“Building a purposeful social network” – a course update

If you want to systematically improve diversity, mobility, and employee engagement within your firm, then a good place to start is teaching people how to shape their reputation and build relationships at work. (More on that here and here.)

Towards that end, I proposed a course about a year ago that would cover a range of skills:

“Some are basic life skills like writing, speaking, and building relationships. Others are relatively new, like using social tools and practices to engage an audience. The combination of all of these can be extremely powerful.

But you’ll only learn them by doing. And not in a 2-hour corporate diversity workshop.”

Since then, with the support of many people at work, we created and delivered that course – a 3-month course called “Building a purposeful social network.”

Here’s how it went.

What worked

There were no external speakers or offsite venues. Just a few dinners, coffee, and some good snacks. But we proved the basic hypothesis underpinning the course: that “everyone can learn the skills needed to build relationships and shape their reputation.”

Each of the 14 mid-level managers in the class (several of whom were quite skeptical at first) came to understand the concepts, appreciate the potential, and take steps toward building their own purposeful networks.

Results, however, varied wildly.

What didn’t work

Perhaps 1/3 of the class applied the ideas well, 1/3 made some tentative attempts, and 1/3 was still struggling to do something despite knowing they should.

That’s okay, but I wanted everyone to make meaningful progress.

The classes themselves – a combination of lecture, supporting media (videos, blog posts) and in-class exercises to actually put the lessons into practice – worked reasonably well.

The biggest mistakes related to what we did between classes. My approach to peer support, for example, was naive. Just lumping people together and calling them a peer group wasn’t adequate. The connections weren’t strong enough to provide meaningful support.

When I noticed the problems with peer support, I tried to make up for it by offering one-on-one coaching. But while the dozen or so sessions we had were useful, the scheduling was too ad hoc for coaching to be effective.

So, in general, we needed more structure between classes. Despite everyone’s best intentions, their regular jobs and routines simply got in the way. To help them change their current work habits and create new ones, we needed to better prepare for and organize any learning outside of the scheduled sessions.

Adjustments to the course outline

The course contents were good – except for one important topic we missed altogether. Here are the 5 main topics I wrote about originally along with some adjustments I’d make next time:

1. Defining your personal goal

This is the most obvious and the most difficult part of the course, helping each person answer “What do you want to achieve?” This part of the course helps people think through and articulate their objectives. Everyone shares their goal with their peer group and discusses it, often asking “Why?” in an effort to ensure the goal will lead to greater engagement and fulfillment.

“Defining your purpose” proved too abstract and frustrating for most people. We quickly made adjustments (that I wrote about here)  to help people shrink the change and gain confidence in applying new ideas and skills.

2. “Leading with generosity” and the basics of building relationships

Perhaps Ferrazzi’s greatest contribution has been to reframe how people think of networking. To make it less about point-to-point transactions and more about leading with generosity to a broad, diverse set of people who can help you reach your goal. This section includes content on generosity, authenticity, and intimacy while also providing techniques and exercises to put those concepts in an enterprise context.

This worked very well. We talked about 5 mindsets – Generosity, Vulnerability, Authenticity, Intimacy, and Empathy. “Leading with generosity” was an approach that resonated with everyone.

3. Listing your assets

To lead with generosity, you need to have something to give. And most people think too narrowly about what they have to give, thereby limiting their interactions. Again, Ferrazzi reframes how people understand the full range of value they can bring to another person. In this part of the course, everyone develops a comprehensive inventory of what they have to offer to others.

4. Your relationship action plan

Armed with a clear sense of purpose, an understanding of how to approach people, and an inventory of what you have to offer, the next step is to identify who can help you – both the kinds of people and specific individuals. You’re not trying to get anything specific from each person other than a closer relationship through authentic, generous behavior. (Again, this is the genius of Ferrazzi.)

The idea is that the sum of these actions over a broad, diverse network will lead to a set of closer relationships that are fulfilling in and of themselves while also yielding more opportunities.

These sections were straightforward and worked well. If I would change anything, I’d shorten them and make more room for the other areas and for in-class implementation of the exercises.

