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021 – Rolling stones to hidden gems

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 4, 2018
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Podcast

Tags: team-work, rocks, conflict

Working in teams can be hard. In the process of working together, we can disagree, stall and face major setbacks. However, when a team comes together and gets across the finish line it can be great. The story Mark shares this week gives a useful analogy that can help teams get through the rough patches and understand that conflict is often a part of the creative process.

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In this episode we also talk about strategy stories. While myself and Mark are teaching people the story of their company’s strategy, they can sometimes perceive it as a script they have to rattle off to their employees. It’s not until we ask them to find their own moments to add into the higher-level strategy story that they find meaning and feel as if they’re a part of it.

For your storybank

Steve Jobs interview in 1996 by Robert Cringely for the mini-series Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires

In Jobs’ childhood, there was a scary man in his eighties who lived down the street.

Jobs got to know the guy – couldn’t remember how – thought he may have mowed his lawn.

One day he walked past his house, and the man invited him in.

He took Jobs to his garage and takes out a bag.

He pulls out a dusty, old rock tumbler, motor, coffee can the size of a baby formula can, drive band.

He sets it up, and says “come with me”. They go out into the garden, find some ugly, dirty rocks.

Back to garage, put the water, liquid and grit powder into the can with the rocks. Turns on the motor and says “come back tomorrow”.

The can is making a racket. Rocks, grit, tumbling around.

Went back the next day. Poured into his hand beautifully polished, smooth rocks – all because of friction and a little bit of chaos.

Podcast Transcript

Shawn: 

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking—the podcast that helps you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:  

And I’m Mark Schenk. And you won’t be surprised to hear that things have been busy here and one of the things we’ve been workings on a lot over the last few months has been helping organisations turn their strategies into strategic stories, which is a great way of getting everyone in the organisation to understand the strategy. Shawn and I were having a conversation just before we did this podcast about a lesson, an insight he had from a recent workshop so what was that one Shawn?

Shawn: 

I was teaching essentially the company over in Western Australia their strategy story and we’d done the high level, almost like the vanilla version of it and once we’d done that, that was fine and they were getting the hang of the structure and everything. The next version I asked them to find a personal moment, especially around the turning point of the story and they did that.

And afterwards I looked at them and asked how was that, what did it look like, what did you notice? And the look on people’s faces was such that the light bulb had really gone off for them. They were saying things like now that it has this personal moment it feels like my story now. It totally transformed the story for them from the script into something that made sense. It became meaningful for them.

Mark:    

It brings it to life for them.

Shawn:  

Exactly, so I asked them does this increase the likelihood of telling it? And they said yes of course. We want to tell this version, whereas the first version they weren’t too sure whether they’d tell that version or not. When they get the personal moments in there all of a sudden it just transforms the whole thing.

Mark:     

And of course, the story becomes their own.

Shawn:

Yeah exactly it was a nice little insight as it is something we do all the time; finding personal moments. But it was the look on their faces and I think they were almost in disbelief it could go from this broad generic thing into something that was specific and concrete and it was theirs so I think that was good.

 

The other thing that actually happened and was nice too, was there was a guy there who’d only been with the company for like four weeks and so we were talking about things that had happened over four years and you could see at first he was sort of struggling how he would tell this story cause you know he wasn’t there.

The beauty of it (I was sitting not too far away from him as he was telling his partner the story) and he told the whole thing from the perspective of where he was sitting in his previous company and how he could see this company was a competitor of his.

It was a great telling. It was what he saw and then he got to the bit where he then joined the company ‘I moved over and I saw this’, it was terrific; the strategy really came to life. It was good fun.

Today we’ve got a story that Mark’s going to share with everyone. I’m going to hand it over to you, Mark, so you can lay it on us.

Mark:  

Thanks Shawn, it’s about time we had a Steve Job story.

Shawn:

Why not.

Mark:

We haven’t had one and of course he is very well known for his ability as a storyteller. I first came across this story from an interview  in I think 1996 by a guy called Robert Cringely where he was basically interviewing the world’s biggest Geeks. Anyway, this interview had been lost for a while and then in 2012 after Steve Job’s death the interview was re-released.

