It’s a challenging time to run an organisation. Everything around us is changing with a good degree of randomness, and planning of any kind can feel like an exercise in futility.
Plans have become vehicles of hope describing what we want to happen. Chock full of evidence and data which like a resumé give no real indication of how effective they will be in the circumstances in which they will find themselves.
The same is true of “solutions” that exude confidence even though consultants often have less practical idea of what to do than their clients, but have something that once worked at a moment in time for somebody else, in different circumstances. It will be beautifully presented and probably carry “best practice” somewhere in it’s marketing. Solutions as something like Aspirin, sold as a quick fix without really understanding how they work or what their side effects might be.
Stories though, at first sight, seem to hold promise. They have delighful flexibility, a passing chance of heroes and a prospect of a happy ending. Stories as something we create that feature us (probably as hero(ine))
The journey from stories, through plans to solutions is a straight line from creation to consumption with increasing reduction in engagement, commitment and responsibility. Reductive thinking at it’s least attractive.
The challenge with stories is that non-fiction ones can only be told in retrospect. I cannot think of a politician, or business leader whose memoirs reflect what they had thought they would be as they set out. They end up a hubristic tales around what happened largely through luck (or lack of it) and circumstance.
A story told about what will happen is fiction. A fantasy that offers us a tempting illusion of what we would like to be the case (just like a plan). The sort now being told to stakeholders in many organisations under pressure, from Facebook and Twitter all the way to P&O and the Home Office (I wonder whether the Rwanda asylum seeker plan will make it to the Booker list?)
“The art of being wise is the art of knowing that solutions don’t come from individuals, but rather experiences.”Shannon L. Alder
Is hard, hard work.
The best book I have read on storytelling, by some way, is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. It is funny, insightful and painfully honest about the work of writing, and of creating stories that work. (Not least, the ambivalent, often chaotic relationship with planning.)
Of course, we can start off with a plan with all the assumptions of the heroes journey, including our “dark night of the soul” (scheduled for quarter 3… ) from which we emerge transformed and triumphant. The trouble is, writers know that the moment the story gets populated with characters, they all get to have a say and the story, as they say, takes on a life of its own.
We don’t get to choose how those characters turn out. We may bring them into existence and have a preference for their behaviour , but circumstance has a say, as the story changes to something more like “The Shining” than the profitable adventure we had drafted, and we find “Here’s Johnny” echoing round the Boardroom.
“All human plans [are] subject to ruthless revision by Nature, or Fate, or whatever one preferred to call the powers behind the Universe.”Arthur C. Clarke
Authors are suckers for punishment.
author (n.) mid-14c., auctor, autour, autor “father, creator, one who brings about, one who makes or creates” someone or something, from Old French auctor, acteor “author, originator, creator, instigator” (12c., Modern French auteur) and directly from Latin auctor “promoter, producer, father, progenitor; builder, founder; trustworthy writer, authority; historian; performer, doer; responsible person, teacher,” literally “one who causes to grow,”etymonline.com
If we’re the author of the story, we’re in the hot seat. No delegation, no committees, no ghost writers, and most definitely no consultants. The story, and its success or failure, is ours.
So I find it fascinating that when the power of story is deemed to be so important in organisations, so little real work goes into it. Often the work is done by those have only the most fleeting, transactional relationship with the “character” that is the organisation. Often, what happens seems little more than putting the existing plan through some sort of tickbox narrative conversion therapy. Little of substance changes. Prettier pictures and softer words, but not an author in sight. The organisation is left to the mercy of consultancy hacks who will be long gone before the story matures. That seems like such a waste of a great opportunity.
Authors are leaders . Their imaginations play a vital role as we have to decide whether to rein them in, let them loose, or send them to a minder until work is over. Authorship is a scary challenge for those willing to let their imagination come to the party.
“Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.”Terry Pratchett
One of the great challenges of writing is letting the characters we create find their own way rather than the one we had planned for them, because great stories have their own energy which we do not control.
The same is true, I think of organisations. After a while, when they have left their founder behind, they develop a will of their own. It becomes ever more difficult to discern the story the founder had in mind, and no matter what we do, we cannot write the end of the story in advance, only the next step along the way.
Anybody who has ever owned a business will recognise this. We become passengers on what we have created or inherited, with very limited control over what happens.
I think it’s also why so many corporate leaders are more like soap opera stars, putting in a great performance (for great money), but with no idea of how the plot turns out until it is screened because, in reality, it’s being written by other people.
So I think that, for all the popularity of “leaders as storytellers” meme; it’s wrong. I think leaders are more like writers, beavering away building what will be a story eventually told by somebody else.
A more effective relationship between a leader and their imagination was described by Camus (who could write a bit):
“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead
Walk beside me… just be my friendAlbert Camus
Charles Dickens was a wonderful leader, as he wrote and published his work piece by piece, getting people to follow when even he was not sure where his story was going.
Steve Jobs was a great leader, making things up as he went along integrating what interested and inspired him (like calligraphy), far more than having a fixed plan. His style was to author Apple into greatness.
Marcuss Persson didn’t have a plan when he brought Minecraft into being, he just kept “writing” as he created what is now a games phenomenon.
The importance of the shitty first draft.
The thing about all these people, and others like them, is that they were willing to write what Anne Lamott defines as “shitty first drafts”. Getting something down as it occurs without polishing or refining, and when you feel up to it, sharing it with people close to you. They will show you where it’s shitty so you can improve it, polish it, and produce something important.
Writing that SFD takes courage and commitment. We are all brought up and trained in expectation of having our work marked, rather than sifted through for gold. That inevitably leads to caution, and operating inside rather than at the edge of our capabilites. That leads though to stagnation, not progress and I believe we see the results of that in so many businesses.
The leader’s job is to have the edgy idea and bring it into intitial being, but not do it solo. It takes courage, a commitment to something worth doing. and dancing with the prospect of failure. That’s why, when they succeed, eventually, and move us forward, we admire and follow them.
Today, as things change so bewilderingly around us, we are all authors whether we like it or not. Don’t look to the storytellers for inspiration, look to the people doing the hard work of writing.