The benefits of transparency

This past Tuesday, I spent the day surrounded by the leading thinkers and doers in the field of behavior design at the Design For Action conference in DC.

One of the most insightful talks I heard was from Michael Norton, a professor at HBS. His talk covered Transparency and Trust – How organizations—from companies to governments— can gain the trust of their key stakeholders (from customers to constituents) to increase both buy in and buying.

I’ll recap two anecdotes that Norton shared and then add some of my take aways

Anecdote 1

Norton shared a story about a locksmith who started out his career like many of us. He wasn’t very good at performing tasks quickly. He would fiddle, cuss and sweat until he got the got the problem door open. His customers would observe his work and assume that it was hard, and then happily pay him $70 for unlocking their door.

Over time, he became a master locksmith. He could now open any lock in a matter of seconds. He was much faster. His true hourly rate had increased dramatically. Only there was a problem. His customers couldn’t see his skill and experience and therefore they felt ripped off for paying $70 for only a few minutes worth of work.

To combat this, the locksmith slowed things down. He would spend time getting out all his tools and explain what he was doing to the customer. Remarkably, his customers were happier when he took longer.

A website analogy to this is Kayak. Try running a search for flights on the site and you’ll notice that Kayak shows you flights in real-time as the search engine returns results. Norton has run tests on a site that only shows the final results. Satisfaction and purchasing improves when the work is shown. Even if it takes longer to show the results.

kayak screen shot

Anecdote 2

Norton has worked with another large organization that has a transparency problem. The government. He shared a some shocking figures that relate to transparency.

According to the figure below, high percentages of people respond “No” to the question, “have you ever used a government program”, when they are actually beneficiaries of a government program.

Take for instance the GI Bill. 40% of those surveyed that have used the GI Bill say they have never used a government program. This blows my mind.

The government is providing trillions of dollars of benefits, but those receiving the benefits do not know it.

Norton approached the problem transparency with the city of Boston by helping citizens to visualize the work the city was doing. This site has been popular and helped create transparency.

Source: How Government Can Restore the Faith of Citizens - http://hbswk.hbs.edu/

Source: How Government Can Restore the Faith of Citizens – http://hbswk.hbs.edu/

Takeaway #1

Showing is always better than telling. This statement is obvious, but we are all guilty of telling. A company tells it’s employee it values them. We tell our customers we  care about their needs. We tell others at work we are working hard. We tell someone we love them.

Transparency is about showing. Telling is easy, but showing is hard. I once set up a live video stream of my team (a group of actuaries). I can’t think of things that are more boring than watching insurance product development, but many people loved the stream. It brought a whole new level of transparency to our work. You could actually see us collaborating and working hard. What can you do to show not tell?

Takeaway #2

Visualizations can be powerful storytellers. We are working with our kids to help them see what goes into keeping our house running (99% done by my amazing wife). We’ve started with a long list that shows who performs each task. I hope the takeaway is “wow. Mom does these 84 things and I only have to do these 4 things. I am getting a great deal.” While I don’t have high hopes that this produces the desired change, the city of Boston is a encouraging example. If the city of Boston can use a simple website to improve the perception of government, perhaps our family can use transparency to change the perception of chores.

How can you use showing (not telling) for good? Are there ways you can improve transparency?

TEDx Director’s Commentary

tedx picture

Typically the director’s commentary doesn’t come out until the DVD is released. It is for the true movie buffs who love to hear what the director and/or producer were thinking. They go through every painstaking detail. If you don’t like film, then it would be the most boring two hours of your life. If you love film and how it is made, you can’t get enough, hearing directly from the people who made the movie. You get some insight into their heads and how they think.

Since I am fresh off my first TEDx talk, I wanted to share some “director’s commentary” with you – before the DVD is released (i.e. video is uploaded to the web). If you are interested in TEDx, you might enjoy this – otherwise, it could be a boring ten minutes!

The director’s commentary around my TEDx experience involves two parts: how I ended up being asked to speak at this TEDx event, and what it was like to prepare and deliver the talk.

