The media and business worlds love experts with strong opinions and the ability to explain them confidently and authoritatively. We hear them on TV and read them in newspapers and online every day. Yet a 20-year study shows that these are the very people who are least likely to be accurate in predicting what will happen in the future.
In 1984, Philip Tetlock commenced a study to examine the accuracy of expert predictions. He found these experts fell into two main groups that he called foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs who know one big thing. Foxes draw on many ideas and sources of information and are quite tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. Hedgehogs tend to interpret the world using their favourite theory or dogma and are very confident in the 'rightness' of their view of the world.[Tschoegl et. al. 2007]
Tetlock, a psychologist, is Professor of Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. His research found that, in the main, experts were no more accurate in their predictions than 'a monkey throwing darts'. But he clearly showed that foxes produce much more accurate forecasts than hedgehogs. He also found that when faced with their erroneous forecasts, foxes tended to acknowledge their error and adjust their thinking. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, rationalise their errors away on the basis that they were 'nearly right' or 'unpredictable events interfered in the outcome' or by pointing to the few occasions when they had got it right.
The implications of this research are many, but one that that reinforces my own experience is to be wary of highly confident people proclaiming a view and running down those with alternative perspectives.
It's my view that Tetlock's findings are also relevant in our organisations. We love to treated complex (wicked) problems as if they are technical problems that can be predicted and solved. The experts who stridently proclaim their opinions as being facts are often wrong. The people who stride the corridors and make the most noise are not necessarily the stars. The leaders who are most confident they are excellent at leading people are often the worst leaders.
In media and in organisations, the hedgehogs get the airtime. But the foxes are the ones to listen to.
- Tetlock, P. (2005): Expert Political Judgement: How good is it? How Can We Know?, Princeton University Press.
- Gardner, D. (2011): Future babble: Why Expert Predictions are Next to Worthless, and You can do better, Dutton, London.
- Tschoegl, A.E and Armstrong, S., Review of Philip E. Tetlock: (2007): "Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know?" in International Journal of Forecasting, Volume 23, Issue 2, 2007, pages 339-342
Smart people hate to be told what to do or say. Yet way too often leaders are given a standard set of powerpoint slides or even a script and are asked to share these pearls with their colleagues. Enthusiasm, and authenticity, plummets.
There's definitely a better way. A few months ago I was teaching 150 leaders from a pharmaceutical company how to tell their strategic story. After everyone quickly learned the story and then told it to a colleague I asked the whole group if there was anything in the story they didn't like. There was clearly a heated conversation happening in the middle of the room as a woman shot her hand up and pointed to her colleague. He was given the microphone, stood to address the crowd, and then paragraph by paragraph pointed out the things that niggled him. When he finished I just said, "no problems, just tell it how you would like."
Strategic stories should be like an original music score and every leader should be able to create and deliver their own arrangement. If you're a jazz guy you do the jazz arrangement. If country and western is your thing then you go with that. You add your own anecdotes to bring it to life and as long as it is recognisable as the original score, then it's an effective strategic story.
When you see a poem you know it's a poem.
When you see a screenplay you know it's a screenplay.
Most people, however, have never seen an oral story written down. Probably because it's an oxymoron. Yet there are times when it's useful to write an oral story down. For example, when you're helping a company create the story of their strategy.
Let’s look at the difference between oral and written stories and then I'll describe a significant problem that can happen when you write down an oral story for a company.
First and foremost we talk quite differently to how we write and read. For example, when we speak we say things in short bursts.
When we speak /
We say things in short bursts. //
Yet we can write a sentence that is much longer and more elaborate than we would normally speak. Punctuation helps a reader but doesn't go far enough for a speaker (more on this below).
When we talk it’s quite reasonable to repeat ourselves. We can say the same thing a few times and no one will give it a second thought. It gives us time to gather our ideas and emphasise our point. In fact repetition helps our audience hear what we are saying.
Repetition is spurned in prose unless it’s a literary effort of Joycean proportions. But in business writing it’s a no no.
And “it's a no no” would never pass for business writing but we could easily and acceptably say it. We can speak colloquially but brows wrinkle when we write it.
Most of the time we are speaking we use short, simple words. When we're chatting with colleagues and recounting what happened in the meeting we all just went to (editor, please replace 'went to' with 'attended'), we use short, concrete phrases.
