Why I wear a pink shirt on Thursdays

A small gesture My friend’s father has been a hostage for over 6 years. In a few months, he’ll be the longest-held international hostage in American history. And you probably don’t know his name.

He is Bob Levinson. I work with his daughter, Sarah. And this is a story about little things, big things, and something beautiful that exists inside even the largest corporations.

Pink Shirt Thursdays

For years, Sarah’s family has been trying to raise awareness so someone will act to free her father. Bob was working in Iran when he was kidnapped and, since then, there have been occasional videos and reports so they know he’s alive. (You can read more details here.)

In the 1990s, when her father worked in Miami, he started a tradition of wearing pink shirts on Thursdays and ultimately the entire office did it. So Sarah decided to try and get people at our office to do it, too.

“The goal is to get as many people as possible to start wearing pink shirts regularly on Thursday and then publicize that to whoever might listen. It would be great if we could even ask people to post pictures of their teams wearing their pink shirts...so I can collect and share all the images”

Then Sarah sent me a note asking if I would write a blog about it on our social platform at work.

Would it matter?

I used to think small gestures didn’t matter. When I’d see people raising money with bake sales and the like, I’d think “you’d be better off just writing a check.” My cynicism would be piqued on seeing people changing their avatars or re-tweeting expressions of support. And writing a blog post seemed trivial compared to the gravity of her father’s situation.

But what I completely overlooked is the value of solidarity. The value of someone doing something, even a small something, for someone else.

A little thing like choosing a certain shirt color on Thursday could lift someone’s spirits for a moment, or even a day. Collectively, we could give Sarah and her family a story for a lifetime. And each time someone mentioned our pink shirt, we could tell them the story of Bob Levinson.

What happened next

Help Bob LevinsonSo I wrote a short blog post. At first, there were a few initial comments of support. Then, the following Thursday, a woman in Germany posted the first photo of herself in a pink shirt. Then another person posted and soon came the first team photo. Word was starting to spread.

“Let’s turn this place pink!” someone commented.

Within a few weeks, there have been almost 5000 views and 200 comments. Photos of more and more teams from around the world all wearing pink. Of the catering staff in pink. Of families in pink. Even someone on holiday got their group of 18 people to all wear pink.

And in addition to the photos, people began sharing their own stories of loss and solidarity. They were expressing their support for Sarah and her family as well as their sense of connection with each other, of our shared humanity even in the workplace.

“I can’t even begin to understand what you and your family must be going through, but what I can do is get involved, show support and help raise awareness.”

“...it has certainly made me more aware of my colleagues and how we can support each other”

“It was with enormous joy that I have read every caring post in this campaign. This is one of those moments when I feel very proud of working here”

Sarah posted a collage on her family's Facebook group “Help Bob Levinson” and keeps thanking people on our platform at work.

“It means so much to keep seeing this sea of pink shirts on Thursdays.”

Yes, it matters

Support matters

The week I wrote the post, wondering if it would make a difference, my 3 year old son broke his arm. We rushed to the emergency room and, after 15 stressful hours, he had surgery. When friends and family found out, they sent me messages of support and best wishes for a successful recovery. They commented on Facebook. And while those messages didn't help Hudson's arm hurt less or heal any faster, they absolutely helped me and my wife. Knowing other people cared made a difference.

When I look at Sarah’s Facebook page, the stories her family shares are so bittersweet. There are wonderful memories coupled with the pain of loss and what might have been. I also see the support from a network of thousands of people. And that matters.

So I wear a pink shirt on Thursdays, sending Sarah my own message that I care and wish her the best. And that I hope her dad is safely home very, very soon.

Learning what diversity really means

"Diversity" growing up in the Bronx

Growing up in an all-Italian neighborhood in The Bronx, my view of diversity was limited to “different degrees of being Italian”. It was the kind of neighborhood where you shopped at salumerias that hung cheeses and meats from the ceiling. Where people made their own wine in the fall and carefully cloaked their olives trees in canvas every winter.

As I became more educated and saw more of the world, my understanding of diversity expanded. Now, decades later, I might finally appreciate what it really means.

