Business storytelling is fanciful and irresponsible. Not.

It’s the stats, spreadsheets and carefully crafted reports that really excite us – no really!

Think back over the high spots of your careers and I bet it is big personalities and outrageous stories that you remember. So why don’t we make better use of the story-tellers, and their stories, and give ourselves a viable alternative to the stuff that bores us senseless, and, more to the point, is often deliberately misleading.

At one stage in my career I worked on a complex Private-Public initiative and we hit serious contractual issues, as you do. For some months our solution partner had been floating a story of how we had contracted to ‘buy a Mini’ and we were now ‘demanding a Rolls Royce’. I suspect this was a fairly standard bargaining position on their part across the world. A consortium team of five lawyers flew in from offshore to knock us into shape and extract tens of $millions of additional revenue. The figure being banded around was $55 million. Two of us – sans lawyers – fronted their team. Their lead consultant, sitting across the table, started the conversation with “You set out to buy a Mini…” At that point as he took a breath and before he could finish the sentence we stood, shook each one of their team by the hand and thanked them for coming. They were completely gobsmacked. We then went one floor down to the NZ Country Manager and told him we didn’t agree with their opening “Mini – Rolls-Royce” premise and would not negotiate with any team with that misguided representation on the table. To his credit he agreed, and the following day that team flew back out of the country. Their story designed around rhetoric with no supporting evidence never saw the light of day again. We replaced it with a accurate business case story built around fairness and truth and we stuck to that story across a range of different forums. That same story then formed the basis of a subsequent contract renegotiation that fairly reflected the contract changes we had asked of the consortium. In our case the rather dramatic dismissal of their positioning claim, after seven scant words, became part of the story. We weren’t going to be pushed around by anyone.

…floating a story of how we had contracted to ‘buy a Mini’ and we were now ‘demanding a Rolls Royce’. Yeah. Nah!

During this same period and relating to this same initiative I accepted a management award in Melbourne and then spoke as the guest speaker at a conference. My challenge was to tell the story of a major policing initiative in a way the people in the room understood. I had no presentation notes nor Power-point slides. Instead, I stepped out from behind the rostrum, walked down into the centre of the room, into the midst of the dining tables and asked the question “Has anyone here been touched by crime?” Ten people immediately raised their hands and that one question started 60 minutes of very spirited debate about crime and its effect on people and communities. Everyone had a personal reflection and valid observations, and by expressing them they revealed a good deal of commonality. At that end of 60 minutes, when everyone had said their piece, I simply said “well that’s what we are looking to fix.” Everyone in that room, bar none, understood exactly what we were trying to do, and what’s more they supported the vision and direction, even if we, collectively, didn’t know all the answers. A challenging technology-enabled project was broken down into real stories; the ones that the people in that room – our friends and neighbours – brought into. The people in that room didn’t care about stats, or technology, or project plans, or status reports. They engaged emotionally. They painted their own powerful stories. And we were able to listen to them, and learn.

A challenging technology-enabled project was broken down into real stories; the ones that the people in that room, friends and neighbours, brought into. The people in that room didn’t care about stats, or technology, or project plans, or status reports. They engaged emotionally.

OK, so it’s all very well to reference interesting stories – we all have them. But seriously, we’ve got work to do. We really can’t waste time sprinkling pixie dust. And I agree. You are absolutely correct. None of us have time to tell interesting, engaging, potentially distracting, stories. We’ve got responsibilities and frameworks to comply with. Even when it’s obvious that paper has reached its limits in our organizations we persist with reports because that’s what our senior managers expect to see on their desks. It’s these time-honoured things that keep our organizations ticking over and important people in jobs. You have to wonder how many time-honoured traditions would survive if we simply asked Why?

  1. Why do you need this report?
  2. What action will you take as a result?
  3. How does this report inform your decision making?
  4. How about we replace it with real-time data in an interactive storyboard?

It’s rare for these questions to be asked. The teams producing paper-based reports are afraid to question the status quo, or it suits them not to, or they’re not able to offer an alternate approach, or they are uncomfortable with stories that draw on truth and emotion. And Boards and C-suite managers stick with the status quo because they don’t realize there are viable alternatives available.

And everyone loses.

The Boards and Executives lose because they’re not seeing the truth. The mid-managers lose because they’re really adding little value. The delivery teams lose because the vision and passion of their work dissipates as it gets extruded at every level of the business. The stakeholders – you and I – lose because we never really know what’s happening and where value is being generated.

Everyone loses. That can’t be what we want. That can’t be what we should accept.

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