Company Culture
10 min read

LeeAnn Renninger's Keynote From Culture X Design NYC 2015

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Culture Amp

The employee feedback platform

LeeAnn Renninger of LifeLabs NY, and her presentation "People Geeks Lab."


Edited for grammar and syntax 

As I've gotten older, I've found that it's really rare to get a chance to be in the room with kindred spirits. If you look around, there's this magical opportunity to not only get to hear interesting information, but you are creating the information. I think it's amazing of Culture Amp to pull us all together and give us this chance to be here.

I'm really excited to get a chance to kick it off. We're thinking the best way to kick off would definitely be in lab format. What I mean by lab format is, think about your high school labs (except for all the dead animals, we'll leave that stuff behind). There's no dissection gonna happen, but you roll up your sleeves, you mix chemicals together, stuff blows up and you see what happens. You can learn from that. That's the concept behind today. You should have a Thought Generator in front of you.

There's four blocks. Fill those in and then we'll be back together in two minutes. I want you to think fast, not hard.

What I can share with you really quickly is a bit on my background. I'm a cognitive psychologist and I study the way that ideas transfer from one person to another. I'm particularly interested in influence makers like yourselves, and what we do is we come into different companies and particularly we're looking at managers. But what we do is we say 'name someone here who's a great manager. Who's a great motivator. Who's a great feedback giver. Any of those, fill the blank in. Anybody who gets named again and again, we bring into our labs. We're called LifeLabs New York, and we study what these great managers are  doing behaviorally that makes them different.

So part of what I want to share with you today is those little hacks. And we're only interested in behaviors that are small and easy to change. 

Today, I want you to practice some hacks, particularly that are useful for people in the learning and development field, talent operations, leadership training, that whole arena.

The LifeLabs origin story - a microwave epiphany

At LifeLabs we're really interested in rapid skill acquisition. Some of you have heard this story from me before of where this all began. It actually began with a microwave epiphany.

I'm 12 years old and I realize it's really boring waiting for food to be done in the microwave. You know, I'm a child of the 80s so I'd come home from school and I'd be waiting for my macaroni and cheese to be heated up, and I'm bored. So I started doing all these little experiments to see how long I could hold myself on the counter, and seeing if I could make it through the minute that it would take for this to heat. So I could make it 15 seconds. Then the next day I could make it to 16. At a certain point, I just plateaued.

So then I experimented. I would hold myself then I would look up and see if that would make a difference. If I could make half a second more, right? But no real big difference.

After maybe three weeks of trying this, the epiphany happened. The epiphany was, if I just turned my hands inward instead of holding them straight, I could get the entire, full minute. And I had just gone from only making it through 15 seconds to the next day, making it through a minute. So the epiphany part was not to become an Olympic microwave counter holder, but rather, where in life are these small things that we're just not realizing? If we just shifted the way we said that one word, we could make a really big difference.

It's not big, but something is there and it's just waiting for it to be found. So that's what we do at LifeLabs, we try to find those little bits of things. What we found, particularly there are four skills that stand out, for your managers and your companies. These four are not going to surprise you, they're not life relevationary, but they're interesting.

Four important skills for managers 

There are coaching skills - that you're asking really good questions, that you're really good at listening on different layers. There are feedback skills, which we're covering today, saying things cleanly. Then we've got prioritization skills, the ability to always push the pause button, be like, wait, what's the most important thing right now. And then lastly we can call it reframing skills. That would be the ability to shift what seems like a problem into an opportunity.

Those skills are coming out when we're looking at people in our labs. You're seeing here a mixture of different companies actually sitting in some of our research experiments. And so we started looking into it and saying, well wait. What are some of the behaviors that lead you faster to coaching skills?

And that's what I want to cover today. 

Curious question skills

I'm going to pull three out of our many tipping point skills. First one beginning with curious question skills. So I'll dig into that, and first of all, I'd like to just have you stand up for a second and point to where you feel your curiosity in your body. Touch that part of your body, so it might be your head, wherever it happens for you. It's all different. You've got hearts, you've got heads, you've got eyes.

What's this thing called curiosity? How do you define it? And that's the interesting spot where we as data geeks, we'd be like, woah, how do I define what curiosity actually is?

Probably what will come to you is it's about asking questions. You just want to know. I think you've all got some curiosity. That's what drove you to come here today, and I think that's awesome. That's what I mean by the magic of being surrounded by fellow curious people.  

I want you to anchor wherever you touched. Then, in a moment where you're like, "ah, I'm annoyed - I have this idea and it's not pushing through my org." At that moment, you touch back to that spot and you re-anchor into "all right, pivot, let me get curious. What can I learn from this?" For mine, my spot is in my stomach and my poor husband, by now he's learned it. So the moment I get annoyed at something, I'll just like touch there and he's like, "You're doing that thing. You're touching your stomach. What are you doing to me?" And I'm like, "I'm getting to curious!" So, all my secrets are already revealed.

