Inspiring action is more important than gaining insight
February, 2012 | Published by Anecdote - Putting Stories to Work.
In the early days of Anecdote we believed the key purpose of story-listening was to gain insight. Shawn wrote in a 2005 blog; "Listening to stories is one of the best ways to understand what is happening in a complex and dynamic situation...Stories clarify the emerging patterns upon which effective interventions can be formulated."
What we have now come to realise is that, although stories do provide huge amounts of insight, the more important outcome of undertaking story-listening is that working with stories inspires action.
We see it time and time again. The energy changes in the room when people are immersed in stories from their own organisation. The move from being spectators on the terraces to players on the pitch. Our biggest challenge is sometimes stopping them leaving the workshop there and then to go and make some changes back in the office!
2012 for Anecdote has certainly begun at a pace!. We have already run our one-day Storytelling for Business Leaders workshops in different parts of the globe. Mark was in the US, and one of the highlights of his trip was delivering a 90-minute presentation on story in San Diego to an audience of over 700 people. Talk about feeling like a rock star! You can read more about this experience here on our blog.
As always we love to hear from you all about the work you are doing and the progress you are making using story to improve what you do and how you do it. Please don't hesitate to drop us an email sharing your successes.
In this edition, we have:
Book Review - The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
Five Dysfunctions popped up on my radar a couple of years ago and ever since then a number of people suggested I should read it. It was published back in 2002 and there seems to be quite an industry that's grown around it with addional handbooks and resources available. For me, this wasn't a good sign.
Then a client lent me a copy so I started on a plane trip home from Sydney and finsihed the book in three short sittings. It's a nicely crafted story: short chapters, cliff hangers, good dialogue and believable and messy business situations.
Most of Five Dysfunctions is a business story. About a third of the book, at the end, describes the five dysfunctions model. The story is about Kathryn who joins DecionTech as their new CEO. The executive team is a bit of a mess and they don't welcome her with open arms. Kathryn starts a process of conversations and straight talking at a series offsites and team meetings and engages the Executive in understanding a simple model showing what needs to happen to turn their group into a team.
Like all good models it's nice and simple and can be drawn on a whiteboard.
Each part of the model is interlocked. It's pointless working on one part without addressing the others.
One of the real advantages of learning about the model as a story is that you hear from the characters ask and answer questions. You are a fly on the wall of an executive team and you learn through their experiences. This experiential learning is then reinforced with the didactic chapter at the end of the book.
Here's how Kathryn describes the five dysfunctions.
Absence of Trust: "Great teams do not hold back with one another." "They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal."
Fear of conflict:"If we don't trust each other, then we aren't going to engage in open, constructive, idealogical conflict. And we'll just continue to preserve a sense of artifical harmony."
Lack of commitment: "I'm talking about commitment to a plan or a decision, and getting everyone to buy into it. That's why conflict is so important." "It's as simple as this. When people don't unload their opinions and feel like theyre been listen to, they wont really get on board."
Avoidance of accountability: "Once we achieve clarity and buy-in, it is then that we have to hold each other accountable for what we have signed up to do, for high standards of performance and behaviour. And as simple as that sounds, most executives hate to do it, especially when it comes to a peer's behaviour, because they want to avoid interpersonal discomfort."
The last dysfunction, Inattention to Results, is all about putting the team before individual egos. This issue is handled over a number of chapters at the end of the fable but I wont go into detail and spoil the surprise.
What I really liked about this book was just how well written the story was so are immersed in the world of an executive team and see the tensions and compromises, their good itent and judgements, and how conflict arises and can play out. There're plenty of models of good and poor behaviour, and our hero, Kathryn, shows us one way progress can be made.
What struck me most was just how much time is needed for an effective team to spend together planning, discussing, arguing. The perenial push back to spending this time, however, is that tired business phrase, "we just need to get back to the real work." Well, here's the breaking news for any executive who wants their company to excel: it's your first priority to build an effective executive team so it can draw on all its talents to achieve results.
I loved this book and have been recommending it all over the place. Get a copy, read it, then pass it on to another executive who you think really needs to get their team back on track.
Stories are not about words. Stories are about pictures.
In oral storytelling you are using words to create pictures in the listeners mind. When you understand this you begin to realise the importance of giving audiences enough detail so they can 'draw' these pictures themselves and really see, hear and feel the story as you are telling it.
One of the most common mistakes we have seen in nearly a decade of working to help people improve their storytelling ability is people not giving enough detail for the listener to be able to easily paint the picture of the story as they hear it. They don't spend enough time giving enough detail to make the scene as clear, vivid or real as possible.
One technique we use to help with this we call 'more details please'. Here's how it works.
Get people to pair up and for one of them to start telling a story. Doesn't matter what the story is about, just something that happened to them and is from their own experience.
The listener lets them get started in the story, enough time for them to get into some kind of flow with the story.
When they have reached this level of comfort, the listener will find an appropriate place (i.e. "I went to this meeting...") and interrupt saying "more details please".
