When Words Fail, Try Experiences

This blog post was first published on the Octopus HR website

Insights come in strange places. For me last summer, it was while trying to steer a narrowboat on the Avon & Kennet canal. We’d gone on holiday with another family and our children (six in total) couldn’t be persuaded that larking about on the roof wasn’t safe, even if the boat was only cruising at 3 mph. All the usual threats to switch off the Wi-Fi or unplug the TV somehow lacked credibility in the heart of the countryside, when even the adults were complaining about lack of phone signal. Tempers became frayed.

Then my wife wryly suggested I use my ‘professional expertise’ as a communicator. And so, from the edge of breakdown came a breakthrough. We invited each child to take a turn at steering the boat, under close adult supervision. With their own sweaty mitts on the tiller, they finally realised how stressful it is to navigate around trees and bridges when someone is blocking your vision and you’re worried they’re going to end up overboard.

The insight, of course, is blindingly obvious: sometimes you can’t tell people, they have to experience it for themselves. Yet how often do we need to remind ourselves of this simple truth?

In their excellent book, “Influencer – the power to change anything”, the authors (Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, Switzler) tell the story of a US manufacturing company under threat from Japanese competitors, whose productivity levels were 40% higher. To stay in business, they had to make some urgent changes. If their employees wanted to keep their jobs, they were going to have to work a lot harder. But somehow, the management couldn’t get their message across, because the workforce mistrusted their motives. Then they hit on the idea of sending a team of employees on a fact finding tour to Japan. It did the trick. When they returned home and told their co-workers how much harder and faster their Japanese counterparts were working, they accepted that change had to happen.

Another powerful example is the Exchanging Places scheme run by the Metropolitan Police Cycle Task Force that gets cyclists to sit in a lorry driver’s cabin. Once you’ve seen for yourself the size of the blind spot for a left turning lorry, you will never again attempt to undertake a lorry on a bicycle. I only wish we could make every cyclist experience this for themselves.

Thinking about your employee engagement challenges, what kind of experiences could you create to promote the changes you are seeking? For example, if you want your team to become more customer centric, could you send them on mystery shopping exercises, or have them sit behind a one way mirror during a customer focus group? If you want your team to be more creative or innovative, how about taking them on a team building exercise where they experience what it’s like to create something together – and discover for themselves how fantastic that can feel?

My all time favourite team building exercise was an Advertising Sales Director who wanted his team to feel like superstars. So for a team experience, they recorded a pop promo video. Everyone had their hair and make up done, they dressed in wild, spangly clothes and danced around like loons, lip synching to the words of a cheesy pop song. Not only was it brilliant fun, the experience transformed team morale. It still makes me laugh and I watch it whenever I need an injection of enthusiasm!