on. If the leaders are not interested in the bigger picture of the human organisation – neither will others be interested. Energy and commitment will be expelled from the change.

2 Be interested

“The real reason that people are interested in leaders is because leaders are interested in people,”

 Major Chris Whipp    

To be an effective leader of change it is important that ‘we’ becomes much more significant than ‘I’. Bill George, the widely respected former CEO of Medtronic, puts this attribute down to the leader’s compassion. In his opinion, this is what makes the difference. To achieve this we need to be really interested in people – individually and collectively – not just task outcomes.

These are the “Level 5” leaders that Jim Collins identifies in ‘Good to Great’. Leaders who possess the paradoxical mix of two almost conflicting qualities: great ambition and personal humility.

Yet, it is easy for leaders to lose their interest and compassion for people. The relentless demand for results and forward progression can undermine the interest in people and break the emotional connection needed to generate commitment. This leaves people feeling that they are just human resource, and leaders failing to listen properly or not caring about individuals’ views.

The Tibetan scholar, Thupten Jinpa, explains that this compassion has three components:

1 A cognitive component: “I understand you”

2 An affective component: “I feel for you”

3 A motivational component: “I want to help you”

It is not about agreeing with others but it is about being interested in them as people, their work, aspirations, fears and life.

3 Find the hope in the vision

Even where a change has a painful and destructive aspect (eg including downsizing or retrenchment) it is important to help people find where the future is – for them. Commitment to change requires hope in a successful future and leaders who care will want to help people, whether they stay with the organisation or not, to grow and find that future.

Owning a forward facing interest in people is a very powerful trigger for people to commit to change. This is strengthened still further when this embodies a picture of something bigger in the future of the organisation.

The sense is beautifully captured by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, who once said,  “If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

What might this look like?

There is no easy answer to this question.

It is not about set-piece activities or training. It is about the heart of the leaders. However, the sort of things that might be seen where leaders do have a heart for people and organisation are:

  • Genuine interest in the welfare of staff. Gallup CEO, Jim Clifton polls 1000 staff each day across the enterprise to understand how energised they are.
  • The presence and positive use of staff attitude, commitment or 360 feedback. Gallup offer organisations the opportunity to monitor employee commitment, a good measure of the level of care.
  • Commitment to the spirit of the core management tasks in leading people – e.g. helping to establish clear expectations with staff, providing supportive but critical feedback, ensuring that staff have the ability and control to meet their goals
  • An evident curiosity, enthusiasm and energy that engages others in the welfare and development of the organisation. A thirst for new ways to advance the aims of staff and the organisation.
  • Behaviours that evidence genuine interest in the people in the organisation – presence, empathy, listening, commitment to the building of teams

Sometimes it might be difficult to tell where this enthusiasm comes from – whether it is a commitment to something bigger or simply a projection of inner ego. The only true observation can be made by the leader themselves – and if there is no energy and commitment to this human organisation, then it is time to move elsewhere.


Principle 5: Build good bridges

BridgeI was in California this Easter and drove the second most popular tourist attraction in the USA, The Big Sur: a fantastic stretch of coastline south of San Francisco with spectacular coves, cliffs and the occasionally very large gorge that Route 1 needs to cross. It would be impossible to drive down this coast without the presence of bridges to cross these chasms.

Major change, if it is real, is an organisational chasm. Without good bridges it is impossible for people to travel wholeheartedly with it.

The sixth principle is therefore to make sure that the bridges for change, all the structures used to shepherd it forward, are really effective.

As I reflected on the essentials of wholehearted change, I started thinking that this one was simply too obvious.  Surely everyone realises that you must have things in place to enable change? However, in the end it stayed on my list for my ‘one side of paper’ principles because of the frequency with which I have observed that there have not been effective structures in place.

It is a frequent and major problem. Without effective bridges commitment to change is drastically undermined. It is like trying to drive along Route 1 without all the bridges being in place… fatal.

What are bridges?

Bridges are the key elements that will connect the way things are now with the way they need to be in the future  – but we need to think broadly…

Some are easy to identify. Most organisations have long since recognised the need for supporting structures for change programmes, and have project groups, program offices, plans and software to  handle everything from system changes and business projects, to strategy work and most any other major change. These are really useful.

