Have you ever been to a meeting like any of these?
- A huge inclusive planning event. Lots of voices heard. Great conversations. Fine ideas. The meeting ends… and then nothing happens.
- A town hall or all-hands meeting where the audience was never asked for their opinion or ideas. At most, there was some time allotted to Q&A. (Just to be clear, those in charge had the answers. The audience had the questions.)
- I’ll add one more that I hope you never have to experience. A large organization spent eighteen months planning a big meeting just to introduce the idea of what change management was all about. They tried out guest speakers. (I didn’t make the cut.) They decided to turn part of that event into something that looked like a television news interview program. “So, what’s all this talk about change management? Let’s get real!” That sort of thing. As far as I could see, the event had no relation to any particular project or new thrust in how the organization would engage people—and it certainly had no sense of urgency.
Consider the Wisdom of a Guy, a Spotlight, and a Broom
When I was a kid, my parents took me to see the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. My dad said that this was the last year they were going to be performing in tents, and he wanted me to experience that. The following season, the circus performed only in large indoor arenas.
Imagine an enormous tent with three rings—and a wide-eyed ten-year-old trying to take it all in. Acts moved in and out of the rings, so there was always something happening somewhere. Often, all three rings were filled with jugglers, trapeze artists, wild animal acts, or clowns. Well, it was literally a three-ring circus! And it seemed like the circus band played almost constantly. I was enthralled and then kinda overwhelmed. Lots of things were vying to grab my attention.
And then something happened. All three rings were empty – and no music. There was nothing going on.
A sad-looking clown walked out into the center ring carrying a broom. There was a spotlight shining down on the sawdust floor. His purpose was to find a way to get rid of that light shining on the floor. Sometimes he could move it with the broom. Sometimes he could make it smaller, but until the final moments of his routine, he was unable make the spotlight disappear.
He didn’t juggle. He didn’t tame wild animals. He didn’t dance. He didn’t ride an elephant. All he did was try to sweep up that spotlight with a broom. And he held the attention of this rather hyper ten-year-old the entire time.
And, decades later, what I remember vividly about that night was that clown. His name was Emmett Kelly. (You can see versions of that performance on YouTube. Just search on his name.)
I think we all could learn from Emmett Kelly. (You knew I was going to try to tie this story to our work, didn’t you?)
Too often, I have attended events in organizations where there was just too much going on. And it was hard to tell what we were supposed to be paying attention to. Lots of good stuff, or potentially good stuff, but it was overwhelming.
I’ll give you a personal example. When my book Beyond the Wall of Resistance was published in 1996, I was invited to make a sixty-minute presentation at a human resources conference. I was excited. I was going to relate ideas that I had come up with to people who probably shared some similar values.
At the end of my presentation, a guy walked up to the stage and asked if he could give me some feedback. (By the way, when someone asks if they can give you feedback, they are never planning on giving you a compliment.) Of course, I said yes. It turned out that his feedback was invaluable.
He said that he thought I probably had good things to say, but since I covered so much in that hour, he got lost and then distracted. I had been thinking that this might be the only time I would ever meet these folks, so I wanted to give them every major point in my new book. Really, that is what I was thinking.
He went on to say that he would have found it more helpful to hear just one or two things that I thought might be useful for that audience.
I try to remember his advice whenever someone invites me to give a presentation. And I do my best to imagine that Emmett Kelly is advising me on what to include and what to leave for another day.
I’d love to hear what you do to keep everyone’s focus on the spotlight and the broom. Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below. Thanks.
February 8, 2022 at 7:54 pm
That is true, giving too much information, although good information, may get people lost and disinterested. We need to focus, as you said on one or two simple things that we want the audience to always remember, as you remembered the clown.
As for change management I recently ran into an article talking about a book titled ” You CAN Change Other People” , authored by Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson, arguing that there are four steps to helping people change and reach their goals. I actually did not read the book, but read a summary of those four steps and was convinced that these steps can be applied at the organization level for change management.
The basic premise is that people don’t resist change, they resist being changed. We change all the time, in small and large ways, when we want to change. But if we feel that someone else is trying to impose their will on us, we’ll resist in order to maintain control over our lives.
I’m planning to get this book and read it whenever I get a spare time.
February 9, 2022 at 8:04 am
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don’t know that book, but I do agree with the statement that people don’t resist change, they resist being changed.
