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054 – Looking upstream for causes of downstream problems

Posted by  Anecdote International —February 12, 2020
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

Shawn and Mark consider the role of parables in business storytelling, sharing an example which highlights the need to tackle issues at their source.

Parable - looking upstream

We’re changing things up this week, with Shawn sharing a parable instead of a story. The parable features in Dan Heath’s upcoming book, Upstream, and suggests we should tackle issues at their source. We are fans of the Heath brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, and particularly their book, Made to Stick, and its chapter on business storytelling.

To hear the frog parable Mark mentions in this episode, click here. For more information on any of the events the pair mention, visit our events webpage.

For your storybank

Tags: problem solving, thinking differently

This story starts at 02:08

A husband and wife are enjoying a picnic by the river.

They hear a child yelling for help, being carried downstream by the water towards them.

Instinctively, they jump in the river and save the child.

They return to the bank, but hear another child coming, crying for help. They save the second child, only for another to come, and another…

The pair are exhausted, but children keep coming. Suddenly, the wife jumps out of the water and starts running up the bank.

“What are you doing?” The husband yells, “I need your help!”

“We can’t keep doing this,” she yells, “I have to stop whatever is causing this upstream!”

Podcast transcript

Shawn:  

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

Mark:

And I’m Mark.

Shawn:  

It’s good to be back. We’ve got another story to tell you; something a little different this time.

Mark:       

We’ve changed it up a little.

Shawn: 

I’ve loved the Heath brother books that have been put out, starting with Made To Stick. A lot of us in the story world love what they’re saying; all those different elements that help make what you say more resonant and to stick with you in different ways and there’s a whole chapter in that book on storytelling.

It’s got a lot of people thinking about the importance of story so as they come out with new books I get pretty excited and I saw that one of the brothers, Dan Heath, is coming out with a new book in March called Upstream. The book is organized around a single parable and I wanted to share this parable. I haven’t read the book but I’ve seen the parable. And have a bit of a chat about how you might use this, and the role of parables in business storytelling.

Mark: 

So, where did you see it?

Shawn:  

It was in one of those marketing emails I got sent. I think there was a PDF of maybe the first chapter. I didn’t read the chapter but I thought the parable looked good.

Mark:

That’ll be a podcast episode.

Shawn:  

Now, imagine I didn’t tell you it was a parable. Let’s create a scenario. You’re a business leader, you’ve got your team together; there’s something going on and you think this little story might shed some light on it and get people thinking a little differently.

You might say something along the lines of, ‘I know we’re going through some pretty tough times at the moment but maybe we need to think about it differently. It reminds me of this example. A husband and wife were down near a river and as they’re sitting there having a picnic they hear some cries from the middle of this fast-moving river and they see this little kid drowning.

So they both, without hesitation, jump into the river and they pull this kid out. And just as they’re getting the child to the shore they see another kid coming down. Of course, they turn around and pull this child out, and then another and another and this keeps going. And they’re absolutely at the end of their ability to save these children.

All of a sudden the wife jumps out of the water and instead of diving in for the next child she starts running up the river and the husband yells out ‘what are you doing?’ The wife calls back ‘I’ve got to stop whatever is happening to cause all these kids to end up in the river’.

So guys maybe we have a bit if an upstream problem ourselves. Maybe we’re down here saving the children when in fact we need to go upstream to see what the bigger problem is.’

What do you reckon; it’s a little parable. I don’t know exactly the heritage of this but I think it came from the 1960s so it’s not a really old parable but someone has worked in that whole space of public health. You know how public health issues are very much like that; like this Corona virus that’s happening at the moment. You could easily spend all your time downstream trying to work out how to look after the people but what can you do upstream to stop these things happening?

As a story what do you think, Mark?

Mark:

I love the fact that it’s brief and you can use it to make a number of points. You’ve already done that. You’ve taken the story and put it in the business context so we’ve talked about how you can use it. You can make a very strong point with it in a very simple way and it’s an example of how parables can really help but if we start by talking about the story itself.

For some reason, it’s not really compelling even though it’s about children.

