How to tell a story that makes your point

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How do people in an organization get a sense of shared meaning and understanding?

They tell stories.

Stories and accounts of what happened in the past, stories of what could happen in the future, stories of what will happen if you do, or don’t do something all make up the organizational story book.

This collection of short stories helps a person understand the culture and essence of what an organisation is – which emerges out of the actions, behaviour and justification of its members.

So, what kind of stories work?

There are six basic plots that have survived over the ages.

1. The Quest

The quest is a story where an individual or group set off, face challenges and setbacks, and eventually succeed and find fame and fortune.

This is often the story of individual entrepreneurs – Branson, Zuckerberg and so on – they all started with ambition or an idea and then moved heaven and earth to make it happen.

2. The Contest

The contest is a struggle between two forces – often good and evil. Who is good and who is evil depends on your point of view.

This is often the story of takeovers and mergers and boardroom battles. Take Proctor and Gamble, for instance.

A battle has been waged between the activist investor Nelson Peltz and David Taylor, the CEO, who have different views on how the $235bn company should be organized.

The two sides may have spent over $60 million between them on the campaign and, for the time being, the CEO and Board may have won – supported by the large numbers of small shareholders.

But Peltz may be back – the institutions back him, after all.

3. The Conquest

The conquest is a story of winning through force and power – but then being seen as saving the day.

Take Jack Welch, for example.

He was given power at GE, at the time a moribund conglomerate with disparate interests. He instituted dramatic, even draconic measures.

He sold off business units in markets where GE wasn’t number 1 or number 2 and insisted that the entire organization be structured around performance and competitiveness.

The result was a re-energized, re-focused and more driven organization that is now once again a force in sectors ranging from turbines to finance.

4. The Downfall

The downfall plot is one where a successful person or organization slips from grace, primarily because of their own shortcomings.

This is the story of the financial crisis. Once proud financial institutions were sucked into the frenzy of lending money without underlying assets – greedy for commissions and growth.

In the UK, the government had to rescue institutions such as Lloyds, RBS and HBOS – banks with a hundred year operating history, and they are still recovering from that period.

5. The Disaster

The disaster story is different from downfall – because the events that cause failure are outside the person or organization’s control.

The classic story here is the impact of the internet.

Blockbuster, HMV, Staples – all the high street and big box stores that flourished in the late part of the last century and thought this dinky little computer toy thing called the internet would never catch on are now part of history.

6. The Scam

In the scam, the main characters turn out to be not what they seemed – they were either incompetent or foolish, or they were hiding something that then came out.

Bernie Madoff, a one time darling of Wall Street, was exposed as a fraudster after creating the largest ponzi scheme in history – nearly $65 billion.

Summary

Three of the plots are stories of success: quest, contest and conquest, while the other three are stories of failure: downfall, disaster and scam.

There is no shortage of stories around us – but the ones we pick and choose to tell and re-tell will create the common meaning and understanding that is shared by people in an organization.

Stories have more impact than almost any other form of communication – we seem hardwired to listen and learn from them, right from the time we are children.

Choose the ones you tell carefully.

How to see things afresh

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Mark Twain said that once he had learned the analytic knowledge required to navigate the Mississippi, the river lost its beauty.

The problem with being an expert is that you know too much.

And that knowledge gets in the way of being able to see or experience what is in front of you.

A friend of mine, an editor, says that it’s difficult to watch a film now and just enjoy the story – because the urge to take it apart and dissect it is too much.

One answer, apparently, is to get drunk quickly, and that makes it easier to sit through the experience.

Then again, this is not a new problem.

Toys ‘R’ Us, for example, has 64,000 employees and 1,600 stores in the US but that didn’t stop it having to start bankruptcy proceedings, unable to compete against the likes of Amazon.

Organizations that were once brilliant at what they did, presumably staffed with experts, have simply become irrelevant as the world changed around them, but their maps did not.

So, what can you do to try and see the world as it rather than how you think it is?

It might help to start by avoiding meetings.