“Did you see Bob’s face when Bronwyn said we’ll need to create a new job role? I can see this being a problem.”
People don't speak corporateez. Most people, that is.
We don't typically say transformation, core competency, retrospective coherence (yep, I've heard that), strategic leverage, commercial sustainability, I could go on.
Now let me explain the problem that often happens when you try and write down an oral story such as the oral story of the corporate strategy.
When it’s written down it looks a lot like any other business document in that there are words in paragraphs but the writing seems overly informal and even naive. Things might be repeated and there are informal phrases all over the place. So the business language wordsmiths appear and begin to make it sound like a piece of business writing. I've even had footnotes added!
YOU MUST RESIST THIS URGE.
Here's what I suggest you do.
First write the story in a format that doesn’t look like normal business prose.
Much like a poem, break up the story based on the short bursts we speak in. At the end of each line either insert a “/” to indicate a minor pause and the sentence just flows on to the next phase or a “//” when there's a bigger pause. This is how experts in discourse analysis write conversations down.
The great advantage to this approach is that it looks different. Internal comms immediately thinks, "Whoa, what in the hell is this?" And you can share with them the difference between oral and written stories.
Let me know if you have ever had this challenge and how you dealt with it.
Earlier this week Shawn sent me an email. "You must see Steve Jobs: The Lost interview. It's available on iTunes" (its the movie, not the radio show).
So, naturally I downloaded it and am halfway through it. It's riveting. Jobs answers nearly every question with a story. When the interviewer talks about developing the first Macintosh, he asks "what is the secret of building a great product?", Steve tells him that the secret of a great product is understanding that having a great idea is only 10% of the battle. The other 90% is getting a great team together who focus on content rather than process and understand that it never turns out the way you planned: it constantly changes and evolves and you need to make tremendous trade-offs. He tells this story:
We help lots of organisations turn their strategies into memorable and concrete strategic stories. In doing so, a key factor is ensuring its not a 'Pollyanna' story'. You know the ones…everything is upbeat, previous successes are emphasised, failures are not mentioned. Theses stories might be politically correct but risk being viewed as inauthentic or not believable.
I recently watched this Steve Denning video of his TEDx talk in late 2011 on the topic of 'Leadership storytelling'. In it, Steve describes exactly the same concept in a very succinct way. He calls them 'Titanic Stories'…"700 people arrived safe and happy in New York after their voyage on the Titanic."
This story only works if two conditions are met: (1) listeners don't know about the 1500 people who died on the trip and (2) you can keep it that way. As soon as either condition is not met your story, your strategy and your credibility will plummet to the icy depths never to be recovered.
The golden rule in business storytelling is 'be authentic'.
Filed in Business storytelling.
Over the years I've had the pleasure of meeting and working with some terrific business story practitioners.
And because we love to know who are the really great story folk in our region, I thought I'd share who I think are the best story practitioners who are great to work with in the world today and where they are located. Would love to hear who YOU would add to the list. Just add a comment below.
Mary Alice Arthur - New Zealand - http://www.getsoaring.com/
Madelyn Blair - USA http://www.pelerei.com/about-pelerei/madelyn-blair.php
David Boje - USA http://peaceaware.com/vita/
Sean Buvala - USA - http://seantells.com/
Steve Denning - USA - http://www.stevedenning.com/site/Default.aspx
Bob Dickman - USA - http://www.first-voice.com/
Karen Dietz - USA - http://www.polaris-associates.com/AboutUs
Eva Snijders - Spain - http://evasnijders.com/
Terrence Gargiulo - USA - http://www.makingstories.net/
One Thousand and One - Australia - http://www.onethousandandone.com.au/
Limor Shiponi - Israel - http://www.limorshiponi.com/limor/
Tony Quilan - UK - http://narrate.typepad.com/about.html
Annette Simmons - USA - http://www.annettesimmons.com/
The Storytellers - UK - http://www.the-storytellers.com/
Story Worldwide - UK - Sarah Kelleher http://www.storyworldwide.com/profiles/sarah-kelleher/
Victoria Ward - UK http://www.sparknow.net/victoriaward.html
Sheila Wee - Singapore - http://storywise.com.sg/storytelling/
Filed in Strategic clarity.
