In this series on leveraging group interactions to mold relationships and culture, we actively inject ourselves into group dynamics. We do so subtly.

Previously, I discussed activities after and before the interactions. They are the bookends for the activities while the meetings, presentations and functions are happening. This post combines everything into a complete strategy.

Figure #1 is the complete picture. Group interactions position themes. In subsequent individual interactions we reinforce them. We repeat. We reiterate. Repetition is fundamental to change. It’s not only about having people do again. It’s about having them think again.

Group Interactions Complete Strategy

Figure #1: Group interactions serve to position individual interactions which then serve to reinforce.

After group interactions, individual interactions follow. We work it into our everyday business activities. Planning the themes are important. Planning how we would present to each in individual discussions is too. Yes, extra time, but we work relationships smarter not harder. These activities contain the keywords and phrases of the change we emphasize.

Consequently, the strategy is very dynamic. There are many moving aspects. They require us weaving them together. Our themes, our keywords and phrases do this. Our relationships with each person determines the strength of that weave.

Figure #2 inverts Figure #1. The purposes of group and individual interactions reverse. Individual ones position and groups reinforce. While each group interaction positions themes, it also allows us to reinforce the individual interactions we have.

Figure #2: Individual interactions can position group interactions which serve to reinforce.

Figure #2: Individual interactions can position group interactions which then serve to reinforce.

Even though I’ve segregated the two views, every group and individual interaction will simultaneously give us positioning and reinforcing opportunities. Thus, the strategy is very synergistic.

Each interaction, whether group or individual, reinforces the previous one and positions the next. Our interactions are no longer segregated points in time. They are a continuous flow.

To this point, I’ve emphasized our themes, keywords and phrases – the subject matter. Relationships are key here too. In this sense, subject matter is the excuse for us to strengthen relationships. Face time’s power is real.

From this perspective then, in many interactions the subject matter will be secondary. Molding relationships will be primary. This series contains activities for molding relationships in groups. The series, Leveraging Relationships in Communications, has corresponding activities for individuals.

This strategy is extremely effective. It puts the practitioner in great position to effect change.


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Finding Right Problem to Solve

By Mike Lehr
Working the Right Problem

Finding and working the right problem is often a problem.

Solving problems is like painting. Prepping is ninety percent. That means ensuring we’re solving the right problem. It’s a common problem.

As example, a call center supported software for sales people. The sales people were giving them poor reviews. Supervisors listened to calls. Support representatives answered questions well. Supervisors were puzzled. However, representatives were answering the right questions to the wrong problems. They weren’t qualifying sales people’s questions to ensure they were asking the right questions.

Writing down the problem helps to find the right one. In “Are You Solving the Right Problem?” (Harvard Business Review, September 2012 edition) Dwayne Spradlin outlines steps suitable for large teams and complex problems. Step 4 is “Write the Problem Statement.” He also gives three examples of “The Power of Defining the Problem.”

Trimming Spradlin’s approach to fit small teams and individuals, it’s similar to planning’s benefits. It’s the process not the outcome that helps us. In finding the right problem, it’s important to:

Surrounding these are our biases. They encourage us to view problems in ways comfortable to us. We make them fit our experience, expertise, budgets, schedules, understanding and many others.

There are eight generalized biases influencing our perspectives too. They encourage us to view problems in ways we can easily understand, accept and resolve. As a result, we’ll end up tackling the easy but wrong problem.

Problems are also like crime scenes. They need enough scope to contain the information and give the perspective we need. Our need for security often as certainty, clarity and simplicity will emotionally trigger us to overemphasize statistics. Expanding our scope means searching and analyzing different types of information, not just the quantifiable.

Details help here. A glass filled with sand looks full. Diving deeper, gaps appear among the sand particles, more spaces to fill. Analogously, they are the gaps hard data leaves to intangible factors. It also means challenging definitions, demanding more specificity and applicability.

