By Aaron Schmookler, Adam Utley, and Rachel Lionheart (in collaboration)
Most leaders, when asked, say that their team has the skills it needs to perform better than average. When asked specifically about communication, however, they say it needs to get better. When asked about teamwork, they say it needs to get better. When asked about innovation, they say it needs to get better. When asked about the ability to cope with the unexpected and with change, they say it needs to get better.
This article will arm you with a powerful tool for making work on your team better indeed.
Would you like communication, teamwork, innovation and coping with the unexpected to improve on your team? Do assumptions gum up the works of effective communication? Does fear prevent people from communicating when they first realize they’re likely to miss a deadline? Are your people satisfied with the status quo when you know growth is essential for outpacing the competition?
Incremental improvements at work often take too much work for too little return. But our clients easily make substantial improvements to communication, so they reap unprecedented cohesion on their teams, enjoy lucrative innovation, and take change in stride. You can make strides too, with a single tool from Theater Improvisation.
Why improvisation? Life isn’t scripted. The unexpected happens. Change happens. And Darwin can tell you, if you don’t adapt to change, if you can’t respond relevantly to the unexpected, you won’t survive. Most companies do ok with the unexpected. Most companies respond ok to change. But ok is not going to bring your dreams for the future to fruition.
The tool I’ve promised, and one of the principles we teach in our workshops, is BE OBVIOUS. Webster says obvious means, “easy for the mind to understand or recognize, clear, self-evident, or apparent.” Once you and your team try it, you’ll agree… BE OBVIOUS is a superpower.
“Originality is born in the associations individuals make. Innovation is association. Collaboration, in a culture of contribution and obvious communication, accelerates the process.”
We coach our clients to BE OBVIOUS in a few distinct business arenas–the three C’s:
- Conflict management.
Collaboration is communication. And it works best with a constant flow of ideas to build from — a flow of ideas generated by each all team-members. No idea can be formed in a vacuum. No ideas are born from nothing. Every idea in the history of ideas has been inspired something else. You can’t stop ideas from coming. Blockages of ideas don’t exist–only blockages of expression, of communication. Fear stops the communication and proliferation of ideas. Fear of failure. Fear of ridicule. Fear that one’s idea is not original enough…
Keith Johnstone, improviser extraordinaire, says, “The more obvious you are, the more original you appear.” So many simple but profound business opportunities are lost in striving to come up with “clever or disruptive ideas.” One idea leads to another. Give attention and voice to your idea, no matter how simple, and it will lead to another idea, either in your own mind, or in the mind of a collaborator. Speak the obvious associations your mind is making, and they will lead to others. If your collaborators do the same, you follow one idea after another, down the rabbit-hole, and into Wonderland.
Consider the Post-it note. On the face of it, this was a failed attempt at 3M to create a strong adhesive. But upon encountering this “failed” adhesive, someone spoke what was obvious to them, and this lucrative use for a weak adhesive is now found in nearly every home and office in the country–indeed around the world.
Take one of the most successful toys in history — the slinky. It too was a failure, intended to stabilize ships’ instruments. The inventor, dejected, put it on a shelf. His wife later knocked it off, and saw it’s remarkable stepping ability. And a toy was born.
Take the case of a truck which got stuck under too low an overpass. Engineers, police, and towing professionals scratched their heads, trying to devise a strategy for removing the truck that would not destroy the bridge, or further damage the truck. Evidently, it took the obvious observation of a ten year old boy who said, obviously, “Why don’t you let the air out of the tires?
Originality is born in the associations individuals make. Innovation is association. Collaboration, in a culture of contribution and obvious communication, accelerates the process.
Conflict is communication. Conflict on a team often results from one team member judging the ideas and contributions of another.
“Let’s open an office in Siberia.”
“What…..That’s just stupid.”
The Siberia office idea generator is likely to feel defensive and either shut down or fight. Witnesses to the interaction are likely to perceive an unfriendly environment for their own ideas and clam up themselves. And it needn’t be so blatant as this to degrade the ‘culture of contribution.’ Something as seemingly bland as, “Really? Siberia?” is enough to shame people into silence, or gird them for battle.
