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Storytelling in Organizations: Why Stories Work November 29, 2009

Posted by Katie Swinerton in Specific Tools/Techniques.
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After I go to a conference panel or a presentation, and someone asks me how it was, I often find myself saying “well, he told this really interesting story…”, and repeating back a story that I had heard. Until reading Storytelling in Organizations, I thought I had this reaction because stories are memorable and an easy and natural way to communicate information. The authors of this book agree that this is part of the reason that stories are so powerful, but they also advocate that there is something else important about stories.

When we hear a story, we put ourselves into the story. We start to think about how the story could apply to our work, to our individual circumstance. When we see or hear abstract ideas, “ideas come at us like missiles, invading our space and directing us to adopt a mental framework established by another being, and our options boil down to accepting or rejecting it, will all the baggage of yes-no winner-loser confrontations.” When we hear stories, by contrast, we are more likely to invent a parallel story of personal relevance in our mind and to be open to the idea behind the story.

The Creative Priority: Ask Creative Questions, Let People Think November 23, 2009

Posted by Katie Swinerton in The Creative Priority.
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Jerry Hirshberg is the founder and president of Nissan Design International and somewhat of a guru on creativity in organizations. In his book The Creative Priority, Hirshberg discusses one of his strategies for fostering creative thinking: posing critical, creative questions. I really like this idea. When we MBAs think about brainstorming, we often think about sitting around a conference table, and throwing possible solutions up on a whiteboard. Hirshberg encourages us to abandon this approach and instead “take a step back from the canvas” and to frame our thinking around really good, compelling questions.

He says “[t]he form of a question itself contains both the limits and the potential character of its possible answers. Thinking about a car as a people-mover suggests an utterly different set of possibilities than framing it as a mode of personal transportation, an expression of individual style, or a mobile pollution device on four wheels.”

People don’t come to their ah-ha moments in meetings. These moments happen on walks, in the shower and as we’re falling asleep. By posing the right framing questions in meetings, and allowing people to take their time in pondering these, I think we can foster greater, more creative solutions in our organizations.

Baking Cakes and Design Thinking September 28, 2009

Posted by Katie Swinerton in Design Thinking.
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When I was 16 my best friend Laura and I faced the cruel reality that there would be no lavish budgets for our sweet sixteens (which fell 2 weeks apart). Being the enterprising duo that we were (and still are), we decided to throw a fabulous Hawaiian themed party in her basement on a shoe string budget. Our piece de resistance would be a homemade cake featuring likenesses of us surfing babes on a wave, all crafted out of frosting. We quickly settle on the titles “ingeniera” for me and “artista” for Laura – yes, we were learning Spanish occupational titles in class that week. My role was to figure out how to bake cake layers and then to fashion them in a tower in a structurally sound way. Laura mixed a palette of frosting colors and led the intricate frosting job. The result was indeed fabulous.

11 years on, and I’ve learned what we were doing, thanks to the Beckman and Barry article on learning styles and the innovation process. I now know that we were applying our learning styles to the innovation cycle! Laura, with her creativity and natural conceptualization and artistic strengths served as our “writer” and “leader”, while I, with my previous observations of how to make cakes work and experimenting nature, served as our “artist” and “speaker”. I guess we got the titles somewhat wrong. I think what has made a lot of our innovations over the years successful is that we have the right balance of learning styles that have naturally meshed to make observations, frameworks, imperatives and solutions.

Reading the Beckman and Barry and Brown’s respective articles, I was not only reminded of my past work but also inspired to apply some of the lessons to the startup I am working on today.

First of all, our team of cofounders often tosses around ideas about roles but we’ve always thought of these only as functions – VPs of strategy, marketing, operations, etc. We are so early in the product development process that I think it makes sense to instead identify who amongst us is the leader, artist, writer and speaker and to rotate leadership based on where in the design cycle we are.

Second, I found the Design Thinking article full of inspirational ideas for us. My team is now actively pursuing rapid prototyping and observation projects. It is exciting to be building a toolkit in class that I can quickly experiment with outside of class. I’ll let you know how it goes.

