Category Archives for "Purpose"

disused car with flowers in the engine

What You Do and Why You Do It

A few years ago, I started in business not at all clear about what I was going to do.  I was clear about why I wanted to be in business.  My business why has never changed, even though several people have told me it’s no good!  I’m convinced why you do business is crucial for success.

I looked back to my time as a development worker and realised something true for me and many other development workers.  Most of our projects no longer exist.  Some were successful at the time.  Now they are no more and the communities we sought to change are unchanged or worse off.

I concluded the reason for this was not quality of the work so much as funding.  Grant aid is not sustainable.  Thriving communities form around businesses that serve local residents.  My vision is of business as a means to local transformation.  I aim to coach in local marketing, businesses mindful of their impact on the lives of those around them.

I found when I spoke of this aim, audiences were always inspired.  My challenge was to turn this why into business activities.

In an earlier post, I suggested you need three aims for your business: your business, financial and lifestyle aims.  In this post I return to the first of these. 

Why versus What

It is worth reading Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why.  He explains why knowing the reason your business exists is important for success.  People buy why you do your business, not what you sell.

Look at it this way.  You offer something similar to many other businesses.  Even if you come up with something completely new, you will be copied.  Assume your competitors are as good as you are or even better!  What does this mean?

You could argue it’s best to hand your customers over to someone who is better than you because the public always chooses the best offer on the market.  You could compete on price – I may not be as good as the others but I charge less!

Let’s say you’re one of three people equally good at what you do.  Each is invited to pitch their business.  How will your audience choose?  Telling them what you do won’t help them decide. 

Telling them why you do it, offers them a choice.  They won’t all choose you.  Whatever turns one person on, switches someone else off.   But that’s OK, you’ve helped them decide. 

And who says the other business is better than yours?  When you help the people who choose you, they and you are happy.

Forgetting Why You Started

What you do is seductive.  You spend years honing your skills and you are proud of your achievements  You know you help people but somehow you can’t reach them.  They show no interest. 

You spend a lot of time designing better products and services.  This is productive, if part of routine housekeeping.  But don’t lose sight of your reason for being in business.  It should drive design of products and services and inform marketing. 

Don’t lose sight of why you started.  Maybe you need to persist with the packages you started with.  It is tempting to move on and abandon old ideas.  But if you chop and change, it makes it difficult for your market to remember you.  People need to hear your message many times before they take it on board.

Stay with your why.  Eventually people remember you and so turn to you. 

Failing Through Success

Which just about says it all except …

Success can undermine your why.  Most small businesses make a living from early adopters.   Their niche market makes enough money and they enjoy the work.

Some businesses make the breakthrough to the big time.  They grow into premises and staff and loads of customers.  It is possible to lose sight of your why when this happens. But remember it is still the reason people choose to become your customers.  If you lose track of your why, your customers will move on.

One business that has maintained clarity about its why is John Lewis.  Think of its Christmas commercials.  Do they lead to more customers?  There’s no way of knowing.  What they do is remind staff, customers and shareholders of their why.  They use their marketing to build their business.

It’s tempting is allow your what to overwhelm your why.  Many people don’t make the distinction, they don’t understand why your why is important.  In time, this means your why does not hold your business together and multiple whats polarise your stakeholders.  Conflict creates enormous problems and so it is the topic for next time.

Do you know why you are in business? How does it help you market and sell your products and services? Leave a comment below.

view of skyscraper from below

Your Worldview and Your Business Plan

In 1980, I packed in research science and elected for life as a development worker.  The biggest stumbling block to this new life was my worldview.  I was an extremely introverted young man and my new career depended on my ability to not only relate to people but take initiative.  Also, my general views about how things worked were hardly realistic.  I had a lot to learn. 

Community development is tough.  Over the years I saw many new workers crash and burn.  I have no idea how I survived.  Certainly, it took me well over fifteen years to understand what I was doing.  For one thing I had to stop blaming myself for failure.  It was sometimes my fault when something went wrong but well … most things don’t work. 

Most important I had to learn to trust other people and offer them space to make their own mistakes.  Funding regimes make terrible demands on people who are not being paid to manage projects and paid staff.  I slowly understood it is our worldviews that erect barriers to success.

Personality

It is worth starting with a word about personality.  We act out of the ways in which we perceive the world.  This is why people with similar views may respond in very different ways.  Knowing your own personality type helps you understand personal biases.  Once you know your type, read descriptions and watch out for those biases in the way you act. 

I favour The Enneagram, which is a system of 9 basic types that interact in various clearly defined ways.  You identify your type by observing your behaviour and comparing it with descriptions.  This is a slower but ultimately more reliable than using questionnaires.  You can find help from experienced practitioners and if you get the opportunity to meet with others of your type, you can check out whether you do comfortably fit in the same mould.

The point is you cannot change your type.  All have positive and negative characteristics.  They can all be healthy or unhealthy.  You become healthier by observation of your own behaviour and focusing on well-defined positive changes.

One reason most things don’t work is something devised by someone of one type may not function in the same way with someone of a different type.  You can adapt but if you are unaware of your own biases, it is unlikely you see the weaknesses in your own approach. 

Technical and Adaptive Solutions

Personality has a massive impact on worldview.  All nine personality types share all possible worldviews.  The reasons they hold the views vary.  For example, an Eight might support Remain in Europe because they believe the UK can best achieve its aims by throwing its weight around in Europe, whilst a Five might devise a detailed reasoned argument for the same cause.  And of course others of the same types might hold the opposite view. 

