Size isn’t everything

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell highlights that power is not always what it might seem and how the ability of the underdog to succeed should not be overlooked.

In typical Gladwell style, David and Goliath is peppered with stories; from unlikely winning basketball teams, to the conflict in Northern Ireland, to the advantages of dyslexia to Londoners spirit during the Blitz. All the stories illustrate how the underdog wins against the odds.

In the biblical story of David and Goliath, the giant Goliath was the greatest warrior of the Philistines. At six-foot nine inches tall, wearing full body armour, a bronze helmet and bronze plates covering his feet and brandishing a javelin, a spear and sword he was a fearful sight. No Israelites were brave enough to take on Goliath. Apart from David, a small shepherd boy.

David didn’t wear any protective armour because it would be too heavy to walk in. All he carried were five smooth stones and a sling in a shoulder bag.  David fired his first stone from his sling before he was even anywhere near Goliath. This first stone hit the giant on the forehead. Goliath crashed to the ground and David cut off Goliaths head using the giants own sword.

Gladwell tells how, that despite his size and strength that Goliath was more vulnerable that he appeared. Gladwell introduces the idea that Goliath had a condition called acromelagy. This meant that Goliath had poor vision which was why Goliath favored close combat. He simply couldn’t see his opponent from a distance. So Goliath relied on fighting at close range and his strategy also relied on his opponent using the same weapons as him.

David changed the rules.  He took Goliath down from a distance, before Goliath could even really see David, with a stone fired from a slingshot, which, according to Gladwell would have been extremely powerful, having the equivalent velocity and effect as a shot fired from a modern handgun.

There are two key lessons that we can learn from the story of David and Goliath.

  1. Your disadvantage can be your advantage – just because someone is a giant doesn’t mean that they are the winner. If you are a small organisation or a start-up and feel like you are competing with the big guys, use that to your advantage. What do you have that they don’t. What’s your stone in a sling?
  2. Don’t assume you have to play by the rules. Think differently to achieve your end goal. List the ‘rules of how you do things’ and ask yourself, if you were to be disruptive and break some of those rules, what would you do?

Who are the Goliaths are in your world? What are their weaknesses? How can you be disruptive? How can you be brave and bold and dare to think and act differently to achieve your goals.

For more stories of the successful underdog read David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.

A version of this blog was first published at Lucyinnovation.

Being up against it drives innovation

Recently we caught up with Luke Southern, Managing Director at Drum the creative arm of Omnicom Media Group. Drum are a content and creative business that helps ambitious brands, including McDonald’s, Virgin Media, Warner Brothers and Hasbro to create and influence popular culture.

Luke told us that innovation is vital for Drum. “Because the world is moving so quickly success for our clients is dependent on doing things differently, and creatively – and being up against it drives innovation.”

It’s harder than ever before to get young people’s attention – they have so much on the go all the time

Drums’ starting point for innovation is an unmet need or a problem. Recent research has shown that 18-24 year olds (a core audience for the brands that Drum works with) have an 8 second attention span. This means that companies have a tiny amount of time to make what they are saying relevant to their audience, something their audience wants to engage with and then share with their friends and social networks.

One of the ways that Drum seeks to make their innovation successful is to place brands within the existing pop culture. Drum refers to this as creating “cultural signals” for brands.

People care about popular culture; TV, music, films, comedy, sport as well as films about sport and music. When great branded content fuses the brands’ ambitions, with entertainment and popular culture we remember, we talk about it and we are interested.

A couple of years ago Drum made the Lego ad break. They reconstructed an entire ad break out of Lego, remaking popular ads of the time piece by piece. It was an effective piece of communication driving opening weekend box office takings of the The Lego Movie beyond expectations and it was also a great piece of entertainment in its own right that has been watched millions of times.

Drum have just used this approach again to promote the Lego Batman film. Lego Batman took over the continuity announcements on Channel 4 which meant that their target audience heard about the campaign from the media that they usually consume – they didn’t have to seek it out.  It made Batman as relevant to film lovers in their 30s and 40s as it is to kids. 40% of the population saw Batman continuity announcements in just 4 days and 1 in 6 booked to see the movie as a result.

Check it out here.

