Guest: Geoff Watson
Air Date: June 10, 2015
Geoff Watson’s approach to strategy is rooted in his background as a results-oriented, C-level leader with over 20 years of experience in education, technology, and consumer goods. At Monitor 360, Geoff is working with clients to identify innovative ways in which Narrative Analytics can shape strategy and support business–building initiatives.
Before coming to Monitor 360, Geoff advised UC Berkeley on disruptive technologies and the spin-out of the Center for Executive Education, and he served as an Executive-in-Residence focused on education investments for Gryphon Investors, a private equity firm. Before that, Geoffwas President of Intrax Cultural Exchange, an experiential education company, which grew from $25 million to $75 million in revenue under his leadership. He also led the development of groundbreaking public diplomacy programs in partnership with the Department of State and overseas governments.
Geoff received his MBA from Wharton and BA from Dartmouth College. He is on the Board of Polar Bears International and iSoccer. Geoff, his wife, and three boys live in Oakland, where Geoff coaches and plays soccer.
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John Sumser: Good afternoon and welcome to the HRExaminer Radio Show. I’m your host John Sumser and we are coming to you today from, it’s raining a little bit, Occidental, California where the roses are exploding off the trees. Out my office window there is a bush that must have 5,000 roses on it. It’s one of the clones of one of the Luther Burbank bushes that are all over Northern Sonoma County.
Today, we’re going to talk to Geoff Watson. Geoff is the CEO of a company called Monitor 360. If you’ve been following the material on the HRExaminer, we’ve been looking at computational linguistics and the use of text to figure out things about the organization, Geoff’s company does among other things measures of something he calls narrative analytics. Rather than try to tell you what that is I’m going to ask Geoff to introduce himself and we’ll get started with the conversation. So Geoff, how are you?
Geoff Watson: I’m doing great, John. One quick correction, I’m actually a partner at Monitor 360 but very, very happy to be on the show today.
John Sumser: You’re not going to take the promotion? I was giving you a promotion.
Geoff Watson: I love it. I’ll take it to the board and see how it flies.
John Sumser: That always goes over well. Always. Why don’t you introduce yourself, Geoff?
Geoff Watson: Sure. I’m going to talk a bit. I know we’ll talk a bit about narrative analytics and really about the power of narratives to organizations. The funny thing is that once you start seeing a world through narratives, everything in your life becomes a narrative. I now have narratives about my kids, about my wife and even about my dog. It’s really an occupational hazard but that is the power of narratives. As you mentioned, at Monitor 360, our whole mission is to help organizations understand, analyze and then ultimately shape the narratives that are most impacting their business.
John Sumser: When I think of narrative analytics, this morning I had somebody say to me, “Your metaphors shape your emotional experience.” I think that the point of your investigation of narratives is that the organization is shaped by the central narratives that you’re successful on.
Geoff Watson: Yeah. That’s absolutely right. Particularly, internal culture is really shaped by what we call organizational narratives. Those are really the deeply rooted emotional stories that employees tell themselves and each other about a company, its culture, its work environment, its leadership and its future prospects. These stories are how employees, all of us, really view communication, how we filter decisions and actions from leaders and peers. What we know having analyzed narratives for the last 10 years is that they really end up guiding a lot of behavior as well. That’s why they’re so powerful.
John Sumser: Tell us a little bit about what your current job is, what you actually do.
Geoff Watson: As a partner at Monitor 360, I am working with clients every day to help them understand those internal and external narratives that are most impacting their business. Then, I advise them and work with great teams at Monitor 360 on how to connect those narratives to strategy. Some of the organizations that we’re working with include folks like the Gates Foundation, Charles Schwab, PG&E, Salesforce.com and others.
John Sumser: I see. How do you go about doing that? It seems to me that not everybody is interested in understanding the story. How do you tell who you’re going to work with and whether or not they’re going to be receptive to the idea? It’s a big jump from we’re trying to build software to niche drive the structure of our organization.
Geoff Watson: That’s right. We’re often really tapping into innovative leaders in these organizations who realize that there are deeply rooted beliefs that are impacting things like employee engagement, productivity and retention. They want to get under the hood of what those belief systems are. We know depending on which study you look at, 70 to 80% of cultural change efforts fail. Understanding the narratives that employees hold in this case becomes increasingly important as you’re trying to make sure that employee engagement initiatives really land and become meaningful.
John Sumser: What are some examples of a narrative?
Geoff Watson: We recently did a project with a large energy company with over 20,000 employees. They wanted to really better understand and improve the employee experience and ultimately to reinforce key values of their culture like safety. We looked at a lot of data and narrative analytics is really a new approach to understanding narratives because for the first time, we’re tapping into large data sets and we can actually quantify narratives. That’s a real breakthrough.