Last week I flew to Vienna to help a pharmaceutical company develop their strategy. It was a two day event. We used the first day to explore their current situation and past by, among other things, creating a massive visual history across one wall. We delved into the important events that have shaped them and the lessons they've learned so far. We looked at the challenges they faced and told stories of how these challenges were really impacting their work. For me this is the foundation for any strategy. The executives need to know and share the problems and opportunities they want to tackle. They need to get talking and make some real choices.
On the second day we focussed on the future. I stepped them through a visualisation to get them out of their heads and then we shared stories of where the future was already happening in their business. We call these Gibson stories inspired by William Gibson who is reported to have said: "the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed." This idea of finding things that work and then work out ways to do more of it certainly appeals as it avoids the dreaded problem spiral (if you look for problems you will find them) which can drain the energy from even the most upbeat group.
Towards the end of the second day we had things on every wall: purpose statement, goals, illustrations of a desired future, strategic themes. You can imagine that the participants might feel a little punch drunk by this stage as each new idea smacks them about the head. Then we finally we pulled it all together with a strategic story. I'm always amazed by the effect. All of a sudden everything falls into place for them. It has meaning. It's something they can now explain to others.
I like to finish a workshop by getting everyone in a circle and just asking, "so how do you feel right now? Not what you think, but how do you feel?" For many they felt energised and a sense of accomplishment. They all admitted to feeling a little confused half way through and wondered how it would come together. I warned them they would. For others they wanted to get to the next step and work out the plan. For me I wanted them to keep their strategic conversation going because no matter how good a two day event might be it's often the beginning of the decisions they have to make. Executives need time to let the possibilities sink in. But it's far better to make some real decisions, put them into action, learn from experience and adjust moving forward.
I had a meeting on Friday with a senior leader facing a common problem. There are many changes going on and his people have developed the view that 'head office doesn't know anything about what we do and their restructures don't make sense' along other related non-productive views. He wants his team on the front foot so they are part of the change agenda and avoid have the changes 'done to them'.
I was reminded of an activity described by Fred Kofman(1) that I use in nearly every leadership program we run. The activity helps show people that their explanations aren't constructive without telling them so (telling them usually just creates resistance to your message).
The activity aims to illustrate that we can choose how we respond to situations (response-ability). Kofman stands at the front of the room and drops a pen, then asks "what caused the pen to fall?" "Gravity" is usually the first answer. Sometimes people point out that "you dropped it." Both answers are correct, but Kofman points out that the usefulness of the answer is related to our purpose.
If your purpose is to prevent the pen from falling again, pointing out that the pen falls "because of gravity" will not help you. Essentially this means that as long as there is gravity the pen will fall, and there is nothing you can do about it. On the other hand, if you say that you dropped the pen, there is something you can do about it. The exercise demonstrates the important distinction between self-empowering explanations ("I dropped it") and explanations that remove your power to influence the situation ("gravity caused the pen to fall").
In Kofman's words, your explanation determines if you will be a 'victim' or a 'player.'>
1. Kofman, F. (2006), 'Conscious Business: How to build value through values', Sounds True Press, page 33.
Filed in Business storytelling.
We've said often on this blog that you just don't get the benefits of storytelling (meaning, memory, caring) unless you are telling a story.
Their point was simple. Data on its own is not enough. People have to make sense of it and stories can make a difference. Can't disagree with that.
But as you read through the article you notice that they don't give any examples of stories about data and then their three points of advice had nothing to do with stories.
A recent commenter on the piece, Nahum Gershon, nailed it when he said:
I think the article somewhat confuses storytelling with providing clear presentations of the essence of data and information. Not all effective and rational explanations or scenarios constitute a story. Using storytelling elements could make a representation more effective and it would be beneficial that data scientists learn the art of storytelling to make their presentations even more effective.
This is a common mistake. Everyone is talking about stories these days but when you ask them what they mean they are often can't really tell you a story.
So what could they have said which would help Big Data Scientists actually use stories? Well, I think they could have mentioned that stories have structure (and yes, there are variations). Here's a simple one that could help a scientist (or business leader) to tell a story about their data.
- In the past it was like this ...
- And then something happened (that we didn't expect or was remarkable) ...
- And as a result of that ...
- Until finally ...
The famed influence psychologist, Robert Cialdini, discovered another story-based way to present scientific data and wrote it up in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
Just reveal your big data as a mystery story.