From a business perspective, all types will be drawn to congenial technical solutions.  Faced with a problem, people seek a solution and they most likely choose something where they feel comfortable.  So, the Eight may feel happy cold calling prospects whilst the Five is unlikely to feel comfortable doing so.

However, nine different takes on cold calling prospects does not tell us whether cold calling is a good business method.  Granted those who feel most at ease with the method are likely to use it more effectively.  But what if it is the best method?  Does that mean everyone must use it, whatever their predisposition?

Any proven method is worth consideration.  Personality is one factor to consider.  However, there are many ways to solve the same problem.  Choosing the right technical solution is an important skill, resisting biase from your personality and worldview. 

Seek an adaptive solution to the problem.  This allows you to construct a tailored response, something new that works for you in this context.  

Coaching Helps You See Things Differently

This is why working with a coach help.  Especially so if the coach does not share your personality type.  The coach can challenge you to think outside of your habitual worldview.    They suggest other ways of looking at the problem and point out where you act out of your prejudices. 

The aim in the coaching relationship is to engage in a dialogue.  There is no reason the coach is likely to be less biased than you are – they see from their perspective.  However, you as client can challenge the coach too.  You can say why you don’t think their suggestion will work. Together you seek a solution that works.

But none of this can work until you have clarity about why you are in business in the first place.

woman breathing at sunset

Getting Your Business Purpose Clear

When I first became self-employed, I had no business purpose.  It has taken me several years to find one.  So, why did I become self-employed?  I was attracted by the lifestyle and no longer wanted to work for someone. Could I use my days the way I chose? 

I needed a business purpose because I’d never be happy simply living from day to day without purpose.  What would get me out of bed in the morning and help me build new contacts? 

I knew I could live off savings but I needed income and so found I had another aim for my business.  As I worked on this aim, there was more to it than setting a financial target. 

Three Aims

From my own experience, I saw three aims together define my business.  For some the aim of their business is to make money.  But money is never the reason a business exists.  A business that defines its aims solely in financial terms lacks credibility.  There is financial sense in defining three aims that together define your purpose. 

“Profit is no more the purpose of business than breathing is the purpose of life.”

John Kay, a contemporary economist

This helps us identify two business aims:

Business Purpose

This answers the question: “Why are you in business?”  This is an immense topic and it is covered in Simon Sinek’s classic work “Start with Why”.

Once you are clear about why you are in business, you can discern what is relevant.  If you define your business by what you do, what you do constrains your activities.  If you make computers, you can’t make mobile phones.  If you aim to help people communicate, it helps you open new ways to meet that why – now you can make computers and mobile phones!

Your business is easier to understand and more attractive to your target market.  Indeed, you have no hope of attaining your financial target without your business purpose.  People need to know, like and trust your business if they are to buy from you.  

It doesn’t matter whether you see your business purpose as more or less important than your financial purpose, you need both!

Financial Purpose

This is not solely about setting a target, so long as you understand it may take several attempts over several years to get there.

The other part of your financial purpose is how do you plan to get there?  For example, a business during its early stages usually needs to maximise sales, while a business further down the road may need to maximise profit. How you understand your financial activity makes a massive difference.  You approach sales and profit in different ways. 

Remember John Kay.  Finance is essential to your business but it is not the reason your business exists. 

Lifestyle Purpose

A third dimension, often overlooked, is still important.  What do you want from your business?  This might include provision for yourself and your family, freedom, health …

This purpose influences the other two.  Here are a few reasons:

  • Direct impact upon your financial purpose.  If you want to travel the world for 3 months every year, that has financial implications for your business and impacts on your business purpose.
  • The demands the business makes on you.  Do you really want to find time to manage staff? 
  • The demands your lifestyle makes on your business.  Can you afford to take 2-3 hours per day out of your business for other activities? 
  • The exit strategy for your business.  Do you have an age you ideally want to work until and what happens after that?

Some of the demands life makes are massive.  Caring for children or others takes time.  If your business has to work around these commitments, it will be different to what it otherwise would be. 

Some people continue in full-time or part-time work as they develop their own business.  At what stage do they let go of their safety net?

Clarity

Businesses are prone to failure where they lack clarity about one or more of these three. The point where the three purposes overlap is where you need to be.  For example, if you have unavoidable childcare commitments, then you have less time to spend on your business.  Therefore you need activities, compliant with your business purpose, which maximise income for least effort.  This may mean compromising your business purpose or accepting lower financial returns.

Sometimes there are other options.  Deciding what to do in changing circumstances is best when guided by your three aims.  The decisions you make can be guided by these aims but you are also subject to something else. 

Your worldview determines the decisions you make and if you are not aware of its important role, it can be another reason for failure.

house overgrown with ivy

Understanding Context and Failure

Saul Alinsky was a community activist in the United States.  He invented Citizens’ Organising and after he died in the 70s, the Industrial Areas Foundation led the way.  Organising has been immensely successful in the context of the US.  President Obama was an organiser before he became President.

Attempts have been made to introduce Organising to the UK.  Not with a great deal of success.  One of the earliest UK Organisations was COGB – Citizens Organised for a Greater Bristol.  I saw one of their events in 1992, when I took an organising course.  The event was impressive.  (I failed the course because I didn’t get angry enough!) 

