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Isn't it ironic?

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

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!        

Effie Brown Deserves an Oscar

February 28, 2016
So it’s Oscar TM day, the red carpet runs a solid block down Hollywood Boulevard. This evening, the stars will parade past a phalanx of cameras and reporters carrying the story of the Academy Awards all over the world. And people of color are agitated, and people of conscience are riled, because most of those stars are, as they have always been, white folks.  Why does this matter? Because the time has come to include more diverse voices and experiences in the telling of our stories. In the stories of governments, organizations, and communities. Along what our colleague, Jamal Williams, calls ‘the social gradient.’ The whiteness of the stories Hollywood tells is out of alignment with the colors of stories worth telling. The tipping point for me personally came when Matt Damon of all people showed a ridiculous lack of sensitivity during a discussion of race in an episode of HBO’s Project Greenlight. I blogged about it at the time. Damon had always seemed to me about as thoughtful and empathic a person that Hollywood can produce, right up there in Tom Hanksland. Hearing the condescension in his voice and the wrong-headedness of his thinking came as a shock to me, as it did to the project’s producer, Effie Brown.  I’ll acknowledge that maybe Matt saw it as he was saying it, or did it consciously, and let it get approved (and you can be sure he had approval) as a shot that stayed in the show. Maybe he let a casually racist comment pass in service of the big story, to provoke just the conversation we’re having. Maybe he was offering himself up as Clueless White Dude in the story of What Needs Changing in Hollywood. If so, I applaud his deep game. I think the odds are that his comment made it into the final cut because Official Hollywood is basically oblivious to the value of diversity in its storytelling. Damon’s justification to Effie Brown for what amounts to on-camera tokenism, and her Oscar-deserving double-take in response, drives home the point. Diversity is not a matter of equality, of balancing between off-camera and on-camera representation, and feeling okay about it if you’ve cast Morgan Freeman as the Wise Old Man and Angela Bassett as the Oracle in your mega-budget sequel to a story that feeds on white folks’ fears about terrorists, whose profits go mostly into white pockets. It’s a matter of Equity. Diversity gets defined by who has Equity in the outcomes, and just as importantly, by who has Equity in the design of the ‘game.’ Who has a voice in the story’s telling. Who has the right–call it ‘agency’–to comment and amend the script as it gets developed. No, the issue raised by Effie Brown is not one of equality–she, after all, shared equal screen time with Damon and his sidekick, Affleck, on the Greenlight series.  The issue that raised her eyebrow is one of Equity. The challenge Hollywood, as a culture, faces, is waking up to the fact that it’s not playing a zero-sum game. Its challenge is to systemically honor this reality: that diversity in the design of an organizational story creates more opportunities for more people. And more than that: Diversity leads to

“This is Serious” (And Other Insights from Student Storytellers)

February 23, 2016
In a speech to high school counselors at a conference at Wheelock College in Boston this week, bigSTORY co-founder Jeremi Karnell posed this provocative question: How much meaning can we liberate from a student’s narrative? What he said in response: Collaboration is important. Your students are natural collaborators. They’ve grown up in a networked world. They were born connected. It’s when they tell stories together, when their individual narratives connect with one another, that new meaning and artifacts emerge. Play is important. Your students don’t believe in how-to manuals. They learn by playing. The opportunity we have as educators is designing the kinds of learning games this generation of learners wants to play. Listen. The real meaning of a student’s story is hidden. You can’t talk it out of wherever it’s hidden. You have to listen it out. This is serious. Their stories, and what they mean, have serious consequences. Take them seriously. The next two or four years cannot be a vacation from life, knowing there’s a job waiting at the end of it. For most students, those days are over. Celebrate change. What is change but difference over time? Differences are what these students do. They celebrate their differences. As educators, we can join the celebration by celebrating, not only the differences from one student’s story to the next, but also the differences we see in this generation as they come into their own. Jeremi’s audience happened to be high school counselors. The same observations can apply to all of us. They’re great reminders. Serious play in service of the new and emerging stories is where it’s at. Where it’s always been. No generation is more adept at seeing that as an opportunity like the next generation to enter the workforce. Prepared organizations will prosper.

