What I Learned from Being Heckled at a Keynote Presentation
Every person who has ever had a job has experienced at least one "moment of truth" in their life -- a time when all the chips were on the table and the decision of whether to go "all in" or not had to be made.
One such moment happened to me a few years ago when I was facilitating a creative thinking session for 110 of Lucent Technology's "best and brightest" -- a room full of brilliant computer scientists with more PhDs than most politicians have excuses.
There I was, on stage, introducing the day with a slide show of quotes from legendary innovators, when a man in the 10th row stands up and screams, "You are totally wrong! I used to work with that guy and he never would have said anything like that! If you can't get your quotes right, why should I believe anything you're about to tell us?"
If this was the Wild West, I had just been challenged to a duel at High Noon, armed only with a remote and a blueberry muffin.
Standing as I was in the epicenter of the optic fiber universe, I had only a nanosecond to assess the situation. There was no time for a strategic plan, no time for deliberation, no time to call my coach. This was Defcon 7, me face-to-face with one very angry man.
"Well..." I began (stalling for as much time as a single word would allow), "it is possible that you're right. The slides I'm showing today were just finalized yesterday and my assistant may have made an incorrect attribution. I will check with her when I get back to the office. That being said, I invite you to focus on the good stuff that's here for you today, not the possible flaws."
Logical? Yes. Effective? No. My comments only made him angrier, his face growing redder by the moment.
I now had a choice to make -- whether to further engage my corporate heckler in a heroic attempt to win him over or continue with the reason why I'd been hired in the first place -- to help seriously left-brained scientists tap into their lesser-used right brain.
Choosing the latter, I proceeded to teach a powerful mind-opening technique based on the thinking styles of Albert Einstein and Garry Kasparov (a former Soviet Union Grand Chess Master).
Technique taught, I walked to the side of the stage and observed.
For the next five minutes, everything went smoothly. Everyone in the audience was focused and doing the work.
Then, without warning, Mr. You-Got-Your-Slides-All-Wrong stood up and, with great velocity, began approaching the stage. On a scale of 1-10, with "1" being walking and "10" being storming, he was a 9.8.
The faster he walked, the quieter the room got as I took my stance and readied myself for whatever was next.
Two feet from me, my fast approaching inquisitor stopped dead in his tracks, looked at me fiercely, eyes on fire, and exclaimed, "This is amazing!"
"What is amazing?" I replied.
"The technique you taught," he said. "I just had an incredible breakthrough about a problem I've been struggling with for years."
Happy for him and greatly relieved, I asked if he'd like to share his breakthrough with the group -- a task that would require the two of us to change roles for a few minutes, him taking center stage as teacher, me taking his seat, as student.
Which is exactly what we did.
The man was on a roll, inspired, lucid, and highly expressive. I couldn't have asked for a better spokesperson to convey the message I was trying to communicate that day -- a message about the innate ability all people have to go beyond their limiting assumptions and tap into a realm where breakthrough insights abide.
The dramatic and very visible shift my "heckler" had made from left-brained naysayer to right-brained savant was the embodiment of a teaching I couldn't have scripted in a hundred years. This had never been about me putting this man in his place or him putting me in mine. It was about changing places and seeing the world and ourselves through new eyes.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
None of us know when the moment of truth will come. None of us know what it will look like and how we will respond.
But we do know this: If we are awake and engaged in our work, it will come. There is no escape. The more we are already "all in", the easier it will be for us to respond to whatever comes our way. The more we are able to flex to the moment and make wise choices that serve the greater good, the more powerful the outcomes will be.
My moment of confrontation, at Lucent, did not allow me the luxury of deep deliberation. I had to trust myself, be in the moment, and go with the flow. But even more than that, I had to be willing to reframe what seemed to be a problem into an opportunity. I had to make lemonade out of lemons, on the spot, and not squirt anything in the eyes of the people I was there to serve.
My task was not to find fault with the fault finder (an easy thing to do), but to transform the moment into deeper understanding.
On the front lines of business, it is extremely easy to find fault in others. Even on a good day, most of us are woefully imperfect -- filled with a lifetime's worth of quirks, projections, fears, habits, and routines -- the kind of stuff that bugs even our closest friends. Throw in the X factor of stress, heavy workloads, and constantly changing priorities and you have a formula for... well... major heckling.
Your mission, should you choose to accept this assignment, is not to take it personally.
The person who is heckling you (at work, on the street, or in your home) is most likely having a bad day, week, month, quarter, year, or life. If Jesus, himself, was to make a sudden appearance, your heckler would probably find fault with his hair, clothes, or accent.
If you react with the same negativity that is coming your way, all you'll end up doing is throwing fuel on the fire. If you hate being judged, but then judge the judgers for judging, you will only end up in a fun house hall of mirrors with no exit.
