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045 – Old oak forester beams

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 19, 2019
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Podcast

Some 100 years ago, Oxford’s New College faced a crisis. This crisis had been foreseen by the college’s founders, who implemented a plan to be fulfilled 500 years in the future.

Oak tree forest

In this episode, it’s Shawn’s turn to share a historical story. He recounts a crisis faced by Oxford’s New College about 100 years ago. 

An entomologist found the beams in the ceiling of the college’s main dining room riddled with beetles. The beetles had chewed through the beams and had compromised the structural integrity of the building. Little did the college council know, the college’s founders had prepared for this very crisis. 

For your storybank

Tags: long-term planning, planning, preparation, problem-solving

New College, one of Oxford’s newer colleges, was built in the 14th century. About 100 years ago, an entomologist was asked to inspect the beams. He found them riddled with beetles. 

The beetles had chewed through the beams, impacting the structural integrity of the building. 

The entomologist informed the college council. The beams needed replacing, but no one knew where they could source the large oak logs they required. Eventually, a council member suggested they talk to the college forester.

They did as suggested and told the forester about the problem. 

“We were kinda waiting for this to happen,”  he told them. 

When the college was founded, the founders also established a wood filled with English Oak Trees. The trees would be used to replace the beams in the dining hall ceiling, should they have such an issue with beetles. They had prepared well in advance. 

The council soon had the beams replaced.

Podcast transcript

Shawn:  

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking- a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:  

And I’m Mark Schenk. And now that Shawn and I have returned from our travels we’re getting stuck into some big projects around the office and one of them is making our story-powered sales programme even better. So, we’re doing a major revamp of that along with a few other projects.

Shawn:  

It’s been great fun working on that, building it out.

Mark:    

Absolutely and particularly increasing the emphasis on pitching; being able to pitch effectively using story is so interesting just developing it.

Shawn:

And we’ve been lucky to help a number of companies do those really big pitches for those big sales opportunities. I think one of the big lessons out of that is not to jump to PowerPoint too quickly.

Mark: 

Yeah, just going from PowerPoint as a channel to people delivering as the channel and PowerPoint just supporting your messages.

Shawn: 

It’s a small but big change.

Mark:    

Exactly. So, Shawn, your turn to share the story this week.

Shawn:   

Last week we had a historical story so I’m going to bring you another historical story. It starts in Oxford, U.K. There’s a college there called New College. It’s called New College because it is relatively new; it was built in the 14th century.

Mark:    

So, that’s new?

Shawn:

For them, it’s fairly new. It’s not the 13th century like many of the other colleges.

Mark: 

Is there an old college?

Shawn:

No, but all the other colleges were the before the New College. Anyway, about 100 years ago one of the building maintenance folk was up in the main dining room. They had one of those grand dining rooms like you see in Harry Potter.

Mark: 

With the big high roofs and the beams.

Shawn:  

Beautiful oak beams and ceiling. And the maintenance guy is up there, poking around in those gigantic oak beams (2 feet by 2 feet in girth and 45 feet long).

Mark:

Can you do that in metric?

Shawn: 

Not easily. He discovers the oak beams are just riddled with beetles and they’re just eating through these beams and making the whole thing unstable. He reports back to the college council. There’s a lot of consternation; how are we going to fix this? Where do you get beams that size here in the U.K? And they’re scratching their heads. Eventually, someone said, maybe we should talk to the college forester. Of course, he is nowhere near the actual college; he’s up north in the midlands of the U.K. They explain the problem to him about the beetles in the oak beams and he said ’I was waiting for this’.

When they established the college they established a wood—100 acres of beautiful English oak just ready for this exact moment. The council could breathe a sigh of relief and they got it replaced. The question I have in my head though is did they get ready for the next 400-year issue?

Anyway, that’s the story of the New College oak beams.

Mark: 

It’s a very good story about planning and preparation.

Shawn:

I think so.  I like it; it’s one of those ones about long-term thinking. Clearly, it’s got a narrow application in some ways because with the way things are done these days it’s very much just in time. But it’s hard to have just in time 400-year old trees.

Mark:

Yeah, it is hard to ring up Amazon and get a drone to deliver a 10-metre beam.

Shawn:      

I think it’s a good story for getting people thinking about that.

Mark:    

So what do we like about it? The first thing I like about it is the surprise, that they had the oak trees ready for this very contingency.

Shawn:

At least back then no one decided through an efficiency exercise to fire the forester and sell off the 100-acre wood.

Mark:

Which you could easily imagine happening these days.

Shawn:

Yeah, absolutely. But it’s a nice short story and you don’t really have to remember that much to tell that story. You just have to remember; New College, the fact that it’s 14th century, oak beams, beetles, forester. And when you tell the story be mindful to keep the forester thing a surprise.

