Good Storytelling: John Maeda’s Visit to Atlanta

Monday night I had the pleasure of hearing John Maeda, President of The Rhode Island School of Design, speak at the High Museum in Atlanta. A partnership between the High, The Westminster Schools, and Lovett School made his visit possible. Having just finished his excellent short book, Redesigning Leadership: Design, Technology, Business, Life, I was excited to have the chance to hear him speak.

Maeda has the kind of extraordinary intellect that is able to render complexity understandable without ever speaking pejoratively. During his talk, I thought of something he said in the book: “Although data can make a compelling case for something, data rarely create the emotions needed to spur people into action.” Maeda goes on to write about not only the need for storytelling but indeed the primacy of storytelling over statistics. He argues that artists are uniquely suited for this task as they have the intuition necessary to identify the story “and how to tell it in a compelling manner.”

As my school sails toward the work of our ambitious strategic plan, Maeda’s thinking here seems powerfully relevant. While we are determined to gather data that will allow us to assess the efficacy of our steps forward, we must also tell the stories well that will allow people to feel the larger narrative through the individual stories that illustrate components of it.

Maeda’s book left me with much to think about, and I am certain I will write more about some of the topics and issues he explores. I am likely to return to two topics in particular:

  • Understanding the strengths and limits of on-line collaboration. In Redesigning Leadership, Maeda quotes many of his tweets, including this one: “Until you can serve pizza and drinks over the web, a social media portal to foster true collaboration will be so-so.”
  • What makes for successful work in groups? What should be the balance between team cohesion and team cognitive dissonance?

TWO-FIVE-TEN: Guidelines for Establishing the Priorities of a Change Initiative

There are different types of priorities during a change process, and I have been thinking recently about how to make them manageable and understandable. For me, it makes sense to think in terms of TWO-FIVE-TEN.

TWO: “The Non-Negotiables”

I believe there is room for two priorities that are non-negotiable. These are the goals that, if not met, should result in abandoning or re-starting the process.

FIVE: “The Critical Ingredients”

There is room for five critical items. The hope is that all five will be largely intact at the end of the process; however, there has to be a recognition from the start that compromise and a kind of horse trading is likely.

TEN: “’The Wouldn’t it be Nice if’ Group”

These are the items that capture other hopes for the initiative. Getting all of them would be like hitting the lottery, getting six of ten would be good news.

Approaching a change initiative this way does several things:

  • Creates appropriate and manageable expectations for progress.
  • Prevents a business or school from overpromising and under-delivering.
  • Positions the people leading the conversation to maintain focus on what is most important. Nothing is more important than the TWO, nothing on the list of TEN should stand in the way of getting as much out of the FIVE as possible.

I set this down here knowing that the muddiness of an actual change process will confound this approach to some degree. Getting everything to fit neatly in this form will always be difficult; however, the exercise of pushing the conversation toward these guidelines will demand a kind of discipline that is lacking in many change processes.