Getting to King Street East
The official name of the TEDx event at which I spoke was TEDx King Street East. King Street is a major street running through the heart of downtown Toronto. I met the event organizer, Chris Murumets, at an actuarial conference in Toronto this past May. Chris volunteered to be a part of a presentation that I was organizing on Design Thinking. Chris told me that he was impressed with my presentation this past May and asked me if I would like to come back to be a part of a TEDx event he was organizing. I gave him an emphatic yes, and I’m so glad that I decided to speak.

Prepping for the big day
I decided to start working on my talk in mid August. Here’s how I approached it.
August 12: Think about needing to work on TEDx talk, procrastinate and do other stuff
August 19: Think about needing to work on TEDx talk, procrastinate and do other stuff
August 26: Think about needing to work on TEDx talk, procrastinate and do other stuff
September 2: Labor day, forget to think about TEDx talk
Skip to September 30: stay up until 2 am finishing draft of TEDx talk

I settled on “Empathy” as a topic early on. Becoming more empathetic has had a big impact with my outlook on my work, and I wanted to share that story. I have a technical background (i.e. I am a geek), and I notice that many other people with technical backgrounds also seemed to have empathy problems.

But, I thought this has to be bigger than me to be enjoyable for the audience. I wondered, “do empathetic organizations outperform companies that lack empathy?” Thankfully, a fellow TEDx speaker recommended a book (Wired to Care). In this book, the author places a few companies in three categories (high empathy, low empathy, and somewhere in between). It turns out that the stock performance of highly empathetic companies is substantially better than that of low empathy companies. Bazinga! Something bigger than my personal story.

More prep
I’d love to tell you that preparing for this talk was easy. Delivering fifteen minutes of original live content that you know will live forever on the internet sounds scary to me. Scary enough for me to want to practice!

Once I had a draft of the presentation, I must have practiced a million times. Once in front of a few co-workers and my wife. Once with a fellow TEDx speaker. I even created a recording of my talk and sent it out to a few friends for review.

Each reviewer gave me great feedback and helped shape my talk. All that was left was to continue to practice. I recorded my best version yet four days before the talk and then I listened to it almost non-stop.

You heard that correct, I listened to myself speak over and over and over again. I listened to my talk on the drive into work. I listened to my talk on the flight to Toronto. I listened to my talk on the subway. And lastly, I listened to my talk about an hour before I was on stage.

I have used this technique before for big presentations. Develop the talk, practice several times, record a “good” version, listen to the “good” version until you can give the talk in your sleep.

You did all of that for that?
Devoting so much time to one presentation does add some pressure. It’s tempting to not put in this kind of prep and then write off a poor performance by saying, “no big deal…I didn’t really put that much time into it.” Hopefully, some of you will watch my 14 minute talk once it is up on the TED website. And you might think, “wow…you did all of that for that?” And that’s ok. I would rather work hard knowing that my performance might be a colossal failure, with no excuses. I don’t like thinking, “what if I had actually tried?”

The talk
It was the definition of fun for me to stand up and share a part of my journey. I was fortunate to only have a few verbal missteps, and I don’t think they took too much away from my talk. The attendees at the event were gracious and gave me some positive feedback. Some of my favorite quotes were, “my son is a 25 year old computer programmer and he has got to hear your talk!” and “you have advanced the image of an actuary by a light year!”

I am looking forward to sharing my talk once it’s up on the TED website. Now, I need to get busy creating content for future talks. (i.e. taking risks, caring for others, and trying new things)

Get emotional

As someone who is continually looking at numbers, specs, contracts, prospectuses, etc, it is easy to forget about the people who buy our products. Focusing singularly on the technical aspects of one’s job tends to create a clinical environment. Somewhere in the discussion of “ROI”, “pattern of cash flows”, “interest rate sensitivity” and “asset/liability matching” we lose touch with our emotions.

I’ve written about the importance of feeling something at work and how I believe it’s important to be “emotional” – even – no, especially – when you work in a technical field. Being “emotional” has a negative connotation, but I believe being an “emotional” employee will help you to become more engaged and innovative.

Your company exists because of its customers. Customers are the reason that any business exists. And spreadsheets, contracts, processes, KPI targets all serve as a buffer from the messiness of people’s lives. But why is it that we create, or allow this separation?

I believe this separation mindset was made popular during the industrial revolution, where management believed that employees were interchangeable parts. Managers only cared about the work force being as efficient as possible and most workers were happy to have a job that paid them much more than they could have made farming or continuing the family craft. Empathizing with the customers didn’t seem necessary.

