2012 has been an exciting year for Anecdote. We have worked with many inspiring and energetic people and organisations…making strategies stick, helping leaders communicate, influence and inspire, bringing value to life and building more collaborative workplaces. During the year we worked with Paul and Dan from Route to Greatness and this led to a significant change in strategic focus for Anecdote.
In 2013 we intend to focus lots of effort on getting out and meeting lots more people. We love nothing more than meeting interesting people and drinking coffee and if we can achieve both these goals at the same time then all the better. If you want to catch up then please let us know via email.
On behalf of all the team at Anecdote, I wish you a safe and happy festive season and an exciting and prosperous 2013.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manager of Manchester United Football Club, recently gave a talk to academics at the Harvard Business School.
Ferguson, who has recently clocked up 26 years in charge at Old Trafford where he has won an astonishing 37 trophies, was invited to Harvard to talk about the secrets of his success.
One of the things he was quoted as saying was about his pre-match team talk;
“I once heard a coach start with ‘This must be the 1000th team talk I’ve had with you,’ and saw a player quickly responding with ‘And I’ve slept through half of them!‘
So I like to tell different stories, and use my imagination. Generally, it is about our expectations, their belief in themselves, and their trust in each other.
I remember going to see Andrea Bocelli, the opera singer. I had never been to a classical concert in my life. But I am watching this and thinking about the coordination and the teamwork, one starts and one stops, just fantastic. So I spoke to my players about the orchestra – how they are a perfect team.”
So, there you have it. One of the secrets of Sir Alex Ferguson’s success. He keeps his players interest, makes what he says memorable, and connects emotionally with them before every game by telling stories.
I recently had the opportunity (and privilege) to attend a masterclass with [Richard Rumelt](http://www.strategyland.com/), one of the world’s most influential thinkers on strategy and management, and author of ‘[Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters](http://www.amazon.com/Good-Strategy-Bad-Difference-Matters/dp/0307886239/)’.
As the title of his book hints, he sees lots of examples of what he calls ‘bad strategy’. He sees the hallmarks of a bad strategy being ‘fluff’, failure to face the challenge, mistaking goals for strategy and bad strategic objectives. He defines fluff as “a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments,” and argues that fluffy slogans become substituted for strategy. In the masterclass, as he does in the book, he provided plenty of stories and examples to illustrate his point.
Attending the masterclass reaffirmed just how important the work we are doing with our clients is. We commonly see the problems he describes, where strategies are full of ambiguous and abstract language. Employees are encouraged to be ‘customer-centric’ and ‘results-driven’, and to have ‘a high degree of professionalism’. They are expected to live a company’s values of ‘integrity’, ‘passion’ and ‘honesty’. They have to continually improve the way they work to make themselves more ‘efficient’ and effective’, working ‘smarter not harder’ so as to ‘get the right things done’.
Whilst they may be well-intentioned, these abstractions often get in the way of real understanding and action. One of the ways we help organisations get past this, and bring their strategies to life, is to use real-life examples from within their own business. We help them find and share stories and specific examples of these abstract concepts in action, which helps them to understand and apply them. In other words, the stories help them to make the abstractions ‘concrete’.
Rumelt believes that the mark of “true expertise and insight is making a complex subject understandable.” That’s what we’re aiming to achieve using stories.
One of the challenges embedding a strategy is helping people relate their job to it. Strategies often seems distant and abstract. How does a person in one of the far flung corners of the organisation contribute to the pursuit of a new corporate strategy?
This simple technique is based on the idea that we don’t really understand something until we can tell ourselves a story to explain it.
So why not help people tell a story about their job and the new strategy with a story spine.
Readers of this blog were introduced to story spines in 2007. They’re a simple story structure that can be used to help people construct a story. They look something like this:
Way back when…
But one day…
Because of that… (repeat three times or as often as necessary) Until finally…
Ever since then…
Imagine asking people to create a story that explains how their job relates to the new strategy using this story spine,
Way back when…
But one day we were told of our new strategy
Because of that… (repeat three times or as often as necessary) Until finally…
Ever since then…
Of course the cynics will say, “yes, and because of that I ducked for cover and kept doing exactly what I did before the new strategy was announced…” In which case if you can get people to share these stories they provide incredible insights into your company culture.
But I find this doesn’t happen when story spines are created in groups. In fact, amazing insights emerge for your teams.
Let me know how you go using story spines or if you have any good story spine stories to tell.