5. Using social platforms

So far, all of this has very little to do with technology. Dale Carnegie could have taught this course in 1936. The last section of the course is to teach people how to use modern social tools and practices. The key difference is that these tools make it easy to publish and get feedback from a wide audience in a public way. Based on all that information, the technology makes it easier to scale the activities in the previous section, to find many more people and to many more opportunities.

In this last section, we learned that people’s familiarity with the tools affected their perception of their effectiveness. So simply explaining and then using the different platforms made a marked difference in people’s perceptions. (More about that here. )

One important section we missed

In the last class, we stumbled onto something we missed and that we should have done at the very beginning: we leveraged the network in the room.

From a few discussions we had in the prior class, I started to notice we could help each other more than I’d imagined. It turns out that, even in a big firm, a group of 15 people  has content and connections that are useful to at least one other person in the room.

So we simply went around the room, person by person, and talked about what help we needed and who could provide that help.  It was the best, most productive session we had. It resulted in more meaningful connections and led to a set of specific contributions from everyone that we’re tracking now.

Next time, even before the first class, we’ll share bios and do more prep work so we can start thinking about the network in the room from the very beginning.

What’s next?

Having identified my mistakes and belatedly discovered the utility of the network in the room, I couldn’t bear to end the inaugural class just yet. So we postponed graduation for another 10 weeks, enough time for everyone to apply what we learned and make more meaningful progress toward our goals.

After this first class ends, I’d like to have another class to see how the adjustments work. And, after we prepare more material and re-structure some things, I’d like to hold classes in other cities and train some other instructors.

Will this approach scale? Is it practical? Well, right now, my goal is simply to help people, a dozen or so at a time, to shape their reputation and take control of their career. To prevent people from stagnating in less-than-fulfilling roles. To help them stop squandering potential – both theirs and the firm’s.

If we can achieve these goals for one small group, then we’ll have something useful we can build on.

A framework for changing habits at work

You went to a good school. You work in a big company. You’re making much more than the average American family.

And yet, you’re no better than Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.  The emails and meeting requests keep coming in and you can’t keep up with the flow. You’re stressed and feel you never get a chance to do the kind of great work you’re capable of.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Most of what we do at work is a set of un-thinking habits. If we can inspire and train ourselves to re-examine a particular keystone habit – how we spend our time at work – then positive changes will ripple throughout the firm.

But how would you get everyone to change?

The “Switch” framework

For individuals, there are many good books on changing habits like smoking or over-eating. But for broader-based change, including change at work, the most comprehensive and useful framework I’ve found is in “Switch”, a book by Chip and Dan Heath.

Throughout the book, change is described as trying to get an elephant moving in a new direction. There’s the elephant, powerful and resistant to change (our emotional self). There’s the rider trying to steer the elephant (our rational self). And there’s the path to new behaviors (the environment surrounding us).

Each part of the framework is described with illustrative stories, examples, and research. (All italicized phrases below are framework headings from the book.) Here’s how to apply that framework to a specific campaign, called “One hour a day”, that’s about changing how we spend our time at work.

“Motivate the Elephant” – Make it personal

It requires a lot of effort to change a habit. To motivate the elephant, the Switch framework focuses on making people care about the change and on making them confident they can achieve it.

To help people find the feeling about “One hour a day”, you need to explicitly tie the campaign to their personal benefit. Rather than talk about ROE or higher productivity (though increases in both will be side-effects), focus on giving individuals more time for themselves: “Eliminate the least valuable 10% of your job and invest that time in yourself. Time to do more great work and expand your career. To eat a proper lunch with a colleague and further develop a relationship. To read and learn. To exercise and be healthier.”

Shrinking the change focuses on enabling small wins that people can build on. For example, finding even one hour a week – eliminating the need for just one meeting – can give people a taste of what success will feel like. That builds confidence.

Growing your people means helping them further believe they’re capable of changing their work habits. That means celebrating the stories of individuals at all levels who’ve found their one hour a day. And it means, ultimately, creating an identity for your organization so they can each view their days differently and make better decisions: “We’re not the kind of people who waste time! We deserve better!”

“Direct the Rider” – Make it clear

If the elephant needs motivation to keep it moving, the rider needs direction. That means clarity on what to do and good reasons for doing it.