In it Steve Job told about an experience in the childhood that really demonstrated to him the importance of dynamic tension in the creative process.

What happened was there was an old guy down the street, guy in his eighties, kind of scary looking.

Shawn:    

Really.

Mark:

And Steve was saying he’d got to know the guy, he’s not quite sure how but maybe he mowed his lawn or something but he kind of knew the guy.

One day he was walking down the street and he walks past this guy’s house and the old guy said come on in and he took him into the garage. He pulls out this bag and out of this bag he pulls this dusty old rock tumbler. There was a motor and a coffee can like the size of a baby formula can and the rubber drive band.

He set up the rock tumbler and he said, ‘come with me’ and they went out into the back yard and fossicked around in the garden and they found some rocks. Just dirty old regular rocks and they took them back inside the garage and put them into the can with a bit of water, a little bit of liquid and a little bit of grit powder.

Then they put the lid on and the old guy turned the motor on and he said, ‘come back tomorrow’. This can was making a racket as it was going around; rocks and grit tumbling and smashing.

He said I came back the next day and we opened the can and the old guy poured into my hand from the can these beautifully polished rocks. Into the can we’d put ugly old regular rocks and outcome these smooth, amazingly coloured stones.

This amazing beautiful thing that had been produced simply by the process of rubbing together and friction and noise producing a beautiful outcome. So, Job uses this as a metaphor for creativity.

Shawn:   

Great, I love it. It is one of those simple analogy stories that you hear every now and then that makes perfect sense. It connects up in a whole bunch of different ways doesn’t it?

Mark:  

What did you like about?

Shawn:   

Let’s see. What stands out for me the most is the relate-ability in the sense that it’s just a neighbourhood guy, I visualize suburban houses, walking past people’s lawns.

Mark:  

And this scary old guy with generally the house with the forbidden gate and scary occupants.

Shawn:    

Yeah that’s right, so I can imagine that relate-ability stands out for me.

Mark:        

It’s doesn’t hurt that the story is by Steve Jobs who’s absolutely famous for producing beautiful products.

Shawn: 

So, you are essentially getting advice directly from Steve Jobs by telling the story so it’s almost like the person whose hearing this story is hearing Steve Jobs give you some direct advice.

Mark:  

Absolutely. And it was also reflective of his personality as he wasn’t exactly the easiest to get on with.

Shawn:

A little abrasive, some would say maybe a little bit too much in that area. The other thing is the characteristics of metaphor. With a metaphor you are not telling people this is like that, you are actually saying this is the thing but the listener makes that jump themselves; they go you’re talking about collaboration, you’re talking about that friction in teams and things like that and because you create it yourself it’s a little buzz.

Mark: 

It’s powerful.

Shawn:  

It’s a buzz when it happens.

Mark:  

One of the other things about that story why it works is that it’s so super simple.

Shawn:

Yes.

Mark:  

Just an event from childhood obviously struck a chord but it’s another example of how humans have these experiences all the time. Most of the time we don’t even notice but they can deliver a really effective message in a business environment.

Shawn:   

Actually, it does point out how important it is to be on the lookout for those things that are happening in your own life so you can make those connections. When you do it that way people get a good insight into you as well.  They get a bit of a sense of the type of person you are. I’m amazed at how many people go through life and not really see the stories around them.

Mark:  

So, one of the things I suggest to people is just take notice of things that cause you to feel an emotion; surprise, anger, pride, happiness.

Shawn:

Yes, tingles up your arms or something like that.

Mark: 

You should be looking around like what just happened because it is a potentially usable business story.

Shawn:

I guess if it gives you an emotion it is going to give someone else an emotion.

Mark:    

There’s a chance, a good chance and if it doesn’t then you just throw it away. If you’ve got a dirty great unpolished ugly rock and it doesn’t polish up very well at all, throw it away.

Shawn:  

Exactly. There are lots of great characteristics in that story. Is there anything you could do to make it better? Nothing really jumps out for me; I think it’s one of those simple basic stories.

Mark:

As we talked about in the practice area; one of the things that I did emphasis there was the pouring of the rocks into the hand. That was the sensory, and imagery of those beautiful rocks coming out of the can. That’s one of the things when you are practising a story it is useful to think about.