Racial diversity

When I was in elementary school, there were no black kids in my class (“African-American” came years later) and very few who weren’t white. If black kids walked into our neighborhood, teenagers would chase them away. And when a neighbor was rumored to be selling his house to a black family, someone set the house on fire.

At 13, when I went to a wonderful high school in Manhattan, I made friends with kids from around the world and we learned that you could and should respect people of any ethnicity. For a long time, that’s what diversity meant to me.

Gender diversity

After college, I started working at Bell Labs, a respectful and ethnically diverse place. And there I was introduced to my first diversity training.

One helpful videotape taught me about the “3-second rule” in which a man shouldn’t touch a woman for more than, well, 3 seconds. A dramatization at another firm showed how it always seemed to be the woman who took notes, opened the conference call, and did other secretarial duties. Though the training sometimes felt forced, the broader message was that you should be mindful of the subtle and not-so-subtle signals of disrespect in the workplace. We learned to treat everyone equally no matter their gender or race, and that was diversity. 

LGBT diversity

More recently, I’ve learned about differences you can’t see. Some of that came from researching what makes for a more humane workplace. And this past year, I became active in our firm’s LGBT community and listened to stories of the challenges people face at work. I was able to take part in events like “Out on the Street” where I could learn more about the issues and what we can do about them.

It seemed clear that diversity really meant being sensitive to what other people might feel. About being respectful of everyone whether you could see their differences or not.

And then, finally...

And then, just this week, my understanding of diversity expanded yet again. I was watching a TED talk filmed in 2003 on the diversity of the world’s indigenous cultures. Wade Davis described how, when most of us were born, there were 6000 languages spoken in our lifetimes but that fully half of those aren't spoken by children and will be extinct within a generation.

“So what?” I thought. “Is that really such a bad thing? Wouldn’t it be simpler if we had fewer differences?”

Simpler, maybe. But poorer. 

In story after story, he described people who were so different from me that just knowing they existed expanded my view of what it means to be human. His talk made me appreciate that it wasn’t just 3000 vocabularies and grammars that were disappearing, but 3000 distinct ways of interacting with the world and each other. “Every language is an old growth forest of the mind,” he said, “a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”  And I came to understand how the extinction of those languages and cultures was, indeed, a loss.

And then he described a choice we have that applies not just to languages and cultures but to all aspects of our lives:

“Do we want to live in a monochromatic world of monotony? Or do we want to embrace the polychromatic world of diversity?

Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, said before she died that her greatest fear was that as we drifted towards this blandly amorphous generic worldview, not only would we see the entire range of human imagination reduced to a more narrow modality of thought but that we’d awake from a dream one day having forgotten that there were even other possibilities.”

I thought about that. About how a desire for simplicity and sameness can blind you to other possibilities. And I started to appreciate that diversity isn’t just about the differences we see in people or the differences in how they feel. It's also about our different languages, food, and environments. Different experiences, values, and world views. The different ways we think

I started to appreciate that diversity means more than not diminishing others. It means being open to all of the many differences in a “polychromatic world” and how that leads to a much, much richer life.

5 lessons for driving change from “The Blue Sweater”

The Blue SweaterEvery once in a while you read a book that changes you. That transcends the author and the original story and holds lessons that you can apply to your own work and life, well beyond the context of the book. “The Blue Sweater” by Jacqueline Novogratz is such a book.

It’s a memoir, recounting the experiences of someone who left international banking to found Acumen, a non-profit that’s “changing the way the world tackles poverty”. But whether you’re changing the world or changing your company, the lessons in the book can help you.

Work in the field

Though she was born and raised in the US, most of Jacqueline’s stories take place in deeply impoverished areas in Kenya, Rwanda, Pakistan, and India. There, she worked with local people to create small businesses. To teach people new skills but also to learn from them.

The way she embraced fieldwork reminded me of Dr. Paul Farmer’s approach in Haiti as described in “Mountains Beyond Mountains” when he said Every patient is a sign. Every patient is a test.”