Here's the structure:
- Pose the mystery
- Deepen the mystery
- Home in on the proper explanation by considering (and offering evidence against) alternative explanations
- Provide a clue to the proper explanation
- Resolve the mystery
- Draw the implications for the phenomenon under study
To test this structure out a while back I wrote a blog post using the mystery format called ‘What is happening to Melbourne's trains?’
My advice to scientists, however, is don't write your stories, just tell them while presenting your data. A story told and a story written are worlds apart. But that's probably for another post.
The best stories contain data. To think "on the one hand is the story" and "on the other hand is the data" is just wrong headed. Now we need to help scientists find and tell the stories that bring their data to life.
Cialdini, R. B. (2005). “What’s The Best Secret Device for Engaging Student Interest? The Answer Is In The Title.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 24(1): 22-29.
"Government managers secure the resources they need to operate not by selling products and services to individual customers, but by selling a story of public value creation to elected representatives of the people in legislatures and executive branch positions."1
Private sector leaders have it easy: they sell their products, they generate revenue, they manage their costs, and while they're making profits and creating value, they keep their jobs and stay in business.
Public sector leaders, on the other hand, obtain resources by gaining support and legitimacy from politicians, public opinion and a myriad of other invested institutions each pulling and pushing in their own directions. Then, as the work gets done, it's difficult measuring the impact it has made because the outcomes often emerge years after initiatives are implemented and working out what caused what is near on impossible. It's a tough gig.
According to Harvard Kennedy School Professor, Mark Moore, the strategic challenge for public sector leaders is "… the ability to imagine and articulate a vision of public value that can command legitimacy and support, and is operationally doable in the domain for which you have responsibility."1 Business storytelling has a role to play in each of the three elements of Moore's strategic challenge: public value, legitimacy and support, and operational capability.
Firstly, public sector leaders need to tell the story of the public value they intend to create. And like all good strategy this is best done by creating the story with your stakeholders rather than creating it alone and springing it on the unsuspecting. We call it a strategic story but don't think is merely a single story to be parroted throughout the organisation. Instead it's more like an original score where each leader composes their own arrangement and tells their own anecdotes to bring it to life.
Legitimacy and support comes from both external and internal sources. Externally, politicians and leaders in other institutions must stand up for and support your vision of public value. And of equal importance, your leaders and managers inside your department must be engaged, believe and actively support the direction the department is taking. Time and attention are the valuable resources you need and storytelling and story-listening will help cut through the noise.
Lastly, you'll need the organisation capabilities to make your initiatives happen. Government is inherently noisy because, unlike private enterprise, unhappy customers just stop buying your products. Public sector stakeholders don't have that choice. So they get vocal. And in this noisy environment you need to be heard and you need to get your message to stick. Companies are starting to include storytelling as an essential skill for their leaders. Victorian Department of Treasury & Finance is a leader in this regard.
Storytelling has three characteristics that make it an effective technique for all three aspects of the public sector strategic challenge because stories are memorable, meaningful and emotional
Stories are Memorable
Attend a presentation and as we walk out the door we have already forgotten most of what was said. We only remember the gist and the feeling it leaves us. More often than not the only thing we will remember with clarity are the stories.
Stories are more memorable than facts alone or abstractions such as talking about "business transformation processes" because they create pictures in our minds--we can see it happening--and these pictures conjures up our own experiences helping us to judge the plausibility of what's happening. We get engaged in the story and because multiple neural pathways are activated (because of the detail in the story such as the places, the characters, the events) we remember it.
Researchers from Princeton have even found that when someone is listening to a story their brain lights up (in a MRI scanner) in the same way as the teller's. The two brain are synchronised. When the listener hears only opinions and viewpoints, activity is limited to just the language area of their brain. During a story, areas across the brain light up as the listener and teller relives the experience. For example, if the storyteller talks about kicking a ball, the parts of the brain associated with the mechanics of kicking a ball lights up. It's a whole brain experience. The most remarkable finding of their research was when they noticed there were times when the story listener's brain lit up before the storyteller; the listener was anticipating what came next and when this happened comprehension increased further.2
Stories are Meaningful
"What's the story here?" This is what we say when we are trying to make sense of something. We need to tell ourselves a story to give it order and meaning.
