Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Middles Are Always Muddy

In a technical training class that I co-led last week, the learners were becoming agitated.  For days they had been absorbing new, painfully complex information.  The course material was dense and daunting -- almost overwhelming. People were scared. They didn't think they were getting it.  I could look around the room and read their restless anxiety.  

So I confronted it.  

Asking for everyone's attention, I stood up, faced the group , and told them the following story.  It made a difference with them.  I hope it makes a difference with you, too.  

Middles Are Always Muddy

I want to quote to you one of my favorite mottoes. It is this:  'Middles are always muddy.'  In my experience, this is true whenever you're in the middle of learning a new skill.   It always seems about to fall apart terribly -- just before it all comes together beautifully.  

Picture yourself on a hike.  You come to a wide stream that you need to cross.  It seems doable enough.  You start to wade in, and at first it's not too bad.  Then you start to hit the deeper water, where the current swirls around your legs. Your feet sink into the muck, and clouds of stirred-up murkiness spread out around you.  You're almost losing your balance now.  You really think you can't go much further.  You feel sure you will capsize.  But even as you think that, a funny thing happens.  You start to realize that it's getting shallower. The muddiest part is behind you now, and you can see your feet sloshing forward again.  Before you know it, you're standing on the far bank.  You made it.

In the same way, anything worth learning or achieving is going to have a middle stage of confusion and discouragement.  When that happens, take heart.  You're just at the muddy part.  You know you're supposed to be making progress, but you feel as though the pattern of it all is slipping away.  

The very fact that you feel panicky and worried at this point is a testimony to your intelligence.  You fret that you're not where you need to be.  Of course you're not there yet. Of course you have a ways to go.  Your awareness of that fact, and your discontent with your present state of confusion, are catalysts that help you persevere.  

In the middle of fording a stream, you wouldn't stop in the deepest part, turn around, and slog back the way you came, would you? After all, you've invested a lot of effort up to this point.  It's just as far to go back to where you started, and you would wind up wasting all the wading you've already done.  

Neither would you throw off your backpack, and collapse, despondent, in the deepest mud, refusing to move onward. Why not?  Because then you know you would be in over your head. 

Instead, you dig in, and press on.  Maybe you find a stick to help you keep your balance, or a rock to rest on and catch your breath, or a friend who can throw you a rope.  Or maybe you just keep feeling your way, little by little, stepping more slowly than you'd like, but making progress all the same.  

That's exactly how you get through the middle of daunting subject matter.  You don't give up.  You keep finding your way. Your human brain is a fantastic learning tool.  It's far, far better than any man-made computer. It's an expert mapper and an intuitive problem-solver. Right in the middle of the muddy confusion, it's already hard at work: making subtle connections, working out solutions, charting your way to success.  Trust your brain to help you maneuver through the muddy middle and navigate to solid ground.   

Middles are always muddy. 

Think of the many streams you have already crossed that were muddy in the middle.   

This is just one more.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

For Big Ideas, Place Landmarks in Your Landscape

Quick! What city skyline is shown here?  Don't have a clue?  That's okay.  Read on... all will be revealed.  

You know the feeling.  At a social or business gathering, you drift into a clump of talking people.  The flow of conversation is going something like this: 
     "She told him that?  Was he surprised?" 
                                           "No, I think he knew all along."
 "I never would have believed she had it in her."
     "Well, he'll bounce back -- he's a pro at that game." 
                        "Not always.  Remember last year in Albuquerque?"
                       (Hearty chuckle) "Oh, yeah!  That was crazy!"
                                             (Nervous titter)"So those rumors were right, after all?"                                                                                     "Yeah - she never saw that coming! "

 Who are they going on about?  What happened last year? At this point, your pleasant mood is being replaced by anxiety and confusion.  You discover that you can't relax until you decipher the thread of this dialogue.  Yet somehow you're reluctant to ask for clarification.  It may be the simple social stigma of not wanting to sound stupid. It may be a creeping suspicion that you're being purposely excluded.  Either way, you keep straining for clues.  Eventually, if it keeps up, you're likely to wander away resentfully, in search of a less opaque conversation.  

