Filed in Strategic clarity
Narratives are a connected set of stories that together form a bigger story, one with a beginning, middle and end.
It’s a bit like a movie in which each scene is itself a small story. Take Star Wars. Early in the movie we meet Luke, who is living with his aunt and uncle, farming moisture on a remote homestead. One day he heads out in search of a wayward droid he bought, and when he returns he finds that his family has been slaughtered by Imperial Stormtroopers.
If something as bad as this happened to a family in our own city, there’s a good chance we would hear about it and we’d probably tell the story to someone else. It’s a small story in the larger Star Wars narrative.
But organisational life is not like a Hollywood movie, where each event is precisely crafted for maximum entertainment effect. When stories arise in a company, which happens all the time, it’s the leader’s role to choose which ones to tell, which to ignore, which to replace, even which new stories to trigger.
The choice that leaders make regarding which story to amplify is dependent on the context, strategy and desired culture in that period of the organisation’s existence. A leader’s values also have an impact. But these are not merely the result of top-down pressure exerted by a leadership team. Context is also created by the stories already being told. All the stories being told in an organisation reflect its culture. And if you want to change a culture, you will need to change the stories being told.
The Bible is a good example of a collection of stories that has been drawn on by leaders over an eon. It contains more stories than have ever been told by any one leader, church or even denomination. Rather, over the years, different leaders have selected different subsets of stories to tell that reflect their own purposes and goals. At the same time, their story choices have been filtered by what society wants or deems acceptable.
The same is true for organisations. Every company has a history. But rather than just relate that history, leaders need to choose stories from it – including ones from the here and now – which explain their strategies, their desired ethos and the principles that will bring their strategies to life.
So it’s important for a company to be aware of its stories, the ones that have been told and the ones being told right now. It’s only when armed with this knowledge that an organisation can choose what to emphasise and what to replace.
Unfortunately, with so much churn taking place in organisations, many of these stories are unknown to leaders. An extra complication is the misguided belief among some leaders that they should only focus on the future and leave the past behind. However, it’s been said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Worse still, leaders who are unaware of the past are unable to predict how people might react to new initiatives. Our stories are our best tool for predicting the future.
Stories are very much like habits – you can’t just stop a story; you can only replace it with a better one. This means understanding the triggers that cause a story to be told and working out the benefits of that story for the teller and the audience. Only then do you stand a chance of replacing it.
Narratives and Endings
Whether it’s a small story or the overarching narrative in which it sits, an ending helps make the point. Much of the meaning is wrapped up in the end. In selecting which stories to tell, leaders also select endings. Without those endings the listener is left hanging, and no-one likes to be left hanging. “To be continued” is the worst possible way to end a story.
Organisational narratives never sits still. Time rolls on and new story-worthy events happen. Leaders must choose new stories to add to the organisational narrative and decide to drop others. The narrative evolves.
In the case of the overarching narrative, the ending should not be confused with the storytelling skill of selecting an ending. When a leader selects a series of stories to create a (new) narrative, the stories fit together to form a beginning, middle and end, each element contributing to the point of the story.
Organisations should be looking to harness the complexity of their organisational narratives. Leaders cannot simply mandate a company story. But to forge the business they want, they should be aware of which stories are being told, and which stories they would like to be told and start recounting the ones they want to amplify.
Filed in Business storytelling
Sometimes the best way to affect large-scale change is to focus on changing one important habit, what Charles Duhigg calls a keystone habit. Here is the story of Alcoa’s transformation.
‘I want to talk to you about worker safety’, he said. ‘Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work. Our safety record is better than the general American workforce, especially considering that our employees work with metals that are 1500 degrees and machines that can rip a man’s arm off. But it’s not good enough. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.’
The audience’s relief turned into confusion. This was not what they were accustomed to at such events. Where was the promise to raise profits and lower costs? Where was the passionate criticism of corporate regulations and taxes? Where were all the comforting buzzwords like ‘synergy’, ‘alignment’, ‘rightsizing’ and ‘co-opetition’? What was all this talk of worker safety? Wasn’t that something that someone who was in favour of regulation might say?
O’Neill continued, seemingly oblivious to his listeners’ reactions: ‘Before I go any further, I want to point out the safety exits in this room. There’s a couple of doors in the back, and in the unlikely event of a fire or other emergency, you should calmly walk out, go down the stairs to the lobby, and leave the building’.
The comments were greeted with a deafening silence. The confusion had become outright bewilderment. One investor, remembering O’Neill’s stint in Washington in the 1960s, thought, ‘Guy must have done a lot of drugs’. Then, tentatively, hands started going up. In a desperate attempt to find familiar ground, people started asking about capital ratios and inventories and the like.