However, they are rarely sufficient on their own. Effective bridges need to cover both the management and control elements that typical project management delivers and the context and environment in which the program office operates. Only in this way will the management elements work as they are supposed to!

Three challenges typically need to be addressed:

1 Clarity, capacity and contingency

The governance approach needs to deliver:

  • simplicity – as opposed to a bureaucratic or complex process
  • clarity – as opposed to confusion about who and where decisions or information are located
  • capacity – as opposed to overwhelming people with change on top of an unmitigated day-to-day workload
  • contingency  – to be clear how key risks or possibilities will be handled, so that current defaults do not undermine the change itself

These characteristics are not difficult to highlight but all too often change structures do not deliver. Overly complex processes, unclear responsibilities, work overload and unforeseen events overtake the support that is needed.

A critical eye is essential to challenge weaknesses against these criteria. Teams can misjudge how well these are fulfilled, especially if they are involved 24/7 when others interact only for a part of their work.

2 Careful use of metrics

Metrics are essential and need to be put in place but all too often in corporates they also present dangers.

They are sometimes used as a substitute for management – to squeeze people into new ways of working or reshape a business by the progressive tightening of key metrics. Either approach undermines wholeheartedness unless the measures are understood and owned by those in the change.

Secondly, measures that help scope or assess the desired state are sometimes simply loaded on top of the old as oppose to the old being redesigned. Established metrics quickly subvert new or undermine real change and commitment to it. Measures need to reflect what the organisation is really committed to doing and old measures need to be eliminated.

Finally, incentives are often built on measures to boost change (bonuses, price changes, premiums etc). These need care. Sometimes they work and sometimes they can backfire (as in the Israeli daycare facilities that introduced a small fine when parents picked up their children late and experienced an increase in late pickups rather than the desired reduction!). Again ownership and rationale are vital.

3 Proactive handling of obstacles…

As much as I dislike the term ‘proactive’, here it is critical. Too often the soft obstacles to change, reflecting power and decisions, key people or clear messages are not addressed upfront. It is left for those involved to resolve – work around people, work  through unfriendly powers or invent the narrative and rationale.

In terms of corporate politics, this is often not addressed as rigorously as it needs to be.

If, to create commitment, people are involved upfront and decisions are taken – then these need to be supported. Too often participants are disempowered either because they are not involved until after decisions are taken or because insufficient action is taken to support the implementation in the face of the status quo. Dealing with these issues then takes too much energy and time and undermines commitment.

What might this mean in practice?

This principle might be realised in many different ways. Priorities might be to:

  • Ensure that the participants in change help to shape it – with meetings, teams or other approaches and identify the things that might really derail its success
  • Investigate the history of failed changes in the organisation and what factors have driven this – then mitigate these. If necessary with some tough alignment at the top level
  • Where a discrete project is identifiable – establish a clear structure and staffing to drive the change and make sure that the new procedures are no more onerous than existing ones (even better make them simpler!)
  • Use teams to examine key areas (e.g. governance, measures, workload) and recommend the best mechanisms for change in each area
  • Use a framework that looks at the organisation in systemic terms to define what bridges are needed to help change move forward (eg Burke-Litwin, Nadler-Tushman)
  • Test that ‘things are clear’ by taking the temperature regularly. Find someone who can get alongside staff to check that people understand the story of the change, near term goals, how it’s going, how the ‘undiscussible’ obstacles to change are being handled etc. Capture the ‘voice of the participant’ in change
  • Early on, check that the change is not overly inside-out or top down and that the approach is ‘pulling’ change through not just pushing it forward
  • Check that the organisational talent is where the heart of the organisation wants to go… not sitting on the sidelines and waiting for failure
  • Cascade the change to ensure that leaders pull all constituencies through the change
  • Build in review processes to check that what is intended is realised – follow up checkpoints are really useful


In one client company, the cascade of new ways of working and a six monthly health check provided two invaluable bridges to help the business make the transformation of its sales approach. In another, the repeated polling of the ‘voice of the customer’ continually called people to account for the goals they were setting for service. In both cases these bridges were not the core project management of change that most energy tends to focus on but they ensured that power aligned with the change and not against it.

