Students: Take Me to Your Story Teller

This is the sixth and last post in my thread about strategic thinking. I am targeting university students in this thread to introduce some ideas that open the door to better strategy. Now we tackle the last, and perhaps most important idea of them all. It is the thing that binds all of our thinking together: story telling.

This last post actually takes us one step beyond “strategy”. It i snot about positioning ourselves for the future (something we all have to do). It is more about how to see stuff. How to generate the inspiration to be part of the adventure. Strategic thinking helps you use that energy. But it does not necessarily generate the energy. So where does that come from?

Mankind is trapped in time. Our lives move from present to future and we cannot change that. Our pasts grow ever larger as our futures shrink. And between the two are the fleeting moments that we experience and that are then gone. No matter how much we might want to hold onto a given moment in time, or go back in time, we cannot. We march remorselessly forward, one step at a time until we expire. and then our children live on and do the same. Even when we rebel, throw down our tools, and just sit still or refuse to get out of bed like Oblamov, time still moves on.

Research shows that even though we live with this phenomenon every minute of every day, we do not see it for what it really is. We tend to think that what is happening right now is the perfect realization of what led up to now. In a sense, that the story is over. Thus, hopefully, future change will be minimal. Dan Gilbert discusses this in his TED talk. And it appears that the more we love the self — what we are now — the more we cling to the present. This, perhaps, explains Tolstoy’s great depression when his great work was behind him and he began to consider the reality of his own death.

Why is this important? Because it brings out a natural human tendency to get trapped in small, bounded stories and ignore much larger and more engaging things around us. I imagine an old Nordic couple arguing with each other so intensely that they do not notice the tremendous aurora borealis (northern lights) shimmering above them. These two might each have devised clever strategies to cope with the other. But the more deeply they go into their argument, the more trapped they are by it. Bill Ury talks about this in terms of managing conflict, and he makes some interesting points about getting perspective. But we don’t only do it when we are in conflict. We do it all the time and this is a strategic problem.

I have seen this in myself in moments when I felt I could not go on with life without that one thing that was missing. What was it? Well, fill in the blank – it was a girlfriend or a car or a vacation or a good grade or justice for some imagined slight. In each case, the feeling was totally irrational, and yet powerful. At that moment, the one thing seemed like the only thing I needed in life. I lost perspective and got trapped in the present or worse still, the past.

I also see this in companies that I work with. They are successful at what they do now. But they cannot imagine doing anything differently — even if it would be better. They cannot find the “next step up”. Tod Zenger writes about this for HBR. He argues that companies get trapped in a given strategy long after that strategy has served its purpose. In other words, we can be very good at implementing a strategy, but less good at seeing new strategic possibilities beyond what we are engaged in right now. Just as I was, these companies are trapped in the present tense.

Todd’s suggestion to avoid this trap is to start with a “theory” rather than a “strategy”. The theory is a broader hypothesis about what what causes people to do things. This sounds a bit abstract, but I think he is on the right track. Jeff Bezos, for example, articulated this “theory” that drives Amazon forward – that people want 3 things from shopping (1) cheaper prices, (2) broader selection, and (3) faster delivery. Amazon relentless strives to deliver all three and the company innovates as needed to meet these timeless desires of its clients.

Nice theory Jeff! Notice that he has created a storyline. And it is a storyline that has no ending — except if evidence shows that the theory is somehow wrong. In that case, Jeff will need a new and better theory. But assuming he is right, no matter how smart Jeff is — and apparently he is very smart indeed — he cannot know now how Amazon will be able to continue meeting the demands of its clients based on the above hypothesis. No single innovation that Amazon creates now will trump all future innovations. Jeff has positioned the people he works with to be part of a great story. Not just a single strategy, but an evolving storyline.

Doing this well aint easy. But if we can manage it, building a great story that illuminates why we do what we do ties together everything else we have been discussing. When we are part of a great story, we intuitively understand the dynamic at play . We do not need to get into our slow reasoning processes to get us out of bed in the morning. Great stories are greatly energizing. They open our eyes to new strategic possibilities.

How do we start building great stories for ourselves?  This is a skill that we develop as we do it. But there are a few guiding principles that can help our practice.

A starting point — stories are not about the details in the story. They are about how those details connect into a larger whole.  Put it this way, things themselves are interesting for why we see them. What is the larger universal idea behind them? We start feeling stories by simply asking that question. Why does something excite us? A coffee mug, for example, is not just a thing. It is also the expression of generations of learning how to make and shape ceramics. Is there a future for coffee mugs? If so, why? Ditto for everything we see in our home. The TV, the stereo, the computer, the doorbell, and the people who live there (me included). We can and should practice seeing the “why” along with the “what” to start building stories.

We can take one more step. These connecting links are mysterious. We don’t see them right away. As Tood says, they are interesting as “hypotheses” about the thing. This mysterious nature of connecting links introduces an interesting dialectic between what we see and what we do not see  – the unknown. Stories are not about the known. They are about attempts to understand the unknown. The unknown makes even a mundane thing curious. Jeff Bezos doesn’t really know why people buy stuff. And it is likely that his theory doesn’t explain everything. But it proposes a theory about the unknown that is interesting.  So to start seeing great stories around us, we need to build an appreciation of the unknown rather than just asserting what we think we do know. The key point – we don’t know how great stories will turn out. We only know why we want it to work out. So as we build stories, we know only 2 things: (1) the theory and (2) facts that are either consistent with or inconsistent with the theory.

So great stories are about searching for the universals that we cannot see by proposing and testing theories. And as we search, we play out certain roles. Or, putting it another way, we become characters in our own stories. There are at least three and each of the three can be energizing.

The first is the story of the novice or beginner. In this story, we see something for the first time. Before we see it, it was unknown. Now, through the story, we have seen something new. And that is the whole point of the story. Looking back on my university days, this was in fact the story I was living. Everything was new. Yet, how quickly I wanted to move on from the new! I did not appreciate that this is a great story in itself.  From a strategic point of view, every great project starts here. Every great idea has its humble start in a single insight that leads to a theory and then a strategy. And so the beginner story is highly valuable for that reason.

The second is the learning story. After we have seen a challenge, there is a great story in what we do about it. We move from novice to apprentice. Think of Neo training in the kung fu studio with Morpheus in the film Matrix. Or the entire film, the Karate Kid. Or thousands of other stories where the novice must invest in skills building. Notice that in this story, the challenge is already known and it is assumed to be important. Questioning that challenge is not part of this story. And if we do question the value of learning, we will not learn.

The third is the story of mastery. Can we prevail in a given context? These days, we are deluged with this type of story. The story of “super heroes” and “geniuses”. Or great players performing in championship games. We hear that these are “ultimate tests”.  And so we like to think of ourselves as masters of our own ultimate tests as well. But in fact, this type of story is relatively short – one asserts mastery in a given context or not, and the story is over. Then we need to move onto a new story.

Each role has its own importance and story type. And to nurture our individual capacity to be part of great stories, we should recognize the roles that we take on as we act.

So that is it. We started from defining the strategic challenge of creating a future self. We worked on how to build focus and gamify and re-think how we connect with others. And now we see that all of these efforts work if they fit into a great story. A theory about what makes life “insanely great”. From this perspective, as Csikszentmihalyi argued in his book Flow, llife has no inherent meaning. It has only the meaning that we give it in the stories that we create. Strategic thinking positions us to give that meaning.


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