Business novel – chapters 00-03

I said in an earlier post that I’m moving more towards describing my ideas on enterprise-architecture and the like into fiction-based form – in the hope that it will make it somewhat more understandable for most folks in and beyond the trade…

To that end, I’ve been working on a business-novel with the working-title of ‘The End of Certainty‘. (Yes, I know it isn’t a good title, but I’ll come up with something better before it’s formally released.) I wrote the initial draft of the first half back in 2013; the rest of that draft is what I’m working on right now.

But I could do with some help, to make sure that it actually makes sense, and also for critiques on the examples I’m using. So as I go along, I’ll post the whole book here, in reasonable-sized chunks, and ask you for your comments and suggestions. Fair enough?

(By the way, all names and so on are fiction, and are not intended to represent any person in the real-world, etc, etc. In particular, my apologies to Stuart MacGregor at South African enterprise-architecture consultancy Real-IRM: the ‘Stuart MacGregor’ character here is entirely coincidental – and as you’ll see in a later chapter, the name has more connection with Beatrix Potter than enterprise-architecture!)

Anyway, to start with, here’s the prologue and the first few chapters – more to follow in later posts. Over to you, if you would?

Chapter 00 (Prologue)

I never did find out why he did it, what kind of background he’d had, what made him tick. And it’s a bit late to ask him now, of course. Oh well.

But he did say I should write it all down – “the past is the platform for the future”, he said. So that’s what I’d better do, isn’t it? Start at the beginning, I guess – just before we first met. Well, here goes…

Chapter 01

“Head of Organisational Development” – sounds pretty grand, doesn’t it? That’s what I thought, too, when I took on the job.

But here I am, facing the reality: pile upon pile of questions, things that people want fixed, things that people want changed. And every time I turn round, Pavel brings in some more.

Yeah, sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, that all-exec workshop, and our fancy ‘Call To Action’. But what it’s really meant is that there’s now about thirty sheets of flipcharts to transcribe, and then, supposedly, build an action-plan for every one of them. With names, dates, actions, responsibilities, change-projects, the lot. And all on me to do it all, it feels like.

I mean, just look at it all! They’re all big-picture stuff, nothing concrete we can actually use, actually build on. Look at this one, for example: “How do we make more money?” – well, sure, everyone wants that, but what do we do about it? “How do we make best use of social-media?” – fine, but there’s nothing in the MBA textbook that says anything on that. And another one: “How do we find out what’s really going on in our business?” – I wish I knew, too!

Well, at least Pavel’s sorted all of these into a form I can work with, all on good old-fashioned index-cards that I can actually carry and spread around a bit. But I’m not going to make any sense of them here. I’ll go hide away in a corner somewhere, or better yet, head down the street for a coffee – I’m going to need that before I can make any sense of this at all.

Best get going before someone else adds any more to this insane stack.

Ye gods…

Chapter 02

Right. Coffee in hand, Pavel’s cards on the table. Let’s get moving, sort them into piles, themes, departments, something like that. Here goes…

Some big-picture stuff that’s going nowhere unless I can get the C-suite on-hand:

  • “How do we make more money?” – well, yeah, obviously, duh! – what else would we want to do!
  • “How do we cut costs?” – that looks like a first place to start.
  • “How do we reduce waste?” – I’d say that’s part of ‘How we cut costs’, but some people see it different, I guess.
  • “How do we make this business more effective?” – make it more efficient, by cutting costs! – that one’s pretty much a no-brainer.
  • “How do we review our business-model, refresh it?” – our existing business-model is looking a bit fragile, that’s for sure…
  • “How do we improve our public image?” – how much does that really matter?

Stuff that’s more about products, services and marketing:

  • “How do we get more from our customers?” – good question.
  • “How do we build competitive advantage?” – and that sounds like the answer to that good question…
  • “How do we get new products to market faster?” – …together with the answer to this question, anyway.
  • “How do we improve quality of products and services?” – okay, that’s a tricky one, I’ll accept that.
  • “How do we customise to different markets and still keep our identity strong?” – the branding guys make a fuss about this, but I’m not sure it matters?
  • “How do we make best use of social-media?” – do we need to do this at all? – isn’t it just a passing fad?
  • “How do we reduce customer-complaints?” – the text-book way is just to make it more difficult for them to complain, but will that still work?
  • “How do we improve customer-service?” – we won’t need to if we can reduce customer-complaints!