That’s the unanticipated moment isn’t it?

Mark:      

I did like the analogy of Harry Potter.

Shawn:

In our household, my daughter was absolutely crazy about everything Harry Potter. I must have lined up for every version of the books bar the first one so it’s something that’s pretty well chiselled into my mind. So, simple story.

Mark:

How could we make that story even better? Perhaps a few more details—as you said—did they plant another plantation?

Shawn:

What I’d love to know is where is this wood? I’m just making it up that it’s somewhere in the north of England; it wasn’t told in the version I heard. Like anything, if you can add a few more details you get increased credibility but you don’t want to do too many details because you overwhelm the listener so, you’ve got to get a balance there. But apart from that I can’t think of anything else I’d add to the story. It’s a simple story.

Mark:   

I think one of the strengths of that story is it’s simple. If you add too many details you make it complicated and it defeats the purpose.

Shawn:     

Exactly. Because it’s located in Oxford, most people know about Oxford. They have an image in their mind about it. Many people have visited there so it’s something that gives you cache around the story.

Mark:   

People can relate to it straight away because it’s a context we already know. Most people have heard of Oxford.

Shawn:

Whereas if you tell a story about Lough Borough it’s a bit hard to build that image for people, especially when I used to call it logger borough to the great laughter of my English friends.

Mark:  

When I was in the air force I had an exchange posting in the U.K so I was a squadron commander at the Royal Air Force base, Lyneham and my staff referred to depot nearby as bister. I heard this many times and I could never find bister on a map because it’s actually spelt Bicester so I could never translate what I was seeing to the pronunciation.

Shawn: 

There are obviously many traps over there for young players. In terms of where you’d use this story—the main one for me is long-term planning. Just that simple idea of you’ve got to be prepared. In this case they had a particular situation; you can’t be prepared to replace the oak beams of your dining room unless you have more oak beams, which means tree which means 100’s of years of growth.

In construction terms that doesn’t happen these days.

Mark:   

Because you don’t need 400 years to grow a steel beam. You just need a few weeks and a mill. Those natural materials give you a much longer strategic planning horizon. I do think there is a difference using it for long-term planning because there are some long-term planning projects where this story might be particularly useful—big infrastructure projects in new cities or suburbs, if you’re building an airport, you do need to think long-term.

You do need to think what’s going to happen in the future? What do we need to be prepared for? How do we design that in?

Shawn: 

Yes, what sort of adaptability do we have?

Mark: 

The other one is the ‘be prepared’ one. I can image a leader using this story saying, ‘we need to understand our business—what are the things that could bring us undone, like the oak beams? We need to make sure we’ve got the arrangements in place to be prepared for that sort of contingency so go away and think about those.’

Another one is a knowledge management one, knowing who to ask.

Shawn: 

Exactly. If someone hadn’t thought to ask the forester they’d have had all sorts of problems. They’d have to go to another plan B; I’m not sure what that would be.

Mark: 

Yeah, that idea of how do you manage that knowledge because it’s not every day stuff but when you need it it’s essential. But that’s all I’ve got in terms of application.

Shawn: 

Let’s give it a rating.

Mark:  

Lots of positives about that story; it’s quite simple, easy to retell but I can’t see much business application for it so I’m going to give it a 6 because of the business application side of it. The purpose of these podcasts is to give people business stories they can use but if listeners have a different view I would love to hear it.

So, I’m going to give it a 6 but if you’ve got a different business application that you’d like to share with us, we’d love to hear it.

Shawn: 

For me, it’s a solid 7. If I was having a conversation and someone said the trigger, ‘we’d really have to have long-term planning’, the oak beams of New College, Oxford story would just pop into my head and you’ve got that opportunity to decide whether you tell it or not.

Mark:    

As we found when we were doing the preparation for this and chatted about that story we found it did trigger a whole bunch of different metaphors and experiences. So, using it in the context you just shared could be really effective—long-term planning, let’s just think about that in the context of our business.

Shawn:     

In fact, even if you share that story and other people don’t agree with it as an analogy that’s relevant, that’s a great conversation; ‘it’s just in time now and we have contracts that manage…’. And you could say, ‘what would be an example of that?’ and they’d reply, ‘Formula1’. Now, you’ve got some really interesting perspectives around the thing you’re trying to get your head around.

It’s how you bring new ideas. Some of these stories grab people’s attention, surprise them a little bit and next thing you know they’re coming up with a new way of solving the problem.

Mark:         

Fantastic. That’s a good place to wrap this one up. We’ll get back to working on story-powered sales.

Shawn:       

Sounds good. Well guys, thanks again for listening to Anecdotally Speaking. And, of course, tune in next time where we’ll have another episode to help you put stories to work.

 

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of 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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