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051 – Miners find gold in data mullock

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 12, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

In our second to last episode for 2019, we share a story that illustrates the importance of diversity of thought and suggests we shouldn’t work in silos.

Gold mining

This week, we’re sharing a story that we often use in our workshops. The story follows Rob McEwen during his time working as CEO at Goldcorp Inc. Rob went against the advice of his colleagues when he launched the Goldcorp Challenge and made the company’s data freely accessible around the world. But, it proved to be the best decision he could have made at the time.

You can tell this story to illustrate several business points, but many people find it difficult to tell. So, Shawn and Mark share some tips to have us telling it effectively.

For your storybank

Tags: action, collaboration, diversity, innovation, leadership, judgement, mining, persistence, problem solving, teamwork

In the late 1990s, Rob McEwen was working as CEO at Goldcorp, a gold mining company based in Ontario, Canada.

The company had invested a lot of money, taken out several large land leases, and drilled a lot of holes, trying to find gold deposits with no success.  Rob knew they had a problem. 

Looking for a solution, he attended a conference and saw Linus Torvalds speak. He left feeling inspired. 

“What if we made our data available to the world? If we had different people looking at it, analysing it, maybe we’d find something,” He thought. But, the idea wasn’t received well. 

Nonetheless, in 2000, Rob launched the Goldcorp Challenge. They made their data freely accessible to everyone around the world. Goldcorp would give half a million dollars to anyone who helped them locate the gold deposits in their land. 

Over 1000 people from 50 countries participated in the challenge. And, over the next seven years, the company successfully mined 8 million ounces of gold. It was a complete turnaround. 

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.

Shawn:

We’ve got a story today which we actually use in our workshops.

Mark:

Indeed. It’s a story many people struggle with even though it’s a cool story. We’ll tell the story and talk about why people struggle with this story.

Shawn:

But it’s a good one; it has some great business points.

Mark:

Indeed.

Shawn:

Why don’t you kick off with the story and we’ll go from there?

Mark:

A little bit of a teaser; our final episode of 2019 released on the 16th of December will have an extra special guest on the show. It will be a special edition, slightly longer and you’ll possibly be surprised by who the guest is so make sure you download and listen to next week’s episode.

Shawn:

I can’t wait to listen to that.

Mark:

So, late 1990s, a company in Ontario, Canada called Gold Corp, a gold mining company and they have large leases of land that they have been doing exploration on, investing lots and lots of money. They had drilled lots of holes, spent a lot of money, had a lot of data and had no gold.

The CEO, Rob McEwen knew he had a big problem and he was looking for answers. He had a bit of a history as something of a maverick. He liked to do things differently and, as we know, sometimes new ideas pay off and sometimes they don’t. He had a record that was a bit up and down; some successes but also some failures.

So, he had a big problem he needed to solve and in the process of looking for answers he went to a conference and he saw Linus Torvald speak. Linus is the originator of the operating system, Linux, and he made his code available to people all over the world who freely contributed their time to produce this magnificent operating system–Linux.

Shawn:

Which is used all over the place right?

Mark:

Indeed, McEwen saw this and thought ‘wow, maybe I can do the same thing’. So, he went back to his company with this proposal and it was not well received. He proposed making all of their data available to the world and try and get a whole bunch of different people looking at it and analysing it etc.

Of course, his geologists were dead against this not just because of his record but because this is really against the way mining operations are conducted and the ethos.

Shawn:

It was all about secrecy.

Mark:

Yes. Well, McEwen listened and then decided to do his own thing anyway and launched in 2000 the Gold Corp challenge—a half million dollars to anyone who could contribute to finding gold deposits in their data. He released all their data to the world and he was staggered buy the response; over 1,000 people responded from 50 countries all over the world.

It wasn’t just geologists that were looking at this data and making suggestions and analysis but programmers, mathematicians, consultants were all looking at it from their own perspectives and coming up with recommendations.