Meta Cowboys

February 23, 2016
Our friend, Lee, who’s a researcher at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda MD, visited us in L.A. last week while she was in town on business. We were socializing one evening when I mentioned that my father was a farmer from Indiana who dreamed of being a cowboy movie star. And Lee said, “My father WAS a cowboy star. He was a singing cowboy in Milwaukee when he was a boy. Jackie Kid Moore was his stage name. “ Lee comes from a family of musical prodigies. When he was a boy, her father would perform in bars in Milwaukee. He was so good, and got so locally famous, that the family loaded all their belongings in a carrying wagon with ‘Jackie Kid Moore’ emblazoned across the back, and drove to Hollywood, to make the Kid a movie star.  He owned a famous Martin guitar, and gave guitar lessons to Gene Autry. Then his voice changed. The Kid was a kid no more. And that was that. The end of his showbiz career. My father, known locally in southern Indiana as ‘Cowboy Bob,’ collected unwanted and broken down horses. We rehabilitated them, and turned our family’s farm into a theme park centered around those cantankerous animals. Clover Leaf Park and Riding Stable, five miles southwest of Ireland, Indiana “Turn left on Highway Sixty Four a mile west of Ireland and follow the signs!” directed the announcer on our WITZ radio spots. It was like a movie in real life. Lee and I bonded like brother and sister on this one fact–that our fathers were both make-believe cowboys. Jackie Kid Moore and Cowboy Bob were kindred spirits. It gave us a whole new level of rapport. Of common ground. A fast connection like this comes about through what we call Meta language. Meta language connects one story to many. Having made our connection, via the Meta language of ‘cowboy dads,’ Lee and I instantly had a thousand new directions to take the conversation. (We chose to talk mainly about cowboy guitars.) What does this mean to your organization’s story? It means that using Meta language can instantly give you and your customers lots to talk about. A carefully crafted metaphor, analogy or symbol makes economical use of language, and gives you a thousand new ways to begin customer conversations, participate in their stories, and transact with them financially.

How Human is Automation?

February 15, 2016
Sarah Brennan, who has a popular HR Technology blog, recently wrote about the state of HR Tech in the wake of a downdraft in the LinkedIn stock price. Around the same time, I began hearing buzz around HR automation, which sounds, to my ear, like an oxymoron, like the work it does is turn humans into automatons. Organizational storytelling can keep that from happening. My history as a storyteller is rooted in Disney. One of the great joys of working at Disney when I started there was watching the legendary Disney animators animate by hand, with pencils, on paper, a practice that was in its last days at that time. Animation was getting automated, like HR is today. It was like working at the buggy factory when the internal combustion engine came along–a huge change in how work got done, and in the skills required of the workers doing it. Today, take away the cartoony accoutrement, and we’d be hard-pressed to tell Disney’s animators’ workspaces from those of its IT developers. This is where the enterprise HR tech solutions don’t do it for me. They flatten work that’s already been flattened onto screens. Consequently, they can be like another coat of paint on organizations already wearing a lot of coats. More splatters of color on start-ups whose operations already look like Jackson Pollack paintings from all the investor input.  On global companies for whom the color of the new coat always a neutral shade, and the idea of Yet Another Enterprise Paint Job dismays their employees and flattens them emotionally. The opportunity we are seeing with HR tech is to dimensionalize it in our workspaces. What do we mean by that? You know how CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) added dimension to the old Disney hand drawn style of animation? Advances in technology made all kinds of new effects possible. Shading, lighting, movement, textures, depth–all these new dimensions made the animation more lively, and engaged audiences as never before. Our opportunity today is to do that, not for Wreck-It-Ralph, but for ourselves. How? The same way the animators do. With storytelling. The different being that ours is not story-as-product like it is for an animation studio, ours is the living story of the organization. The leaders of a storytelling organization use story as a primary sensemaking and guidance system. Storytelling helps them get more value out of data by contextualizing it quickly and intuitively. It adds emotion, meaning and a sense of purpose to the operations of the company and to its customer communication. Story is the beating heart of the organization. One day, there will be a CEO of a successful global company whose workspace will look more like a music studio than what we think of today as an office. Every working day, she will compose and perform 30 minutes of music. Some days it will be a solo performance. Other days it will be in groups that can range in size from two to 200. On occasion, she will deejay, and play mashups of other peoples’ music. Instead of a conference room, she will have a concert room. The workspace will be wired to translate the CEO’s music algorithmically into different functional languages that

Cluetrain, Tracking

February 2, 2016
From The Cluetrain Manifesto, which began steaming up in 1999, and has never been more on track than today: A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter, and getting smarter faster than most companies. These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked. Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do. But learning to speak in a human voice is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are human with lip service about “listening to customers.” They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf. While many such people already work for companies today, most companies ignore their ability to deliver genuine knowledge, opting instead to crank out sterile happytalk that insults the intelligence of markets literally too smart to buy it. However, employees are getting hyperlinked even as markets are. Companies need to listen carefully to both. Mostly, they need to get out of the way so intranetworked employees can converse directly with internetworked markets. Corporate firewalls have kept smart employees in and smart markets out. It’s going to cause real pain to tear those walls down. But the result will be a new kind of conversation. And it will be the most exciting conversation business has ever engaged in.  