We typically underestimate the breadth and strength of the bridges needed to support change effectively. With wholehearted change the difficult things that must be covered are both the human and the technical elements.

In change, as in life :without good bridges people cannot travel very far. They will get stuck at one chasm or another.


Dialogue as a medium for change

shutterstock_284288123In keeping with change that engages both the inner person and outward actions, I was interested to see the Centre for Creative Leadership article on ‘Mediated Dialogue’.

The article highlights the value of using structured dialogue around objects as a means, especially early in the process of change, to build understanding and insight.

These might be postcards, art, photos or magazines, or anything that can be used to provoke different ways of expressing ideas, views and assumptions. They help open up discussion, and generate insights and reflection, provoking a much deeper and more valuable level of discussion and analysis.

The article mirrors my own experience in using postcards, game cards and photos especially in strategy or innovation sessions, where their use to characterise competitors or industry developments has helped to facilitate much more reflection and questioning of implicit assumptions and beliefs about what is happening than would otherwise have been possible.

The impact on groups has been similar to that which scenarios and gaming exercises has had with management teams. A great way to help people to expose and challenge thinking in new ways and provoke the reflection and analysis that is so necessary for real change, whilst often building in the group a stronger sense of identity because of the way that it creates a sense of having found something novel or new.

It’s a great article and CCL offer a white paper that provides more details of the technique and how to undertake it. Worth a read for those interested.



Principle 4: Resilience and relationships


WD-40 – what a great product! I use it to keep my hedge-cutter blades clean, loosen nuts and lubricate hinges. This is just a few of its many uses.

The website of the San Diego based company features over 2000 uses. These have been suggested by customers who have clearly been so enamoured with the product that they have tried to do the most amazing things with it, including cleaning guitar strings, getting tomato stains off clothes (as a pre-treatment) and even making the game ‘Twister’ more difficult by spraying the mat before you start.

WD-40 is a water-displacing (the clue is in the ‘WD’), penetrating and soil removing lubricant spray with myriad uses, all of which focus on helping move things that should be able to move (including stains). This product, in its way, illustrates the value of the fourth principle in generating committed change – and something which I have rarely seen used when major change is envisaged: invest to enable people to be capable to change by building relationships and resilience.

Capability to thrive in change

At a personal level, we often resist a change because of a lack of resilience and trust or confidence in others.

Fear of the consequences of change, of as yet unknown outcomes, of losing our role, position or valued experiences, of broken friendships or failure. All restrict our confidence and desire for change. They crowd in to build resistance, especially as we get older or more established (and have more to lose) or feel more vulnerable.

New technology often puts people off because they do not feel confident of using it and so do not try … in case they look daft or it causes problems. The much publicised problems in our energy market similarly demonstrate the issue well (see energy to change post).

This natural tendency needs to be countered by leaders. People will not commit wholeheartedly unless they feel capable of doing so successfully. They resist the risk and evident personal losses that it will mean. They get rooted in often less important things. They fail to contribute to shaping a change and they will be unable to commit to change early or even at all!

It is therefore vital that leaders build up the flexibility and health of the whole organisation. This requires work on two interlinked elements: the overall quality of relationships across the community and the personal resilience of individuals within it.

Enhancing resilience is about building someone’s ability (and confidence) to get through tough events well emotionally.

Enhancing relationships is about building the social support that prevents isolation and creates a sense of team.

Together they enable people to look forward with greater openness. They provide a better perspective on what’s really important and what less important. They help maintain the health of the organisation.They are fuel for wholehearted change.

Building these is just like treating the organisation with WD-40!


What priorities does this raise?

1 Building a balanced sense of self-responsibility

It would mean equipping people with the understanding, skills and relationships that enable them to take more responsibility for both themselves and their co-workers: understanding and helping people to recognise and manage stress effectively, openly challenging unhelpful attitudes (both in themselves and others), and doing this is in a way that builds teaming and fosters interdependent behaviours.

