| Stories are Just for Children
In 1971, when I started my career as an engineer, I would
have laughed if somebody had told me that I would compose
three professional books and lead a professional magazine
for NASA -- all focusing on stories.
As a young engineer my primary tools were mathematical
models for designing structures. When I pursued my master's
degree I shifted to operations research models. Following
my Ph.D., I went back to industry and developed and
implemented comprehensive computerized tools aimed at
controlling project time and cost. When I decided to
join academia, in 1983, I added to my professional arsenal
My research results throughout the 80s gradually brought
me to change my research methodology. I abandoned impersonal
tools and focused on firsthand data, primarily direct
observations of behavior, case studies, and personal interviews.
As a researcher working closely with practitioners during
those years, I learned to reverse the question I used
to ask when I first joined academia: "Why don't practitioners
use what researchers know?" I began to ask, "Why don't
researchers use what practitioners know?" Moreover, I
learned firsthand that competent practitioners usually
know more than they can tell.
firsthand that competent practitioners usually know
more than they can tell.
My main research efforts, therefore, were devoted
to identifying the most competent practitioners; uncovering,
formulating, and articulating their "tacit" knowledge.
I did this by proposing a theoretical interpretation
of actual project practices. This interpretation was
then presented to my co-researchers -- the competent
managers -- for their judgment, to see how well it fit
with their personal experience. However, throughout
these years it never even occurred to me to use stories
for generating or disseminating knowledge. I believed
that stories were only for children, and I had a good
personal reason for this.
While my wife took most of the burden of upbringing
our four children, bedtime stories were left for me.
Between 1980 and 1995, almost every night, I told my
children a bedtime story, and since it turned out that
they preferred my own fictional stories, I became eventually
quite good at composing children's stories. My children
and I were eagerly waiting for the bedtime ritual, which
always brought a new story and a new surprise for them
and for me. These fictional stories became our small-cherished
secret. However, when each of my children reached the
age of 10, the ritual stopped. They preferred their
own books to Daddy's stories. This sharp shift in their
interest only enhanced my confidence that stories are
just for children.
Using Stories to Change Your Eyeglasses
In 1991, when I felt I was ready to test my research
results I took it upon myself to find a suitable, real-life
" laboratory." Believing that consultation is the only
feasible way to test research results and to collect
rich and unfiltered feedback firsthand, I began looking
for an appropriate organization. Procter & Gamble (P&G)
met all my demands: a very progressive organization,
that had to cope with high uncertainty and accelerated
speed in its project delivery and was known to hire
My charter was quite broad -- to use my research products
in order to improve project management at P&G. My sponsor,
Gordon Denker, who encouraged me to "consult by wandering
around," was the key to my ability to function both
as a consultant and a researcher. Though he set down
some general guidelines, I was basically given a free
hand in proposing my assignments. This was a dream come
true, but it demanded great effort -- I had to market
myself throughout the organization, generate my own
customers, and satisfy their immediate business needs.
P&G was expecting that my "action research" role would
in no way affect my commitment and service to them as
I initiated a wide range of activities: training, review
of procedures, development of tools, and many "learning-from-experience"
discussions conducted in small groups. My main effort,
however, focused on working directly with project teams
of ongoing projects.
management approach I was introducing called for
adding on some new project management principles
and tools, as well as letting go of some
The feedback was excellent, yet I was not fully satisfied.
First, the pace of implementation did not seem fast
enough. Second, the project management approach I was
introducing called for adding on some new project
management principles and tools, as well as letting
go of some old ones. The letting go was not
embraced so easily, particularly by the less experienced
During my third visit to Cincinnati, I realized that
the conventional mode of consulting was insufficient
for the quick, wide, and lasting assimilation that was
essential for valid research implementation feedback.
My answer to this problem was storytelling. Why? Because
I realized that my role was similar to that of an optometrist
-- trying to convince people that in order to change
the way they viewed the world, they would have to change
their eyeglasses. I also realized that people's minds
are changed more through observation than through argument.
I therefore thought that the telling of real-life stories
by credible and successful managers, colleagues from
their own company, would serve as an efficient substitute
The idea that successful and busy project managers
should set aside the time to tell and write stories
was not adopted easily. First I had to overcome the
prevailing feeling that stories are meant for children
and not for managers. Even including the word 'story,'
in the title of a booklet we produced as a pilot, was
deemed inappropriate. Then I had to overcome the disbelief
of the managers in their own writing ability and convince
them that the effort was worthwhile. But once we started,
there was no way back. Almost everyone who saw the booklet
became enthusiastic immediately and wanted to contribute
his/her own success story.
The results of my effort at P&G exceeded my wildest
expectations. At the conclusion of a workshop where
project managers presented and discussed their stories,
Gordon Denker commented: "I would never have believed
that such a profound change in language, focus of attention,
and way of thinking could have taken place within a
The final product, the book of stories, was composed
of 70 stories written by 28 project managers, and it
is still in use at P&G. Since I launched my first storybook
project in 1991, I have learned that stories have many
other unique attributes that render them so powerful
in capturing and disseminating knowledge. More on these
unique attributes in the next issues of ASK.
P.S.: By the way, what should I make of the fact that
my grown-up children still read fictional stories? It
seems that stories are good for all ages, but my fictional
stories just for children.