Always tell stories

My ninth mantra may be the one most of my staff hear, even years after they’ve started working for me. Of the #40mantras, it may be one of my favorite five.

The full version reads like this:

Always tell stories; it reminds us of who we are and how we should act.

Now I know, when you read the headline you’re thinking I’m talking about marketing or selling. But I’m not. I’m talking about management. But let me back up and give you a bit of my broader perspective.

If you go back far enough in time, you’ll discover tons of communities doing the same thing – regardless of culture. They’re sitting around a table or campfire and they’re telling stories. Some sing them. Others recite them. Others embellish.

But they’re all telling stories – long before anyone could read or write.

What does that tell you about who we are, as humans, when people – long before they could read or write – would learn to tell stories to each other, while others would sit and listen?

Here’s my broader perspective: we were all born with a deep desire to be part of a larger story. To know where we fit. To see how our story fits into a larger narrative.

You may disagree. But before you do, tell me this – have you ever exited a movie with a part of you so greatly inspired that you want to change your life? I’m not saying you actually do change your life. I’m just saying that some movies touch us that way.

Because our hearts recognize the power of stories and when we hear and experience them, they call out to us to invite our own story to engage in some way.

Ok, enough of my mumbo jumbo, let’s get back to management.

If I sit down and ask a CEO how many decisions a developer makes in a day, he guesses 5 – 10. If I then invite the development director into the same office, and ask the same question, I hear 10-15.

Then I call in an engineer. I ask them how many decisions  they make in a day. Normally their answers are low. But then I probe, poke and pester a bit. And by the time we’re done, it’s clear they’ve made 30-50.

Every day.

They’re little. They’re tiny. But if they’re made without context – without the stories of their customers, without the stories of their own roles, without the stories of their company and products – they can be painful and costly to change.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been called into a project where someone gives us a new piece of information – a part of the story we should have known already – and it suddenly makes things very clear that we were working under other assumptions.

You can suggest that we need larger and more details requirements documents, but I disagree. Instead, what I’ve seen work more than anything else is simply telling stories.

  • The stories of our clients and their top pains
  • The stories of our products and how they leave our clients feeling
  • The story of our company and how we sell and deliver our products

These stories, told regularly, have an impact. Because they tell us who we are, and how we should act.
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