Three Views of a Secret: Narrative Business

Bookstores physical and digital are overflowing with business books. There are books of lists (N habits of etc etc, N laws of etc etc, and so on). There are books based on what a successful person thought made them successful. There books based on what consultants saw in their clients’ businesses over many years.Narrative Business Books: Brand Delusions, Rock & Roll is Dead, High Probability Selling

But most of them present their information in a similar format: an author-voiced non-fiction description of cause and effect on a variety of business decisions.

The three books below are not like that. They are stories, complete fiction, made up. But they are made up stories that serve a purpose of pointing out a variety of business conditions and decisions. And all three definitely have some specific points and methods that they promote.

The narrative approach has several unique advantages in an instructional book. First, since it isn’t tied up in specific company or celebrity there aren’t any hangups on how we feel emotionally about the central characters. It’s hard to read about Apple Computer without getting caught up in the emotional valence that the company itself generates. In a narrative story, we can just react to the characters and their decisions and circumstances.

Second, the narrative approach allows common themes to be distilled into one story. All three of the authors have performed essentially consultant roles and have been exposed to a variety of decisions in the fields their novels explore. Distilling them into a single story can highlight the useful ideas in a way that makes the idea crisp for the reader.

Third, narrative approaches allow for vision and exploration of possibilities. This is probably the most powerful aspect of narrative in general. While most business books focus on what worked in the past, the narratives below are free to assign equal weight to the future.

There are perhaps some drawbacks to the narrative approach as well. The fact that’s it’s “made up” might devalue the content in some people’s minds. For myself, I know that most people who review their own past might not be able to identify what actually made them successful with any accuracy. In addition, there’s tremendous survivor bias in nearly all business books that are based on historical decision-making–we hear about ideas that succeed but rarely do we know about ideas that failed or if there is any overlap between them.

The writing style of a narrative approach may turn some people off as well. A risk, but one that non-fiction authors face as well.

Finally, the environments of narrative approaches may drift out of sync with the reality of today. In these instances, it may be difficult for readers to make the leap to apply the lessons and ideas to the present. This is perhaps the largest hurdle for the genre but people who are into narrative can probably make it work anyway. Two of the books below face this issue so when you read them you can see for yourself how it goes.

High Probability Selling by Jacques Werth and Nicholas E. Ruben

I picked this one up many many years ago. The front cover has an endorsement from 1995. As you might guess, this one faces the “drift out of sync with the world of today” issue pretty directly.

The text is written as part novel, part theatrical play with dialogue called out using an interview format.

It follows the training of a new sales associate for printing press (you know, those companies that spread ink around on paper sort of like super thin iPads but with screens that don’t ever change). Primarily it’s the re-education of this sales associate from the usual sales machismo to a process that is more consultative.

This book had a strong impact on my own approach as I’ve never been a hard charging Glengarry Glen Ross sort of sales guy. High Probability Selling offered me a different approach that fit my own values more naturally.

If you have to sell, but don’t think you can do the usual approach this book might give you some useful tools. Or if you have to sell something that’s complicated and requires the building of trust or establishing yourself as someone worthy of trust this book might also suit you.

Though the narrative of a printing press salesman is dated, the approach to selling is perhaps even more relevant in today’s environment where reviews, rankings, and communication between potential customers is so much easier than it was way back in 1995. For many (but not all) industries, trust is a more surfaced aspect of their culture today than it was 20 years ago.

High Probability Selling presents a way for sales culture to support organizational goals of developing trust.

Brand Delusions by Bill Leider

Of the three, Leider’s book manages to steer clear of the out-of-sync issue best. Sticking to a boardroom drama between different divisional heads in a fictional manufacture/design company.

Among the many topics of value that are covered, branding takes center stage. In particular, a deep exploration of what branding really is.

In my travels and speaking I frequently encounter people who discuss branding as if it were only a visual discipline. It is so common that I always ask for clarification when I hear someone say something like “Before I launch my next concert series I want to rebrand everything” or “Do you know anyone who is good with branding?”

Brand Delusions takes this topic head on and digs into the cultural aspects of branding within an organization. This is a tremendously important thing to consider given that branding initiatives that consist of just a new coat of paint on the same old structure usually do little except enrich a design firm.

Leider’s definition of branding is simple, direct, and profound. It also helps bring an organization together and set direction appropriately. The narrative helps explore this through the characters representing marketing, product development, and engineering cultures. If you have any of these, his approach will be useful.

Rock & Roll is Dead by Steve Lawson

On the surface, this one isn’t a business book. It’s a NaNoWriMo effort about the transformation of a bar band into a niche-music ensemble that performs in a book store.

Along the way, however, are loads of useful business-related thoughts. The characters face the same vision/mission issues of any organization. They face the same “who is going to do what” kinds of problems that startups (and not-startups) face. They face the same issues of finding market fit and developing audience that businesses face. And there are three varied personalities that must learn to get along.

If you’re in the music industry as a performer this book goes further into explorations of how music labels interact on a financial and creative level with bands. It raises thoughts that are well worth considering if you are a creative professional–things you will want to have thought about and discussed before looking at a contract.

There are some amusing anachronisms–thinking about Myspace for example. But frankly these all still work if you replace Myspace with Facebook or whatever social platform is perceived to be worthwhile when you’re reading this article.

For my not-music industry readers it may be tempting to skip this one. That would be a mistake. Because it very eloquently outlines ways for agile teams to self-organize, imagine new possible outcomes, and take direct action to achieve those outcomes.

Culture, a common thread

One thing that all three of these books explore is culture. How culture has an impact on how you relate to customers, how culture has an impact on how you relate internally, and how culture has an impact on setting and achieving vision.

The narrative approach of these books reinforces their culture-making message because your own company won’t have the culture of Apple or Zillow or Amazon or Zappos or Clausewitz’s military. You will have to develop your own culture.

These books provide ideas and tools to do that.

High Probability Selling is available in used formats.

Brand Delusions is available in Kindle and paperback.

Rock & Roll is Dead is available as a free ebook.

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