Stuff about operations:

  • “What can and can’t we automate?” – automate as much as possible, is the short answer – everything, if we can.
  • “Why do our front-line staff screw things up all the time?” – that’s why we need to automate.
  • “How do we get our staff to make better decisions?” – define and enforce the business-rules! – automation again, isn’t it?
  • “Why can’t our front-line staff work things out for themselves?” – if we had the proper automation, we wouldn’t need them to do it at all.

Stuff about compliance and standards and all that red-tape nuisance:

  • “How do we comply with this law or standard?” – it’s a pain in the ass, but I suppose we’ve got to do it…
  • “How do we get ready to comply with this upcoming law or standard?” – …ditto….
  • “How do we improve health-and-safety, environment, all that stuff?” – …and ditto.

Stuff that’s probably more for Alicia Pereira’s – no, Alicia Berkshaw, I’d better call her that now – her HR department:

  • “How do we get more from our employees?” – the answer’s in the next one, surely?
  • “How do we get the right performance-measures, the right performance-pay?” – that’s Alicia’s specialty, I know that.
  • “How do we cut staff-turnover?” – yeah, that’s a bit too high at the moment, particularly for front-line staff.
  • “What skills do we need, when, where, how and why?” – the more we can automate, the less we’ll need this, but we’ll still need some skills, I guess?
  • “What training do our staff need? and for what?” – follows on from the skills-question, really.
  • “How do we develop new leaders?” – she’s always going on about ‘leaders’, but all she really means is moving people up the management-ladder.

And stuff I don’t quite know where to put yet:

  • “How do we cut complexity?” and “What do we do about complexity?” – everyone wails about that, but I can’t get anyone to agree what complexity is.
  • “What do we do about the stuff we can’t control?” – that one was something about automation, I think?
  • “How do we find out what’s really going on in our business?” – that’s a tough one, but I’d say it’s really the fault of IT.
  • “How do we find and prioritise what issues we have?” – follows on from the previous one, I guess.
  • “Why can’t we get our strategy to be followed?” – if people actually did what we told them to do, we might be able to get somewhere!

I’m not happy to admit it, but that last one is giving me a lot of worries – and I don’t even quite know why…

As I’d gone through all of this sorting, I’d laid the cards out again in neat lines on the table. So I lean back in my chair, looking over the layout, moving my head up and down, side to side.

“Okay”, I say aloud, to myself, “now let’s get started.”

“I’d say you already have”, says a quiet voice behind me.

Chapter 03

I turn round, and glare at the guy. Who the hell does he think he is? I get up quickly from my chair, to block his view of Pavel’s cards.

I look at him a bit more carefully now, but he’s nothing much to look at. He’s in his late sixties, perhaps, maybe early seventies; an old grey woollen coat in some herringbone pattern; black leather shoes with old-style square-end toes; blue shirt and dark blue striped tie; grey pants and grey jacket from two different suits, similar but not quite the same; all good quality, once, but he’s worn them a long time. Middling height, middling build, middling everything; blond hair gone white, but mostly still there; otherwise, yeah, he’s Mr Nobody. And a Mr Nobody who thinks it’s okay to look over my shoulder while I’m working, and thinks it’s okay to make comments about it, too. Let’s just say I didn’t exactly warm to him.

“Look, no offence, but I’ve got no idea who you are, and this is company confidential. Better for both of us if you didn’t stick your nose where it wasn’t asked, okay?”

“No offence? Oh yes, indeed, none taken.” A small smile. I’ll admit I just wanted to deck him.

“Just who are you, anyway?”, I growl. He doesn’t flinch one bit: either one cool customer, or absolutely up himself – probably both, I guess.

“MacGregor. Stuart MacGregor”, he says, genially. “My friends call me Stu.” He offers his hand to shake; I don’t take it.

“Marco Pellegrini. My friends call me Mark, but just stick to Marco, okay? Or Mr Pellegrini, for preference. If you must.” I really don’t like this guy: something odd about him. Scary, almost – which is weird.