‘I’m not certain you heard me’, O’Neill said. ‘If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important. They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.’
After the presentation, many analysts called their clients and advised them to sell all their stock in Alcoa – immediately. One of them told a client, ‘The board put a crazy hippie in charge and he’s going to kill the company’. It would turn out to be the worst financial advice those analysts ever gave. A year later, Alcoa’s profits would hit a record high. Thirteen years later, on O’Neill’s retirement, the firm’s annual net income would be five times greater than it had been when the CEO was hired. His company would also be one of the safest in the world.
‘I knew I had to transform Alcoa’, O’Neill would later explain. ‘But you can’t order people to change. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.’
O’Neill concentrated on changing one influential, or keystone, habit throughout his organisation – safe practice – and this had a domino effect, causing many other habits to change too. For the better.
Sourced from Charles Duhigg (2012), The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business, Random House, New York.
Filed in Business storytelling
Filed in Business storytelling
Why not join us for a public version of the workshop Steve is talking about in Perth on the 4th March. Click here for more information and tickets.
Filed in Business storytelling, Collaboration, Knowledge
Here at Anecdote we focus on oral storytelling. Our network of partners around the world help leaders find and tell business stories to influence, engage and even inspire.
The thing is, there are very few examples of business oral storytelling on the net so we’ve started a little project to tell the stories that are catalogued in our Story Finder collection. In case you haven’t seen it, Story Finder are all the stories we’ve written in our blog that we think a business person might find useful to tell categorised by leadership topics like innovation, resilience and incentives.
Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a great storyteller but what I’ve learnt is that you only get the benefits of storytelling when you are telling a story. So here is our first example. Please let me know what you think.
Sometimes the simplest interventions can have the biggest impact.
In October 1935, US Army Air Corps brass gathered at an airfield in Dayton, Ohio. They’d come to see two aircraft builders pit their planes against each other in a series of trials, with the best-performed aircraft getting its builder a lucrative contract for new long-range bombers. In theory, the two rivals, Boeing Corporation and Martin & Douglas, had an equal chance of winning the contract. But in reality, the result seemed a foregone conclusion.
The smaller Martin & Douglas plane just couldn’t compete with Boeing’s bigger, more powerful Model 299. This imposing aircraft boasted a 103-foot wingspan, four engines (the norm was two), five times the specified number of bombs, and twice the range of its predecessors. Rumour had it that the army had pretty much already decided to order 65 of what one newspaperman had dubbed ‘the flying fortress’.
The Model 299, carrying five crew members, made for an impressive sight as it taxied onto the runway and then roared off to rise gracefully into the sky. But as the army chiefs and manufacturing executives looked on, the plane stalled at 300 feet, tipped sharply and crashed to the ground. Two of the crew were killed, including the pilot, Major Ployer P. Hill.
An investigation found that Major Hill had been preoccupied with the many procedures required to fly the complex new plane, from monitoring the variable oil–fuel mix in each engine to adjusting the pitch of the constant-speed propellers. Because of this, he’d forgotten to release the rudder and elevator controls. But while the tragedy was blamed on ‘pilot error’, the implication was that the Model 299 was too complicated to be safe – as one reporter put it, it was ‘too much airplane for one man to fly’. The army contract was awarded to Martin & Douglas; Boeing’s business was ruined almost to the point of bankruptcy.
But some in the Army Air Corps still thought the Model 299 was the better aircraft. So a group of test pilots got together to work out how further accidents could be avoided. They ruled out more training – Major Hill had been in charge of flight testing and couldn’t have been more experienced. Instead, they came up with a stunningly simple idea. Previously, flying a plane had been fairly easy for a pilot to manage. But aeronautical advances now meant there were too many things going on in the cockpit for one person to handle. What was needed, the test pilots decided, was a checklist.
The pilots kept their checklist straightforward but comprehensive, including even the most obvious actions – release the brakes, close all doors and windows, unlock the elevator controls, and so on. Everything a pilot needed to remember was there, on a single index card. And it did the trick. Using their checklist, the pilots flew the Model 299 for a total of 1.8 million miles without incident. The Army Air Corps subsequently ordered thousands of the flying fortresses, renaming them B-17s and using them to devastating effect during World War 2.
Sourced from Atul Gawande (2011), The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Picador, New York.
“They won’t care what you know until they know that you care” (a line attributed to many but my favourite is baseball coach Yogi Berra).
This week I received an email from a newly minted executive who was off to New Zealand to take up a new post. Let’s call her Sarah.