Luke acknowledges that Drum has the advantage of being part of a larger organisation and therefore has access to large data sets. “For example, if we know that someone has just bought a pair of shoes then they are unlikely to buy another pair of shoes, so advertising more shoes to the shoe buyer isn’t a good idea. However, they might well be in the market for a leather cleaner, so advertising that is a much better idea! Data can show us all sorts of things now and using the data available to understand your customers unmet needs, identify trends and solve problems can be a competitive advantage.”

Innovation is bloody hardpeople are addicted to certainty but certainty kills creativity

For Luke and his colleagues the biggest barrier to making innovation happen is budget restraints versus creative ideas that you can’t prove are going to work. Certainty kills creativity because you can never guarantee that something new is going to work.

Another challenge is bringing people alongside the changes that are needed in a business to enable the idea or innovation happen.

This means that for successful innovation getting the right mix of talent is really key. If you only recruit in your own image you won’t achieve the breakthroughs that you need to achieve. Innovation requires a democracy of ideas to enable excellence. There is a requirement for different experiences, backgrounds and skills to be able to create something really creative. Opening minds to take risks with different people and not always traveling the known road is vital for both Drum and their clients.

Innovation is not straightforward and requires leadership and Luke believes that an innovation leader must have the following qualities.

  • Avoid using the “I’m the Boss and we’re doing it my way” card.
  • Acknowledging problems – because pretending they aren’t there creates an atmosphere where people feel they can’t talk about difficulties.
  • Being able to steer people and encourage them to solve their own problems without stifling their views.
  • Listening and focusing on saying less, yet knowing where to intervene
  • Humility, being aware of your own weaknesses and not being afraid of saying when you have made a mistake

Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should

Luke’s other innovation advice is just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. Companies create clever widgets and gadgets that people just aren’t ready for or don’t need. There is a balance. Innovation needs to be something that people want. It needs to benefit people’s lives or to solve a problem. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean that it’s automatically something that people are excited about.

Luke’s advice to anyone wanting to improve their creativity and innovation skills is to read Creativity Inc. We agree – we wrote a blog inspired by it a while ago.

Four nudge techniques you can use to get better results

Have you ever wondered what goes on in your brain when you buy something? Why did you choose the leading brand mayonnaise over the supermarket own brand? Why did you buy the expensive shampoo?  Why do you still buy your morning coffee at your regular shop in town rather than trying the coffee at the café that just opened next to your office?

A LOT has been written over the years about behavioral psychology or ‘nudge theory’ as it has become commonly known. In my opinion one of the best practical books, with ideas that you can easily apply to your own context is Decoded – The Science Behind Why We Buy by Phil Barden. Below are four ‘nudge’ concepts that you might consider applying to your work to get better results.

  1. The autopilot and pilot

Human brains have two decision-making ‘systems’ first identified by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. (see my blog on thinking fast and slow for a little more background)

  • System 1 is the autopilot: it is fast, automatic, intuitive and geared for action –  it is an implicit process.
  • System 2 is the pilot: it is slow, rational, controlled and geared for thinking – an explicit process requiring effort.

Your autopilot allows you to act without really thinking. For example a strong brand (like Starbucks) is processed in system 1 – you know what the brand is, you don’t even have to think about it. The brand acts like a short-cut, which might explain why, if you are in a new place and want a coffee you might choose to go to Starbucks rather than try somewhere new. To be successful in influencing purchasing decisions you must be aware of how both systems work together and how to appeal to both, but with particular focus on activating the system 1 autopilot.

  1. Net value = reward – pain

When we buy something it involves a decision between reward (a psychological ‘value’) and pain (price): the brain offsets the two to create a ‘net value’. The higher the net value the more likely we are to purchase. Value and cost are relative and therefore can be influenced by the context that we are in.

For example in experiments, more products are sold from price lists that do not have pound signs. This is because the monetary symbol triggers pain. Remove the pound sign and you reduce the pain and increase the net value. It’s incredible that such a small change in how an item is presented could have such an impact on the decisions that people make. Is there a way that you can test this with your customers? For example, if you removed the pound sign, would it make a difference to sales results?