Last week I ran a workshop for an investment firm to help their senior leaders appreciate their role in fostering their culture.
Never mind, I thought, I would just get the participants to use these stories to trigger other more impactful stories.
On the day of the workshop, to my pleasant surprise, the 50 leaders were highly engaged with their stories.
It was a great reminder that people love to hear the stories from their colleagues no matter how small because each person carries with them a multitude of background books that fill in all the gaps and bring each small story to life.
It reinforced my belief that working at the small ‘s’ end of the story spectrum is not only quite different to most practitioners, it has an enormous impact.
Cynthia A. Montgomery is the Timken Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. One of the programs she teaches is for accomplished executives and entrepreneurs at one of Harvard’s flagship programs.
Very early on in the program she asks these senior business people to list three words that come to mind when they hear the word strategy. Collectively they have produced 109 words, frequently giving top billing to ‘plan‘, ‘direction‘, and ‘competitive advantage‘.
In more than 2,000 responses, only 2 had anything to do with people: one said ‘leadership‘, another ‘visionary‘.
Isn’t that amazing. In over 2,000 responses from experienced, senior leaders and business owners, the term leadership was mentioned once in regard to strategy.
And as Montgomery, author of the book The Strategist: Be the Leader Your Business Needs, says; “Downplaying the link between a leader and a strategy, or failing to recognise it at all, is a dangerous oversight…After all, defining what an organisation will be, and why and to whom that will matter, is at the heart of a leader’s role.”
In a recent McKinsey Quarterly article ‘How strategists lead‘ (paid access required for full article) she goes on to say:
“It is the leader…who must make the vital choices that determine a company’s very identity, who says, “This is our purpose, not that. This is who we will be. This is why our customers and clients will prefer a world with us rather than without us.” Others, inside and outside a company, will contribute in meaningful ways, but in the end it is the leader who bears responsibility for the choices that are made and indeed for the fact that choices are made at all.”
Do you as a leader understand your role in creating, communicating and embedding strategy?
What’s your reaction when someone, in a business context, says “let me tell you a story?”
I often ask this question during our Storytelling for Leaders workshops. The responses follow a common set of themes including “I don’t have time for this” and “why am I listening to this?”
But the most important response is “it’s a story, so it’s not true”.
The word ‘story’ is negatively coded in western culture, especially in business, and is very commonly associated with fiction.
So, the rookie error in business storytelling is to lead with the word ‘story’. You get a much better result by saying something like ‘can I give you an example…’ or ‘I had an experience…’
This post was prompted last night at the farewell of Air Vice-Marshal Margaret Staib who left the Air Force after a stellar 31-year career. Several years ago, Marg said something to the effect, “there is no place for stories in Defence … but my staff officers know never to bring me a briefing paper without one or two vignettes that illustrate the key points”.
So, beware the pitfalls of talking about stories and storytelling in your organisation. Despite the plethora of books and articles on the subject and the increasing acceptance of the term in mainstream business, you’re better off sharing examples, experiences, events … and yes, even vignettes.
A quick search on Amazon shows that in 2012 alone there are more than 16 books published on business storytelling. It seems everyone is putting their hand up as an expert in this field.
For me there’s one important test a business storytelling expert must past: when they talk about business storytelling they must actually tell stories. Or better yet, they must tell business stories.
This year I’ve sat through two, hour-long presentations by self proclaimed business storytelling experts who didn’t tell a single story in their talk.
If you’re working in business you should hear business stories all the time. I heard this one this week.
A large law firm had just spent considerable time and money training their partners to be better sales people. They were taught not to waste time on the small fish, to qualify early and move to the next opportunity quickly. No regrets.
On this particularly day some of the partners were running a big pitch and they decided at the last minute that it was essential to have the managing partner at the meeting. They called him and the managing partner said he would love to but he had already committed to meeting with a customer for lunch. The client was a new connection, a fairly small opportunity based in Malaysia. The partners did their best to persuade the managing partner to postpone his meeting but he said, “no, I’ve committed to this meeting and I will be having lunch with my Malaysian client.”
Weeks later as one thing led to another the Malaysian client became the biggest new customer the firm that year.
If you want to brush up on how to spot a story I recommend you do our story test. Or just jump to how we define a story. By the way it’s got nothing to do with protagonists overcoming challenges and hero’s journeys.
PS: Thanks to my friend Darren Woolley for prompting this post with his one on 3 ways to make sure that social media expert is really an expert