Yes, this is work and difficulty, naturally deterring us. This can’t deter us from the right problem though. If it does, paint will peel, and we’ll soon be painting again.

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Assessing personalities is essential to business. It’s essential to leadership. Leading people without assessing culture and personalities is like going into battle without assessing terrain. It’s like buying clothes for people without knowing them. Understanding extroversion and introversion is a stepping stone.

We primarily look at extroversion-introversion within a social context though. Extroverts like to be around people. Introverts like to be alone. If correct, introverts should thrive in solitary confinement. They don’t. Relationships with others are key indicators of happiness. Good relationships make us all happy.

Extroverts and introverts enjoy people differently though. For example, when it comes to networking, extroverts tend to have more conversations than introverts. Introverts tend to have longer and deeper ones. Still, this social context is limiting. How would extroverts and introverts differ when cooking or mowing the lawn? When completing various business tasks?

Extroverts and Introverts

Extroverts derive energy from outside. Introverts from inside.

There are many views. My view isn’t original. It has helped me much though. People’s energy sources are its focus. Extroverts derive energy from outside. Introverts from inside.

A simple, non-social assessment typically performed on toddlers illustrates this. Roll a ball away from a child. If he chases it, he’s likely extroverted. If he just stares at it, he’s likely introverted.

As adults, the first might conquer a mountain. The second might master its essence. The first might do this by climbing it or building on it. The second might do this by learning its geology or its cultural impact. Both make the mountain part of their worlds. For the extrovert it’s outside. For the introvert inside.

In negative extremes, extroverts are shallow, introverts impractical. Extroverts might be too busy acquiring things to appreciate their value. Introverts might be too busy appreciating those things to act. Results are more important than process to extroverts, introverts the reverse.

This still falls into the trap most personality assessments do. They look at extroverts and introverts as a zero-sum game. The more we are one, the less we are the other. In reality, these attributes vary with circumstances and moods.

Extroverts and introverts live in us all. They show themselves depending on what we do and how we feel.


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Previously in this series I dealt with the aftermath of group interactions. Here I deal with the advance work. Typically, we think of preparing and sending agendas. It’s also about relationships.

Relational advance work will make meetings, presentations, and functions better. It helps mold relationships and culture too. It’s similar to the advance work political campaigns, military forces and concert tours do prior to rallies, attacks and events.

For example, as a trainer for a prior employer, I would call select participants prior to my visit. I would say things like, “I’m looking forward to seeing you,” and “I’m counting on you to help me make this a good program.” I would also ask, “What should I highlight?” or “What’s going on out there that I should know?”

For meetings, the advance work is similar: connecting beforehand and encouraging conversation:

  • Alice, do you remember that question you asked me last week? I would appreciate you helping me out by asking it at the meeting tomorrow. I believe it’s on others’ minds too.
  • Nathan, for the meeting tomorrow, is there anything you would like me to emphasize? Would you mind me asking you to share your experience on that?
  • Meagan, that’s a good point. Do you mind if I reference you when I discuss it at our meeting?
  • Julian, I’m counting on you to help me make the upcoming meeting a good one.
Relational advance work will make meetings, presentations, and functions better. It helps mold relationships and culture too.

Individual interactions position the group one and generate buzz it. The group interaction reinforces individual ones.

In the meeting, we reinforce the individual interactions:

  • Alice asked me a great question last week regarding . . .
  • Something Nathan thought was important that I cover is . . .
  • In our conversation yesterday, Megan thought this would help by . . .
  • Thank you, Julian, for helping to get things started with your question.

As the accompanying schematic shows, individual interactions position the group one. The group interaction reinforces individual ones. Individual interactions generate buzz for the group one. It’s the reverse of the schematic in the aftermath post.

Political and musical advance teams do the same for rallies and concerts. Warm-up acts for major musical and comedic acts do too. Why won’t advance work help us as leaders and managers?


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Storytelling in business valuations brings definitiveness to the arbitrariness of value.

