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Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Never Say Don't... Without Saying Do...

Hat-tip to the Financial Services Club for highlighting Newsweek's quotes of the credit crunch. The last one in particular caught my eye. It was taken from a speech by President Obama in New York on 14 September:
“I want everybody here to hear my words. We will not go back to the days of reckless behaviour and unchecked excess at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses. Those on Wall Street can not resume taking risks without regard for consequences and expect that next time, American taxpayers will be there to break their fall.”
Wise words, but beware the power of suggestion when quoting them. The word 'not' only appears twice amidst 67 other words describing how to bring the economy to its knees. Cue vague public agreement from Wall Street, but no real sense of understanding that would help generate change. That's because, despite the context, bankers hear this:
“....go back to the days of reckless behaviour and unchecked excess at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses. Those on Wall Street can resume taking risks without regard for consequences and expect that next time, American taxpayers will be there to break the fall.”
Now I don't mean to suggest that the President is missing a trick when it comes to great orations or political rhetoric. The problem lies in Newsweek's choice of sound bite.

By contrast, I prefer a quote from Lord Turner's recent attacks on the same evils. And the strong adverse reaction of bankers illustrates why it is better to speak in positive terms about change. Not only does the reaction signal that the bankers realise Lord Turner is not suggesting a return to past practices, but also their real anger at the vision of what's expected of them in the new world - they've been launched along the 'change curve':
"...the top management of banks... need to operate within limits. They need to be willing, like the regulator, to recognise that there are some profitable activities so unlikely to have a social benefit, direct or indirect, that they should voluntarily walk away from them. They need to ask searching questions about whether the complex structured products they sold to corporate and institutional customers, truly did deliver real hedging value or simply encouraged those institutions into speculative and risky exposures which they did not understand: and, if the latter, they should not sell them even if they are profitable. They need to be willing to accept the capital and other requirements which will be imposed on activities of little value and considerable risk, rather than deploy lobbying power to argue against such constraints on the basis of a simplistic assertion that all innovation is always valuable."
Another way to explain is to imagine what activity we would see more of, if we were filming a world where the proposed change had occurred, versus what we would see less of. This was a useful tool for change management we used at GE, designed to harnessing the power of suggestion in a positive way. Never say 'Don't...', without saying 'Do...'.
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