1 September 2007 @ 4am

business, strategy

Stories Over Bullets

The good Edward Tufte led us to an article in the Harvard Business Review (05/98), regarding storytelling as a tool in business strategy development.

A good strategic plan must be written in a narrative form that tells an exciting, detailed, nuanced story. Virtually all business plans are written as a list of bullet points. Despite the skill or knowledge of their authors, these plans usually aren’t anything more than lists of “good things to do.” Rarely do these lists reflect deep thought or inspire commitment. Worse, they don’t specify critical relationships between the points, and they can’t demonstrate how the goals will be achieved. 3M executive Gordon Shaw began looking for a more coherent and compelling way to present business plans. He found it in the form of strategic stories. Telling stories was already a habit of mind at 3M. Stories about the advent of Post-it Notes and the invention of masking tape help define 3M’s identity. They’re part of the way people at 3M explain themselves to their customers and to one another. Shaw and his coauthors examine how business plans can be transformed into strategic narratives. By painting a picture of the market, the competition, and the strategy needed to beat the competition, these narratives can fill in the spaces around the bullet points for those who will approve and those who will implement the strategy. When people can locate themselves in the story, their sense of commitment and involvement is enhanced. By conveying a powerful impression of the process of winning, narrative plans can mobilize an entire organization.

And, from the executive summary …

Stories are a habit of mind at 3M, and it’s through them—through the way they make us see ourselves and our business operations in complex, multidimensional forms—that we’re able to discover opportunities for strategic change.

That was one of the biggest strengths that I saw at Play: a true appreciation for the power of stories. If the power of stories were truly understood in b-schools, storytelling would be a part of the core business curriculum. At the least, they’d have a good literature class, taught by someone who knows the craft of writing and storytelling.

It looks like a few schools are beginning to do just that. This spring, NYU launched a joint MBA/MFA program. The problem with it, though, is that the students enrolled in it will already be interested in both business and filmmaking — they already get it. What we need are programs that integrate storytelling into the actual curriculum of a normal MBA.

A few weeks ago, Business Week featured an article on storytelling in business, Storytelling and the Art of Persuasion, where they interview the authors of The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster & Win More Business. The exact ingredients of a successful story have been deconstructed before, but this list they provide is handy:

Essential components of a story …

  1. The passion with which it is told.
  2. A hero that leads us through the story and allows us to see it through his eyes.
  3. An antagonist or obstacle that needs to be overcome.
  4. A moment of awareness that allows the hero, and us, to prevail.
  5. And the transformation that naturally results.

So the trick, then, as PearBudget and other schemes I have begin to congeal, is to remember the story. Go back to the story of why we exist. Gather the stories of the people impacted by it. Remember the heroes, the antagonists, the struggles, the victories, the transformation, and the passion.

Note to self: See if Swem carries HBR. Surely they do. One article to find: Deep Smarts (09/04).

1 Comment

Posted by
Armistead Bookerk
10 September 2007 @ 1pm

Howdy - it’s your friendly neighborhood lurker… finally reaching out and making a comment.

It’s amazing how much storytelling is so extendable into every aspect of life, whether that be to business or practical ends or for more intangible, inspiring purposes. And then there’s totally appropriate places where a bullet or number list is all you need (case in point or your essential components of a story above). Funny that.

Reminds me of Ben’s recent post.

Leave a Comment

in limbo Breaking Users Out of Mental Models; Breaking Out of Your Own