The Power and Danger of Stories

Talking to a friend recently we discussed the value of stories in communicating and marketing strategy and indeed its use in change management is, although there is a dark side to stories.

PrintThe power of stories in a strategic or project/change situation is that they link ideas and actions together and helps us make sense of a situation.  Humans have a strong need to control and in order to control some understanding is needed.  For leaders and managers to feel in control means they often try to build a story about situations they find within their business  (based on the maxim that understanding = control).  Unfortunately people are sometimes over eager to develop these stories and do so on too little data, equally these stories are often clung onto when new data points in other directions.  In addition the prevalence of stating a problem in terms of it solution… for example “if only the people on the shop floor could build it better……”  generates its own story with a ready made action plan, 2 for the price of 1 .  As the US marketing guru Seth Godin says:-

People don’t believe what you tell them
They rarely believe what you show them
They sometimes believe what their friends tell them
They always believe what they tell themselves
                                                                  Seth Godin

A  couple of clients I worked with a little while ago demonstrate this quite well:

The Capital Goods firm felt its problems could only be solved my M£1+ investment in equipment it felt to be the production bottle neck.  The budget was approved and ready to go,  but the lead time for the equipment was long and I was brought in to try and find a way of increasing output until the new equipment came on line.  As I and a small team dug into things a little more it was discovered that there was an unofficial re-work loop caused by a cleaning system.  We fixed the cleaning system (for about k£50) and output increased by 400% with no further investment.  Another firm that was eating through operations leaders due to their leaders conviction that all their problems were down to poor operational delivery.   A little study revealed that lax specification at the point of contract meant that the operations team had little chance to deliver on time and on quality due to vague and imprecise specifications – a little more rigor at contract time and warranty costs were cut by M£2.

The stories we tell ourselves and others are powerful,  they give us a feeling of control, make it easier to communicate with other team members and are a powerful spur to action.  However the links and investment human beings put into stories can result in us ignoring evidence that points in a different direction.  For example in the first case everyone in the production team  knew that as throughput went up product yield dropped dramatically however this was ignored because it did not fit with the “more capital equipment story”.  A little more thought led to a study of  other processes which were worked harder by greater throughput and this led inexorably to the marginal cleaning regime.

So whilst they can be highly motivating we should always be cautious of the stories we tell ourselves and be aware that they can result in us being less receptive to conflicting data.  The best defence against the “story blinders” is to get someone else to look at the problem, ideally from outside the business,   or be rigorous in the use of W. Edwards Demming’s  oft quoted maxim “in god we trust but everyone else bring data”

for more information contact  Robin Johnson or call 0794 1161321





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