Analysis: How Molly Hawkey Won The Bachelor

January 26, 2016
If you’re a fan of the television series, The Bachelor, this is a spoiler alert: Molly Hawkey wins. Molly is an actress and improviser from Los Angeles who edited herself into this season of The Bachelor as a contestant and created a media frenzy last week. All sorts of media networks have been feeding on it. At least we think Molly edited herself into the show. Part of the genius of her game is that she keeps her audience guessing. In fact, she comes comes across in social media as being outraged that folks are claiming she’s not actually on the show. She’s trying to get Ellen DeGeneres to help her ‘set the record straight’ (code for ‘play along’) It’s all meta wonderful. Molly’s game demonstrates a key principle of bigSTORY: There is a relationship between a game and the stories it generates. Molly designed a game. Call it “The Cutaway Contestant.” A series of short videos are skillfully edited using the show’s visual language: the profile, the cutaway shots, the running commentary, the gauzy imagery, the romantic history, the long-stemmed red rose, the fashions, etc. In the process, she makes it possible for us to analyze the The Bachelor in all sorts of ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. She calls ageism into account. And the reality of reality TV. The show’s scriptedness, and the subjective editorial choices by the show’s creators to influence the narrative. In short, we see what we probably wouldn’t have noticed without The Cutaway Contestant game. It creates possibilities, both for Molly and us, that would not exist without it. This isn’t the first game like this Molly has enacted. Last year, she edited herself into a Hollywood Reporter Roundtable of Oscar nominated actresses. The outcomes, for example, 32,000+ views on YouTube, were promising enough for this iteration. The Objective of a game, any game, is different from its Outcomes. Molly’s objective was a local one. Confined to her own network. “My goal was to convince my friends that I was actually on The Bachelor,” she tells us. “Of course, I wanted to get attention from casting directors, too, but as far as why I did it, my motivation was to get my friends to laugh.” This was her Objective. Her point of focus. The Outcomes are something else. They emerge through the enactment of the game. Did Molly know her game would result in a story that went viral? No she did not. Her bet was that it would yield good outcomes. And so it has. The show hasn’t reached its conclusion and she has already won by creating all sorts of outcomes outside the of winning/losing the game on the show. Today, for example, there probably is not a casting director in Hollywood who won’t know who Molly Hawkey is the next time she walks into an audition. It’s an added win for The Bachelor, too. The show is getting bonus tune-ins thanks to her game. Molly is a friend of ours. She caught our attention when she did an impression of a couch at an all-company improv jam at IO West Theater in Hollywood a few years ago. It was the damndest thing. She threw herself into a side plank yoga pose that morphed into a