Here's the point: if you are presenting a message to make an impact, and if your message doesn't include enough firm details and precise explanations, then your listeners will eventually wander off, too.  They'll leave you in the dust -- even as they stay in their seats and stare at you glassy-eyed. As we have stated before, humans hunger for context.  If they don't get it, they either will supply their own -- and probably not the kind you intend! -- or they will just stop listening.  Your audience goes elsewhere, and your message goes nowhere.

Context is key.  Don't assume people know the Who, What, Where and Why.  Regularly give them steering points so they can get your message right. 

Now, let's take that idea of context and ratchet it up a bit.  Let's talk about, not just any messaging, but Big Idea messaging -- the kind of vital communication that goes way above the level of cocktail party chit chat.  A Big Idea is an idea that is meant to convey vision, unite the hearers, and take everyone to someplace new.  

Sooner or later, every communicator needs to craft a Big Idea message.  

A Big Idea's landscape is new, its urgency is now, and the context you supply cannot merely be composed of incidental details. Context must take monumental proportions.  Your message needs at least one contextual landmark by which its audience can begin to define the new landscape.

We've mentioned the strategic use of sound bites before in this blog, but this is something even more durable.  In the world of astronomy, a contextual landmark is a star or galaxy by which the speed and placement of other celestial bodies is mapped.  In medicine, magnetic resonance imaging equipment automatically identifies contextual landmarks within a region of the body -- anatomical constants such as heart valves or bone structure -- to detect and measure other, more ephemeral conditions such as inflammation or tumors. 

In messaging, a contextual landmark is a well-articulated, easy-to-understand, concrete word or phrase that helps people come to grips with an abstract idea.  A contextual landmark helps people:
   a. organize the idea -- map how it relates to what they already know
   b. internalize the idea --  understand how it relates to them personally
   c. symbolize the idea --  assign value, emotional depth and meaning   

Here's another way to look at this concept.  Think of the most iconic big cities of the world. They all have at least one defining architectural distinctive. Whether it's Rome (the Colosseum), Paris (the Eiffel Tower), or London (Big Ben), we all know the one silhouette jutting up from the skyline that proclaims, "You are here."  These visual orientation points come to define the spirit of a city as much as its shape. 

By contrast, the city skyline in the photo above does not have an iconic, imagination-stirring landmark.  Its cluster of tall buildings just says "city."  The contours might be familiar to its nearby population, but they're foreign to the rest of us.   Even some  Floridians who live in or near Tampa may not identify it as their own skyline -- much to the dismay of their city planners and Chamber of Commerce.  Somehow, a city without a recognizable skyline doesn't capture our focus, our sympathy, or our trust. 

Contrast this with the city I call home.  One glimpse of the Empire State Building, and you know you're looking at Manhattan.  A "New York City" file folder instantly pops up in your inner archives. A scene from a favorite movie may replay inside your head, or the chorus of a song, or footage from a fateful newscast.  And  with all that flood of association, some kind of emotion comes bubbling up, too.  (Fondness or fear, I wonder?)

In the same way, any message about a Big Idea needs to have a landmark image or phrase that serves as an orientation point for listeners.  

  • If the Big Idea is tied to tradition, the contextual landmark can function as a familiar reference point and a trusted guidepost that points to the newer concepts on the horizon.  
  • If the Big Idea is a break with tradition and entirely new, the contextual landmark becomes a point of embarkation from which the audience can begin to explore the new landscape and develop positive associations.

We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest of all Big Idea speeches.  As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the masses convened at the Washington Mall, his landmark phrase was, "I have a dream."  The word "dream" kept rising up from the verbal architecture of his message, a defining feature that could not be ignored, a distinctive one-syllable mantra that took on a new and textured meaning as the crowd listened, spellbound. This is true, it said.  This is what we must understand together, it said.  This is where we must go.  

In the classic news photograph of that day, the throngs are shown listening to Dr. King with the Washington Monument looming in the background.  Stern, unbending, and blindingly white, up to that point it may have seemed to some to be a forbidding, exclusionary landmark: a symbol of power, a monument to the status quo.  But in that photograph, its background bulk is somehow transformed into a symbol of something new. This dream, Dr. King extolled, is for everyone.  This dream is a link to our past, and a promise for our future.  This dream is not about anyone needing to earn his equality.  It is about everyone needing to yearn for equality. 

Words, like monuments, can have enduring emotional power. 