Her stories are often frustrating, and the work is hard and humbling. She failed often. But Jacqueline’s work with individual women is what gave her a deeper understanding of what could work and what couldn’t. 

Embrace locally-driven change

Some of her early failures stemmed from trying to import ideas and practices that made perfect sense in New York but, in the field, proved to be impractical. It was only when she worked with local people to drive change locally that she had both the necessary knowledge and the social infrastructure to make a sustained difference.

Embracing locally-driven change also meant giving up control. It meant that her projects weren’t about her. She had a vision but learned that “no single source of leadership will make it happen”. So she committed to creating a system that would identify others who could lead and provide support for them.

Take a systems approach

Time and again she learned the solution wasn’t just about money. Or training. Or technology. Or some specific social change.

It was about all of those things. Fighting malaria, for example, wasn’t just about giving away mosquito nets. It was about supporting local manufacturing of nets at a price people could afford so there was a sustainable supply. Making sure the nets were easy to use. Coming up with creative new distribution methods. (I liked the image of Tupperware-style parties where local women talked of the nets as status symbols: “The color is beautiful, and you can hang the nets in your windows so the neighbors know how much you care about your family.” )

To drive change, she learned to tap into all six sources of influence. “It’s not ‘either-or’ but rather ‘both-and’.”

Learn from doing

When she was just beginning Acumen, she had enough funding but was so focused on planning and ensuring things succeeded that she didn’t have enough projects to invest in.

“...we were in a bit of a panic, and a wise CEO of a healthcare company gave me advice I will never forget. ‘Just start,’ he said. ‘Don’t wait for perfection. Just start and let the work teach you. No on expects you to get it right in the very beginning, and you’ll learn more from your mistakes than you will from your early successes anyway. So stop worrying so much and just look at your best bets and go.’”

That didn’t mean she was less careful or meticulous. Just that she learned the importance of  getting feedback from customers early and often while iterating and adapting. That was the best way to learning which solutions would actually be useful.

Leverage other people and networks

Despite her formidable energy, her ideas, her training, and her time in the field, she was still humble enough and wise enough to leverage other organizations. She got help from institutions as diverse as The Rockefeller Foundation and local microfinance organizations. She worked with a wide range of local entrepreneurs.

She didn’t feel the need to always create or control. Instead she searched for groups that were already doing good work. Then she looked for ways to invest in them and connect them so they could scale what they were doing and amplify the benefits.

The gift

When Jacqueline was a young girl, her uncle gave her a blue sweater that she cherished. She wore it all the time until, as a freshman in high school, someone poked fun at her. She insisted on giving it away and her mother and her ceremoniously disposed of it at their local thrift shop.

She didn't think about it again until, more than a decade later, in the streets of Kigali, Rwanda, she saw a skinny young boy wearing her sweater. Incredulous, she ran over to him. Unable to speak a language he understood, she simply grabbed him, turned over the collar, and saw her name on the tag. For Jacqueline, the blue sweater became a symbol of how we are all connected. And that changed the course of her life.

I gave a copy of “The Blue Sweater” to my daughter. I wanted to give her that message of connectedness and, even more so, provide her with Jacqueline’s example of how we can think differently - about change, our definition of success, and what a fulfilling life might look like.

Please steal this idea! (How a bill at work can save money & save lives)

Saving money while making a difference What if you could do the right thing while also doing good? If you had a way for people at work to save money for their firm while contributing a portion of those savings to a good cause?

We’re working on implementing just such an idea. It’s something every firm can do. And maybe the lessons we’re learning can help your firm realize the benefits faster.

The idea: myBill

The idea is to give every employee a personalized bill of what the firm pays for on their behalf - software, hardware, phone bills, etc. - and make it easy for them to eliminate things they no longer need or want. Then they can direct a portion of the savings (say 5%) to one of the firm’s philanthropic efforts.

We had the idea for myBill almost two years ago and first described the problem in a blog post. Here’s a snippet:

“Most cost management energy is usually spent on the approval process. Once an item’s approved, though - whether it’s hardware, software, market data, or even real estate - it’s inherently difficult to know when something’s no longer required unless the employee leaves.