Artist, Scientist, Believer, Magician

January 6, 2016
Artist. Scientist. Believer. Magician. These are the ‘role modes’* we have to inhabit–individually and organizationally–to produce stories of lasting value. We can move freely between these modes, and they do not have to be played out in any particular order, sequence, or degree of emphasis. We can give them whatever name we want. That’s why they’re role modes, and not roles, period. The important thing is to always know what mode we’re in. At bigSTORY, for example, we expect to spend a lot of time this year in Believer* mode. Here are the modes and descriptions of each. We hope you find them helpful to wherever you are in your own process: As an ARTIST, I am guided by my senses, empowered by my surrender to the universe in all its unfoldings. I am a conduit for its energies. I throw myself into a wave, any wave, and let it toss me around so I can feel its hydraulics, sense the arc of its history, and assay its promise. When a wave comes, I don’t think about where it will carry me, or how. I don’t see a line through it. It is composed of infinite lines, and thinking of a few paltry few lines of my own will give me nowhere near enough information to navigate its ridiculous complexity. Thought is too deliberate for anything happening in the instant of choice, and instants of choice are what waves are made on. For an Artist, every move involves choices, and the most artistic choices are intuitive. When a wave comes, thought is my enemy. My bets are on instinct honed by experience. My relation to the wave is my sole concern. My relation to the wave is my statement about what it feels like to be alive. My art is me living in the wave. An Artist follows no script for a successful journey, foresees no particular ending, or the wave unfurling any one way. Endings are so There, Then, That. Endings are third wheels that get in the way of my intimate relationship with a wave. My work consists of noticing, of being always present to the nowness and newness of a wave so that I can join the party. My art is dance between the beats of a heart quickened by my communion with the wave.  My art lives in the space of all journeys to all destinations, in a place of newly becoming, where all futures, and all histories meet in an ever-present Now. I am moved by waves. Moved by the hand of God, you might say, if you believe in a creator, a prime mover, god or two. And I will agree with you, and tell you that an Artist’s work is revealing what only gods can know. If you follow Jung, you might call the Artist’s work an expression of the collective unconscious. And I will agree with you. No one creates alone. If you are a dancer, I will agree with you that Art is choreography set to the music of the universe, let’s dance. If you’re into quantum mechanics, you might say Art is a superposition of a mechanism producing phenomenological coherence in spacetime. And I will say, I don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about, but I like how you talk, keep talking. I am borne by waves. I am rock nudged by rivers, stalk surging

Buddy Ebsen’s Toolset

October 25, 2015
Buddy Ebsen was, by every measure, a classic character. As a performer, he and his sister had come out of Belleville, IL, with a vaudeville dance act. He’d been cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz until his skin rebelled against the silver facepaint they used to tin him up, and Jack Haley took over the role.  He was Davey Crockett‘s sidekick,  George Russel, in the landmark Disney TV series. He played Jed Clampett, patriarch of The Beverly Hillbillies , which made him the king of television for a time. He was the popular Seventies TV lawyer, Barnaby Jones. He was in his mid-seventies when I hired him to narrate a TV series I was producing. He was an unconventional choice for a narrator, and I took some Disney executive heat over it. The execs had a point. His voice could sound at times like a plane with engine trouble. I loved it, though. It was pure nostalgia for me and my team. We’d grown up on that voice, and the shows Buddy’d starred in. They were cultural touchstones. And here he was, in our midst, just as shambling and aw-shucks, and yes, wise, as we’d imagined. Showing us how to moonwalk one recording session; raconteuring on the history of the Civil War, the next; explaining why he’d never been mugged in yet another, while executing a perfect roundhouse karate kick, his foot a foot above his head when he finished it. This is the story of the first time I met Buddy Ebsen: He arrives for work at our recording studio, where sweatsuits and jeans are the usual dress code, looking like the CEO of Procter & Gamble. Tailored three piece suit. Expensive custom leather attache case. My producing partner, Cardon Walker, greets him, and leads him to the recording bay. I am in the engineering booth. I wave through the glass and say hi over the intercom. He says hello into his mic, sets his attache case on a table next to the mic stand, opens it, takes out his script, and begins running lines with me. He leaves the attache case open facing away from the engineering booth, For some reason, I want to see what else is in Buddy Ebsen’s attache case. Here he is, dressed like a million bucks, like he is on his way to a board meeting or a big court case. What, besides the script, did he bring with him? I leave the booth and go to meet Buddy in person, and to find out what’s in his kit. I enter the recording room through a door to Buddy’s left. The attache case is on the table to his right, facing away from me. Buddy is between me and it. I have to deal with the awestruckness of meeting Jed Clampett himself, faking that I have an idea about how I want him to read his lines, while at the same time maneuvering behind him and at an angle so that I can see what’s in the case. Aha. I pretend I need to adjust his microphone. This  brings me around to the boom side of the mic, next to the table with the case

