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Why They Play. And So Do You.

December 5, 2017
Corbin Smith  a writer from Vancouver, Washington, the host of the Take It Or Break It podcast, who is described in his logline as ‘a handsome young man of note,’ posted an article yesterday on Deadspin, entitled What I Learned at Phil Knight’s Big Basketball Party. It’s good sportswriting. Good writing, period. Viciously skeptical, profoundly aware and insightful, and at the same time confrontational and questioning, questioning, questioning–Smith gets at the physical and metaphorical guts of the game and people who play it, on the court and off. His writing whips you back in forth in time, and fills its lanes with observations, comparisons, human and mythic characters, and dimensions of the game that elevate sport to sacrament. To sacred quest. And who am I–Hoosier born, with a genetically coded desire to see the ball go through the basket–to dispute that notion? I have excerpted sections of the piece here, having to do with why players play, even those who sit on the bench, and never get into the game. What I would like you to see in these excerpts is the relationship Smith describes between a game and the stories it produces. Specifically, that the game does not have a fixed, pre-determined shape or purpose, it is a container whose shape is determined by the experiences, individual expressions of purpose, and stories it holds. Highlights are mine. I have to confess something, here: I am an NBA writer and NBA enthusiast, and a lot of times the appeal of college basketball is honestly a little lost on me. They’re just so much, like, worse at basketball, and also it’s just weird that they don’t make any money. But watching PSU square off with Duke in the Memorial Coliseum on PK80 Day One very briefly turned me into a believer. Because, here’s the thing: these players are all worse at basketball, for sure. Even the most talented ones are impossibly raw and not even remotely in control of their basketball idiom, yet. But what I had discounted, or maybe not considered, was that the fact that they’re worse doesn’t always make the game worse. Sometimes dealing with these limited and fucked-up skill sets can free basketball from standard tactics. Lately, I’ve been watching and fretting over the NBA becoming more and more uniform at its highest levels of competition—so much pick and roll, so many three pointers. College basketball, where you can’t quite trust anyone to do anything correctly, will never have this problem. And so it was that PSU, a Big Sky squad with no realistic hope of toppling Duke, basically went full gonzo, throwing out three guard lineups that spaced the floor, and pressing nonstop, basically daring Duke to beat them with Normal Basketball. Eventually, Duke opted out, went to a 2-3 zone, and sat around while PSU increasingly found themselves unable to get penetration and watched their small lead wilt into the sea… …Stanford looked logy and discouraged and suffused with dread over the coming year of conference play. PSU, on the

Thank you, Jeremi

December 5, 2017
He will be the first to tell you he’s ‘not going anywhere,’ so let me be the first to tell you that he is. We are losing Jeremi Karnell, the co-founder of bigSTORY as a partner in the company. He is taking a job with a Boston-based start up  that’s as close to a lock as a start-up can get, and their odds got even better now that they have him on their team. He may not be going anywhere, but we will miss him. Will miss the fabo collabos and adventures in Singapore and Milan and Marina del Rey. Will miss the work weeks at his family’s beautiful home Spicewood, Texas, on the part of Willie Nelson’s ranch Willie had to sell to the IRS for back taxes but then got to buy back for a dollar so he came out smelling like a yellow rose, in a deal only Willie Nelson could do. It is a home that comes with stories, and with neighbors who drop by after dinner and bring their guitar and sing by pool as we drink great wine and gaze out onto the moonlit Pedernales River down in the valley. How can we not miss that? We’ll miss the laughs we had on the regular, the agility of our collaborations, and the exceptional work we turned out together over the past two years for our clients. He says he’s not going anywhere, but his aesthetic and talent will be focused on another company’s clients now, and we will miss them. Jeremi brought a sophisticated, compelling signature to everything he touched, and it became our look, our signature, our first visual identity. He may not be going anywhere, but we are going to lose access to his bulldogs, Chloé and Mickey, and we’ll miss them because nothing is more grounded than two bulldogs in a room. It’s like two cops in a bar full of perps. Shit settles down in a hurry with two bulldogs in a room. Our shit isn’t going to settle down half as fast without Chloé and Mickey to settle it. We are losing him at the same time he’s getting back into competitive dancing after 10 years. Coincidence? Who cares? What we care about is that we’ll miss being able to point at his new dance videos on YouTube and say, That dude, the one doing the drop that would snap your spine or mine? — works with bigSTORY. I mean, we might still say it, but with much less cred. And yet, despite the sads we have about him leaving, what we will miss with his going is only a fraction of what he has given us by being part of our lives and our work for the past two years. His legacy is lasting here, and our door will always be open to him and his family and his bulldogs. Because all doors open for bulldogs. Here’s to great success in the new gig, J! Dance on, brother!

The Physics of Fern

August 31, 2017
My mother, Fern, turned 90 years old on Saturday, August 19. My brothers and sisters and I threw a party that day back in Ireland, Indiana, near the farm where we grew up, in a community center that used to be our grade school cafeteria. I think our mother is in her prime today. She is as active as ever. Beautiful as we’ve ever seen her. Her mind as active. It was a very happy birthday party. 200 people of all ages came from all over the U.S. to attend, including five of us from California. The local parish priest from ten years ago drove 70 miles so he could be there for 45 minutes. Her singing group, the Singing Seniors, performed three numbers, with Fern joining for two of them. No babies cried. There was a lot of laughter. Nobody made a snide remark, or expressed any kind of unhappiness or dissatisfaction. About anything. Everyone was extra-kind. Extra affectionate. Even people I know to be in physical pain were smiling that day. Nothing could deny us our happiness. I wish I could say how Fern’s love does its work in the world. Could come up with a formula or insight into how, having experienced an event as drenched in love as her birthday party, we walk on air for weeks. How time becomes timeless. How the nature of light itself changes so that everything we see and touch, and every other human being we encounter, is cast in the glow of that event. I wish I knew the physics of Fern, so that I could understand how love opens doors we didn’t even know existed, and how, when we walk through those doors, what we have been looking for and dreaming about can be sitting right there, smack in our path, like props and effects in a magic act a we had no idea we were capable of performing. I wish I could explain it, but I cannot. What I can tell you about the physics of Fern is that she has been a kind, and generous and loving person for every heartbeat of her 90 years, and on the day of her Birthday Party, and in the days leading up to it, we felt drawn to her and her story in wave after wave of emotion that carried us unquestioningly back to her, to be with her on her special day. It was effortless. Every decision was easy. All our priorities were in proper order. We all felt its lift. It was as if, in celebrating Fern’s Birthday, we were all getting to revisit the best parts of our own lives. I believe that her name, and the idea that ferns grow in fractal patterns is a meaningful coincidence. The two are somehow related, though I have no idea what that relationship is. All I know is that I see patterns emerge from previous patterns in my mother’s life. I see meaning in every connection. Her handwriting and

