How to trash your brand

Here’s how to trash your brand. If I could completely avoid flying American Airlines I would. Not because of the airline’s mediocre rankings in on-time arrivals, lost baggage, fees, and customer satisfaction. After all, there are some airlines that are even worse. (Spirit, I’m looking at you.)

No, it’s their infuriating habit of pitching credit cards to passengers on every flight. For example, while I was trying to sleep on the red-eye I took last week.

I find the two- to three-minute pitches really annoying. We are literally a captive audience, strapped into our seats with nowhere to escape.

To add insult to injury, The Points Guy reports that many of the claims made for the credit card are misleading or simply incorrect.

What the airline says
According to American Airlines spokesperson, Sunny Rodriguez: “We have found that in-flight is a great time to talk with our customers about airline credit cards.”

Actually, Sunny, you’re not talking with your customers, you’re talking at them. There’s a big difference.

Notice that this justification is 100% about what’s good for American Airlines. Not what’s good for its customers, as the following sample of customer complaints illustrates:

Why does American Airlines do this?
Besides annoying the heck out of me, I’m at a loss to understand how this is a good business decision.

—Is the revenue they receive when some hapless passenger signs up a significant boost to their bottom line?

—Are flight attendants so eager to supplement their salaries (apparently, they get ~$50 for every new customer) that they beg the airline to add extra work to their flight duties?

—And, most importantly, does American Airlines think that pitching their credit card on every flight to captive passengers improves their brand?

After all, this survey found that over 90% of airline passengers said they’d never apply for a credit card in flight. (And, of course, some of those who would have already got one—yet still have to put up with the same spiel on every subsequent trip!)

A creative alternative
Even if American Airlines truly believe that hawking credit cards to a captive audience is a good thing, they don’t have to do it in a way that annoys almost everyone on the airplane. Edward Pizzarello notes that United Airlines also pitches cards on their flights, using a classic marketing technique that is far less intrusive and, I suspect, far more effective.

Flight attendants walk through the cabin handing out free boxes of mints printed with a code for a United Airlines card offer. Yes, the classic give-away, good will marketing approach! Passengers are free to ignore the advertisement and, regardless, receive a small gift. Pizzarello concludes: “Mints versus speeches?  I’ll take the mints.”

Can American Airlines learn?
It amazes me that AA doesn’t realize (or doesn’t care) that customers are turned off by brands that spray unwanted pitches on trapped consumers.

Frankly, I’m pessimistic that American Airlines can change the culture that leads to this kind of clueless marketing.

A final piece of evidence: the American Airlines pitch for paying more for seats that are as roomy as those they provided standard five years ago.

I call it “The seat I used to have in Economy.”

Image attribution: Quartzy

How to change an organization’s culture

Is it possible to transform dysfunctional corporate culture like that of United Airlines into the employee engagement of Southwest or the indifferent customer service at Kmart into the customer-first approach of Wegmans?

After over thirty years working with organizations, I think that it’s possible to change organizational culture — but it’s far from easy.

First, many organizations are in denial that there’s any kind of problem with their culture, and getting leadership to think otherwise is an uphill or hopeless battle.

Second, if an organization does get to the point where “we want to change our culture”, there’s rarely an explicit consensus of what “needs to be” or “might be” changed.

Third, culture is an emergent property of the interactions between people in the organization, not a linear consequence of deeply buried assumptions that can be challenged and “treated” in isolation. Prescriptive, formulaic approaches to culture change, are therefore rarely if ever successful.

Finally, organizational culture self-perpetuates through a complex web of rules and relationships whose very interconnectedness resist change; even if you have a clear idea of what you want to do, there are no uncoupled places to start.

So, what might we be able to do? For concise advice, I recommend Chris Corrigan‘s excellent article The myth of managed culture change. Read it!

In particular, this excerpt caught my eye:

“Culture is an emergent set of patterns that are formed from the interactions between people. These patterns cannot be reverse engineered. Once they exist you need to change the interactions between people if you want to change the patterns.”
—Chris Corrigan, The myth of managed culture change

This is why process tools like those included in The Power of Participation are so important. Imposed, top down culture change regimes attempt to force people to do things differently, a process that Chris describes as “cruel and violent”. Participation process tools that allow people to safely explore interacting in new ways allow organizations to transform through the resulting emergent changes that interaction tools facilitate and support.

Image attribution: Animated gif excerpt from “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne

Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way

Apple 1984

“Things are the way they are because they got that way.”
—Quip attributed to Kenneth Boulding

The hundreds-of-years-dominant paradigm for sessions, conferences, and meetings is broadcast: most of the time, one person presents and everyone else listens and watches. Why?

I think there are two principal historic reasons: one shaped by technology, the other by culture.

How technology shapes our system of education
Perhaps you’re thinking: Technology? Isn’t technology a relatively recent development? How could technology have influenced how we learnt hundreds of years ago?

Read the rest of this entry »

Group culture and event leadership

There are many models of how people behave in groups, and each of them is useful in certain contexts. In the context of organizing and running a conference, I tend to employ an organic model, in which group members are seen in terms of their uniqueness, rather than categorized by their roles. An organic point of view allows and encourages people to find ways to work together in a variety of complex situations, and leads toward problem-solving that benefits everyone.

For example a conference steering committee I coordinated was offered the option of engaging a well-known, desired keynote speaker for a conference to be held in six months. Initially, his appearance fee was more than our budget could handle, but at the last minute he suggested appearing virtually, giving his presentation on a large video screen, at an affordable fee. We needed to quickly find out whether the conference site could support a virtual presentation.