Shawn:

You would think children drowning would draw you in. But I don’t think it has to be super compelling. All it has to do is deliver a point about something simple that can enter the language of the organisation so it becomes a metaphor for a problem that is happening.

I could imagine people in a business saying, ‘is this an upstream problem?’, ‘do we have to head upstream on this?’—I can imagine that sort of language. In terms of the power of the story itself, I don’t think it has to be that. All those things we say are important in storytelling like names and details you don’t have in a parable.

It’s the convention and there are good reasons for this convention, you just talk about the husband and wife, the farmer, the friends; it’s almost archetypal as opposed to the specifics. That may be why it doesn’t grab as much.

Mark:   

Yet, there are some parables that are quite compelling like the two priests, a senior priest and a young acolyte, who come to the river crossing and there’s a woman there. And the woman says, ‘can you help me cross the river?’ And the acolyte says ‘no, we can’t help you, you’re a woman and we can’t touch you or carry you’.

And the old priest says ‘sure, jump on my back’. He carries her across and the acolyte is fuming’ what are you doing? You’ve just gone against all our principles’. And the young man goes on and on berating the older priest all the way to the monastery about carrying the woman.

The old priest turns to him and says, ‘I carried the woman across the river and I put her down on the other side; it appears that you’re still carrying her.’

Shawn: 

That’s a nice story and definitely a more impactful story than that first one.

Mark:   

Maybe it’s because the surprise element of the upstream story—there’s a small element of surprise but not much. It’s not the reveal like the priest story, which has a twist.

Shawn:

You don’t know where it might go. I touched on it but this idea of why there is this convention—you used it in the priest story—the priests. Part of not using names is so you can telegraph to your audience that this is not real. This is really important because you don’t want to retell this story and say my wife and I were down at the river the other day because that immediately tells the audience this is real.

Mark:

So, you move from relaying a parable to lying and that completely removes the impact and reduces your credibility.

Shawn:

Your credibility just goes out the window.  There’s another one—I was just flicking through this book at a friend’s house—this book was a retelling of fairy tale. I was flicking through the preface and I can’t remember the author but the author said, ‘if you want to move fast you’ve got to travel lightly and that is why fairy tales don’t have all the detail.

They’re fast little stories so you have kings, princesses and dragons and you know exactly what this thing is and parables are the same. You can zip out a little parable very quickly because you don’t have to fill in all that detail like character development because it’s just there. As soon as you say priest – I certainly had a Friar Tuck view of those priests but that’s just what the imagination does so that’s an interesting element.

How long do you think that story might have been?

Mark:    

Less than a minute.

Shawn:  

I’ve been doing a story analysis of just how long; Brené Brown’s Netflix special and Kevin Hart’s comedy special and with a colleague of ours, Callum, spotting all the stories and measuring the length of every story. I would say 85 – 90% of the stories are less than 90 seconds.

Mark: 

There’s a common misconception that stories take too long where in fact it can be a really economical use of time so you get great return on time.

Shawn:   

Exactly. So a parable—less than a minute. By the way, the shortest story we looked at was 4 seconds.

Mark:

Can you relay it?

Shawn:   

Brené Brown walks on stage; they ask to take her purse. She goes, ‘no, a Texan always keeps a purse and has an exit plan’. It was 7 seconds and gave a good insight into her character. You immediately knew she was a Texan and a bit about her personality.

Anyway, that was a sidebar—we got off topic there.

Mark:

Back to the parable—you asked what I thought of the story. The story makes a point but it’s not a great story. Perhaps it’s the surprise but maybe there are other things.

Shawn:  

I think it’s one of those stories that would do the job.

Mark:

Good enough—it gets the job done.

Shawn:

It’s not going to be the one you tell at a dinner party to wow the crowd.

Mark: 

Maybe you will. Maybe every course comes out and it’s terrible and you go let’s look upstream and check the cook.

Shawn: 

What effort would you put in to try and make that a better story?