Total Eclipse of the Story

August 30, 2017
You know how the astronomers said not to look at the eclipse with our naked eyes, or we’d go blind? That’s the way I feel a lot of times about how managers look at data. They stare at it so hard they go blind. If the eclipse itself is all that’s in your frame of reference, your data isn’t worth much, because everyone has that same shot. There’s nothing particularly unique about it, you’re adding nothing new to the narrative, and your data quickly becomes a footnote to history, diminishing in relevance and value with each passing day. Imagine, by comparison, that you’re a six-year-old looking at the eclipse with your fellow Explorer Scouts. The eclipse is part of a story–a context for your data–that can last a lifetime. Over time, the value-creating context for data is story.  Check this narrative about how energy traders mis-played power demand during the eclipse.   I know zero about power grid management. Naureen S. Malik’s report does, however, fit a pattern we see in many organizations, communities and business sectors: An over-reliance by managers on data, in and of itself, to ‘make the call.’ Data is a subset of stories; and stories, not data, are how human beings see and experience the world. Parents don’t describe their children as statistics.  No car lover confines his or her love to cubic inches. The story of the eclipse is what caught everyone’s fancy, and got us motivated and moving. Not the data. The data is part of the story. It’s the rest of the story, the lived story, that includes emotions and intentions, that the traders missed.*  Was the eclipse a ‘distraction to the market,’ as one trader claims in Malik’s piece? No, it was the market. *Per the piece, Alphabet, via its Nest app, claims to have read and load-balanced energy demand in real time, in a private-public collaboration with the State of California. If true, well played, Nest and Cali. Well played.  

The Overproducers

July 29, 2017
I first know Kina as our receptionist. One day my friend, Nina, tells me Kina was The Next Big Thing at Dreamworks Music. It was a huge deal when they signed her, she says. What happened? I ask Nina [about Kina]. Nina shrugs. I know what she means. Dreamworks Music folded and Kina’s our receptionist. End of story. Later that day, I find Kina’s music on YouTube — the song that earned her a following and brought on the Dreamworks deal — Girl From The Gutter.Wow! How strong and certain her vibe, her voice. How defiant she is of any authority but her own. She transcends her setting by shining her light. She is a star! And here she is, sitting here in our midst like like some switchboard Cinderella. You know Kina?! gushes my friend, Stephen, an actor from New York, when I ask him if he’s heard Girl From The Gutter. Girl is the queen of it all! he proclaims. I thought you were the queen of it all, I say. I was, he says, until Kina came along. Then it was ovah! When I see Kina for real, in the light of her calling, we begin visiting at the office, talking shop. She gives me a demo of the songs she recorded for Dreamworks Music. I play them while driving. As I listen, I get sad, then a little pissed off. I hear what happened. The mix. It’s a crime. Buries her powerful voice like it’s a third chair flugelhorn. Like it’s a treasure Dreamworks doesn’t want dug up. They took what was distinctive about Kina’s voice and filtered, honed, equalized, compressed and polished it — until the magic got produced right on out of it. Death by a thousand hugs. David Geffen and Dreamworks Music overproduced Kina, and, ironically, they probably did it out of care and concern. It wasn’t the sole source of their demise as a music label, but chronic overproducing, which included a logo designed by Roy Lichtenstein, and a super-swank, overpriced redwood-heavy office in that well-known home to scrappy start-ups, Beverly Hills, was surely a factor. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Tech. Money. Sex. Furniture. Food. Drugs. Candy. Jewelry. Cats. Design Elements. Overindulgence is almost always bad form, no matter what the medium. Just because you have tools in the shed, doesn’t mean you pull all of them out to do a job. Overproducing Kina’s album cost Dreamworks its investment, and sent her sideways in her music career [though I don’t think anything will ever stop her]. An artist friend who designs movie posters for a living tells me that one piece of key poster art can have over 300 layers in it. 300 layers of what? I didn’t have to ask. I could tell by his tone: Random Opinions Research Says Justifications For My Position Shiny Objects Second Thoughts Redundant and Redundant Additions Respect Mah Authoritah And ultimately, where both audiences and content creators are concerned– Layer upon layer of Who Gives a Shit. Lots of ways to get to 300 layers.

Flag Flap

June 29, 2017
Storytelling Twists Dept: The Washington Post ran a story this week about how a celebration of diversity in Rockville, MD, in prosperous, multi-cultured Montgomery County, did not go as city officials planned. City officials decided to festoon their streets with flags representing the native countries of the city’s immigrant population, alongside American flags. Even the best-intentioned stories can produce shitty outcomes. Iraqi war Veterans in Rockville are disturbed. Iraqi-Americans are confused. Vietnamese-Americans are traumatized. And Rockville’s getting negative press. Probably the last thing they expected when they designed the campaign. There are two identifiable flaws, probably more lurking, in the design of Rockville’s flag game — what we call a ‘story engine’: Rockville city officials apparently didn’t give enough equity to the people in the community in the design of the game; They dropped some of the most potent meta language there is [flags] into story fields that are charged with painful histories many citizens of Montgomery County would like to forget. These are fundamental mistakes in organizational storytelling that we see all the time. In our experience, they can usually be remedied, or at least outcomes improved, with better designs for a group’s storytelling process. When more people can participate in the telling of a story, more people will buy into and benefit from how the story turns out.

There Must Be Dragons

June 5, 2017
If you’re in a business communication role, it can be tempting to insist that your story is all good news. That is, after all, how we are trained as organizational storytellers. We know of companies that are forbidden by their leadership from bringing up issues that threaten the very existence of the business. Imagine a Sears-Roebuck where no one could utter the word ‘e-commerce,’ or an Environmental Protection Agency where the phrase ‘climate change’ is banned. We are so conditioned to describe a Panglossian view of the world that even companies with stellar reputations will lose billions because no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Messengers get killed on the regular. Everybody knows. As storytellers, it is our job to include bad news in the narratives we design. Why? Because we cannot tell a compelling story without ‘dragons’ — the perils and threats that stand between our characters and their objectives. Adding to the dilemma: the bigger the threat, the more engaging our story. Imagine a superhero film where the heroes win every single battle on their way to the climactic encounter. There’d be no tension. No twists or turns. It’d be a super-yawner of a story. Unless there are setbacks along our heroes’ path, unless there are tests and failures, their story isn’t as engaging to our audience as it otherwise might be. Yet in most companies, a storyteller would have to be looney to include dragons in the organizational narrative. How do you resolve this duality? You acknowledge your dragons in order to slay them. There are two realms where storytellers can slay dragons: When sharing stories inside the organization, your story’s dragons are communication-related business dysfunctions. These fall into six categories:  Strategies & Tactics, Tools & Training, Work Environment, Organization, Collaboration, Delivery. Each type of dysfunction has hidden costs associated with it. These hidden costs can be analyzed and rooted out, and the cost savings converted into revenue-producing activities. For example, a million dollars in cost savings, applied to Sales & Marketing at your current ROI, can return many times the cost savings in additional revenue. Rather than losing a million dollars, or saving a million dollars, you are making ten. When sharing stories with the marketplace, your story’s dragons are your customers’ pain points and market disruptions. While this is probably an easier framing to understand–who doesn’t want their brand to be in the business of making customers’ lives better and turning disruptions into growth opportunities?–it does require one significant adjustment on the part of the brand storyteller: Your story is not your own. It belongs to the customer. You are not authoring the story, you are participating in it in timely and systematic ways. The two takeaways: By identifying and eliminating communication dysfunctions you are not saving the company money you are making the company money. By honoring your customers’ stories instead of imposing your brand’s narrative on them, you’re earning their trust, their loyalty, and ultimately their advocacy. To persuade, participate.        

