By Kevin Coupe
"Tell me a story."
When the legendary CBS news producer Don Hewitt died last year, it was often stated that his brainchild, 60 Minutes, had been successful for so long because it adhered to that simple phrase. It didn€™t matter what the subject was; people like stories, and are naturally attracted to a show that does a good job of telling them.
So it is with great retail €" or, in fact, with any great business.
The ability to tell a story, to create a narrative, essentially is the ability to communicate a vision in a clear and compelling fashion. For a business to be exceptional it is critically important to be able to fashion a narrative that has resonance for employees, customers, business partners and any other links in your supply chain.
The problem is that often, business leaders lack the ability €" or perhaps the confidence €" to be storytellers. Michael Sansolo and I decided to write our new book, The Big Picture: Essential Business Lessons from the Movies, to help leaders tell a good story.
Movies, we argue, can provide a common language and reference points that can help business leaders create a narrative. Depending on the audience and the films cited, movies can offer a way for people to see business challenges and opportunities in a larger context, to understand that other people deal with these issues and that sometimes the best approach is one that uses metaphor to create a consistent vision and path to implementation.
In The Big Picture, we cite 60 different movies €" some as old as Citizen Kane and Casablanca, and some as new as 50 First Dates and Appaloosa €" as a way of teaching different lessons in leadership, branding and workplace survival.
One movie that€™s a great example of offering a business narrative, but came out after the book was finished, is Up in the Air, starring George Clooney and co-written and directed by Jason Reitman.
The basics of the plot are fairly simple. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a consultant who flies around the country firing people at companies run by people who do not have the stones to do it themselves. It is a heartless job, but Bingham copes with it by keeping his own life as uncluttered as possible €" his apartment is less homey than the average hotel room and he€™s pretty much disconnected emotionally from friends and family. Bingham€™s great consolation is frequent flyer miles €" he€™s got travel down to a science, and he€™s well on his way to having 10 million miles.
But two things happen to Bingham. First, he meets a woman, played by Vera Farmiga, who seems to share his priorities, travels as much as he does €" and therefore, is someone who can get past his emotional roadblocks. And, he finds his whole way of life threatened when another woman (Anna Kendrick) joins his company and begins to implement a plan that will have all layoffs done via online conferencing.
The ad slogan for Up in the Air is an apt one: "The story of a man ready to make a connection." But this doesn€™t just apply to Bingham. In fact, the entire movie is about the importance of human connections. While Clooney€™s character may seem like he has a heartless job, he understands the importance of being present €" really present €" at one of the most important moments in many of these people€™s lives.
These kinds of connections often are underestimated by businesses that are obsessed with cutting costs, with being efficient, with making the numbers. And we can see these missed opportunities to connect everywhere we look: In self-service gas pumps. In voice-mail systems that give us buttons to touch but seem to delay until the last possible moment before giving us a human being. In self-checkout systems in supermarkets that eliminate the last human touch point €" sometimes the only human touch point €" that exists in that retail environment. In e-commerce businesses that are almost completely automated. In the town where I live, a guy will no longer sell train tickets at the commuter station, and all tickets will have to be bought from the kiosk. The list goes on.
Now, a perfectly legitimate argument can be made for all of these changes, and I must admit that in some ways, these shifts make our lives easier and more convenient. But a level of depersonalization is going on, and we have to wonder about the long-term impact. The risk of not considering it, I€™m afraid, is that our culture morphs into something less than it should be before we even know it has happened.
I would argue that in any customer-focused enterprise, it might make sense for leadership to watch a movie like Up in the Air and consider what its lessons and implications say about their own business. Taken seriously, it might help them find a narrative that would create connections €" and perhaps even build sales and profits.
Some other examples may serve you in your business:
There€™s a pretty good argument to make that most of the characters in Jaws go through the movie in denial. Murray Hamilton€™s mayor wants to keep the beaches open because to close them would be bad for business (forgetting about what getting eaten by a renegade great white shark would do to customer trafï¬?c). Robert Shaw€™s character thinks he can catch the shark by himself. Richard Dreyfuss€™s character keeps getting into the water with the shark. And Roy Scheider€™s police chief character hates the water but lives on an island.
It is only when Scheider €" and the audience, for that matter €" ï¬?rst gets a look at the killer shark that reality comes crashing down, and he says the immortal words: "I think we€™re going to need a bigger boat." In business, it is critical to face reality, to plan for what can happen instead of what you think will happen, and to always have the appropriate competitive tools.
To put it another way, you never want to ï¬?nd yourself in a situation where you look at your co-workers and say, "I think we€™re going to need a bigger boat."
Michael Sansolo has a chapter in our book about this classic movie, which is about a prisoner of war camp in Burma during World War II. The plot concerns the Japanese efforts to get British prisoners, led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), to build a bridge, and how Nicholson is persuaded to build the best possible bridge, because he believes that this will be an enduring mark of British superiority.
Of course, what Nicholson forgets is that he€™s building a bridge that will help the enemy defeat the Allied forces. He thinks short term rather than long term. And the ï¬?lm dramatizes the kinds of mistakes that can happen when people focus on tactics rather than strategy. In every organization, it is critical to make sure that decision-making takes place in context, because to make decisions in a vacuum is a potentially ruinous approach.
In other words, you always want to focus on "The Big Picture."
Kevin Coupe is the founder and "content guy" of MorningNewsBeat.com, the daily online information service that offers "news in context and analysis with attitude." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.