Storytelling in business valuations brings definitiveness to the arbitrariness of value.

I’ve written much about storytelling’s importance. Yet, I was surprised when I attended a business valuation seminar by Skoda Minotti CPA’s, Business & Financial Advisors. One of the presenters, Robert Ranallo, who frequently serves as a court-appointed attorney in the resolution of complex commercial disputes and business valuation matters, unexpectedly emphasized storytelling’s importance in response to a question I had.

Business valuations fascinate me. Value is so arbitrary. They exemplify the tremendous effort we’re willing to give definitiveness to this arbitrariness.

My question to Ranallo dealt with business valuation disputes in court, “It seems that the process of deriving the value has more importance than the actual number itself. Does it?” He replied, “Yes, it’s the process but the story you tell around it is important too.”

He gave this context. The process is often too complex to explain effectively in court. Moreover, if both valuators are competent, distinguishing processes is difficult. Even identical processes could produce different values. Their underlying assumptions differ. These assumptions generate different numbers for the process.

Already, even this simple context does not remove complexity. The story becomes the cement holding the pieces together. Rather than see many scattered bricks, we see a single construction. Storytelling overshadows complexity.

Business valuations exist at the intersection of the arbitrariness of value and the definitiveness of law. Emotionally, we crave definitiveness. It’s a security blanket. We will force definitiveness upon arbitrariness even if the fit isn’t good.

In high school, we had to show our work behind math answers. The answer alone only received half credit. Showing our work is telling the story behind our answer. Business valuations are much the same way. We can’t go into court with just a value. We need to show our work.

Yet, they also differ. Mathematics often has definitive answers. Business valuations don’t. They vary with assumptions. We need stories to justify our assumptions, to make them real. They show that our assumptions are not just figments of imagination.

Perhaps, storytelling’s importance in business valuations is proving fiction’s practical power. Stories explain our assumptions. Assumptions are professional speak for imagination. Yes, excellent fiction makes it easy to believe imaginations are real.


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Trying new behaviors is change

Many times we need to help ourselves to change.

My series Change Management Tactics based on the article, The Hot Spotters, by Atul Gawande (The New Yorker, January 24, 2011 edition), assumes managers guide the process. Greger Wikstand (more), a Capgemini consultant, asked about best way to try new behaviors on his own.

Greger points out, “In the heat of the moment I keep forgetting to try.” A change of behavior often includes a change of thinking. Our minds though don’t always catch up to our intentions especially when confronting engrained habits within time constraints.

When we fail to change, we often overlook two things when we try new behaviors:

  1. Setting realistic expectations
  2. Breaking change into small steps

Studies of work, exercise or diets generally indicate it takes two to four weeks to make a behavioral change a new habit. Our bodies usually need three weeks to adapt to new environments. Change doesn’t happen overnight. We shouldn’t expect it.

We also tend to “bite off more than we can chew.” Often there are five to ten smaller changes required to make our intended change. For example, writing things down on a task list facilitates change. Simply writing, “If _____ happens, I will do _____,” helps. However, if we’re not normally doing that, it’s change too.

Combining realistic expectations with small steps, we avoid “all or nothing” attitudes. We want progress. For example, in the heat of the moment, we forget. We lost. Here’s the better question: In the last ten opportunities, how many times were we successful? Twenty percent is far better than the prior state of zero percent. It’s progress.

Another perspective asks: If we didn’t perform the change, did we realize that shortly thereafter? Raising awareness is change. It’s also another small step. How many times over the last ten opportunities were we immediately aware afterwards that we missed an opportunity?

Yes, this means documenting and measuring. When the change becomes habit, we can stop measuring. Feeling progress though encourages change. We won’t see progress if we’re not looking for it. If we don’t see progress, we won’t continue to try new behaviors.

In short, the best way to try new behaviors is to make it a game. Winning is progress.