Know Your Game, Dog

May 9, 2017
You know what the traditional entertainment business is? It’s a poker game with six seats at the table. Five of the seats are taken, and one of the seats is always open. That seat is reserved for you, as long as you have money. Doesn’t matter what stakes you want to play for — whether you’re a multi-national cash machine like Coca-Cola, or an optometrist from Minneapolis who has ten grand to blow that’ll give you and your husband something to talk about at dinner parties for the next couple of years — there’s a game for you, with one seat open at the table. The five other seats at your table will be taken by, let’s say, an Actor, a Producer, an Agent, a Director, and a Distributor. Who they are and what roles they’re playing do not matter as much as the fact that they are all playing for the House. Each of them, individually, can afford to lose more hands than they win, because together they win a lot more hands than you. Eventually they end up with all your money. And that’s the game. The House Always Wins. This is the first rule of the entertainment business. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun and adventurous game if you can afford to play it. Or if you want to have a career playing for the House. Just know the game mechanics of what you’re getting into before you take a seat at the table, that’s all. Same as with any risk you take. The producer/writer Hal Barwood and I once got into a conversation over dinner in London about what to tell young folks from our small hometowns in New Hampshire and Indiana, respectively, who would basically show up on our doorsteps looking for help getting into the industry. “I tell them to give up and go home,” he said. “The ones that have a real chance of making it aren’t going to listen to you, they’re going to do it anyway, and the ones who aren’t going to make it will cut their losses early and go home, and I’ve saved them two or three years of disappointment and heartache.” So take Hal Barwood’s advice when it comes to your dreams. Give up. Go home. And to those of you who stay anyway, welcome. The only dreams that matter are those that come to life. Just know the game you’re getting into. Like this — Edgar Bronfman Jr., heir to the Seagrams fortune, a genuine lover of music and theater, lost control of his family’s company, and today that company is no more — outcomes of a game Universal and Warner Bros. seduced him into playing from the mid 1990s to the early 2000s. Know why wealthy entrepreneurs like the Simons real estate developers of Indianapolis [MGM, Love at First Bite] and big names like Coca Cola [Columbia Pictures] and Vivendi [Universal, with Bronfman, Jr.] thr0w up their hands and storm out of the game after playing it for a few years, and if you mention it around them

Preparing for a Post-Robot World

April 28, 2017
In the machine age, companies were built like machines, because machines are what most companies built and serviced. What companies build and service today are communities and customers. Let me clarify. That’s what the people in companies build and service. The machines [with increasing intensity] build and service one another. Despite that huge shift, and the fast-changing relationship between humans and machines, the machined organization is still the dominant human paradigm. Job titles and corresponding roles are as replaceable as circuit boards. The best job candidates are said to be those who can best “fill a role,” as if the role’s depth and dimensions have already been sized and machined. Consistent and predictable performance at scale is what these machined organizations are designed to produce. That’s not the problem. To stay in business, any company needs consistent and predictable performance, and to grow, it needs to scale. The problem is that machined orgs are not designed to produce anything else. To build communities and serve customers, companies operate in networks, which, unlike a well-built machine, are volatile and unpredictable. Under these uncertain conditions, machined orgs glitch out, and miss opportunities that happen too fast for them to respond. In extreme conditions, they beat up passengers and kill giant rabbits on airplanes, or allow grifters to loot the organization. The behaviors needed to deal with volatile and unpredictable conditions require improvisation and adaptability. In other words, the unpredictability of one’s behaviors must match the unpredictable conditions in which one operates. To a machined organization, these behaviors will look like disobedience or insubordination. Grounds for termination. These same behaviors, in a fluid, networked organization, are the money. They open avenues to creativity, innovation and market disruption. What maintains coherence in a company that incorporates, encourages, maybe even celebrates disruptive behaviors? Stories and the practice of organizational storytelling. Not just a story or a vision. The day-to-day act of building stories together. Organizational storytelling keeps employees engaged. Brands lively. And turns customers into communities. It’s the act of storytelling that accepts and celebrates the square peg that won’t fit the round hole. It’s stories that rise on the energy generated by unexpected events and random acts of inspiration. That remind us where we began, where we’re going, and why. That tell us who we are to one another, and who we are to our machines. That stir us to action. That move markets. That do what robots cannot. And that, as we prepare for a post-robot world, is our opportunity.

Beware The Linear Story

April 18, 2017
There’s a lot of recent buzz about storytelling in business. As a company in the storytelling business, we see it everywhere. Tweets galore. LinkedIn links aplenty. This is a caution to anyone investing in storytelling for your organization or community: Don’t limit yourself to linear story models. As storytellers who come out of Disney, who love the myth and lore of Hollywood, and appreciate and honor L.A., where we have an office, as The Storytelling Capital of the World, we say this on good authority, and as kindly as we can — don’t get locked into the Hollywood model of storytelling! It’s good as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. Here’s the reason why: In Hollywood, a story is the product you’re selling. People pay money for the story. Whether it’s a film, a TV show, or theater, the story is the basis of the transaction, and that story most likely is linear. It has a beginning, middle and end. It has a fixed duration. Half hour. Hour. 90 minutes. 107 minutes. Three Acts. Two Acts and an Intermission. Seven Acts With Commercials Between. Eleven Minutes of a VR Immersion. Where 99% of you are concerned, you are not selling stories. You can’t mimic the Pixar or Disney storytelling process and expect similar outcomes when their product is stories and yours is not. It’s like water skiing behind a swimming horse. Your objective and the horse’s process are mis-matched. So then if the story isn’t a product, what is it? What work do stories do? What is the return on your investment? To most organizations and communities, stories are a means of generating and describing value to a customer or citizen audience. Don’t get us wrong, linear stories still have their uses. They are valuable outputs, and we love them in all their forms. The inputs, however, are multi-linear. They come from infinite sources, and they come in non-fixed durations. They consist of many beginnings, middles and ends [to storylines]. They are heavy on data that lacks sufficient context to be understood and acted on. To have a linear storytelling mindset in a networked environment, with all the complexity it entails, is like trying to eat a plate of spaghetti with a straw. Can it be done? Probably, but your food will be cold and everyone will have moved on by the time you’re finished. And the meatballs? Fuggedaboudit. To turn all these inputs into productive realities, your storytelling process must be designed to address and resolve the complexities of the inputs. Big Data needs Big Story to be fully appreciated, like grapes need wine. Here, in Three Acts, is a [linear] story about why organizational storytelling must be non-linear: ACT ONE: YOU MUST BEGIN WITHOUT KNOWING THE END Organizations and communities begin every day, every quarter, every fiscal year, at multiple stages of multiple storylines. Those storylines will be tested and affected, and their tempo changed, by inputs of data and other communication throughout the the time frame. If you begin a day fixated on

