I’m obsessed with stories about time travel.
It’s usually my answer when someone asks what my superpower would be if I could choose – the ability to travel through time.
Want to know a secret? I actually can travel through time.
Okay, not like in a literal sense. I don’t have a tesseract or anything.
However, I play the role of a time traveler in another obsession of mine: Forecasting in Strategy.
In my long corporate career, I’ve seen lots of different ways leaders create strategy.
There are people out there who think being a good leader means having a very strong opinion, being good at arguing that opinion, and winning those arguments. That may be true for a lot of organizations with charismatic leaders who have a penchant for debate. I’m not convinced that’s all it takes to be a great leader who creates good strategy.
Great leaders are masters at telling compelling time travel stories.
If you’ve ever been part of a strategic planning session, whether you know it or not, you were using the power of a time-travel narrative. You probably just skipped over all the good bits.
What are those good bits? Ask any author or editor and they will tell you one thing: A story of something happening isn’t enough. Something wonderful or something terrible has to happen. A story about nothing may work for Jerry Seinfeld, but it won’t work here. You’ll need to tell the wonderful story.
The Anatomy of a Time Travel Narrative
A lot of good stories follow an arc like this:
Hero has a decent thing going on…
Something happens that was completely unforeseen that messes up the hero’s decent thing…
The hero struggles against what he knows to be true…
Until finally the hero realizes something larger is there…
Which makes the hero do hero things because of the growth and expanded knowledge that came from the struggle.
Now a time travel story has an extra dimension (not to state the obvious, but that extra dimension is time) which usually follows an arc like this:
The hero is transported from a regular present-day into the future or the past…
The hero sees something they like or don’t like…
Then spends most of the story figuring out how to make that future or past happen or not happen.
If you’re a CEO, a functional leader, a product leader, imagining your world a year from now – 2 years, 5 years – is essentially an exercise in writing a time travel story. You see the future (vision) and you see how to get there (strategy). But, how many times have you just kind of rushed through the rest of the story (the decisions we have to make to get there, and how we make them)?
If we endeavor, however, to tell a good time travel story instead of just listing out things about the future, we’re going to have to tell more of the story. Forecasting a good strategy is a lot like visiting a beautiful future and convincing others that future exists. Asking questions to help color that future helps build the story.
- Are we happy or sad?
- What’s making us happy or sad?
- What are some decisions we will have to make along the way?
- What are some of the challenges that may be revealed to us along the way?
- How many bad decisions can we make to keep learning?
- How many bad decisions undo the future?
- What about the rest of the characters in your story? How are they experiencing your decisions along this journey to the future?
When you begin to think about the answers to these questions, you start see a bit more of how the story will play out.
See decisions in the larger context of time and space.
If Time is a dimension in your narrative and looking at something in the future allows you to metabolize that future in the decisions you make along the way, the next step is to introduce Space as a dimension. Not like in a “Space, the final frontier” sort of way. In your story, space is pushback. Space is allowing others to take your decision and rip it to shreds.
Allowing characters in your story (customers, employees, board members, executives) to see and react to the decisions you are planning to make along the way memorializes the future as the outcome we care about, and acts as a prophylactic to the emotional issues that can prevent the hero of your story from building the future.
Looking at the story orthogonally.
The mathematical usage of “orthogonal” (hideously simplified), refers to vectors at right angles to each other and the implication that motion in the direction of the first vector produces no corresponding motion in the direction of the second vector.
In data science, if something is orthogonal, it means it’s isolated or partitioned.
An orthogonal line of argument in debate might be interesting in and of itself but doesn’t advance the main thrust of the debate.
In our time travel story, the reasons we had to decide something can sometimes be orthogonal to what ended up happening. Intent vs. Impact. This gets missed so much when you build forecasts. It’s important to build in the stuff we can know into our story, but sometimes it’s good to imagine what we can’t know in a forecast as well.
Like in the movie Sliding Doors, one small detail can thrust you into a completely different future. Can you imagine what that small detail could be?
Even if you’re not using the power of a time travel narrative to build strategy, using the story-building framework can help keep front and center what every CEO should be obsessed with: The Story of Your Business.
In the beginning…It’s the story of What
What is our business, what’s our product, what are we building, and what are the details of what we are building.
Then…We tell the story of How
How do we do the work, what is the filter/lens through which we make decisions, what are the qualities of a good decision or a bad decision, and how can we make good decisions faster. How can we forecast better in the aggregate to get to the future we want?
So that eventually…We can tell the story of Who
Who are my leaders, who have I selected to assemble the right teams, and in doing so, how do I delegate responsibility to those people so they can carry out those details? How do I audit my teams and make sure they are building better forecasting using both hits and near misses?
Telling a story requires mastery of the issues. Writing a story about time travel actually gives you the power of traveling through time, giving you speedier decision making, capturing why you aren’t doing something to better align intent with impact, and turns a boring strategic plan into something you can’t put down.
If you want to give this methodology a try, give us a shout here at the studio at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can design a session to help your team write the story of your future and then help you build a working backward capability across your organization to innovate and make decisions faster.
(Also, I highly recommend the movie About Time if you’re into good time travel moves with excellent soundtracks like I am.)