Mantras and mutations

Like Shawn at Anecdote, I’ve been reading Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick – “why some ideas survive and others die”. Shawn elaborates on a fascinating story from the book:

Ask your audience to participate with you in a little game. You will tap out a song with your fingers or a pencil and you ask the audience to guess the song. Pick two songs everyone knows well—I was using Happy Birthday to Me and Advance Australia Fair. Most people are unable to guess correctly though Happy Birthday is a lot easier than Advanced Australia Fair. In fact Elizabeth Newton, a PhD researcher from Stanford, found that, on average, only 2.5% of the listeners she tested could guess the song. But here is the rub. When she asked her tappers how likely it was for the listeners to guess correctly, they expected the listeners to get is right 50% of the time. The tapper has the song in their head and can hear it as clear as a bell. They are cursed with their own knowledge and expect everyone else to hear it as easily as they do.

I guess tune-tapping is going to be an extreme example, but I rather think the same phenomenon afflicts most mission and values statements, and other mantras of command-and-control.

Of course, that may be a cue for some to insist on a massive programme to make sure everyone really is “hearing the same tune”. I’m a sceptic. If exhaustive argument and attention to detail really got people on the same page, then lawyers would be the most harmonious professionals in the world, rather than – by some accounts – the most miserable.

Plus, if you really want people to spread a story, you have to let them mutate it. The one quoted above is Shawn’s retelling of the original. Will the authors be upset? I somehow doubt it!

No prizes for spotting a link to the theme of my previous post, on A Perfect Mess, which ends with a fascinating (to me, as a non-musician) account of tuning in an orchestra. It turns out that getting instruments in tune is way more complicated than you’d think, for all sorts of reasons. And in good orchestras, players are having to retune on the fly to get great results. So even in an orchestra, you need improvisation to sustain the impression of order…

3 thoughts on “Mantras and mutations

  1. Shawn Callahan

    Hi Johnnie, you got me thinking. While I agree that getting everyone to hear the same tune is a futile exercise I think getting people to create their own tunes in the same genre is the challenge for strategy. It’s this reason why a short saying, proverb or mantra can really work, especially if it’s supported by stories. For example, one of my clients uses the phrase “making collaboration ridicously easy” as the catch phrase for their knowledge strategy. Whenever someone is faced with a decision to make about how knowledge is used in the the organisation they are starting to say, “are we making collaboration ridicously easy?” This approach balances planning with emergence and provides an intent people in the organisation can remember. Here are a few more examples.

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Hi Shawn, I think I agree with you. Where I have seen the “mantras” work is when they are used for inspiration rather than legislation. I know an organisation that endorses five values and then encourages everyone to interpret them for themselves. So the values are a jumping off point for conversations. Sounds like what you’re talking about.

  3. Anecdote

    Putting stories to work

    Over the last few months we’ve talked about the importance of having a short phrase or mantra to help everyone in an organisation implement the company’s strategy (here and here). At Anecdote we’ve had a few catch phrases ov…


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