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Leave 'em Laughing

Article by Linda Rising,

I’ve been performing in groups of various kinds since I was in grade school, and, over the years, I can remember countless numbers of directors of those groups giving me an interesting piece of advice that I’ve recently re-discovered in a new form:

Don’t worry about making mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Just do the best you can throughout the performance—the most important part, the part the audience will remember, is the closing phrase/measure/chord. That must be perfect! Watch and listen and make sure to do your absolute best at the end!
The first time I heard this, I thought the teacher was just trying to get a bunch of wiggly kids to stand still and pay attention for the whole piece. Surely, the ending, a small part of the entire performance, couldn’t have that much impact! It was important, sure, but was it that important?

As I grew older and began to take on the role of director, I began to see the power of a good ending. Everyone felt better if the last phrase/measure/chord was truly memorable. There was definitely a feeling in the group that the performance had been good. It was as though we had quickly forgotten the flubs and missed entrances because the ending was so superb.

The audiences seemed to feel that way, too. Comments were: “That last phrase was heavenly!” “When you sang that last measure, I got shivers down my spine!” “What a powerful sound at the very end! I can still hear it!”

Then I moved on to teaching and training and giving speeches and it seemed that even though no music was involved that the same phenomenon was occurring. The comments from people in the audience or class or training were more about what happened at the last than anything else (even if I had thought it was all pretty good!). I chalked it up to the power of short-term memory!

I’ve been reading a book by Barry Schwartz "The Paradox of Choice". One of the many interesting things I’ve learned from this book is that we evaluate past experiences on the basis of how (good or bad) they felt at their “peak” and how they felt at the end.

Nobel-prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, and his colleagues have shown that what we remember about past experiences is almost entirely determined by these two things: how the experience felt when it was at its peak and how it felt when it ended.
Think about that! When people evaluate past experience, they only recall two things: how it felt at the peak and whether it got better or worse at the end. As a result, a slight improvement, even an improvement from "intolerable" to "pretty bad," makes the whole experience seem better, and a bad ending makes everything seem worse. This “peak-end” rule is how we summarize the experience and then we rely on that summary to remember how the experience felt. The summary influences our decision about whether to have that experience again. Virtually all other information appears to be discarded, including “total” pleasantness or unpleasantness (whatever that may mean!) and how long the experience lasted. Things like the ratio of pleasure to displeasure during the experience or how long the experience lasted have almost no influence on our memory of it. Our choices of which experiences to repeat do not always maximize total enjoyment or minimize total pain.

Men undergoing diagnostic colonoscopy were asked to report how they felt moment by moment while having the exam, and how they felt when it was over. The first group had a standard colonoscopy. The second group had the standard exam and when the actual examination was finished, the doctor left the instrument in place for a short time. This was unpleasant, but not as bad as the actual exam because the instrument wasn’t moving. In summary, the second group experienced the same moment-by-moment discomfort as the first group, with the addition of somewhat lesser discomfort for 20 seconds more. A short time after the exam, the second group rated their experience as less unpleasant than did the first group. Even though both groups had the same peak experience, the second group had a milder experience at the end.

Here’s an added twist on this study—over a 5-year period after this exam, patients in the second group were more likely to comply with calls for follow-up colonoscopies than patients in the first group.

The interesting follow-on result shows that a simple addition to the procedure could mean that more patients would have their follow-on check-ups. Since colon cancer, the third most common cause of cancer death among both men and women in the United States, is frequently preventable and highly treatable if detected early, this could mean a savings of both lives and health costs.

What can we do with this simple but powerful information?

Great musical compositions have great beginnings, then build to a climax, and have great endings. It seems to me after having read the research, that this is no accident. Since we have evolved to remember the highlight and the ending for our past experiences, our vacations, our jobs, our customer interactions, and our holiday breaks can all be reduced to a couple of simple elements.

Understanding this can give us considerable influence over the events that we plan for our own lives and for the experiences in our organizations. In the future, ask yourself what the “peak” and “end” will be for the participants for all the experiences you are planning.

One of the services I provide in my consulting business is retrospectives at the end of projects. I see in every setting how little people remember about what happened over the lifetime of the project—whether it lasted for several years or a few months. The team members do remember the end of the project and they have an overall sense of whether it was “good” or “bad”—the peak, but it takes a lot of work to pry those stored memories lose so the team can learn from the past before they begin the next project.

One thing that managers and team leads can do is to remember to celebrate the “end” and the “peak moments” of every project experience. It will impact what team members remember about that project and if they remember the experience as a “good” one, they will be happier and research clearly shows that happier people are more productive and innovative.

Research also shows that being grateful to those you work with makes a difference—just saying thanks impacts not just only the receiver, but also the giver of those thanks. End experiences with a “thank you” and you will both remember what happened in a more positive light.

Here I am at the end of this article, so I want to leave you laughing—actually I want to leave you thinking! A friend sent me this paraphrase of something Peter Drucker wrote in his book "Management" first published in 1973.

No organization can depend on genius; the supply is always scarce and unreliable. It is the test of an organization to make ordinary human beings perform better than they seem capable of, to bring out whatever strength there is in its members, and to use each person’s strength to help all the others perform. The purpose of an organization is to enable common people to do uncommon things.

Maybe the “peak-end” tool can help us in this challenging work!
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Linda Rising has a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in the field of object-based design metrics and a background that includes university teaching and industry work. She is an internationally known presenter on topics related to patterns, retrospectives, agile development approaches, and the change process. At GOTO Aarhus 2012 she presents two Training Sessions, Influence Strategies for Practitioners and Problem-solving and Decision-making in Software Development and one presentation, The biological basis for pairing, in the Humans at Work track.