Did you hear the one about the man who walked into a store? The US department chain Nordstrom has a policy of customer refunds on any returned product, without the need for price tag or receipt. One day a customer brings in a set of snow tyres, and the sales assistant gives a refund of $145. Nordstrom retails high-end apparel; it doesn't stock tyres. I first heard it over 20 years ago, and it’s appeared on my radar every couple of years ever since. Its brevity, clarity and longevity are example of the power of story.
Its few lines communicate so much about Nordstrom’s commitment to long-term customer relationships, and the faith and trust in places in its employees. While it doesn’t use those words, it speaks with much greater impact than a mission statement poster that’s now dog-eared wallpaper or a 100-page employee manual gathering dust on a shelf. The company says that it’s only rule for employees is that they use good judgement. So as a new employee, how do I know if my good judgement is the right judgement? Through hearing others’ examples. Nordstrom offer customers a pencil and paper to record their service experiences in store . At the start of each day, the store manager gathers the staff for a review of that feedback. Best practice, shared through stories. Listen in to a couple of those sessions, and you’ll KNOW where the boundaries are. No processes or metrics or spreadsheets or flow charts. Just stories that stick. Of course, measures and spreadsheets have a place. We need to keep track of financial performance. But since Samuel Taylor started making management scientific, the need to quantify and mechanize everything has become paramount. "You can't manage what you don’t measure". And so we have spent decades trying to quantify everything that was hitherto a quality - employee happiness, innovation, creativity, insight – and use the resultant numbers as a stick to beat people with or to ‘motivate’ them. There are two downsides: 1.The number becomes the objective, so that raising satisfaction from 88.4% to 90.1% is seen as goodness in and of itself, and rather ignores Alfred Korbsysky’s observation that “the map is not the territory”. 2.As Bobby Kennedy's said at the University of Kansas in 1968: “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.” In other words, we can measure everything except the things worth measuring. What is the purpose of all this activity? To reinforce or change behaviour; to make sure that we ‘do the right thing’. But processes and Powerpoints do not shift hearts and minds; they are too abstract and too mechanistic. Change happens through examples.
And examples are carried by story.
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