Have you ever experienced a Big Idea expressed with words that seemed as big and powerful as marble edifices?  I have.

The Biggest Idea that I've ever encountered is one that I consider to be far bigger than Dr. King's dream -- in fact, Dr. King based his dream on it. And this, my personal Biggest of all Big Ideas, has as its key contextual landmark a word that is far simpler than "dream."  Its key contextual landmark word is actually just: "the Word."  

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us..." those opening lines from the Gospel of John have stirred millions of hearts, and transformed millions of lives, throughout the centuries.  For me, they rise like a landmark pointing the way to deepest meaning and fulfillment.  They stand like a timeless archway through which I see, and comprehend, and navigate, my whole life.  

Yeah, the right words can do that.

What about your message?  It can make an impact as majestic as the Manhattan skyline... or it can seem as generic as the towers of Tampa.  Your choice.  

 If you have a Big Idea to convey, choose a landmark word, phrase, image or concept that can do it justice.  Make it one that can spark understanding, fuel purpose, and embed inspiration into your listeners.  Then inlay it into your message as a constant theme.  Approach it from different angles. Build more meaning into it each time you present it.  Craft it as the center point of your message of change. Don't merely use it as context to capture your listeners' attention.  Harness its symbolism to capture their hearts.   

 In the landscape of your message, what landmark will your listeners recognize  instantly, and know they have come home?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Too-Sparse Messaging, or the Critical Task of Supplying Context

How many times do you assume people know what you're talking about?

See this picture?  I have no idea what it is.  As I look at other photos in the same folder on my computer, it doesn't seem to relate to anything else.  Of course, it's a shot that should have been deleted, and was saved by mistake.  But, finding it months later, I still stop and take the time to puzzle over it, trying my best to paint in the missing context beyond the borders of the frame.  Why am I driven to puzzle out something of such little importance?   

Because I'm human.  Humans have an innate need to connect the dots.  We are driven to put together the pieces -- fill in the blanks.  

If you are a communicator, you need to know this about your audience.  You need to be deliberate and thorough enough to give them access to all the necessary context to understand your message.  Because when you assume that your hearers have all the dots, and they actually don't, they will tend to respond in some counter-productive ways. They might:

  • come to a wrong conclusion about your meaning.
  • wear themselves out puzzling over your clues.
  • reject your too-sparse message and ignore it. 
  • fester in confusion and frustration. 
At best, they may come back to you for clarification, but that will complicate and prolong the communication process, and it may not help everyone stay on the same page. 

What's with the sparse-talkers?  We all know people who seem to dispense information with an eye-dropper, hoarding their knowledge, forcing the people with whom they live or work to constantly guess about what they mean.  

Some people do this on purpose.  It's an actual power tactic used by some bosses who lead by fear.  It keeps the power-player the focus of others' attention, and produces a gratifying, chaotic frenzy of decoding activity around him.  But purposely cryptic messaging is inefficient and counter-productive in the long run, because ultimate efficiency and productivity is hampered.

Then again, some sparse-talkers don't do it for power purposes at all.  They're just so immersed in their subject that they really think others are as well-informed as themselves.  They skip details because they seem so obvious.  That's probably been true of all of us at one time or another.  We think we say what we want to say, then we are mystified when others are mystified!  

Either way, messages tend to fail when they fail to supply enough context.  And some interesting new discoveries in neuroscience give even more insight about why this is the case.  

Famed psychology professor and researcher Mike Gazzaniga speaks of a section of the brain which he calls "the interpreter."  Everyone has it -- you do, too -- up there in one little spot in your left hemisphere.  This bundle of your brain is tasked with making sense of life as it happens.  It supplies an ongoing narration to the movie of your experiences. (A fascinating dive into this subject, well worth reading, is Dr. Gazzaniga's book, Who's In Charge?)

The interpreter is the factory that takes the raw material of sensory input and sorts it into patterns, which the rest of the brain turns into baseline principles for behavior and judgment.  If the interpreter doesn't have enough information to go on, it can steer the rest of the brain into grave and sometimes catastrophic errors.

People are driven to puzzle.  They will fret about figuring things out. On a constant quest to establish meaning, their inner interpreters will drive them to distraction... and that distraction will hamper their ability to receive a message, buy into its importance, or cooperate with the one who gives it.

