The phone rang as soon as I sat down at my workstation that morning.
“Hi, it’s Puck. I’ve got a problem”
Puck, I thought, recalling a giant of a visual effects artist. Isn’t he in California? And it’s just before 10am here in London. He went on to describe the problem that he was having in Matador and why it was so urgent that the job he was working on was finished in the morning. Morning? I thought. It’s already 2am there.
“Listen, I’m going home to bed, ring me at home when you fix it and I’ll come back into the office”. He concluded, after I’d promised to try to fix the problem immediately.
We were pretty early stage still. No customer support. Three software engineers sitting no more than an arm’s length away from each other (earlier on we’d had to share two Silicon Graphics Personal Iris’s to develop the software).
As we grew the company, stories like that defined who we were, where we’d come from, and what was important to us as a company. The stories helped new employees to understand how we worked and what we valued. I began telling stories at the very first interview.
Customer stories are particularly important in product companies (which companies are not?). They help develop empathy with the customer. For those employees who were not at the front line, regularly meeting customers, this was a way for them to share in the amazing pain and pleasure that our customers endured in (our case) producing fantastic visual effects.
Details are really important in a story. They draw the listener in, wrap them in the environment with observations for all of the senses, and make it real. They are important to us in telling a “customer story” because they help the staff visualise the customer and why they are trying to wring some unthought-of functionality out of our products.
Storytelling, and listening, is fundamental to the human condition. It speaks directly to us of what it is like to be human. It is the most direct way to communicate our experience. We learn this very early in our childhood and spend the rest of our lives refining it. My siblings and I may have complained about my grandfather retelling the same stories every Sunday, but his stories were fantastic and I’ve retold them all to my children.
It is 10 years since I took my MBA and I think I have forgotten 90% of the information I had to learn. So many models and theories that if I did not use them regularly my mind would throw them out with the other litter whilst I was asleep. However, I can still remember some of the wonderful stories told by our inspirational law teacher. I certainly did not have law down as my favourite subject before I took the MBA, but it was up there by the time I finished. David Kobrin told the case law stories with such wit and fun that they found a niche in my memory, and they have stuck.
Daniel Pink quotes a Cognitive Scientist, Roger Shank, in his book “A Whole New Mind”; “Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories”.
I know we have to collect together requests from many, many customers. I know we have to find general solutions to their particular problems. I know we have to show that work on a particular feature addresses the needs of many potential customers. But when we have done all of that work and we present it to our management and development teams, I would argue that we should also tell them the story. The story of why it is so important to Puck that he would be grateful that I woke him three hours later with a solution. He was so grateful it made it a pleasure to help him. He was still grateful the last time we met some years later, standing in borrowed Disney bathing trunks drinking beer at Typhoon Lagoon in Orlando at the great Siggraph party of ’94.