Storytelling is a big deal these days.
There are conferences, workshops and seminars devoted to the subject. Storytelling has become a consulting specialty for some. I love hearing, reading and telling stories about people and what they’ve done to make their organizations and the people in them better. But when I think about what makes organizations successful, it’s not as much about storytelling as it is about storydoing.
Storydoing. Doing what you say you’ll do. Delivering on your brand promise. Aligning what you say and do as a leader to communicate consistently in order to drive energy in a consistent winning direction.
There are many organizations that tell their story and live their story in order to reinforce their values, but one of my favorite is Medtronic, the $20 billion medical technologies company based in Minneapolis.
I had the opportunity to consult with Medtronic when Bill George, who wrote the excellent book, True North, was its CEO.
What does Medtronic and companies like them do to derive value from stories? How do they match the say with the do? How do they employ storytelling and storydoing?
Here’s how Bill George describes it.
“I believe it starts with the basic reason we come to work every day,” he said. “We want to serve others and help restore people to full life and health. We aren’t there just for the money.”
Medtronic and other companies like them start with a clear, shared written mission and vision–sometimes called the strategic story–but as Mr. George said, “That’s the easy part. The more difficult part is getting everyone to buy into that mission and the values. That takes time and effort and consistency of action through bad times as well as good. It only takes one reversal of values at the top when conditions are tough to reverse many years of hard work in setting the standards and the climate. For better or worse, as leaders, we are better known for our deeds than for our words.”
Storytelling often starts with a strategic story that’s broken down into specific actions that need to be taken to make the story real. Those specific actions are then folded into a plan–usually the organization’s operating plan.
We use a format with two columns to conduct the exercise with the leadership team. The left column is headed, “When we SAY this….” The right column is headed “We will DO this….” The left side includes the strategic story. The right column represents the operational implications of the story. That typically includes what leaders need to do to communicate the strategic story through what they say and do and it includes how systems and processes such as rewards, measurement, learning and development and work processes will be aligned to the story.
Storytelling–creating the words–is the easy part. Storydoing is the hard part. It’s the day after day, down in the trenches, flawless execution that creates the successful organization.
Medtronic’s purpose and business strategy is to innovate to bring new medical devices to market to save peoples’ lives. That’s the strategic story.
Delivering on that story are the actions people take, then the stories that are told about real patients whose lives were saved by real employees who went above and beyond to bring those new devices to market. Leaders tell the stories to paint clear pictures of what employees need to do in their jobs. Employees take actions to create the picture. And, the story is told again and again. The storytelling and storydoing process is circular, reinforcing and never-ending. Say and do. Say and do. Say and do.
Key takeaway: Storytelling and storydoing–what is said and what is done– are equally important to living a set of values and focusing the organization’s energy laser-like on realizing its vision.