If we had been using a linear approach to group organization, we would have already chosen the steering committee member responsible for technical issues and it would be her job to resolve this issue. If she were busy or sick, I’d have had to poll the other committee members for help and ask someone to take on additional work. In this case, our committee was comfortable with an organic approach, so I sent a request for help to all the steering committee members, most of whom had some technical expertise.

Because the committee culture was one of staying flexible in the face of unexpected circumstances, cooperatively working together to solve problems, and respecting each member’s unique constraints and contributions, I didn’t worry about treading on anyone’s toes by sending out a general request for help. The outcome: One of the committee members had some free time and immediately offered his expertise, while another, the speaker liaison, told us he thought the speaker would have the information we needed and would check with him.

How do you build this kind of culture for your conference organizing team?
This brings us to the question of what leadership means in the context of organizing and running a conference. Every book on leadership has a different approach; here’s what fits for me.

Author and polymath Jerry Weinberg describes organic leadership as leading the process rather than people. “Leading people requires that they relinquish control over their lives. Leading the process is responsive to people, giving them choices and leaving them in control.” Jerry’s resulting definition of leadership is “the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered.” This is what I try to elicit when working with a conference organizing team.

I also find Dale Emery’s definition of leadership helpful. Dale describes leadership as “the art of influencing people to freely serve shared purposes.” Bear this definition in mind as you work with your conference organizing team. It ties your interactions with them to your shared goal of realizing a vision, in this case organizing and running of a conference.

Who on the team leads in this way?
Unlike the traditional, role-based version of leadership, any member can help build an atmosphere that supports this kind of leadership. Once the seeds of this culture are established, I’ve found that it tends to become self-perpetuating. People like working together in this way. Experiencing a conference team coming together, with the members enjoying their interactions while creating a great event, is one of the most satisfying aspects of my work.

Although the impetus for an organic approach can come from any team member, the conference coordinator is the natural initiator of these flavors of leadership. She is responsible for keeping the conference planning on track and avoiding planning and execution snafus. She does this, not by ordering people around, but through a respectful flow of timely reminders, check-ins, questions, requests for assistance, and appropriate redirections.

Some people have little experience working organically. They may join your team with the expectation that their responsibilities will be determined by others, that a team leader will give them well-defined jobs to do. Often, given a relaxed and open environment where their ideas are encouraged, they will grow into a more active role as they become more confident in their ability to contribute creatively and flexibly to the needs of organizing and running the conference.

A helpful reminder for leaders of every kind
Jerry Weinberg suggests you assume that everyone you’re working with wants to feel useful and make a contribution. He quotes Stan Gross’s device for dealing with his feelings that people are not trying to contribute: “They’re all doing the best they can, under the circumstances. If I don’t think they are doing the best they can, then I don’t understand the circumstances.”

Such a mindset will help you focus on finding solutions to people problems that inevitably arise in any group working together on something they care about.

How do you see event planning leadership? Is your model different? What can you add to these ideas?

[This post is adapted from my book, Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love. Photo attribution: Flickr user bdld]

Facilitating change: Four lessons from the devolution of the British roundabout

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

The devolution of the British roundabout
I grew up in England, where roundabouts are more common than traffic lights as a way of routing traffic. (Fun fact: the first roundabout in the world was built in Hertfordshire, England in the early 1900’s.) When I was a kid, roundabouts were walled constructions in the center of traffic circles that looked like this:

In the 1960’s, the Brits realized that such elaborate constructions were overkill, and roundabouts became more like this:

As time went on, roundabout design was simplified further to this minimalist design:

These so-called mini-roundabouts could be made smaller than previous versions because they allowed the rear wheels of large vehicles to drive over the edge of the central circle when making tight turns.

While in London last year I saw the most recent evolution of the British roundabout. The physical barrier of the central island has completely disappeared, and the roundabout has just become a simple painted circle, with directional arrows painted on the road surface.


Four lessons we can learn about facilitating change from this brief history of the British roundabout
When we are facilitating a desired change, we need to communicate clearly the change we want to make.
Think about what would have happened if the plain white circle roundabout was introduced as the initial replacement for the street intersections that human cultures have used for thousands of years. People would not have understood how it was supposed to function. Without a physical barrier forcing a circular route, drivers would have been tempted to drive straight across it. The first roundabout design had to impose a fundamentally different way of navigating intersections; otherwise it wouldn’t have worked.

It’s easier to facilitate change in small increments than in large leaps.
By the time the plain white circle roundabout was introduced, the concept of driving around, rather than through, circular objects placed at the center of intersections had been imprinted on the British drivers’ psyche. The final design is quite different from the elaborate early roundabouts, but it was reached through a series of incremental design refinements.

Change is attractive if the new situation has advantages.
Each change in the design of the British roundabout created advantages for the builders (less expensive), environment (less space wasted at intersections), and users (more space to negotiate the intersection). While the promise of an improved outcome does not guarantee that a change will occur, it certainly can’t hurt.

Different cultures can have very different approaches to change
If you’re not British, your experience of roundabouts will be different; you may not even know what a roundabout is! In the United States, roundabouts only started appearing in the 1990’s (rotaries and traffic circles employ different rules). Other European countries have their own roundabout designs and unique histories of introduction. Don’t assume that a change that has worked for one culture will be acceptable to another. (A corollary to this lesson is that exploring other cultures is a wonderful way to have your eyes opened to aspects of your culture that you take for granted.)

Are there other lessons we can learn from the British roundabout? What other design evolutions can you think of that teach lessons about facilitating change?