Too many meetings are too long and are spent waiting for someone else to stop talking so you can say what you think.

A better approach might be to try and stay in beginner’s mind.

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Instead of meetings, it may be better to engage in dialogue.

A formal version of this is Bohm Dialogue, a form of talking proposed by David Bohm, an American theoretical physicist, who suggested engaging in a free-flowing, non-judgemental group conversation that helps people to come to a common understanding of everyone’s point of view.

One technique for facilitating it is to borrow from Improv, the art of spontaneous theatre based around “Yes, and…”, where someone says something and you have to start your next sentence with “Yes, and…” and then make your point.

This suspends judgement, as you have to build on the previous statement rather than stopping to critique it.

Another approach is the Japanese method of seeking opinions from the most junior member present first.

This means that they can speak without having to say something that might contradict what their boss said if they went second – in which case they might not say anything at all instead.

The point is that becoming an expert takes time.

And then, perhaps frustratingly, it’s going to take even more time and practice to become a beginner again.

The future of working and leading

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Many things seem quite clear and simple – because that’s just the way they are right now.

Take people in an organization, for example. You might think that there are two types: workers that do the work and leaders that decide what work needs to be done.

That approach to organizational structure comes out of the needs of an industrial, factory based society – where machines needed to be tended, things needed to be assembled and people had jobs that involved doing a few, repetitive tasks over and over again.

That world just doesn’t exist for many people any more.

The kinds of challenges organizations and societies face are more complex and nuanced now.

There may be an underlying trend, an upswell, a hint that our future economies will be based around more decentralized, democratic technologies than now.

At the moment, it feels like the world is controlled by a few giant corporations.

Take information, for example.

The four giants: Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple dominate what we find, buy, share and see. They seem unassailable, billion dollar firms that are virtual monopolies in the current economy.

They may, however, be swept away in the future by shared, decentralized platforms that we all can own and operate using technologies such as blockchain.

People may prefer to deal with community owned businesses or social enterprises.

And that trend has an interesting application to organizational development.

Will organizations in the future stay hierarchical, controlled by a small number of leaders who make all the decisions?

Or will the organizations that perform in the future have more blurred lines between workers and leaders?

Despite an increasingly technological world, people will still choose to work with people much of the time for tasks that are complex, creative or need the application of thought.

There may not be much space in organizations for leaders who don’t contribute work. Conversely, workers who don’t learn how to lead and perform in teams may find themselves replaced by machines.

In this future, networks of committed and creative people may create the products and services we use every day.

It may be that the organizations of the future are going to be decentralized networks of individuals who share leadership and work – with performance in the market emerging out of their collective behaviour.

Do you know how you will fit in?

How to have good ideas

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Linus Pauling, the only person to win two unshared Nobel prizes said, If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.

In the book A Technique for Producing Ideas, first published in 1939 by James Webb Young, the author says that there are two principles to recognise about an idea:

  1. An idea is a new combination of old elements.
  2. You need to be able to see relationships to be able to combine old elements into new combinations.

He suggests a five step technique to generate ideas: gather raw material, absorb and turn over material in your mind, step away from the whole thing and take a break – go to sleep if you can or watch a film, wait for the “Eureaka” moment when the idea will appear and finally expose it to the world – to criticism and comment so you can shape it into something practical and useful.

But how do you know if an idea is good?

Sometimes you just do – that’s what the “Eureka” moment is all about, and by putting into the world you will validate the idea and get feedback, so you increase the probability that the idea you have is a good one.

On the other hand, there are a few more criteria that are useful.

Paul Graham, in quite a long essay about how to get startup ideas, reminds us that instead of searching for ideas, look for problems.

If there is a problem – something that you want solving yourself, a solution that you could build yourself and something that other people haven’t quite realized is worth doing, then you might be on the verge of a good idea.

The missing piece from Webb’s model, as you can see in the picture, is that there is a person stood there, collecting the elements and working out the relationships between them.