Also, employees often don’t know what’s being charged on their behalf. And, if they do, they don’t have much incentive to give things back (even if they knew how). So, as people move and re-organize, and as needs changes, the waste adds up.”

The bill would let employees quickly remove things they don’t need and point them to low-cost alternatives for the rest. It might even include analytics comparing their costs to those of other employees. And by connecting the bill to our internal social platform, we’d make it easier to spread the word about the possibilities. “John just saved $112 and is helping provide clean drinking water to those without it.”

The barriers: no funding, no resources, no permission

Although you can quickly see your bills at home, you almost never see one at work. Since different resources are managed by different departments, the data about who uses what is locked up inside many different golden sources. And each resource tends to have its own idiosyncrasies. For example, getting a unit cost for a piece of software might be difficult if the firm has enterprise licenses. You may not save anything if you give up 1 unit but you might save a lot on the next contract if you give up 1000.

Discovering these idiosyncrasies is difficult and time-consuming. And so we had trouble building a credible business case and attracting funding.

It’s also hard to connect the bill to philanthropy. It’s much easier for the corporate social responsibility department to give money to a charity than to tie operational benefits to that same charity. That may have more to do with budgets and org charts than policy. But the lack of a convenient precedent means you’ll have to create new processes from scratch. It may not even be clear what approvals you'll need and from whom.

The lessons: how innovation really happens

For a long time after that original blog post, not much happened. We pitched the idea and people liked it but we never got funding.

Then we worked on it anyway. One person, a former Peace Corps member, was passionate enough about the idea to keep pressing. He found two software developers who generously volunteered their time to build a prototype. And he used the “Lean Startup” method to build enough of a product so he could get feedback and some early results.

The first online bill had all sorts of problems. Data quality issues. A lack of automated processes. No unit costs.

But it was enough that people could see what we were trying to do. And when the first few hundred people reviewed their bill, they could share their results with their online network. So now their connections knew about the project, too. myBill went from being an old blog post to being something a lot more people understood, were talking about, and could become a part of.

The lesson was that we should have built the prototype and got feedback much earlier. If we had the chance to do it again, we’d have done less pitching and done more to make the idea real so we could build a tribe around it, share early results, and get noticed sooner.

Now, finally, some of the people talking about myBill are those with the funding to overcome the barriers and make it real across the firm.

What if...

Every company I know is trying to eliminate waste. What if more of them created their own myBill project and scaled the possibilities?

For example, a 100,000-person firm might spend $10 billion on non-payroll expenses. What if we could trim just 0.5% of those expenses by people seeing their full costs and identifying waste? And contributed 5% of the savings to a good cause?

That could mean $47.5 million for the firm and $2.5 million for others. It could mean tens of thousands of employees being as careful with the firm’s money as they are with their own while providing 100,000 people with clean drinking water for life.

Now what if 10 companies did that? 1000 companies? What if,  by simply nudging employees to eliminate waste, we could save millions of lives and be part of something wonderful?

What if you tried to implement myBill at your firm?

The Influencer checklist

InfluencerImagine it’s 1986 and you’re responsible for eradicating the Guinea worm, a parasite that afflicts 3.5 million people across 20 countries, has been around for over 2000 years, and for which there is no vaccine or medical treatment. The only way to stop the worm is to change a few specific behaviors - for everyone. What would you do?

If it’s difficult to change one person’s behavior, even your own, then changing millions seems impossible. Yet, in 2009, there were only 3000 cases of Guinea worm infestation - a reduction of 99.9%.

It turns out the approach used to drive that kind of change - to influence behavior at a large scale - has also been used to help 14,000 felons be successfully employed, to reduce AIDS in Thailand, to improve service quality, and even to lose weight.

And now I’m using it to help people make work more effective and more fulfilling.

6 sources of Influence 

6 sources of Influence

The approach comes from “Influencer” by Kerry Patterson, et al. This remarkable book combines the science of changing individual behavior, techniques for making those changes stick, and stories of global change movements involving thousands of individuals. (In doing so, it complements other great books on change like “The Willpower Instinct”, “Switch”, and “The Dragonfly Effect”.)