Impact was the Organisation in Sheffield.  It no longer exists.  Why?  I don’t know the details but I know what I experienced of Impact.  Funding is important for Organisations and it must come from their members (other organisations – in the States, often churches).  Impact applied for grants and this put it in the wrong relationship with potential members and allies.  It was perceived as competing for funding and to achieve its outputs it tended to strongarm the groups it was supposed to support.  Presumably the reason it applied for grants was because most organisations, themselves dependent on grants, could not justify its high fees.

Organising hasn’t worked in the UK because it is a completely different context to the US. 

Divergent Solutions

Context is one key reason proven approaches don’t work.  Time and again, I heard about some new initiative in a neighbourhood similar to the one where I worked.  I persuaded people it was worth a try and we found it didn’t work.  Often some apparently insignificant issue proved all important.

We tend to think of solutions as convergent and the analogy might be engineering.  Think of something that always works, eg a car engine.  A well-maintained engine works reliably and predictably.  It may be possible to modify the engine and improve performance.  If this is a positive change, it is not too difficult to persuade everyone that it’s worth adopting the modification.  Solutions for engineering problems are usually convergent.  Given two solutions, it is not difficult to agree which is the best.

Divergent solutions are where answers proliferate.  Unlike convergent solutions, where potential solutions can be eliminated, divergent solutions produce more and more options.  Most human systems are divergent.  There are at least as many solutions as there are people involved.  These are qualitative systems, described by stories – they cannot be described by statistics.  When there are effectively an infinity of possible solutions, the only way to manage is to make choices.

Trial and error is the main option here.  But can we guide the choices we make?

Soft Systems Analysis

Soft systems analysis helps us think about divergent problems.  It is too complex to describe the full method here but I can help you appreciate something of its power.

What tends to happen with any divergent problem is we lose sight of what we are looking at!  The situation is so complex we can’t tell apples from oranges.  Indeed we might not see the oranges at all because there are so many apples, all vying for attention.

When we take a soft system seriously there are many problems and many solutions.  Before we do anything, we need to agree on the problem.

One useful idea is the distinction between actors and clients.  An actor is someone who has a part to play in the system.  There are likely to be many actors and all have their own roles and objectives.

A client is an actor who wants to change the system.  Each client has their own perspective on the system.  So, what difference does it make, which actor you choose as a client?  (These may be real-life clients and you are helping them with their analysis; or you can choose several actors and compare the difference it makes when they are clients.) 

Let’s say you consider three actors as clients.  Each perceives the system in their unique way.  So, now you see the system from three distinct viewpoints.  This helps you see new problems and new possibilities. 

The context changes when you change client.  The system is unchanged except you view the system from the perspective of  each client. 

Why do most initiatives go wrong?  The reasons can be subtle.  There’s nothing visible but opposition to your solution grows, it seems out of nowhere.  You need to be able to read the system and soft systems helps you do that.

Each client has a purpose.  You can help a real life client achieve their purpose using soft systems.  You can view a system from the viewpoints of several clients using soft systems.  Either way you need to understand purpose.  And lack of clarity about purpose is another reason for failure.

Never stop dreaming

Why Does Business Development Matter?

When I started my own business, I had no idea what I was going to do.  I knew I had no idea; what attracted me was lifestyle.  I wanted freedom to live my life as I chose.  I was at the earliest stage of business development.

So, I started as a website designer.  It’s been a journey, working out what I do – what I offer that people value. 

As I grew in understanding of website design, I worked out websites are always about marketing something, if not a business, a cause.  As I read about marketing I found much of it familiar from my time in community development.  We didn’t call it marketing.  When you have no funds and little influence, you need to communicate your message and respond to objections.

The next phase was to position myself amongst others who sell marketing.  Any viable business encounters competition.  I chose storytelling in marketing as a key area based on my experience in community development and my observations about how marketing is itself marketed.

It has been a long journey and a journey every business owner takes.

Why do most things fail?  The most likely reason is covered in this post.  It is important to understand the stage of business development you are at.  Not every technical fix works for businesses at every stage of development. 

A common problem is using methods that work for businesses at later stages.  It is also possible to be stuck with a method that worked when your business was at an earlier stage.

Five Stages of Business Development

Let’s review five stages of business development.  Five is not a magic number.  Five offers a helpful rule of thumb.  It is always possible to go deeper if you need to.

Stage 1: Dreaming

At this stage, you work out your business purpose.  Why are you in business?  Use trial and error.  Try things until you find something that works.

This stage can be swift or slow (years slow).  Sometimes it takes a while to work out not just your strengths but what you can meet from your market’s needs.

You can make money at this stage and indeed you must be in business.  How else can you test an idea to see whether it is viable?

Once you turn over a few thousand a year, you are ready to move to stage 2.

Stage 2: Marketing and Selling

At this stage you work out how to market and sell products and services.  If you cannot sell over a cup of coffee, you cannot sell online.  You need to know, through conversations with potential customers, what sells; work out how to get them to sit down with you over coffee.

Move to stage 3 when you feel under pressure to meet the demands of your customers.  By then you may be turning over a few tens of thousands.

Stage 3: Capacity Building

This is the stage most successful businesses reach.  Some pass through this stage with an eye to stages 4 and 5.  Others are content at stage 2 but wish to perhaps find more time by becoming more efficient.  This is not the place to go into detail but the main ways to build capacity are:

  • Automation – now you can sell online!
  • Increased prices
  • Buying in services
  • Employment of staff

Many use all four and so likely turnover is intermediate tens of thousands, up to the UK VAT threshold, perhaps. 