The nature of the person is very important, but just by focusing on the idea, one might completely forget that individual stood behind the idea.

What kind of person comes up with good ideas?

Adapting Graham’s adaptation of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance one might write:

You want to know how to have a good idea? It’s easy. Make yourself the kind of person that has good ideas and then just think naturally.

If you are already at the leading edge of a field – if you live and breathe a particular industry – then you have a better change of having good, relevant ideas.

If your mind is prepared, already aware of the issues and problems that are relevant, when a good idea pops up, you will be ready to see it and work with it.

Even better, if you have the ability to build it, code it or write it, then you’ll have a mock-up that you can show people and test whether they feel the same way about your idea and more importantly, whether they will hand over some money for it.

Finally – the real opportunity is things that other people find boring, unsexy and tiresome. That’s the pain people want taken away and are willing to pay for.

As they say in Yorkshire, where there’s muck there’s brass.

Some lessons from business and writing

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The writer Lee Child and businessman Sir Hugh Sykes were interviewed during the Off the Shelf Festival of Words in Sheffield.

They do two seemingly different things – one writes the Reacher novels, sitting down on the 1st of September and writing a book by March. He reads 300 books a year.

The other has bought 20-30 companies over the course of his career, which started by becoming the CFO of a FTSE 500 company in his 20s, and attributes his success to hard work and a good dose of luck.

Two things in particular stood out for me.

Hugh described how he learned to use money to build things. It was a simple process that he picked up from Jim Slater.

Buy a company. Improve it and add value. Float it on the stock market. Use the shares with increased value to buy another company. Rinse and repeat.

It’s simple, he said, but not easy.

This echoes a favourite saying of Warren Buffett. The principles of investing are simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Your worst enemy is yourself sometimes, and the emotions – the fear and greed that drives decision making.

Hugh also said that when you put your mind to it, it’s amazing what you can do and he found that very few problems were truly insuperable.

One final point – business planning once again is simple. Where do you want to go – what’s your objective? How are you going to get there? What do you need – what are the resources?

Answer those three questions and you are on your way.

Lee Child, on the other hand, got into writing after he lost his job in the TV industry doing something very specialised. The skills weren’t transferable, and he had to learn to write again.

He once had Reacher say “I tried it their way. Now I’m going to do it my way”. And that served as a guide for him as well.

When he started writing, he didn’t plan out the next 22 years and books. Instead, he started to explore through his writing and the character and story emerged.

An interesting observation he made was that sometimes people look down on mass-market fiction, thinking that somehow it is less literary and so less important or easier.

He pointed out, however, that only a few people buy Rolls Royces, so you can create a custom product for them, and someone will buy it.

A mass-market car has to appeal to many more people, and so is actually harder to put together in a way that is successful.

This has parallels in business – it’s easy to create a niche product that a specific group want, and often that’s the way to get started.

To build a big business with a wide market, however, is a much bigger challenge.

Easy reading requires hard writing.

Two lessons that I took:

  1. Niche is easy. Mass is hard.
  2. Simple does not mean easy.

How to win an argument

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Did you know that Dundee University has a Centre for Argument Technology and studies aspects of argumentation?

The picture above shows a model for building an argument, adapted from Professor Chris Reed’s article on the BBC.

The next time you have to make a case, the following might serve as a useful checklist.

1. Are you focused on the issue?

It’s easy to get sidetracked and distracted by things.

A good argument will focus on the main issue and be relevant.

2. Are your claims clear?

Your argument is built up of claims.

You should select claims that are directly linked to the issue you are debating and discount or remove ones that are peripheral.

3. Do you have evidence to support your claims?

You need to show why your claims are true – by linking evidence, reasoning and conclusions.

The more evidence you have the better, and the more the evidence you have corroborates and confirms what you are saying, the more likely it is that people will accept what you say.

4. Are you addressing objections first?

The best way to handle objections is to bring them up yourself.

You will inevitably get objections. Instead of struggling to come up with an answer on the spot, it’s easier to raise them in the first place and explain how your argument deals with them.

