Better Business Through Storytelling

When you tell a story, you’re not always writing it in a narrative format. With a business plan, financial statement, or presentation, you’re often presenting facts that don’t look like a narrative.

But people understand facts by placing them in the context of a narrative. So even if you’re not deliberately structuring a narrative, your audience is always constructing a narrative around the facts that you present.

This leaves you with a problem: Are they constructing the narrative you want?

It’s easy to confuse the facts with our interpretation of the facts, or to assume our story is the only one that can be derived from the facts. It can be helpful to present the facts without trying to load a story into them, if you are presenting to a safe audience that can give you a different perspective on the story.

But when you assume that the story you’re telling yourself is the one your audience will see, you may:

  • leave out key facts
  • fail to contextualize the facts
  • fail to adequately explain causes and effects
  • over-emphasize less-important points
  • fail to present a coherent picture

Another part of the problem is control, or presenting the facts in such a way that they tell the story you intend. If you’ve ever been confused by what was supposed to be a straight-forward movie, then you’ve experienced a storyteller who lacked control. It’s a skill that can take years to master.

But you can improve your skills with everyday storytelling, and as a result improve your impact both in your organization and in your everyday life. Here are some questions I tend to ask, intuitively as a storyteller, when I’m presenting to an audience.

  1. Do these facts present a beginning, middle, and end? For example, do they represent what we expected, the facts and methodology that changed our expectations, and the new direction we find ourselves taking?
  2. How do these facts draw us out of the ordinary day-to-day of life, i.e., the assumptions and routines that form the way we operate in our eight hours a day?
  3. Who is the hero of this story? In other words, whose action is most important to the outcome? Am I asking someone to help me, or am I trying to help someone else? (Whoever is being helped to achieve something is usually the hero–but be careful, you may be asking someone to help you help them.)
  4. If I am the hero of this story, what role is my audience playing? What intrinsic motivations and extrinsic rewards can I reference to encourage their involvement?
  5. If my audience is the hero of this story, why am I involved? What do I have to contribute to the hero’s quest, and why do I care so much about it?
  6. If a third party is the hero of this story, why is the story so important? What is our motivation to collaborate and elevate the third party? And why isn’t that third party involved in the telling you’re doing now?
  7. What are the obstacles ahead? What enemies must be defeated, what challenges must be overcome, what dangers have to be endured? How can we prepare the hero to surpass these obstacles?
  8. What is the future if the hero manages to overcome the obstacles? Is it worth the risk and the investment, not just for the hero, but for everyone in the story? (Remember not to appeal to extrinsic rewards except where intrinsic motivations aren’t enough to spur action.)
  9. Why? A story illuminates the reasons (or lack of reason) behind everything. So for every fact and every statement, ask the question, “Why?”

The more you practice looking for the story and contextualizing your facts, the more intuitive these ideas will become, and the better you will become at controlling the story others are seeing.

Once again, it’s not always a good idea to control the story. With a safe audience, it can be better to present straight facts to check whether the story they see is the same as the story you have in your head. We don’t always have the best or most accurate story. However, it’s also dangerous to present facts to an unsafe audience without knowing what story you’re telling and whether you’re telling it well.

Recognition: The Motivational Compass

I’ve discussed removing obstacles and providing feedback. I want to talk about one other way to feed motivation, one that walks a line between intrinsic and external: recognition.

Lack of recognition is a surefire way to kill motivation. In fact, if you really want to destroy someone’s will to work, don’t criticize their efforts–just ignore them. And yet, many leaders seem to operate on the assumption that if something is good it will be self-evident, and end up seeming to ignore the fruitful efforts of those around them.

In American business, we’ve mythologized disruptors who plough forward with complete disregard for the praise or derision of others: Steve Jobs is our Hercules, Elon Musk our Perseus. But this mythology ignores the reality of the human social identity in favor of the fraction of a percent who accomplish radical individual change. It also ignores the reality that the vast majority of what happens in the world–even the vast majority of change–is a product of those who are not disruptors. We idolize the individual who makes an enormous change while downplaying the collective power of millions who make small changes.

