I am sometimes asked: what’s the role of storytelling in radical management? In one sense, the answer is simple: it underlies everything.
First, a key dimension of radical management is an interactive human-based relationship with the people doing the work. In radical management, managers treat people as people. The behaviors associated with social norms have precedence over command-and-control relationships, or relationships based on money. This kind of relationship can only prevail if the participants communicate through stories, questions and conversations.
A second dimension of radical management is the goal of work—to delight clients. This people-based goal is quite different from traditional management where the goal is to produce goods or services, or to make money for company. The organization can only achieve the goal of delighting clients if it understands the client’s story.
A third dimension of radical management is the alignment of those doing the work with the goal of delighting clients. The goal of those doing the work is to delight the client. They are given a clear line of sight as to whether their work is achieving that goal. Those doing the work have to understand the client’s story and the story of how their own work contributes to enhancing that story.
A fourth dimension of radical management is that the planning of work takes place in the form of user stories. The work program doesn’t consist, as in traditional management, in accomplishment of a certain number of "things", such as producing a certain number of products or services or a certain quantity of money. The work program consists of user stories. Software developer Mike Cohn in his book, User Stories Applied (2004), recommends a standard form for the user story: as a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>. Putting the story in the first person is important, because it draws the team into imagining the client’s situation. By saying, “As a such-and-such, I want. . . ,” one instantly imagines what it is like to be a such-and-such. For example:
As a parent, I want a comfortable, affordable home, so that my spouse and I can raise our family.
As the client of a boutique hotel, I want a comfortable room with a personal feel to it, so that I have an unexpectedly stimulating night away from home.
A fifth dimension is that the work is done of groups of people who are diverse in terms of both background and status. Attaining collaboration with such diverse groups is only likely is the managers and participants are skilled in the use of story for this purpose.
Once people understand these five dimensions, there is a tendency to ask: if that’s the case, and storytelling is so fundamental to radical management, why don’t you admit that radical management is really about introducing storytelling into every facet of the organization? Again, the answer is simple. It isn’t so.
Storytelling isn’t the goal. Storytelling is a means, not the end. The goal of radical management remains that of fostering high-quality sustainable human relationships in the workplace—sustainable in the sense that the company makes money and hence can go on existing. Story plays a role in achieving this goal, but it's not in itself the goal.
Storytelling, by virtue of its central role in interactive conversations, has a key role to play. If it’s not present, you know that you are still in the land of traditional management, not radical management. But it’s not the goal. If it becomes the goal, then the organization tends to become very unproductive.
The trick here is to get the role of storytelling right. If storytelling is ignored, the organization will fail. If storytelling is overblown and turned into a goal, the organization will fail. Storytelling remains a means to a noble goal, as well as being an indicator of whether the social climate of an organization is healthy.
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