PS: At lunch, after the high drama Lucent session, my client informed me of three things: 1) The man who heckled me does the same thing to every outside speaker no matter how much coaching he's received; 2) The exchange between the heckler and me was the perfect embodiment of one of Lucent's core values at the time -- allowing creative dissonance -- a value they had been trying, unsuccessfully, to embed it their culture for years and; 3) As a result of the positive impact my session had, Lucent was going to license my company's creative thinking training. Lemons hadn't just turned into lemonade, they turned into some major cash flow, too.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: Think of a moment of truth you've had in the past year -- a surprise encounter that demanded an intuitive, in-the-moment response from you. What was that like for you? What did you do? What did you learn from the experience? And if, perchance, you did not respond in a way that worked, what might you do differently next time?
February 27, 2016
The story above is excerpted from my forthcoming book: WISDOM AT WORK: How Moments of Truth on the Job Reveal the Real Business of Life
If You Want to Create Breakthrough Products, Get Meaningful Feedback Early in the Game
Most Fortune 500 companies have some kind of corporate strategy in place for ratcheting up their innovation efforts. Consultants are hired. CEOs give pep talks. And internal initiatives are launched.
To the casual observer, it all looks good, but few of these initiatives ever amount to anything In fact, research indicates that 70 percent of all change initiatives fail.
Why such a low percentage? It depends on who you ask. Senior leaders see it as a workforce issue. The workforce sees it as a senior leader issue. Consultants see it as an issue their company is best suited to resolve. And the occasional in-house astrologer sees it as a Gemini in Pluto issue. Bottom line, nobody really knows.
Here's how I see it: one of the biggest (and least addressed) reasons why most change initiatives fail can be traced back to the cro-magnon way most innovation-seeking people give and receive feedback -- especially when it comes to pitching high concept ideas.
Case in point: Some years ago, Lucent Technologies asked me to facilitate a daylong "Products of the Future" ideation session for 75 of their best and brightest. The pay was good. The challenge was compelling. And I was going to have carte blanche to design the session just the way I wanted.
Or so I thought.
The woman who had contacted me, I quickly found out, reported directly to the CEO. So far, so good. And her concept of the session was spot on -- that the CEO and his Direct Reports (a new rock band?), would make an appearance at the end of the day to listen to five BIG IDEA pitches and then give their feedback, real-time.
Theoretically, this made perfect sense. But theory and reality are two very different things -- kind of like the difference between asking your teenage daughter to clean up her room and her actually doing it.
The harsh reality is this: The vast majority of Senior Leaders are not very skillful when it comes to giving feedback -- especially in response to ideas that challenge the status quo. "Feedback," for them, has become code for "With all due respect, let me tell you why your idea sucks".
As a facilitator of high profile brainstorming sessions, I cannot, in good faith, allow this all-too-predictable dynamic to play itself out. Not only will potentially profound ideas be prematurely dismissed, the hard-working, brilliant people who have spent all day generating and developing these ideas will become royally pissed, disempowered, humiliated, passive/aggressive, and depressed. The result? Very few of them will want to participate in future sessions.
So I told the consultant-seeking woman from Lucent that I, in service to the outcomes she was about to hire me to ensure, needed to meet with her CEO so I could teach him and his team how to give effective, humane feedback to a roomful of 75 future product generating optic fiber geniuses.
"Impossible!" was her response. "Our CEO is very busy man -- and besides... he doesn't like consultants."
"Got it," I said, quickly assessing my options. "And thank you, so much, for your kind invitation to facilitate the session, but I must respectfully decline" -- and, with that, I began packing up my briefcase.
This, shall we say, caught her slightly off guard. "I... don't understand where you are going with this," she replied.
"Look," I said. "If you want to get meaninful results from an all-day brainstorming session, especially if you are flying people in from who knows where, we've got to be absolutely sure that the feedback at the end of the day is done well. I am not going to walk 75 of your best and brightest people off the plank."
I could tell that my unexpected feedback was registering. "OK, OK...but the best I can do is get you five minutes with him during the coffee break just before the report outs".
"Great," I said. "I'll take it."
Fast forward two months.
From 8:30 am -- 3:00 pm, 75 of Lucent's most brilliant technologists conjured up products that made my head spin. The room was abuzz with glorious possibilities. The sense of accomplishment was palpable. At 2:45 they selected five of their best ideas and summarized them on flipcharts. At 3:00, it was time for coffee and sugar, me craning my head for the CEO and his merry band of direct reports.
I envisioned him to be a tall man, silver-haired, with a large Rolex and a steely look in his eyes -- someone who might be good friends with the Governor and eventually have his portrait hanging in the lobby at headquarters. He was, much to my surprise about 5'6", wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, loafers, and no socks. My kind of guy.