And for those millions making small changes, recognition is completely critical. It’s a social compass: we want to know that what we are doing is useful to those around us, to guide our further efforts to be more useful. In ancient times, it was largely self-evident: if I shoe a horse or patch a tent, I can see how it’s useful to my customer. Today, business is so abstract that often the only indication of whether something is useful is the explicit response of the people around us–particularly in remote work environments (e.g., working from home).

I feel recognized when someone to whom I’ve given authority to value my work has evaluated it, found it valuable, and expressed that value back to me.

I’ll use this definition as a jumping off point to discuss the important parts of recognition:

  • someone: Unlike feedback, which can be automated, recognition is an essentially human, social act. The value of recognition is that the phenomenon exists in another person’s consciousness. Consider even the word, “recognition:” making my experience (of another person’s contribution) conscious. Unless the phenomenon exists in human consciousness and is expressed sincerely out of experience, it is false and doesn’t serve the purpose of recognition as a motivator.
  • to whom I’ve given authority: Authority doesn’t necessarily fall along any chain of command. I make the decision to give authority based on my own values. Every action has an intended impact and an intended target, whether these things are conscious or unconscious, deliberate or haphazard. The target of that impact is usually the one to whom I give authority. (This is true because of the converse: the one to whom I give authority is usually the target of my intended impact, even if there’s a more obvious impact on someone else.) However, we may also give authority to others we respect.
  • authority to value my work: The particular type of authority is contextual. The work I’ve done is intended for a specific purpose. To that end, the person who has authority in each instance will depend on the work that is being valued.
  • has evaluated it: Evaluation is a conscious act–it’s not simply taking and using the object, but specifically noting its features and overall usefulness. This is the act of recognition: acknowledging one’s own experience of the work and bringing it to consciousness.
  • found it valuable: Recognizing that someone’s work is useless isn’t helpful when trying to encourage motivation. Even if the work turns out not to be valuable for the specific purpose you intended, try to recognize what is valuable about it. If it’s utterly irredeemable, then the situation may call for feedback but not recognition.
  • expressed that value: These last two steps can sometimes get lost in the act of recognition, when I recognize that something is valuable to me and then go out and use it, while forgetting to report its value. The danger is in believing that recognizing value is sufficient and then keeping that recognition to myself. I not only have to recognize value, but express the value. Expressing the value as I perceive it is enough; even if the work is part of some larger scheme, it doesn’t need to accomplish its ultimate ends to be successful.
  • back to me: This is another point that can be overlooked. Expressing the value you perceive to someone else is great, and can lead to great things. But that’s not the purpose of recognition. Recognition reflects my perception of value back to the person who created that value.

Has this post been valuable to you? What was valuable about it? How could it be more valuable?

Feedback: The Motivation Superpower

Intrinsic motivation, left to itself, can be unfocused. This is especially true across an entire organization. There are ways to improve focus through establishing shared values and getting everyone to tell the same story, but there are also mechanisms for improving the focus of an individual’s intrinsic motivations. Few of these mechanisms are more fundamental than feedback.

I don’t mean peer review forms or a semi-annual sit-down with the boss. I mean simple feedback loops that work throughout every day.

Simple feedback works like this: A subject takes an action, there is a reaction, and information about the reaction is returned to the subject, who can then use the information about the reaction to modify her activity. I touch a hot kettle, the kettle burns my fingers, my nerves send information about my fingers burning back to me, and I pull my hand away. This is how fundamental feedback is. But because so much business in today’s world is abstract, we have to construct feedback loops deliberately rather than expecting feedback to happen on its own.