The storyteller then has to stop and give more details where they were stopped. They have to really focus on painting the picture even clearer. So for example they might then say; "I went to this meeting. It was on a Tuesday morning, it was quite early because I remember everyone had coffees with them they had picked up in the cafe downstairs. The room was up on the 4th floor, one of those really small ones where you feel you are sitting on everyone else's knees".
When the listener thinks the person has given enough detail they say "please carry on".
We normally run this exercise for 5 minutes each. The listener can ask "more details please" as many times as they want in that time. They can even ask for "more details please" on the extra details provided, really digging into the scene.
After 5 minutes swap roles.
If people are struggling to get into details ask them to focus on the three basic senses: sight (visual), sound (auditory) and touch (kinaesthetic). Prompt them with some of these aspects:
Sight: size? colour? shape: convex? concave? or a specific shape? bright or dim? location? ("what can you see?")
Sound: volume? pitch? tempo? rhythm? pace? duration? intensity? whose voice? one or many? other background sounds? near or far? clarity? pauses? ("what can you hear?")
Touch: direction of movement? pressure? intensity? breathing rate? weight: heavy or light? texture: smooth or rough? constant or intermittent? temperature: hot or cold? ("what can you feel?")
You could also focus on olfactory (taste) or gustatory (smell) elements to really provide detail.
Getting people to practice being able to make the scene as clear, vivid or real as possible can really improve a story the next time it is told. We also find that forcing people to dig into details in this exercise they often stumble upon details they had forgotten about and that actually can be important in the telling of that story as well.
My only words of warning - don't try too hard! It can be very annoying when people spend too much time painting these beautiful scenes full of every minute detail, when it actually isn't needed in the story. Worse still when its presence detracts from the point of the story. Just be conscious your job when telling a story is to help people paint pictures of the scenes you are describing and too often people don't provide enough detail to allow them to do this easily.
"When creating a strategic story it's vital the Executive work together as a team to work out their story." That's what I said at the outset of the project but I was told the Executive were too busy; they didn't have time for a workshop. "You'll need to interview each executive but not the CEO, he's even too busy for an interview," I was told. At that point I should've pushed back even harder and even refused to go on. Instead I made it clear that this wasn't the best approach but we moved on regardless.
We unearthed some really good stories that explained the merger and the everyone seemed engaged and enthusiastic about how the stories were going to help the company move to the next stage of their development. The next step was to share them with the Executive and CEO and explain the story approach.
Half of the executive team was in Melbourne and the other half, including the CEO, were in Sydney. We met on a teleconference and I started to tell the stories. After about the third one the CEO piped up and said, "Shawn, in my mind stories are lies. Someone is pulling your leg if you are being told a story." I tried to explain our approach but it was too late. He'd made up his mind. The next day I was told the project was cancelled.
A stategic story, like the strategy itself, must be owned by the executive team. If they don't create it they won't own it and you'll suffer what happened to me. Futhermore, if the Executives don't craft the story they'll miss the deep converstaion and resulting meaning-making that happens as they work with the strategic story. Making sense of the story, and therefore making sense of the strategy, and then really owning it are essential elements to creating an effective strategic story.
Richard Rummelt, in Good Strategy / Bad Strategy , opened my eyes to a simple test to help you see if you have effective strategic initiatives. But before I describe the test here's some context.
Crafting a strategy involves choosing a course of action to achieve desired outcomes over a set time period. An effective strategy makes real choices between competing approaches--as well as providing space for new possibilities to emerge. For example companies might want to increase its market share. It might do this by increasing sales, buying competitors, expanding its geographic market or a myriad of other approaches. The strategic craft is to decide which approach to choose or combine and apply. There is always more than one way to achieve your desired outcome and your strategy should describe the choices your company has made. A good choice is usually a well considered and often tough choice.What you will often see, however, in most strategic plans, are initiatives that don't reflect a real choice.
Here are a few examples:
We will provide great customer service--was there really a choice to provide poor customer service?
We will delight our clients--had we considered underwhelming them?
Empower our employees--not many companies succeed disempowering their employees no matter how many try
What are often portrayed as strategic initiatives are really the outcomes we are hoping to achieve. They don't reflect what we've decided to do and therefore don't provide an effective strategy.
So, the test is simply this: take a strategic initiative and consider the opposite. If the opposite is a nonsense then reconsider your strategic initiative and make a real choice. If, on the other hand, the opposite is a viable possibility then a real choice has been made, in which case employees will want to know why and that's where a strategic story is important.
I like to call this test of considering the opposite the Costanza gambit after the Seinfeld character who successfully employs the opposite as his new strategy for life. Check out this 3 minute clip of the show where George Costanza has his epiphany.
In this section of Anecdotally we normally focus on one of two things. We either:
Introduce you to a technique that we have found which allows us to achieve more in less time (i.e. the Pomodoro Technique we covered in February last year), or
Show you some new technology which does the same or makes our life easier (i.e. iDoneThis in October 2011, Instapaper in June 2011 or the Livescribe pen from April 2011).
For this edition of Anecdotally I wanted to do something different. I wanted to focus on the importance of taking time to read web articles, research papers or business books every day at work. I was reminded on the importance of this at a lunch last week.