The moral is this: take care of your hearer's brains.  Give your hearers enough informational resources to reach the right conclusions, make the best decisions, and effect the most optimal outcomes.  Know your audience; be sure of their context.  Don't put your hearers in charge of filling in too many blanks for themselves.  

In the workplace, this may mean:

  • adding an extra sentence to phone conversation: "Just by way of background..." 
  • providing a reference footnote to a PowerPoint slide, or inserting a hyperlink into an email, to point your readers back to a source document
  • creating a checklist or a set of instructions to help clarify a multiple-step process
  • putting together a chart or a spreadsheet that illustrates the bigger picture
  • prefacing your remarks in a meeting with a memory-jogger about an earlier comment or meeting topic
Another way to be sure you give enough context is simple. Ask if people need it.

Here are some context-setting questions to sprinkle into your conversations with family, friends and coworkers.
  • "Are you following?"
  • "Are you with me?"
  • "Any questions before I go on?"
  • "Do I need to circle back and explain some of the context here?"
  • "Am I saying this the right way?"
  • "Would it help to take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture?"
  • "Can you see how this relates?"  
  • "Is that clear enough?"
This may not come easily if your customary communications style is more like a one-way street -- a lecture delivery.   You may not be convinced that you should spend extra time pausing and asking these questions, then earnestly answering them before you continue. It may feel awkward to do it. But if you want your messaging to have full impact, it's a good habit to develop.  When you use this approach, you are giving the interpreters inside your audience's brains a chance to catch up -- and the emotional tone around the table is bound to lighten up, as well.

It takes extra effort to do all this, of course.  But please don't resent the task of supplying enough information for successful outcomes.  Instead, accept it as your responsibility.  In the long run, the time you spend crafting context will yield stronger relationships as well as better results.  

When they follow your meaning, your hearers are much more likely to follow your lead.  

So set your listeners up for success.  Give them every piece of the puzzle.  Don't make them puzzle it out for themselves.

And if anyone can figure out what the purple thing in that photo is -- leave a comment and let me know!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The One-Day Wonder: Convoy Of Hope 2013 and Team Communications

This blog is all about communicating effectively.  The following article is a report on the communications strategies used to stage a big event with dozens of volunteer staff.  I hope my regular blog readers find it helpful.  For those of you who are here for the first time, welcome!  Thanks for visiting.  Feel free to click on the links at right to explore past posts.  - - Beth 

Take 80 volunteers, most of whom have never met before. Assemble them inside a big tent on a Saturday morning.  Two hours later, open that tent to the public and offer a complex array of health care services and screenings.  Have everything run like clockwork. 

An impossible task?  Nope.  A bunch of us just did it last weekend at Convoy Long Island, a huge charity outreach event staged at Mitchel Athletic Complex in Uniondale.  And it rocked!  

The secret ingredient was communication.  Here's a rundown of communication strategies to explain how we did it:

1. Define your process.  You can't start finding your "who" until you know your "how."  For Convoy Long Island, we already had a good idea of how we were going to stage a Health Services Tent, because we did it last year (click here to learn more about the 2012 event).  We took that basic model, then we worked in a few process improvements to address bottlenecks we documented last year.  The result?  A project process outline that was easy to articulate and understand.  We were good to go, theoretically, before we took our first step.  That's because we had a firm idea of how we could fulfill our commitment before we asked people for theirs.
2.  Gather your core committee.  This is the most key aspect of your recruiting effort.  For Convoy, we first segmented the process into various elements.  Then we approached people whose personalities and expertise made them good leadership candidates for these facets of the project.  After describing the mission and why it mattered, we got them on board with a brief description of the scope of their commitment:  a few weekly conference call meetings, some phone calls, some planning tasks.  Yep, that's all it took.  If you have a good process, the people will come.  

3. Recruit early via email.   Starting in March, we sent out a Save The Date email to everyone who worked the event last year.  A church let us set up a page for volunteer sign-up on its website community management system, so we sent out the link in that email and in follow-up emails.  Each week we checked the site to see how our sign-ups were doing.  We got a slow and steady stream of people this way.  Some of our last-year recruits not only returned this year, they also forwarded the link to their friends and invited them to sign up, too.