Lack of feedback can quickly erode motivation. And the more entrepreneurial or “self-starting” a position is, the more important feedback is to the person in that position. Feedback is your sight, like a bat echoing its own songs to understand the contour of the world around it. If you don’t hear an echo, how do you know what to do?

Yet for how fundamental it is, it’s surprisingly easy to forget. And then it’s surprisingly easy to chalk up motivation problems to lack of incentives, or poor leadership, or other priorities getting in the way, when really the people around you are lost in a world that doesn’t echo back at them.

How can you create effective feedback?

Feedback must be immediate, contextual, and apparent. Feedback is a behavioral stimulus–it has to fit both the time and the context of the action that caused it, and it has to be clear and concise in order to reveal information that’s useful for subsequent action.

This doesn’t mean feedback is always a result of things that are done–sometimes it’s the result of something that’s undone. Networking sites like LinkedIn and dating sites like tend to provide feedback in the form of a percentage completion bar to let you know how “complete” your profile is. Of course, your profile on these sites is as complete as you want it to be–but by creating this bit of feedback, such sites are able to encourage participants to improve the quality of information about themselves without offering any incentive other than having a “more complete” profile.

Feedback is a leadership superpower because all feedback is either grounded on some fixed point (values), directed toward some fixed point (objectives), or both. Thus continuous feedback is a way of aligning the efforts of a team toward the same values and objectives. And if you focus on those ends–values and objectives–when providing feedback, you can effectively avoid micromanagement while getting results that both satisfy your goals and represent your team.

Sometimes as a leader, I may have to manufacture feedback. This may require a shift in perspective: rather than believing there’s no feedback available because something is tied up in political limbo, I may need to provide feedback on the work itself–its quality, its relevance, etc. My team member will be able to take that feedback and apply it to other efforts. As a consequence, they’ll also be creating value that better fits my own vision, since it’s directed toward my feedback.

I may also have to generate feedback for myself. One way to go about this is to establish clear expectations with every completed action. After completing something for which I expect feedback–which does not necessarily mean something that requires “notes” or changes–I can mention the kind of information I want to receive and the date by which I would like to receive it, and then follow-up after the appointed time has passed. Remember this information should be immediate (and contextual), concise, and oriented toward fulfilling values and accomplishing objectives; it should as a result be quick and easy for the requested party to provide.

Proper application of feedback can, on its own, stimulate a lot of action without the addition of artificial incentives. It’s the first step in turning intrinsic motivation outward, but it doesn’t yet offer an actual incentive–merely a reflection. The information reflected back at us also implies specific objectives–something that someone outside of us is looking to find, and therefore something we can work specifically to improve, which we do if we have the intrinsic desire to create something useful for another person. Giving feedback without tying it to any extrinsic reward is the second level of motivational strategy.

What are some effective ways you’ve found to provide feedback to others? What ways have you learned to solicit useful feedback from others?

Can We Open-Source the Law?

Here’s a wild idea for you.

When the United States was formed as the first modern democracy, its founders had some pretty crazy ideas about how the democratic system would work. People would be elected and leave their jobs to become lawmakers for several years, and then return to their jobs and let someone else take a stab at it. It was an efficient approach to getting the perspectives of the people who made up the nation to collaborate on laws.

But how would they have written the Constitution if they had today’s technologies and insights? Would it have been different?

Enter Jos de Blok, CEO of Buurtzorg, a nursing organization that turned the business of home-care on its head. Unlike traditional leadership that does extensive strategizing and change planning, de Blok has a blog. When he’s planning a change in operations–usually a small, incremental change rather than a massive treatise–he posts it on the blog and allows 24 hours for response from an organization of nearly 8,000. Based on feedback, he proceeds, amends, throws out, or gathers a task force to hammer out the details.

The specifics of Buurtzorg’s approach will not apply for every organization, but the concept is sound: Centralized (non-hierarchical) management of an open-sourced approach.

