One reader has written to me asking: “Why have you abandoned storytelling? Why have you in the last eighteen or so months allowed yourself to be drawn into 'management speak' and that has diluted the impact of your original approach that was so special, attractive and accessible to the many people who do not read management books and who are not comfortable with that vocabulary?”
Fair question. Why did I get entangled in all this management gobbledygook? Why did I abandon the pure air of storytelling and wallow in this horrible swamp? Why did I abandon storytelling and start talking about a strange thing called radical management?
In 2008, looking back over the previous ten years, I saw that I had had considerable success in promoting storytelling in organizations, had inspired and trained many individuals and had established oases of excellence in many organizations.
Yet... if I was honest with myself, I also had to admit that storytelling had not yet entered the mainstream, even in organizations where it was flourishing. In fact, it was vulnerable to the efforts of some new "manager" who would come in and close it down, and re-establish the "tight ship" that he/she had been taught about in business school.
This happened over and over. It wasn't just storytelling. It was knowledge management. It was innovation. It seemed that anything good and creative was in jeopardy from these "managers".
So I started to ask myself: why is this? Why is this happening? Why did "managers" act this way? Why were they proud of doing so? How did they get away with it? Why didn't anyone stop them? It made no sense.
So I began exploring: Is there any way to make the world safe for storytelling, a world where storytelling, and innovation and other good things would be honored, a world where if someone came in closed things down, everyone would stand up and object and explain why that didn't make sense?
So that's what I have been working on for a couple of years: understanding and describing this alternate universe.
I have to come to see that making
the world safe for storytelling involves a shift from solving a simple linear
puzzle to tackling a complex undertaking that has no single right answer. These traditional managers are taught in business school to look at the world as though the goal of an organization is producing a certain quantity of goods
or services: success is finite and under management’s control.
In a world that is safe for storytelling, managers have a different goal: delighting clients. The goal is no longer finite and under management's control. The goal can only be approached by increasingly close approximations: it can never be fully attained or assured. As a result, making the world safe for storytelling implies a fundamentally different way of thinking, speaking and acting in the workplace. For want of a better term, I have called this different way of thinking, speaking and acting "radical management". Is that term jargon? If there is a better term, I would like to know about it.
Traditional managers are continually trying to reduce the world to a finite puzzle, and this is what is so debilitating and inimical to activities like storytelling and innovation. More enlightened managers accept the complexity of the world and embrace its mystery. They are two different ways of looking at the world and they have very different results.
Some people have said that this is a very binary way of looking at the world. My reply is that in this area, I think that there is a difference in kind. It’s not a continuum, with everything a matter of degree. Traditional management is about finding the solution to a puzzle. Radical management is about solving a mystery. Malcolm Gladwell has written about this in The New Yorker: http://www.gladwell.com/2007/2007_01_08_a_secrets.html
I will try to avoid jargon, although it is a continuing battle. I have been pressured for instance by to stop talking about "delighting clients" and instead talk about "continuous value innovation", even though the former term is intuitively intelligible, while the latter is not. I am told that CEOs are not comfortable talking about delighting clients. So be it. In that case, they won't like my book, because the book only talks about delighting clients and never mentions continuous value innovation.
Some people, particularly managers, are horrified by the idea of radical management. I am getting the kind of looks that I got, years ago, when I first started talking about storytelling in organizations. I am inclined to think that that's a good sign.
In any event, I haven’t abandoned storytelling. It is a key element of everything I am talking about in the new book. I will keep trying to do better.