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Telling Tales The Corporate Way
Jaya Smitha Menon
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
The stories need not start with ‘once upon a time’, but they can dramatically improve the odds and culminate into a happy ending. The age old practice of storytelling has redefined its scope and has a larger audience now, especially in the corporate world. In the corporate world ruled by analysis and figures, storytelling is increasingly getting accepted as an effective tool in achieving management goals. “When it comes to igniting the minds, analysis will not be as effective as anecdotes,” say Srinivasan Kumar, General Manager, Amazon. In the times of stiff competition, the corporate survival would require leadership to inspire people to act in unfamiliar situations, often in unwelcome manners. Neither the ever growing balance sheet figures nor the powerpoint slides packed with vision statements will be able to spark action in people with energy and enthusiasm.

Kumar remembers an interesting incident on storytelling. When his team was implementing an important product, the team was worried about the risk and had a tinge of pessimism and diffidence. To help motivate the team in the right direction, he narrated a real story about his friend who escaped from Vietnam in a wooden boat. He survived in South China Sea for 14 days without any food or water or high tech navigation tools before they reached land safe. This story was a perfect example to help his team understand the meaning of risk and how you mitigate it. There’s risk in everything we do but Kumar believes that the team needs to understand the importance of determination, perseverance, and optimism. “Philosophy may be boring. But when you relate it to practical life it resonates with people and motivate them”, explains Kumar.

The award winning story A Peacock in the Land of Penguins is a good example to illustrate the power of storytelling. The story is today used by most corporates to effectively address the diversity issues and to encourage an inclusive work culture. In the story when Perry the Peacock and his exotic feathered friends arrive in the homogenous Land of Penguins they have trouble fitting in, despite their talent and intelligence. However, when Perry and his friends save the island from an attacking pack of wolves, the penguins realize that in their ever-changing world, all birds would have to appreciate each other’s skills and contributions. The story highlights the importance of appreciating those whose backgrounds or personalities are different from our own. Learn to recognize the strengths inherent in a diverse work group and see the dangers that lies in seeking conformity.

Many a time, in a session, all the participants know what is being talked about, but from their own perspective. In order to deliver the key concept and add the punch required to drive the idea, stories are employed. “Anecdotes can be of various types depending upon the circumstances and the audience,” says Anshul Sharma, Project Manager, Samsung. True incidents stemming from past experiences are used more often, he adds. He narrates his experience while working on new technology. His team was working on a new audio compression technology named spectral band replication. It was an entirely new technology and researchers were just getting familiar with the concepts. Hence they were a bit apprehensive about going forward with the work. When he researched about the history of this technology, he learned that the original inventor of the technology Lars Liljeryd was a person who used to design hearing aid equipments and over a period of time he had discovered a unique way to compress audio information in around half the bandwidth of that used in the existing compression systems. The inventor of the technology was a dedicated audiophile who lives in a houseboat in Sweden and has an astonishing range of diverse interests. “I told this story to the team so that it could inspire them to think creatively and expand their technical bandwidth without conforming to limitations,” says Sharma. Upon the impact, some people in his team got really interested in this domain and even today continue with their research in the domain, claims Sharma.

Apart from all this, stories can be an effective tool in transmitting values within the organization. History of the company, past experiences, and experiments in the company and other parables can ensure that the audience understands where the company stands and also how things are done in the company. Stories can be effective in articulating and focusing a vision. It makes information more tangible and memorable. Stories are now used as a medium of communication, both internally within an organization and externally to customers, investors, and others. Increasingly, many companies are realizing the potential of stories as a market research tool, for communicating important institutional knowledge about effective business practices and adapting to innovation. Stories provide a tool for conceptualizing and identifying challenges and opportunities.

Kapil Kanbarkar, Engineering Manager at Razor Sight employs the story telling technique to build a high performance team. As his team embarks on a novel project or entering a crucial phase of delivery, he motivates them with customer stories. “Customer stories can contain customer experience , like narrate how a crucial phase was successfully completed earlier,” says Kanbarkar. This helps them clearly understand the gravity of the situation and work proactively to tide over the difficult phase. “But stories should be honest and truthful to have the desired effect,” says Kanbarkar. “It is also important to tell the right story at the right time,” he explains. Even stories from epics and puranas are cited by leaders to connect to a broad base of people in an easy manner. Speaking in a truly Indian context, we don’t have to go into Vedas to enlighten ourselves, whereas turn with ease to Puranas for inspiration.

Those ‘once upon a time’ stories from our grandmothers which we used to hear as children during bedtime and in leisure often capture our imagination and we are lulled to sleep with the characters looming large in our head and hearts. We never know when and how the values get ingrained in us. But the narrative delight offered by the new era of storyteller in the corporates motivates us to act and achieve results.

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