If you’re like me, your change efforts focus on raising awareness. Maybe on rewards and even penalties. But “Influencer” describes how to tap into 6 very different sources of influence to change specific “vital behaviors”  (also known as “keystone habits”).

“Motivation and ability comprise the first two domains of our model. We further subdivide these two domains into personal, social, and structural sources. These three sources of influence reflect separate and highly developed literatures - psychology, social psychology, and organization theory. By exploring all three, we ensure that we draw our strategies from the known repertoire of influence techniques.”

They’re very clear that “verbal persuasion rarely works” despite being the most common tool we use. Instead, when it comes to altering behavior, you need to help others answer just two questions: “Will it be worth it?” and “Can I do it?” And, in answering them, you need to examine all three levels.

The checklist

At work, we’re using these 6 sources as a checklist. As we try to help thousands of people work out loud (or print less, or use their own mobile phone, or contribute to any of the  collective efficiency programs we have underway), we keep asking ourselves if we’re tapping into all 6 sources of influence.

Personal motivation: If people don’t find the behavior appealing, how can we get them to try it (or at least have them experience the benefits vicariously) and connect it to other things they value? If someone likes doing it, how can we reinforce the behavior by recognizing their accomplishments and encouraging them to do more?

Personal Ability: How can we make it simpler to start? And how can we provide people with opportunities to practice the behavior and attain achievable goals while giving them immediate feedback on ways to get even better?

Social motivation: Who are influential leaders who can model the vital behavior? And can we identify relevant peer groups who are already behaving in the desired way?

Social ability: How can we develop social ties - e.g., buddy systems, peer support groups, advocate programs -  that can help an individual get better at the vital behavior?

Structural motivation: What are extrinsic rewards we can put in place that are immediate, gratifying, and clearly tied to the vital behavior? (Only consider these rewards after intrinsic motivators and social support are in place.)

Structural ability: How can we change the physical environment to make the vital behavior easier or to eliminate the things that pose a risk to that behavior?

The early results

In using the Influencer approach to help tens of thousands of people change how they work, it’s already helped us narrow our focus. Instead of trying to change a wide variety of activities, we’re focusing on working out loud as a specific vital behavior. And by using the Influencer checklist, we’ve uncovered gaps in our approach, expanded our thinking about how to change behavior, and come up with a wider array of more creative methods.

It’s tempting to think we already know what we’re doing. That our judgment is good enough. Or that we can cherry-pick a select few of the possible influence methods available to us. But “Influencer” repeatedly stresses that successful change agents overdetermine their success by using every influence tool available.

As Atul Gawande showed us in “Checklist Manifesto”, professionals as different as surgeons, pilots, and construction workers all benefit from checklists to make sure they take full advantage of methods already known to work.

Now, as aspiring Influencers, we have our own checklist.

The Influencer checklist

Influencer

Influencer

Imagine it’s 1986 and you’re responsible for eradicating the Guinea worm, a parasite that afflicts 3.5 million people across 20 countries, has been around for over 2000 years, and for which there is no vaccine or medical treatment. The only way to stop the worm is to change a few specific behaviors - for everyone. What would you do?

If it’s difficult to change one person’s behavior, even your own, then changing millions seems impossible. Yet, in 2009, there were only 3000 cases of Guinea worm infestation - a reduction of 99.9%.

It turns out the approach used to drive that kind of change - to influence behavior at a large scale - has also been used to help 14,000 felons be successfully employed, to reduce AIDS in Thailand, to improve service quality, and even to lose weight.

And now I’m using it to help people make work more effective and more fulfilling.

6 sources of Influence 

6 sources of Influence

6 sources of Influence

The approach comes from “Influencer” by Kerry Patterson, et al. This remarkable book combines the science of changing individual behavior, techniques for making those changes stick, and stories of global change movements involving thousands of individuals. (In doing so, it complements other great books on change like “The Willpower Instinct”, “Switch”, and “The Dragonfly Effect”.)