Many of the sites identified in the Gold Corp challenge were valuable gold deposits and over the next 7 years they mined 8 million ounces of gold and the company was completely turned around, went from the brink of failure to being a success through getting in ideas from outside.

Shawn:

Fantastic. Let’s talk about some of the characteristics of that story that work and help it fit together. The thing that jumps to my mind at first is you know how we talk about the importance of moments, those visual elements—well it doesn’t have many if any.

Mark:

There’s very little visual.

Shawn:

But it still holds together as a strong story. I sense it comes from the fact you have some nice twists and turns, there is a real business problem here. I have an image of this guy even though we didn’t help the listener with what McEwen looks like but I have an image of him and his maverick ways.

What about you, Mark, what sort of things stand out for you in that story; characteristics that hold it together?

Mark:

One of them is that there are some twists and turns along the way. He’s got that history that he has to overcome and he comes up with another hare-brained idea that goes against the status quo and he went through with it.

I like that thread where he had that background and he stuck to his guns and got a good result.

Shawn:

It’s an archetype we’re familiar with; the maverick leader or the crazy professor archetype where you’re going against the grain.

Mark:

And Rob, if you’re listening to this we’re not saying you’re crazy.

Shawn:

Not at all. But one of the nice elements in that story is that little micro scene where he takes the idea to the geologists and even though we didn’t articulate it I could see those geologists looking at him like (a lot of beards involved by the way—that’s how I see it) nah, this is not going to work.

Mark:

Another thing I like about it is the data. We talk about stories in business being facts wrapped in context and delivered with emotion and in this there are a lot of facts which we can use such as 7 years, 8 million ounces of gold.

Shawn:

All those bits of data really make the story credible. Without those it would be a nothing story in some ways. That’s a key element. It’s a pretty short story. You could tell a longer or shorter version of that story but you said at the outset that people have difficulty in telling that story. Why do you think that’s the case?

Mark:

Let’s first of all give the audience some idea of how we use this in workshops. We have a series of stories and we ask people to spend 5 minutes learning the story, make some notes then close the books and you’ve got 2 and a half minutes to tell the story. And a lot of people struggle with this one.

Part of it is because you need to be very clear on the point of this story in order for it to be effective. And we’ll talk a little bit more about this because that story can be used to make many points. And if you’re not sure which one you’re going to use you can get really muddled and that’s the experience a lot of people have.

They think I don’t understand anything about gold mining and geology and therefore can’t tell this story.

Shawn:

That’s one of the blockages people have. They look at the story and ask what do I know about gold mining and they see a lot of data, those figures and it’s also a bit longer than the other stories (on the page) so they hesitate to tackle it. But you’re right, part of it is an identity element; can I identify with this and the other part is the amount of data that’s through this story.

Mark:

And people look at the story and at face value it’s about geology, mining and gold but the story is really about a whole bunch of things; leadership, diversity, innovation. If you look at it through that lens it really changes the way people respond to that story and your ability to tell it well.

Shawn:

What are the business points? When would you tell this story? We knocked out 5 quick business points. For you what would be the go-to situations where you would tell that story?

Mark:

There are two; diversity of thought which is super important to business success and this is a great example of that and the second one is innovation—looking for new ways to do things even though they are counter-intuitive.

Shawn:

With diversity of thought; I can just picture a leader standing in front of a room saying ‘diversity of thought is going to be a real success factor for us and I’ve got a great example to share with you. And then straight into that story’. A nice little relevant statement then segue into the story, you make your point very clearly and they’ll walk away with that.

Mark:

And siloed companies, you could use that same story but say ‘look we don’t even talk within our functional areas let alone across them. What are we leaving on the table?’

Shawn:

Exactly. What can we do to make that story even better? Do you think it would benefit from moments or would they get in the way?

Mark:

You’ve given me pause there.

Shawn:

That’s my job.

Mark:

If the objective is a short telling then you can do that story without moments. If you had a long time to tell that story (you could tell a 5 or 6 minute version) and you might add in some more moments like when he was sitting listening to Linus Torvald and he had that aha moment, you could amp that up.

