Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Leadership & Storytelling Part 12b of Many...


Let’s move to the second aspect of modeling. Explaining an idea with words can take a fair amount of time. Each piece of the idea has to be carefully laid out and all of the pieces have to be put in order. I am always amazed at how much time it takes me to present an idea when I lecture. The same idea can almost always be quickly grasped with a simple illustration that takes a fraction of the time compared to more didactic modes of communicating. That of course leaves us lecturers without much to say and our recipients with more retention. The problem lies in the effort it takes to come up with a compelling illustration.

I was teaching a technical writing course. In one of the exercises I had the group write a technical explanation for some engineering principles that could be understood by a twelve year old and that used an analogy to help explain the principle. They were forced to use constructs that an average twelve year old would know. It proved to be tough to come up with analogies but when they did they were amazed at how simple the principles really were and how easily they could be explained. There is a natural fear that if you over simplify an idea people will miss out. That is an incorrect assumption. Once a construct is in place it is far easier to refine it. Much of what we assume to be important turns out to be unnecessary detail that cannot nor need not be retained by most people.

We can model with words by coming up with analogies, similes, anecdotes, or metaphors to illustrate our ideas. This is a form of synthesis. We are using a known entity to explain a new one. A new entity can be explored by establishing a baseline with a known one. In essence we are creating word pictures. Through words we are painting vivid pictures. The assumption is that these pictures have a correspondence with our listeners’ experiences. We are invoking their imaginations. Our models as word pictures serve as tantalizers, which summon rich associations. Without some form of association our ideas will fizzle before they ever come to life. This next exercise explores the key questions you need to answer in order to effectively model with words.

Exercise: Modeling Competency – Answering the Key Questions

Here is a mental checklist of questions to run through when you are interested in using verbal models:

1. What do I want to communicate?
2. What constructs are known to this person or group?
3. How does the new construct relate to what is already known and understood by them?
4. Are there gaps between the two constructs being related to one another?
5. If there is a gap, can we work within the proposed model to explicate the differences?

Pick an occasion when you will need to explain something to an individual or group. Walk through the questions above and come up with some potential models. Try them out and evaluate the impact. How did you close the gap between the model you used and the full construct you were trying to communicate? Did you notice any difference in the recipient’s level of engagement? How did they respond?

It is not important for our model to be perfect. Inevitably it will fall short. However, once we have a fertile learning space we can expand our model and allow the recipient to refine it to successfully complete the transfer of information. Stories are tools for thinking. When we use word pictures and facilitate a discovery process to close the gap between the model and the desired construct being transferred we are engaged in using stories as tools for thinking.

Organizational Practices for the Interaction Ring

Communications can be so stiff in organizations. Efficiency rules and stories are deemed as inappropriate. We do not make the time to work with stories. I’ve already argued that stories are the most efficient way of storing, retrieving, and conveying information. Since story hearing requires active participation on the part of the listener, stories are the most profoundly social form of communication.

In one of my workshops I had a Director of Engineering. He was an extraordinarily bright individual, fair minded and even in his approach to all things. However, he struggled with how to invest time in the people around him. When a project called for it he would gladly work with whoever needed his guidance but as a general rule he preferred the solitary peace of his unperturbed work environment. Throughout the workshop I kept pushing him to see the value and long-term speed of a sinuous path between two points. In other words I was challenging him to discover that sometimes engaging in inefficient behaviors such as mutual storytelling sows seeds for future benefits. He could see my point intellectually but I could tell he was struggling with its application. So I gave him a homework assignment. I instructed him to come in the next day with three or more stories that he was instructed to weave together into a story collage. The next morning he came in very excited. He shared with me how he came up with three stories while he was running. Upon examination he was surprised to realize that the stories were not personal. In fact, he further realized that he had a habit of never using personal stories. Next he sat down and started thinking about some key personal stories and before long he had a string of them. The class was amazed when he sat in front of the group and began his web of stories with an explanation of the instructions I had given him the day before and the series of events leading up to his discovery of his personal stories. That was just the tip of the iceberg. His series of stories was rich, engaging, and full of insights. When he was done he sat back and smiled. Nodding his head he said, “Now I understand what you mean by a sinuous path being the shortest distance between two points.” He experienced the value of selecting and telling stories and realized they would not get in the way of him being more efficient. I also set him up to experience the model and I have the added pleasure of sharing his actions with you to reinforce my assertions.

Leaders need to promote telling stories, modeling behaviors to generate stories, and verbal models by practicing these competencies. We are not talking about the use of these competencies during only all-hands-on meetings or other large events. These competencies need to be seen all the time in every type of interaction. For less verbally oriented employees, written communications provide just as much of an opportunity to leverage the competencies of the Interaction Ring as any other. Individuals do not need to carry the burden of coming up with effective stories or models all on their own. This means these stories can be discovered in a collaborative process. People can work with one another to turn an idea into a compelling story or model. Until it becomes second nature, story facilitators can be used to help organizations develop repeatable processes for leveraging the competencies in the Interaction Ring. These processes should be woven into a wide range of organizational activities. As a facilitator I might prompt someone to support the introduction of a new idea by telling a story or providing a model. Clear command of an idea is demonstrated by the use of either one of these.

Selecting stories is a central part of an organization’s’ knowledge management efforts. What stories are chosen to become a part of the formal institutional memory? Contrary to what many assume, these stories are better selected by employees rather than its leaders. Certain stories will naturally rise to the surface. Stories like how the organization started, what some of the early days were like, etc… The stories with the greatest impact will come from the memories of individuals both inside and outside of the organization. These are all the hidden gems. If leaders encourage people to remember stories and carry them forward there will be less pressure on them to broadcast the perfect story. In this sense, organizations can support the development of all the competencies in the Interaction Ring by providing employees with ample opportunities to share stories.


The competencies in the Interaction Ring are the most visible but the least important. The Process Ring and Core are the foundation. Selecting stories depends upon a rich index of stories that can only be gained through reflection, synthesis, and all of the listening competencies in the Core. We looked at some ideas on how to determine what kind of story to select. Telling stories was shown to be less concerned with execution and more concerned with being sensitive to expanding and collapsing the amount of detail in a story, eliciting stories from others, and telling stories in an interactive manner. We concluded our tour of the Interaction Ring by looking at the different ways we can use models.

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