Stage 4: Mass Market

This is where you move out of your niche and build a mass market.  Whilst you must remain faithful to your business purpose (success is a frequent reason businesses lose their way) now you sell something with mass appeal.  You offer any flavour so long as it is vanilla.

This stage does not appeal to everyone. 

Stage 5: Guru Status

Now you sell more than one line to a mass market.  You are recognised by other businesses as the leader in the market. 

Reasons for Failure

Stage of business development is a frequent reason for failure because there are many ways of losing track of where you are.  Here are a few.

First, you leapfrog to a later stage.  This is a frequent issue for people starting out.  They are new to the marketplace and watch what others do.  Everyone’s going to a workshop about Facebook marketing and so you tag along.  It’ll work if you have something to sell and Facebook is right for your market.  If you don’t, maybe you are getting into Facebook too early. 

Another common problem is early success.  You can leapfrog stages 1 and 2 and go directly to 3.  This might happen where someone stumbles on something easy to sell.  They set up a business and it does well, requires loads of staff and shows great growth.  But what happens when demand falls? Now you have the responsibility of employing staff but no clear business purpose and no idea how to market or sell anything else. 

It is also possible to forget stages 1 and 2, if you are contemplating a move to stage 4.  The temptation at this stage is to compromise on quality.  Does compromise further your business purpose? 

Finding Solutions

My purpose in this series of posts is to identify likely reasons for failure.  It is not to suggest solutions.  Why? Every business is different.  What works for one business is a disaster for another. 

What can you do?  It helps to begin with two questions:

  1. How well do you know your own business?
  2. Do you know the stage of development your business is at? Whatever the reason for failure, it is coloured by the stage of business development. 

Coaching

Get a coach or non-directive consultant.  A good coach not only boosts your brain power (two heads are better than one!) but sees your business from a different perspective.  It is easy to get locked into one way of seeing things.  Tell yourself a story and the story enchants you.  Sometimes the perspective you take has obvious flaws; obvious when they are pointed out! 

A coach helps you find the perspective to move your work on.  For this reason, the coach need not be an expert in the business you occupy.  You need to be nudged, you don’t need someone to do the work for you!

Technical Solutions

Technical solutions are great so long as you choose the right ones.  For example, Facebook marketing might be the solution you seek.  It’s a proven method.  Go to a workshop on this topic and you find other business owners there too.  They’re there because it is a good, proven method.

Spend no more time on Facebook marketing than you need to eliminate it from your enquiries.  Putting time, money and energy into the wrong solution destroys your business.  If Facebook marketing destroys your business, it is not the fault of Facebook marketing.

Most likely, it is not appropriate to your stage of business development.  There may be other reasons it does not work.  But consider whether what you are trying to do right now is best helped by marketing through Facebook.

Conclusion

Stage of business development is an important element in the context of failure.  But businesses fail for other reasons and it is important to understand how context influences the solutions we bring to our business.

desert landscape

Failure: Why Most Things Don’t Work

I was a community development worker for over 30 years and when I started in 1980, I was totally unsuited to the role.  I had been a research scientist, I was deeply introverted and terrified of relating to people.  I was also terrified of failure.

What I had to offer though was problem-solving.  When faced by a crisis, I stayed with it and took up the challenge.  Often I was surrounded by activist people who asked me for an interpretation of what was happening.  “What are our options?” 

I found I am highly perceptive but weaker at judgement.  When I trusted others with my insights, things were more likely to go well.  It took me a long time to learn not to take charge but to build trust in my insights.

Fear of Failure

Why was I so afraid of failure?  Partly it was being employed.  I wanted to please my employers and keep my job – or receive good references.  Therefore success was essential.  My defensiveness meant I took ages to understand one simple fact:

Most Things Don’t Work!

Once I understood this I became more confident.  I understood my strengths and managed the expectations others had of me.  I stopped trying to take command and focussed on finding and supporting leaders.  This didn’t always work (of course) but I was no longer stressed by failure – now it was part of the job.  I learned how to manage expectations – that community development is more about building relationships than it is about managing projects.

Now I am self-employed I find the same insights apply equally to business.

How Failure Works

The path to success is through repeated failure.  Look closely at anyone’s story of business success and you find long periods of failure.  Typically these are at the beginning of a successful business.  Frequently, an initial success is followed by a long period of not very much happening. 

No-one experiences success without failure.  The confidence of successful people comes from their overcoming of failure and not their ultimate success.  Success is a small island at the far side of a wilderness of failure.  You might never find the island or perhaps not recognise it when you do!

There are people who are born lucky, who inherit wealth and can afford expensive failure.  They are not “annealed by suffering” and often display zero emotional intelligence.  Is this success or a monumental failure?  We all know what happens when they get their hands on the levers of power. 

I’ve written about these immortals before.  Don’t think they are only billionaires with social media accounts.  I’ve met them leading community groups and churches.  Why immortals?  They believe they are indispensable.  It is as if they will never die (until they do). 

Those who experience failure learn grit, determination and humility.  Now they are ready of success. 