Open-sourcing has provided not just stable software but some of the most secure software in the world, despite the early concerns over its transparency and malleability. Yet the approach has yet to make much of a leap to other fields, despite being at its core a knowledge method and not a software-specific method. (Wikipedia is among the few notable examples.)

There’s a lot to be learned from the way open-source groups guide development. Many have small development teams that are able to invest and focus on key features that aren’t getting as much attention on the outside. Some companies identify features that have to be developed in a closed environment in order to be valuable, and embed them within a different version of the product. But there are often so many eyes on every line of the source code that it’s difficult to deliberately sabotage the effort, and developers who comb through the code before a final release are typically able to pull out unnecessary operations and tie up loose ends.

These open-source software projects are at work in the wild, accessible to billions of people, and many of the developers working on them have very little personal stake in the outcome except their own excitement about and investment in the project.

Suppose these same techniques were used to guide your organization, every member of which is deeply invested in your policies and decisions. Instead of investing in a complex analysis of the state of your company, you’d get immediate feedback from the people who know it best. Instead of deciding on a change plan and having to get buy-in from every last member of your organization, you’d already have a good chunk of your organization on board. Instead of having to course-correct in the middle of an enormous project, your incremental changes would correct themselves.

If it sounds idealistic, that’s because it is. Don’t misunderstand: It’s a completely practical approach, and may even become a necessary approach to managing large organizations in ten or twenty years. But it’s also idealistic because it requires leaders to relinquish power, and perhaps just as importantly it puts them on uncertain footing. Leaders not only want power for its own sake, they want power because they don’t trust their people, and this approach to an organization’s policy and strategy relies absolutely on trust.

Fortunately there are ways to develop that trust, some of which I’ve already written about. You can treat your employees as partners. You can remove the stigma of failure. You can establish shared values. And as always, you should approach it in the way that works best for your specific organization. But as with any change, at some point you will have to make a leap without knowing exactly where you will land. It can be terrifying, but it’s the only way we accomplish any meaningful change.

Perhaps the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have open-sourced America’s laws even if they’d had the tools. But on the whole they were the kind of people who were always trying to improve upon the work of others. We’d be doing them a disservice if we didn’t try to improve upon theirs, even if it’s only within our own small organizations.

I’m looking forward to discussing your insights and concerns in the comments below.

Interlocking Shields: The Importance of Constructive Conflict

Any organization that’s trying to become more innovative has to adopt one universal management skill: constructive conflict.

Constructive conflict doesn’t mean conflict resolution. It means allowing conflict to happen, even encouraging it, and focusing it into a creative, constructive exercise.

Conflict is important because it challenges beliefs and assumptions. It reveals the limits of our vision and draws out feelings and opinions that need to be dealt with. Well-executed conflict can result in more robust ideas and more complete buy-in; it also prevents territorialism and resource allocation inefficiencies from people overstating their needs, and allows us to air grievances before they develop into grudges. For these reasons, conflict doesn’t go away in a good business environment.

Conflict occurs when people have different information, different values, or different needs; constructive conflict facilitates synthesis of these differences:

  • Synthesizing information allows decisions to proceed with a more holistic view.
  • Synthesizing values allows each stakeholder to understand other stakeholders’ concerns and determine whether they are important to the matter at hand.
  • Synthesizing needs helps make decisions and compromises that will benefit the business overall and not just the stakeholder acting on his or her own.

Conflict avoidance, on the other hand, short circuits innovation by preventing the interaction of diverse viewpoints and areas of knowledge. Providing a framework for conflict to happen makes collaboration possible. All the platforms and incentives and leadership messages trying to push collaboration can be sabotaged by not knowing how to create positive conflict.

Although constructive conflict is a skill, we can start by creating a solid foundation for conflict. This begins with shared purpose and shared values: if people are working toward the same end, resolving the conflict becomes a matter of how best to achieve that end instead of a contest of ends.