Some modern ways of working are unambiguously better than what most people do. For example, replacing certain status meetings with online versions. Or storing documents online where others can readily find, use, and build on them. For these basics, you’ll need to script the critical moves so everyone knows exactly what they can do to get started.

You can’t possibly know all the ways that people can better manage their time. So the Switch framework tells you to follow the bright spots. These are people who are already exhibiting the behaviors you want – like working out loud – so you can discover how they’re doing it and then share what they’re doing with the rest of the organization.

As you help people get going, you’ll need to point to the destination to keep reminding them of where they’re headed. “We’re eliminating the least productive 10% of what we do so we can all invest that time in ourselves.”

For a large firm, that means converting the least valuable work into 10,000 person years (over 20 million hours) that you can use in better, richer ways.. That’s enough to build 3 Empire State Buildings. All from the least valuable work we do. Every year.

“Shape the Path” – Make it easy

The last third of the Switch framework focuses on making it easier for people to change.

For example, you’ll need to tweak the environment to provide cues and triggers for people. That could include signs and a calculator in every conference room: “How much does this meeting cost?” And reminders of good practices right in your email and calendar software before you hit the “Send” button. And simple analytics that track the hours you’ve saved and make you mindful of your progress.

Just as we try to eliminate bad habits at work, we want to build habits out of the new, positive behaviors. You do that by making elements of the changes a part of everyday routines. Encourage everyone to use the “meeting checklist” to see if a meeting is really warranted before sending an invitation. Establish a policy of stand-up meetings for simple updates. Disable reply-all in email. With repeated use, these new behaviors just become “the way things are done around here.”

Finally, you rally the herd. This is something that entire books are written about and where social platforms can really make a difference. You connect everyone trying to find “One hour a day”.  You build communities so people can share what they know and continue to make advances.

It’s about time

What are we waiting for? In the banking industry alone, for example, stock prices languish. (Many firms trade well below book value, meaning their parts are worth more than the whole). Their credit ratings are approaching junk status. And yet banks continue to spend and waste as ever before.

What else do we need before we feel we have to change? Changing a keystone habit at work – “One hour a day” – can transform big companies and we should start now.

The commercial and human costs are higher than ever. We can’t afford to waste more time.

It’s about time: how changing a keystone habit at work might change everything

Research shows that 40% of actions performed each day are habitual. So if people aren’t thinking about what they’re doing, then simply showing them better ways isn’t enough. You have to change their habits.

But with so many different things we do at work – different functions, processes, and skills – where would you start?

Keystone habits

In “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg highlights the importance of keystone habits. These are particularly important habits that, when changed, produce other, seemingly unrelated, benefits.

One such habit, for example, is regular exercise.

“When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stress.”

Finding the keystone habit at Alcoa

Duhigg then applies the idea to companies. He tells the story of Alcoa’s transformation under Paul O’Neill, the former treasury secretary and CEO of Alcoa from 1987-1999.

In O’Neill’s words:

“I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

He was looking for something that everybody could agree was important, something everyone could get behind. And he focused on safety. While workers might not relate to improving ROE or shareholder value, everyone could understand making work safer for themselves and their friends.

Investigating and fixing the causes of injuries became a top management priority that filtered throughout the company. Safety proved to be a keystone habit because to prevent injuries you had to understand why machines broke, why issues weren’t communicated, why workers weren’t trained on safer procedures. You had to re-examine just about everything the company did.

As Alcoa became one of the safest companies in the world, its profits also hit a record high and its stock value increased 500%.

It’s about time

At a firm where they handle molten metals, Paul O’Neill used safety to get everyone to re-examine what they were doing. So what about firms that handle mostly information? What’s a problem at “that everybody could agree was important”?

It’s about time. It’s that everybody’s too busy but not effective enough. A recent editorial in the NY Times calls it “The Busy Trap”:

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” … The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.”

We know people don’t function well bouncing from meeting to meeting. We know that processing inboxes all day doesn’t generate a lot of value. We know there’s an endless list of wasteful processes at work. It’s just that many of us are trapped by deep-rutted habits and can’t see a way out.

So the keystone habit we want to change at work – what we want everyone to re-examine – is how people spend their time.