Stories provide the context and connections we need to place the information we are receiving into a bigger picture of the other things that are happening in the organisation and our own experience. When we hear a story things start to make sense.
A couple of years ago, a university library was preparing to move to a new, purpose-built, ultra-modern building. The move required a huge number of things to change, including the library's culture, and we were invited to help it with this aspect. The first thing we did was to collect stories from the library's employees which illustrated the current culture and values. Then we gathered everyone together for a workshop to identify the patterns in those stories.
At one point in the workshop, 10 librarians were looking at a set of anecdotes about their value of 'excellence'. After reviewing their cluster of post-it notes, they concluded that the key issue was that they needed more training. They refused to change this view despite our gentle prompting that there might be something going on at a deeper level. Then we suggested they use a story spine to tell the story of 'training' in the library.
The librarians then set about creating a story that explained what was happening in the organisation around training. The story they produced was about a woman named Sue (not an actual person but a character representative of a type of person in the library) and it went like this: ‘Sue had a bad habit of talking behind people's backs. She was always bitching about people on the one hand, but always said the right things to the right people on the other hand. Then, after Sue was promoted, people realised she couldn't do the job and they started bitching about her. One day, one of the staff, who had left because Sue was mean to him, ran over her in his BMW at some traffic lights. Many people danced and were happy’.
The librarians were shocked at this story. They looked at each other and, almost in unison, said: "We don't have a training problem in our library. We have a bitching problem." And right there and then they committed themselves to tackling bitching, which they ultimately did.
It's stories rather than logical arguments that convey meaning.
Stories convey Emotional and inspire action
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
Stories make you feel something. And getting someone to take action is impossible without emotion. Leaders need to tell stories so people feel it, so people are inspire to take action. Sometimes it takes a story to change behaviour and to create the conditions for new stories to emerge.
Nick was standing in front of a wall of stories. Each A4 sheet of paper sported a single anonymous anecdote illustrating either a good or bad management behaviour, collected from Nick's company. One story had captured Nick's attention and made him agitated: "I can't believe this guy. Imagine answering a phone in an interview. My God, he even stepped out of his office to chat with someone who was just passing by."
His complaints caused others in the workshop to wander over to see what was going on. As Nick was spluttering his displeasure, Paul, one of his colleagues, jumped in: "That was my anecdote, Nick, and it was about you." Nick's faced turned red and before he could say anything, another colleague added: "It totally nails you Nick. It's spot on. You do it all the time." By now, everyone in the workshop was watching. It seemed the next few seconds would reveal Nick's true character.
Nick's face was ashen as he looked around the room. He gathered himself and then apologised to his colleagues, adding: "I can't promise you it won't happen again - I wasn't even aware I did this. But I can promise you that I'm going to make every effort to change my behaviour." And to Nick's credit, he did. At the time of the workshop, Nick was the head of sales and marketing at the company; he's now the CEO.
There was a big difference between what Nick thought he was doing and what he was actually doing. It took a story, and the willingness of his trusted colleagues to speak up, to make him aware of his poor behaviour. As a result, Nick's insight was both cognitive and emotional: cognitive in that he could rationally understand what he was doing wrong, and emotional in that he felt intense embarrassment at having discovered that the bad behaviour he had ridiculed only moments before was his own. This combination of insight and emotion created a powerful impetus in Nick to take action.
Government is difficult to manage and lead. There are many stakeholders involved and things are constantly shifting. Engagement, influence and persuasion are essential to impact those who provide legitimacy and support for government initiatives, both inside and outside the organisation, and storytelling techniques are an effective way to achieve this.
Dan and Chip Heath, in their best selling book Made to Stick, summarise their findings this way:
"Stories can almost single-handedly defeat the Curse of Knowledge. In fact, they naturally embody most of the SUCCESs framework. Stories are almost always Concrete. Most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure that they're simple--that they reflect your core message."3
- Moore, M.H. & Khagram, S. 2004, On Creating Public Value: What Business Might Learn from Government about Strategic Management, Harvard.
- Hasson, U., Ghazanfar, A.A., Galantucci, B., Garrod, S. & Keysers, C. 2012, 'Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world', Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 114-21.
- Heath, C. & Heath, D. 2007, Made to stick : why some ideas survive and others die, Random House, New York.