For this organization, we looked at a lot of verbatim comments from surveys, tens of thousands of verbatim comments, transcripts from focus groups, Yammer chats, Glassdoor data, places where employees are really expressing their beliefs about the company. We identified seven deeply held organizational narratives that really reflect those employee mindsets.
An example of one of those was a narrative that we called proud to serve. It really is a motivational narrative and one that reflect, in this case, employees’ deep pride and commitment to the mission of this organization, again a large energy company, in delivering energy to local communities and helping to drive the regional economy and a desire to work together as a family to achieve those goals. Proud to serve is an example of one of those narratives, a really positive one.
John Sumser: Got it. When you find a negative one, I assume you’ve got some examples of negative ones, do you have trouble getting the company to understand what you’re seeing and respond appropriately to what you have to tell?
Geoff Watson: Leaders really, they often have an intuitive understanding of what some of those problematic narratives might be. For example, we recently surfaced a narrative around the idea that we call profit is king. This is actually a common narrative across many, many organizations particularly large ones. It’s a common narrative about employees feeling like leaders prioritize profit above all other aspects of culture.
What you have to remember is that these narratives are not necessarily based in objective reality but they do become an employee’s truth so to speak. When leaders are confronted with these narratives, they generally recognize them. I think what’s helpful in the narrative analytics process is for the first time, we can actually quantify them. You may have a general sense of what some of those narratives are but you don’t really know how prominent they are throughout the organization and then in different parts of the organization.
John Sumser: There’s a time-honored tradition of shooting the messenger, right?
Geoff Watson: Right.
John Sumser: Messengers who bear sorts of negative news that you might uncover get shot a lot. I wonder if you’d mind taking down just a little bit further because I know that what I see is people who discover the truth in organizations are often all of a sudden in a whole lot of trouble. They’re better off as consultants because they’re going to get fired. You must see some of that. Maybe Monitor 360 is in an interesting position because you bring this information in as a consultant and so from your position, [crosstalk 00:11:23].
Geoff Watson: It’s a great question, John. The reality is that we’re being brought into organizations because we have objectivity and we are being brought in in many cases to bring an outside in-lens to a very challenging business issue or problem. I think we’re viewed in the context of trust and as an outside party but with the interest of our client in mind.
You’d asked about whether clients really accept hearing some of maybe more problematic narratives that might surface. One of the things that helps is that we actually write these narratives. We really write these as fully developed stories in the voice of the employee. When leaders and managers read them, they immediately recognize them as being authentic and real and tangible. It’s that relatability that gives the narratives instant credibility and therefore, our analysis becomes something that people are really open to and excited to hear.
John Sumser: My experience has been that there are some ways that the organization sees itself that are changeable and there are some ways that the organization sees itself and they’re so critical to the organization’s identity that they’re not changeable, a sense of what that spectrum looks like. How do you help clients understand whether they’re looking at something that is completely structural and something that is more driven by current events?
Geoff Watson: There are narratives that are very enduring. That’s true. In society, the narrative of the American dream is a classic narrative that is often cited. It’s also true in organizations. There are things that live inside your head for years and ultimately shape a culture and drive behavior and they’re really deeply embedded. That said, it’s also possible to create a new narrative with the proper focus and continual reinforcement. Even in large organizations, you can create new narratives.
Now, sometimes those narratives are positive and other times, they’re not the narratives that leadership wants to create but we do see them getting created. We actually help our clients create new positive narratives. To your point about the ephemeral nature of certain events, certainly narratives can crop up quickly driven by external activities especially crisis situations that cause employees to think about their organization in a fundamentally different way.
Then, the key there is to really understand the roots of those new narratives and to see and be able to monitor whether they actually have legs and importantly, this is … John, one of the most important things we tell executives is understand what is triggering either positive narratives so you can keep doing it and amplify it or triggering negative narratives so you can avoid those communications or actions or behaviors.
John Sumser: What do you do in situations where there’s some level of contentious debate about whether the narrative is negative or positive? There’s something about the current Silicon Valley, about the role of gender in the workplace. There’s stuff all over about it there and all sorts of organizational narratives popping up through the thing and you can argue … I’m not sure it’s legit to argue but it certainly is being that there’s a broad range of useful opinion about the subject.
If you find somebody and you as the consultant go, “You know, this thing about thinking that women are a drag on productivity is probably going to get you in some trouble,” and the client says, “Well, but that’s how we do development.” When you get to about a certain problem, what’s that like? I assume you see that.
Geoff Watson: Yeah. There are narratives that can be interpreted in different ways. Part of that is really understanding what the core values of the organization are and remaining authentic to those values. We’re not in the business of trying to change a company’s values. We are trying to help them bring out the things that really align most closely with what employees believe.
Sometimes, there is narrative that has different interpretations to it. The important thing is if as leaders, we really want to understand what those employees’ mindsets are, what those organizational narratives are. Then, we really have to drill into whether that aspect of the narrative is positive or negative. We actually have some tools and technology to be able to get beyond simple sentiment and really understand the emotion behind narratives.