The Paradoxical Theory of Change is a short article written by psychologist Arnold Beisser. He argues that same point and suggests that when we to help or get other people to change, we come up against a paradox. That paradox is that people only change when they are fully aware of the current situation. Many projects in organizations ignore or rush past this vital part of change. John Kotter wrote that people needed to feel a “sense of urgency.” Even though Beisser was writing about individuals, he speculated that this same phenomenon was probably true in larger social systems as well. In other words, organizational change.
If you do read Bregman and Jacobson’s book, I’d love to hear what you think, and if you recommend it.
February 9, 2022 at 8:48 am
Very true, we often overwhelm with good intention and lose the effect we wanted to make.
February 9, 2022 at 9:26 am
A fine post Rick. Emmett Kelly was a master, one of, if not, the best clown ever. I enjoyed watching the act again on YouTube and a bit jealous that you saw it (and felt it) in person. I think Kelly and some of us are successful when we narrow our message or performance down to the spotlight and engage others with humor and emotion. The workplace is far too quick to gloss over difficulties, setbacks, and papercuts. I can’t stand the mega webinars with 3 full days of jam packed information you can use! In my mind, that should be swept away and give me one genuine heartfelt message that embraces a bit of humor and a truck load of caring. To make up a stupid line on the spot as I write this comment: Caring is the New Content.
February 9, 2022 at 9:34 am
David, thanks. I agree about Emmett Kelly. I auditioned to become a clown with Ringling Brothers, was accepted to their new clown college (I loved that name) and, assuming I could make it through the training, would have gone on the road with them for a season. I ended up turning it down due to a severe illness in my family and other reasons. But, if he had still been performing at that time, I still would have ha to turn down the offer, but I probably would live with a lot of “what if?” regrets.
I agree with you about the “megawatt webinars”. They leave me drained and unfulfilled. Actually I like your Caring is the New Content line. And good to hear from you as well. – Rick
February 9, 2022 at 11:27 am
Rick — try Daniel Pink’s new book on regrets. Very interesting and insightful for moving forward. Just came out last week.
Is that where you developed your love for trombone, at the circus? Cool.
February 9, 2022 at 11:34 am
Jim – Thanks for the recommendation.
My love of trombone came when I realized that I was never going to be a very good trumpet player (I couldn’t play high notes consistently.) I switched to lower brass which use much larger mouthpieces and suddenly I could play things I couldn’t even hope to touch on trumpet. But even today, I play a valve trombone and not a slide, so I keep the trumpet heritage alive.
February 9, 2022 at 11:59 am
Really important to know what your are communicating and then deciding the best way. If all of the words, images and meanings are chunked up into ”Chat” that includes… how are the wife and kids… knock knock who is there… right the way through to the Information that helps colleagues understand what a good job is, then the way to exchange and deliver information is more considered.
Bill Critchley of Ashridge described organisation ”blocks” to progress, that were created by where the ”colleagues in the Change” were investing their thinking energy. By listening to the organisations voice you start to understand what these constraints to progress are and you then unblock issues like… awareness, fear, poor communication, leadership black spots, no trust, this is the same as …. by interventions ”ahead of the time for change” using a gestalt model.
Town Hall meetings or any other big message cascades, through any medium or zoom are likely to fail if the organisation has not tuned into its ”peoples agenda” and unblocked for progress. I once heard a boss down message through the layers of the organisation described as Managers standing on a hill with a watering can of messages believing that all the workforce below would be covered in a light mist of relevant information. The key question for any download process is … how can I connect with the thinkboxes of the colleagues that we are engaging.
Why did we laugh at the Clown ? Well we didn’t really, because the Clown with the broom did something that we were not expecting and we laughed at how daft we were ? Smiles RUS
February 9, 2022 at 12:29 pm
Thanks for your comments.
I like the thought of “listening energy.” These days I tend to talk more about energy that works for or against a change, rather than using the terms support and resistance as often. People are responding well to that. . . .and I love the watering can analogy where people are “covered with a mist of relevant information.” That’s a terrific image.
And I laughed at Emmett Kelly because it was funny. But by the time I had reached grad school I probably would have messed up that good laugh with terms like existential dread and futility.
February 10, 2022 at 8:33 am
It remebers me of a challenge/potential I booth need and want to work on. I Hope this new mantra will help me: “broom, spotlight, enough” :)
Thank you Rick and I really love the humorous way you get your messages across. Unique.
February 10, 2022 at 9:06 am
I love your new mantra. I might use it myself. Broom, spotlight, enough!
And I am glad you like my way of trying to get messages across.