There is an apocryphal story of how President Kennedy visited NASA and came across a janitor who was cleaning the floors. The President asked him what his job was, and the janitor confidently replied: ”My job is to put a man on the moon.”
It does not really matter whether the story is true or not, as we can all, as human beings, recognize the sentiment, and the power of such conviction on the purpose for which we work. Figures do not motivate people, purpose does. My claim is that the only way to instill a strong sense of purpose in a human being is through stories.
We cannot avoid creating stories
In a classic experiment in 1944, Heider and Simmel created a short animated film where geographic shapes move around. You can view it on Youtube. What did you see? In the original experiment, as well as numerous reiterations afterwards, the overwhelming majority of viewers are not looking at geometric shapes moving around, they are looking at a story. We are wired in such a way that our minds are constantly looking for stories.
We cannot avoid being sucked into a story
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
From Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven
Where were you just a moment ago? Sitting in your chair? Or browsing through forgotten books in the middle of the night? Stories pull us in, we simply cannot resist.
For a slightly more extensive treatise on the subject, I recommend reading Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.
For our current purposes here, these two brief examples illustrate the power stories wield on the human mind.
Vision and mission form the core of a company’s story
I have worked for and with many companies that do not have a real purpose for their existence. Sure, they may be “industry leaders” or the “most efficient and trusted partner” but so what? That does not really tell why they do what they do.
The real problem this causes is inside the company. Dr. Claus Jessen from Festo once described this as the organization being in a ”state of kingdoms,” where multiple cultures persist within a single organization, preventing it from achieving excellence. Without a unifying story, like the one about putting a man on the moon, an organization lacks a culture of togetherness, and people drive it in different directions.
Without a unifying story, a company cannot execute a strategy, and in this way, as Peter Drucker famously put it, ”culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
There are ennobling unifying stories for all companies, if you just seek them out
The first step in moving a company to a new direction is to find out what that direction is. Merely seeking profits is ultimately a failing strategy, as it prevents focus and direction. This is why vision and mission are so vitally important – they form the core of a company’s story and keep everyone moving in the same direction, as long as they are in the form of an engaging story.
For example, once upon a time I worked on the field of factory automation. Except that I was not really working on factory automation, any more than the janitor in our apocryphal story was working on taking away all the rubbish. I was working for a peaceful, prosperous world.
You see, manufacturing is one of the cornerstones of prosperity. We simply cannot prosper through services alone. Many countries, Nordic countries in particular, have suffered a great deal from the tendency to offshore manufacturing to low-cost countries, and former low-cost countries are also suffering from the tendency to offshore manufacturing to even lower-cost countries still. Automation allows for companies to make decisions on where to manufacture goods more freely, and to spread their manufacturing over the world so that it is closer to demand. This results in a more equally distributed manufacturing, and thus more equally distributed wealth, and thus in a more peaceful, more prosperous world. In short, I was working to make manufacturing profitable in any country in the world.
Stories are the key instrument for change leadership
The first step in Kotter’s classic 8-step process for leading change is establishing a sense of urgency. There is no better way, indeed, perhaps no other way, to accomplish this than through stories. Sure, you can show dismal figures, but figures alone rarely create an emotional response needed to act. It is the story that is weaved based on those figures that is the actual instrument for change.
Furthermore, once a new vision is developed, it, too, needs to be communicated in the form of a story in order to trigger change.
The dangers of stories that defend the status quo
As the human mind works relentlessly to create stories, not all of these stories are instruments for change. Like in a trial, where the prosecution and defense compete in telling the most convincing story of how events unfolded, so do stories favoring the status quo and stories favoring change compete against each other.
This is especially dangerous at times when there are external factors that can conveniently be used as explanatory factors, especially as temporary ones. The Great Recession is the most recent such occurrence of a wide scope – “No, our company is not failing because of anything we do wrong, it’s just the recession and everything will be fine once it passes.” It’s no wonder that company turnaround projects are usually only started several years after the problems start – it is easy to craft a story explaining how all the problems are temporary for a long period of time.
Such is the power of stories, and in order to be a leader, it is necessary to be a good storyteller.
Photo: Shuttle Endeavour Blastoff by Steve Jurvetson @ Flickr (CC)