“One hour a day”

To make people feel differently about spending time – to make them care enough to re-examine what they’re doing and to do the hard work of changing their habits – you have to make it personal.

The campaign I’d run is “One hour a day.”

Drive everyone in the company to re-examine their calendars and their inboxes, their processes and routines, looking for their own hour – “Do I really need to do this?” “Is there a better way?”

And when they find that hour, block it off. Secure that time to do more great work. Or to eat a proper lunch with a colleague and further develop a relationship. To read. To exercise and be fresh for the rest of the day. Find the waste and reclaim one hour a day for yourself.

A practical imperative

I’ve seen it first-hand. Just by modernizing work – effectively using collaboration tools and practices, for example – you can cut out huge swaths of waste. You can move more work online where it’s searchable and discoverable (saving valuable meeting time for richer, more productive discussions). You can curate content so you find answers and experts more easily. You can highlight wasteful processes and connect the people you need to redesign them. You can uncover duplication and the people who should collaborate to eliminate it.

One hour a day is roughly 10% of your time at work. (Google makes headlines by giving employees 20 percent of their time to do work they choose to do.) It’s a huge shift and it isn’t out of reach.

O’Neill improved both safety and profitability within a year. Once you identify a keystone habit – something each person cares about that gets them re-thinking and re-wiring what they’re doing – positive changes can ripple throughout your organization.

Next week, I’ll describe the best framework for doing that.

What if unproductive work is simply a habit?

Why do we keep doing things at work that we know are wrong?

We know we shouldn’t overuse email or have too many meetings; create slides with unreadable bullet points or waste time compiling status reports. We could all make long lists of things we should stop doing that are ineffective or just plain wrong.

So why don’t we change?

One (not-so-great) approach

I used to think that changing how people worked was an education problem. That I just needed to show people how inefficient they were and teach them how to improve things. So our team focused on creating all sorts of materials and tried to reach as many people as we could. Surely, once they saw a better way, people would change.


Over the last 20 years, the US government has tried that “better way” approach, trying to educate us about what to eat. But our consumption of the “bad foods” at the top of the pyramid (like refined sugars) has steadily increased anyway.

And we didn’t fare any better at work. We just created our own equivalent of the food pyramid efforts by focusing on education while inboxes and calendars got fatter and fatter.

Viewing work as a set of habits

The problem isn’t that people at work are stupid. It’s that much of what we do – at work and at home – is un-thinking. Much of what we do is a set of habits.

In Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”, he cites a study that “found more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.” And he goes on to show how habits “shape our lives far more than we realize – they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” provides a neurological explanation for this. Simply put, our brain favors doing things that require less cognitive effort.

“…if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

With repetition, effort decreases over time as the brain changes and the activity becomes easier, more automatic, and eventually becomes a habit. Changing that habit – acquiring a new skill or behavior – requires effort which the brain has a natural aversion to.

It’s not just smoking and eating that become hard-to-change habits. It’s our use of email and Powerpoint. It’s the way we schedule and run meetings. It’s “the way things are” at work.

Some surprises

The good news is that we’re starting to better understand how habits form and how to change them. Duhigg quotes a developer of habit reversal training:  “…once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it…It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” It’s certainly not simple, but recently there has been a lot of research and new insights into changing habits.

Now, for example, we know why the food pyramid didn’t change how much people eat and we’ve discovered what will: smaller containers.

In “Switch: How to change things when change is hard”, Chip and Dan Heath open with a story of a popcorn study run by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. In the study, moviegoers are given, for free, medium and large buckets of popcorn. Both buckets were too big for individuals to finish and the popcorn was stale (“one moviegoer compared it to styrofoam packing peanuts”) so that people weren’t eating it for pleasure. Yet people with the larger buckets ate 53% more popcorn.

They re-ran many variations of the experiment and each time the results were the same: “People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period.”

Applying this to your firm

It’s far easier to change the size of a popcorn container than to teach people to think differently about food. And so by viewing work as a set of habits, and applying the recent research, we can open up a whole new set of possibilities for improving what we do every day.

Next week, I’ll write about how changing one particular keystone habit at work just might change everything.