Matt Damon’s Equity Wavering

September 14, 2015
I haven’t watched Project Greenlight since Season Two, the year of the forgettable Battle of Shaker Heights, and didn’t even know the show still existed much less was in its fourth season after a ten year hiatus, until I happened to land on it last night by dint of  being too lazy to change the channel. The opening episode of Season Four includes a fascinating scene in which Matt Damon lectures a black producer and a room full of white folks on what constitutes diversity on a film project. “…you do it in the casting of the film, you don’t do it in the casting of the show,” he says. Mind you, he’s saying this about a film project in which the only person of color is a black (wait for it) prostitute. It’s such a dumb thing for Damon to say or believe (these are never same things in Hollywood). The producer Effie Brown‘s you’ve got to be effin-kidding-me-look says it all. At issue is an aspect of storytelling that we call equity. It is in important qualitative metric of any big story. We began including it in our story analytics when our friend and colleague, Jamal Williams, called it to our attention, and asked us to consider the difference between equity equality. Equality as a set of rights bestowed upon (or withheld from) a population by its leaders. Here’s what we mean by equity: Equity is…who has a say, inside and outside the organization, in the design and telling of its story. Who tells the story matters. Who designs the story matters more. Examples: The Container Yard, an art and design collective in a converted Los Angeles ice cream factory; Patagonia, where employees and environmental causes are given a stake in the organization’s story.   What Effie Brown, now amplified across social media networks, is saying is that she’s concerned that people of color will not get any equity in the Project Greenlight story. What Effie is saying is that having a woman playing an African American female prostitute be the only person of color with any sway over the story does not constitute equity, it preserves a continuing inequity in Hollywood’s storytelling process. What Effie was too polite and too diplomatic to say in the room is that Damon and Affleck picking a  film geek who looks like he was incubated and raised in a editing bay to direct the film based purely on his technical prowess, without any regard to the cultural connections to the material, is a doofus decision. Matt Damon has always seemed to be a better person than this mansplaining/whitesplaining monologue would suggest, and maybe he’s cagey-manipulative enough to be setting up the audience for a change-of-heart scene in a later episode. And in fact, the whole thing has gotten Project Greenlight and the issue of diversity more attention than if there’d been no issue.  But I’ve found that racism sometimes shows up in surprising places, and that white men like Damon can wear masks of kindly tolerance over their fear of anyone that doesn’t look like their own reflection in the mirror. Damon gets big scores in terms of certain story metrics. As an actor and

How to Measure Your Fire

August 26, 2015
Our friend Paul Pedrazzi (@ppedrazzi) called our attention to this list by Jeff Jordan, Anu Hariharan, Frank Chen and Preethi Kasireddy of Andreeson Horowitz. It is comprised of “16 startup metrics.” The authors write that “good” metrics are “about running the business in a way where founders know how and why certain things are working (or not) … and can address or adjust accordingly.” These metrics are “good” in the context of standardization across AH’s portfolio.  The goodness of any tool is contextual. Here’s a context for the goodness of the AH metrics: Trying to guide a start-up, or any organization for that matter, using only accounting data is like blacksmithing with 16 tools and no fire. What is the fire? The fire–the force that most profoundly shapes the behaviors of  individuals, organizations and markets–is story. As the noted tech investor Chris Sacca says, “Good stories always beat good spreadsheets.” We agree. There’s no need, however, fret about a competition between spreadsheets and stories. It is a question of completeness, wholeness, unity. You can have all the data in the world about elephants, and it will not produce the story of Dumbo, or predict this meme. Until you can complement your elephant data with elephant storytelling,  your understanding of elephants will always be incomplete. Here are 10 key bigSTORY metrics that can help you analyze the fires that will shape your future: QUANTITATIVE Influence – rankings of nodes (big ideas) and influencers (who connect and spread those ideas) in the company’s network Resonance – measures how consistently and deeply the organization’s narrative connects with the story energy already in the marketplace? Sentiment  – latent sentiment analysis compares use of language across different media and over time in order to identify relevant patterns and themes Lift – measures the effectiveness of various games and strategies that generate stories and engage customers / populations Toolsets – an assessment of the completeness of the company’s storytelling tools and lenses; its ability to distinguish between tools that are “present at hand” (licensed and used at the company) and “ready to hand” (needed for a particular task, process or story) QUALITATIVE Equity –  This metric looks at who has a say, inside and outside the organization, in the design and telling of its story. Who tells the story matters. Who designs the story matters more. Formation – analysis of the four forms of “story energy”–linear, cyclical, assemblage and spiral—present in the company’s network. Assemblage and spiral are most desirable because they’re generative. Voice – in how many contexts (i.e. functional languages) can the company fluently express itself? Functional languages are defined by context and lexicon. Examples are politics, entertainment, spirituality, finance, sustainability, etc. Intention – analyzes the relationship between the company’s history (in start-ups, it is the collected histories of employees) and its desired future. Levels of Meaning – rates the organization’s ability to contextualize data using emotional and meta language and expressions in its storytelling. You’ve got the tools. You know how to start fires. And now you know how to control the burn and apply the heat in proper measures. That’s what’s good. 
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