Saving the Gangsta Garden

April 10, 2017
No one has picked up on the bigSTORY concepts faster than Ron Finley, known around the world as The Gangsta Gardener, a leader in the urban gardening and food justice movements. We put one of our concepts, ‘Levels of Meaning,’ to good use in his rehearsals and story analysis for his 2013 TED Talk, which has been viewed at least 3 million times. As his neighbor and friend, we can tell you that his garden is an oasis in our community–a place where people come from near and far to get their hands dirty, and, as he says, “change the community by changing the composition of the soil.” We’ve staged bigSTORY workshops in the abandoned swimming pool that serves as his plant nursery. We’ve had lots of business meetings in his garden. Ron was a guest speaker at our 2015 bigSTORY Conference. He helped us plant the box gardens in our backyard, as he has helped with hundreds of other gardens in our part of L.A. Ron and his assistant, Ashleigh Carter, have been working around the clock to save the Gangsta Garden from a land speculator called Strategic Acquisitions. Ron had to raise half a million dollars in less than a month to avoid eviction. With help from friends like Bette Midler, John Foraker the CEO of Annie’s Homegrown, Nell Newman, the CEO of Newman’s Own, and companies like General Mills–all of whom donated five- and six-figure sums– along with thousands of smaller donations, he did it! Ron raised the half a mil. It is in the hands of the lawyers now, and we hope Strategic Acquisitions recognizes that what Ron has built cannot be replaced by condos, and honors the commitment they made earlier to let him buy back the property. Last night, the CBS Evening News ran a story about Ron and the Gangsta Garden. bigSTORY gets a bit of play in it, too. The graffiti in the background of the interview the CBS reporter, Mireya Villareal, did with Ron was painted by his son, Del, who’s an amazing artist, as part of a bigSTORY workshop. It depicts what we call story formations. The formation Ron used to raise the half a million dollars is an ‘Assemblage’ narrative, whose structure resembles, fittingly enough, a rhizome plant, putting down shoots and roots, and making underground connections, until a field is filled. In this, the spring of a superbloom in the California deserts, it is completely in sync with nature to see Ron’s garden blooming anew in the food desert of South Central L.A.  

Fig Escapes Newton! Read All About It!

March 29, 2017
We’d known and worked with Andrew Strolin before. An early adopter of bigSTORY’s process, he is a fast learner, a nimble marketer and savvy about technology. In 2012, I re-connected with him in a Reno coffee shop to hear about his new job as Director of Marketing for Nature’s Bakery, a Reno-based company with plans to challenge one of the most venerable cookies on the supermarket shelf, the one and only Nabisco Fig Newton. ‘Check it out,’ he said, handing me a box of Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars. I liked the form factor and the branding. A box in muted greens and brown, with a simple logo and type. Inside the box, eight sealed packages containing two bars each, each double the size and weight of your standard Fig Newton. Strolin was excited. This wasn’t necessarily news to us. Excitement is his natural state. The guy can get wound up about re-stringing his guitar (which he plays like the pro he once was). Still, there was something intriguing about a new home for the forgotten fig, which had been locked up with sugar for generations inside Nabisco’s cookie dough prison. Freeing the forgotten fig–it was a good premise. We sampled the goods. Without all that sugar, the fig speaks for itself. The cookie part is pleasing to touch and taste. Not cakey or overly sweet. More substantial and textured, and healthier tasting, with a flavor that complements the fig. Two unique sensations become a third. And isn’t that what good stories are all about? In the beginning, Nature’s Bakery had almost zero distribution, none at all with big retailers, and very little marketing presence in Nevada or anywhere else. Strolin hustled samples out of his ‘office,’ which was his Subaru Outback. If there was a ski competition, a PTA meeting, a running or cycling event anywhere in northern Nevada, he and a small band of hired samplers hit it. His objective, he explained at the time, was to get a Nature’s Bakery Fig Bar “into every backpack and lunchbox in the state.” “We really started at the ground level,” explains the company’s founder, Dave Marson. “We went into local communities and started to build our brand from the bottom — taking it to 5K races, local sporting events. Our first customers were local moms, athletes, sports enthusiasts and healthy-lifestyle bloggers. We were looking for any person looking to be healthier.” Today, nearly five years later, guided by Marson’s vision, Nature’s Bakery is killing the cookie game, and Andrew Strolin’s energy and his skill as a brand storyteller have been a big part of it. He and his team have earned their way into the big retail networks, including Wal-mart, Costco, CVS, 7-11, Whole Foods. They’ve gone from one or two poorly placed shelf facings in their early distribution days to six or eight facings at eye level—prime shelf space—in most of their stores. The brand is current sold in 22 countries. As a privately-owned company, Nature’s Bakery doesn’t release its numbers, and Strolin will only say publicly

Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice

March 10, 2017
With very few exceptions, raising your game to an exceptional level of performance takes practice. It’s a well-worn bromide, as old as the punchline of the joke that goes– “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice!” Great performance artists practice. They rehearse weeks for a performance that will be timed in minutes. There’s no longer an off-season for professional athletes. Year-round practice is part of the job. Surgeons practice on cadavers and other specimens before operating on living humans. We can cite lots of examples of practice paying off in other fields, yet we see that, frequently, organizational storytellers slough off the practice of practicing. They (and their managers) can be so focused on performance that all they do is perform. Imagine dancers only dancing in front of an audience. Or athletes who only want to play competitive games. This can result in what we’d call good ‘street skills’ — engaging solo dancers or flashy playground players — but the fundamentals required to build a repertory of dancers or a team of players are missing, because fundamentals come to a performer in practice, where the elements of the game can be isolated, repeated, perfected, and built into a coherent performance involving multiple players in multiple contexts. The lack of practice when it comes to organizational storytelling isn’t necessarily related to a lack of resources. Training Magazine reported that U.S. companies spent $70.6 billion on training products and services in 2015.  Our hunch is that the bulk of that money is spent on performance. Learning how to use an app. Following a proscribed methodology. Implementing new systems. Our hunch is that the bulk of the training goes toward performance, and not the fundamentals needed to achieve those outcomes. Why is practice important for storytellers, and how is it different from performance? Practice offers space for exploration. In practice, only one path out of many has to pay off. This isn’t true in performance, where every every path or storyline has to pay off. Practice is a place where mistakes can be made. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not growing, because mistakes are essential for learning, and learning is the essence of growth. This is different from performance, where even one mistake can be disastrous. Practice is where our uniqueness as individuals informs the group. It is the space where ‘who I am’ evolves into ‘who we are, together.’ And–it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a dance company or a software company– ‘who we are, together’ is the essence of the brand’s performance. Practice is where we are inefficient. As the author, Kevin Kelly, says in a TED Talk, “Humans are experts at inefficiency. All art, discovery, innovation, creation, are inherently inefficient. Efficiency is for robots, not us.” Increasingly, where business is concerned, performance will be the domain of robots, and practice will be where humans excel. Practice is where we can objectively critique our performance before our audience does. It’s where we spot the weaknesses in our game that can be rectified before we take the stage. Why invite outside criticism before we have critiqued ourselves? So how, in a hyper-competitive business environment, with such heavy emphasis on performance, can