  1. Perpetual Fluency

‘Perceptual fluency’ is the autopilot ability to process something that is familiar more quickly that something that is not. This can be incredibly subtle, like in the case of an advert for a cake. A picture of the cake with the fork on the right hand side, when tested, sold more than the exact same picture with the fork on the left. This is because most people are right-handed and therefore the right-handed placement of the fork requires less effort to process. How many of these subtle nudges are you being influenced by all the time?

  1. Process Endowment

This is how starting someone on a process towards a goal influences purchasing decisions. In an experiment*, a car wash company issued two types of loyalty cards. An 8-stamp card and a 10-stamp card with 2 stamps pre-stamped. When a customer completed a card they received a free car wash.  Both cards required 8 purchases to complete the card. Yet sales from the customers with a pre-stamped card were 79% higher than those who started with the un-stamped card. Framing the task as partially completed lead to faster completion and greater commitment.  Cafes often have a system where you collect stamps for a free drink. Do you have one? Is it pre-stamped?

I suspect you already know and use a lot of these techniques. Perhaps you have never labeled it ‘behavioural psychology’ before – just common sense.

That said, in an increasingly tough environment, if we more deliberately applied the techniques above could it help us achieve better results?

Decoded – The Science Behind Why We Buy is packed with evidence-based practical examples about why people make decisions, that you could apply to your work. It is well worth a read

*Nunes JC, Dreze X. 2006. The endowed progress effect: how artificial advancement increases effort. Journal of Consumer Research. 32:504–12

A version of this blog was first published at Lucyinnovation in February 2014.


Psychological safety – is this the key to successful teams?

In my quest to help others succeed at innovation, I often challenge people to get out of their comfort zones, expand their knowledge and try something new. I believe that diversity of experiences, curiosity and an appetite for taking risks builds us into better innovators.

I know my clients who are dedicated to improving their creativity and innovation muscles because they are the people who are purposefully striding out of their comfort zones; they are launching themselves from zip wires, standing up and presenting in front of big audiences, taking evening classes on unfamiliar topics – including dissecting mice!

Inspired by my clients I challenge myself to purposefully stride out of my comfort zone too. (Also, I don’t believe you can ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself)

A while ago I thought carefully about what might really put me out of my zone. Doing improv scared me so I signed up for a six-week course. You know like in ‘Whose line is it anyway?’ where the people on stage improvise a scene based on whatever is thrown at them from the audience – hopefully they throw suggestions of scenes and characters rather than physical objects.

It was terrifying. And once I learned to manage the fear it was a massive amount of fun. I also learned a lot about team dynamics and what makes good teams work well together.

Google have recently completed some research into what makes teams successful. It took them 2 years and involved 180 teams*. They highlight 5 traits of successful teams. The fifth trait is what they call psychological safety.

“Imagine a situation in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture where managers provide air cover and create safe zones so employees can let down their guard. That’s psychological safety.”

Psychological safety is exactly the environment that a good improv team operates in. This environment is created by several fundamental rules.

1.The rule of ‘yes and’ This means that improvisers build on whatever the audience, the host or your team on stage with you ‘offers’. If someone shouts out that you are a camel with one hump on a holiday to Wales – you do it, if your host chooses that you are Hitler learning to use the internet – you do it and if your team-mate plays out being a frog auditioning for the next episode of Froggy the fattest frog on the lily pad (even if you don’t really know what that is) – you do it. The rule of ‘yes and’ means that you can’t fail, because someone else in your team will always ‘yes and’ your suggestion.

2.The rule of ‘your team has your back’ This means that whatever you do, for example if you freeze, fall off stage or even if you say something obscene your team has your back. As an improviser, your only failure is not stepping up to make the others in your team look good. If your team mate freezes, you step in with a line to help them out, if they fall off stage, help them up and make it part of the scene, if they say something obscene, ‘yes and’ their obscenity. You are in it together. When you know your team unconditionally has your back, something wonderful happens. You start to take more risks and you start to explore new opportunities.

3.The rule of ‘just do it’ This means that you just say the thing that comes into your head. Don’t filter, don’t overthink, don’t worry that it’s not funny, or appropriate or expected – just say it. If you say something (you think) is stupid it’s your team’s job to ‘yes and’ and make you look good. When we stop paying attention to our inner critic that inhibits our ability to ‘just do it’, a truly liberating thing happens and our creativity flows. Ideas get built upon and you often end up in an unexpected place that no one would have even dreamed of.