If you’re like me, your change efforts focus on raising awareness. Maybe on rewards and even penalties. But “Influencer” describes how to tap into 6 very different sources of influence to change specific “vital behaviors”  (also known as “keystone habits”).

“Motivation and ability comprise the first two domains of our model. We further subdivide these two domains into personal, social, and structural sources. These three sources of influence reflect separate and highly developed literatures - psychology, social psychology, and organization theory. By exploring all three, we ensure that we draw our strategies from the known repertoire of influence techniques.”

They’re very clear that “verbal persuasion rarely works” despite being the most common tool we use. Instead, when it comes to altering behavior, you need to help others answer just two questions: “Will it be worth it?” and “Can I do it?” And, in answering them, you need to examine all three levels.

The checklist

At work, we’re using these 6 sources as a checklist. As we try to help thousands of people work out loud (or print less, or use their own mobile phone, or contribute to any of the  collective efficiency programs we have underway), we keep asking ourselves if we’re tapping into all 6 sources of influence.

Personal motivation: If people don’t find the behavior appealing, how can we get them to try it (or at least have them experience the benefits vicariously) and connect it to other things they value? If someone likes doing it, how can we reinforce the behavior by recognizing their accomplishments and encouraging them to do more?

Personal Ability: How can we make it simpler to start? And how can we provide people with opportunities to practice the behavior and attain achievable goals while giving them immediate feedback on ways to get even better?

Social motivation: Who are influential leaders who can model the vital behavior? And can we identify relevant peer groups who are already behaving in the desired way?

Social ability: How can we develop social ties - e.g., buddy systems, peer support groups, advocate programs -  that can help an individual get better at the vital behavior?

Structural motivation: What are extrinsic rewards we can put in place that are immediate, gratifying, and clearly tied to the vital behavior? (Only consider these rewards after intrinsic motivators and social support are in place.)

Structural ability: How can we change the physical environment to make the vital behavior easier or to eliminate the things that pose a risk to that behavior?

The early results

In using the Influencer approach to help tens of thousands of people change how they work, it’s already helped us narrow our focus. Instead of trying to change a wide variety of activities, we’re focusing on working out loud as a specific vital behavior. And by using the Influencer checklist, we’ve uncovered gaps in our approach, expanded our thinking about how to change behavior, and come up with a wider array of more creative methods.

It’s tempting to think we already know what we’re doing. That our judgment is good enough. Or that we can cherry-pick a select few of the possible influence methods available to us. But “Influencer” repeatedly stresses that successful change agents overdetermine their success by using every influence tool available.

As Atul Gawande showed us in “Checklist Manifesto”, professionals as different as surgeons, pilots, and construction workers all benefit from checklists to make sure they take full advantage of methods already known to work.

Now, as aspiring Influencers, we have our own checklist.

Fieldwork before frameworks

If you don’t know the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, you should. He’s saving thousands of lives while changing how the world thinks about poverty, about disease, and about what’s possible.

As we try to change how companies work, we can learn a lot from his approach.

“Mountains beyond Mountains”

Paul Farmer grew up in an unconventional, poor family in various parts of the US. Always smart, he wound up graduating from Harvard Medical School and doctoring in two of the most different places on earth - Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts and a hospital he built in Cange, Haiti.

In “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, Tracey Kidder chronicles how Paul Farmer could be in a crowded hut one day caring for a TB patient and in a posh conference hall the next day trying to change World Health Organization policy.

Besides making for fascinating reading, that contrast is instructive.

“Journeys to the sick”

On several occasions, Kidder accompanied Paul Farmer on long hikes to see patients in remote parts of Haiti. Farmer would speak to the family in Creole. He’d observe, listen, and touch - not as a doctor from Harvard with superior knowledge but as a human being who genuinely cares and wants to learn. What are their living conditions? How is the rest of the family? What else is going on in their lives?

By seeing the patients in their own environment, speaking to them in their own language, he can see more than the disease. He can see the entire environment around the disease.

“Every patient is a sign. Every patient is a test.”

But is it “appropriate”?