The 20 questions technique 

With that, here comes the first hack. It's called the 20 questions technique. Pair up with the person sitting next to you. Together, you're going to generate questions. No answers, just questions. You've got two minutes, and you're going to write 20 questions about a pen.

two minutes later...

Okay, so 23 seems to be the winner, not that it really matters, but, trophy! Right about question number nine, the quality of your questions starts to shift. Let me hear if someone's got some really wonky questions, just shout out one of your questions.

Audience Member: Can I have it?

LeeAnn: Can I have it, very pragmatic. Nice, action oriented.

Audience Member: What's it gonna write?

LeeAnn: What's it gonna write, ah, that's like poetic. It's gonna write some poetry, romantic. This side, let me hear a question.

Audience Member: Do you want it to be writing?  

So did you see the shift? What starts happening is you get past the obvious stuff, like "What color is it?" Right about question number nine, your curiosity starts to kick in.

The takeaway is, the 20 questions technique is gonna pull you through. What's happening is, you're thinking in questions mode. That's the key concept, that's the hack. Don't think in noun mode, think in questions mode. That's my first lesson to you.

And in general, you'd be saying to yourself whenever you're stuck, "Wait, what question should I be asking of myself?" Then finally, we call it 'Q-storming'. So with your team, if you are ever stuck on something, just be like, "Guys, we've gotta drop into a Q-storm, okay? Two minutes, everybody write your questions. Ready, set, go." That's a really easy hack as well.

Measuring your ratio of quesitons to statements

Let's look at people who are average folks. They're good communicators, but they're not great communicators. We look at them talking for 15 minutes. How many questions do you think are being asked by an average person in a 15 minute conversation? Two is the average we're seeing. Looking at top motivators in 15 minutes, we're looking at an average of 10.

So the first little mini mission is what we call key steps. You're stepping in first to a question before you go into an answer or to a tell. Someone comes to you, says "How should I handle this problem," you don't want to straight up tell them the answer. You want to start with a question like, "What are your thoughts on it so far? What have you already tried?" Go into questions mode. 

So that's one of our first People Geek skills. Question quality matters too, becuase you don't want to just be interrogating. So it's being strategic with the types of questions you're asking because they're going to influence the answers you get. 

Here's our life lesson: default into questions mode. Be aware of your patterns and be aware of your team's patterns. 

Clean talking and blur words 

Clean talking, that's another little aspect. The concept I want to purvey to you is called Blur Words. A blur word is where a lot of companies or managers to leaders get themselves into trouble. So a blur question is, what does "blank" mean to you?

My second exercise for you is I want you right now, in silence to think about this. How many blur words are in this example? If I said to you, let's say I'm your CEO and I'm like, "We need to give more clarity in career paths. Your team needs to give more clarity in career paths." How many blur words do you see in there? Count them up. I'm hearing five. All right. So this is how a People Geek would think when you hear a statement like this. What does it mean by "we"? Who's owning this project, might be one question. What does it mean by "give"? What does more mean, where are we currently at?  And so on and so forth, right? So your blur questions are really, really important questions.

Life is never boring when you've got blur words. Seriously, for me, I'll do into the deli and I'm like, "I've gotta ask that guy a blur word behind the counter," so he's sort of like, "Have a good day," and I'll be like, "Oh boy. What does good mean to you?" In here, you get really interesting conversations, right? So it's making yourself investigate the next level down. That's what we do here.

A culture of listening and learning 

There's another life lesson coming for us. A culture of clean talking, a culture of listening to what really matters for people and that's where the feedback skill comes into play. So, what we've been finding when we actually go in and do training for managers is a method - LifeLabs Playing Card Method.

The way it would work is, a club is negative feedback. It hits you over the head because it's not specific. Whereas a spade is something that's a tool. You can dig yourself out of a hole with it. A heart is like candy. It tastes good for the moment, but not very nutritious. And then, we've got a diamond, which is - a diamond lasts forever. It's everybody's best friend. So that's very specific.

So what we do in our trainings is we go in and we help companies get really good at understanding feedback and being able to convert it. So if you get a heart, you need to ask, "Okay. What particularly did you like about it so that we can turn it into a diamond?" That's the Playing Card Method.

Basically, we need people speaking in a language that's clean. Your job would be, whenever you're getting feedback - you need to convert it. If you're hearing a heart, turn it into a diamond, ask some questions about it. If you're hearing a club, it's not their fault they're a bad feedback giver. You've gotta help them. Say, "What specifically don't you like about it? Let's investigate the blur words going on here." So it's giving and receiving, that's where we do the trigger training.

We have a little bias, we're called LifeLabs so we love the idea of extraction and distillation and bubbling and all this other stuff. So literally, you're distilling out and you're constantly asking yourself, what can I learn from this? You're asking your team, what can we learn from the way we conducted this meeting? You don't let them leave until they're thinking in a learning mode too. You make sure they can share one thing as well.

With that, you start creating a learning culture for yourself and for others in general. And it's just one simple question. You're getting to curious. You're investigating their blur words and their answer, and from there you can create clean action plans.

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