Steve Kelman argues that we all should be much more willing to ask for help.
I have been reading a fascinating new book called All You Have to Do is Ask by Wayne Baker, a professor at the University of Michigan Business School. The basic theme of the book is that most people are far more willing to provide us with information and advice for dealing with situations we are facing than most of us assume.
"When I ask audiences what it takes for them to ask for help, most people tell me they only speak up once they reach their wit's end," Baker writes. "'I ask for help only when I can't figure it out for myself and I'm totally desperate,' they say. [But] people can't help you if they don't know what you need, and they don't know what you need until you tell them."
In one experiment in New York City, people asked a stranger on the street if they could use their cellphone to make a call. On average, the second person they asked agreed; asked before trying how many requests they thought it would take, the average guess was many times the number it actually took." Asking for help, Baker argues, is often "the one simple act standing between us and success."
Adam Grant, the renowned Wharton organizational psychologist, has developed with Baker an exercise called the "Reciprocity Ring," which is a structured way for people to ask for help in a workgroup setting. It works like this: They gather people in the workgroup in a circle. Each participant is asked in turn to announce a request for help to the group.
When Baker conducts these, he says that the request may literally be for anything, as long as it conforms to the SMART criteria similar to those often used to describe a good performance measure: Specific, Meaningful, Action-oriented, Realistic, and within a specific Timeframe. After each request, the audience is asked to think about whether they or someone they know could help, and to present a solution to the requester. Almost always there is someone who can.
Grant and Baker don't see these as one-time events, but recurring ones. The more experience people get at seeing their requests responded to, the more aggressive they will be about the size of their asks. They also say that some scaled-down version can be introduced at regular staff meetings, perhaps asking one or two people to make requests.
As an complement to smaller Reciprocity Rings, they suggest at large conferences asking people to take out their smartphones and message in one idea about how the organization could do something better.
I am always on the lookout for management techniques that can help your organization improve performance without costing you any budget or other money. This is another great example.
"When we conduct the Reciprocity Ring with only twenty-four participants and in just two and a half hours, we've calculated," Baker writes, "that the ideas, solutions, and referrals generated in the activity generate "time savings to the tune of 1,600 hours or more" and "cost savings between $150,000 and $400,000."
Beyond the performance improvements, helping someone out in the Reciprocity Ring makes people in the organization feel better by fostering a feeling of gratitude. And when others help us, they feel good as well.
Over 100,000 people have participated in Reciprocity Rings at various companies and universities. As far as I know, this has never been tried in government. Who wants to be a first adopter?
I don't think there is a lot of downside risk here, especially since it's been used at places such as General Motors, Google, and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Anybody who tries this and wants to share your experiences with others, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org – I would love to write a blog about what happened.
And if you want some specific instructions for how to conduct a Reciprocity Ring, contact Give and Take, a company Grant and Baker have set up. All you have to do is ask!