Most surveying tools and things like that are really about getting a general sense of favorability. We’re trying to do something that digs many layers deeper than that. Ideally, that helps sort through this question about whether a narrative is positive for an organization or negative for an organization.
John Sumser: Now, you’ve got some identified narratives. There’s an agreement in general that something needs to be changed. How does that work? How do you go about doing things after you’ve identified these stories?
Geoff Watson: Once we’ve identified the narratives or range of narratives in an organization, we then work with clients to develop a strategy for leveraging those narratives to connect to some of the cultural change objectives or employee engagement objectives they might have. Specifically, which positive narratives do they want to amplify, which problematic narratives do they need to reframe or in some cases, getting back to creating a new narrative, is there white space to find that new narrative opportunity.
We then help clients translate that narrative strategy, those priorities that we’ve collaborated on into key areas like communications and policy. Then, ultimately, we put employees to a monitoring system so that our clients can see over time how these narratives are shifting as the client introduces new initiatives and engages employees in different ways. After the insight comes the strategy, the implementation and the monitoring.
John Sumser: I saw an interesting demo from a company called TextIO that you might find useful. What TextIO does is it identifies gender bias in written communications. It does it in a way that is sensitive to the context of the organization in which it’s being done. The tool says this is biased towards the male view and this is biased towards the female view and encourages them to something that’s a more level balance.
Are you relative in having that tool associated with the shift in narrative? You identify the narrative. It’s got these characteristics and then as people communicate, there’s some guidance about moving away from that particular story? Is that something that you could think about?
Geoff Watson: Yeah. It is a big part of what we’re doing with clients is getting into those specific messages and in certain cases, policies and other actions to guide and move those narratives. The example you mentioned of seeing gender bias in communications is a really interesting one because that is in fact the texture behind certain narratives and a really important texture that you want to be keenly aware of.
You want to develop a roadmap for dealing with that. It’s oftentimes really complex and not intuitive for leaders and managers to be able to navigate those nuances. A lot of our process and the technology behind it like the one you mentioned is really targeted at ultimately making narratives actionable as units of decision making and analysis.
John Sumser: When you come to my company to do your work, what does an engagement look like? What is the actual work like?
Geoff Watson: In engagement, typically we start with developing what we call the core narrative landscape. That’s something that takes anywhere from six weeks to a couple of months. It’s a process that is a mash-up of data science, social science and business strategy. We are using technology to take large data sets that our clients often are providing, sometimes those are external data sets. In those data sets, we’re finding narrative expressions. Then, we’re developing those into full blown narratives that can be quantified and analyzed and then used for strategies.
The first six weeks to two months is really about identifying and quantifying those core narratives. Then, we move to that strategy phase I mentioned which often takes another month or two. Then, oftentimes, our clients want to put in a monitoring capability which would be an ongoing relationship. It all starts with that baseline narrative identification and analysis.
John Sumser: We’ve moved easily and gracefully through our allotted time. What do you want the audience to take away?
Geoff Watson: I would say three things. One is that organizations especially large and complex ones need to really understand the narratives that their employees hold and that are driving behavior. Number two is without deeper insight into those narratives, leaders are often launching culture change and engagement initiatives that fall flat. That is because they’re failing to see where those priorities are aligned or in some cases, misaligned with these underlying employee mindsets.
Finally, the good news is that there is really a way to get under the hood of these organizational narratives now and get out of some of the ambiguity that surrounds what really motivates employees. At least with Monitor 360 and narrative analytics, we can help organizations really illuminate those narratives and light the way for a meaningful culture change.
John Sumser: I like the way you put it in our whole conversation. You said that this is a way to understand the why behind the engagement scores. Is that a fair summary?
Geoff Watson: That is a great summary. It really is getting to that root cause, the why behind some of the quantitative measures that we all get from engagement surveys and other people analytic data. We really want to get the why and then also the how, the how are these organizational narratives being triggered. Once we know those things, we can get much more proactive in shaping strategy and culture change.
John Sumser: That’s great. Thanks for the time today. It’s been a real treat to have you onboard. Would you mind on the way out the door reintroducing yourself and tell people how to get a hold of you if they’re interested following up?
Geoff Watson: Yeah. We’d love to talk to folks of any type of organization. Again, I’m Geoff Watson. I’m a partner at Monitor 360. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or, and this is always dangerous but I’ll give you my cell number and you can contact me directly at 650-280-2048, happy to hear from people.
John Sumser: That’s great. That’s very generous of you. Thanks so much again for taking the time to fill us in on what you’re up to, Geoff. It’s been my pleasure to spend this time with you. You’ve been listening to the HRExaminer Radio Show. This is your hosts John Sumser. We’ve been coming to you from the beautiful Occidental, California and we look forward to seeing you next week. Thanks very much.