A Taxonomy of Failure

This sequence of blog posts explores what goes wrong.  So far I have 15 sources of failure.  Surely there are more?  Here is my list – I’ll update them as we go.  If you know of others, leave a comment and perhaps I’ll add them to the list!  Maybe I’ll ask you to write a guest post!  I’ll add links to each post as I publish them.

  1. Stage of business development
  2. Context
  3. Clear about business purpose – three aims.
  4. Your Worldview
  5. Not Knowing: Why?
  6. Conflict
  7. Lack of persistence
  8. Poor Positioning
  9. Pitiful Pricing
  10. Lack of Confidence
  11. My Market is Everyone
  12. Technical solutions
  13. Too theoretical
  14. Quality or Quantity?
  15. Financial Mismanagement 
Scrooge meets Morley's ghost

Basic Plots 7: Rebirth

One version of the tragic story type is close to the seventh and final common basic plot, Rebirth.  It is where the hero repents at the last minute .  They are too late, nemesis consumes them, all too aware of the mistake they made.

But what happens where it isn’t too late?  What if such a hero lives?

Summary

Just like all but one of the seven basic plots, this story develops in five stages.  At first glance you may think the middle sections are very similar.  Although on one level a lot happens, stasis marks this story-type.  Nothing much happens for years or decades.  Frustration is absent until something precipitates a crisis.

  1. The hero falls under a shadow. Sometimes the hero is innocent until something happens that causes this first change of heart.
  2. The poison takes time to take a hold and perhaps things seem to go well at first. Gradually it takes hold and shows its full effect.
  3. With darkness full on, the hero experiences total isolation, imprisonment, a living death.
  4. Something precipitates a nightmare crisis.
  5. The power of love liberates the hero, who experiences a second change of heart.

From Innocence to Egocentric Obsession

There are three variants at the start of this story-type.  They influence the outcome and perhaps our feelings for the hero.

In the first, the hero remains innocent throughout the story.  They labour under a dark power that immobilises them.  This is common in children’s stories, eg Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  Both these heroes are held in stasis until some external influence brings about change.  There are adult versions.  One such is Florestan, the hero of Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio.  He is imprisoned and Leonora, his wife, takes action to free him.  He needs to be released and has no need to repent.  Nevertheless, his release is a rebirth.

The second type is where the dark power springs from within the hero’s personality.  We meet Scrooge at Christmas, well into stage 3 or 4.  We learn during the story the reason why he became a miser.  This is the most realistic of the three variants and one businesses should study.

The third variant is where the dark power takes over the hero and turns the hero into a dark figure.  Peer Gynt is a well-known example, where he discovers late in life he never escaped the magic of the trolls. Kay, from the Snow Queen, is another example.  Neither of these heroes is particularly malevolent, they lead pointless lives.

One constant is the sense of a life lived to no purpose.  The hero often looks back to a time of innocence.  Perhaps a story on the cusp of tragedy and rebirth is Citizen Kane.  He dies with the word “Rosebud” in his lips.  We learn as the film progresses that Rosebud represents the last time he experienced happiness.

Slow Build

The point is the sense of constriction.  The hero is not necessarily a villain, typically he or she shows little malice towards others.  Others may fear or avoid them because they are cold, hard, inured to the feelings of others.  They see the world from a mechanistic perspective, they calculate and measure.  They don’t appreciate or delight in life.

On one level, they may be successful.  Perhaps like Kane, they build a business empire.  They pursue pleasure but see no beauty or purpose in what they accumulate.  From outside, they appear successful.  Within though nothing changes.  They care for no-one, not even themselves.

That one word, Rosebud, is the only clue we have that Kane appreciates he took the wrong road and could not find his way back.

Darkness, Isolation and Nightmare

Typically, we encounter this person without feeling at the height of their power.  It is not that Scrooge hates Bob Cratchit, he simply doesn’t care, he lacks sympathy or compassion.

Some of these heroes are monsters and do terrible things.  But the thing that separates them from the villain in other stories is their lack of malice.  They don’t care.

We baulk at Shahryar’s brutal rule.  He has power and uses it to rape and murder young women.  But we are given his back-story and see what caused darkness to overwhelm him.  Modern people perhaps want to see him punished but the story goes in an unexpected direction.  If we want to see him punished, if we don’t care what happens to him, does that not make us just like him?

In the end it is just a story and it is what it is.  It raises issues for us, it does not tell us what to think.  Scherezade could have run him through with a sword.  But perhaps her strategy was the only one available to her.

Liberation Through Love

Love precipitates rebirth.  Frequently love for a child, a young woman or a dashing young prince.  The hero is incomplete until they feel something for someone outside of the world they created for themselves.  Scrooge falls for Tiny Tim, who does not die.

Of these three the most interesting is the young woman.  A child can make a big difference but is essentially passive.  The hero must choose to take care of the child.  The young prince belongs solely in fairy stories as far as I am aware.  The young woman (who may grow old during the story) is not always passive.  Sometimes she takes action to rescue the hero.  Indeed, perhaps she becomes the hero.  She is the one prepared to love the hero.  Think of Gerda in The Snow Queen or Sonia in Crime and Punishment.

Scherezade

Scherezade is a frame story and so gets lost in 1001 other stories.  Unlike Gerda and Sonia, she does not know Shahryar.  She loves him but cannot possibly feel that way from the start.  What is different about her?

