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.

Motivating by Story: A Lesson from Theater

When you go to see a play, you may sit down with some assumptions about the people you see on stage. Among them may be an assumption that all those people want to be there.

A stage or a film set isn’t substantively different from the environment on a work team–the egos may be a little bigger, but if you’ve spent any time leading people, you’ve probably seen some big egos already.

One of the difficulties you might not expect lies in getting the cast on the same page. A director’s ability to interpret a script (which is tantamount to meeting the requirements of a project) depends on each actor individually working with that interpretation.

The irony is that for everyone to be on the same page, everyone has to be on a different page. Having a big-picture understanding of Hamlet finding out about and then exacting revenge for the murder of his father is a great perspective to have, but it’s not necessarily the story each actor is playing. Each person in the cast has to have a unique story in order to effectively and convincingly fulfill his duties.

To Laertes, Hamlet is a story about revenge–against his sister’s boyfriend for driving her to insanity and suicide. To Claudius, it’s a story about the ambition of a man who wouldn’t accept the cards dealt to him and worked to improve his station.

Similarly, one of the most important motivators in a team is not to see the big picture, but to see the small one–to see my story. It’s too easy to clock in and check out when I see what I’m doing as serving someone else’s story, and I’m just selling a bit of my life for a paycheck. To live fully within the work I’m doing, I have to understand: what am I doing right now to live my values?

Do you know the stories your people are telling? Do you know not only their value, but their values? Every level of organization has separate values: a nation, a business, a team, an individual. If you know their values, it will be easy to help them see their own stories in the larger story you’re telling together.

“Sure,” you might say, “I can show a key player how his individual story weaves into the big picture. But there are some people–interns, new hires, people from other departments or other companies–who tend to see their roles as small and interchangeable. And they are,” you may even say, “because they don’t have the specialization or depth of involvement to create unique value.”

There are two roles in Hamlet that are so famously insignificant and interchangeable that Tom Stoppard wrote a play about how insignificant and interchangeable they are: Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

These two characters have no distinguishing features and serve only to move the plot forward. The actors could easily clock in and check out. But a good director doesn’t ignore even the smallest part, particularly if she already has star players locking down the major roles. The flavor of the end product can be disproportionately affected by these seemingly insignificant roles.

Ultimately it comes down to the same objective: Even these small, interchangeable players have to see what they do as the integral, project-defining work that it is. Losing even the least significant roles confuses and degrades the end product.

Could you have a successful product without it? Of course–it happens all the time. I’ve seen successful projects with much more significant roles that were poorly executed. But attention to the least of your team members, and the ability to integrate their stories seamlessly into the final product, is what separates a passable director from a great leader. Learning the individual stories of each of your players, and weaving each of them into the whole, can take a project that is unlikely to even be finished and turn it into an incredible success.

How to Use Your Diversity

We intuitively know there’s value in diversity: the Mission Impossible team, the A-Team, Ocean’s Eleven, the Guardians of the Galaxy.

But in business the tradition has been to focus on things that can be tabulated: years of experience, education level, predefined skill sets–and usually to fill the abstract concept of a “position.” In this context, “diversity” is a buzz word that means “someone who looks different”–different clothes, different rituals, different language–but someone who is still plugged into the same ways of thinking.

It’s not that such people don’t add diversity. But the value of their diversity is often suppressed in favor of the appearance of diversity. The game, while at the office at least, is conformity.

The value of diversity comes with different modes of thinking. Any given person can see a problem from multiple angles, but never from all angles. Having and utilizing real diversity, then, depends on being able to bring out the difference in perspective and put it to work in combination with other perspectives.

From a recruiting perspective, this means hiring to fill the blind spots. A blind spot is different from a role, and it behooves a manager to understand where blind spots may exist in a team.

From a management perspective, this means practicing constructive conflict. Constructive conflict is a way not only to allow but to encourage dissenting opinions in such a way that final solutions benefit from very different ideas.

Finally, it means management that is able to see the value in other perspectives. Much of the value of these perspectives may not be rational, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason behind them. Finding tools to judge these perspectives, and to incorporate them together, is critical to effective management of diverse teams.

One final point: Diversity of perspective must be unified by unity of purpose. Last week, I described founding myth in terms of shared origin, shared values, and shared destiny. These are critical to the development of a diverse community.

This One Neat Trick Made Alexander the Conqueror of the Known World

Alexander conquered the known world with a simple innovation. It didn’t require a complex new technology; we would call it a “process change.” Instead of giving men shields to protect themselves, the Greeks overlapped their shields to form an impenetrable barrier, a technique they called a “phalanx.”

In these phalanx formations, a soldier’s shield was (according to Gerard Butler) intended to cover himself and the man to his left. The success of the entire formation rested on each individual, but the responsibility of each individual extended to only one other person. It was a manageable, achievable, even simple goal. What’s more, each soldier was able to give up some of his own shield with the knowledge that the man beside him was shielding him in turn. (Unless you were on the far right–that guy was kinda screwed.)

I’m sure someone has taken this idea somewhere, slapped it on a posted and put the word “TEAMWORK” under it. But this isn’t just “teamwork.” “Teamwork” was taking down a mammoth thousands of years earlier. The phalanx was something a little different. Instead of being something abstract like “teamwork,” it was a very simple, practical invention based on two rules:

  1. Each man covers the next man’s weakness.
  2. Covering the man next to you is as important as covering yourself.

If you could apply this technique to a culture–the culture of your immediate team at work, or of your entire company, or of an entire nation–a culture of covering the person to your left–could that culture benefit as much from its resulting unity as an ancient Greek phalanx?

For it to work, there is a hiring issue and a management issue.

The hiring side depends upon hiring a diverse set of people–not just “diversity hiring,” but hiring people with very different perspectives and strengths within the context of the core set of skills necessary to a team. This requires complementing working skills (such as project planning) with social skills (such as empathy).

The management side depends upon horizontal management methods, which is to say peer management. Rather than being responsible only upward, I am also responsible sideways to and for one or more people. Their success is my success.

There are a few possible approaches that I have not personally had the chance to test or observe in a business environment. One is the “linked chain” approach that is seen in some less-formal organizations: Each individual reports to one peer and is reported to by another. (This is a way of placing responsibility for communication on one individual in the relationship; it doesn’t mean the reportee won’t also be asking for help from the reporter.) Instead of seeing these people as higher or lower in the hierarchy, they are peers who are responsible for one another. In a managed organization, the chain can be more effectively “linked” by pairing complementary skill sets, so that one’s strength can cover another’s weakness. By virtue of linking, additional skill sets can quickly be brought in by the rest of the team, especially on larger teams.

Have you had any experiences trying to develop “phalanx” structures in your organization? I would love to hear about it in the comments.