It’ll Never Work! | 5 Stand Up Routines To Anticipate Hecklers And Make Change Stick

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The meeting was going so well.

Months of hard work involving many people from across the business I was working in at the time had led up to this important day.

Then something unexpected happened – one of the meeting attendees started to heckle me.

Here’s a quick recap:

When I was just starting out in my career, my second ‘big’ project was to improve a process.

After following all of the key process improvement steps, my little project team presented the new “to be” process design to our sponsor and stakeholders.

I was immensely proud of what the team had done and we were all excited about the meeting.

We had invested time in creating an engaging presentation.

Prior to the meeting we had also ‘done the work outside the room’ to brief and get feedback from our sponsor and stakeholders on what they would be hearing.

It was textbook. Everybody was comfortable, smiles all round. No surprises – nothing had been left to chance.

Or so I thought.

During the discussion at the end of the meeting one of our key stakeholders decided from seemingly out of nowhere that they didn’t like the change anymore.

“It’ll never work Guy” they casually said.

‘What’s going on? Why the change of heart? They were right behind us on this!’ I thought.

This was unanticipated heckling!

Making change stick is one of the toughest parts of transformation. The desired change needs to stay “standing up” when you finish the project and walk away.

If it doesn’t get fully embedded it can all unravel and it can all go to pieces. You may even experience an unanticipated heckler or two who could also derail things.

Not good.

A detailed plan, clear scope, strong sponsor, supportive stakeholders, focused team and a robust transformation design all contribute to the success of the change at hand.

Now just to be clear. Some people are always going to be resistant to change whether you like it or not.  I’m sure we all know one or two people! Whatever you do they’ll resist. This is where leveraging your key stakeholders to help you work with them to overcome resistance is key.

But what I am talking about here is resistance from unexpected quarters. The unanticipated heckler is dangerous as they can come from your blindside.

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I think there are a few reasons for this. People are often dealing with rising workloads and responsibilities. They may not have time to fully consider the proposed change and can’t see the full picture. So they get twitchy. And then a fight or flight mindset kicks in. Perhaps the organisation culture doesn’t encourage improvement or innovation. It could be many things.

So how to help them see the change so they fully buy into it and you reassure them in the process?

Over the years I’ve learnt that there is one thing that you can do that can help stack the deck in your favour and in turn help reassure people.

And what pray tell is that I hear you ask?

The answer…is to run a pilot of the proposed solution for the change that can prove the change works beyond doubt and you can reassure the business.

It is generally seen as good practice to test out certain things before a major business change takes place. This ensures that the organisation really understands the intention and reality behind what is being proposed, key messages honed, problems anticipated and addressed and crinkles ironed out.

And this is especially important when the organisation is not quite sure about the change to prove it’s value.

Since my heckler experience (which all got resolved in collaboration with the help of a fantastic sponsor) I’ve run and been part of several pilots and experienced various ways of running them.

I now use a mix of techniques depending on the project and situation. It all depends on what is changing.

But a recent experience from outside the world of corporate change and transformation introduced me to a whole new and totally unexpected perspective on how to run pilots.

This occurred last month when I spent a few days at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Whilst there I got to see a number of stand up comedians. Many of these shows were billed as “works in progress” where the comedians were trying out new material, in smaller timeframes (usually around an hour) to smaller audiences (usually around 100 people) before going on the road to deliver full shows that I believe would usually last around 90 minutes to often larger audiences.

Just for info, here was the best joke from the Festival:joke

I wish I could share a couple of great one liner gags with you from the shows I saw, but to be honest the routines were often built in sequences with the material layered on top of  layers, with jokes often relating back to earlier stories.

I think one of the funniest “sequences” was from a brilliant, well known comedian describing how he was aiming to fix the market in the sale of his second hand DVDs. This ensured he maximised his sales and achieved the break even point with new sales. He would do this by actually buying his own DVDs on the Amazon secondhand marketplace to ensure the baseline price he had set matched the market price he had in his mind. Clever eh?

It’s the way you tell ’em of course and the way he described his process of hunting down copies, often at 2am in his pyjamas was just magical.

The way comedians shared their stories like this was both extremely clever and totally mesmerising. There was a structure and a design and it was clear much work had gone into the content.

Now I don’t want to go into the way a couple of the comedians brilliantly dealt with drunk hecklers but what was interesting were some of the techniques that a few of the comedians used to test out their content. It was as if they saw their routine as a change project preparing for delivery.

And no, I’m not joking here!

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In many ways the comedians were treating their acts like a pilot study. Here are a few interesting things that I saw during and after a few shows over the weekend:

  • Some comedians came out to meet the audience after the show. Some sold signed copies of books and cd’s but were also canvassing opinion on material. I heard “so what do you think of what you heard?” a couple of times.
  • One used a script prompt sheet and had words written on his hands that he referred to of new material to try that evening. This ensured that any tweaks to stories were factored in and any tweaks needed could be recorded.
  • One actually broke down one joke using data analysis on how previous audiences had reacted. They had percentages on days and times when people found the joke funny. They even berated the audience on the night I was there saying that the previous audience found that particular gag a lot funnier!
  • One had an actual feedback box outside the room, gave out feedback forms and pens!, and asked the audience to give feedback on the routine and what they would change and improve.
  • Finally, each of the comedians had a common theme for their shows. They weren’t just talking about a load of random stuff. But a common message connected like a golden thread weaving through their content. Their titles for their shows had interesting and enticing names like “Content Provider”, “The Brain Show”, “Schmuck For A Night” or “The Red Shed” to invite people to buy tickets. They weren’t boring titles. It made it truly engaging and “hook the audience”. The titles were being piloted too.

But here’s the thing.

They all said they would take away their insights and learnings and refine what they had experienced before their final versions.

And from all this I have a few observations from the stand up routines that I believe can be applied to business change projects pilot studies.

This will ensure you avoid the ‘unanticipated hecklers’ and smoothly drive the transformation:

  1. Smaller audience groups seemed to work best for gaining feedback. This made it more intimate and gave the comedian  more opportunity to connect and gain valuable feedback.
  2. You don’t need to pilot everything, in many ways, just parts will be enough. The comedians shared some of their content but often openly said they were holding a lot back. A pilot can just focus on a couple of aspects but doesn’t need to cover everything if you feel it’s an area where it would be beneficial for feedback.
  3. When I say pilot, the comedians used various methods to run pilots. You could trial a new process for a week or two in a department and gather data, or you could give an informal presentation to a small focus group to get their feedback. The point is about trying out the “to be” to see how it lands.
  4. Gaining useful feedback data that you and the change team can use is crucial. The comedians I saw would use a number of methods – I suspect they had an internal “gut gauge” for how successful a gag landed. The feedback box was useful but I didn’t see many use it. I would advise not running any pilot without a data capture method, otherwise a golden opportunity is being wasted where you can learn and apply changes from the data and share valuable evidence based data with your team, sponsor and stakeholders.
  5. Finally, content and delivery is critical. The comedians had quality content to share which had to be good as there was a ticket paying audience coming to watch. They also were experts at delivery. So it’s worth investing time in the key messages you want to share and the method of how you want to share as part of the pilot and consider all of your touch points so you “hook your audience”.

So next time you are about to change something in your business, be it large or small, think like a stand up comedian who needs to test out some material.

Take some time to ‘road test’ a few ideas, get some feedback from your audience by engaging them in some content. You can then make any necessary tweaks for maximum impact. It will pay dividends – and avoid unanticipated hecklers.

And I’ll close with this gem – if you have 5 minutes, here’s Steve Jobs responding to an unanticipated heckler and his take on driving major change. A master at work.

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