BE OBVIOUS has the power to completely transform the interaction from one that degrades relationships and productivity to one that builds them.
“Let’s open an office in Siberia.”
The knee-jerk judgment that that is stupid results from an earlier thought. Maybe, “Siberia’s really cold. Siberia’s really far away.” So, instead of, “That’s just stupid,” the OBVIOUS response to “Let’s open an office in Siberia,” is, “Siberia’s really cold and really far away.”
Now, there’s information in the room that can help everyone, the original speaker included, to assess the idea’s merits in their own minds. The relationship has not been degraded. The fight or flight response has not been triggered. The environment still welcomes new ideas. The idea generator may respond, “I thought of Siberia because real estate there is very cheap.”
Then someone else may respond, “Well, the real estate in North Dakota is pretty cheap too. And it’s not as cold, and it’s not as far away.”
And then building on that, someone else might add what’s obvious to them. “My family is in North Dakota, and I’ve been wanting to move there.”
And in one fell swoop, you’ve got a location for the satellite office and the person to spearhead its opening. A bad idea is refined to a good one, and other ancillary problems are organically solved along the way. And relationships are strengthened in a process that breeds group pride in its accomplishments.
Many of you may know the story of Kitty Genovese: She was stabbed to death in 1964 outside her apartment in New York City while bystanders stood by–didn’t even call the police. This failure to respond has been widely cited as evidence of the heartlessness of New York’s citizens and the general degradation of society. Social science has since shown us another explanation. Bystanders likely did not call for help, not because they didn’t care, but because each person presumed someone else would surely call. Someone else surely had already called, was on the phone even now. With this diffusion of responsibility, each individual can shrug off personal responsibility.
Who among us has not had a work-project fall to the same fate as Kitty Genovese. Some detail critical to the success of the project has been overlooked. Bob knows he’s never heard anyone discussing the obvious problem that the building design the whole team has been working on has no front door. No one will be able to enter the building. But doors aren’t his department. Cathy’s seen the door problem too. But she’s windows. Bob and Cathy both assume, “Surely someone is on it. Someone knows, and even though I haven’t heard about it, obviously, someone is fixing this. Then the design goes to the client. If the firm is lucky, the client notices and says, “There’s no door.” And the firm suffers embarrassment and delay. If the firm isn’t lucky, the building is erected from the drawings… without a door. And the firm suffers humiliation and is never hired again. All because each person in the chain presumed that it was so obvious that there must be a hidden solution. Often, the obvious goes unspoken because people are afraid of the ridicule that may come from saying what’s clearly obvious to everyone, “Thanks, Captain Obvious.” Or they’re afraid of being embarrassed by demonstrating their own incompetence or ignorance of the obvious by saying something that shows they’ve missed what’s as plain as the nose on their face. “Duh! The door’s. Right. Here.” This is an extreme example, but we’ve all wasted work because no one spoke what was obvious to them.
How do you get people to speak what’s obvious? Get full commitment from everyone to BE OBVIOUS, and to WELCOME the obvious from others. Will there be redundant communication? Sure. But in places that matter, we all install redundant systems. We drive carefully AND wear seatbelts. We lock the car AND set the alarm. We save our files on the local server AND to the cloud.
With a BE OBVIOUS culture, Kitty would still be alive. And with a BE OBVIOUS culture in your company, projects are delivered on time and under budget. BE OBVIOUS gets your back.
When everyone has committed to BE OBVIOUS, each person has the responsibility to respond to every obvious need. Not to personally address it, but to at least mention it to the relevant person. Every manager, every team leader, every executive I’ve asked would rather hear too many times about a growing crisis in the company than not to hear about it at all.
BE OBVIOUS starts with a willingness to say what is plainly and immediately on your mind, beyond the trap of judgement, and build off of the information that surrounds you, in the environment, from your coworkers, from clients. It takes open-mindedness, commitment to transparency and practice to create a functioning habit in your burgeoning culture of contribution.