Friday, February 09, 2007

The Power of Common Experiences

Just a quick note about the power of a common experience--which can be the reading of a particular book. In my visit to Science Leadership Academy, English teacher Alexa Dunn told me that every student coming into the school was asked to read Kindred, by Octavia Butler. While not addressing the story content, I just wanted to remark on the power of this type of experience.

When my company was at the height of it's participation in computer refurbishment for Hewlett-Packard, we had 35+ staff members in three different locations. Our culture was one of high participation and open-books (as in financial), and we used the power of books (as in paper) as part of our process of building an open culture. We had three books we asked every staff member to read (Growing a Business, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and The Great Game of Business), which they could do on work time or on their own--but either way they received a cash bonus for each one completed. We also had weekly team meetings for each work group, at which time they spent half an hour reading a business book of their choosing out loud and then discussing (I know, sounds pretty fringey, but you'd be amazed at the opportunity that it provided for collaborative dialog on important issues).

Now, I'll only tease you with this: our most productive, efficient group was actually placed inside a warehouse at HP. Their productivity was measurably four times greater than any previous subcontractor that HP had used in that particular process. And this group did this book reading program each week. The managers at HP actually told us we had to discontinue the process because it gave the appearance to other subcontractors that our team was not working very hard. Someday I'll post more on entrenched business cultures that reject improvement, as I think there are going to be some real opportunities to relate those ideas to school reform.

One final thought on shared experiences for culture-building: we have some good friends that run a ranch for young women in Idaho. At the start of each two-week session, as soon as the girls arrive, they are put into a large barn with all of the power tools of a woodworking shop. Without any fanfare or fuss, they are all asked to complete a woodworking project that afternoon. They are given help using the machines, they work together, and at the end of the day, most of them have done something that might have intimidated them in any other setting--but they end that day with a shared experience of accomplishment, empowering them beyond the normal expectations of teenage girls. And makes the next two weeks less about boys and makeup, and more about things that really matter.

ADDED NOTE: I also remember my wife and I taking a parenting class which involved reading a parenting book together. It was significantly easier for us to talk about our parenting thoughts and strategies within the context of the book--since we could start by talking about someone else's opinion. She and I were then united in trying to understand the author, and felt free to collaborate together to understand the issues, instead of feeling that we were debating each other. This helped us avoid the common trap of feeling possessive or defensive about our thoughts--or what my wife and I later called, "going polar:" when the tricky dynamics of conversation about significant issues between two (or more) individuals cause them to go from positions that may be only slightly different to being world's apart.
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