Storytelling Is The New Software

February 27, 2017
We’ve spent years studying with  Organizational Theorists, Rhetoricians, Consultants, Software Developers, Students, Architects, Fractal Theorists, Quantum Physicists, Shamans, Witches, Alchemists, Artists, Enterprise Architects, Dowsers, Gamers, Tribal Elders, Barbershop Proprietors, Performance Artists, Improvisers, Disney Animators, String Theorists, Clowns, Farmers, Cowboys, Bartenders and Storytellers working in every organizational ilk, from start-ups to Fortune 100s, in order to develop new ways of telling and sharing stories. Here’s what it all comes down to, especially now:  We are given choices in our personal and working lives between ‘Power With’ relationships, and ‘Power Over’ relationships  ‘Power With’ relationships thrive on diversity. They know that sharing power is not the same thing as giving it up, that leadership can manifest itself in many different roles, and that much about good leadership is invisible. Power Over relationships call for micro-managing, and demand constant attention. This often means creating a crisis just so a leader can lead in the most visible possible way, by playing the Hero. Power Over leaders play zero-sum games. Every win must be another’s loss. In fact, the ‘wins’ themselves are often defined solely by the fact that someone has else has ‘lost.’ Often, there’s no appreciable progress, no actual gain, instead, it’s that someone else is spiraling down faster than you are that matters to Power Over leaders. It’s all about that leverage. Power Over leaders are on an endless quest for a Dominant Narrative. This means relentless repetitive, monolithic, one-note messaging, and, because the game is win/lose, it also means quieting voices telling any story but the dominant one, and frequent scapegoating of those around you–people falling in and out of favor at a leader’s whim–to set the example of what can happen to any dissenter. And here’s the costly kicker: There’s always only one solution to any problem. No one can afford this approach any more. The test of a Dominant Narrative is how nonsensical–i.e. against the self-interests of those believing in it– it can be and still be believed. ‘Power With’ relationships, by contrast, call on Ensemble Storytelling. This results in leadership in which more voices are heard, resulting in more possibilities, faster, for solutions and productive outcomes. In Ensemble Storytelling, a Situation defines leadership roles, i.e. whose voices will be heard, and whose presence will be made visible, when, in a given scenario. ‘Power With’ leaders use Ensemble Storytelling as a basis for collaborative problem solving, iterative testing and optimization, and the fast pivoting required for complex, fast-evolving networks. Storytelling is the new Software

The Physics of You

February 17, 2017
There’s a good piece running in Scientific American demonstrating that ‘Storytelling is Surprisingly Arithmetic.’ (I’m geeking on how they use the word ‘arithmetic’ as an adjective!) Research done at the U. of Vermont on 1,300 works of fiction claims to have defined the math in ‘Great Literature.’ It’s not very different from what Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in a lecture years ago. Here’s why this Scientific American article is important to you: Your science is different. Chances are, you’re not in the business of writing fiction. You are in a different line of work, and it requires a different type of science. The science your story requires is more like physics than math. Your story can result in a movie or literature, but it can’t result only in a movie or literature. Your story is a play that must be enacted continuously and consistently in the present, in a thousand different locations, by ten thousand actors. It must connect poetry and product, science and magic, experiences and shares, conversations and customers. Across platforms, media, formats and time frames. To be effective with its audience, your story has to adapt every day to unexpected events and opportunities, and for that reason, it has to be more improvised than scripted. Your story is more like distributed software development than a book written by one author. More like jazz than classical music. Your story can be fiction, but only if it includes a roadmap for making the fiction come true. Pixar’s storytelling process is good for producing Pixar movies. You need a storytelling process that distinguishes you, and what you do. If you want the phenomena (products + stories) you produce to be unique, the apparatuses (processes) you use to produce them must be equally unique. That’s the physics of you.    

Every Chief Storyteller Needs a Tribe

January 18, 2017
Ray Wang (@raywang0), the CEO of Constellation Research , and Vala Afshar (@valaafshar), Chief Digital Evangelist for Salesforce.com, invited me to be on their first @DisrupTVShow webcast of the 2017, alongside my fellow storytellers, Rich Kylburg (@rlkylburg), the CMO of Arrow Electronics, and writer Heather Clancy (@greentechlady). We were doubly honored within 24 hours after the webcast when Vala, who’s got to be the most prolific online commenter I’ve ever known–when does dude sleep???–posted excerpts of our interview to the HuffPost, and titled it Why Every Business Needs a Chief Storyteller. He is 100% on the money. Every Business Does Need a Chief Storyteller. Here’s a reveal: Every Business Has One (And Maybe More) It’s a role most often played by a CEO. The job is telling stories that connect vision to action in a multitude of contexts. It is lonely, precarious high-wire work. A Chief Storyteller needs all the help he or she can get. Chiefs need tribes. The idea that an organization is, itself, a tribe of storytellers, that every employee is somehow responsible for moving the story forward, is more an ideal or an attitude than a reality. In reality, a lot of people are happy to show up at a place where they can share some type of camaraderie, get a paycheck that supports their lifestyle, and have health care for themselves and their family.  End of story. A storytelling tribe lives outside the boundaries of traditional job titles and the silos of a company’s divisions, and its practices extend beyond the messaging and persuading of classic marketing. Such tribes concern themselves with the experience of participating in a worthwhile story. What doors does your organization’s story open, and what will I discover when I walk through them? In this framework, a transaction is a beat in a story, not the end of a story. Members of a storytelling tribe can play a wide variety of roles. They are subject matter experts. Bringers of good news. Community managers. Publishers. Data miners. Enterprise Architects. Educators. Mapmakers. Gamifiers. Influencers. Connectors. Analysts. Animators. Documentarians. Producers. Developers. Synthesizers. Sniffers and Diviners. Intuitives and Empaths. Describers of the Future. Who’s in your storytelling tribe? Definitely a question worth answering going into 2017.  

