Last week I was sent to Coventry to hear Professor Stephen Carver from the University of Cranfield speak on the use of story telling for project leadership.
Previous talks that I have seen by Stephen have been in the form of a story, from start to finish. The previous one that I saw was ‘The Battle of Britain’ at BletchleyPark during the anniversary celebrations in 2012. (A vintage year for celebrations in Britain). Stephen uses this, and other stories, as a metaphor to aid understanding and learning. In the Battle of Britain the metaphor is for complex project management. In ‘1066 and all that’, it is about mergers and acquisitions.
Another excellent speaker, APM President Tom Taylor is featured in Project Magazine this month with his latest book ‘Sixteen stories for managers of projects, programmes and enterprises’. The reviewer concludes with ‘However, the reader is left to interpret the lesson from each story themselves. A more defined learning statement would aid understanding of the message the author wants to reinforce’. But the entire point of storytelling and metaphor is to be ‘artfully vague’, and leave the listeners’ unconscious mind to relate and interpret the story. As part of the NLP4PM™ course we explore ‘the language of leadership’, using examples from the artfully vague language patterns of politicians through to the use of directive and embedded commands. (Storytelling and use of metaphor is a standard module on NLP practitioner courses). My associate on the last course, Roy Cooper, pushed the boundary by attempting no less than five multiply embedded metaphors. When we later asked the 12 delegates what the message was within the outer story, and what they had learned from it, how many answers do you think we got?
And of course the story teller had not thought of most of them.
Why do these stories and metaphors work? As the great orators and religious leaders have found, they provide a low resistance doorway to the unconscious mind. Marketeers and Brand managers have also discovered and perfected these techniques. The unconscious mind is the world’s greatest pattern recognition system and looks for hidden meaning in all things. As leaders, that is from the etymological derivation of those who carry the compass, we only need to help guide, not attempt to provide all the answers.
As Stephen said during the talk, the prospect of teaching storytelling to CEOs at a prestigious university was considered sacrilege only a few short years ago. Maybe it is entering mainstream now. Perhaps I can include my Open University course on Creative Writing in my professional development log for project management after all. Will storytelling be in the next revision of APM’s competence framework?
Stephen is a great speaker and a great story teller. In discussions with him afterwards I suggested that, like me, he got there through continuous professional development and structured learning rather than being born a great orator. I was relieved when he enthusiastically agreed. Although I make this point strongly in the preface to ‘NLP for Project Managers’, perhaps it is lost: these are aspects that we did not do well but have come to excel in using the tools we describe. And maybe you can too. So I will continue to model Stephen. Maybe I will tell you a story about it one day. But in the meantime, what’s your story?