Steve Jobs’ greatest contribution to society wasn’t technology. It wasn’t marketing. It was anecdote-making. The guy created three anecdotes just by crossing a room. There was a time when you couldn’t go a day without a Steve Jobs Anecdote™ intruding into it. So it’s with supreme apology that I drop one into your day today…about story.
Jobs once explained what he was the proudest of about Pixar, the computer animation company he pulled from George Lucas and transformed into a powerhouse in the movie industry. He said:
We have a story crisis on every movie, and production’s rolling and there’s mouths to feed and something’s just not working and we stop. We stop and we fix the story.
They stop and they fix the story. You might be thinking, what’s so anecdotally valuable about this? Of course, Pixar stopped everything to fix the story. They were selling a story. If the story didn’t work, the movie would fail.
Here’s where it’s relevant. We’re all selling stories.
Like Pixar movies, every business project has a crisis. Multiple ones, in fact. You could probably plot them on the Gantt chart on Day One of the project planning. And the solution to the vast share of those crises is…fixing the story. Or, even more fundamentally, going back to the story. Whether you’re making software, growing a company, implementing a product or marketing strategy. When the crisis inevitably hits, often the solution starts at the story level.
When you’re thrashing around down in the weeds, the story is what pulls you out.
The story is, in the end, what we’re all selling. It’s the guiding light of why we’re building what we’re building or implementing what we’re implementing. And often a development or design or stakeholder issue is really a story issue. I mean, certainly there are other types of issues: resourcing and scope, for instance. But, in general, you can be led to the far side of many a crisis by focusing on the story.
If the story isn’t right, the project won’t be. If he story’s off, the project will be, too. And I’m not even using the word story as a stand-in for strategy. It’s probably somewhat true, but we’ve watered the word strategy down to an almost worthless concept in business. But story, it’s what we believe about our product, our customers, the market. It’s the narrative we’re communicating. It’s the narrative we’re bolstering with every initiative, every move on the market.
Is the feature of this platform important? Maybe. Does it fit or progress our story? Is this project the right one to embark on? Maybe. Does it fit or progress our story? How much should we invest in this initiative? Well, how much does it fit or progress our story? Or, which also happens, maybe you learn halfway through the project that the story isn’t quite right. That you’re aiming at the wrong audience or the market has changed or you lost track of why you’re doing what you’re doing in the overwhelming complexities of just doing it. Then you should stop everything and fix the story. Or you should at least stop everything and check the story. When you’re thrashing around down in the weeds, the story is what pulls you out.
It’s hard, for sure, to make people go back to something so fundamental. In business, everything’s in motion across multiple departments and roles and companies. There are deadlines and expectations and politics and budgets. Mouths to feed, as Jobs said. Too often we’re building the plane as we fly it. Or to tighten that analogy to literal, making up the story as we go. It’s so complex that often just checking the box that something, anything got done is considered success, when it really isn’t.
And Pixar could have taken that attitude. Their operation is an extremely complex one (just watching a credit roll at the end of a movie is exhausting for anybody who’s managed a project). Honestly, Pixar could have skipped the whole “stopping and fixing” their story. They could have bandaided it, ignored it. People might still have liked their movies well enough. Overlooked its flaws. But Pixar wouldn’t be the brand they are today, a brand consistently delivering high-quality products that are instantaneously successful both critically and financially. Instead, they might be one of the million other animation studios out there cranking out cheesy, check-the-box CGI movies to bulk out the catalogs of streaming services.