Finding the Uplift at 2:30 AM in a Hotel Room in Milwaukee

November 29, 2016
I’m lying awake in a hotel room in Milwaukee at 2:30 AM, wondering why someone hasn’t called us back who’d promised to call us back weeks ago about a significant piece of business. Even as I run scenarios in my mind, my noisy, nosey mind, I know I’m barking up a fruitless tree. Who knows why these things happen? It could be any one of a hundred reasons, or any combination of them. It is a silly thing to be lying awake, wondering about. I don’t usually have this kind of trouble sleeping. And yet, I want to take personal responsibility for it. I want to feel that there’s something I can do to swing the energy back our way, and quiet my busy mind. At 2:30 in the morning. In Milwaukee. I keep returning to an image I posted here with the previous blog, an image I’d photoshopped myself, that depicts a man as an Ooompa Loompa from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I sit up in bed. Gobsmacked. That was mean! A cheapshot. I have no trouble justifying it to most of the people in our network, and in fact, many people with whom I shared the post responded favorably to it. It doesn’t erase the meanness of the image, an image plugging me into the same muddy, bottom-trolling narrative I bemoan in the post. So this is a mea culpa. I feel now that it was wrong, and so I got up and pulled the picture down. My middle-of-the-night awareness is that the optimal response to meanness is never more meanness. That’s the direction of a down spiral. Ultimately, anyone engaged in that kind of one-downsmanship narrative will get bogged down in it, made lesser by it, intentions diminished, ability to engage with the world whittled into an ever-narrower aperture. The more intolerance and negativity we put into the world, the more it comes back to haunt us. Just like I’m haunted in the middle of this sleepless night. My response to injustice, to what I perceive as wrongful, must be kindness. That’s the direction of an up spiral. A kind response doesn’t have to be direct. We live in non-linear world, after all. What goes out in one direction probably won’t come back from that same direction. Just as we are as likely, upon getting hurt, to hurt the next person who comes along, we can, upon being hurt, show kindness to the next person to come along. The universe is always listening. The kindness just has to go out into the world. There are infinite ways to do it. And infinite ways it can come back to us. And so my choice, at 2:30 in the morning in a hotel room in Milwaukee, has been to take down the mean photo, and replace it with one that depicts a happy story from my college days. Do I think it will prompt a call from the person who promised to call us back? Probably not. Too linear. Too quid pro quo. Do I think it will help me get to sleep? A

The Storyteller Won

November 11, 2016
When I was in college, we elected a King of the student body. Twice. Robert “King” Kersten, today a surgeon from Cincinnati, ran, at first, as a joke. As a parody of student government. He promised students an ‘enlightened oligarchy consisting of me and my close friends.’ His platform included planks such as an ‘A-B grading system for all classes,’ and ‘recruitment of Yanamamo Indians from Brazil.’  He campaigned in a Roman Catholic priest’s vestments and a cardboard Burger King crown. His running mate (because the election bylaws said you had to have one) was a cat (because nothing in the bylaws said a running mate had to be a student or a human) named UnCandidate, that he trained to sit on his shoulder. Before long, Kersten had practically the entire student body engaged in the narrative. Students would dress in black suits, black shirts, white ties, sunglasses and fedoras, carry violin cases and escort King Kersten around campus and into sporting events. A student named Fish Brennan, who had a severe hunchback condition, would sweep the path ahead of him with a broom. His election headquarters was the second commode of the fourth floor bathroom of Walsh Hall. He delivered campaign speeches as a disembodied voice coming from a burning wastebasket. Thousands of students would gather to hear the burning wastebasket speak. It was brilliant theater. Profound storytelling. It was a sensation.  After getting elected, King Kersten was a figurehead. He had little interest in student government, and abdicated his powers to a friend of his named Dennis Etienne, known as H-Man, who was what I’d call Kersten’s head writer. In his senior year, students elected Kersten their King a second time even though he didn’t campaign and his name wasn’t on the ballot, and he again relinquished his role to H-Man. “The only thing I want out of this,” Kersten once told me, “is for the Beach Boys to perform on campus every year.” That happened. Both years Kersten was King, the Beach Boys performed at our school.  It might have begun as a joke, and now it’s not a joke. And it has consequences far beyond where the Beach Boys will play a concert, or the policy on keggers. Our electoral system just spit out a President who campaigned to be king, on the most divisive, corrosive narrative I’ve ever heard in U.S. national politics. This hangs in my pain closet alongside the Kennedy and King assassinations, and 9/11. It suffocates me with my deepest-held belief–that storytelling is how we create the world. Storytelling, I am reminded by this electoral embarrassment, can destroy as many worlds as it creates. Bring about as many bleak futures as joyous ones. Extinguish as much light as it ignites. When a person is suffocating, breathing is what you’d call a vital concern. I am focusing on my breath. On music and tempo and timing, which tie to the breath. On prayer, which ties to the breath and clears the mind. I’m in mad conversations with my sons and others about what it would take for California to secede, and could we bring Oregon and Washington

Stories of the Standing Rock Sioux

September 10, 2016
The Internet of Things, you say? As if it is a new concept. As if, until it’s enabled by silicon circuitry, it doesn’t exist. As if, until we have answered the question How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? angels haven’t danced anywhere. As if the circuitry, and the Internet of Things, did not exist before cars drove themselves, chairs recognized our butts, and robots fetched us our food. But it has existed, you see. And for a long time. The Internet of Things has been around since before any of us were born. Indigenous people have been reading the code in rivers, lakes, coyotes and snakes for millennia. Finding meaning in objects and animals through the stories they hold, the intelligence they store, and their relationships to one another. And only much, much later do money, technology and manufacturing catch up with this concept and claim it in their name, as The Internet of Things. What about Things already coded with thousands of years of stories?  The rivers, lakes, coyotes and snakes? Is this not what money, technology and manufacturing are trying to do? Tell stories that make connections to and between Things? If this is so, then why ignore, and in our ignorance, dishonor, the code that’s already written? The stories already there. This, for me, helps frame the current dispute in North Dakota between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Energy Transfer Partners and their security forces. ETP are working with the Army Corps of Engineers to install an oil pipeline that will, say the Sioux, destroy or threaten sacred lands and natural resources precious to the tribe. What the dispute comes down to, I believe, is a clash between two different approaches to storytelling. One linear. One a spiral. On one hand, ETP and the Corps have a linear story for a linear process. Get the crude oil from a well to a refinery. A to B to C. Beginning, middle, end. Three act structure, in which the Standing Rock Sioux and the pipeline standoff are the Act Two complication.  The straighter the line, the more economical, the better. In this approach, there is no story but this story. No outcome but the outcome that has been scripted. For Native Americans, stories unfold in a spiral. The Earth is never not telling its story, and its story is one of infinite beginnings, middles and ends. To indigenous people, there is no such thing as one story, only a timeless flow of stories told by the Earth and its beings. A storyteller’s role is to reveal the stories already there. Already coded in the rivers, lakes, coyotes and snakes. In the pipeliners’ process, and in a Western mind, stories are tied to time.  A group in power imposes a scripted narrative (We’re building the pipeline, come hell or high water!) on a population (You’re what?! Says who?), and from that point on, the present value of the story diminishes with time, and the cost of its maintenance grows. Because time has a money value, there is urgency about when the story will conclude. Western stories move on clock time. It also means that in the Western mind, a lie told at one point in time will become less significant