4. Delineate roles right away.  People want to know what they're saying "yes" to, so we framed out job descriptions for the various roles we needed on the day of the event, using the SPAN job template (click here to read a previous blog post about this great tool).  These job descriptions became our primary communications tools, both for recruitment and for training.

5. Put together your project timeline.  Early-on planning prevents late-breaking panic. We used a table timeline (click here to learn more) to show a week-by-week overview of what needed to happen when.  It kept everyone accountable and, quite literally, on the same page.  When you're working with a widespread bunch of part-time people, a timeline plus a weekly conference call is your strongest defense against chaos.   

6. List the resources you need, and dole out the shopping lists.  Among our core committee, we reviewed the project's process and brainstormed a list of supplies needed to accomplish it. We divided that list into need-to-haves and nice-to-haves.  Then we distributed the responsibilities of acquiring these materials among the team and put target deliverable dates on our timeline. 

7. Manage recruitment with first-contact communications.  We monitored our sign-up link and sent out a Welcome email to every new recruit, clearly stating the project's vision.  In that email, we also set expectations.  How were volunteers going to be kept informed?  When could they expect their next communication?  What could they do if they had questions?  By anticipating their needs, we crafted a concise first-contact email that framed the scope of their commitment and gave them enough information to hold them over until closer to the event, when we would send out more specifics.

8. Set up conference calls to keep score.  We used Free Conference Calls at http://www.freeconference.com/  to meet weekly while staying at home on our couches.  Before each call, an email sent out a checklist to be reviewed, a tent map to be discussed, etc.  Conference calls need focal points, so we always had a visual reference of some kind. The timeline was our scorecard: how were we doing on each of this week's tasks? We tackled everything as a team, and put everything up for group approval.  (This collaborative atmosphere was critical.  No one person was the boss -- the mission was the boss, and everything was prioritized by the group.)  We made sure to end each call with two components:  a summary of the delegated action steps that we each were going to undertake that week, and a motivational reminder of how great this was going to be. 

9. Appoint Team Captains and provide them with manageable tasks.  We made sure to clearly define the responsibilities of every person whom we put in charge of other people.  In our case, we segmented our volunteer force into teams according to the job they were going to perform on the day of Convoy:  greeters, screeners, escorts, etc.  We appointed a Team Captain for each of those areas, and explained what they were expected to do.  We also gave our Team Captains lots of love.  They were the pivotal people in our project, and they knew that they were valued.

10. Give recruits the next level of information about three weeks before the event.  We created email templates for email communications that Team Captains  then sent to their teams.  We coached the Team Captains on how to cut and paste the message into their own email and make customized changes as needed.  In this way, we ensured that all volunteers received the same standard information.  When they sent out these emails, Team Captains also attached the job descriptions that we had already created for each role.  These next-level emails were timed strategically to hit just when volunteers were starting to think ahead and wonder more about Convoy.  

11. Start collecting and assembling supplies.  We finalized our print materials and got them printed (in quantities that were slightly higher than our estimated usage numbers).  Since Convoy was an outdoor event, we put supplies in big plastic bins and plastic bags for easy, moisture-proof transport.  We portioned out signage, pens, baskets, and incidentals according to the area they would be used, and put together one supply bin for each area. We put labels on everything we could to describe contents, where to use them, etc.. 

12. Send a final email to volunteers.  We waited until a week before the event to send finalized details (street directions, parking instructions, etc.). We also used that final email to emphasize the importance of their involvement and build enthusiasm for Convoy's mission.  (You may have noticed that volunteers received only three emails from us.  We didn't flood them with one-offs.  We sent info out in deliberate, condensed pulses.  A few focused contacts get more attention than multiple reminders.)  

13. Set up (as much as possible) the day before.  On Friday, June 7th, when the tents were up at Mitchel Athletic Complex and Convoy organizers were on the premises,  a  few of us came to the Health Services Tent to arrange tables and drop off supplies.  We used this time to do a step-by-step talk-through of the event, rehearsing operations and resolving open questions.  Though the rains were pouring outside the tent with monsoon intensity, inside the tent we looked at each other and smiled.  We were ready.  This was going to be great.   

14. Stage a pre-event "prep talk."  We had instructed all Health Services Tent volunteers to arrive two hours ahead of the event start time.  When that time arrived, we described to the assembled crowd what would happen that day.  