She is a young woman and so are all Shahryar’s other victims.  How is Scherezade different?  She determines not to follow her sisters but to put an end to Shahryar’s reign of terror.  We assume his other victims tried every conceivable seductive charm to no avail.  Scherezade could see this was not about sex.  She was a scholar and so used scholarship to help him rediscover his true self.

She has a plan, assisted by her little sister, who asks for a bedtime story.  Maybe the child’s presence made a difference.  Maybe Shahryar let Scherezade live out of sympathy for the child and found he was gradually drawn into a world of stories and there rediscovered his true self.

Work-Life Balance

The rebirth story is an arrow aimed at the heart of business.  It challenges all business owners to be true to themselves.  To remember who they are, as they contemplate their figures and plan the next sale.

It challenges those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  To ask, what is it that is truly important?

A business person spends 15 years building a successful business, takes early retirement and returns home to a splendid house with a spouse who barely remembers him and a brood of moody Goths.  Yes, he provided for them, made sure they could do anything they wished.  But is that all his family wanted from him?

It is easy in business to lose track of reality.  Seasons come and go and suddenly you are a lot older, wondering what happened to all that time.  Success may have happened but under the surface, everything else has been on hold.  The faithful spouse complains “we had it all planned, we were going to do so much together but he died.”

How many business people die with “Rosebud” on their lips?

Some business owners tell how they realised time was passing and they no longer wanted to work for others.  They longed for freedom to live their lives to the full. Business itself can be a story of rebirth.

Conclusion

These seven common basic plots are not the only story-types but they open up models for stories that work.  There’s no need to force your story to fit one of these plots but if you can, find a story that resonates, a story you like, that has meaning. Your story will benefit from the dialogue.

If the rebirth story-type shows us one thing, it is the technical side of business is not on its own enough to bring satisfaction to us or our customers.  Remember no-one did business with Scrooge because they wanted to.

Man crowning himself

Basic Plots 6: Tragedy

The word tragedy is from the Greek for goat: tragos!  It is rooted in the idea of the scapegoat, the person who dies for the sins of the community.  Frequently the innocent suffer and die in a tragic story.  Even the central character can be innocent.

This is the only story-type that does not have a happy ending.  All other types show the hero somehow prevailing but in these stories the hero fails.  Does this mean this story-type is less applicable to business?  Who would trade with a tragic business?

Actually, this story-type is really important to businesses but to see why we need to understand how the tragic story works.

Summary

Just like most story-types, the tragic story passes through 5 stages.  I shall illustrate it with a simplified business story.

  1. Anticipation – an incomplete hero has a desire that focuses his energies. The new business owner decides his priority is to overcome his competition and make more money than anyone else.  He comes up with a “harmless” scam.
  2. Dream – the hero commits to a course of action that initially goes well. The hero finds his scam goes down well with the public and he establishes himself as a leader in his market.
  3. Frustration – things start to go wrong and the hero has to cheat even more to stay ahead. Our hero must add more lies to the ones he already tells from fear of being found a fraud.
  4. Nightmare – things get out of control, mounting threat and despair. A co-ordinated opposition begins to close in.  More people are suspicious and report their suspicions to the authorities.
  5. Destruction or deathwish. A final act of violence, murder or suicide, precipitates the hero’s death.  The hero is unmasked and condemned to bankruptcy or worse.

This is a complex story type and so the summary should be seen as one possible pathway.  There are several routes to the tragic ending and the threat is not always from the hero.

The Tragic Ending

These stories end in ultimate defeat, namely death.  Fortunately business people rarely kill anyone or commit suicide.  The tragic ending as a final defeat with no hope of reconciliation or rebirth.  It does not have to be death in a real life story.  Clearly, if someone does die, it is not them telling the story!

To understand the scope of this story better, let’s look at the hero.  There are several ways the hero works in tragic stories.  There are dark and light heroes.  Where the hero is dark, they are a threat to society.  Where the hero is light, society is a threat to them.

Four Subtypes Illustrate the Scope of Tragic Stories

  1. Here the hero is an out-and-out villain,  for example Richard III.  This play is an overcoming the monster story, from the point of view of the monster!  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  He does well because determined and few have the courage or convictions to stand up to him.  Out of sight, the opposition grows and in time is strong enough to overthrow the monster.
  2. Here the hero makes a foolish decision. They make a bad decision for the wrong reasons and pay the price for their decision.  Often the outcome arises naturally from the decision, eg Faust condemned to hell or Jekyll overwhelmed by Hyde.  Some of these heroes are also victims of society and common examples are women heroes, such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.
  3. Here our sympathies are completely with the hero. A good person drawn into an external conflict against their own better judgement.  Romeo kills Tybalt because Tybalt kills Mercutio.  He has succumbed to the violence around him and so must pay the price.  He and Juliet are clear examples of the scapegoat, their death brings the warring families to their senses.
  4. Finally, the hero appears monstrous but is actually good. Victor Hugo offers us the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jean Valjean from Les Miserables.  The latter is hunted as a criminal and yet all he does is motivated by love for his daughter and general humanity.

The Deadly Focus

The 5 stages describe a journey from hubris to nemesis.  When we think about tragedies, we tend to focus on nemesis.  But from a business perspective perhaps we should focus on hubris.

Hubris is to step over the mark.  You might find a law irksome.  You decide to break it and at first it’s exhilarating.  But then …

Last time when I wrote about comedy, I suggested a typical business comedy might be where the boss is immortal.  The person who identifies with the business to such an extent that they are a single entity.  I’ve seen this several times in my working life and it is always painful and difficult to move on.  In a comedy, eventually they come to their senses; what happens when they don’t?