A Magical Day

August 9, 2016
Early in my career, as as a senior staff publicist for Disney, there were two words I avoided in any press material or script I wrote: Magic and Wizard. I wasn’t in a position to make policy about such things, and I’d have been an idiot to try to erase that language from Disney’s vocabulary, but I felt that they were overused words by the Disney brand, borderline cliches, so I did my bit to dial down their use. Magic is not a commodity. When everything is magic, nothing is magic. It cannot be slapped on the mundane like a coat of paint, with a guarantee that something wonderful will happen. Magic is a precious rarity. A transformative experience. A bolt out of the blue. It defies logic and our expectations. It cannot be explained, promised or predicted. Wizards? Some of my best friends are movie visual effects artists, and nothing personal, but I’m not going to call you a wizard in your studio bio. Same with Disney’s Imagineers. You are Imagineers. It’s enough. Oh there’s a commercial market for wizardry. The Harry Potter narrative proves it. Regardless, a black stick bought in a magic shop for $29.95 it does not make every Tamika, Dexter and Harley a wizard. Wizardry cannot be bought, and true wizards do not readily reveal themselves. For the most part, we do not see them wizarding. The effects they produce are often our only evidence of their existence. And even the effects can be hard to see. All this is to say I do not make the claim lightly when I tell you that Tuesday, August 2, 2016, was a magical day. We wizarded. We brought the magic. Here’s an account: My work day began in Malibu, in a meeting held at the Creative Visions Foundation, upstairs from the American Apparel showroom on Pacific Coast Highway. The meeting was with the producer for a prominent TV journalist. I was there to pitch her a story idea for the Clinton presidential campaign, as part of community storytelling program colleagues in D.C. are proposing to Priorities USA, the Clinton campaign’s Super PAC. I had invited my friend, Hilary (with one L), a former Fox motion picture executive who lives nearby and follows politics avidly, to join us. My pitch did not fly. The producer was kind about it, and listened, but it was not a story her show could commit to. She did, though, give me a helpful note on how to improve the pitch. As our going-nowhere meeting was winding down, the charismatic founder of Creative Visions, Kathy Eldon, dropped by to say hi. She told Hilary and me that The Journey is the Destination, a feature film about her son, Dan, a journalist who’d been killed by a mob in Somalia at the age of 23, and her inspiration for starting Creative Visions, had just been selected to have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in six weeks. I bragged to Kathy that Hilary had been head of International Publicity at Fox for fifteen years. Seventeen, Hilary corrected me. Kathy’s eyes got wide. We need you! she told Hilary. When Hilary learned more about the film and about Dan Eldon’s story, she told us she has been looking for two

Homeless Hawks and Pistol Pete

May 10, 2016
Two weeks ago, a pair of Swainson’s Hawks began building a nest in a tree on the campus of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces NM. Swainson’s Hawks are magnificent migrators, traveling in flocks that can number in the thousands from their homes in Western North America to spend winters in Argentina. A trip that can be as long as 14,000 miles. They go big AND they go home, it’s not an either-or situation for them. These birds aren’t fooling around. The hawks’ habitats have been deconstructed by humans over the past century, with more and more pastures and grasslands –both in North America and Argentina–getting converted into row crops grown for Big Ag companies. Pesticides and tilled fields take Swainson’s Hawks, who feed on rodents, rabbits, insects and snakes, out of the equation. Neighborhoods the hawks have occupied for millennia are getting agri-fied. They can’t be happy about it. So here come this pair of Swainson’s Hawks into New Mexico, where it says Land of Enchantment on the license plates. Imagine it. They met, got hitched and had their honeymoon in Argentina, and after flying 7,000 miles back north, spotted these lush green quadrangles of grass in an otherwise arid landscape. The New Mexico State campus. Peeled off from the flock. Picked a tree. Began building their dream home. What do NMSU’s leaders do in response? If your guess is that they make the hawks feel welcome, sit down, no soup for you. The correct answer is that, fearing litigation if a student should 1) by some remote chance ever look up from a mobile device while 2) walking near the tree where the hawks are nesting, and 3) a hawk talons a student’s eyeballs out of their sockets like they’re a couple of quail eggs, the university 4) orders a maintenance crew to chainsaw the limb holding the hawks’ nest, and 5) destroy the nest. What do the hawks do in response? They move to another tree, and begin building another nest. The university gouges the next nest out of its tree, too. Dr. David Boje (BO-jee), who holds the Wells Fargo endowed chair in the NMSU School of Business, is a Regent’s Scholar, the school’s highest faculty status, and chairs the university’s Sustainability committee, gets it on video. Boje has been updating the story on his Facebook page. I spoke with him last week (disclosure: he’s an Advisor to bigSTORY). We talked about alternatives to destroying the nests–creating mobile free zones where the hawks are nesting; giving out NMSU umbrellas and hard hats; an online awareness program a la Cornell, which tracks hundreds of birds nesting on its Ithaca, NY, campus; moving the language in the story away from ‘severing words’ like ‘chainsaw,’ ‘litigation,’ danger, and into more constructive language; and changing the name of the school mascot from Pistol Pete to Hawks. This last idea, sports fan that I am, caught my attention. “Pistol Pete?” I say. “You mean like Pistol Pete Maravich, the basketball player? That’s New Mexico State’s school mascot?” “Yes,” says Boje. “It used to be the Roadrunners, but seven or eight years ago, they changed it to Pistol Pete. It’s named after a

Lucky Me

April 19, 2016
People get lucky in different ways. Lucky in games of chance. Lucky in love. Inheritances. Genetics. Business. I’ve always had luck in having outstanding teachers. People whose enthusiasm for learning is contagious. It’s been a celebration of education, and my good fortune is that I’ve been invited to the party. My teachers have always connected what they teach to the world waiting outside the classroom. They don’t take themselves so seriously as to think they have all the answers, and they’ve been wise and perceptive enough to know what the questions are. And isn’t that what a person really needs to know? What questions are worth answering? Naturally enough, my parents were my first teachers. It’s impossible to describe all the ways they educated my brothers, sisters and me. It’s an endless list, endless because it’s still revealing itself every day. My mother, Fern Bonifer, who grew up on a dairy farm, taught us how to milk a cow. By hand. Two different ways. There was The Squeeze technique. And then when your hand begins cramping up from squeezing, you can move to The Strip technique. It has been awhile since I’ve had to milk a cow. By hand. Two different ways. And it’s been awhile since I curled myself up into a ball and rolled down a grassy hill–another thing my mother taught us how to do. Everything else my mother taught us does still come into play nearly every day. Her love of music. Her patience. Her curiosity. Her generosity. Her effortless attention to detail when she’s sewing, or baking or quilting, or writing in her elegant handwriting, or when she’s learning anything new, which she is always doing. See, she taught us to be lifelong learners. She taught us her fearlessness. Her friendliness. Her love of language, and of games. Her strength and her grace in the face of adversity. Her sense of humor, which I’d describe as letting yourself be tickled by life. All of it. Every day. Those of you lucky enough to know Fern Bonifer know what I’m talking about. You’ve been tickled too.   Miss Linda Rohleder, my sixth grade teacher, wanted great things for us.  She was always getting us involved in activities that had to do with what was happening in the world, that tied the textbook to the times in which we were living: Astronauts, Vietnam, the Optimist Club Speech Contest, the County Spelling Bee, The Bookmobile, Food, Fashion, Charles Dickens, Theater, College, and a hundred other ideas about the world that cracked open doors we didn’t even know where there. She could make her sister’s concrete block dorm room in Terre Haute, Indiana, sound like a suite at the Ritz Carlton. She revered learning. From her, I learned how to learn. And that any idea in a textbook is only as good as our ability to see it enacted in the world. Bill Bassler was my high school Latin teacher for three years. It’s hard to believe anyone could find three years worth of learning in Latin. Mr. Bassler did. He showed us how there’s life in everything if you know where to look, even in

