Home » How Simplification is the Key to Change: Lisa Bodell at TEDxNormal (Full Transcript)

How Simplification is the Key to Change: Lisa Bodell at TEDxNormal (Full Transcript)

Lisa Bodell

Lisa Bodell – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

I have a very simple goal today. I want to help you create more space for change and innovation in your organization, the places where you spend time every single day.

Now, I know that change and innovation are not new topics for everybody here sitting in the room. We talk about change all the time; we talk about innovation and making it stick. What I wonder more about is: Why aren’t we doing it? What’s really holding us back from being able to make that change happen?

And what I realized is that change is very hard for people. See, I spend my time talking to about 100,000 people all around the world each year about change, how to anticipate it and how to activate it. I know that it’s a very hard thing to do, but I wanted to know why.

So I started asking groups that I work with, whether it was 25 people or several thousand people at a time, this very simple question: “What do you spend your day doing?” Think about that. The day-to-day stuff you do. What do you spend your day doing? What surprised me was not the uniqueness of their answer but the consistency of it.

See, no matter what country or culture or company I was talking to, or what level or function of the person and the organization I was with, they all answered the exact same way “What do you spend your day doing?” And they would always say, “Meetings and emails.”

And I’m there to talk about change. So, you know, I have this feeling that people get up in the morning, and they want to do meaningful things. I don’t know about you, but I do not have a single friend that gets up in the morning and says, “I cannot wait for meetings!” “I can’t wait to tackle all those emails; I will feel so inspired by it.” Nobody does that. We don’t get up to do the mundane; we get up to do the meaningful.

We want to make a difference, we want to create change, we want to solve problems, we want to move things forward. How do you do that if you spend your time in meetings and emails? What this made me realize is, within most organizations, the large majority of organizations, we approach change in all the wrong ways, right? The very things that we put in place to help us better create change and to innovate are the very things that put a chokehold on it. Meetings, reports, policies, emails, task forces – they’re all very important. But unfortunately, too often, they become the only thing that you do.

And then they become an excuse because it becomes complex, and it becomes the status quo, and we become complacent. And there’s no space for change to happen. Does that sound familiar? So, how do we change that? I think what we have to do is we have to approach change in a brand new way. Rather than starting to do more things – the first reaction we always have: “Let’s do more,” “Let’s put more things in place.” We need to stop that.

The first thing we need to do is “get rid of.” We need to kill things; we need to eradicate the stuff that’s too complex, that gets in our ways – meetings and emails – so we can make that space for change to happen. And I think we can do it in really simple ways, and I want to tell you how. But first what we have to do is we have to think about changing our mindset a little bit.

So if we could go to the next slide – I think there’s a problem in what we value and the places where we work. It’s a mindset shift that we have to get at first. I’ll tell you what I mean. The first thing is – what I see is we are not grooming leaders. At best, we’re grooming managers, and frankly, what I think we’re doing is we are training professional skeptics. People are really good when I go in and I teach innovation and I talk about new ideas – I taunt them with something totally new and disruptive – they’re very good at telling me why something is wrong.

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And they can do it for really long time before they can finally get to what’s right about it. I think it’s great to question things. But it cannot be the only thing that you do.

I think the second thing is we have this desire for process over culture. We talk a really good game in companies about culture, but we talk about it in kind of “BS” ways. It’s cultural aesthetics: it’s colored walls; it’s whiteboards; it’s foosball tables; its beanbag chairs; it’s great meeting rooms; who cares, right? That’s not culture. What we’re really doing is process in our companies because it’s specific. It’s structural. We’re very uncomfortable with the soft behavioral things. And those are the things that matter and help change and innovation happen, that gray area.

The final thing I think that we have to change is this addiction to doing over thinking. I think in most companies, thinking has become a daring act. Now, think about it. When you walk into someone’s office – I love this because I say this to people and they smile. You walk into someone’s office, and there’s your friend, Steve, and he’s just sitting there, leaning back in his chair, and he’s looking out the window, smiling. And you say, “Hey Steve, what are you doing?” And he looks at you, and he says, “Oh, I’m just thinking.” What’s the first thing that pops into most people’s minds? “Get back to work,” right? “I wish I could do that” “I wish I could have time to think.” But that’s what you want every day. Thinking is a daring act.

I was kind of testing this theory with a group of scientists. I sat on an advisory board for really great, smart, incredible people. The geeks are my peeps. They really are creating tomorrow today. I was there, and one of the guys there was a neurologist. I love the guys that do cognitive psychology – anything cognitive, I love to talk about brain science. Of course, I got him aside at the cocktail party, and I was having a glass of wine with him. And I said, “You know, I think thinking is a daring act.” And he got really – he had been pretty introverted before. Suddenly, he got really engaged.

He said, “Lisa, I completely agree with you. In fact, you know, the brain is the most amazing organ that we have. It starts working from the very moment that you wake up, and it doesn’t stop until the very second that you set foot into your office.” I put, “Alright, right” But you know, why do we laugh? This is true, right? Thinking is a daring act, and we have to change that in order for the space for change and innovation to happen.

And I want to tell you three simple ways to do it. The first is around provocative, killer questions. The second is around killing stupid rules. And the third is about making simplification a habit. Let’s talk about each one.

So first, I want us to get into asking provocative – I’ll even call them – killer questions. Why? Meetings and emails, you sit a lot of times in classrooms or meetings or brainstorms. And quite frankly, a lot of us aren’t expecting a lot out of them. That’s bad. I expect a lot out of my meetings because my time is valuable.