5. Have you thought through the counter-claims?

The other side will be thinking about claims that support their position.

It’s important to think about the issue from their point of view, so that you understand the fundamental differences between your claims and why they cannot be reconciled.

6. Have you found the weak spots in their argument?

Just as the other side will bring up objections, you need to find the weak points in their claims and possible chain of reasoning.

If you can point to factual or logical flaws in their reasoning, then you may be able to undermine their argument.

Summary

Knowing how to make an argument is crucial in many situations – from making a sales presentation to pitching for funding.

Having this kind of model to hand may help the next time you need to make one.

How to function in a post-truth world

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Post-truth was chosen as the Word of the Year in 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries because it seemed to describe the essence of what happened during BREXIT and the US Presidential election.

People have always cherry-picked – selecting the data or evidence that supports their point of view while discounting or ignoring other information.

The thing that is changing, however, is that in a continuum between what is false and what is true, we are getting much better at using falsehoods to manipulate how people think and respond to messages – and the politicians are the ones doing this best.

For example, which news headlines grab your attention?

The best ones create a visceral, emotional response. Facts are dull. Feelings make you sit up and take notice.

From the £350 million for the NHS claim that Boris Johnson recently repeated to the belief that former U.S President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S, statements that create feelings can ripple through societies, magnified by 24-hour news and social media.

But that’s ok, some people might say. There is no truth, as such. Facts have a lifespan – in science, especially, what we think we know is constantly being overturned by new discoveries and through the application of new technology.

What we have are the facts of the moment – and opinions – and what we do is combine these to create a social understanding of the here and now. Everything is relative and needs to be understood in context. It’s contingent.

The only time we learn really what is true and what is not is when we look back. History tells us how facts were used and what happened as a result.

In real-time, we only have “alternative facts”.

So what do you do about the facts around you? There are two options.

If you want to peddle facts, there are three kinds of people you will face.

  1. Those that agree with you.
  2. Those on the fence.
  3. Those that disagree with you.

You will never get those that disagree to change their minds. The ones that agree with you are already on your side.

Your messages need to speak directly to those who agree with you to make sure that their existing points of view are energized and inflamed – and try to win over those people on the fence.

This is why Trump’s style is so powerful. He speaks directly to his followers through Twitter, and the messages that filter out through the media bring some people to his camp, and he ignores everyone else. And he gets results as a result.

If you are a consumer of facts, there is only one approach you can take – caveat lector.

Reader, beware.

Which moments matter? The Micro-Moments model.

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The Internet has grown up.

We are now always on, always connected. And this means there are some interesting things that are changing about the way in which we connect.

Almost 90% of people have a phone close to them, day or night. Over two-thirds check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up. We spend nearly three hours on our phones a day.

But each session – the time between opening and closing the phone – lasts just over a minute.

So, what’s going on?

What’s happening is that there are hundreds of moments when we get our phone out and use it. From a quick text, dropping an email back, checking who that actor is during a programme, finding the closest petrol station, and so on.

We’re constantly getting our phones out, checking something and then moving on.

In 2015, Google came out with a name for these instances of time – calling them Micro-Moments.

They argued that interactions with customers are moving from “sessions to spurts” – hundreds of small, individual moments that lead up to making a decision.

They suggested that moments that matter – the key ones for anyone using the internet to interact with someone else – occur when three things intersect:

  1. Intent: The “I want to…” that triggers the impulse to act.
  2. Immediacy: What’s the quickest way – usually getting out the mobile phone.

3: Context: What am I searching for – and when might I do it?

Understanding which moments result at the intersection of these three things can guide you in creating resources that help.

As a marketer, the implications are obvious – you need to understand what someone wants or needs, and realize that they are going to open their phone and run a search. In addition, people usually want to know something, go somewhere, do something or buy something.

If you want to be in the game, you need to turn up in those search results, provide useful information and do it quickly – otherwise they will move on somewhere else.

This means that users are driven more by how relevant the information is that turns up than the brand or people providing related information.

