Blog: Storytelling

As an extreme introvert, I was voluntarily social distancing way before it was required. Social settings totally exhaust me unless everyone in attendance is describing something technical to me which is why I appreciate industry conferences where I can easily move any conversation towards something technical. Although I try to avoid them, I am sometimes required to attend social events and as a result I have come to rely on one thing that deceptively allows me to pass as an extrovert: Storytelling. My team knows I love to tell stories, and I love to hear stories, especially if there is a hidden message within. My best teachers in school told stories; they were entertaining to listen to and by the end of the story the lessons were effectively delivered through the story context. This is one of those useful tools any leader wants to have in their back pocket. I found it useful in explaining my vision for the State Technology department’s future. I could have told people directly what I saw, but I chose to use storytelling to weave the message and provide the contextual stage for the communication and the message was memorable.

Recently I was reminded of an experience in a position I held many years ago as a technical manager. My former team was a dedicated group of people, much like my current team is at the State. During changes they always seemed to be trouble shooting, asking me for “five more minutes” to resolve various issues. You know what happened next; that five minutes always resulted in more asks for an additional five minutes and each five minutes that passed became more excruciating than the previous five minutes. Since my position allowed me to approve or deny the changes, I came up with a rule for my team and it helped me become a more effective leader in these types of situations. If the team requested five more minutes, my reply would always be “you have 15 minutes”. And, when the allowed time was up, there was no other option but to roll back the change and return to a stable state.

2014-09-26 Change Management by Johan Lange is licensed under CC BY 2.0
"2014-09-26 Change Management" by Johan Lange is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Put yourself in a manager’s shoes; if the team is allowed to continue their troubleshooting unabated, they will persistently be running low on time which can become frustrating and costly. Correspondingly frustrating, the defined timeframe for the change becomes indefinite, which very well could impact service availability. Each minute spent waiting puts the customer’s trust at increasing risk. The entire situation is frustrating. Come to think of it, I may have started using “you have 15 minutes” as a rule out of self-preservation.

A challenge for my Team

My MO is to use storytelling to convey a vision. When I wish to change the course of a project, direct my team toward my vision, or attempt to earn buy-in for a new project, this is my go-to strategy. It is fitting to use this blog toward that purpose. Today I challenge the managers on my team at the State of Nebraska and encourage each one to adopt the “you have 15 minutes” rule in their own way. In my experience with this rule, my team made better decisions and consistently achieved more desirable outcomes. I will admit, I occasionally modified my 15-minute rule to 30 or 45 minutes depending on the situation and to signal to my former team that I believed in the progress they were making.

My stories might be inspirational and motivational, but not all my stories are about success. The stories about failures demonstrate that we learn from prior mistakes too. In this blog I related the State’s growing pains to my experience during a time of rapid growth at Ameritrade when we had to quickly build and architect a solution that could initially transact 10,000 trades a day to 500,000 trades a day. The scars we encountered along the way! At First Data we once pushed the wrong version of code to the customer acceptance test environment at a time when the company was in negotiations for a contract renewal with two major financial services organizations. I thought to myself, at least it wasn’t the production environment but knew better than to make that statement. I worked with teams in Europe and South America and applied my 15-minute rule. And… I used storytelling to convey my values and what I believed to be important for our success. The stories and the lessons were always different depending on the message desired but seemed to have one theme in common, we needed to rely on our standard processes and procedures like change and problem management.

As always, I appreciate what you do every day for the State of Nebraska.