  • First we talked about the process: we walked everyone through each part, highlighted each role and introduced each Team Captain.  
  • Then we talked about the promise -- the commitment to put our guests first.  We connected everything that would happen that day to the greater goals of the event.  We talked about how vital it was to help guests conquer their fears and feel welcome.  
  • Finally, we explained the behavioral parameters -- what we should and shouldn't do as volunteers -- tying all the rules to the success of the mission.   
  • Then it was time to pray, and get to work!  (No joke.  We really did pray.  No matter how much communication has been targeted  to the troops, in my opinion any project is well-served by adding an extra layer of strategic communication: right up to the top.  Actually, a lot of prayer goes into every Convoy Of Hope activity.  To find out more about this excellent international relief organization, and particularly its 50-State Outreach Tour, click here.)

15.  Send out an after-event thank you email.  There's one more final, still-unfinished item on my Convoy task list. Yes, we thanked everyone over and over under the tent on Saturday.   But I consider a formal thank you to be absolutely necessary to any team project (click here to see why).  In my email thank you to all our Convoy Of Hope volunteers and Team Captains, I will also include a link to this post.  That's because I want our fantastic volunteers to get the benefit of knowing our process, so they can use it in their own projects as they choose.  And next year, when Convoy time rolls around, I hope and expect these wonderful people to be primed and ready to do it again.

So there you have it.  Eighty-plus volunteers, working together, serving others, having a blast.  The secret to pulling it off?  A series of guided, targeted, strategically-staged communications that kept everyone marching in the same direction and feeling valued.  Go back and reread this post, and you will see some bolded words in each paragraph which describe the communications tool that we used for each step.  

I feel so proud to have been a part of Convoy Long Island 2013.  So blessed to know and work with all these people.  That's why I wanted to document how it all came about, with yet another communication -- this blog post.  

The next person I hope this post can help is you, my blog reader.  The next time you need to take a diverse bunch of folks and organize them into a swat team of success, try applying some of these communications tactics.  Trust me, it's hard work to create a big and successful event.  But with a meaningful mission, a strong process, and outstanding people to work with, it's also pure joy.  

I wish you success as you communicate to collaborate.  Use remarkable messaging to unlock unimaginable potential, every step of the way! 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Results Run On Resources

A friend of mine volunteers at Clark Garden, a pocket-sized town park that is near and dear to the hearts of many local nature-lovers.  Their tulip displays are always spectacular.  This photo is just a peek at the visual feast that delights visitors.  It's my way of saying "Happy Spring!" to my blog followers.  If you can get over to Clark to experience the plantings in person, the weather this weekend is perfect.  Maybe I'll see you there.

I've been so absorbed in new projects that it's been a long time since I just walked in a garden.  But that doesn't mean that I've lost interest in nature.  I also haven't posted on this blog in a while... but that doesn't mean I've run out of things to say on the topic of Remarkable Messaging.   Messaging is an art form, and there's a world of craftsmanship to practice, explore and discuss.  I don't think I'll ever exhaust the subject.  The world is full of opportunities to communicate better. 

Lately I've been quoting one of my many communications mottoes fairly often:  "Results run on resources."  In other words, if we communicate goals to people, we'd better also provide the resources to achieve those goals.  Otherwise, it will be frustrating all around.

Take these flowers in the picture, for example.  They didn't happen by accident.  The landscaper said to the gardeners, "I want a beautiful bed of red tulips right here."  But those gardeners needed resources: tulip bulbs, plus shovels, fertilizer, compost and topsoil.  Clark Garden had to furnish all these items, starting last fall, so the bed could be planted.   Then it had to be cultivated starting in early March.  This required rakes, watering cans, fertilizer and mulch.   With the right effort, and the right resources, the flowers were able to burst out in late April, just when tulip season hit.  

What if the workers went to the shed, and none of those necessary items were there?  What if they had to go search them out at Home Depot, load them into the truck and transport it all back to Clark?  They would be so busy doing their stuff-gathering that they couldn't do their actual gardening.  Spring would come, but the flowers would be skimpy, or scattered, or missing altogether.

Similarly, it's frustrating and counterproductive when leaders ask people to perform a time-specific task, but don't give them the information, processes and systems needed to do it.  When good-hearted workers receive half-hearted guidance, then a sketchy outcome is assured.  Good leaders know how to motivate their followers with focused communication that puts them in touch with the tools they need to do their tasks. 

if you're not getting the results you're expecting, maybe you need to do an inventory.  What's missing?  

