You might not realize it, but you are a creature of an imaginative realm called Neverland. Neverland is your home, and before you die, you will spend decades there.
Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
If you say, “The queen died, and the king died,” that is a chronicle.
If you say, “The queen died, and the king died, from grief,” that is a story. (Joe Lambert and Nina Mullen, drawing from E. M. Forster).
Bob Johansen: Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present
I heard Krys Boyd on KERA interview Jonathan Gottschall about his book, The Storytelling Animal. (Krys is a great interviewer). And I remembered the brief description of the difference between a chronicle and a story from Get There Early.
We care about stories. We learn from stories. We place ourselves within stories, because we all know that every story, is, in some way, our own story. Last night I watched House. Wilson has cancer. A very close friend of my wife has cancer. The fictional story is her story – our story. You know…
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
(John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls)
In the interview, Gottschall observed that stories always include two elements: some form of dilemma, and some form of resolution. It is the old “problem-solution” formula for persuasion. And when a story is told well, it always makes us stop and ask: “What is my dilemma? Can I find a way out; a solution; a resolution that works for me, and hopefully for others?”
I read a lot of nonfiction books — but, sadly, too little fiction. Gottschall observed in the interview that people who expose themselves to more fiction have an easier time interacting with others. They are more socially connected; better connected. And, thankfully, he reminded us that stories preceded printed books, so maybe I get almost enough fiction from my favorite television shows. I guarantee that, in House alone, there is enough dilemma and conflict to last a while.
In my own reading, I have come to realize that the best nonfiction writers are, in fact, superior story tellers. I think this explains the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell, and why I have so warmed to The Power of Habit and Imagine just recently. They are both written by superior story tellers (Charles Duhigg and Jonah Lehrer). Books that are principle-rich and story-poor just aren’t quite as engaging or gripping. Or insightful.
And I think it is why I remember some books I read years ago more than others. David Halberstam is always at the top of my list, because he was such a wonderful story teller.
In the realm of organizational culture, story plays a major role. To build corporate culture, to build corporate strength, to build a true community, tell the stories of your organization. Yes, tell the good stories, the stories of success — but tell especially the “struggle” stories. “This is what we faced. This is how we overcame it.” A well-told struggle story can help a current struggle seem not quite so overwhelming.
We love a good story. And, it turns out, we need a steady dose of good stories.
Good stories move us. They touch us, they teach us, and they cause us to remember. They enable the listener to put the behavior in a real context and understand what has to be done in that context to live up to expectations.
…storytelling is the ultimate leadership tool. (Elizabeth Weil).
James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Pozner: Encouraging the Heart — A Leaders Guide to Rewarding and Encouraging Others
The Stranger (Calvin Trager):
Dana, I’m what the world considers to be a phenomenally succesful man, and I’ve failed much more than I’ve succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, “Where are we going?” And it starts to get better…
I don’t even know what the hell Quo Vadimus means.
It means “Where are we going?”
(from the final episode of Sports Night. Calvin Trager buys Continental Corp, decides to keep Sports Night on the air — and then, alas, the show was cancelled. Quo Vadimus was the name of the fictional company founded by the “stranger.” Aaron Sorkin at his very best!)
What is wrong?
What will we do to fix it?
These are two important questions to ask – to always ask, and keep asking, continually.
I was reminded of these from a letter included in the February 20, 2012 Parkland Now newsletter, written by Tom Royer, MD, Interim CEO of Parkland Hospital in Dallas: Closing the Gap: Part II of our CMS journey. (from the physical copy of the newsletter; I could not find it on-line).
Things are not good at Parkland. Safety and quality have slipped – – badly. So, Dr. Royer is addressing the troops, and he includes these thoughts:
We must continue our efforts to implement every improvement plan and monitor them until they are hardwired into our clinical operations… (He refers to) a “gap analysis” identifying the gap for the challenges we have not fully addressed between “where we are” and “where we need to be” to assure we are guaranteeing a high quality and safe encounter for each patient.
His entire letter is a pretty good example of a call to the troops with thoughts like: “things are not what they need to be; we’ve got our work cut out for us, and we need everyone – every one! – to step up and do his/her part to close every gap, for every patient, every hour of every day.”
And if you study the history of Parkland, you know that they have had some golden years. What happened? Slippage happened. And slipping back, slipping behind, slipping in general, is so very easy to do, and so very easy to “miss.”
And, I’m pretty sure that every company or organization (yes, that means your organization, and mine!), has some gap analysis to perform.
Is anything wrong? What is wrong? What will we do to fix it?
And, most of all, where are we going?
The organizations that answer these questions well, and constantly, will have better futures than those who wait too long before they notice the slippage, and the oh-so-costly consequences of such slippage.
Back in my full-time preaching days, (I spent 20 years in full-time ministry), I remember one especially “oh, yeah, that is so true” moment that was so obvious I could not believe I had not seen it/realized it.
I was reading a book on preaching (homiletics: sorry, I don’t remember which particular book; I read many!), and the author said that all preachers only have 5 sermons. (He allowed for a range of from 4-7). His counsel was to make sure “your” five sermons were the right five sermons, and that you balanced them well.
It did not take me long to figure out my five sermons. And, so, I would try to rotate them effectively. Of course, they all sounded different: different stories and illustrations, different Bible texts. But, they were definitely emphasizing common themes that I repeated time and time and time again.