Shawn: 

Yeah, definitely. Now what about where you might use this story. What are some of the places where this story makes sense?

Mark:

I guess the first thing is that Steve Jobs actually used this as a metaphor for people working hard on a project that they’re really passionate about.

Shawn:

Definitely.

Mark:  

You get a group of people who are really passionate and talented and they’re bumping up against each other and having arguments and sometimes fights – making some noise but all in the interest of producing that beautifully polished, crafted outcome.

Shawn:  

The idea you’ve got to have a clear picture of that outcome so that you can get through those tensions and back and forwards that you might have. I think it would be really good for the beginning of the team formation because sometimes teams have a rose-coloured picture of what the team is going to be like and how everyone is going to be singing ‘kumbaya’.

Mark:

The old forming, norming, storming and performing, once we can get to that performing stage everything will be smooth sailing.

Shawn:   

That’s it. I’ve never seen it happen or very rarely and certainly in those teams that are creating something very new and innovative. There should be some tension; I remember seeing someone just the other night just making the point that if you have a strong idea it means you are going to have disagreement because someone will have a strong idea which is counter to yours so you have to knock it around. If you have a clear picture of where you want to go you can tend to resolve it because you’re heading for that thing, you can head in this direction.

Mark:  

That first application is in team formation; setting expectations, particularly around the fact that if we are doing something that is innovative we can expect that there’s going to be some creative tension.

Shawn:  

Some noise.

Mark:      

One for me is if you’ve got a team where you want people to speak up, so you’re worried people might shy away from conflict and therefore you miss opportunities for ideas and innovations to occur, tell that story.

Say, ‘if it’s all smooth sailing we’re not going to be effective and innovative. Let’s go, folks, if you’ve got a view, an idea, if you disagree let’s hear it.’

Shawn:

It’s interesting too how groups can get into their own mini-culture around that. I remember when we did that project for the big energy company up in New South Wales and we had that team leader who had just newly taken over as team leader.

And the previous team leader did all the speaking and the team didn’t talk in their meetings. So, when he came along he couldn’t get them to talk. In the first instance he had to get people to talk about what they did on the weekend. He had to lead them into conversation but anyway he broke them of that bad habit.

In addition to getting people to talk it’s almost like the flip side; how you make sure you don’t fall into that echo chamber or how do you break an echo chamber? Let’s not have the group think happening here. Let’s try to get different perspectives. Again, speak up.

In organisational politics people make the mistake of thinking that you should just be neutral.

Mark:  

Don’t create waves.

Shawn:  

Maybe that is politically astute in some ways but in a team that’s just not going to get you anywhere in terms of great outcomes for whatever you’re creating.

Mark:   

If you’re in an organisation where you’ve got outcomes to produce then you can’t take the ‘don’t make waves’ approach.

Shawn:   

It’s going to be the death of you.

Mark:   

There’s that famous analogy; you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. So that’s three things already. Another business application of this is where there is conflict in your team. And you can actually use that story to create a positive spin—look it’s o.k. for us to have different ideas—strong ideas weakly held.

And use that story to illustrate where there are strongly held ideas there is going to be conflict and let’s not be worried about this, let’s take a positive spin on it.

Shawn:

That sounds good. O.k.–rating. It’s my turn to kick off with the rating, that was your story. So, for me it’s a very useful story to tell. I’m going to give it an 8 again. We’re a bit on a roll with 8s. To me that’s an 8 story.

Mark:     

I’m not going to be influenced by what you said. I had 7 in my mind and I’m going to go with 7. I can see the argument for 8. Besides we don’t want to have group think.

 

Shawn:  

That’s right we need some conflict. I totally disagree.

Mark:  

One of the things we really appreciate is that if you love the podcast and you think other people would like to hear it then it would be great if you could go to iTunes or whatever place you go to and give us a rating.

It really helps other people find the podcast. And our objective is to help people build their business story repertoires and the more people that do that the closer we come to achieving our objectives.

Shawn:    

That’s great. Well guys, thanks a lot for listening in on Anecdotally Speaking. It’s been great to have you here. Tune in next week and we’ll have another episode for you on how to put stories to work.

 

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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