The first two parts of our series on storytelling focused on the overarching narrative: the big stories we tell ourselves. In this final article, we look at smaller stories—the kind we tell every day—which can add up to a shift in mindset from the listener.
We no doubt need the large stories that place us as the hero on our journey to something greater than ourselves. But how do we get there? What do we encounter in our daily adventures at work? And how can we learn from others in our field—or even way outside it? Smaller stories make our points more memorable to the listener. Done right, they can spread throughout the organisation.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
When we get together in the canteen or rec room, how do we share our experiences? What almost went wrong in the plant in the last shift? What did the boss say about the upcoming visit from the global COO? What was it like to go through the new health and safety training? It’s completely natural for us to relate these experiences with a story.
This kind of ‘small s’ storytelling is oral and has the potential to ‘go viral’—just like any other kind of gossip. Leaders can use them to better engage their teams during speeches, whether in large formal settings or in a one-to-one setting. Even better, this kind of story is highly portable. The teller can make it their own.
These anecdotes don’t have the three-act structure of Hollywood. They may not even have a hero (although it could be the speaker or the person they’re talking about). They are simpler and more easy to remember when you want to illustrate a specific point. Shawn Callahan, who wrote Putting Stories to Work, has created a story framework that outlines a basic map that underlies any business story (see diagram below).
First, there’s a time or place marker—or possibly a person. Then there’s a series of connected events. This happened, which caused that, then this. When we tell stories to entertain each other, we usually use dialogue. ‘He said…then I went…’ which makes it vivid. Most of all, there’s something out of the ordinary, some surprise. Otherwise, why bother telling it? (Coincidence stories work like this, too). And finally, for the story to connect with the reader in an intended way, it must have a business point. Here’s an example.
Recently, I went to the mine over the other side of the ridge, with Arnie and Paul (not their real names). We were trying to find a way to get some funding to improve the consistency of the ore grade. No one was listening, and the ramifications were severe for the downstream processes. So, I told this story:
Once there was a very stubborn mule on a bridge, and no matter what anyone did, it wouldn’t budge. The people with their cars and carts were getting mighty frustrated, but pull as they did on the reins, that mule, stubborn as a mule, wasn’t going anywhere. Van der Merwe saunters up the road, sees the situation and asks if he might help. Everyone greeted his offer enthusiastically, but couldn’t figure out how such a slip of a man could do what proved impossible for the biggest and strongest amongst them.
Van (as he is known in South Africa), asked for a heavy 4×2 plank of wood. Armed with this, he took ten steps back. After a brief pause, he ran toward the mule and belted it across the head with all the force he could muster. The mule shuddered a little, but when the reins were taken by Van and pulled lightly to get it out the way, the mule followed behind without a trace of the stubbornness for which these creatures are renowned. The crowd roared their approval, and one amongst them asked the new hero what the secret was to his success. Van replied, ‘First, you have to get their attention.’
On one level, the story here is about Van and the mule, and I’m telling it in the moment to get Arnie and Paul to see that they might need to step back and change their approach. But I could equally build on this anecdote to tell someone else the story about what happened next. ‘I was over at the mine with Arnie and Paul,’ I might say. ‘I told them the story about Van and the mule. You know the one.’ If the listener doesn’t, I can tell that story. But then I move on to what happened next. Did they get the point? Did they come up with an idea to get the funding?
I thoroughly recommend Putting Stories to Work for its framework but also its method of gathering stories and helping seed them in the organisation. Callahan outlines different types of story that can communicate strategy, engage and inspire people, counter rumours and much more.
Here are some lightly fictionalised from my own recent experience.
Imagine Bob, a member of the engineering leadership team, who had the following experience and might recount it like this:
We were in our weekly leadership catchup on Monday, struggling to think about how we could simplify what we were trying to achieve with our strategy. We had a lot of jargon words in there, like reduction in TAT (turnaround time), OTP (on-time performance), RTS (return to service), Throughput. After we’d gone around several times, Mike piped up and said, ‘What are we really trying to do? Aren’t we saying that it’s our obligation as the engineering division to make sure that we maximise the amount of time hulls are safely available to fly?’
There was a silent pause before Maria came up with the clincher ‘Max Skytime’. And then we had it—a mantra to use from the shop floor to the boardroom to communicate our strategy. If a hull isn’t available to fly, it can’t be making money, so our strategy was entirely linked to ensuring ‘Max Skytime’. Now we all have a story to tell our teams. ‘We used to focus on a bunch of metrics that were all important but didn’t get to the heart of the problem. Our customers only care about getting airborne on time. And we in engineering know that to do that we must get our asset out into service again. While we still track all these measures, we realised we should only focus on one thing: Max Skytime.’