Not everyone agreed with Paul Farmer’s methods. Should a doctor who could affect worldwide medical policy be spending time seeing individual patients in remote huts? Kidder talked with him about it on the hike back after one of their visits:

“Some people would argue this wasn’t worth a five-hour walk,” he said over his shoulder. “But you can never invest too much in making sure this stuff works.”

“Sure,” I said. “But some people would ask, “How can you expect others to replicate what you’re doing here? What would be your answer to that?”

He turned back and, smiling sweetly, said, “Fuck you.”

It wasn’t that Paul Farmer did’t have better answers. It was that people were asking the wrong questions. You needed the fieldwork to make sure what you were doing was even worth replicating.

He faced similar questions about money, particularly about "appropriate technology." Could Haiti afford to treat AIDS and TB?

“We can spend sixty-eight thousand dollars per TB patient in New York City, but if you start giving watches or radios to patients here, suddenly the international community jumps on you for creating nonsustainable projects.

When “theory outruns practice”

This is the trap we fall into at work. We create strategies and frameworks and lists of “5 most effective ways to...” without enough testing of those ideas in the field. We talk about ROI and antiseptic approaches to the diseases (ineffective work practices) without seeing and touching and understanding the entire environment that’s making the diseases flourish.

“If you focus on individual patients, you can’t get sloppy....In public health projects in difficult locales, theory often outruns practice. Individual patients get forgotten, and what seems like a small problem gets ignored, until it grows large...

...a willingness to do ‘unglamorous work’ is the secret to successful projects.”

If you really want to change your company

Sure, we need frameworks and strategy to scale what we do. But they’re useless if people back in their cubes are working like it’s 1995.

I don’t want to just write about change from a safe distance. I want to actually change things.

And if a genius who’s saved thousands of lives and changed worldwide opinions about disease can spend time with individual patients, so can I. So can everyone who’s trying to change how companies work. Just as entrepreneurs keep testing their product with real customers in real conditions, we need to test our ideas about change in the field.

A close colleague observed that Paul Farmer's visits to patients “refresh his passion and authority, so that he can travel a quarter of a million miles a year and scheme and write about the health of populations. Doctoring is the ultimate source of his power, I think.”

To change how we work. that combination of fieldwork with longer-term, larger-scale thinking is exactly what we need.

What to do in the face of “We tried that and it didn’t work.”

Maybe your original idea wasn’t so great. Or maybe it was.

Often, the failure isn’t a fault with the idea, but with the incentives and feedback mechanisms you implemented.

Maybe you should try again.

The story of “Charity Flights”

A former colleague told me about a great idea he had:

“What if people at work could choose to fly coach instead of business class and a portion of the savings went to a good cause?”

We did some quick arithmetic:

  • Say, on average, that coach is 75% cheaper than business class.
  • Assume 5% of business class travelers opt for the cheaper fare.
  • Split the savings 50/50 between charity and the firm.

In a large firm, the cost of business travel can easily exceed $100 million. So, even if only a small percentage of travelers choose to fly a cheaper class, that could mean $2 million for the firm and $2 million for charity.

That’s enough to give clean drinking water for life (for example) to 80,000 people in just the first year. Or 400,000 people in 5 years.

I was excited. But when I talked to corporate travel experts, they sighed.

“It’s a nice idea. But we tried it before - several times - and it didn’t work.”

3 problems 

I was shocked. Asking people to give up the comfort of business class is no small thing, but I thought doing so 1 of every 20 times was a conservative goal.

Yet the travel administrators had hard evidence I was wrong.

“We did a lot of work to make it happen but nobody chose to fly coach. After a while, we discontinued it for lack of interest.”

The problem wasn’t the travel processes or administration. Or that people were generally donating less. Rather, after carefully reviewing the earlier attempts to implement Charity Flights, we identified 3 main problems:

  1. There wasn't enough reason to care. There wasn’t a strong enough emotional component to the campaign. Instead of focusing on a specific cause, we let employees choose their charity. That diluted the impact and wasn’t enough to compel people to change behavior.
  2. There was too little benefit for the employee. All they had was a brief moment of feeling good about their choice compared to hours of discomfort. There was no recognition of what they did or any way to share their action with others.
  3. There was no feedback. A check was sent to a charity a few weeks later but employees never knew what happened to the money or whether it really made any difference.

