Sometimes it feels as if the power of storytelling is ingrained in our DNA. Even before written forms of human history, tribes would pass down their learnings through story. Fantastic examples of this still permeating living culture today include much of the Australian Aboriginal dreamtime, or Canadian Inuit mythology. The most powerful of these stories have an overarching theme: something happened, which created or lead to meaningful change. Good or bad, happy or sad, the storied theme teaches us that change can stick.

As an interventionist that focuses on understanding organisational and systemic behaviours in order to better achieve quality outcomes directly for customers, I see stories everywhere I go. The most disastrous stories are ones where we have ignored history, doomed to repeat the same mistakes of our forbearers, and shun change for the sake of our customers.

Forgetting the past

It’s amazing how often you see companies make the same mistakes over and over, sometimes in different ways, and sometimes exactly the same… and yet leaders somehow expect different outcomes, different results. We have to set more aggressive targets, tighter deadlines, and set our customer’s expectations accordingly – all examples of typical nonsense that never actually work, no matter how many times you try.

It is understandable to see how it happens in traditional organisations: leadership decides they want to try something, so they do. Orders trickle down throughout the organisation, and people get to work to deliver on their dictated components. After the tasks are all completed, no significant changes are noted, and the promised uptick never truly arrives. Leadership is persistent though, demanding tweaks to the plan due to their insistence that they are onto a winner. After a while, employees get burnt out which leads to poor customer interactions and subsequent customer haemorrhage.

Then we see good employees often leaving. Being forced to do something they know is not making any difference, disempowered to take action, and repeating the same mistakes pisses people off… so they seek something better. This usually leads to further gaps and performance falls, which may end up with leaders also being asked to move on.

All of these knowledge gaps due to disembarking employees, coupled with the changes to the original plans, leads to organisations persisting down these paths. There’s no one empowered to keep things in check, dooming the organisation to continue down dead-end pathways without even realising. Coupled with the leadership’s traditional mentality of needing to make sure targets are hit, this leads to a continuous death-spiral of downsizing, cost-cutting, off-shoring, and subsequent customer shedding and dissatisfaction.

Breaking the cycle

Something that many business traditionalists find odd, the best way to break out of the death-spiral is to control things less. Remove limits, remove targets, give people more autonomy and more power. Of course, this flies in the face of pretty much everything that leaders get taught at business school. Up becomes down, back becomes front. That is exactly the point though: you’ve tried to do the same thing time and time again, and it hasn’t worked.

It’s a similar adage to the good old quote:

If you love something, set it free. If it returns, it was meant to be

Control is an illusion, after all. An artificial limitation that we place on something in order to be able to expect a predetermined outcome. One thing that a lot of business leaders miss is the largest and most important component of their business – their people. We are all humans after all, and our human functions are inherently unpredictable. Not only this, our customers are also unpredictable humans as well.

Customer service is often similar to a relationship. Negotiation is required, there may be need for compromise, and there is an absolute necessity for respect. After all, we are all people. Problem comes when companies try to dictate how customers must consume their services. “We have to set their expectations” is something I have heard bounce around many boardrooms… “They need to understand what we do, and how our things work”. What most leaders in business are failing to see here that they are trying to control their customers, and they are saying that their customers needs to change in order to use the service. In a relationship, this would be an ultimate example of disrespect, control, and it’s bordering on bullying.

Instead of trying to control your customers, try doing things the way they want them. For example, if most of your customers want unlimited refills, let them have it. The fact that you’ve had to put the prices up 10¢ to cover the cost will become a mute point, a secondary concern – unless you’re already charging too much for your services.

Embrace negativity

There is something fantastic to be said about success. Most of us like to win, to feel success in the things we do. Sharing that success also helps others to succeed at what they are doing as well. It’s the reason why businesses read testimonials about other businesses before engaging with them, and even a reason why employers look for positive references about prospective employees.

That all being said, focusing only on the successes often ignores or dismisses how we got there. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements were discovered or developed in one of two ways: accidentally, or trial and error. We all make mistakes, and sometimes it can lead to some really amazing things. If it doesn’t, it will still be something we can all learn from.

A good example might be the way in which we conduct employee reference checks. HR departments around the world make those scary calls on a daily basis, often trained to listen for negatives about potential candidates. Often in the process of that dismissal, they are missing a very important and powerful truth: the candidate faced adversity and came through it. Maybe it meant that there was a serious and disappointing lesson that the business had to learn, or maybe that hick-up lead to great success. The failure to understand what the negative was in their story will lead to a missed opportunity.

The same thing happens in business, where the negative is shunned in order to embrace positivity – at any cost. “The beatings shall continue until morale improves”. Riiiight.

Stories forged in fire

As I mentioned in the beginning, many of the most impactful stories throughout life are ones in which something happened, which created or lead to meaningful change. In many stories of business success, we often only glaze over the thing that happened. We fail to ask why, to understand, and to join those dots that lead us to the meaningful change. After all, anything before the success must have been failure, and we rarely want to have a serious conversation about failure!

The lesson, and the history, are forgotten. As soon as a similar occurrence pops up, we knee-jerk a reaction into place, thinking we already know what’s going to happen. Then we watch as everything burns, struggling to comprehend what actually went wrong.

I have seen many post incident reviews that talk about a specific problem, why it happened, what was done to resolve the problem in the moment, and what has been put in place in order to stop the specific problem from happening again. And never in my career have I seen an honest review. The concept of ‘root cause’ is foreign to most business leaders because the real causes of the failures might make them look incompetent, highlight their own personal targets or measures, and put their livelihoods at risk. Imagine a review that said something like this: due to leaderships perceived need to reduce operational costs, staff were insufficiently trained and adequate tools were not supplied. This, in combination with decreased staffing levels driven by a smaller operating budget, shortcuts were taken in the work that our staff need to complete, and led to a failure in our delivery of service.

A powerful story indeed.

However, it doesn’t have to be interpreted as a bad one. A very valuable lesson can be learned in it: that leaders don’t quite understand the consequences of their actions when it comes to the bigger picture. Understanding the customer’s story when things go bad is extremely important because it enables us to connect the dots between where things first went bad, and how they then impacted things down the chain. Without knowing these things, we would never really be able to make meaningful change that can stick.

So what to do? Leaders need to dive into the front line, and connect with their customers and their staff. Not phoney ‘site visits’ where staff staff massage successes and hide failures, but real work – good and bad. Once there, connect back those things they are seeing to the reason they might be done in the first place. Those stories are the ones that leaders have control over, as they are the ones they can act on. And sometimes finding out that a decision that was made in the boardroom has lead to an unforeseen failure is going to burn. But, hopefully… those stories lead to meaningful change.

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