red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Dan Heath and Chip Heath
New York: Random House ©2007


The simulated duct tape on the dust jacket, wrinkles and all, is obviously meant to be an attention-getter on bookstore shelves — as is the warning-hazard electric-orange background color. But don't be fooled by the day-glo hype. This is truly a worthwhile book that packs a lot into just under 280 pages. You get the Easy Reference Guide (yes, the summary provides key "plot" points, but be sure to read the entire text) and the Notes, which contain useful citations and wonderfully interesting nuggets the main chapters couldn't hold. (The authors do a fantastic job of practicing what they preach — keeping the text simple and concrete, with lots of "sticky" stories.)

The brother-authors live on opposite coasts but collaborate well (and know that Mom and Dad like it when they still hang out together). Chip is a professor of organizational behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and lives in Los Gatos, California. Dan lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is a consultant at Duke Corporate Education, a former researcher at Harvard Business School, and co-founder of Thinkwell, "an innovative new-media textbook company."

The duo capitalizes on their complementary professional expertise, collecting anecdotes and examples from a wide range of organizations and situations, to illustrate the premise and process of SUCCESs. Yup, acronym-city — but useful nonetheless. While potentially "a little corny," it is memorable, and that's the important part. In fact, the words accompanying the acronym sum up the whole book — how to make ideas stick — in a nifty sentence: Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story. (So what's with the little lost 's' at the end of SUCCESs? Well, just creating the acronym makes it interesting enough to be 'sticky.' And a bit of corniness probably doesn't hurt, either.)

As co-founder of Thinkwell, Dan "asked a somewhat heretical question: If you were going to build a textbook from scratch, using video and technology instead of text, how would you do it?" He worked with "some of the most effective and best-loved professors in the country: the calculus teacher who was also a stand-up comic; the biology teacher who was named national Teacher of the Year; the economics teacher who was also a chaplain and a playwright." On the left coast, as a professor at Stanford University, Chip kept "asking why bad ideas sometimes won out in the social marketplace," and "how could a false idea displace a true one?" and "what made some ideas more viral than others?" That led him to study "naturally sticky" ideas: urban legends, conspiracy theories, wartime rumors, proverbs, and jokes.

The result? Between traffic-cone-orange covers, "it's the nature versus nurture debate applied to ideas: are ideas born interesting or made interesting? Well, this is a nurture book," say the authors. And they're intent on providing readers the same tools that come naturally to the urban legend, folk fable, or current conspiracy theory: ways to make your idea stick, meaning "that your ideas are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact — they change your audience's opinions or behavior." Obviously, not every idea or element of daily communication needs to stick (although it might be nice not to have to remind your teenager umpteen times to take out the garbage). But when a concept is important — say, the profitability and existence of your business depends on it — you want it to be remembered, whether by your employees or your customers.

Lest you think you must reframe your ideas into the newest Kentucky Fried Rat, kidney heist, or Halloween candy-tampering urban legend, hang on — and remember the fuller explanation of the SUCCESs acronym. "Unexpected" is only one part of the whole. Although the authors summarize each element early on and at key points, they use the "story" component to good effect throughout. For anyone who must communicate anything (and that's most of us these days), appreciating the value of story for effectively sharing ideas takes on important significance. The use of story within business settings is not even a new idea — see Annette Simmons' The Story Factor and other resources covering this territory — but new may not be as important as spotting something that might be a 'sticky' idea and running with it. Think of Subway's "Jared" commercials. That memorable campaign resulted not from marketing honchos at corporate headquarters but from a franchise owner who knew the real Jared and his real story, thought the idea had potential, and wouldn't give up on it.

Easy? Common sense? Well, the authors acknowledge that their premise seems to be. But if that's the case, "why aren't we deluged with brilliantly designed sticky ideas?" (You knew there had to be a conflict in this story, right?) "The villain is a natural psychological tendency that consistently confounds our ability to create ideas using these principles. It's called the Curse of Knowledge." Essentially, once we know something, we don't remember what it was like not to know it, which interferes with our ability to communicate with those who still don't. Jared's story seems like a no-brainer now that we've seen it, but Subway's corporate gurus initially passed it by. There is hope for them and us, however. The authors contend — and show — that "a little focused effort can make almost any idea stickier."

The book"s format — from key-point summaries in the Table of Contents to Case Study Clinics in each chapter, that "Easy Reference Guide" near the end, and the wide range of stories throughout — also helps these ideas stick. Two excellent examples come from the military but apply everywhere. One is the adaptable planning process known as "Commander's Intent," generated in the 1980s to better reflect battlefield reality. It offers useful guidelines to front-line soldiers who realize that "no plan survives contact with the enemy" and must still figure out how to achieve their mission. Sounds a bit like life in the corporate world or your family....

Then, in the 21st-century Iraq war, we have the example of Floyd Lee, Marine Corps and Army cook who came out of retirement to run the Pegasus chow hall near Baghdad's airport. He uses exactly the same food stuffs and resources as all the other mess halls in country, but Pegasus' reputation is so amazing that soldiers will drive from the well-protected Green Zone, down the treacherously mined airport highway, to eat there. Clear in his leadership mission, Lee says: "As I see it, I'm not just in charge of food service; I am in charge of morale." Now, that's a story — and a sticky idea.

The authors emphasize the importance of communication because that's how ideas are conveyed; it helps them become sticky. "Getting the message across has two stages: the Answer stage and the Telling Others stage," they say. "There is a curious disconnect between the amount of time we invest in training people how to arrive at the Answer and the amount of time we invest in training them how to Tell Others. It's easy to graduate from medical school or an MBA program without ever taking a class in communication.... Lots of engineers would scoff at a training program about Telling Others." And yet, that's why instruction manuals for software and all the high-tech gear that keeps our society humming are virtually worthless to the people who must actually use them.

"Business managers seem to believe that, once they've clicked through a PowerPoint presentation showcasing their conclusions, they've successfully communicated their ideas. What they've done is share data. If they're good speakers, they may even have created an enhanced sense, among their employees and peers, that they are 'decisive' or 'managerial' or 'motivational.' But ... the surprise will come when they realize that nothing they've said had impact.... Nothing stuck." This book provides the 'sticky' framework for your next big idea.

Everyone acknowledges that President John F. Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon within a decade was a sticky idea, but the authors tell us about Floyd Lee and many others because they're real people in real, everyday settings, without fame or fortune, who make a difference with simple ideas that stick.

 

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