So, you ask, why? Why does a preacher have to repeat the same sermon over and over again? Because there are new people every Sunday who show up for a first time to hear that week’s sermon. They have to be “initiated”; they have to go through “new person” orientation… And because people are forgetful. Way too forgetful. There are so many demands on our time, our lives, that we have to be regularly reminded of core values, core challenges. We have to work hard at the serious stuff, and be ever vigilant guarding against the “slippage,” allowing periphery stuff to usurp the rightful place of the serious, central stuff.
This all came back to me as I read this Daily Beast interview: Alain de Botton on the Benefits of Religion Without God. Alain de Botton is the author of the new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Here’s a key excerpt from the interview:
In your book you write: “God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes.” What are those urgent issues?
I am not very interested in the doctrines of religions. What interests me is their organizational forms and, in particular, their capacity to make ideas powerful.
The secular world tends to trust that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are: they are attempts to make vivid to us things we already know but are likely to have forgotten. Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too. This was always the great genius of Catholicism. If you want to change someone’s ideas, don’t only concentrate on their ideas, concentrate on their whole selves.
This is a genuinely profound insight: “Their capacities to make ideas powerful… Religions are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are…” And the parallel to the building and reinforcing an effective corporate culture challenge is obvious.
Ask any corporate culture expert, and he or she will tell you that it takes a long time to build a corporate culture. A long time! It requires reinforcement, constant conversations, constant reminders, constant, constant attention. And constant vigilance against being sidetracked, and/or allowing the wrong values or the wrong focus or the simply less-important to become too important. People simply don’t get it, or they quickly forget, or they don’t really trust that leadership is serious about it.
It takes “five sermons,” preached over and over and over and over again, to build and maintain an effective corporate culture.
This author seems like an unexpected source of corporate wisdom, but I think Alain de Botton is onto something. We do need “calendars for us that will make sure we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts,” whether in our personal values world, or in our corporate life.
Because we are so quick to forget, and thus ignore, what is most important.
Have you done a culture check recently?
Definition: A blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all companies develop over time
Recently, Howard Schultz, chairman, president and C.E.O. of Starbucks, was interviewed by Adam Bryant of the New York Times. (Bob excerpted this interview for our blog here). Here’s a key excerpt from that interview:
Bryant: What is your advice to an entrepreneur who asks you: “I’m just starting a company. How do I create a culture?”
Schultz: I would say that everything matters — everything. You are imprinting decisions, values and memories onto an organization. In a sense, you’re building a house, and you can’t add stories onto a house until you have built the kind of foundation that will support them. I think many start-ups make mistakes because they are focusing on things that are farther ahead, and they haven’t done the work that has built the foundation to support it.
Culture is the way things really work, the way decisions are really made, e-mails really composed, promotions really earned and meted out, and people really treated every day. Culture is a company’s DNA, the sum total of its history, values, aspirations, beliefs, and endeavors, the operating system, if you will, that defines and influences what occurs at the synapses between everyone working together in a group, large or small.
Unlike an operating system, however, just inserting a piece of code-such as a compliance program or an innovation team–cannot change a culture; cultures are alive; they evolve and change over time.
Just what is the culture you have, and what is the culture you want? The culture creates so much within an organization, and a good, well-liked, respected, consistent culture is a morale builder and success generator.
Have you done a culture check recently?
I start with an admission (I would have called it a confession, but fictional detective/wordsmith Nero Wolfe would have chastised me for not choosing the correct word). Here’s the admission: I’m not a handyman. Not at all. My wife owns the tools, and won’t let me touch them. I don’t blame her…
So, anyway, I had to go to Home Depot and Lowe’s over the holidays. We have just moved into a new house, and we needed stuff. We still need more stuff – but that’s another column.
Anyway, I have an observation. Home Depot needs a new culture. One that begins, and ends, and overflows, with customer service. Why? There wasn’t any. Lowe’s, on the other hand, acted like they had seen other men like me (the non-handyman types), and they were ready to please, to help, with patience, and genuine helpfulness. It struck me that they have cultivated a customer-service culture that permeates their entire organization.
Guess which one I will be going back to.
I thought of all this as I read this review, Wake Up and Smell the Zeitgeist: Sensitivity to cultural shifts may not be common at most corporations—but it’s an art that can be learned by Heather Green, at the Business Week web site: Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation by Grant McCracken. The book focuses on “reading the culture.” Here’s an excerpt from the review:
McCracken argues that corporations need to focus on “reading” what’s happening in the culture around them—a task at which Jobs and Stewart excel. Otherwise, companies will suffer the consequences…
McCracken’s how-tos include the development of soft skills people often don’t appreciate, such as the skill of noticing.
While McCracken’s book is full of managers who read culture well, it’s obviously not easy to develop the keen receptors of a Jobs or a Martha Stewart. But maybe that’s asking too much. The book makes a compelling case that companies will reap rewards just by working toward more cultural sensitivity. Those inclined to try will get plenty of inspiration and insight from McCracken.
I think that one thing true within our culture is this: we don’t like hassles. (I got this from the Frank Luntz book, What Americans Really Want… Really, and wrote about it here). To me, Home Depot was a hassle, and Lowe’s was hassle-free. Hassle-free — now that is reading the culture!