Storytelling and Culture

“Storytelling is the primary exchange of the face-to-face and crucial to the fabrication of collective identity.”
— Michael Sorkin, Twenty Minutes in Manhattan

There is a hilarious mock Powerpoint deck that was released on the 20th anniversary of Powerpoint. I don’t know who the original author of it was, but it’s available here and I recommend you take a look at it. It takes Cinderella, a beloved fairy tale, and lays out the story as to how it would be done in a presentation deck. I will never not be amused by things like “spectrum of decency”, “vanity = ?”, and the mentions of socioeconomic groupings (i.e., C2DE).

The real point of that deck was to show that not all things belong in PowerPoint. A story gains its power from the potentially “extraneous” details and minutia and meandering. It gains its power by its imagery, its pace, and its structure. The cold, hard facts are just that: cold and hard and factual, but they do not service to capture the heart.

The Water Cooler Matters
How many of us have reached out to a coworker and said: “Let’s go get a coffee.” And as we walked, we talked, and as we talked, we learned – we learned about each others’ rhythms and language. We became vulnerable and open and that allows for the knitting together of something.

It can feel odd to stand at a wall and just talk to someone, hands-free. But, put a cup of water in a hand, a stress ball, a set of linked paper-clips… you get the picture. Try it out yourself and see how it feels. The water cooler matters; make sure one is there, and that the area it exists in is somehow cordoned off to give the illusion of privacy but the value of connectivity.

Building Places Not Just Spaces
Extending that past just the water cooler / refreshment area, how is your office setup? It’s one thing to designate an area as a place to congregate and discuss, but it’s another thing to design an area to encourage that.

This is a big topic so I won’t delve into it here other than to highlight that it’s something that needs to be given careful thought. In Mr. Sorkin’s book, he discusses the economics and politics which led to the creation of “big-plate” architecture for large skyscrapers and comparatively he provided visibility into how neighborhood block associations work and also details regarding the physical size and composition of “the block”. No element was left unexamined, even the seemingly minor, but rather important detail, that the sizing of a “block” came about by determining how far someone could be to be heard “down the block” without additional physical amplification.

It is important to think carefully about those elements when deploying teams and designing office space. How do you want people to be heard? How should spaces be built to allow for personalization and customization at the ground (i.e. the individual person) level? Who sets the clocks on the floor? (I know, it sounds silly, but imagine if your team could work on their own “9-5” how would that work and what would that do?)

Declarations of Independence”
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands…” Despite being a rabid aficionado of Early American Letters, even I must admit some of those things were dry, soulless, and boring bits of writing. The Declaration of Independence is not one of them, nor are any of letters, pamphlets, or articles which helped spur the American Revolution. They have context, depth, and a naked feeling such that if ink could move it would have leapt off the page.

Likewise, sometimes I read corporate values notes and statements, and it’s like watching paint thinner dry. It’s mind-bogglingly boring and too often emotionally disconnected. Now, in the corporate world, we don’t like to be emotive; it gets negative booking. However, the reality is that people do not do things if they do not feel connected to them. No amount of rational argument can spur motivated and sustainable action.

A company I most admire is Palantir and it’s evident in all parts of their website how connected they are with their work and their people. Some snippets:

  • About: “We’re here to help solve the world’s hardest problems.”
  • What We Do: “At the heart of what we do is a desire to connect people with the information they need to achieve extraordinary outcomes.”
  • What We Believe: “Protecting civil liberties. Promoting open software. Surfacing data, not mining it. Our work is inspired by what we believe.”

Compare those bold, direct, and yes, nakedly “emotional” statements to your own organization’s statement of ethics, goals, and values. Which one grabs you more?

Start Telling Stories
All of the above is a nice discussion. Print it out, read it, drop it in the round-file, and forget about it. So, this time, I’m going to give three super-practical and really simple things that each of us can individually do to “start telling stories”:

  1. Find a coworker that sits in your office but you rarely ever talk to in-person (be honest, we’re all guilty of the phone call / conference call connection that stays there). Walk over there and say hello. Ask him or her to coffee – simple as that.
  2. Imbue an object with meaning. At a previous job, I brought in toy cars that I purchased at Duane Reade. They took up residence on my desk, the cube partitions, and eventually other peoples’ desks. When I left that group, the cars stayed. Go buy a toy car (or a rubber ball or some cool magnets) and share. Think of it like kindergarten; this is how you make friends.
  3. This last one is a little harder because it’s a two-parter, but it’s worth it.  Think of one, single reason that you appreciate where you work that has nothing to do with your paycheck, health benefits, or the fact that you must work to feed your family. It could be:
    1. You met your spouse at the company (happens all the time) and your organization, literally, gave you both the opportunity and space to do so.
    2. You get the work on cool problems – it may not be designing the next space shuttle, but you get genuine joy out of solving knotty analytical problems with Excel, SAS, a calculator, and a rubber band
    3. When you’re super-stressed and too busy to get lunch, there is that one coworker who will always drop off a muffin, a sandwich, a soup or even just a cup of tea for you, and it brings it all back in perspective

And now, go tell that someone else about it.

So, folks, do you have any good stories you would like to share? If so, please go ahead and do so; I guarantee it will make your morning.

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