October, 2011 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
We are working with a federal government agency that has formed from the merger of previous separate departments. Their strategic story has been developed to communicate to staff what is changing, why, and what the organisation needs to focus on in the immediate future. A few weeks ago the client and I were discussing the project with internal comms. Their reaction was lukewarm until the client re-told one of the stories we had collected - it was about a staff member who tried to brush off a customer and had an 'ah-ha moment' when they realised that they were now part of the department who's job it is to help them. The internal comms lady listened and at the end of the story she uttered one word. "Wow".
The difference between a story and a fact [or assertion, opinion, generalisation etc] is the difference between 'wow' and 'hmmm'. If you want the reaction to be 'wow' then your best bet is to use a story.
"Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.” -Roger C. Schank
In this edition, we have:
In this edition, we have:
Book Review - Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters
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Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters
- by Richard Rumelt
There are two things we often notice when helping a company craft their strategic story: 1) the strategic story process helps executives clarify what they really think the strategy should be; and 2) way too many executives can’t actually tell you their company’s strategy without reaching for a document. It’s only since reading Richard Rumelt’s new book, Good Strategy Bad Strategy, that I can see both observations are symptoms of not having a story to tell about the company’s strategy.
The second point came quickly to us because we know stories are memorable and therefore if your strategy was a story then you have a better chance of remembering it. Ipso facto (I’m not 100% sure of what this means but it felt right to put it here). The first point, however, goes to the heart of Rumelt’s thesis: good strategy comprises a kernel made from a diagnosis of what’s happening that’s causing a challenge; a guiding policy on how the company will overcome this challenge; and a coherent set of actions that will translate the strategy into reality.
Most strategies are defined as a set of aspirational goals, which Rumelt argues is a big mistake that has resulted from the template view of strategy creation: create a vision, state a purpose, set some goals, bingo, you now have a strategy. An effective strategy is all about action, about getting something done, it’s concrete, plausible and doable. These attributes are much the same for stories.
So from a story perspective, the kernel consists of the story of what’s happening, the story of what will be done, and then the unfolding stories that emerge from the actions. These stories then help leaders decide how they will adapt to the inherent complexity of business.This is not just Shawn’s story-coloured glasses making this connection. Rumelt says himself that, "The diagnosis for the situation should replace the overwhelming complexity of reality with a simpler story, a story that calls attention to its crucial aspects. This simplified model of reality allows one to make sense of the situation and engage in further problem solving." p. 81
Rumelt’s book is divided into three parts. Part 1, Good & Bad Strategy, describes the differences between what makes a good’ne and what makes a stinker. Part 2, Sources of Power, describes a series of approaches the strategist can adopt to improve their strategy. It includes topics such as focus, leverage, advantage and growth. This section finishes with a chapter on putting it all together that examines the graphics chip maker NVIDIA and their strategy, which incorporates many of Rumelt’s sources of power. As suggested by Rumelt, I skipped to the NVIDIA chapter before reading each source of power in detail.
The last part, Thinking Like a Strategist, has three chapters which explore what is mean to reflect on how you think about strategy.
The book is very Gladwellesque in the way Rumelt tells stories. Each chapter is full of personal anecdotes, stories from history and Rumelt does a lovely job of telling stories that include analogies which he links to important strategy concepts. For example he tells the story of meeting a friend in Baja California who was a combat helicopter pilot. In some musing over a beer Richard (I bet he is know to his friends as Dick) says it would be better to be in a helicopter than a plane if the engines died because the rotors would keep turning and act like a parachute. He friend chuckled and said “only if the right actions are done within a second of losing power and, most importantly, without thinking about it.” Rumelt uses this analogy to discuss how companies have intuitive capabilities gained from experience which allows them to do things other companies just can’t. One type of competitive advantage. GS/BS is full of these interesting analogies.
Just a note on book architecture. I love endnotes. I’m always following those suckers to find out the original references and other tidbits hidden behind those superscripted numbers. But here’s the thing: if your end notes are arranged by chapter with a new set of endnote numbers then you need to have the chapter number/name on each page of your book otherwise I have to thumb back through the chapter to the chapter title page just to work out where the hell I am. This is not just a criticism of Rumelt’s book, this is most business books out there. Publishers and book designers, please note. OK, rant over.
This book is a bloody ripper. It has a really practical feel without getting dot pointy. The stories carry the book and keep it interesting and because many of the stories are personal anecdotes you develop a deep admiration for Rumelt’s character and experience. Well worth getting yourself a copy.