What is the nature of hubris?  It can be infectious, whole populations can succumb to it, usually out of fear.  What exactly is it?

Some Examples of Hubris

It is a decision to focus on something that challenges the status quo.  We find this often in modern politics where the so-called liberal establishment is the target of so-called radical challenges from the right, eg Brexit and President Trump.

As far as it goes such challenges may be based on a degree of truth.  There is a lot wrong with the establishment.  However, they don’t understand the problem and reach for the easiest solution to hand.

What is the problem Brexit solves?  Is it immigration, loss of sovereignty, too many regulations, austerity …?  Each of these could be solved in several ways and Brexit is proving not to be one of them.

Hubris is where the wrong solution is found to a poorly understood problem.  The hero is bored or frustrated in some way and an apparent solution presents itself.  It can be very seductive and is sometimes called a temptation.

The hero commits to the wrong path and then because of their immediate success becomes more committed to the path.  We don’t know what story-type Brexit will prove to be but we saw the dream stage for the Brexiteers after the referendum result and now frustration and nightmare are setting in.  The opposition is rallying (perhaps) and we may see a final battle.

The thing to note is how positions on both sides become increasingly entrenched.  Focus has shifted from the problem to a badly formed solution that bewitches political discourse.

We even have a saying: “Jumping to conclusions” which means coming up with an ill-conceived solution, most likely to the wrong problem.  Businesses are familiar with this and so are community and voluntary organisations.  Religious organisations too are not immune.

Repentance

Take any of the four subtypes I listed above and there is another possible outcome.  The hero repents.  They see clearly what is happening.  Number 4 already will have a good sense of reality, which puts them out of step with everyone else.  For subtype 1, the change is likely to be cataclysmic, for 4 less so or perhaps there’s no need for it.

In a tragic story the change of heart is too little or too late to effect the outcome.  The hero contemplates their folly and the disaster they have brought down on their own heads and for their loved ones.

The truth is folly has implications for not only the hero but for those around them.  Too late they see what has happened to those they love. They repent and the full horror of what they have done comes home to them. They die with regret on their lips.

This is important because to make the wrong decision is likely to cost in terms of turnover, relationships, work-life balance and maybe legal proceedings.  These stories paint the picture in an extreme light but the point they make is highly relevant.  The choices we make matter.

Looking Forwards

Tragedy shows us what happens when repentance is too late.  But what happens when the villain’s repentance allows them time to make amends?  This opens the way to perhaps the deepest, most meaningful story-type: Rebirth.

Basic Plots 5: Comedy

If you think comedy is about humour, you must be joking!  People associate comedy with humour because many situations in comedy provoke laughter.  But many stories that follow the comedy plot are not particularly humourous. And of course not all humour is comedy!

Summary

So far, all the plots we’ve explored have a five-fold development.  Comedy is remarkably versatile and one reason is it has fewer steps.  The first two are typically missing; if they are present, you are likely to have another plot with humour!

  1. We are introduced to a small world under a shadow, where everyone is confused, uncertain and frustrated.  Usually the reason is a powerful figure who has taken the wrong path and so everyone has to work around her or him.  The people affected work separately and so all their little schemes confuse one another.
  2. Confusion increases and leads to nightmare consequences, eg someone will be executed or made to marry the wrong person.
  3. New information comes to light that reveals the truth about the dark character who either sees the error of their ways or leaves unreconciled. With shadows dispelled, there is a seemingly miraculous transformation and everyone joins in a joyful union, often around marriage of the right people.

Evolution of Comedy

Most plot types are ancient and their origins lost in the mists of time.  Comedy evolved during recorded history, it is only a few thousand years old.  I’m not going into a lot of detail, you can find an account in Booker but there are a few things worth highlighting.

The key to comedy is the point of recognition, where everyone suddenly sees clearly what has gone on before.  Recognition reveals the key dark character as a hypocrite, who either fesses up or departs never to return.  It is this key revelation that is distinctive to comedy.  This revelation prevents bad things from happening and so results in a happy ending.

Not quite so ancient but from a very early stage, lovers kept apart form comedy’s main preoccupation.  Frequently the resolution revolves around one or both lovers identities.

We naturally find, in these stories, the pompous powerful figure shown up for their hypocrisy, hilarious.  Think of Basil Fawlty, who is manager of a well-run hotel (in his own mind) and spends most of his time covering up the chaos happening behind the scenes.

Four Ingredients

Traditional comedy then has four key ingredients.  You are likely to find vestiges of them in any comic story.

  1. The dark character softens or else is shown up or paid off.
  2. The true identity of at least one character revealed.
  3. Recognition of the true love so that right people pair off by the end.
  4. Division, separation and loss repaired.

There are many traditional comic devices and if they happen you are likely to be enjoying a comedy.  These include disguises, mistaken identities, lost objects found, overheard and misinterpreted conversations.

Three Variations

Three basic variations go back to the earliest forms of comedy.

  1. The dark figure is a third-party and acts as a barrier to the lovers. This figure is often the father of the heroine or may be a rival to either the hero or heroine.
  2. The dark figure is either the hero or the heroine. The other must show constancy and eventually bring them round.
  3. There is no dark figure as such but things are generally confusing. The hidden truth revealed resolves the situation.