Part 2 of Best Way to Try New Behaviors dives into a daily approach. It supplements the expectations and strategy covered here.

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Science’s Subjective Birth

By Mike Lehr
Irrationality of Science

The origin and development of the idea of modern science have many problem-solving lessons for us.

Understanding the birth and development of modern science helps us become better problem solvers. It was just an idea over 355 years ago. Today, it’s an industry.

Ideas that old often take on the status of immutable truths. Dissecting the idea of modern science discloses the arbitrary assumptions and processes that make up all ideas, not just science. Identifying these are critical to “thinking outside the box.”

According to “The Establishment of Science”(The Economist, January 9, 2010 edition), a dozen men birthed modern science in 1660. They called their group the Royal Society. Other scientific societies propagated but none challenged it. Their standards became science’s standards. Today, programs accredit those desiring to practice research in accordance with the scientific method.

Science’s subjective origins help us answer two questions. First, who or what creates experts? Science shows experts beget experts. Second, how were first experts conceived? Science shows they were conceived by virgin birth. No programs, processes or organizations seeded them. Only the divine declarations and pledges of a dozen men did.

Science also symbolizes the growth, development and maturation of ideas. Science shows that complex webs of programs and processes form to promote ideas as immutable truths. Declarations that science or experts proved something often deter us from gazing outside the box.

Emotionally, immutable truths satisfy our security needs. Thus, we are motivated to overlook that behind processes supporting ideas are people. These people are no less influenced by fame, money, respect and fun than the rest of us are, consciously or unconsciously. That’s why emotional intelligence is more important to success than intelligence quotient even with ideas. Relational politics matter. Science demonstrates that.

In short, science’s birth shows that at the root of virtually every concrete idea is arbitrariness. Science also shows that complex processes develop around the ideas we want to promote as immutable truths. Finally, science shows that despite the myth around such processes, humans still run them.

Science’s origins and development remind us that truths don’t create ideas but rather ideas create truths. Finding the subjective, variable nature inherent in ideas, opens tremendous problem-solving opportunities to create newer and better truths.



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Computers as Better Listeners

By Mike Lehr
Computer Better Listener & No Judgement

Computers programmed with artificial intelligence can be better listeners when certain concerns exist.

Allowing people to talk reduces anxiety. It’s a form of therapy. Finding patient, disciplined listeners can be tough though. Computers, using artificial intelligence software, have infinite patience and tolerance.

In “The Computer Will See You Now” (The Economist, August 16, 2014 edition), Jonathan Gratch (Institute for Creative Technologies) has successfully explored such computers as therapists in some circumstances. Humans can learn from these circumstances. They can improve listening skills. As managers, they can learn to employ venting techniques better.

These conditions seemed to favor computers:

  • Long, intense discussions
  • Disclosure of unsettling graphic events
  • Fears of being judged
  • Strong concerns regarding confidentiality

Even though good therapists can navigate these conditions well, clients might feel differently. For instance, a good therapist could endure long, intense discussions, but the client might become anxious that he’s taking too much of the therapist’s time.

As another example, Gratch discussed computers’ potential to help war veterans. Soldiers are often reluctant to discuss battlefield experiences, the horrors and their dealings with them. While good therapists can navigate these, Gratch’s work shows that clients still initially withhold information.

Withholding information occurs because events are too unsettling or graphic, clients fear being judged or they have heightened concerns about confidentiality. Of these, avoiding judgment is very difficult for everyday listeners. This is especially true in the workplace. Yet, avoiding judgment is a very effective development tool for managers with employees.

Computer therapy isn’t as outlandish as it might seem initially. It’s similar to journaling. It offers benefits for managing stress. Journaling allows us to explore our thoughts and feelings about life’s events. The only person we express them to is ourselves, same with computer therapy. Journaling and computer therapy are both solitary, self-expressionistic experiences. Moreover, both are complementary with professional therapy. Therapists often recommend journaling to clients as part of their work with them. Computer therapy could serve the same role.