A better way

Links to a post on driving enterprise change in a scalable way

All around us, we see so many examples of people giving and driving change. “The Dragonfly Effect” describes numerous case studies and provides an overall framework for programs like Charity Flights. Efforts from Alex’s Lemonade Stand to Kiva to charity:water are all successfully connecting people to drive change.

With Charity Flights, we had a good idea and we failed. But we’ll learn from our failures - and from the successful programs - and we’ll try again.

  • We’ll focus our efforts on just 1 or 2 specific causes so we concentrate our message and have a bigger impact.
  • We’ll tell more stories and use more video so people can feel the need to change.
  • We’ll recognize people’s actions on their corporate profiles and use social platforms to share what they’re doing.
  • We’ll make the impact visible. Employees will visit people and places being helped and record their stories so everyone can see the effects of their actions.

We’ll try again. And we’ll make a difference.

An idea for saving 10,000,000 dollars + 10,000 lives

When you think of social business case studies, you might think about new ways of communicating or supporting customers or generating sales leads. But the range of social business is actually much broader than that.

“What you’re really trying to do is create a culture of network thinking.” (A quote from the very smart Rachel Happe.)

If you do that - if you use a social business lens to take a new look at old problems across your firm - it turns out you can create some wonderful solutions.

Here’s an example.

An age-old problem

Large companies routinely pay for resources that employees no longer need or want. It’s a big but mundane problem that might escape the attention of social business advocates.

Most cost management is usually focused on the approval process. Once an item’s approved, though - whether it’s hardware, software, market data, or even real estate - it’s inherently difficult to know when something’s no longer required unless the employee leaves.

Also, employees often don’t know what’s being charged on their behalf. And, if they do, they don’t have much incentive to give things back (even if they knew how). So, as people move and re-organize, and as needs changes, the waste adds up.

In a company of 100,000 people, just $100 of waste per person adds up to $10 million. Given increasing technology costs, you’ll probably find more than that in your IT department alone.

Applying network thinking

At most firms, all of the data about who uses what is locked up in different golden sources in different divisions. And the traditional approach is to produce reports and have business management-types look for possible cuts.

A better way - a “social business way” - is to let everyone see their own data, crowdsource the quality of that, and provide feedback mechanisms to share what’s working.

Making the data available and easy to change

Getting access to the data is usually the hard part, but the social business platforms are making this easier than ever. Companies like Jive and Tibco ”give your legacy apps a social life” by “exposing data from backend systems.”

With platforms like these, employees already have a rich profile with data from HR and other systems. And this is a perfect place to display an employee’s personalized bill - all the resources the firm is paying for on their behalf - along with ways to communicate a change to the right service provider.

Making people care

Even if everyone knew their costs, though, they'd need to have a reason to look at their bill and change it.

How would you make them care?

The Dragonfly Effect” offers useful examples. (It also provides a great framework for driving enterprise change in a scalable way.)

It demonstrates how to engage people by “creating a personal connection, accessing higher emotions through deep empathy, authenticity, and telling a story. Engaging is about empowering an audience enough to want to do something themselves.”

Saving money for your big corporation might not inspire you. But what if, for example, a percentage of those savings went to providing clean water to people who don’t have it?

Organizations like WaterAid can give someone clean water for as little as $25. What if you knew that by simply reviewing your bill that you could transform a life? Or several lives?

Sharing the change

Now comes the social part: connecting people across the firm with the people they’re helping and with each other.

Whenever you talk about bills and resources, you show the video of a village turning on the tap for the first time, talking about the difference water makes. Not just statistics, but real people in real places.

And whenever you’re promoting the impact your initiative is having, you talk about the teams in the firm who are making a difference so they can inspire others to do the same.

It’s those stories and those connections - those virtuous feedback loops - that turn a good idea into a movement.

They can take a common business problem in a big firm and turn it into something that can change lives. A movement with real commercial benefits that employees can genuinely care about and want to be a part of.

That’s the power and the possibility of social business.