As the Future Catches You: A Call for Convergence September 24, 2009

Posted by Katie Swinerton in As The Future Catches You.
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Reading Juan Enriquez’s book As the Future Catches You I found myself, more than once, raising my eyebrows and shaking my head, thinking, “is this guy for real?” For instance – “If you can grow computers organically, it will be much easier for them to fix themselves” or “Gene chips will lead to personalized medicine…You will be able to test whether one medicine or another works better for you…Before you take it.”

And then I started to realize, that this shuddering reaction is sort of his point. I believe Enriquez wants us to confront our fear of change and of the acceleration of technology so that, instead of being blindsided, we can adapt appropriately to what will surely be a changed world (within our lifetimes). In recent conversations with friends of my generation, I’ve been surprised by a strong attitude of wanting to protect the status quo – they do not like the idea of Google’s store of personal data or the concept of electronic medical records. As a Haas student, I am one of the lucky few who is receiving an education about the forefront of the knowledge economy. I think the knowledge that we are receiving endows us with a responsibility to be stewards of the system wide changes that are, as Enriquez points out, all but inevitable.

Another thing that struck me is that, as Haas students, we have the relatively unique opportunity to explore and experiment with the convergence and integration of different disciplines. We have 240 individual backgrounds in our class and are surrounded by a campus full of leading edge research institutions. Enriquez sees a clear convergence between computer code and genomics, two disciplines that developed completely independently but actually have much in common. I wonder what breakthroughs members of our class could come up with if we thought through the merging of other fields.
While I am not sure that I agree that the future success of economies will revolve solely around “digital-genomics”, I think Enriquez is right in that those individuals and societies that will succeed most are those that understand and can harness system wide change instead of ignoring and denying it.

Presentation Zen: Best Book of My Semester! September 24, 2009

Posted by Katie Swinerton in Presentation Zen, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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Checking out the books from our Visualization and Presentation list on Amazon, I was immediately attracted to Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. “Garr is a beacon of hope for frustrated audiences everywhere” – that is me! Between undergrad, my career, and now, ahem grad school, I have suffered through many bad PowerPoint presentations. Any ray of hope was something to go on.

Garr Reynolds at Google Talks

Reynolds goes through how to prepare for a presentation, how to plan and craft a story, how to make slides that have a “zen” aesthetic and how to effectively deliver a presentation. I highly recommend reading this book – it has already started to change the way I make presentations. The tough part is that his recommendations really challenge the status quo. As a former consultant, it is hard for me to fathom doing a slide deck with a maximum of 6 words of text per slide. Fortunately, I am in a relatively safe environment (the business school bubble) right now that just so happens to demand presentations weekly, so I plan to experiment with his style a bit. It will be very interesting to see if I can continue to do presentations that go over rigorous content without lapsing into the standard, cluttered and bullet heavy presentations that we are all so used to.

Instead of continuing on with my reaction to the book, I think the most useful thing I can do is share some of the tips that I have picked up from the book:
1. Keep slides simple: slides should complement what you are saying, not repeat verbatim what you are saying. You are the star of the show – not the slides! Think about using very simple text and lots of images and white space.
2. Use handouts: instead of making your presentation data heavy, include the necessary facts in your talk and in a takeaway handout. That way, everyone gets the information they need, but they absorb it first by hearing you say it, and get the visual and details later. The handout should be what you send out after your presentation (not your slides), and it should contain highlights and explanations of your presentation.
3. Kill bullets: bullets are boring for the audience and for the presenter. They also lend themselves to being read directly which is a big no-no. Reynolds argues that the best slides have no text at all.
4. Use real photos: Clip art should generally be avoided. People have seen it before and it undermines your efforts to make a real connection with people. Instead, use high quality photos of real people and things as often as possible – these are much easier to connect with and to remember. Some good sources of photos are: istockphoto.com and flick.com/creativecommons. You can always take pictures yourself with a digital camera.
5. Use zen principles for slide design: contrast, repetition, alignment, empty space, proximity, and balance can make your slides much more compelling.
6. Deliberate delivery: Keep the lights on in the room so people can see you and you can connect. Use a remote so you are not tied to a lectern or reading your slides. Incorporate storytelling and humor into your words.

Two videos worth watching are: Reynolds at Google doing a presentation on presentation zen (see above) and a Ted talk by Dr. Jill Taylor, a brain scientist, about her experience having and recovering from a stroke. Both show presentation zen in action, at its best.

Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight on TED Talks

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