Stating it like this expresses the challenge. It also highlights how rarely leaders make this investment for change. Successful wholehearted change builds on strong teams and self-responsible individuals. These qualities need enough investment in the run-up to strategic change.

2 Encouraging open and reasoned dialogue and behaviours

Reason and openness often take a hit with change. People react rather than respond. Yet they are vital to maintain the strength of the organisation and to achieve the best outcomes. A reasoned response is always better than an emotional reaction.

Open and reasoned dialogue needs encouragement and example. Leaders need to model it in their approach to problems, facts and possible solutions. We need to expose the reasonable base for decisions under our responsibility and demand this of others.

We should also foster an awareness of the importance of behaviours (e.g. acceptable disagreement, openness and listening), with a focus on encouraging people to play to their strengths and remaining flexible on the specific form of any change as oppose to the vital importance of underlying reasons for changes.

3 Building effective teaming

Radical and strategic changes undermine teaming and relationships. They often break up established teams and provoke an insularity and defensiveness that can poison trust within the organisation for many years to come. This is especially true if current relationships or past history are poor.

Leaders often adopt a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, playing winners and losers off against each other. This all too readily feeds personally defensive strategies. Rather we need to be seen to continue to value people and recognise the losses and emotional hurt that is inevitable in change – even without compromising the move forward. This means teamwork is modelled in the leadership team and cascaded through the organisation. It means continued investment in team activities, social interactions, empathetic dialogue and the ‘tough love’ of good teams.

Wholehearted change flows from a strong meaning (the why) and through questions that help to highlight the gaps and challenges to be addressed. Leaders support these with community strength.

What might this look like in practice?

A specific programme of activities can easily be designed by the organisation itself – bringing an intimate understanding of where it is strong and weak and monitoring the action being taken. The ownership of the programme can itself be a powerful reinforcement of this fourth principle. However, the sorts of things that are likely to be effective are a mix of:

  • Work team development, starting with the leadership team. Identifying and working on problem relationships and behaviours in the team, building an understanding of personal styles, strengths and weaknesses
  • Resilience tools and training (including things like mindfulness training, breathing and relaxation, self-observation and acceptance) with ample opportunity not just to learn the techniques but also to regularly practice them. A programme like that developed by Linda Lantieri in NY schools is a good example of the basket of tools that an organisation might use
  • In a team, individually answer the 12 question checklist from the book “First Break all the Rules” (Buckingham/Coffman, 1999) and identify where issues need addressing on a one-by-one basis
  • Ensure in briefings and meetings that the meaning and reasoning behind the change is discussed with human and business issues addressed
  • Use exercises to promote greater understanding and empathy between staff (e.g. MBTF, style questionnaires, personal history, Strengths/Weaknesses/ Likes/Hates etc)
  • Pull people together to talk about what they find meaningful in their own work, separate out the important from the less important, and identify what they find difficult in the change – with a view to building support networks to discuss and work these through
  • Training on stress management, conflict resolution, assertiveness, negotiation and problem solving  – tools which people can use to avoid feeling helpless in the face of change
  • Build on work team events to strengthen interpersonal relationships and trust (things which, if pressured, task focused corporates and individuals  often cut back on).
  • Set the tone of meetings into and through the change process very carefully – with the aim of allowing ‘processing time’ for people to reflect on what is happening and build a clear story in their heads

It is important that emotions are discussed and given legitimacy in discussions  (something that is not often encouraged!) and that people are encouraged to reflect on challenges and changes and their significance (or not!). In some schools in the NY resilience programme they start faculty meetings with a chime and brief meditation. This helps to set the tone for discussions. Useful because it promotes reflection and thought – seats of reason and empathy.

The aim throughout is to provide a set of processes that enable people to be more assured of good outcomes in spite of any threats that the change might present to them. This helps people to participate more readily and interactively in the change and boosts commitment. People can start to concentrate on the content and handle the stress of change.

Ironically the overall health of the organisation ahead of major change is a key factor in helping people feel able to commit to change wholeheartedly. The most important factors in realising this are the strength of relationships and trust between people and the resilience of the individuals involved.

This enables those things that should move to move more easily. We can all find areas of our organisational commitment that need a good squirt of WD-40. Principle 4 is about this.


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