Sarah went to the leadership team retreat last week. The whole team was painfully aware that employee engagement scores had been on a progressive and precipitous decline in the last three years. Only 1 in 5 employees felt engaged, the vast majority were indifferent, and as much as 20% were actively hostile to the business. ‘Three years ago,’ said Sarah, ‘there had been a pretty brutal resizing exercise which was poorly planned and very badly executed.’
We’ve been trying to correct the very damaging unintended consequences ever since. But in doing so we’ve focused too heavily on the technical aspects of the processes, the organisational design and the supporting technology platforms.
What was missing is a sense of purpose. We all need to answer the big ‘why’ question. We won’t build any trust or get anywhere unless everyone feels we’re fair dinkum around why we’re making the changes we’re calling for. We’re a regional business, but we’re part of a global corporate. Our people like that—they see how we contribute to where we live, but when we step into our daily work, we are connected to the latest and greatest innovations the business has to offer.
The team ended the workshop practising what they would tell their teams on their return. Each person was able to tell Sarah’s story in their own way, bringing a much needed human dimension to the change initiative.
On Thursday, I dropped by to see the team at the end of a long shift on a major shut.
They had smashed the work for the day and knew they were making good progress on the critical path. They all just wanted to go home, have a bath, some dinner and put their kids to bed. Waiting in the crib for shift changeover, Derek asked if everyone had done their updates. Everyone moaned and groaned—it was the last thing anyone wanted to do. He then did something really simple. He asked:
‘If you were to rate today’s performance on one of our golden rules “maintain true data”, where would you place us, on a scale from one to ten?’ He went around the room. No one gave a score of more than 2. ‘What are we trying to achieve here? What did we commit to at the beginning of the shut?’ Samu was the first to speak: ‘Nine and above, boss—we’re here to win the championship.’ ‘OK, guys,’ Derek followed, ‘what do you want to do?’ And they guys all fired up their computers and closed out our reporting for the day.
The other day, I was heating up my lunch in the kitchen when Stuart and Jack walked in.
Jack was moaning about ‘all these constraints we have’ and how it was impossible to keep them all under control. Stuart said, ‘I use this “One Thing” idea.’ Jack looked at him. Stuart went on: ‘What’s the one thing you can do that would make everything else either easier or go away?’
He said that when he finds and focuses on the one thing, it’s remarkable how much he can get done. ‘The constraint is your friend, not the enemy,’ he said. ‘If it’s correctly chosen and focused on, it represents the place of maximum leverage for what you’re trying to achieve.’
Jack thought for a few seconds and smiled. ‘I like that, mate,’ he said. ‘I’ll give it a go and use it with my crew.’ I since heard he now uses it at every pre-start.
Jeremy was telling me he finds it very disconcerting when Felicity keeps bagging management and what they are trying to do to turn this place around. Her talking this way produces such a negative effect amongst the team.
Last Thursday in the canteen she told me, ‘Every time, at this time of year, they come and tell us how the market is tightening and that we will have to pull in our belts. It only means one thing—we’re going to get our bonuses cut again. It’s like no matter how hard we work, we’re always going to be a victim to the market and management’s need to show a particular result.’
Then Damien, looking up from his noodles, jumped in and reminded us: ‘Hey, Felicity. We all have secure jobs, we’re blessed with a terrific leadership team who have invested heavily in all of our leadership skills through the Alchemy program. They included us in all stages of the development of our shared vision. Whatever the final results are, we know they’ll be totally transparent and will fight our corner to get what they can for us.’
Even Jack, the team sceptic, joined in. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Given the current state of our industry, maybe we should be more grateful for what we have and generous towards our leadership team’s efforts to guide us through these tough times.’ Felicity opened her mouth, then thought for a few moments. ‘You may be right,’ she said. Since then, she’s kept her thoughts to herself.
Finally, recall that this kind of storytelling works like gossip. But just because you’re telling stories doesn’t mean the gossip stops. You need to get your message across. And a story is often the best way. If you’re not telling your story, your people will happily supply one of their own.
If you want to replace negative rumours flying around the organisation, simple facts may not stick. You only have to look at our current global political scene to see this in action. To displace a false story, you need more than just an appeal to reason. You need a better story.
Now read the other parts in our storytelling series:
My own story is in my book, More Than Just Work, which distils my thinking about three decades of managing work. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy my book (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo of ‘Coffee Break’ by Joshua Ness on Unsplash]
“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Constraints aren’t your enemy—they’re your friend. If you want the most bang-for-buck for your effort, despite the connotation of the word constraint, it’s precisely at that place you’ll find the leverage you’re looking for.(more…)
In a recent workshop, I asked the team to state their goal. The number they gave me—expressed as a volume of safe, reliable tonnes—was a good deal less than the design capacity of the plant. A little surprised, I asked them what was going on.(more…)
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