Heineken’s Story Engine

April 8, 2016
This is a great example of how a game can work as a story engine for a brand. And why it’s important to distinguish between the objective of a process and its outcomes. In 2013, Heineken, ostensibly to shake up the same old tedious job interview process, documented a playful, highly original process for interviewing and selecting a new Summer Intern for its Sponsorship team. Designed by Heineken’s brand team in collaboration with Publicis in Milan, the job interview process was, structurally, a game. A hybrid of game show, hidden camera commercial, reality TV, and improv comedy, it put unwitting job candidates through four ‘tests,’ each test narrowing the original field of 1,734 candidates, with employees in Heineken’s marketing division invited to vote online for one of three finalists. The winner got hired in a surprise announcement made before the kick-off of the Champions League Final between Juventus and Chelsea, in front of 60,000 people. This interview game, which Heineken called ‘The Candidate,’ has clear guidelines (four ‘tests’), a clear objective (identify the best candidate) and defined roles (Unsuspecting Interviewee, Dopey Interviewer, Voters, Suicidal Jumper, et al). Its environments were visually clear. All that gave it what we call ERGOTM structure. In a word, it was ‘playable.’ That made it easy for audiences to understand, easy for them to imagine themselves competing in the game themselves. If the ROI on the game were to be measured solely in terms of achieving its objective,’ it would be ridiculously inefficient. You can hear your VP of Talent Development questioning everything about it: Cameras? Hidden cameras? Why do we need the entire marketing department to vote on an intern hire? Isn’t that a huge waste of everyone’s time? Actors? Firefighters? Two Champions League teams? All to hire an Intern? Get out of my office! GOMO! Viewed as a way of achieving a business objective, this interview process is a ridiculous waste of resources. But Heineken wasn’t investing in the game to achieve the objective of hiring an intern, it was investing in it to generate positive outcomes. The objective of a game is its point of focus. Its outcomes define its value over time.  We don’t play baseball solely to win at baseball. We play it to be on a team of friends who wear cool uniforms. Or to escape poverty in The Dominican. Or to earn respect. Or one of a million other reasons. The results of a chess game will be long forgotten, but the pattern recognition skills we learn by playing chess can last a lifetime. The objective of finding gold in California has been long abandoned but the Gold Rush outcome of denim jeans is still going strong. As Viola Spolin, the godmother of improv theater in America said, “Going fishing is not only to catch the fish, it is to make contact, with the sun, the wind, the water, ourselves” Achieving the objective, i.e. by defeating an opponent or reaching a goal, is only one out of infinitely many possible positive outcomes of a productive game. The

Mouse Mojo

March 31, 2016
In the early 1980s, there was a lot of talk about The Walt Disney Company being on its last legs. Most of this talk came from inside the company. Managers who’d been there 20 years or more were convinced that the Disney organization was going to fall apart on their Mickey Mouse watch. Nearly every day there was a new rumor inside the company about its imminent demise. Six Flags was going to buy the theme parks. Irwin ‘The Liquidator’ Jacobs was mounting a takeover with the intention of breaking up the company. The demographic had aged. The Black Cauldron would be the last animated film, ever. The films couldn’t make a profit because there weren’t enough people in the ‘Disney demo.’ Don Bluth raided the Animation division of many of its most talented young animators and started his own studio. The live action films had turned into an industry joke, making films like The Unidentified Flying Oddball, Condorman and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. The Wonderful World of Disney was no longer must-see on Sunday night TV. The company’s founding brothers and guiding lights, Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney, had been gone for over a decade. The organizational narrative of Disney seemed to many of its employees to be in a death spiral. The story turned around, of course, a long time ago. Today they’re huge and omnipresent–flush with cash and channel value, stocked with big-libraried brands like Marvel and Star Wars, a new theme park opening this summer in Shanghai, animated features by Disney and Pixar setting record after box office record, the Disney Channel a tween dream factory–the Mouse owns. What’s not ludicrous today is that a company would find itsself in a down-spiral like Disney did in 1984. Happens all the time. The phenomenon is huge and omnipresent. A classic managerial analysis will naturally point to Manager-Heroes as being responsible for the turn in Disney’s story. And it’s true, there were definitely heroic characters in the new management lineup that took over in the mid 1980s, when the turnaround began. People like Michael (“If it’s not growing it’s dying”) Eisner, Frank (“Climb every mountain”) Wells and Jeffrey (“If you don’t come in to work on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday”) Katzenberg got things moving in a big way. It went from a studio where no one took the stairs to a studio where people ran stairs two at a time. Those guys re-animated a sleeping giant. What surprised those guys was how big the sleeping giant was. How much unrequited love was already in the marketplace, and in young Hollywood, too, for the Disney brand. How talented the upcoming Disney artists were. How ready for Prime Time they were. So many Geniuses in Waiting. Here’s the big learning from this story: It’s their surprise at what they discovered inside the Disney organization. The Eisner-Wells-Katzenberg team, able managers though they were, tapped into something that was already there. Something was already there. In place. Waiting for its time to come.  Your focus as an organizational storyteller is on what’s already there but is currently hidden–maybe even hidden by an outlook as downbeat as Disney’s was back in the early 1980s. There’s no formula for these turns in the organizational narrative. Each scenario is different, and calls for

The Next Act for HR

March 29, 2016
[NOTE: For happy reasons, we have postponed the next bigSTORY conference until late summer, 2016. Better for all, we promise.] The Next Act for HR is the theme of our first 2016 conference. It will be a half-day experience in downtown Los Angeles that will look at the evolving organization, and HR’s changing role in it. The centerpiece of the event will be an immersive theater performance. Attendees will find themselves in the executive offices of a company having a day unlike any day it has ever had before. The future of the company is at stake. Vision clashes with history. Personal stories are in conflict with operations. Audience members will choose which employees to follow as the day unfolds. We’ll provide the audience with a set of criteria for evaluating the company’s and its employees’ performance as theater, a living story. The roles of HR, Organizational Development and Organizational Effectiveness professionals are undergoing a radical transformation due to technologies that automate tasks once performed by human beings. With big change comes big opportunities. But only if we move with the change. Our May 23 event will offer ways of moving with the change. New KPIs for business performance. New ways of viewing organizational effectiveness as a living, co-created story. Fresh takes on how employees can advocate for brands, and turn cost savings into revenue-generating activities. A possible direction for the future of human beings in an increasingly mechanized workplace. Please join us!        
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