Malcolm, Bill, and the power of surprise
There’s one thing our cliffhanger election illustrates: the power of surprise to change people’s attitudes.
In January 2016 it was common wisdom that Bill Shorten was an insipid, uninspiring union hack. His favoured prime minister rating at 19% reflected that consensus. And Malcolm Turnbull was the brilliant persuader, a liberal man who would deliver a U-turn on Tony Abbot’s policies. His favoured prime minister rating of 81% reflected that. These opinions were set like cold custard and only the brave would dissent.  custard
Then Malcolm and Bill started DO and SAY things that were out of character. Malcolm’s didn’t make the big decisions people were hoping for, like reforming the tax system. Then, he did something that surprised everyone: he ran a scare campaign on Labor’s negative gearing policy. Malcolm, scaring folks! This was completely out of character. Suddenly we found ourselves reassessing him.
Bill, meanwhile, was emerging from the shadows with a pile of credible policies on education, hospital funding, negative gearing, a royal commission on banks, and so on, all delivered with ease, panache, and authority. This was not the Bill we knew. Suddenly we found ourselves reassessing him too.
The custard of public opinion, once set hard, started to flow again for both these men. A LOT of voters found themselves having very different conversations with their friends and workmates. The unusually long, 8 week, election campaign, was a disaster for Malcolm. The more we saw him, the more he contradicted our positive Malcolm stereotype, and less we liked him. And the more we saw of Bill, the more he contradicted our negative Bill stereotype, the more we liked him.
By June, Malcolm’s approval rating had fallen to 55%, and Bill’s had magically levitated to 44%. The rest is history.
The key is what happens when people (or companies or institutions) act out of character. Consistency is often lauded, but it’s only when we break our stereotype that people pay attention and reassess us. ‘Attitudes’ (which means, positive or negative assessments), form quickly, and then set like custard. All it takes for the custard to harden is for voters, or customers, or householders to have a conversation in which they to hear ourselves take a position. The more buzzworthy your stereotype-busting action, the more rapidly those conversations occur, and the more rapidly positions are taken, so the more rapidly the custard of public opinion re-sets.
Malcolm and Bill illustrated something else about the power of surprise: there are two kinds of surprises, good surprises and bad surprises. If you want to win people’s loyalty and attract them to come and play with you, then make sure your surprises are good ones!
P.S. The first theorist to point out this effect was one of the pioneers of social science, Kurt Lewin, who called it Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze. “To break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness, it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an emotional stir-up.” Kurt thought that the surprises had to be bad ones, but good ones work better. Why? Because hopeful people are better at making change than worried ones.
Just perfect things overheard in workshops
Ping pong balls of change
Doctors in a US GP practice were resisting changes about patient service. The practice manager gave patients red and white balls and invited to pop them in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tubes for good and bad experiences. “The doctors were peering out of their doors all day. By the end of day one day, all the balls moved to white!” (Which explains why systems thinkers love feedback loops.)
It’s love that holds volunteers
“People come for the excitement but they stay for the love.”
– Michael, from the Newport Folk and Fiddle Club.
The power of making it look easy
“Humans are like water, they find the easiest path’.
– Michael Luchi, waste manager, J.J. Richards
“You see an old timer making fences with a spade and crowbar and doing it hard, you don’t want to help. But see a bloke and his offsider laying 200m of fencing and doing it easy. When he asks you to help, you say ‘yes’.” – Landcare leader, Upper Hunter
How a manager liberates innovation in his team
“I’m happy to give it a go. Put a bit of budget on it and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work we won’t do it again.” – council waste manager, Hunter region
Unmotivated? Really?
The biggest mistake in behaviour change is to assume that people don’t want to do the right thing.
Myth: Chinese people don’t like to donate organs.
Research: 300 conversations with Chinese people at festivals in Sydney.
– Only 1/300 didn’t answer the survey about organ donation.
– Practically all said they wanted to be organ donors.
– All said they had no idea how to do it.
(From a presentation by Michael Camit of the NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service.)
If meetings are killing your volunteer group then…
“We email our minutes and correspondence and routine decisions before the meeting and only talk about them if someone has an issue – which they hardly ever do.” – Landcare chair at Singleton (I think).
I’m excited about
Pope Francis
I’m still excited by the Papal encyclical Laudato Si (and I’m an atheist). Recent events (Trump, Brexit, the Liberal Party’s near death experience) show that leaving the poor behind (in fact, intentionally making them redundant as a matter of policy a.k.a. Neoliberalism) is a threat to every kind of progress. There really is no difference between sustainability, social justice, public health, and an inclusive economy. Progress in one is progress in another, and the smartest projects mash them up.
Facilitating innovation
More and more I’m training people to facilitate creativity and innovation. I recently ran Engagement Lab in the Hunter (for planners) and in the Central Coast and Sydney Metro (for conservation project managers). It’s a playful workshop that focuses on the creative design of community engagement tactics. As a person who always paid attention on process rigor and psychology, it surprises me that I’m facilitating fun and games.
Projects that sizzle
About to do a second round of workshops with recipients of Landcare grants across south east NSW. The idea is to create a dedicated space for grantees to sit down with other grantees and focus 100% on how to make their projects sizzle (with a little innovation magic thrown in).
More on this at:
Decoding ‘engagement’ (translation: ‘come and play’)
I’ve finally figured out how to decode that irritatingly fluffy term ‘engagement’. I’ve decided it means ‘being noticed, sparking buzz, and having people come and play with you’. There really is only one way to do all those things, that is to break people’s stereotypes about you, your project or your idea.
Here are a couple of stereotype-busting Landcare events generated in recent workshops – “Come Howl with the Moonshiners” and “Bake and Rake”. OK, I’m interested!
Fun ice-breakers
Discovered a rich LinkedIn thread called “What’s the best icebreaker?” It’s full of wonderful ideas. I’ve experimented with this one: “Two truths and a lie”. Ask everyone to think of 2 truths and one lie about themselves. Then ask the participants to stand up, circulate, meet others and guess their lie. It really works well.
I’m grumpy about
Can anyone tell me what is in the minds of people who think that piped music makes a better coffee shop experience, or TV a better airport waiting room experience, or rock music a better juice bar experience? I crave the silence that lets me hear my own thoughts, or have an easy conversation. It’s such a precious and increasingly rare experience that it could be a traded commodity. In systems thinking, buffers are what stop whole systems from breaking down under stress. I, for one, could do with a little more quiet time. Please give me a cafe that says ‘Would you like a dash of cognitive buffer with that?’
Today I was seriously asked if I wanted to be a ‘member’ of Boost bar, the ubiquitous juice chain. Can this be serious? If I said ‘yes’ to every offer to be a member of something I’d have a wallet the thickness of a teledex, and would be spending most if my attention managing a miasma of special deals and offers. I think this demonstrates how ideas that make sense for motivated early adopters can become ridiculous when rolled out to mass audiences with less attention to invest.
Email me at if you’d like to be notified about the next round of training workshops in October. I’ll be presenting:
Engagement Lab: how to make engagement irresistible [I day]
Facilitate with Confidence: facilitate any group with skill and authority [1 day]