In Part One of this series on storytelling, we looked at the importance of stories as a way to inspire change in the people we seek to lead. This article looks at the big, overarching narratives that can drive our people to see themselves and their work in a new light.
We tell our biggest stories at the level of myths and legends. They answer the questions about why we’re here, how we must behave within our cultural group, and what we must do to live a good, true and beautiful life.
Whether you read the Bible or the Odyssey, JM Coetzee or JK Rowling, or watch Macbeth or Game of Thrones, stories govern our lives. There’s no doubt that reason and science play a huge part in our progress as a human race, but without the stories attached it’s impossible to apprehend life in all its richness. So what are the big stories we tell ourselves? What do we think when we pause for thought on our way to or from work? Are we grateful for the unprecedented riches bestowed on our place and time or do we tell ourselves the story that we’re wrecking the joint and earth would be better off without human habitation?
Stories have a typical structure, which we can discern if we look out for it. There’s a protagonist and an antagonist—or at least something that prevents the hero from achieving their goal. There’s a whole sub-genre of self-help books on structure for aspiring authors and screenwriters, and they can help us, too, in telling better business stories. Martin Weigel, head of strategy at Amsterdam ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, offers one model which struck a chord when I was considering a recent engagement.
It starts with a reflection of where we are today. On my assignment, the leadership team of a well-known Australian brand was reflecting on the fact that 14 years after their spinoff from the mothership, the go-go attitude of the startup was no longer working for them. They loved the can-do spirit that informed their identity, but they had grown too big and complex to keep doing what they had always done. As an organisation heavily dependent on engineering and at the forefront of the digital revolution, they not only knew they had to change, they wanted to treat that change as aspiration rather than desperation.
The next part of the story calls on ambition. What kind of tomorrow could we have? I asked the engineering manager this exact question, knowing that without a unifying goal, there can be no alignment amongst the troops. He was clear that he wanted to be the best in the world. ‘The best?’ I asked, making sure he correctly understood the effort and sacrifice it takes to be the best. ‘What would you have me say?’ came his reply. ‘What kind of a footy team would we be if we started the season by saying we’re not in it to win the championship, but would be happy to be placed in the top ten?’
Then comes the jeopardy, the inevitable dip written about by Seth Godin. What challenge must we overcome, and how will we develop the compelling ‘why?’ for change. The truth was that performance was getting visibly worse. Heavy maintenance events were taking longer and longer, while the return to service of the assets was becoming less and less reliable. These delays cost the company significant revenue from disrupted flight schedules and the overruns meant operating expense was out of control.
While the founding story actively neglected operating discipline in favour of getting the next initiative done, the lack of robust processes and integrated systems meant people were working harder and harder to get less and less finished. Tempers were fraying, and staff engagement was at an all-time low. They all knew that doing nothing was not an option. Their story combined two compelling narratives—one, a vision for the future, and the other a cautionary tale of what would happen if they continued on their current trajectory.
What they needed was hope—not blind faith, but some insight to provide a way through. I was able to contribute a compelling story about TOC and how it would be different from anything they had ever used before. They got to understand the importance of systems thinking and how all the parts must subordinate to the primacy of the whole. It was no good for technical services to optimise their production if it didn’t address the real-time needs of the shop floor’s efforts to get the asset back into service.
They understood that they would need to invest in helping their people learn new knowledge and use that learning to foster a growth mindset. People would be obliged to sign up to new accountabilities that looked to create bridges across the organisational silos. They knew if they wanted to win the championship, they would need to develop the means and motivation to work as a capable, collaborative team.
“How energising and engaging to work together toward a
common goal, aligned in our quest to be the world’s best”
Then comes the big idea—the decision to move from the realm of insight into practical action. The solution must be clear about what the future state will be like, including how it feels to live and think in that reality. The best of digital twinning, artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive maintenance and the internet of things were all components of the future whole which they were invited to imagine into being. They came to understand the compelling reason to tell a vivid story about that future—the richer it could be rendered, the more excited their teams would be to sign up for the journey. They were encouraged to do their learning from the vision rather than wasting effort on extrapolating incremental gains from a rapidly decaying past.
