Michael Margolis on story (and business)

What is story? Perhaps more to the point, why story?

This was another item that whipped by on the Twitterstream that I felt needed to be kept somewhere somewhat more permanent – a stream of comments on story and the nature and role of story, by Michael Margolis (@getstoried):

The most powerful #storytelling is nothing less than metaphysics.
You filter, envision, and bend the experience of reality through the stories you consume and create.
Here’s the paradox: stories are NOT truth, yet they’re a portent portal for glimpsing and discerning the truth.
When done right: The more personal and specific the story, the more universal the message and truth.
By comparing the subjective nature of our experiences (stories) can we discover the objective nature of reality (just for a brief moment).
Like an alchemist, your story needs the right elements to transmute lead of life into gold.

Apply this direct to business, and the role of story in business:

  • Story provides the frame and anchor for an organisation’s taxonomy and ontology – its description and definition of meaning.
  • In whatever we do at work and elsewhere, we face Gooch’s Paradox – “thing not only have to be seen to be believed, but also have to be believed to be seen”. Story provides an everyday means to recognise and resolve that paradox.
  • ‘Truth’ is paradoxical: simple notions of ‘true’ versus ‘false’ are often less useful than the subtler notions of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ that we can see through story.
  • Stories often enact the systems-principle of reflexion, the inverse of recursion – that the whole can be seen in the part, just as the part can be seen within the whole.
  • In the same way, the personal story illustrates and exemplifies the thrust of the enterprise as a whole (even if only as ‘POSIWID‘, ‘the purpose of the system is [expressed in] what it does’).
  • A story or business-story works best – captures the soul of the story, we might say – when all of a complete set of key elements are in place within the story.

For the latter point, I usually turn to the structure recommended by Shawn Callahan of Australian consultancy Anecdote. He says that in the kind of stories that are most used and most valuable  in business – the small-‘s’ storytelling of everyday anecdotes, not the big-‘S’ storytelling of Hollywood and the like – each story will need to include:

  • time-markerplace-marker or character – something to place or locate the story
  • a set of events – something happens within a story
  • one or more people – stories happen to, with or around real people (or, in some cases, things or machines anthropomorphised as people)
  • something unanticipated – something that makes the story literally remarkable, such as an unexpected coincidence, an unexpected conflict, an unexpected happy-ending

As Shawn advises, “Stories don’t need conflict and resolution, or a hero for that matter“. Often in business-stories, we’d expect a punchline, a ‘lessons-learned’, a ‘moral to the story’ – but even that isn’t necessary as such. The real key to usefulmeaningful story is simply that something unexpected happened to someone somewhere or somewhen – which also means that there’s some kind of ‘expected’ for that story to be compared against.

A somewhat-later summary-comment from Michael hits on another key theme in the relationship between enterprise-architecture and story:

To connect with the muse of storytelling, you must purify both heart and intentions.

Which, no doubt, many people in business would dismiss as just plain daft. Yet it’s actually right at the core of all business: ‘enterprise’ itself is all about feeling, about “heart and intentions” – and by its nature, the enterprise is a story.

In essence, and in practice, the enterprise is a continual synthesis of emotion, thought and action – ‘feel, think, do’:

Many people in organisations would still hold to the Taylorist notion that an organisation consists solely of ‘think’ (the managers’ prerogative) and ‘do’ (the get-down-and-dirty tasks assigned exclusively to ‘the workers’). But the reality is that without the ‘feel’ component, there’s no place for strategy, no place for ‘the human’ – which, over the long-term, means no reason for the organisation to exist.

In short, story matters.

Hence why I value those summaries by Michael Margolis and Shawn Callahan above – because they provide concrete, practical guidance on how to use story within the enterprise. Thanks, folks!

2 Comments on “Michael Margolis on story (and business)

  1. Hi Tom, I’m working on a blog post on Resistance (in change or transformation efforts… i.e. user adoption) and this quote from Shawn “Stories don’t need conflict and resolution, or a hero for that matter“ got me thinking. Resistance/conflict I think does matter depending on the context. For positive gossip style stories, I don’t think conflict is required. But for a change or transformation effort that happens over an extended time, in terms of an extended narrative resistance will surface as people transform from current to future. This is more in line with Hero’s journey where there will be resistance either from internal conflict (threat to power, lack of ability, uncertainty, mental model) or external/system. And while this might not be told in terms of story, designing the transformation effort itself could be thought of in terms of story with conflict and hero. ~Joyce

    • “Resistance/conflict I think does matter depending on the context.”

      Yes, context is the key here. I agree strongly that some form of conflict is an important driver for change-stories, such as you theme of ‘resistance’. I believe, though, that the point Shawn is making is that conflict is not a mandatory element in all types of stories – particularly the ‘small-s’ stories that he uses in narrative-work within organisations. (As you say, “For positive gossip style stories, I don’t think conflict is required”.)

      What he’s said is that the key element in unexpectedness – which, yes, can come from conflict, but can also come from something a simple as an everyday coincidence. I haven’t done story-work to anything like the depth that he does, but that point about the role of ‘unexpectedness’ has been my experience there too.

      The other point that Shawn emphasises is the difference between ‘small-s’ and ‘big-S’ stories – ‘positive gossip’ versus ‘Hero’s Journey’. Although ‘big-S’ stories do come into the picture from time to time (perhaps more in specific contexts such as strategy and brand-development), it’s the ‘small-s’ stories that are usually more important in down-at-the-roots narrative-work within organisations.

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