"Rich," I began, extending my hand. "Welcome, Mitch Ditkoff here from Idea Champions, facilitator of today's extraordinary ideation session, "how would you like to learn a simple technique in the next five minutes that will not only take all the dread out of giving feedback, but spark some seriously powerful idea development on the spot?"
He looked at me as if I'd just given him the holy grail. "You're on!"
"Great. Here's how it works," I began. "When an idea is pitched, first say what you LIKE about it -- the upside, what's promising. After a few genuine likes, then express your CONCERNS -- the stuff you probably wanted to say in the first place. But for each concern you express, it will be your responsibility to follow it with a SUGGESTION, a way that would resolve your concern and keep the idea alive Got it?"
"Oh... one more thing, Rich. If you forget to use the method, do I have your permission to remind you?"
The senior team took their place on stage, sitting behind a table, draped in black, that reminded me of the Nuremberg Trials. The 75 brilliant brainstormers took their seats at round tables -- everyone attentively listening to me describe the feedback process that was just about to unfold.
The first BIG IDEA pitch was excellent -- a compelling idea for a telecommunications platform of the future that was utterly mind blowing. The audience applauded, I acknowledged the presenter, and then gave the floor to the CEO, reminding him to use the feedback technique I'd taught him just a few minutes ago -- which he proceeded to do for, oh, maybe 30 seconds or so.
After that? It was Apocalyse Now meets The Godfather, with a little Don Rickles in Vegas thrown in for good measure, a scene I'd witnessed countless times before in corporate America -- the kneejerk, reptilian-brained, go-for-the-jugular tendency most senior executives have to focus on what's wrong with a new idea before what's right.
Speaking into the mic in my best baritone imitation of the Wizard of Oz, I quickly intervened.
"Oh Mr. CEO of a very large and profitable telecommunications company. Remember the LCS technique! First your LIKES, then your CONCERNS, then your SUGGESTIONS."
In an optic fiber nanosecond, he sheepishly smiled, thanked me for the reminder, and returned to the technique.
The rest of the session went off without a hitch. Five powerful ideas got pitched. Seven of Lucent's top executives weighed in with insight, honesty, and graciousness. And 75 aspiring innovators experienced something they had probably never experienced before -- that it was possible to spend all day brainstorming "out there" possibilities and get the kind of feedback from senior leadership that was honorable, empowering, easy-to-listen to, and immediately helpful.
SO WHAT? Ever hear the phrase "ideas are a dime a dozen." Of course you have. It's one of the classic truisms we were all brought up to believe. That old saw, however, is less about ideas being inconsequential, than it is about people not knowing how to elicit their value. Granted, not every idea is worth developing, but far too many good ones are lost along the way because the person to whom the idea is pitched is blinded by their own knee jerk reactions.
The literature is filled with examples of great ideas whose value was not immediately recognized. The steam engine. The MacIntosh. FedEx. And the Post-It Note just to name a few. All of them were pitched to the "powers-that-be" and all were victims of knee jerk, naysaying, idea killing behavior. Yes, it's true, many senior leaders beat the drums for "out of the box thinking". But when push comes to shove, as it often does, their drumming is more like fingernails on the edge of an office desk than a conga player with fire in his eyes. So let's give our senior leaders what they need to make the shift from theory to practice -- and that is a simple method for them to respond to new and untested ideas in a way that increases the odds of innovation actually happening.
NOW WHAT? Think about your style of responding to new ideas. Do you listen? Do you pause long enough to see the seed of innovation? Do you give meaningful feedback in a humane way? And what about your organization? Do people know how to give and receive feedback? Do they take the time? Does the process increase the odds of innovation becoming a reality? If not, what can you about it this week to turn things around?April 26, 2014
If You Need Graphic Design Help
Here is a 3-minute animation by my 19-year old son, Jesse Ditkoff. He is an aspiring digital artist, attending Hampshire College. He is available this summer for graphic design projects, photoshop, etc.June 24, 2012
The Social Media Revolution Revelation December 25, 2011
Merry i-Christmas from the Heart of Innovation! December 19, 2009
A Peek Into the Future
OK. Go get a cup of tea, coffee, wine, goat milk, brandy, or whatever your favorite libation is and watch this 5-minute video shown at Sony's Rome conference last year. It's a very mind-opening peek into the present... and the future. The implications? Something for you to noodle on...
Thanks to Alan Roettinger for the link.November 17, 2009
The Top 100 Learning Tools of 2009
Jane surveyed 278 top learning professionals to generate this list, so a good deal of thought and consensus has gone into it. Some of these tools you already know about. Some you don't.September 16, 2009
If You Printed the Internet...
Other cool factoids about the internet.
Thanks to Jane's E-Learning for the heads up.