Excerpt from Chapter 8

Max glanced over at him “Storyteller, huh?” The other man smiled, shaking his head slightly.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Super hokey.” He looked down at his feet for a minute, then up at Max, serious. “But it works, you know? We’re kind of…everyone thinks they’re really really good at communicating. But that’s not true. We’re really really bad at it, but because we think we’re good at it, we just assume other people are stupid or worse that we know what they really want. I still screw up all the time, but the story templates help me get back on track. Make me think about how other people see it and how to help them see what I’m saying. It’s not the solution to world hunger or anything, for sure. But it does make talking to someone else easier. And it keeps you honest about your own…filters.”[1]

The elevator doors opened onto an underground corridor. Cold air rushed to meet them, causing Max to shiver slightly. The underground had been part of downtown Dallas for as long as he could remember. But when the zombies came, it became an easily fortifiable way to connect a multitude of businesses together. While other restauraunts and shops struggled to adjust to securing their storefronts, those located in the underground thrived. They quickly walked down a ramp that opened into a large food court. Trevor gestured at the coffee shop, and they made their way through a milling crowd to place their orders.

Coffee in hand, they wandered over to one of the metal tables scattered about the food court. Trevor looked pensive as he sipped his cold brew.

“You know,” Max started “The drone thing…I think it’s got potential. Do you think we can get a hold of the inventors and check some things? I mean, the specifications we’ve got have it being really heavy. Is that something we can work with?”

Trevor nodded, thoughtfully. “I’m a software guy, but I think the angle is right – with the current constraints, the system is unusable for the type of targeting the RFP has listed. The question isn’t so much can we do it – it’s tech and that’s about as close to magic as you can get – it’s whether it’s cost-effective. One thing our Product Manager has pounded into our heads is cost. Everything’s possible if you have unlimited resources.”

“Tell me about it – Justin is all about ‘cost’ and ‘marketability’. He’s a total kill-joy sometimes. He never gets excited about improving the usability of something – I mean, we’ve got some seriously clunky workflows that I’d love to overhaul! But if it’s not going to sell more product, he doesn’t care.” Max stopped and corrected himself “That’s not entirely true. He does care. It just doesn’t make a difference when he’s putting in his vote on what we spend time on.”

Trevor shrugged sympathetically “Yeah, same with us. But I get it. Making products, it’s a balancing act, y’know? You could make the coolest thing in the world, but if no one wants to buy it, well..” he paused, fishing out a pen from his pocket. He started drawing a Venn diagram on a napkin “You’ve got to have three things for a product to be successful. It’s got to be usable – that’s us. It’s got to be possible – that’s dev. And it’s got to be saleable – that’s product. If you only have one or two, the product is worthless. For example, if it’s possible and usable, you still can’t sell it. If it’s sellable and possible, you can’t use it. And if it’s sellable and usable, it may be impossible.”

Max studied the napkin. It made sense. He remembered a product he’d conspired to make with Owen, their lead developer, on the side. A mobile app that let you message your friends when you spotted a zombie. He and Owen were convinced they had the new market disrupter and worked weekends and after hours to make a prototype. It was beautiful, elegant, efficient – everything they wanted it to be. They brought it to Justin, full of righteous pride in their baby. And he proceeded to tear it to pieces from a marekt perspective. They’d been unaware there were other apps on the market that did precisely what they were proposing – and had been for at least a year. And that those apps were doing poorly as the social media giants already had plugins to capture this particular use case. Also, they hadn’t thought past the initial release. What would come next? How would they expand the market once they had captured it? The following lecture on pricing structure still left Max with a headache. It had been an unpleasant lesson in the need for market research and understanding.

“You’re right,” Max sighed. “We need to pull Justin in on this as well as Owen and see what kind of cost we’re looking at. But,” he paused, sipping his latte “it may not matter. The targeting problem is a big one, and the largest issue is the hardware. If we can’t make that more agile, the software won’t matter.”

“I agree” Trevor said. “We need to keep an open mind though. We can’t let the stories take over. “

Max sat back, surprised “Wait, I thought you were all about the stories! What’s this – second thoughts?”

Trevor chuckled, “Nah, you know it’s just that anything good can be bad too, right? It’s like…” he, paused, searching for words “so stories are great because they help you communicate your ideas. And that’s super important right? But the thing is, when you tell a story, you’re communicating YOUR idea in a way that is easy to understand and easy to latch on to. But, maybe you aren’t telling the whole story. Maybe, you only told the part that makes me want to believe in what you believe. When we create stories without data, and without multiple perspectives, we stop being able to think logicially about things. It’s like that balancing act between dev, product, and design we talked about earlier.” He pulled out his pen and started drawing another sketch.

“See, the more solution-oriented a story is” he drew a graph, showing ‘solution’ on the y-axis “The more likely we are to believe it, without checking our facts “ he labeled the x-axis ‘belief’. “The problem is that the actual facts lie somewhere closer to the beginning.”

“As a result, we have to be careful to not tell ourselves super detailed stories about the solution until we get all the facts. Solution stories are the most seductive ones, since our brains naturally want resolution. “

“But” Max protested, “What about the story Manisha told? And the horror stories we wrote? Aren’t we likely to do the same thing with those?”

Trevor shook his head “It’s always a risk – like, we could make a horror story so visceral that we lose track of the fact that it’s unlikely to happen and is just an edge case. And that happened to us a lot when we first started using stories, so it’s a good thing to be on the look out for. But, “ he tapped the napkin for emphasis, “Solutions are always a trouble spot. We love a good puzzle because we love finding the solution. Once we find one, it’s hard for us to let go and see other possibilities. Also, you start to try to make the facts fit your solution instead of the other way around.”[2]

“Hmmm….” Max thought about it.

[1] Stories have been shown again and again to be an effective communication tool when conveying unfamiliar or difficult subject matter. For an interesting review of the arguments for and against using narratives to convey fact-based information, see http://www.pnas.org/content/111/Supplement_4/13614.full

[2] Good stories can skip the logical part of your brain and go straight for the emotional center. For this reason, it’s important to make sure you have all the facts, or at least as many as you can reasonably gather, prior to making your solution story. For more information on the dark side of stories, see https://hbr.org/2016/10/theranos-and-the-dark-side-of-storytelling

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