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GP21Apr04: From a Sow’s Ear To a Silk Purse

The Alchemists.  Fifty years or so ago Arthur D. Little, the distinguished Boston technology consultants, authored a pamphlet more or less entitled “Turning A Sow’s Ear into a Silk Purse.”  In fact, the wizards at Little had done just that: Two pictures in this simple, vest pocket sales piece showed the ear and then the purse made from it.  There could be no more perfect way to demonstrate what Arthur Little had been about since 1886. 

But as time rolled on, Little lost the art of telling its story simply, and like McKinsey, tried to become all things to all people.  Thereafter came obese books with fat words and coagulated thinking.  Too complicated by far, Little went downhill and has since disappeared (it went bankrupt and its assets were bought by Altran), brought low by its lack of focus.  (See http://www.adl.com/.)  The moral:  Trust most in companies that can tell their stories simply in an entertaining manner.  Most others will disappear in history’s dustbin. 

The Triumph of Narrative.  Robert Fulford of Canada (see www.robertfulford.com) has written and lectured about The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture.  He reminds us that the story is central to every culture, lending meaning to our lives by artfully connecting up the events that surround us.  We have previously alluded to the role of the story in our lives in our 19 August 2002 Global Province letter, “Stories R Us.” 

What’s new in 2004 is that the story today not only is at the heart of culture but is also cropping up more and more in business practice as enterprises try to build more authentic connections with their employees, customers, and other constituencies.  In part, this seems to be a reaction to our digital world, where we are assaulted by proliferating bits of information that never seem to add up to anything.  Somebody has to put all this stuff together. 

Story, Inc.  Numerous large companies are now using storytellers in a host of ways.  Hewlett-Packard, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Pixar use story consultants to reinforce corporate beliefs and to teach managers the art of the story and its use in their work.  See “Fabulists at the Firm,” The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2004, p. W11.  Stephen Denning writes about the use of storytelling in knowledge transmission in The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations

“In Britain,” says the Journal, “corporate storytelling is part of a larger fashion for trying somehow to mesh the arts with business.  One prominent advocate is theater director Richard Olivier, who has a second career going as the director of the Olivier Mythodrama Associates Limited.”  The Brits, we think, theorize that storytelling and literary excursions do more than spread knowledge: They see fiction, plays, even poetry as  devices for inspiring creativity.  In this vein one should take a peek at David H. Adams Ltd., whose founder has held poetry seminars with businessmen on both sides of the Atlantic.  See more about Adams at Poetry and Business #45 on Global Province. 

Stories are creeping into advertisements as well.  Years ago an advertising guru was heard to say, “Truth is what really sells.  Now if we could only package truth.”  Short of that, company brand managers now employ fiction to make a point. 

For instance, Ford of Great Britain has hired British “chick-lit” novelist Carole Matthews to bring spice to its Ford Fiesta by weaving it into her books, by doing monthly stories for its website, and by heading up a Ford short story competition.  It’s thought that this tactic will hook 25-to-35 year-old women.  (See The New York Times, March 23, 2004, p.C2).  We would submit that products such as cars are becoming more and more prosaic; that said, multinationals need to ignite the imaginations of their consumers.  For a moment, Ford is making every young Brit feel she is in the fast lane.  See  www.ford.co.uk/ie/fiesta/fie_

Trustworthy Doctors.  Once upon a time, we wondered how you could tell if you had engaged a good doctor.  Most of us wind up with docs on somebody else’s say so, still unsure whether we are in safe hands.  What we have since discovered is that good doctors can rapidly put together a good, complete patient history.  Bad doctors only get part of the story or muddle the details.  We have known oncologists (cancer doctors) who forget  vital facts critical for proper treatment, but then we have also bumped into an amazing fellow in Houston, with a huge clinical practice, who always gets it right, listening for every nuance offered by his patients.  Storytelling is not only good business—it is good healthcare.   

Some medical schools, by popular demand, are now offering courses on medical narrative.  See “The Writing Cure: Can Understanding Narrative Make You A Better Doctor?” New York Times Magazine, April 18, 2004,  pp.42-47.  Many physicians scoff at the value of such courses, but we suspect that the story is integral to good healthcare.  Specialists who only deal with events and procedures can ignore histories.  Physicians who care about lives must embrace the whole of the patient they would seek to treat, capturing the totality in a story. 

The Lector.  The story is a tool for business, for healthcare, and, critically, for education.  In her essay, “Ojos Sobre Cuba,” San Francisco speechwriter Rebecca Otto remarks on the presence of readers or lectors in Cuba’s cigar factories.  They sit in front of the workers, reeling off the news of the day and reciting stories from current, popular books.  Cuba has achieved a 97% literacy rate, in part by bringing books and knowledge to workers wherever they might be—in a factory or picking sugar cane out in the fields. 

Everywhere we go, stories entertain, instruct, engage, and enrich.  Society, it seems, needs good yarns with a touch of vision, not just to pass the time but to keep moving forward into the future.  Without a story, all our todays seem like yesterdays, and there are no tomorrows.  Stories turn sows’ ears into silk purses.

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