Like all human communities, companies outline their identity by telling stories. One exciting aspect of coming into a new company – like I am doing right now – is to dig your way into the new narrative. What stories do they tell the market, the employees, prospects, and customers?
Like people, companies make up stories. They view the world through many filters, take on various personalities depending on circumstance, and have a very picky memory for facts. They simplify and magnify. They focus by shifting focus. They turn a random series of disparate events into a seemingly planned, meaningful, significant history. A story. They turn barren no-man’s land into markets and demand. They spin, they storify.
In a previous life, I earned a masters degree in European Literature. I studied some philosophy to the side, grew a beard, and smoked a pipe. Roamed the streets of Prague in search of Kafka. Quoted Søren Kierkegaard, analysed Sigmund Freud, and pondered Sergei Eisenstein. Didn’t have much of a clue in general.
Well, all that except the pipe, of course..! Goodness.
So during an extensive course on Semiotics, a Belgian teacher called doctor Emile Poppe introduced us to the work of Vladimir Propp and Tzvetan Todorow, besides cool heavy hitters like Louis Trolle Hjelmslev, Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and even Alfred Hitchcock – what a teacher! Anyway, Todorow and Propp were two scholars who spent a good portion of their lives describing narrative schemes governing folk tales. Folk tales, yes sir! At the end of it, Propp delivered his famous morphology, containing 31 basic elements of narrative with which one can deconstruct every single folk tale. From all cultural origins and of all times. No exceptions.
The most basic story formula: A -> B. There is a situation A, which turns into situation B, that’s your simplest storyline.
And it turns out that most other stories can also be analyzed using Propp’s narrative system. Movies, novels, theater plays – humans apparently tell their stories according to a highly standardized structure.
At NetApp, I got the pleasure of working with Michael Clancy, who combines an engineering leadership background with a remarkable talent for business value selling and corporate storytelling – an explosive mix of qualities. Put him in front of a customer, a sales team, an industry analyst, and he’ll set the air on fire with his energy and stories.
Anyway, Mike taught me how every single customer success story (not just the NetApp ones – look at Oracle, SAP, most any business boasting customer success stories) adheres to the same basic schematic:
- Customer status quo
- Problem occurs
- Solution provider is called in, resolves problem
- New status quo is established, better than before
Quite close to the most basic A->B story, isn’t it?
Update 20 February: I found this great new book, Life in Five Seconds, which “takes 200 world events, inventions, great lives, places, animals and cultural icons that you really need to know about, and then, hey presto!, cuts away all the useless details”, boiling stories down to strings of pictograms – basic elements of stories, check out the extract here. This is the story “Michael Jackson”:
So anyway, just to prove that reality is never A->B simple, I have a beautiful 1919 short story by Franz Kafka that defies narrative theory. Figure it out. I found this particular, splendid translation here.
A message from the emperor
The emperor—it is said—sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you he sent a message from his deathbed. He bade the messenger kneel by his bed, and whispered the message in his ear. So greatly did he cherish it that he had him repeat it into his ear. With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the messenger’s words. And before the entire spectatorship of his death—all obstructing walls have been torn down and the great figures of the empire stand in a ring upon the broad, soaring exterior stairways—before all these he dispatched the messenger. The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path though the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other. But the crowds are so vast; their dwellings know no bounds. If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door. But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate—but it can never, never happen—before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead. –You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.