But as we have moved from an industrialist society to a post-industrialist connection economy, empathy and connections matter. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t care if their work has impact.

Isn’t it time to change how we view our work?

Part of my personal journey involves a transformation of a worker who lacked empathy, to one who saw the life changing impact of knowing the customer intimately. Here are a couple of huge benefits of being closer connected to your customers:

  1. Better engagement – most workers net worth does not increase $1MM for every $1 increase in the stock price. Your record quarter doesn’t mean much to 95% of the company. What matters are the lives that you are able to impact through your work.
  2. Innovation – the magic of design thinking depends upon empathy. When I truly feel what it is like to have a particular problem, I see the real needs. The real problem. And I will develop more innovative solutions.

So, why aren’t more workers connected to the customers? I think the language we use plays a large part in removing the emotion from work. Here is an example from the actuarial field:

9-15-2013 3-59-00 PM

This symbol stands for “the probability that a life aged 33 will not be living at the end of 15 years.” In other words, what are the chances that a guy aged 33, would die before 48? We would run a model and I could tell you that out of a 1000 lives, 21.297 people are not alive at the end of the 15 years.

While this may be technically accurate, it misses all the emotion. What if you thought of this symbol standing for:

  • A father not being there to walk his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day
  • A mother not being there to see her son graduate high school
  • A middle school aged girl who isn’t sure who will take her to a father-daughter dance

Photo credit: Jenna Perfette photography

How much more motivating and rich would your work become if you felt more connected to the impact your business has on its customers? Start by imaging the peoples lives that are represented by the spreadsheet. Your customers are more than just points in a model or a series of cashflows. They are real people.

There’s nothing wrong with using technical language to describe a calculation, or spending time in a spreadsheet. But don’t lose sight of your customers. Literally. Place their pictures on your walls, know their stories, go and talk to them.

You’ll find yourself more engaged and you’ll find yourself thinking more creatively about solving their problems.

Go to the gemba

Lean thinking sprung forth out of the Japanese automotive industry (specifically Toyota). War torn Japan had to make more with less and lean thinking was the answer.

One of my favorite phrases from lean methods is “gemba.” It means “the real place.” In lean terminology, “going to the gemba” means going to the place where the action happens – the shop floor, the call center, the engineer’s cubicle.

It is important for leaders to see problems with their own eyes. Going to the gemba ties back to empathy and design thinking beautifully. But just like all of these ideas, thoughts, principles, they can be applied to life.

Going to the gemba in your life means engaging with people – talking with your spouse about difficult things, going to your kid’s soccer game, walking along side a co-worker as he or she goes through something trying.

When you go to the gemba in life, you leave the “office” of your life and head down to the “shop floor.”

Go to the gemba.

Choose to be excited

photo85

A few posts ago, I wrote about creating a #FAIL folder. One of the entries that occupies my #FAIL folder goes like this…a co-worker had just watched the 60 Minutes program on David Kelley and Design Thinking. When this aired in January, I was beyond excited. I felt like this 30 minutes lended validation to what I had been working toward for the past year. No longer was my way of solving problems just uncomfortable and unfamiliar, it was on 60 Minutes!

BUT…and a crucial “BUT”….but, this aired six months ago. So when my co-worker mentioned his excitement around the show, rather than choosing to be excited and stoke his excitement, I responded coldly…”you mean the one that aired six months ago?”

What a complete asshole move. I had a choice, I could have chosen to be excited, but it was old news to me and I made it known.

Why is it so easy to throw cold water on someone’s excitement? I’m guilty more that I’d like to admit. With my wife, my kids, people at work, etc.

You find yourself busy, disappointed, or just generally having a bad day and someone in your life is excited. They had a fabulous day, made an A on their spelling test, or read an article that they think you’ll find exciting. You have a choice…do you show support and celebrate whatever has made them excited? Or do you just respond with Eeyore like enthusiasm?

I’ve faced a similar choice today…and thankfully I chose to stoke the excitement. And what happened? I found myself becoming energized and excited along with my co-worker. It was infectious.

