Picture this: You’re at a party and you meet an interesting couple—one of those opposites-attract duos. After a few drinks, you ask one of the all-time great storytelling prompts: “So, how did you two meet?”
And they answer: “Oh, well, 10 years ago we saw each other on a street and we were both single and immediately liked each other, so we went out on a date where conversation was great and nothing tense happened, and we wanted to live in the same place and had all the same interests and opinions and had no obstacles to overcome and our parents immediately approved, so he proposed and I said yes, and we’ve never had a rough day together!”
That response has never happened in the history of ever. And if you ever did get that response it’d be annoying and would end the conversation. A dynamic duo would cease to be dynamic. In fact, you’d suspect they were hiding something.
To reiterate from a previous post: A timeline of accomplishments is not inherently a story. A story must have an arc, some ups and downs, twists and turns. The essence of storytelling is the tension of character and mission set loose in an unpredictable world.
Everybody falls the first time . . .
And that’s why, whenever I begin a StoryARC™ session with one of The History Factory’s clients, I don’t start with the company’s founding, or with a laundry list of high points. I start at the nadir—the low point between Act II and Act III. Our first question is what we lovingly refer to as the “danger” question: “Tell me about some moments in your organization’s history when one of your goals was in serious jeopardy—when it looked like all was lost.”
The question inevitably elicits some nervous fidgeting. Most corporate histories are a boring list of how a company is, has always been and will always be great, and our participants are not accustomed to sharing anything ungreat. But the point of this exercise is not to air dirty laundry; it’s to explicitly show how people worked together to heroically overcome moments of danger or challenge. In other words, the point is to find and elevate the dramatic tension.
In every industry and period of history, in small and large ways, every company experiences tension. The great ones have a legacy of successfully dealing with this tension and emerging stronger. In every StoryARC session, there are dozens of these moments people readily call to mind: external naysayers mucking up best-laid plans, massive global challenges like wars or epidemics or financial crises, and intimate anecdotes of personal struggle that suggest far greater adversity.
If we can identify a handful of the most significant challenges—both past and present—these instances will organically suggest what comes before and after: the moments of commitment that set them on a given path and the lower-stakes trial-and-error moments that lead to great accomplishments.
So let’s get specific with examples:
- In 2010, Adobe Photoshop was preparing to launch a new release. But when Apple threw Adobe a curveball, the Photoshop team was faced with the challenge of having to rewrite millions of lines of code in a new programming language—what one programmer described as trying to make a wooden roller coaster do loop-de-loops.
- Across HarperCollins’ nearly 200-year history, hundreds of beloved authors have captured the imaginations of millions of readers. But each of these authors was at one point unknown, and all debut publications are a choice and a gamble on the part of the publisher.
- Lockheed Martin has held a post at the crossroads of global conflict for most of its 100-year history but constantly rises to meet seemingly impossible challenges head-on. To tell a story like Lockheed’s without illustrating danger and conflict would be just plain silly.
As you can see, discussion of conflict and challenge need not be tied to an organization’s missteps. Quite often, challenge is simply intrinsic to managing large teams of talented people, to merging disparate organizations with distinct cultures, to competing with other companies on a global scale, and to humans attempting to do impossible and impressive things. Embrace conflict!
We invite you to see where this storytelling series began and how it resolves. Follow along and feel free to send us your exceptions to the rule.