Things continue to be busy and much of our recent work has been on helping organisations convert their strategy into a coherent, understandable and memorable story and the helping the leaders to learn the story and a tell it effectively in a wide variety of contexts. The list below gives an idea of the broad application of our strategic story approach:
a coal mine starting on an IT-led business transformation project
government departments (one federal and one state) that are working to integrate previously separate organisations
a not-for-profit community organisation
the Asia-Pacific region of a global pharmaceuticals company
the IT department of a national energy provider
a national insurance company
We are also helping bring values (such as diversity and teamwork) to life for several large organisations using our narrative (story listening) approaches that help organisations make progress with complex issues.
And finally, our storytelling for leaders workshop is being run as a component of several leadership programs and many of our clients run this program internally.
Upcoming Events that we're running or attending:
Mark is speaking at the AHRI conference in Canberra on 31 October on the topic 'Translating your strategy into a story that everyone can understand and retell'. He is also running a session as part of a QUT Masters program on 'Using story as part of your change journey' in mid-November.
Kevin is finalising plans to go to the UK in late November to run our Storytelling for Leaders and Influencing Change workshops for a government client in London. Kevin will be running this program and will be renewing lots of connections during the trip. Let us know if you are based in the UK and interested in meeting him while he is there.
For the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of fostering the development of collaborative networks across six NSW councils as part of a NSW Environment Trust grant. The networks (aka communities of practice) are focussed on sustainability and Community Education and Engagement (CEE). As part of the grant, a research partner has been evaluating the project since its inception. This action research gives us valuable insight into whether the body of theory around CoP is borne out in practice.
One of the purposes of the grant program is to test whether CoP would work effectively in the local government context. Without any doubt, the answer to this question is yes. Well, the answer is actually ‘yes, but...’
The ‘but’ represents the absolute importance of context. Provided the conditions are right, CoP can flourish. Where the conditions aren’t right, CoP will struggle. We have seen the full spectrum of results through this program - from complete failure through to resounding success.
I’ll use the model from Wenger et al to describe some of the conditions necessary for success.
Executive Support. No matter how passionate staff are about sustainability, the networks need sufficient executive support to give them a license to operate. In one council, the network conducted a quite visible activity to encourage all staff to switch off their computers at night. The next morning, the CEO sent a one-line email to all staff to the effect: “Go the Green Champions! Great stuff.” This incredibly simple action has had an enduring effect.
CoP Coordinator. CoP need an effective coordinator with passion, energy and people skills. Part of the grant program was to fund the coordinator role and this has proved essential as the work, especially in the early stages, is considerable. The least successful network had the same resources, the coordinator was passionate about sustainability, but wasn’t that interested in developing the CoP. The result was entirely predictable.
Domain, Community, Practice. These are the core of Wenger's diagram. For this project, the domains are strong - there are lots of people in each council passionate about sustainability and community education and engagement. But most of the network coordinators have struggled with with the balance between getting stuff done (practice) and building the community. Even I was caught out by the difficulty in getting stuff done and the effort that needs to be focussed on building the network of connections that give the CoP its strength. For me, this was an important learning from the project.
The final point I'd make is the importance of the group's identity. Each of the groups have adopted a name that distinguises it from 'normal' council activity: The Green Champions, the S-Team, CHAOS, PIRATES and KGB. Several also have characters (mascots?) such as the Green Ninja that the group's activities are attributed to. These identities help the groups take on things that would normally be inappropriate or impossible to get through the hierarchy.
We've just received funding to extend the project to an additional four councils so we'll be able to put our learnings to the test.
Being a Kiwi, this is an incredibly exciting time for me with the Rugby World Cup currently underway in New Zealand. As part of keeping up to date with all the current news about the cup, the teams and the players, I came across this blog on the BBC website from British journalist, Ben Dir.
Ben spent some time in the small (population 750) Canterbury town of Southbridge with a gentlemen named Neville Carter. Now for those of you who aren't aware of who Neville Carter is, he is the father for the current All Black Number 10, Dan Carter, one of the greatest players currently playing in world rugby.
Ben was trying to understand some more of where Dan Carter came from, what values helped shape him and what kind of person he really was by talking to his father, sister and people he grew up with. Neville Carter told this very short, and simple story that for me tells so much about Dan Carter and who he is as a person. It was just after the devastating Christchurch earthquake of the 22nd of February, 2011;"
Daniel was staying with us for a few nights and he told us he had an appointment in town, but we found out he spent the day going round three retirement villages. He called in to see how they were, had a cup of coffee, found out how their knitting was going. We only knew about it because one of the old guys who used to play rugby out here rang me to say Daniel had just dropped in.
"Those old people had been through a horrific experience, so for an All Black to drop in and say g'day and have a yarn with them, it put a smile back on their faces. We're probably more proud of the things he does behind the scenes than what he does on the rugby field."
