Sunday, August 23, 2009

Want to Lead? Try Telling a Story

As a wee one, sometimes I would lie in bed and keep myself awake thinking of scenarios I didn't have the answers to, trying to wrap my mind around some concept that was pretty grandiose and pretty difficult to make any real sense of. Like, "what if there was no earth and no planets and no stars and no moon or sun - what would space look like? Just black that goes on forever?" Interestingly, I didn't end up working for NASA...

I guess I haven't stopped this quest to philosophize the amorphous because lately, I've been trying to wrap my head around how the government, the behemoth that it is, communicates change within and to the public and motivates groups or even the masses to take part. In essence, how do leaders within the government or any organization effectively lead?

Along the way of this genre of pondering, I came across this HBR article by Stew Friedman, Professor of Management at Wharton - "How a 2-minute Story Helps you Lead." At large, it discusses how "leaders gain trust and teach people what's important to them by telling stories." It explains that a good leadership story has the "power to engage hearts and minds" and has these 6 essential elements.

1. Draws on your real past and lessons you've learned from it.
2. Resonates emotionally with your audience because it's relevant to them.
3. Inspires your audience because it's fueled by your passion.
4. Shows the struggle between your goal and the obstacles you faced in pursuing it.
5. Illustrates with a vivid example.
6. Teaches an important lesson.

This article reminded me of a book I read a few years ago called "Squirrel, Inc" by Stephen Denning. Maybe akin to delivering a message through the likes of Fraz Kafka's dung beetle in Metamorphosis or George Orwell's pigs, the book is a look at leadership through storytelling. In short, a bunch of squirrels work for a mythical company (no surprise there hopefully) that provides nut burying services. Squirrel, Inc. is having problems because humans are digging up their nuts and more than 50% are lost. The company wants to change its vision to a nut storing business but this has to be communicated within and this poses problems. The book outlines how the squirrels "learn the fine art of change through storytelling in their quest to overcome obstacles, generate enthusiasm, and team-work, share knowledge, and ultimately lead their company into a new era of success and significance."

This idea of leading through storytelling seems to have a compelling truth to it. In our "breakneck speed" society today, "attention is one of the most valuable modern resources." Going back to my childhood tendencies to wrap my mind around amorphous concepts, how do leaders, as Stephen Denning puts it: Persuade people to change? Get people working together? Share knowledge? Tame the grapevine? Communicate who they are? Transit values? Lead people into the future?

Maybe storytelling, and to tailor to our twittering and jittering society today, storytelling in 2-minutes - is something worth trying...

"Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories." Roger C. Shank, cognitive scientist

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nerdism Gone Wild

This morning I read a recent blog post by Casey Coleman, CIO of GSA, called "Innovation Happens." She poses the questions: Have you ever wondered how and when innovation happens? Can managers demand it? Can we put it in our project plans? Can we just re-prioritize it when we get too busy? Is innovation, much like creativity, neither intentional or something we can turn on and off? Does it just happen?

In her blog she references the classic "Google way" in which engineers are granted "20-percent time" to work on projects related to the company but of personal interest. As she notes: "20 percent time is so successful that about half of Google's new product launches originate from what engineers create during their 20-percent time" including Gmail and Google News.

While 20-percent time works for Google, what factors make it a success? Google naturally attracts motivated, curious people and has an open working environment with a substantial infrastructure with technical support - is this type of general culture/environment a prerequisite for success to the degree they have experienced? Certainly, if you are working with a very talented individual and give them some open time to "do their thing" you might get a product of genius - but is this entirely an exception and not any rule that can be replicated to some degree outside of a place like Google?

How about within the government? If Steve Ressler can create Govloop using a Ning platform in his spare time, what would happen if this was implemented even on a small level within agency offices? Does it have to happen after hours? Is it already happening (during the day in an organized way)?

Perhaps this is best answered in Casey Coleman's blog closing: "there's solid evidence that innovation happens when employees have time and opportunity to investigate projects beyond their core duties. That does not mean that managers have lost control, or that employees are not working on behalf of the organization. Not all organizations recognize 20 percent time in their ops plan, but all organizations can create an environment that encourages how and when innovation happens."