My take is that a life well lived is really about living for others. This means that much of the time you are denying yourself. If I am having a rough day, and someone comes to me with excitement, my natural desire is to stay busy, disappointed, etc. Denying myself means engaging with those around me and letting go of my to-do list, or inbox, or important project to instead be a human with other humans. To listen to what is on someone’s mind. To develop relationships that make life rich. To develop community.

I want to be excited when my family, friends and coworkers are excited. To laugh with them. To cry with them. To live life and build community. To make a choices that show I care for and love others more than I care for myself.

Will you join me?

 

A simple storytelling framework

What exactly goes into telling a good story? You need a hero, a villain, some conflict and a little resolution right? Something like that…

Let’s back up a little…why is storytelling important? It’s important because we connect with stories. We share our lives with stories. Personally, I have shared some of my happiest moments with new friends through stories: the story of how I met my wife, the story of the birth of first child, etc. I also have stories that describe times where I felt like a part of me has died with loved ones that I’ve lost. Our lives are a series of stories.

Another important property of a story is it’s ability to channel the complete opposite emotion of what you experienced at the time. Think of powerful stories you may have heard about a person who was without hope and didn’t see a way out. And then someone provides for them in a way they couldn’t have imagined. Or think of a story where someone was extremely embarrassed or frustrated. Years later you’ll be in a group and everyone will now laugh as you the story is told. Here’s a summary:

You were hopeless — your story —> provides hope

You were embarrassed/frustrated — your story —> provides laughter

Storytelling at work…

It’s clear to me that storytelling is important. Those best at communicating their ideas use stories to do it. Here’s an example…you are in a meeting. You propose to a coworker IT that your group needs TPS reports twice a day (and don’t forget the cover sheets) rather than just once a day. For five minutes they describe why this won’t work using generalities. You stop them and ask for a specific example.

At this point your coworker hasn’t been storytelling. Think about the best stories – they are full of details. A picture is painted for you and you are able to experience the story. Why can’t your coworker do the same thing? Here’s a sample response…

“Jane, I’d love to be able to provide your group with TPS reports twice a day. We ended up landing on daily production due to the needs of the marketing group. Let me walk your quickly through our production schedule….once we’re done, I’d love your thoughts on how we can move some of the pieces around to get your group reports twice a day. We start at 5:45am with….”

The framework

onceuponatime

Design thinking is centered around gaining empathy for your end user and having them experience a solution. Storytelling is an integral part of this process. In the picture above, the amazingly talented storyteller Scott Doorley was teaching the group this framework. Since the picture is tough to read, here it is:

Once upon a time…

And everyday until…

Until one day…

Because of that…

Until finally…

And ever since that day…

And the moral of the story is…

Here’s a simple example:

Once upon a time there were two tadpole sisters who were the best of friends. And everyday they played together, until the oldest sister turned into a frog. And because of that the youngest sister was lonely and sad. She played everyday by herself. Until finally, she turned into a frog! And ever since that day, her she and her sister have been inseparable. And the moral of the story is sadness and depression can be transformed like the tadpole into happiness and joy.

Practice, practice, practice…

So how do you improve as a storyteller? The first thing I have done is to practice. I play the “storytelling game” almost every night with my daughters. We alternate who takes each part of the framework. It is great fun for her and I’m continuing to hone my craft. You can also use the framework as a group exercise. If you’re in a meeting with 4-5 coworkers take turns constructing a story together.

The next bit of advice I would offer would be to view every presentation, every meeting, every project, etc as an opportunity to tell a story. Think about the opening, the conflict, the resolution and what you learned.

If you’re in the audience, what would you rather listen to? A well crafted story that allows you to experience what has happened on a project, or a deck of endless slides that just give updates on what has happened. I vote for storytelling.

Lastly, spend time talking with great storytellers…maybe even some professionals. How cool would it be to invite a professional storyteller to your office to teach your group how to tell a great story? I’m in the process of trying to set this for my team.

Storytellers are not born, they are made…keep practicing and please share your stories.

If they come, then build it

Our typical way of thinking is “if you build it, they will come.” The whispering ghosts from Field of Dreams continue to tell Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) this “truth.” For those of you who haven’t experienced Costner at his best (relative term!), here’s the IMDB summary:

Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice in his corn field tell him, “If you build it, he will come.” He interprets this message as an instruction to build a baseball field on his farm, upon which appear the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven Chicago White Sox players banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series. When the voices continue, Ray seeks out a reclusive author to help him understand the meaning of the messages and the purpose for his field.