Note in the second, the dark hero or heroine must turn around to bring the story to a happy ending.  In the first, the dark figure can be unreconciled and so removed from the story.  This is unlikely where the dark figure is a parent and more likely where it is a dark rival.

Note too that for much of history, women lacked agency.  So, in comedies they are likely to disguise themselves as men.  Many of Shakespeare’s comedies use this device.

Above and Below the Line

Given a powerful person deluded is often the reason for confusion in the story, the question is: from where will they be opposed?  They have power and often the rule of law on their side, so parents decide who their children marry, for example.  The nightmare comprises power misused. The wielders of power do not have all the information and so think they are acting rationally.  The audience sees the full picture and so knows they are mistaken.

Opposition must come from those below the line, those without power.  This may be the dark figure’s wife, children, the lovers and servants.  They may form an alliance to overturn the dark figure.

Below the line is the source of both opposition and insight.  Think of Jeeves, who applies wisdom and helps Bertie out of the tight corners he gets himself and his friends into.  Or Pierre in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”.  Here the dark figure is Napoleon and Pierre learns wisdom from the old man he befriends when taken prisoner by the French.

Is Comedy Artificial?

Perhaps of all the story types, comedy is the most self-conscious and contrived.  It is easily burlesqued and the crucial recognition is often missing or the situation is reset at the end of each episode of a situation comedy.

Why then is it so rooted in modern Western literature?  Perhaps because it is about handing on to the next generation.  These stories are about the powerful older generation coming to terms with the new generation coming up to take their place.

Modern storytelling, often separates the serious love story from the comedy.  We have stories like War and Peace, which is essentially a love story, with two main couples and little humour.  Or else we have comedies like Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, where the lovers take second place to the humour.

Comedy and Business

Is it possible to use comedy in a business environment?  Note this is not the same as use of humour.  Certainly the heavy dependence on lovers and marriage suggests perhaps only for dating agencies!

However, from the earliest times, comedy pivots on a truth hidden from the players in a story revealed.  Anyone who can say they were unable to see clearly and their misunderstanding confused others, may have a real life comedy story.

A Typical Business Comedy

A small business is in a state of confusion.  The business owner is no longer clear about the orders she gives.  She gives contradictory orders to her staff, or else they make no sense or someone else has already completed the task.

She plays the staff off against one another and does not encourage them to collaborate and in their efforts to please the boss, they compete and become more confused.  Eventually a few realise they must confront their boss and tell her why she is no longer able to lead them.

Gradually it emerges the boss faces some life crisis and her attention has been elsewhere.  Now all the staff can rally round and help her sort out her affairs and get the business back on track.

OK this is not a brilliant story but the point is to see the overall shape.  A situation like this is rarely funny.  It can be painful for everyone who lives through it.  Usually businesses resolve such issues because the boss must leave or everyone else will.

Business people telling their life story often recount how something got in the way of their business, eg alcohol or depression.  In telling the story, they often focus on their own experience and rarely on those around them.

Someone going through a personal trauma might say they were going into work wearing a cheerful mask.  People see the mask and perceive the contradictions under the surface.

This story type may be helpful to those who can tell a story of personal pain and the impact it had on their immediate community.

Looking Forwards

The positive ending depends upon that crucial insight that opens everyone’s eyes so they see reality as it is.  But what happens where the revelation never comes or comes too late?  What happens where the dark figure triumphs and precipitates those around into tragedy?

Customer: service, quality, efficiency, reliability

Using Elements of Value

Over the last 30 weeks, I have posted about elements of value.  There are probably many more but the point is: what are the things your customers value?  Do you provide them?  Do you market them?  How can you use elements of value?

Can you break down the elements of value in your business for your customers?  Perhaps an overall benefit and several lesser benefits.  Here’s a brief recap.  You can find a full list of the 30 elements of value at the end of this post.

Functional Value

These are perhaps foundational values and for most offers, several apply.  One of these may be your overall benefit, if you offer something like accountancy or insurance.  However, look at the higher levels if you work in these industries, for example an accountant or insurance broker might reduce anxiety.  The work of an independent financial advisor might even be life changing!

For others, you sell something that maybe saves time and reduces risk.  Loads of things do this and so these are your lesser benefits.

In what sense are they foundational?  If your offer does not meet at least one and preferably several, then perhaps you don’t have a fully developed offer.

You may not have noticed some of these elements of value.  This is where this list of values comes into its own, it helps you name existing elements that add value to your offer.

Emotional Value

These elements address substantial needs in areas people are anxious about.  People worry about, eg health, attractiveness, community.

Some offers focus on these values and you may find your overall benefit belongs here.  A hairdresser for example might focus on attractiveness as their overall benefit.  You can of course offer several emotional values.

You may find many people cannot meet these values because they need to carry out life changes.  This implies you need to set your overall benefit at a higher level.  You should aim to set your overall benefit at the highest possible level.

Life Changing Value

These values make a substantial change to peoples’ lives.  The person seeking to become more attractive may need help with self-actualisation, for example.

At this level, choose one value as your overall benefit.  Your other benefits will be from emotional and functional value sets.

Social Impact Value

This value may be common but of course your offer should be very different from anyone else’s.  As we climb up the levels, the scope for variations in the detail of offers increases.  People seeking progress at this level will often need to build on values at the lower levels too.

Elements of Value Completed

The posts in this sequence can be accessed below:

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