Sarah had attended one of our Storytelling for Leaders workshops and was keen to have a few stories to tell when she started her new role. In fact, she asked me what story should she tell.
Firstly, we all need to tell many stories, many small stories. There’s rarely a time when a single story is sufficient. These small stories add up to create a big picture. I wrote in praise of small stories back in March this year and I see their power every day.
But what small stories should you tell?
Stories that show you care
I’d start by sharing stories that illustrate why you care. Why is this new role important to you and why you care about the people you’re working with. And whenever an Australia takes an executive role in New Zealand (Americans in Canada are the same), as in this case with Sarah, why you care about New Zealand.
A simple strategy to show you care about New Zealand is to find and tell New Zealand stories. Listen to the stories from your New Zealand colleagues, especially from the NZ workplace, and tell them. Avoid telling stories from Australia. This simple act shows what’s important to you.
Stories that show what you value
Then I’d start telling stories about what you value as a leader. For example it might be things like having a go, great customer service or speaking up. Share stories that illustrate what these things mean and why they are important to you and the company.
And lastly, to help you connect, share stories of how you are like the people you are working with. That you have similar backgrounds, similar holidays, similar histories in the company. Of course, never, and I mean never, make anything up just because you think it will be received well.
I saw a wonderful example of a new executive share some stories to connect.
A couple of years ago Mark and I were running a workshop for a large insurance company. It was a one day event. Part way through the day we were told that the new CEO would like to talk to our participants who made up the top 100 leaders in the commercial division of the company. They hadn’t met the CEO yet.
The CEO arrived and started his talk with a story about his first job as a young man as a insurance adjuster for a commercial insurer in Yorkshire. It was terrific little tale. He was showing he was a little bit like them and showed why he cared about the insurance business.
Then he shared another story about being on the brink of a cash flow crisis in a previous company and now how he pores over the figures with his CFO. He was making it clear that he was a numbers guy and if you come to him with a proposal you’d better get the numbers right.
He was there for only about 15 minutes but he made a tremendous impact on everyone. Not to mention the excellent example of storytelling he left us to dissect when he left.
Back in 2008 Wharton School professor, Adam Grant (author of one of my favourite books, Give and Take), conducted a fascinating experiment that highlighted how important it is to be reminded of your purpose.
He was working with a call centre that raised funds for a university. He divided the call centre into three groups. Group 1 were reminded (using two stories) of the benefits of the job; how working there could benefit their own lives. Group 2 were reminded (also with two stories) of the impact their fund-raising was having on benefactors; how their work benefited the lives of others. Group 3 was the control, they received no intervention.
A month after the intervention the study found that people in Groups 1 and 3 showed no change in the number of donations or the amount of donation raised. Group 2, however, more than doubled the average number of donations (9 to 23) and the donation size ($1,288 to $3,130).
It’s easy to get bogged down in the doing and forget our purpose. And as you can see from Grant’s research significant productivity improvements can come just by reminding people why they are doing what they are doing.
It’s worth noting that these benefits come from sharing stories rather than merely passing on a point of view or a set of facts as dot points. The stories help people feel the impact they’re making.
Grant stopped after a month. In organisations we need to continue the process and embed the story sharing into day-to-day activities.
For example Apple stores embed customer service know-how by sharing a story of exceptional service every morning in their pre-opening staff huddle. It’s done in a subtle way without even mentioning stories explicitly. On the previous day they run a random net promoter score survey of customers. Any employee who gets a 10 out of 10 is recognised in the huddle with the simple request to describe what happened to get the 10. A story is naturally told. Everyone gets a concrete example of what it takes to get a 10 and also sees how much it is valued by management and their peers.
One-off storytelling has impact for sure. But systemic, repeated storytelling changes behaviour and creates deep capabilities.
Grant, A. M. (2008). The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 108-124.
In September this year our new partner in Singapore, Anjali Sharma, organised the first Storytelling for Leaders Program in her fine country. She also organised a photographer and videographer and put together this short clip showing you what happened on the day.
People watch the behaviour of leaders intensely, like they are on stage with a spotlight on them. This concentrated attention on leader behaviour can be used to trigger new stories and to communicate meaning. Often simple actions can be much more powerful than the words leaders use, as illustrated on the example below:
At the dinner that evening I asked several people what they remembered about the sustainability statement. The consistent reply was, “I don’t remember what the policy statement said, but I know the CEO is really serious about it. Did you see the way he walked over and hit the screen.”
The downside of this is that when leaders behave poorly or in ways that undermine strategy or values, the stories spread just as effectively.