“As you wish, of course.” Again that irritating little smile of his. “I’m a consultant, of sorts. Or I was, rather: I’m retired now, but we never really stop, do we? Strategy, systems-thinking, that sort of thing.” He pauses a moment, waits for me to answer, sees I’m not going to, and continues anyway. “Don’t worry, I’m not a spy for the competition or anything like that.” He looks at me again, head slightly tilted. “You’re quite new to the company, aren’t you? So yes, you wouldn’t know who I am, of course. Not to worry. Let’s just say that I am a true friend of the company, we go way way back, in fact, and I’ll help you where I can.”

I’m torn somewhere between seething at him, and just wanting to get back to work on my mess of a problem. No room for politeness: except that something kinda stops me from turning round.

“Of course”, he says. Still holding me with that quiet-strange gaze, he reaches into his left pocket, pulls out an old-fashioned card-case, flicks out a business-card, makes as if to offer it to me, and then puts it onto the table instead. “When you’re ready, do call me. I believe you’ll find it useful. And quite soon, I think?” A brief pause; he looks up, into nowhere, breaking eye-contact at last. “Hm. Yes. Quite soon, I’d say”, he mutters under his breath, nodding his head to himself. “Quite soon.”

Then he kind of wakes up, and wakes up to the fact that I’m still there, still in front of him, and not still happy. At all. “Oh, I do apologise”, he says, “please, please, do go back to your work, I really shouldn’t disturb you, should I?” I sigh, loudly: it’s all I can do to hold back from yelling at him. He turns away, towards the service-counter, and I settle back into my chair again. Back to work: I must sort out this mess somehow. Last I see of the guy, he’s paying for his coffee, carefully counting coins out of an old shovel-purse – I’d thought those things had gone out with the Ark. I shake my head, and sigh again: what kind of rock did he crawl out from? And why couldn’t he have just stayed there and left me in peace?

Twenty minutes later, I’m still staring at the cards, all neatly lined up across the table, but no ideas are coming at all. I’ve sorted them into the right groups, the right department for each question, but that’s it: nothing more than that. I resist the temptation to sweep the whole darn lot onto the floor, and sweep them up into a single stack instead, flipping the cards round in sets to keep the groups separate, then drop them with some care into my case.

I get up to go back to the office, dejected, down, feeling a total failure. I look around: the old guy is gone, thank goodness. All that’s left on the table now is my empty coffee-cup, and the old-guy’s business-card. On impulse, I sweep that up, and, with an irritated huff of breath, throw that into the case too.

Somewhen in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be very, very glad that I did.

2 Comments on “Business novel – chapters 00-03

  1. I like you approch of storytelling so I would treat it as manuscript.

    First a synopsis of the plot with main characters, then a more detailed script.

    “Save the cat” is good book to read how to write a script.

    Hopefully, I can give some feedback.

    • Thanks, Casimir. You’re right, I forgot to put up the story-summary first – I won’t edit this post to put it in (because if I did, it would make a nonsense of your comment here… 🙂 ), but I’ll add it to the next instalment in the series, coming up tomorrow. (There are already more than a hundred chapters, by the way, so it’ll take a while to post them all here… 🙂 )

      I loveSave The Cat‘! – for me it’s been one of the most useful books on scriptwriting since when I first started in that direction around a dozen years ago. One the key points I got from the book (or I think it was that one?) was the concept of ‘go for the wrong goal’, and then switch to the real larger-scale goal at (and as) the Act 2 Part 2 / Act 3 transition. You’ll see that happening here in this book, though the hints of ‘wrong goal’ / ‘right goal’ start happening almost from the very beginning (read Chapter 07 again, perhaps? 🙂 )

      Another really useful tool / model for scriptwriting, for me, has been Dramatica. Two key ideas there, in particular, of which the first that in addition to the Protagonist and and Antagonist, there’s often a need for the role of the Contagonist – someone whose drive is kinda sideways-on to both. (Darth Vader is perhaps the classic Contagonist – working for the Antagonist [the Empire], but also with his own agenda.) The other key idea there is that the Main Character – the one whose story we follow – is not always ‘the Hero’, the Protagonist. (A classic example is Scout, the Main Character in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, where the Protagonist is her father, Atticus Finch.) I’ve used both of those ideas to guide this story here.

      “Hopefully, I can give some feedback” – yes please! 🙂

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