I just love the fact that very short, very simple stories can say so much.
We all know, and research backs this up, that making progress on meaningful work is the single most motivating aspect of any job. Taking steps towards your destination, finishing things along the way and just basically getting the things done that help you move forward is incredibly rewarding, motivating and deeply satisfying.However, we are all busy and have a hundred and one things to do, so how do you keep track of the progress you are making? How can you build in a routine that allows you to keep track of the small steps, the small wins and the downright painful work that takes you forward when you have so much to do?
Well here's one thing that may help, it's called IDoneThis — and here’s how it works.
You register for free on the site . Then at a time that you designate, for me its 5 p.m. every day, the IDoneThis guys send you an email asking what you’ve achieved that day.
You just simply reply to the email — and IDoneThis compiles the responses. You can then visit your own private online calendar to remember what you achieved yesterday, last Tuesday, or a month ago.
I like it for a number of reasons:
Its simplicity. All you have to do is reply to an email listing what you have done today, and then voilą, it’s posted onto your personal calendar.
Taking even just two minutes to reflect on the day and what I have achieved has been good for celebrating what I have done
Knowing I am going to have to write down what I have achieved today has been very motivating during the day to get stuff done!
The calendar is also a great way to be able to “see” your daily successes build and build. The blue check marks represent the days in which you posted something you did. When you click on each check mark, it will show you what you posted that day.
I’ve been using IDoneThis for about two month now, and its been good. Pausing, reflecting and then being able to see the progress I've made, in a very simple way, has been beneficial in keeping me making progress on the things that matter to me.
It turns out that two rights don’t make up for a wrong. In fact the ratio is much higher requiring our good actions outnumbering bad ones by at least five to one if we want our relationship to last. This is just one of the many findings in the momentous academic article, Bad is Stronger than Good, by Roy Baumeister and his three colleagues*.
As the article names suggests the authors show how bad things have a much bigger impact on people than good things. The 48 page paper draws on research from over 100 studies to build their case. While it’s long, it’s a good read.
I found this article reading Bob Sutton, the Stanford business professor’s, blog. Bob makes the good point that if bad actions have such a powerful impact we not only need to overwhelm bad with good but more importantly we need remove bad behaviours from the workplace. This is one of the most important tasks for an effective manager.
Here are some practical ways to reduce the bad.
Ideally start with the proactive approach. Look at how you recruit, select, induct and promote people and try to weed out potential negative influences before they infect your workplace.
If bad behaviour has emerged in your company the first step is to call the behaviour. That is, when you see bad behaviour pull the person aside and let them know that what they are doing is counter to the organisations values or what is considered generally as good behaviour. Of course this can be a bit tricky when it is someone who is more senior, but do you really want to be in a company where bad behaviour goes unchecked?
Sometime people have no idea they’re behaving badly so creating a situation where they can discover that themselves is a powerful change process. We do this in our leadership programs by collecting stories and facilitating leaders to choose the behaviours they want to reinforce or eliminate. It often results in situations like this one (originally recounted in our paper on insights):
Nick was standing in front of a wall of stories. Each A4 sheet of paper sported a single anonymous anecdote illustrating either a good or bad management behaviour, collected from Nick’s company. One story had captured Nick’s attention and made him agitated: “I can’t believe this guy. Imagine answering a phone in an interview. My God, he even stepped out of his office to chat with someone who was just passing by.”
His complaints caused others in the workshop to wander over to see what was going on. As Nick was spluttering his displeasure, Paul, one of his colleagues, jumped in: “That was my anecdote Nick, and it was about you.” Nick’s face turned red and before he could say anything, another colleague added: “It totally nails you Nick. It’s spot on. You do it all the time.” By now, everyone in the workshop was watching. It seemed the next few seconds would reveal Nick’s true character. Nick’s face was ashen as he loked around the room. He gathered himself and then apologised to his colleagues, adding: “I can’t promise you it won’t happen again – I wasn’t even aware I did this. But I can promise you that I’m going to make every effort to change my behaviour.” And to Nick’s credit, he did. At the time of the workshop, Nick was the head of sales and marketing at the company; he’s now the CEO.
Of course if calling it and helping people to see it in themselves doesn’t work then more drastic measures are needed. You can tell a lot about the culture of an company by how this question is answered: What does it take to get fired around here? One CEO in Bob Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule, makes sure he does the final interview for all significant hires. After an informal chat he looks them straight in the eye and says, “If I find out you’re an arsehole, I’ll fire you.” Most candidates have no problem with that. But in some cases the candidate excuses themselves from the selection process.
*Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C. & Vohs, K.D. 2001, 'Bad Is Stronger Than Good', Review of General Psychology, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 323-70.