This also matters, however, if you’re trying to organize knowledge and information across a business so you can work more effectively.

Where can you find the latest guidance on something? Where is the latest version of that model? Which presentation should you work from?

Organizations can now design internal information systems structured like the Internet does things. Instead of files in folders, you can have a collection of resources that people search when they need something.

You still need to be able to come up with useful and relevant material quickly that will help your teams function more effectively.

People act on information. How you give them that information will increasingly make the difference between succeeding and failing.

The business of keeping things cold

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Keeping buildings cool in the United States takes as much electricity as used in Africa for everything.

We can easily miss the amount of effort that goes into keeping things cool.

We use cooling systems to air-condition our homes and commercial buildings, keep food fresh and transport it across countries and use it in countless industrial processes – from medicines to preservation.

The internet couldn’t survive without the vast amounts of cooling that go into keeping the data centres that power the internet economy going.

Increasing urbanization, with the majority of the world’s population living in cities, will make the challenges and problems associated with cooling worse, not better.

For example, the United States uses more energy for air-conditioning than the rest of the world put together.

Many developing countries, however, are getting richer fast and are in hot parts of the world. If they were to use air-conditioning like the U.S, they would use around 50 times more – and half the world’s energy could go just on cooling.

This could happen quickly. In 2010, Chinese consumers bought 50 million new domestic a/c units and 95% of Chinese homes have a fridge, compared to 7% in 1995.

If India had the same proportion of refrigerated trucks as the UK, the fleet would rise from the tens of thousands to 1.5 million vehicles.

The problem is that keeping things cold is a very polluting activity. The technology being used is a hundred years old, relies on chemical refrigerants and has plodded on – generally ignored in the background.

As we move into a low-carbon economy – increasing cold using conventional methods is not going to help us reduce emissions or stay on target.

That means there are a number of opportunities out there.

For example, we could learn how to use and re-use cold energy more effectively. With better data collection – using the Internet of Things (IoT) approach, we can figure out how to be smart in the way in which we cool things.

Keeping things cold needs energy – so using free energy from renewables, being smarter about when energy is used based on supply and demand and moving to ways of storing and moving cold energy rather than creating it on demand using electricity are all ways to be more efficient.

The challenge, as always, is to make a business case for action.

What could opening up access to data do for us?

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Governments, organizations and businesses have vast quantities of data they have collected over the years – and continue to generate more daily.

The amount of data out there can overwhelm anyone trying to analyze and make sense of it.

Let’s say you could have access to this data and were able to process and analyze it – what would that help you do?

You could:

  • See how governments spend their money.
  • Look at patterns of energy usage across economies.
  • Study the distribution of wealth and poverty.
  • Improve how we track and predict weather.
  • Monitor fair trading in stock markets.

and much more.

The idea that making data available to people will help with both understanding and accountability, while also increasing innovation is why the UK government has started to publish datasets on data.gov.uk.

Organisations such as the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Open Data Institute are helping to create guidance, tools and networks that make it possible for people to obtain and study data and share their findings.

Why does this matter?

For a start – there is a big market out there for data and analytics. You can now get Data as a Service (DaaS) products, allowing you to analyze everything from electricity and gas prices in Europe to pig futures in Kansas.

Organisations that are able to effectively use data for decision making can improve their processes, reduce prices and stay competitive.

But there are bigger challenges that can also only be achieved through transparency and cross-sector work.

For example, many large organisations are voluntarily taking action to cut their carbon emissions, through participating in programmes like Science Based Targets.

Others aren’t, partly because they haven’t the time, see it as a cost or just don’t know how to get started.

We need to start by making it easier to analyze their data through projects like Frictionless Data that help collect, share and validate data.

If you could see how your retail store portfolio compared with others in terms of carbon emissions per sales, you might be motivated to improve your performance.

Whether the motivation is financial, social, competitive or for research and interest purposes – opening up data is going to have a big impact on making the organizations we interact with more transparent, agile and accountable.

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