Thank You, Thank You, Sam-I-Am

One of my favorite philosophers is Theodor Geisel, a man whose illustrated stories continue to entertain and speaks to children and adults alike. Anyone continuous improvement professional who has read his “Green Eggs and Ham” must respect Sam-I-am, who uses persistence and determination to broaden the tastes and perspectives of the man in the tall black hat who believes there is no way he will like the odd new food.
We are often asked by continuous improvement professionals, “How can we gain understanding and engagement from our executives?” Of course the specific answers to this question vary case by case and require more background and context. In general, the question of bringing people along to your point of view depends on your ability to do two things; 1) Demonstrate the net practical benefit of adopting your point of view, and 2) dislodge existing points of view that conflict with yours.
Most process improvement professionals have no problem understanding the first point, that whether Lean, Six Sigma or kaizen, the process must make concrete improvements in the eyes of the sponsoring executives. The second point requires significant effort to understand the motivations, prevailing assumptions, and invested knowledge of the person you are attempting to persuade. What is the price this person must pay for giving up their point of view? Without first understanding this, there is no way you can know what is the safe and appropriate amount of net practical benefit to demonstrate in #1 above. Or in the case of Sam-I-am, sheer determination lands him success.
On another occasion, Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, author, illustrator and philosopher of life said:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
These are very wise words. What can we learn from Dr. Seuss and his Sam-I-am about bringing executives along the the point of view of those of us who care a lot about continuous improvement? Three things come to mind.
First, show that you care a whole awful lot. If others see that you are trying to make things better for them, help them achieve their goals, you will win people over. This requires a lot of listening and learning how to talk to others in their language. If you do not, they may only see that you are promoting a program, an agenda, or a run of the mill cost-cutting effort that requires little understanding or engagement on their part.
Second, give away what you care about. This can be knowledge, an experience, a product, something concrete that represents what you care about. The only way others will care about what you care about, and help change things, is if they accept and own it. The only way people will know whether green eggs and ham are tasty is to taste them. Yet people don’t have “nothing to lose” when trying something new, especially if they are leaders who have reached their position because of what they know or believe.
Third, demonstrate the depth of your conviction. “I am Sam. Sam I am.” About how many things in life do you have this much confidence and conviction? Sam-I-am does not give up. He approaches the topic of green eggs and ham from various angles, flexibly, yet always with an internally consistent logic (rhyme schemes), until he persuades successfully. Not on a train or a plane? How about on a goat? Or a boat? Don’t stop giving until you find acceptance – a way to make the topic of your conviction relevant to the executive.
Unlike in the story, we may never hear the words “thank you” for these efforts. If we care enough, the change we bring should be reward enough.