We are currently looking to recruit within Anecdote. The business is expanding fast and we need great people to get onboard and help us deliver high quality projects for our clients. Shawn and I had the pleasure of having lunch with a potential new recruit last week. She was fantastic in every regard, including the ability to ask great questions. She asked Shawn and I about Anecdote, not only about what we do and how do we do it, but also about what makes us different to work with, and to work for.
Having only joined 14 months ago I took the question about what makes Anecdote different to work for, compared to other, normally larger, organisations I have been with in the past. I started off telling her a little story about last years Anecdote Xmas party. An email came through from Helen our Office Manager telling us all about the Secret Santa (aka Kris Kringle) for that year, giving us our person's name, telling us the spending limit was $50 per person, and that this money had been deposited by Anecdote into our accounts. Now I know we are only a small company, but I have never heard, anywhere, of a company who pays its staff to give each other gifts at Xmas. That small act made a huge impact on me, and retelling it also seemed to resonate with our potential new recruit.
I then told her an even shorter story about working here at Anecdote. I told her that at least once a day, sometimes more often, Shawn and I will take some time out from 'working' to read. We have an extensive book library here at work, as well as both being collectors of research papers, academic articles, or interesting blog posts, so there is never a shortage of content. There is no way I would ever have done that in previous organisations and from the look on her face, she knew exactly what I meant.
Being seen to be reading a book or an article at your desk would have been frowned upon. Maybe nothing would ever be said to you, but you would know its not the thing to do. There was 'work' to be done, and this wouldn't have counted. When I first started at Anecdote it took me awhile to get used to taking time out to read while at work. It was so foreign to any other place I had worked at before. But the difference it makes for my "productivity" has been immense.
Productivity is normally seen as trying to get more done in less time. It is all about output and efficiency. But often the focus is very short-term in regards to this. Through keeping up with the latest thinking, reading different ideas and approaches, and being surrounded by findings from academia I am able to deliver more for our clients, in less time. Not only does it make me more efficient, it also makes me more engaged and energised to keep working and delivering the 'stuff' we all need to sometimes.
Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and Uri Hasson are Princeton University neuroscientists who in 2010 conducted a series of experiments showing that an audience's brains light up (imagine they are all in a fMRI machine) the same way as the presenter's when she tells a story. In their words, "Speaker and listener brain activity exhibits widespread coupling during communication." The mere fact that our brain activity gets in sync when we share a story is pretty amazing but there are a couple of other findings which might be even more important. More on that later. But let's start with what they did.
Their experiment (*1) starts with a young woman telling an unrehearsed story about her prom while she is hooked up to a fMRI machine--not the easiest task when telling a gripping story. They recorded her story and her brain activity. Her tale took about 15 minutes to tell.
Here's my potted version of her story (you can read the full transcript in the extended version of the paper). It starts with the storyteller promising Charles she will go to the prom with him and then how she falls in love with another boy, Amir, and promptly forgets about her promise until Charles reminds her - awkward. She decides to keep her promise and on the big day she goes scuba diving with her family and the boat breaks down and she only gets home with five minutes to get ready for the dance. Prom night was tricky because Amir was there and she planned to hook up with him for the after-party but he was getting plastered so she had to drive him to the after-party while he played air guitar. They then see an accident and get distracted (probably by a sizzling guitar solo) and crash into the already smashed cars. The police question her and she gets a lucky break. They're sent home without charge.
With that story duly recorded the researchers choose 12 people and asked each subject to listen to it while they lay in the fMRI tunnel. The first thing the researchers noticed was that the brain activity of the storyteller matched the brain activity of the listener--the same parts of the brain lit up on the fMRI. And as you would expect, there was a small time lag as the listener comprehended the story. The researchers were seeing the brain activity between the speaker and listener synchronise.
To test whether the listener was really responding to what was being said and not just responding to noise, they also recorded a version of the story in Russian and played this to their listening subjects. The result: when the story was in Russian there was no brain activity correlation. The listener had no idea what was being said.
Personally I think this next finding is the most significant. As I've said, you'd expect the brain activity of the listener to lag because it takes a moment to comprehend what's being said. Remarkably, however, the researchers found many times when the brain activity of the listener preceded what was said. The listener was predicting what was coming next--something you can only do listening to a story. And here's the kicker. The subjects who did more predicting did better at the comprehension test they did after they heard the story. Stories are meaningful, and really engaging stories where we are trying to predict what happens next are even more meaningful.
My one frustration with this research, however, is that the researchers seem to only select a story as their example of communication accidently because they didn't go the next step and test the difference between what happens when a story is told compared to when it is a non-story such as an opinion. So I emailed Uri Hasson, the designated correspondence author for this research, and set out my concern. Here is his reply: "We didn’t quantify the level of B2B coupling for different communication styles so I can’t tell you the answer yet, but I share your intuition that story telling will evoke tighter coupling."
(*1) Stephens, G.J., Silbert, L.J. & Hasson, U. 2010, 'Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 107, no. 32, pp. 14425-30.