Mark: 

Probably not a lot. W Edwards Deming, the father of Total Quality Management—absolutely not, good enough that’s quality. He called it requisite quality: good enough to get the job done. That’s what quality is.

Shawn: 

It’s a quality parable.

Mark:   

Exactly; gets the job done and time efficiently so that’s a really important thing.

Shawn:

In the opening, we gave you a pretty good idea of where you would use it. Whenever you see a situation and you want to call it out—this is a nice little story to tell. It’s not one you‘re going to be telling over and over again.

Mark: 

No, I can’t see it. But I can see another application for it—an exploratory one where you go ‘folks, husband and wife went down to the river… I just want you to break into groups for 5 minutes and talk about are there any things happening in our business where we should be looking upstream?’

Shawn:

Nice, like a facilitated workshop.

Mark:

Exactly.

Shawn:  

I like that.

Mark:

That could be a fantastic activity for facilitators to get dysfunctional organisations to do.

Shawn:

That’s a good one—a trigger for thinking.

Mark: 

You might be surprised what people come up with.

Shawn: 

Like that parable I don’t think there is too much more we can say about it. Given your quality definition, what do you think would be your score out of 10 here?

Mark: 

It falls into a totally different category: parable versus an event. I’m, struggling with giving a score initially because I’m thinking about the return on time you get from it. Not a great story but you can get a lot of bang for a very brief period of time. I’m going to give it a 6.

Shawn:

6 out of 10. For me, it’s a solid 7. It’s a story I’ll definitely have in my back pocket, it’s easy to tell. I’ve told this story a couple of times to Mark and my first telling he hated.

Mark: 

That’s a strong word.

Shawn:

Yeah. I could see the look of disdain on your face. We had a couple of goes and the learning I had out of those iterations—it started off as two friends and for some reason that didn’t feel so natural to us. Of course, it’s totally natural for two friends to go down to the river but as soon as I made it husband and wife it felt better. I was thinking of my wife and I was imagining that and for some reason, that was easier to tell.

Mark:

Let’s get some insight into your personality and relationship. In that scenario which one of you would be running upstream?

Shawn:

My wife.

Mark:

Yes. So, she’s the thinker?

Shawn: 

Yeah, she’s the planner. It made that parable easier for me to tell whereas the first one I was at arm’s length from the parable. It felt clunky the first time I told it but less clunky the next time.

Mark: 

And it reiterates the point we make that you need to practise your stories, tell them out loud and they get better and better. So what’s your score?

Shawn:

I gave it a solid 7. It’s one that makes sense to me.

Mark:  

Do we have time to share one more parable?

Shawn:

Sure.

Mark:

One I heard a while ago that is potentially useful. A French farmer comes down to the village to the restaurant and tells the owner, ‘I’ve got a million frogs on my farm’

Shawn: 

Didn’t we tell this in the podcast?

Mark:

In that case we’ll stop right there.

Shawn:

Just refer back to the million frogs podcast.

Mark:

Forget that bit. If you do want to know the story of the million frogs just go back to one of the early episodes.

Shawn: 

I think we’ll wrap it up. I’m glad I was able to tell that story. We’ve got a few events happening; go to our events page. Mike and I are off to Munich in a couple of weeks, then London and then Hong Kong for me.

Mark:  

And I’m going to Italy in March and we’re running public workshops in Denver, Colorado in May.

Shawn: 

Great and I’m going to be in the US in April. We’re opening an office in the UK so you’ll be able to see more of Anecdote in Europe so that’s pretty exciting so we look forward to seeing you out and about. Just drop us a note anytime—we’d love to catch up.

Mark:

And if you are in Munich, London, Denver or any of those places then please drop us a line—we’d love to catch up.

Shawn:

So thanks again for listening to Anecdotally Speaking and tune in next week for another episode on how to put stories to work. Bye for now.

About  Anecdote International

Anecdote International is a global training and consulting company, specialising in utilising storytelling to bring humanity back to the workforce. Anecdote is now unique in having a global network of over 60 partners in 28 countries, with their learning programs translated into 11 languages, and customers who incorporate these programs into their leadership and sales enablement activities.

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