These three rules combine to create a powerful force. In a team, they create a high degree of trust, built from real experiences. High trust means that we start to feel more confident and less afraid of failure because the only failure is not stepping up and having your teams back. You don’t worry so much about what others think because you are focused on what success looks like and you are in it together. And when you are free of the constraints of what you should do, free from the fear of rejection and criticism by your colleagues when your focus is on helping others, in return creativity abounds, we have fun and energy is high.

Imagine the possibilities if we applied the rules of improv to our teams? What might that feel like? What new ideas might emerge? What better results might we achieve?

If you’d like some help to develop your team’s psychological safety then drop me a line.

And if you’d like a go at improv, check out the fabulously talented gang at Hoopla.

*Thank you, Dawn, for the inspiration for this blog.

The gift of criticism

That moment when your manager says, ‘Can I just have a quick word?’ and you feel cold creeping dread. Most of us have had that sinking feeling: a fear of criticism or negative feedback. And it can feel as tough to give it as it can to receive it.

According to psychologists we feel anxious when we receive criticism, because at a basic level our brains interpret criticism as a primal threat to our sense of belonging and survival.

Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University, showed in his research that our brains process negative feedback more thoroughly than positive feedback. This means that receiving criticism has a greater impact on us than receiving praise.

Many managers avoid giving negative feedback by skirting round the issue, avoiding it altogether, or even worse (in my opinion) offering the recipient what is commonly called a sh!t sandwich (that’s sandwiching negative feedback in between two glowing positive pieces of feedback). The typical outcome is that the giver thinks they have communicated negative feedback clearly and the receiver has no idea they have even been given any!

As a manager, part of your job is to offer up negative feedback, or criticism in a constructive way, because unless people receive this sort of feedback they cannot learn and grow.

10 tips for giving the gift of criticism

  1. Start with why: be clear in your own mind as to why you are giving negative feedback first, and then be clear with the person you are giving the feedback to.
  2. Specific: if you talk generally the receiver is unlikely to understand or agree. For example, don’t say, ‘I don’t think your performance is good enough’ describe the specific situation, ‘You have been late four times this week’.
  3. Understand: get to the root cause. There might be something else happening for the receiver that is causing under performance. If you can understand what is really going on you can then work with them on a solution.
  4. Situation not person: focus on the task in hand and don’t make it personal.
  5. Purpose: it can help to refer back to the contribution your employee makes to the bigger picture, the impact of their poor performance, and the benefit of changing. For example, ‘If you are not there on time, customers have to wait, this is a bad experience and impacts on the bottom line’.
  6. Candid and kind: we are all fragile human beings. Be clear and kind in your delivery of criticism.
  7. Timely: don’t wait for the next 1:1. Provide the critique as soon as you can. (The timely tip also applies to giving positive feedback)
  8. It’s a conversation: ask them how they thought the thing in question went, and ask for the good feedback first. Then ask what they might improve next time. This helps to make a two-way conversation and helps your employee to own the situation.
  9. Make it a habit: constructive criticism shouldn’t be a thing that people fear. A learning culture relies on continuous feedback. Build an evaluation and reflection into every project. This could be as simple as discussing what worked, what didn’t and what you will do differently next time.
  10. Lead by example: share you own learnings from negative feedback. For example, failure and feedback are important parts of the innovation culture that I help organsiations to develop. So I share my failures, one example being early on in my career I asked internal teams for ideas without being clear on the problem. As a result of my poor brief I was inundated with irrelevant ideas that I then had to quash. That was a hard-earned failure and as a result I don’t let my clients who are developing their innovation cultures make the same mistake that I did.

While giving negative feedback can feel awkward, it’s an essential part of a managers role. Without honest feedback your teams will not be able to improve, learn or grow. Become known as the manager that challenges their team to be the best they can by reliably giving feedback. Reframe giving negative feedback in your own mind as helping your team to shine. The growth of your employees and the ongoing success of your business and your own career depend on it.

This blog was first published at People Management.