In a recent article in online magazine CIO & Leader Chris Potts argues that technology has come so far that CIOs need to start to take the lead and help businesses move beyond the antiquated structures of yesterday. He says that CIOs need to tell a story of how the business could be, how it should be. He says that CIOs are uniquely equipped with the technological mindset to tell the story of the business of the future.
In recent tweet I was harsh on Chris but in hindsight I believe I need to be more brutal. The world does not go round for a lack of dreams. Businesses are not short on vision. What is lacking is execution. Projects do not fail for want of strategic intent, they fail for want of expert systems engineering and expertise in engineering systems. This means that an enterprise doesn’t only need good technical expertise in their horizontal functions but they need expertise in the methodology which carries that knowledge as it passes through the market verticals. This is to say that it is fine to be a good project manager but can you manage the project from market analysis through to business development? Can you manage the project through the architecture? Through to contract close out?
None of this relies on telling stories. These is deep technical expertise. Storytelling shouldn’t be ignored. One of my all-time favourite authors, Larry Prusak, is a huge believer in storytelling as a means for engagement and building up a common picture of knowledge. A sort of inherited reference point for change. As important as storytelling is, it is becoming a fad and a distraction for executives. By focusing on storytelling they are ignoring the real complexity hidden in projects.
Corporate storytelling is developing a huge following and it’s not just for CIOs. Larry Prusak loves it, Patrick Lencioni has elevated it into a fine art and everyone seems to be getting the storytelling bug. Stories are great because they help people from disparate backgrounds develop a common understanding of a problem or vision – one that sticks. Storytelling has the power to corral even the most difficult of us and motivate us to play our part in the corporate journey.
Executives love stories because they require almost no detail, no plan, no roles and responsibilities and no changes in remuneration. Done well, they can convince people into delivering more for less pay and when they don’t stories will shame those same underpaid workers into delivering the goods. What’s not to like about storytelling?
At large UK outsourcing establishment there was an underperforming account in the Midlands. Legend has it that the CEO of the local authority berated the account manager with the legendary phrase: I’ll buy more IT when you can solve teenage pregnancy!” The account manager duly skulked into the corner and got on about his job of providing outsourced IT services. What should he have done? He should have used that story to develop truly value adding services which would have (i) increased the profitability of the account, (ii) built trust between him and the CEO, and (iii) possibly helped try and solve the actual problem.
He didn’t, so I did. I went to India and spoke to our outsourcing partners. I tried to engineer an end-to-end process whereby we could harness the incredible intellectual latency of our outsourcing partners, Genpact and Patni, to develop an integrated process for analysing local authority data then identify and target girls at risk for tailored social services. In this way we could break the socially debilitating cycle of early teenage pregnancy whilst pushing account revenue into the stratosphere. We needed to do this in a way that enabled us to retain the confidence of our customers as well as created buy-in from internal management. So, we made sure the data security was right and that the project was aligned to the new corporate strategy of a greater push into outsourcing the middle-office.
I told the story. I told it again and again but I used it to tease out the detail of the development process, the customer engagement process, the revenue model and the customer benefits. Because, for every executive who smiled at the heart-warming vision there were 3 contrary developers, engineers and other middle managers who tried to shoot me down with the detail. My story explained the engineering process. My story was the glue which pulled all the systems engineering together and that is how I believe enterprise storytelling can help organisations.