Frequently though, we focus on computers displacing workers. We blind ourselves to the lessons computers give about being human. As we program computers to be like us. We learn more about ourselves. Can we withhold judgment so we can learn?


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Leveraging relationships after the group interaction is over

Leveraging group interactions from a relational perspective continues beyond the interaction, thus serving as positional tools.

In this series, I’ve detailed techniques for leveraging group interactions from a relational perspective. This does not stop though once the interaction ends. We can continue afterwards in individual settings. More valuably, if we leverage our regular activity, we won’t need extra time.

For example, suppose the group interaction prompted a follow up meeting with an employee. Before diving into the meeting’s purpose, we say:

Before we start, I want to thank you for getting things rolling in our recent team meeting with your question.

In this way, group interactions become a staging ground, a positioning tool for leveraging relationships. The strategy is ancient. Seminar selling has used it for decades to create, build and leverage relationships, especially in financial services: group presentation followed up with individual interactions.

We can augment our outcomes further if we use the techniques I detailed in my series, Leveraging Relationships in Communications. For instance, we can improve the above with:

Before we start, I just want to thank you for your insightful question on our new business model at our recent team meeting. Your question really helped me get a good discussion going on its merits.

This one goes further. It has a strategic complimenting element that references a talent she has:

Before we start, I just wanted to say I appreciate your talent to think through things. Your question at our recent team meeting really helped me think through other ways this model helps you and me, and other ways you and I can explain it to others.

In addition to questions, we can reference such things as comments, ideas, answers and many more:

  • I liked your comment; you allowed me to discuss something I’m passionate about.
  • I appreciated your question. You addressed what others were thinking.
  • You did a great job answering Ralph’s question.
  • Your idea allowed others to see more easily what we’re accomplishing.

As my accompanying figure illustrates, we can apply this follow up to many and more than once. The nuggets for leveraging relationships later are virtually inexhaustible. They just require listening, awareness, noting and discipline from us.

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Authority Figure as Dangerous Figure

Authority figures can form the sides of the boxes outside of which we’re trying to think and develop.

Authority figures help in many ways, providing expertise, guidance, definitiveness and certainty. We’re taught to respect them too. Yet, they can be dangerous. While easily seeing this when they abuse power, it’s difficult to see when their intentions are prudent.

The article, “Just Thinking You Slept Poorly Can Hurt Your Performance” (Harvard Business Review, September 2014 edition), covering research by Kristi Erdal (Colorado College) hints at this. As with medical placebos, there are psychological ones too. Common ones are superstitions. Authority figures can be too. That is the danger.

Sleeping poorly affects performance. Erdal found that perceptions of sleep matter too. Regardless of how participants slept, if they perceived sleeping well, they performed well; if perceiving sleeping poorly, they performed poorly. Authoritarian influence worked on eighty-eight percent of participants, convincing them of a sleep they didn’t have.

Thus, authority figures are major contributors to this psychological placebo effect. That’s why the influence of medical placebos is largely attributed to the practitioner. It’s why leaders can inspire us to go beyond the possible.

As mentioned above, authority figures can exert a negative placebo effective innocently without malicious intent. This easily happens when we pressure and expose them by asking for predictions on highly variable and uncertain circumstances. Researching soft disciplines such as leadership are particularly vulnerable to the unintentional placebo effect. As authority figures enjoy success, conservatism increasingly influences their decisions. Conversely, if needing publicity or status, they are prone to wild predictions.

If authority figures can convince us we had a bad night’s sleep when we didn’t, then they can convince us we can’t do something when we can. When they say someone wouldn’t be a good hire, it’s not because he would be. It’s because they set expectations in our minds that he won’t be. Therefore, when thinking outside the box, we will often find authority figures forming some of the sides.

Sometimes these declarations have a contrarian effect, spurring us on to prove them wrong. Still, we are the governors of our minds. We must be wary who claims authoritarian status in them.


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