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Telling stories – fairy tales, case-studies & scenarios….

April 14, 2011 5 comments

Telling Stories - At the ICI/Atelis competitive intelligence conference that took place last week (April 6-7, 2011) in Bad Nauheim, Germany there was a panel discussion on story-telling as a method of reporting intelligence. At about the same time, the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) held their 25th annual conference in Vancouver, Washington in the USA. Mary-Ellen Bates described how stories can help information professionals market themselves by showing how their skills can solve client problems. The fact that both conferences looked at story-telling shows how businesses are adopting the technique as a way of addressing complex issues.

Story telling is an ancient art-form that might seem strange as a business tool. However, often stories will be an excellent approach for solving business questions as they allow people to look at a situation objectively, remove themselves from the scene and take an outside view. The trick is to tell the right story, catching the imagination and making people think. During the ICI / Atelis conference I suggested a framework for when different story styles can be used.

The first story type is the “fairy-tale” – the “Once Upon a Time in a Kingdom Far Away” type of story. Fairy-tales are possibly the most abstract example of a story that can be applicable to business. The danger is that they can be seen as childish and far-removed from real-world business realities. In fact, they can be a powerful way of highlighting deep-seated organisational problems, as management refusal to see such problems can be illustrated with stories. Such stories can help managers recognise their own situation, and so identify the problems and think of possible solutions.

Consider a company where the CEO or other senior management refuse to see that their business has changed.  Often such management grew up in the industry and believe that they know it inside out. Accepting that things have changed is anathema to them. A standard comment given by such managers when asked why things are done in a particular way is “We’ve always done it that way“. Essentially such management suffers from corporate denial – or what Ben Gilad called a business taboo in his book “Business Blindspots“.

Telling such managers a fairy-tale story can help them see the problem (assuming that you can arrange a session they will be willing to attend).

Once upon a time, in a far-away country there was a king who loved to sing. He loved to sing so much that he made laws that all his people were to learn his favourite songs.

Every Sunday, the people were to gather in the town squares and village greens and sing the songs the king loved.  The people were happy as they also loved the music and they prided themselves as being the most musical people in the world.

One day, a travelling minstrel sailed into the the kingdom from across the sea – singing a new song. Soon, children started to sing this new song, followed by their parents, and word reached the king that the people were no longer singing the king’s songs but were singing something different.

The king flew into a rage, and put the minstrel into a deep and dark dungeon. However this didn’t stop the minstrel singing – and soon the guards started to sing the new song. The king then made laws saying the new song lacked harmony, was discordant, and that anybody caught singing it would be severely punished.

Gradually the people became unhappier. They liked the new song and wanted to sing it along with the old songs. Instead they stopped singing – and the king got angrier and angrier that his songs were no longer being sung. He tried to force people to sing, but they just sang out-of-tune. He made new laws that said they had to sing on Sundays and Mondays, but found that lots of people said they’d lost their voices from singing so much and so couldn’t sing on Sundays or Mondays. And so the king also got unhappier as he no longer heard his songs being sung as in the past….

The basic lesson for a story such as this is to accept and embrace change – rejecting change is likely to be self-defeating. There are many companies and industries that fail in this – the music industry being a classic example, that lost out by refusing to recognise the impact of music downloading, Napster, iTunes and peer-to-peer file sharing. A fairy-story can help highlight the problems – although the solution will need to come from full discussion and management acceptance.

The second story-type is the traditional case-study. Case studies should be used where the organisation knows the problem, but not the solution. Finding the solution directly is difficult as management is too close to the situation. The case-study serves as a way of examining the problem dispassionately, by looking at a parallel situation involving a company or organisation, from another industry, or market. The aim is to analyse the problem and work out appropriate strategies to solve the problem and apply them to the real situation. The key for a case-study is to find one that matches the organisation’s problems. There is a vast bank of case-studies for a range of industries, topics and problems at the Case Study Clearing House.

A third story-type are future scenarios, generally generated as part of a scenario-planning exercise. Such stories attempt to answer “what if” questions by looking at external factors and their correlations and impacts, and then considering how these could play out in the future. It is essential that such scenarios are internally consistent and that there is a clear line of development from the current situation to the future scenario. This can then allow for strategies to be put in place that take into account what could happen. Such strategies need to be adaptable to changing situations and allow for organisations to prepare for any eventuality.

As a reporting approach, telling stories is one way of putting across ideas that stimulate the imagination, and so can help organisations develop strategies that lead to success. There is a common theme to all three story types: problem identification, its acceptance and the need for strategies to cope with change. They differ in their perspective on the world. The fairy-tale approach looks at understanding problems and overcoming blindspots that relate to the past imposing on the present; case studies look at solving present problems; scenarios are aimed at preparing organisations for the future.

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Looking Forward – but don’t ignore what is behind you!

March 9, 2007 2 comments
I left school many years ago, but I still remember some of the lessons taught by Jeremy Rosen, who was, at that time, my headmaster. I’m still in contact with him – and both of us now have gray hair! In a recent newsletter he writes:

There’s a Russian proverb that goes, ‘He who looks to the past is in danger of losing an eye. But he who ignores the past is in danger of losing two eyes.’

Jeremy Rosen states that he doesn’t know if this is really a Russian proverb – he heard it from Lord Bullock, the historian, biographer of Hitler and Stalin, who was speaking at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem many years ago. However the origin is less important in this case than what is being said.

Too often, people make decisions based on insufficient information – they ignore the past, creating excuses saying that the past is a closed book – and base their decisions on the perceived problems of the present, tearing up all that has gone before in an effort to create a desirable future. Others take the opposite view – and dwell in the past, refusing to realize that it is the future that shapes our fortunes, not what has gone before.

In marketing and business the same rules apply. Some are “Risk seekers” – always anticipating a bright future, irrespective of warnings, and ignoring the past. Others are “Risk adverse” scared about what the future may bring – and essentially living in the past. In reality, businesses need to balance both approaches. They need to build for the future, and should grasp emerging opportunities with both hands. However this should be based on knowledge of the risks involved, and this can only come from prior experience and knowledge. Even brand new innovations are built on past knowledge.

There are organizations that seem to focus on past (or should that be passed) glories. They stress how they did this or that – and how they became the market leader through their past actions. However if they fail to see how the present has changed then they will inevitably lose this leadership position. There are numerous companies that have fallen because of this. One of the best examples is J Sainsbury – the UK supermarket giant, currently in the midst of a bidding battle. Sainsburys used to be the largest UK supermarket, but it lost direction, and with it share – it is now no longer the market leader. Sainsbury saw itself as the market leader, but failed to recognize the innovations and different approach of competitors such as Tesco and Asda (owned by Walmart). Essentially, Sainsbury was looking at the past and reveling in it, but in reality was ignoring the past and the lessons it held on success. Sainsbury had grown by being innovative – it was the first UK supermarket, building a major presence by giving customers what they wanted. However by not keeping both eyes open on what was happening in its market, it lost its market position.

A key business skill is being able to anticipate the future (using techniques such as scenario planning). This depends on using drivers and trends from the past to anticipate what could happen in the future. We need to look to the past and learn from it. However our aim should be to build a better future. This cannot come by ignoring what has gone before. Instead we should aim to understand why something happened, so that we can learn from it and not repeat the same mistakes. As George Santayana said in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

There is a widely known Zen story that shows this in another way:

“When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.”

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