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Donna Shalala and The Boom Boom Theory



Donna Shalala spoke at a breakfast meeting at the University of Denver (DU) the other day. She seems to be one of the most connected people on earth. She’s the former president of Hunter College, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Miami. She also served for eight years as the Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. Perhaps most impressive (to me at least), over ten years at the University of Miami, she raised three billion dollars in voluntary contributions.

Our chancellor, Rebecca Chopp, interviewed Shalala before an audience of some 300 faculty, alumni, and students. The conversation soon turned to inclusive excellence (IE), which is a fundamental initiative at DU. We define IE as, “…the recognition that an … institution’s success is dependent on how well it values, engages and includes the rich diversity of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni constituents. … The goal is to make IE a habit that is implemented and practiced consistently throughout …” the university.

Chancellor Chopp asked Shalala what advice she could offer to build an inclusively excellent university. Shalala’s answer reminded me that multi-channel communication is fundamental to multi-cultural success.

In a diverse community, Shalala noted, people have diverse communication styles. They may use the same word for different concepts. Or they may describe the same concept with different words. Further, they may well be tuned in to different channels.

Given the varying communication styles, Shalala argues that leaders of diverse communities need to deliver the same message multiple times, in multiple ways, through multiple channels to make sure it reaches all audiences. Shalala’s staff called this the Boom Boom theory of communication because one message (“Boom”) gets repeated across multiple channels.

It’s a good reminder that we need to repeat ourselves, perhaps more often than we think. I’ve written before that redundancy is not a sin; Shalala argues that we need to actively promote redundancy. Coupled with a concept like the sponsorship spine, the Boom Boom theory can produce effective communications in even the most diverse organization.

And what about those three billion dollars? Shalala says there’s no secret to fundraising. It requires a lot of patience and listening. Find out what your contributors are interested in and deliver it.

But patience and listening only take you so far. Shalala also reminded us of the value of good old-fashioned story telling. At fundraising events, she doesn’t talk about abstract concepts or programs or buildings. She simply tells stories. She admits that some of her stories “leave ‘em weepy” – they’re touching and effective. She wants her contributors to reach for their wallets. So first, she has to reach for their hearts. Combining the Boom Boom strategy with the leave-em-weepy tactics seems to be a killer combo.

Three Myths of Change Management

My attention span is less than 12 minutes.

A majority of change management efforts in organizations fail. Indeed, the failure rate may be as high as 70%. As we’ve discussed before (click here), strategy and culture are intertwined. Before you change your strategy, you’ll probably need to change your culture. But, if the failure rate is 70%, is it even worth trying? Not if you believe in myths.

According to Bain & Company, there are three great myths that inhibit the success of change management efforts. Let’s look at each of these today. (For the complete article, click here).

Myth #1: As long as the effect on people is minimized, change will succeed. To change successfully, we all know that the whole organization needs to coalesce around a common vision. That’s easy to say but hard to do. If you’re being disrupted, you may not want to align around somebody else’s vision. So smart change managers identify those employees that are likely to be most disrupted and invite them to co-create the vision. This often takes the form of workshops “that help the leadership team paint a clear picture of what the change will look like when it’s finished.”

Myth #2: So much about change is irrational and hard to predict. Bain & Company has developed a list of 30 specific risks that can disrupt change. The list is not surprising; in fact, it’s very predictable. You can organize the risks into five major categories: 1) Balance ambition; 2) Mobilize leaders; 3) Change behaviors; 4) Shape execution; 5) Extend success. The 30 risk factors occur in “predictable patterns” and only a handful will be disruptive at any given time. By studying the predictable patterns and applying them to your organization, you can create heat maps that help you focus your attention on the right spots at any stage of the change process.

Myth #3: All you need is good leadership and day-to-day management. Once you start a major change process, you put immense stress on your organization. Weird things start to happen. For instance, people in normal business situations may have an attention span of an hour or so. In stressed out organizations, attention spans shrink to about 12 minutes. People may retain only 20% of the information they receive. Stressed employees will tune you out altogether if they think you’re not credible or that you don’t care about them. They’ll decide in roughly 30 seconds whether you’re trustworthy or not. Even the best orators find it difficult to establish trustworthiness in 30 seconds. That’s why it’s so important to deliver high-stress information via sponsors that the audience already trusts. Normal communication doesn’t work in a high stress situation. You need to simplify your message and deliver it through trusted channels. (For more on trusted channels and message cascades, click here).



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