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Finding and amplifying a sense of direction—directional stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 1, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes, Communication

This week I have been talking to people about foundational stories and how they are important for reinforcing the core vales and direction for everyone in the organisation. HP has a well know foundation story about Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard starting their little electronics company in a garage with a measly $500. Within this story are the basic principles HP was built on.

The foundation story is not the only directional story that people should hear but without good directional stories an organisation can be overwhelmed by whatever stories that well up with each passing day. Here’s one example of when things get out of hand. I was at an investment bank and asked the HR Director what stories were prominent in his company. He shook his head in dismay and said, “We have a relatively new CEO and have just finished our vision, mission and values project. Everyone is telling the story that the CEO went home on Friday, pulled out the vision, mission, values from his previous company, came into the office on Sunday, photocopied the statements onto A3 paper and plastered them around level 27. For the life of me I can’t dislodge this story.”

Directional stories already exist. You just need to work together with everyone in the organisation to find them and instil their telling throughout the organisation. We use the three journeys process to help clients find and amplify their own directional stories.

Then serendipity strikes. Just as I was thinking about this topic I read this story in a chapter by Karl Weick about how VISA was started. What do you think this foundational story conveys about the values of VISA?

Here’s what happened at VISA. In the early 1970s, National BankAmericard Incorporated (NBI) turned around the Bank of America’s faltering credit card business in the United States (Hock, 1999, p. 155). Soon thereafter, NBI was pressured by BankAmericard licensees in the rest of the world to do the same thing for them. The problems were formidable. Not only did each licensee also have different marketing, computer, and operational systems, but each licensee also dealt with different language, currency, culture, and legal systems, all of which had to be transcended somehow. A technological fix was out of the question because banks were still using computer punch cards and tape, and there was no Internet. After months of tense negotiations, a meeting of the organizing committee was scheduled late in the second year of organizing. The meeting was to one last attempt to resolve three deal-breaking disagreements. Positions had hardened and the organizers could think of no compromise that had any chance of being accepted.

Shortly before the final meeting, the chairman of the organizing committee, Dee Hock, reflected on how the international group had been able to get as far as they did. It dawned on him that “at critical moments, all participants had felt compelled to succeed. And at those same moments , all had been willing to compromise. They had not thought of winning or losing but of a larger sense of purpose and concept of community that could transcend and enfold them” (1999, p. 245). Hock and his staff hatched a plan for the final meeting. They contacted a local jeweller and asked him to create a die from which he would cast sets of golden cuff links. One cuff link would contain a picture of half of the globe and the phrase, “the will to succeed.” The other link would contain the other half of the globe and the phrase, “the grace to compromise.”

When the final meeting actually convened, as expected it was polarized, contentious. The Canadian banks refused to participate and withdrew, and Hock adjourned the meeting midday and said they would reconvene the next morning on order to plan how to disband. Before adjourning, Hock invited everyone to a grand dinner that evening in Sausalito in recognition of their undeniable efforts to try to make the organization work.

After dinner, there was brief reminiscing about shared experiences and obstacles overcome. The the waiters passed among the diners and placed a small wrapped gift in front of each of them. Hock asked people to open the elegant boxes and examine the contents.

He then said quietly, “We wanted to give you something that you could keep for the remainder of your life as a reminder of this day. On one link is half of the world surrounded with the phrase ”the will to succeed“ and the second link is the other half of the world and the phrase ‘the grace to compromise.’ We meet tomorrow for the final time to disband the effort after two arduous years. I have one last request. Will you please wear the cuff links to the meeting in the morning? When we part we will take with us a reminder for the rest of our lives that the world can never be united through us because we lack the will to succeed and the grace to compromise. But if by some miracle our differences dissolve before morning, this gift will remind us that the world was united because we did have the will to succeed and the grace to compromise (paraphrased from Hock, 1999, pp. 247-48)

Then Hock sat down. There was a full minute of absolute silence as people examined their gift. And then the silence was shattered by one of Hock’s exuberant Canadian friends who exploded, ”You miserable bastard!“ The room erupted in laughter. The next morning everyone was wearing the cuff links. By noon, agreement was reached on every issue and VISA International came into existence.

Weick, K, 2004. Rethinking Organizational Design in Richard J. Boland Jr, and Fred Collopy (eds) Managing as Designing, Stanford Business Books, Stanford.

Hock, D. 1999. Birth of the chaordic age. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco

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About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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