We can also more clearly define roles. This is a particular challenge for less-hierarchical organizations: a manager, for example, becomes a role rather than a position of absolute authority. Yet as I’ve discussed previously, “domain” is critical to the development of individuals. Defining and using domain in very clear-cut ways helps those involved in a conflict to understand the perspectives of one another, and reduces the scale of conflict to border disputes while eschewing hostile takeovers.

Finally, constructive conflict and trust feed into one another. If you have established trust, it will help to draw out conflict and create constructive outcomes. If you create successful conflicts, it will strengthen the bond of trust.

Living the Myth

Once you have your founding myth, what do you do with it? You can’t exactly distribute an epic poem to your people. Do you have to update your internal training materials?

Fortunately, this isn’t necessary. Most of ancient Rome couldn’t even read, but that didn’t mean they didn’t identify themselves with the founding story of Romulus and Remus.

Your founding myth will become the centerpoint of your shared identity, but it should become a story your people tell intuitively, not because they’ve memorized it off a sheet of paper. Many cultures tell their myths through holidays and religious practices–but another way of looking at it is that the myth is told through the activities that establish the culture’s identity. What activities that establish your organization’s identity?

If your response is, “Almost everything my organization does,” you’re starting to get the idea. The story is told every time two or more people assemble in the name of the organization. So the challenging process is not in telling the story at all, but in changing the story that’s being told.

  1. Believe the myth. Have you created something you believe, or is it something you wish were true? If it’s the latter, you’d better head back to the drawing board. There has never been a story that existed outside of a human mind. The founding myth must be believed into existence–by way of its influence over actions and motivations. But the founding myth is not magic. It will help to guide decisions and create community, and it will help the culture of your organization to hold together and move in the same direction. But it will only work if it’s based in reality, and it is genuinely believed by the people in the organization. Belief starts with you.
  2. Share your beliefs. If you believe the myth, you will find it working itself into your everyday language. The ideas and beliefs will be embodied in your presentations, your conversations, the way you lead your meetings. You will reference your shared past, call upon your shared values, and look forward to your shared destiny, sure as a Pentecostal preacher on a Sunday morning.
  3. Pay attention to the response. How your people receive and react to the story you’re telling will indicate changes you may need to make. You may have blind spots where the facts as you see them don’t match up with the experience of others, and have to revise your myth. You may have pain points where you will have to change the way your organization operates in order to align with your myth. Do people disagree with the conclusions you reach? Do you experience resistance to initiatives? Do people seem like they’re going through the motions without really understanding the purpose? If your myth is told well and aligns with what everyone is doing, your people will act with purpose; if your myth isn’t aligned with reality, your people will be annoyed at being asked to keep up a compulsory fiction.
  4. Revise. Pay attention to the way people respond, and you’ll start to see where you might have to make changes to your myth, and where you might have to make changes to your business. In all likelihood, you will need to do both. How will you know the difference? There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules, but as a general rule of thumb, if the negative or lackluster response is widespread, you probably need to revise your myth. If the poor response is concentrated in the core areas of your business–the people who best know your organization’s purpose–you probably need to revise your myth.
  5. Keep it up. Don’t let growing pains get you down; there will be people who don’t agree with your vision exactly, and while you should listen to them, you shouldn’t always revise your myth to please them. If you have a consensus within your organization–not just at the executive level (if applicable), but the organization as a whole, including all major divisions–then you will simply have to accept the fact that some people will take more time to get on board, and some people will never get on board and probably need to find a different community.

You will notice that both the story and the business will have to change. (I hope you are expecting for your business to change, since it’s the whole point of this exercise.) But after a few iterations, you should find a comfortable guiding myth.

And then you will have the privilege of encountering the great truth, “It works until it doesn’t.”

What I’ve written this week could be the content of an entire set of books, but these principles should at least give you some ideas about how to approach the enhancement of your organization’s story and the development of its community. And if not, I’m always willing to be wrong. I look forward to hearing your observations and experiences in the comments.