One of the strongest memories I have of my childhood involves one thing: Playpeople, though that was their UK name, in the US they were, and still are, known as Playmobil. As a family, we had a collection of Playpeople, though it is the space sets that I remember most. We had the Space station and a number of vehicles. The stairs in the house and Playpeople Space became the source of a 1001 narratives and endless stories of the imagination. That’s what it was like being a kid in the 70’s, you created narratives whole cloth from our imagination with a few ‘simple’ tools.
You’re probably now asking: what have 70’s toys got to do with this blog? Well, for me there is distinct link between them, my career, hobbies and outlook on life. I was finding it hard to explain this thematic connection until I encountered the Lego image in the header of this blog, which accurately depicts the endless potential and narrative in a few connected plastic blocks.
Never Grow Up
In a way I’ve never grown up, my predilection for weaving epic tales out of Playpeople and the household stairs translated into experiencing, absorbing, interacting and creating dynamic, engaging and exciting narratives in other forms. This is largely seen through my hobbies which involve role-playing games, board games, videogames, TV & Film, reading, writing, theme parks, etc. All of which involve imagination, creativity, collaboration, interaction, adaptation, scenario building, modelling, abstraction and the weaving, understanding and selling of narrative and experience.
I freely admit, when it comes to my life in general, I’ve just continued to play with the Playpeople in more mature and rich ways. This has been invaluable. Even the MBA dissertation has been an exercise in weaving a good narrative, viewing the interviews through a dramatic model, etc.
Innovate Like A Kid
I think there is a distinct advantage in never completely growing up. Never losing the spark of imagination that exists in all of us as children. Always seeing the three blocks as a dinosaur. Not letting the pressure of careers, colleagues, the turbulent environment push you into a position of seeing just three cold blocks of plastic. Luckily, society is on our side these days. Gone are the days when everyone was expected to grow up and put their toy aside. A few curmudgeons still think this, but they are relics of a previous decade.
One reason not to leave your childhood behind can be summed up in one word: innovation.
It’s often all too easy to see ‘creative genius’ as something that miraculously pops out, fully formed from the brilliant minds of geniuses. Other people. Not those around you. People with abilities beyond those of mortal men. This just isn’t true, exhibited by the fact we all did it on a daily basis as children. How did we do it as children? By collaborating, exploring new ideas, creating an environment in which ideas can be accepted and by using just enough ‘tools’ to tell our story and certainly not smothering the experience with too much structure.
We did this naturally as kids. It doesn’t have to change as an adult.
The other great thing about having an understanding, a passion and a flare for narrative is it sells. In my early career I did this without realising I was doing it. In my mid-twenties I went around the offices of the OBC Group weaving a narrative of what could be with IT, thus creating support for a future vision from the bottom up. It was natural, after all, that’s what I did in my spare time. Now, I’m more conscious of it as a tool. Business is all about selling. Selling products. Selling yourself. Selling a strategy. Selling a vision of a possible future. It’s all selling. Call it persuasion if it sounds better. To succeed you have to sell to others or persuade others that your idea or vision of what could be is a good one.
Narrative is written into our DNA as human beings. We’ve been doing it since we could draw cave paintings and now we experience it through award winning books, TV shows and even reality TV shows and a fascination with z-list celebrities. It’s all based on an in built fascination with narrative.
Facts are important. Facts are part of a decision, but they’re not often the clincher. Narrative has the power to move people, to engage the heart not just the brain. They can transport audiences emotionally. It has the power to cast those you want to persuade as the protagonists of that story in a way they would like to be seen.
What is IT-enabled change but one giant narrative through which leaders attempt to ensure a good ending? The process has an engaging story, it has various actors playing out various parts and it plays out as on-going drama that has it’s up and downs, it’s conflicts and successes. A large part of the process is the place of individuals in this drama, persuading them or framing how they fit in. Why is having a vision so important in the processes? Because you’re defining the broad ending to the narrative.
Why have organisations in the past gone with the strategies or solutions I’ve advocated? Why have people chosen to help me in change efforts? Facts…yes, but a large part of it was because they engaged with the narrative of what was possible. They bought into the vision and the story of what could be.
I know people who, as they’ve grown up, have left the the fascination with story and narrative they had as a child behind. It’s what growing up is all about, apparently. I firmly believe this isn’t true. You can grow up without leaving what is important about childhood behind. My continued engagement in various hobbies and interests around narrative and creating it, often through interaction with groups of people, has been invaluable.