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Creating the 'A-ha' Moment

Over the last 20 years of my practice, I’ve discovered that the most critical question in leadership development is not “What must leaders learn in order achieve their goals?”, but rather “Why don’t leaders do what they know they should do?”

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This question led me to the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Professors at the Harvard School of Graduate Education, and their, “Immunity to Change” framework. So while Kegan and Lahey helped me understand the ‘why’ behind this question, I still needed to figure out how to kick-start leaders past this point of inertia. This led me to the work of J. Stewart Black and Hal Gregersen, It Starts with One. Their “See-Move-Finish” framework validated a design feature I’ve use in many leadership development programs and executive team retreats: an immersive visit to an organization, outside of their industry, that jars them into realizing some truth about their own business and/or themselves. One my most memorable designs was immersing a group of 30 managers and executives from a Fortune 250 company into an old Dublin, Ireland federal prison, to learn about employee engagement. These ‘Aha’ experiences often triggered them to see a new way to lead their business, or kicked them in the butt to do something that was on their ‘back-burner'.

Now Chip and Dan Heath have expanded my understanding of how to create these experiences and have given me many best practices with their recent book, The Power of Moments. The main premise is that powerful and memorable moments just don’t happen to us, we can create them to improve the quality of our lives.

The authors describe powerful moments in four approaches:

  • Elevation- moments that transcend the ordinary routines of life. They feel unique and can have an element of surprise.

  • Insight- moments that expand our mind about the way the world works, or bring new self awareness

  • Pride-moments that are rituals celebrating achievements, milestones, or moments of courage.

  • Connection-moments that strengthen ties with others, or create shared purpose

Here are just a few stories that describe a powerful moment, each one demonstrating particular approach:

  • The story of two teachers at Hillsdale High School, one teaching English, and the other history, who created a mock Trial of Human Nature in 1989. These teachers elevated the humdrum student experience in history and English classes with a peak moment: holding a trial in a real courtroom,where students filled the roles of prosecution, defense, and witnesses, all focusing on the question of whether humans are essentially good or essentially evil. The student’s work is challenging, requiring students to deeply research their roles. For example, If they were witnesses (famous figures from history and literature) they had to come to the trial in period dress and know their character inside and out. The trial has been an annual event since 1989, and it is even more memorable than the senior prom. Here’s a quote from a founding teacher, “In every graduation speech I’ve heard, the Trial has been mentioned. I’ve never heard prom mentioned.”

  • The story of Michael Palmer at the University of Virginia, who in 2009 created the Course Design Institute for faculty. According to Palmer, ““The dirty secret of higher education is that faculty aren’t taught how to teach.” But can you imagine telling a group of professors, some with tenure, “You are not teachers, you are subject matter experts who spew facts at students.” How far would you get? Rather, Palmer ran faculty through a Dream Exercise that caused them to trip over the truth. Faculty were asked,“Fill in this sentence: 3–5 years from now, my students still know (blank). Or they still are able to do (blank) . Or they still find value in (blank).” As they reviewed and discussed their answers that realized that their vision for their students had nothing to do with what they were teaching. The awkward, humbling moment of silence that follows the exercise reveals this moment of insight. Palmer opened the door to the faculty appreciating and receiving training on instructional design technology.

  • The story of District Sales Manager, Keith Risinger, at the pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly and Company, who elevated employee recognition by making it personal and relevant. Keith was coaching a sales representative who was having a difficult time engaging a particular physician. When Keith accompanied this sales rep on a sales call, he realized that the rep was doing more telling than listening. After some intense coaching from Keith, the sales rep dramatically improved his selling style, such that Keith granted him a “Quality Listener Award” at a sales team meeting. He received the symbolic gift of a pair of Bose headphones. The sales rep later said, ““That was a very proud moment for me”

  • The story of Stanton Elementary School in Washington D.C. “It was the worst elementary school in one of the worst districts in the country, so it may have been the worst school in the country,” said Susan Stevenson, former executive director of the education-focused Flamboyan Foundation. The school district changed out the school leaders and most of the teachers in the hope of a turn-around. But after a promising start, the school regressed, plagued with kids getting up and just leaving during class. Teachers felt that parents didn’t care about education. Parents felt that teachers didn’t care about their kids. At their wits’ end, school leaders hired the Flamboyan Foundation, who advised them to do home visits with the parents. At the visits, they were to ask the parents just four questions, and then just listen:

    • “Tell me about your child’s experiences in school. Tell me about yours.”

    • “Tell me your hopes and dreams for your child’s future.”

    • “What do you want your child to be someday?”

    • “What do I need to do to help your child learn more effectively?”

  • The visits were conducted in the summer of 2011. When the school year started that fall, students behavior had markedly improved. The halls were more orderly and quiet during class change. Attendance at parent-teacher conferences spiked from 12% of parents the previous year to 73% in 2011-12. Truancy dropped from 28% to 11%. The number of students rated “proficient” at reading on the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (CAS) test doubled from 9% to 18%, and proficiency at math tripled from 9% to 28%. Suspensions went virtually extinct, from 321 to 24. All of this, from powerful moments of connection between parents and teachers during the home visits. Parents felt that they were really heard, teachers realized the parents commitment to their children, and they built common purpose and hope for the students.

The authors state that these various approaches to powerful moments often occur in combination. For example, Michael Palmer provided a powerful insight to those university faculty, but his dream exercise also showed their common purpose to provide a hopeful future for their students, connecting them to each other, and to the welfare of their students.

There are many more stories and methods in the book, each with the kind of power that I’ve shared above. This book will be useful to you whether you are a business leader trying to overcome resistance during large-scale change, a parent wanting to improve the quality of family life, or a school principal wanting to make a quantum leap in the quality of education provided to students. The Power of Moments will give you examples and methods that can create memorable and meaningful moments for those you lead, love, and teach.

William Fanelli1 Comment