Why do we get so mad when people waste our money, but we don’t get as mad when people waste our time. I don’t get that. So I think I owe it to people and you owe it to people as leaders when you get into the room, if you want a better answer, ask a better question. But we are so taught as leaders or people that are bringing out the companies of tomorrow to find the answer. “Get to the answer.” So we go to these rooms and we say, “Who’s got an answer about” “Oh my god, I don’t know. I’m already asleep or thinking about something else.”

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How can we ask a better question? Let me tell you why this is important. In the future, asking the right question is going to be more valuable than finding the right answers. We have machine learning, we have artificial intelligence, we have tons of algorithms, we have the data out there that can get us answers we need. Are you asking the right question?

Let’s think about this. Google is not a search engine. Google is an answer engine. Ten years ago, when you typed something into Google: “When is Abe Lincoln’s birthday?” you would get a list of links that would send you to the sites that will get you Abe Lincoln’s birthday. Now, when you type in the exact same thing: “When is Abe Lincoln’s birthday?” what do you get? You get the Wikipedia dissertation of his entire life, and then you get, of course, summaries of pages that tell you the birthday right there. Then the other places where you’re supposed to go, where they think you really want to get the answer of the question you’re really asking. Are you good at asking questions? So if we can go to the next, I’ll tell you the questions I want you to get better at asking.

So think about this. Next time you go into a meeting, what if you ask questions that really got people right up here in their neocortex. Right up here where creative problem-solving happens. Rather than sitting back and snoozing and checking their email, doing in-and-out thinking, get them engaged. They can give you really disruptive things.

So the first thing you could ask is, for example: “If we had to give away our products and services, right now, give them away for free, how else would we make money?” For the next one, “What question would you love to ask our customers, our students, our employees, our friends, but we are too scared or embarrassed to ask?” The final one here. This is great if you’re inside an organization, and you don’t know why people aren’t motivated. This is one of my clients that told me this one “You’ve just written a tell-all book about the organization. What secrets would it reveal?” So I want you to think about: “What killer question would you love to ask?” To get people to shake up thinking or define an answer that you might be uncomfortable with, that you could create this productive agitation and get people out of that status quo.

All right, let’s talk about the next one, which is around rules. I’m going to tell it to you through a story. This was actually told to me from an engineer at a nuclear power company when I was travelling in Germany. I said, “What’s holding you back from change?” He said, “I won’t tell you directly; I’ll tell you a story that sums it up pretty well.” And I loved this.

He said, “Okay, there’s a scientist, and he had ten monkeys in a cage. He decided he was going to perform an experiment. And he put a banana on top of the cage. Of course, all the monkeys fought to get the banana. The first monkey that got the banana, he got to eat it, and the scientist poured water on all the other monkeys in the cage, all nine of them. They were really mad. Next day, he does the same thing. He puts a banana on top of the cage, all the monkeys fight to get it, one of them gets it, he’s really proud of himself, he gets to eat it, scientist pours water on all the other monkeys. They’re really mad. By the end of the week, any monkey that tries to go for that banana, everyone pulls him back down. So the scientists got smart, and he said, ‘You know what? I’m going to change up this experiment. Every week, I’m going to take an old monkey out and put a new monkey in and see what happens.’

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So over the next ten weeks, what does he do, next week, he takes an old monkey out, he puts a new monkey in. What’s the first thing that monkey does? He tries to go for the banana. All the monkeys pull him down. By the end of the week, that monkey knows, ‘Oh my gosh, do not go for that banana!’ But at the end of ten weeks, there are ten new monkeys in that cage. None of them go for the banana. None of them know why.” This is what happens to us all the time at work or the organizations we spend time on. We do not question why things are the way they are.

Someone put that rule in place for a reason, right? Must be there for a reason. Maybe it outlived its time. I think what we need to do is start killing stupid rules. If you ask people – I get people in a room all the time, and I give them 15 minutes, and I say, “If you could kill two rules that hold you back from better innovating, what would they be and why?” And what they come up with are not always rules. Their policies, reports, meetings, and emails, cultural assumptions, things where their boss said, “Who told you that was a rule?” And it starts the conversation of getting rid of the things that hold you back, from the status quo.

The final thing I’ll tell you is really the bigger picture we have to get to. This is about making simplification a habit. I survived another meeting that should have been an email. We laugh because it’s true, all the time. Meetings and emails. Too often, we treat simplification as an event, a one-shot deal, right? We do in December when things are slow, or we do it just before strategic planning to look really good.

Simplification is something we have available to all of us. It’s a skill all of us have at our companies, but none of us use it. We spend more time making things complex than we do simplifying. It is time for us as leaders in a room to take a code of conduct, to commit to simplification, to make it a new operating principle. Every time you have a task that comes in front of you, you owe it to yourselves, to your colleagues, to the people that work for you, to say, “Is this necessary?” “Am I doing things in the most minimal way possible and still achieving my goal?” “Am I operating with clarity, with language people can understand rather than trying to be obsequious about it?” Are we doing things that are really meaningful? Are we empowering people? Are we empowering them to make those decisions on their own so they know it’s okay to get rid of, to create the space for change and innovation to stick.

[Change is a choice] I think we have to realize that change is a choice. You don’t have to do it, but it’s the right thing to do. And you can do it in really simple ways. You can ask the killer questions that shake us up out of the status quo. You can kill stupid rules to make things easier right now. And you can make simplification your new operating principle so people can actually get out of that mundane work and get to the work that matters. And that’s how change and innovation will really happen. With that, I want to say, thank you. Thank you very much.

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