‘How good will it be when our engineers can again do great engineering work and not have to wrestle with our clunky processes and mandraulic technology applications?’ the engineering manager enthused. ‘What a change it will make to stop apologising to our customers for late deliveries and be able to once again take pride in our work. How energising and engaging to work together toward a common goal, aligned in our quest to be the world’s best at delivering safe, reliable, cost-effective outcomes.’
The story proved so effective that the team chosen to pilot the initiative on the shop floor upped the ante. If it was good for the subsidiary, why not take on the ambition of creating the system for all the divisions in the business? They set a goal of being the leader in TOC management and, by so doing, making the most significant contribution they could to the long-term health of the parent corporation.
As I write this post, I am returning from a class reunion in my native Zimbabwe. I have been acutely aware of the multitude of stories that have threaded their way through my beleaguered birthplace. Let’s see what the situation looks like through the lens of Wiegel’s storytelling framework.
Reflection—where we are today: All of Zimbabwe still lives the legacy of the audacity of Cecil Rhodes’ vision of British Imperialism. His stated goal was to have dominion over Africa, stretching from ‘Cape to Cairo’. What the British brought were all the fruits of the enlightenment: the technology of the railroad, a colonial civil service with expertise in building education, health and justice systems, engineers, farmers, miners and administrators. But, there was a significant flaw in the story. The remarkable achievements had to be offset against the legacy of the racist injustice it left in its wake—the vast majority of the population would not wear the yoke of their Colonial masters without demanding access to the democratic rights their overlords denied them.
“What will unlock the future all people of goodwill
wish for Zimbabwe? Is it not a bigger story?”
Inequality of opportunity in education, landholding and jobs created a fatal inequality of outcome, which could not be left unaddressed. The Marxist revolution provided hope, where power was the goal and the means to achieve it was through the barrel of a gun. The bitter harvest of that revolution was the undemocratic lust for power by an increasingly isolated elite who preserved their ability to secure their gains and avoid retributive justice for crimes against humanity. As fate would have it, the chief protagonist of this long and sorry chapter, the tyrant Mugabe, died the day we left for home. His story, however, is still told by the corrupt oligarchy he left behind. How my birthplace weeps for a better story.
Ambition—the tomorrow we could have: Countries which have democratic institutions prosper in ways that autocracies do not. There must be space for a ruling party (or coalition) and loyal opposition. Legitimate government comes with the consent of the people who have inalienable, fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. The rule of law must be paramount, with an independent judiciary to ensure equal justice for all. The economic system must be based on free enterprise and the protection of private property, free from arbitrary seizure by the state. The government’s role is to be limited to do only that which only it can do, including ensuring that there is equality of opportunity for all.
Jeopardy—the challenge we must overcome, the need for action/change: Challenging the ruling regime in Zimbabwe is a lethal endeavour. For close on 40 years since independence, the administration has perfected the art of the violent suppression of dissent. Mugabe boasted of his ‘PhD in violence’. What then can we do without risking disappearance? What narrative must be told, again and again to mobilise all people of goodwill to overthrow the yoke of the current tyranny? Where might we get our inspiration from: Mandela? Martin Luther King? Gandhi?
Hope—the insight that gives us a way through: The truth is that the vast majority of Zimbabweans have suffered dramatically under the misrule of the current regime. A united opposition to the regime, committed to the fundamental principles of democratic rule could provide people with the courage to contribute whatever they can to the peaceful overthrow of the tyranny. Breaking the cycle of violence that has been the curse of this African jewel is a prerequisite to it achieving the full and abundant fruit of its potential.
Solution—the idea that unlocks this: When I asked the entrepreneurs, the tour guides, the bus drivers and street merchants how they felt about what was happening to our country, the everyman response was one of sadness. There was a descent into hopelessness as they related how, over the many years of the struggle for a free and democratic country, their raised hopes were repeatedly dashed. So what is it that will unlock the future all people of goodwill wish for Zimbabwe? Is it not a bigger story? A story which narrates the past and creates a compelling vision for the future?
In my role as an author, I’m busying myself thinking through how, in whatever small a way, I can make a difference. What story can I tell from my Australian home which will bind past, present and future in a way which transcends the shackles of history? And in my work with my clients, these reflections on the power of storytelling continue to inform how I help their organisations move forward on their own journeys to better work.
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 ‘Cave Painting’ by David Hodes]
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship,
stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
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