  • Are you withholding resources from your people? 
  • Are you unwittingly giving them conflicting messages that confound their efforts?  
  • Are you forcing your folks to work harder to compensate for things you could easily provide?
  • Are you assuming they'll supply what's lacking -- research their own answers, find their own support systems, create their own processes -- to get the project finished on time?  

If you're asking for blossoms without offering bulbs, don't be surprised if you get mud.  And don't take the easy way out and blame the gardeners when the flowers don't grow.  Instead, check your shed.  Take ownership of what is, and isn't, there.  Fuel the results by supplying the resources.

Prize-winning tulip beds don't happen by accident. When they appear, we can be sure that a team has done their work -- and a trusted leader has empowered them with the tools and supplies they need to succeed. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Crisis Recovery Communication, Part 2: Stories Steer Status

Author's note:  This is the second of a two-part series on crisis recovery messaging.

Experiencing Super Storm Sandy has shown me that a disaster affects everyone for a long time, in a variety of ways.  When people have been hammered by forces outside their control, and pushed beyond their ability to cope, a fatigue sets in.  For those who have been hit the hardest, the pain is felt anew each new day.  I've heard them comment that they feel they continually have to make the conscious choice to keep trying to get through the situation.  Otherwise, it's too easy to give in and give up.  They feel like the arrows on the road sign pictured here: life can't continue straight on as normal. They must either choose to push toward the positive, or get swamped in the negative.

All around Long Island, huge piles of storm debris still sit in clearings and parking lots, like the one in the picture above.  You can't tell from the photo, but the background greenery is actually the piled-together remains of countless downed trees.  It looked like a giant game of pick-up sticks, played with massive trunks and branches, spread over hundreds of parking spaces.  In the same way, peoples' homes and lives remain tangled in recovery efforts, insurance adjustors, FEMA forms, and the many concerns that revolve around getting back to some sort of normal.

Weeks after the storm, at holiday get-togethers, we were still asking each other, "Were you hit hard?  How about your family?"  We shared tales of tragedy and triumph... and frustration, loss, and unresolved questions were still taking an emotional toll.

Yet an uncanny readiness exists within a community to respond to disaster.  That readiness only needs a spark to ignite into action.  Stories provide that spark.  Here's one of those stories that I read in the local newspaper.

A Glen Cove mother (who herself had lost power for ten days) decided to drive down to Long Beach and offer to do laundry for anyone whose basement washing machine had been rendered unusable by the storm.  A few friends and neighbors jumped in to help.  Now, powered by Facebook, her momentary impulse has become a burgeoning grass roots project with an adorable name: Take A Load Off.  At least one laundromat has volunteered its machines, and donations of laundry detergent and cash are being collected.

Such stories abound as volunteers band together to help their neighbors in this prolonged disaster recovery period that will always stand out in the memories of all northeastern U.S. residents.

When a crisis hits, wise leadership will use these stories in their post-crisis communications to prompt helpful collaboration.  People are social beings.  When they feel isolated, stressed, or powerless, they want to reach out connect with others.  When they hear about positive ways that others have found to act on that impulse, and meet needs in the process, it's simultaneously a comfort and a catalyst.

If you watched the 12/12/12 concert for Sandy Relief, you saw a few of these stories portrayed in video vignettes that ran between acts.  You learned about everyday people who saw needs and gathered together to meet them.  To me, these stories were the highlight of the evening (sorry, Eric, Mick and Paul!)  And as the donations poured in, once again the Power of the Story was proven beyond a doubt.

After a crisis, people can go two ways.  They can descend into fear, bitterness, suspicion, and anger.  Or they can transcend into patience, action, mercy, and love.  Either way, stories set the stage.

What is the impact of the stories you tell those those you lead?  Do your anecdotes stir up their baser instincts, or steer them to be their best selves?

Is there a crisis going on in your own sphere of influence?  If so, remember: in every situation, there are examples to emulate.  Find the people who are weathering it well, and choosing to give instead of grumble.  Tell the stories of these fine, honorable deeds done by the selfless angels in your midst.  In doing so, you'll move everyone to a better place, and improve your overall crisis recovery.