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
Put aside your need for a step-by-step manual and instead realize that analogies are your best friend. By the time there is a case study in your specific industry, it’s going to be way too late for you to catch up.
(Seth Godin, in a recent blog post, Learning by analogy)
At a conference, I recently presented the synopsis of the book Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present; Using Foresight to Provoke Strategy and Innovation by Bob Johansen (Institute for the Future). It may not have made the best-seller lists, but it is definitely worth a look. The author points us to the VUCA world we now live in, (VUCA originated at the U. S. Army War College – the graduate school for Generals-to-be):
In a future that is volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, we have to keep innovating, keep changing, and keep getting there early.
Here are a couple of key quotes from the book:
In the age of the Internet, everyone has the opportunity to know what’s new, but only the best leaders have foresight to sense what’s important, make sense out of their options, and understand how to get there ahead of the rush.
Consideration of provocative futures can lead to better decisions in the present. Foresight to insight to action really works.
For corporations, get there early means finding new markets, new customers, and new products ahead of your competitors… For non-profits, get there early means anticipating the needs of your stakeholders and sensing emerging issues before they become overwhelming or before others who don’t agree with your issues have taken a commanding position. Get there early means seeing a possible future before others see it. Get there early also means being able to act before others have figured out what to do.
I thought of this book as I read the blog post by Seth Godin quoted above. It’s the last sentence that is so gripping, so challenging, and in a real sense, so frightening. Market share, strategic advantage, can be lost in the blink of an eye these days. Facebook has eclipsed MySpace. LinkedIn has eclipsed a slew of others in the business networking arena. Twitter is… about to take over the world.
And the iPhone is now everywhere present. Last night, I saw an owner’s son of an NFL game taking a photo (or maybe video) of the game with his iPhone as the tv camera scanned his luxury box.
Every one of these success stories put previous success stories in the “whatever happened to” category. Today’s success story means that someone/something is no longer the success story that is was just a brief time ago.
And every new product, new web site, new idea, is under attack from the next new product or idea.
So, Godin is right: By the time there is a case study in your specific industry, it’s going to be way too late for you to catch up.
And it gets worse – we all have to get there early, and then get ahead of the next threat to keep ahead of the next competitor who is (always) right behind us.
I just re-watched Joel Barker’s newest version of his video, The Business of Paradigms. (See Bob’s interview with Joel Barker from our blog here). His example of a company that was “sent back to zero,” thus lost out in the midst of a paradigm shift, was Motorola, which switched from analog to digital a few moments too late, and Nokia took over the cell phone market. The video is a little dated — and now Blackberry, and of course the iPhone, are creating the most buzz, though Nokia is still quite healthy. Who will lead five years from now? No one knows for sure. The life span of a product’s success and dominance has never been as potentially short as it is today.
I recently presented a synopsis of the book Get There Early (Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present; Using Foresight to Provoke Strategy and Innovation by Bob Johansen, Institute for the Future) to an association of Grantmakers meeting in Sante Fe. Their world has been greatly effected by the economic downturn. And one thing was clear – the better you can prepare for the unpredictable future right around the corner, the better you will be able to weather the storm.
Here are some key quotes from this thought-provoking book:
• In today’s marketplace, we have little buffer time between our decisions and their impacts.
• The most intense pain that leaders experience, the pain that keeps them awake at night, is caused by not being able to solve problems… Every profession has become a dangerous profession – every leader is at risk, and the range of risk is growing.
• For corporations, get there early means finding new markets, new customers, and new products ahead of your competitors… For non-profits, get there early means anticipating the needs of your stakeholders and sensing emerging issues before they become overwhelming or before others who don’t agree with your issues have taken a commanding position. Get there early means seeing a possible future before others see it. Get there early also means being able to act before others have figured out what to do.
Johansen does not claim that we can predict the future. In fact, he argues that we cannot do so. But he does strongly recommend forecasting the future. Here’s another quote:
• A forecast is a plausible, internally consistent view of what might happen. It is designed to be provocative… We don’t use the word prediction… A prediction is almost always wrong… A forecast doesn’t need to come true to be worthwhile.
Johansen recommends a three step approach – foresight, insight, and action. He includes a number of examples. Here’s one about Wikipedia:
The Story of Wikipedia’s Encyclopedia for the World
• Foresight: Much of the world will have limited access to knowledge
• Insight: The world needs a free, open-source encyclopedia
• Action: Create Wikipedia
His (Jimmy Wales) ambitious goal is to include “all human knowledge.
I have read (and presented) other books that deal with possible futures coming around the next corner, especially The Extreme Future by James Canton. He wrote:
Everyone needs to think differently about the future, a future that is riddled with change, challenge, and risk. It is a new kind of future, not the steady plodding of progress from one moment to the next, punctuated by brief bursts of innovation that characterizes much of history. Now we face a post-9/11 future. The future of our lives, of our work, of our businesses – and most of all, the future of our world – depends on us gaining a new understanding of the dizzying changes that lie ahead. I call this future-readiness.
But the warnings about the potential dangers are everywhere around us in the business book universe. Gary Hamel in The Future of Management reminds us:
Every business is successful until it’s not. What’s disconcerting, though, is how often top management is surprised when “not” happens.
And, of course, Nicholas Talib in The Black Swan warns us that there is always another Black Swan waiting to be revealed:
Just imagine how little your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next.
So, back to Johansen. His advice: forecast! Create future scenarios, or use some other technique to paint a picture in order to think about the future. The more possible futures you can imagine and prepare for, the better you will be able to survive that unexpected future that will most assuredly arrive.
• You can order synopses of my presentations for The Black Swan, The Extreme Future, and The Future of Management, at our companion web site, 15 Minute Business Books. I hope to add the synopsis for Get There Early to the site soon.