While Kinsella’s bold action provided him the chance to see the ghosts of the White Sox (including the ghost of his father), I have a feeling that Eric Ries would not approve! In The Lean Startup, Ries advocates an approach of testing a hypothesis to see if “they will come”, then start building. Or said another way, “build as little as possible, then see if they will come.”

Before we divine into the lean mentality, think about how this might look in the context of your life…say you want to start cycling. Do you

  1. Go to the bike store, purchase a $2000 road bike, get all the gear, watches, etc. or,
  2. Buy a $50 bike on craigslist. Purchase used gear. Wait to see if you actually enjoy riding then buy a nicer bike.

Sadly, my approach is typically to jump right in and buy the “nice bike” (NOTE: I don’t ride, I run). This approach is also taken by many in business.

Here’s a headline from Business Insider… “21-Year-Old Raises Largest Seed Round In Silicon Valley History — $25 Million — For Mysterious Payments App

To summarize, a 21 yr old Stanford grad just raised an enormous amount of funding with little more than an idea and a well paid team of advisers. There are no customers, no revenues and he’s entering a crowded space. That said, he has signed up some of the smartest VCs in the valley, and the people who run these firms are extremely smart, so I am not doubting the potential of Clinkle, just the approach.

Continuing on the Lean Startup theme, I wanted to share a different approach than the one taken by Kevin Costner and the start-up Clinkle. As mentioned above this approach is all about building as little as possible, and then testing and learning to see if “they will come.” One of the key terms in the lean lexicon is “minimum viable product” (MVP). In fact just using the term “MVP” will make seem a lot smarter and hip than you really are!

The MVP

The diagram above should help to explain what a minimum viable product is. Below is the definition from Ries:

the minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

The thinking from the lean startup is that any effort put in above what is minimally viable is waste. Remember from “Getting credit for learning“, the goal of a startup is to learn. Additional features that don’t help us test a hypothesis are not necessary.

So what if you’re not in a startup, but rather an established company, the government, a not-for-profit? You too can also apply the concept of MVP.

Here’s an example of how we used the concept of MVP to test the impact of new space. I wanted to try and answer the question, can we effectively use space to facilitate collaboration? I know this sounds like a silly question (isn’t the answer yes!), but in a 107 year old insurance company with lots of cubicles, I wanted to test before a large build out.

So our MVP was created by moving a few cubicle walls and having a portion of my team sit together. We decided to eliminate our staff meeting as a test to see if information flowed more freely in the open space. After several months of testing, it’s clear that our configuration is highly effective. New hires learn at a quicker rate. Relationships are deeper on the team. Moral is high. Productivity has increased. Communication is better…I could keep going. What’s even better, is our MVP has shown other groups what is possible by reconfiguring space. When thinking about MVP don’t constrain yourself to true “product”.

The Zappos MVP

The story of the Zappos MVP is so amazing, I wasn’t sure how I had not heard it before. Nick Swinmurn, the founder of Zappos, wanted to start an online shoe company. He believed the most important hypothesis to test was “is there already sufficient demand for a superior online shopping experience for shoes?”

Rather than building out a slick website, buying warehouses, creating an integrated distribution model, Swinmurn went to a local shoe seller and asked if he could take pictures of the shoes and post them on his website. If customers decided to buy the shoes, Swinmurn agreed to go back to the shoe store and buy the shoes at full price.

This kind of MVP is often called a “Wizard of Oz” prototype because you don’t have to set up all the infrastructure. The man behind the curtain can create the effects.

Through Swinmurn’s MVP he was able to learn to take payments, answer customers questions, accept returns, all without setting up a warehouse and buying inventory. He was also able to test his hypothesis and learn that there was demand for an online shoe buying experience.

Hopefully these examples show how you can create MVPs no matter what industry you are in. Apply some creativity and think through what hypothesis you need to test and what MVP you can create to run the test. The process is iterative, so getting to your MVP quickly and beginning to learn is crucial.

Begin pushing yourself to MVP anything and everything. And please share your successes and failures!