My dad began his music career at the age of 8 when he got his first guitar for Christmas and practiced “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley” until his fingernails bled. Over the years he played in several rock & roll and country bands and gained a reputation putting on creative, energetic, and even sometimes theatrical performances (e.g. dressing up in Halloween costumes, riding a motorcycle on stage). He’s the reason why Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix are two of my favorite performers of all time.
About 15 years ago, he was tasked with leading a major change initiative at his company. Challenges with safety and quality had damaged employee morale and the company was even at risk of losing customers if things didn’t improve. As he thought about how to tackle this challenge, he considered how some leaders approach change initiatives – by “cracking down,” announcing new policies and protocols, delivering memos, or even firing resistant employees. Even the most competent of leaders will oftentimes limit their approach to giving a rational explanation of the change and how employees are expected to respond. What is oftentimes missing is the personal, emotional connection to the change that is required for people to truly “get on board.” My dad realized that in order to make change happen, you have to get to people’s hearts before you can get to their heads (the authors of Switch have written extensively on this topic).
So, my dad set off on a “tour” of sorts – he wrote songs about the company surviving rough times and about the importance of safety and quality (usually in a blues format). He went around from facility to facility, performing the songs to employee groups that were expecting lectures and PowerPoint slides instead of blues performances about the company strategy. The thing is, it got people talking, laughing, and thinking about the future of the company and their role in shaping it. It set a platform for new initiatives to take hold and made sure that the people who were responsible for executing the new initiatives felt ownership and pride over the results. He got to their hearts first and that opened the doors for change to take hold.
Though I don’t play the guitar like my dad, I’ve pulled on my creativity strength many times to help invest people in a new initiative or to connect them with the emotional and personal side of the change process. As a teacher, I grabbed my students’ attention at the beginning of a new poetry unit by reciting a poem dramatically while playing the drums (to teach cadence). In my recent work with an organizational change initiative, I helped pull together the “unsung heroes” of the organization for a celebration as a way to inspire leaders to consistently acknowledge excellent work and the contributions of all. The question I ask myself in these situations is, “How can we do this differently from what’s been done before?” I want people to remember the feeling they had in the experience so that the feeling stays with them and helps drive the change.
Nearly fifteen years after my dad went on tour with his company, many of his colleagues still remember the lyrics to the songs he sang back then. Whether they knew it or not at the time, those lyrics would stick with them and play a role in moving the organization forward to a stronger place.
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