Shawn:

You know how Malcolm Gladwell does those little thumbnail descriptions of people like ‘Rob McEwen, a guy in his 50s, a portly gentleman’. That might be the only thing he says but it just gives enough for the listener to carry that character through the story. I think something like that could be useful.

Mark:

He could be a marathon runner.

Shawn:

I’m just giving a suggestion there.

Mark:

You asked me how would I use that story. I’m going to throw that to you. How would you use that story?

Shawn:

My main thought would be just getting ideas from the outside—a bit like the siloes you were talking about. It’s just a natural one of combining that with let’s do things differently. I love the idea that you can take an idea and also use it as a metaphor for a new approach.

Imagine you’re working with a group of people and they’re stuck and you say ‘well Rob McEwen came up with an idea listening to Linus Torvald talk about Linux. That’s a metaphor.’ You could use it as a stepping off point for people to brainstorm metaphors to tackle another business problem.

Mark:

Yes and when people get stuck you could say, ‘folks, have you done a Rob McEwen on this one?’ Another business point you could use it for is sticking to your guns.

Shawn:

Right, he was under pressure.

Mark:

The peer pressure was don’t do it but he stuck to his guns and got a good outcome. That’s a good one; getting people comfortable with sticking to their guns. It’s a form of innovation; getting the ideas from outside so you could use it in an innovation context. Breaking the rules; when to do it.

Shawn:

It’s much easier when you’re the CEO.

Mark:

Much easier—you have a little more latitude.

Shawn: Let’s give it a bit of a score then unless there’s something else you want to add.

Mike:

The point I want to make is that is a really good story that has so many potentially useful business points that you have to be absolutely clear on which one you’re using it for at that moment in time. If you try to do multiple business points it gets confusing and as I said earlier if you’re looking at this story you might day it’s about gold but in fact it’s about diversity.

If you choose that then you tell it with that in mind and you can make that point very effectively.

Shawn:

We were chatting before the podcast about the 2 foundational skills you need in storytelling. One is the ability to spot stories and the 2nd one is your ability to identify the point or multiple points of a story. Guys, you’ve really got to practise this. You’ve got to listen to stories and decide what would be the point I can draw from that.

We’ve seen a lot of people hit a wall when asked that question—what’s the point of that story—and they just can’t think. So if you can get that habit going, start to build that muscle to be able to listen to a story and identify the point you could make, it will be so valuable for you.

Mark:

And sometimes you might not be able to see the point of the story yourself so just ask somebody else and sometimes you’ll be amazed how quickly they go ‘oh that’s about diversity’ or ‘that’s about breaking the rules’.

Shawn:

Yeah, it gives you something to attach to so you can put it in your story bank and you’ll know how to find it, you’ll have a good reason to find it.

Mark:

Those are the 2 foundational skills: spotting a story and then attaching a business point to it.

Shawn:

So can I go to the rating? You told it so I get to go first. I’m going to base it on past experience because I’ve known that story for some time so I would give it a 7. For some reason it’s not a go-to story; I don’t tell it as often as I would have imagined.

Maybe I don’t run into those situations as many times, not being a leader in a large organisation for example. Anyway, I’m giving it a 7.

Mark:

I’m going to give it a 7 as well for that reason. Even though that story has been in my repertoire for some time it’s not commonly used. I think though, having done this podcast episode, I will use it more because it’s really cemented in my mind as a diversity story and there are many cases where diversity examples are very useful.

Shawn:

Now one of our keen listeners might come back with 20 different ways to use this story but they’re good scores; good scores but not our best scores.

Mark:

So please take the opportunity to go our podcast web page —we have the story transcribed—just copy the text and put it in your story bank and bingo, new story.

Shawn:

O.K guys, that’s all we have for today. Thanks again for listening to Anecdotally Speaking and tune in next week for another episode on how to put stories to work. Don’t forget, there is one special episode you must listen to before the end of the year where we have a guest you’ll really enjoy. That’s on the 16th December. See you then.

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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