Sandra Erez presents a cautionary tale for compliance practitioners and boards of directors portraying how disarmingly charming “corporate story speak” can win over audiences (internal and external) – sometimes with devastating consequences. If the corporate story doesn’t fly, take it down.
“The proper magnitude of a story is comprised within such limits that the sequence of events, according to the laws of probability and necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good or from good fortune to bad.”
The Elevator Pitch and the Evolution of Corporate Storytelling
Corporations are forever leveraging the gullible human element to solidify their business case in a rapacious dog-eat-dog marketplace. And, like so many bees around a single pot of honey, they will try and out-buzz any internal opposition with an exotic business new -ism acquired in Silicon Valley boardrooms or randomly overheard in passing elevator pitches. Back in their native offices, treading softly in carpeted corporate settings as to not appear obstreperous, the intrepid executive will spin a tale peppered with funky jargon – either to explain away their recent strategic failure or garner support for their NEXT BIG move. Quick to spout the newly learned catch phrases, the executives are certain that the introduction of their new vernacular will bring fresh inspiration to their peers – like the unexpected arrival of the CEO to the dying office party. With studied carelessness they toss out words like “deep dive,” “moving the needle” and “unicorn corporations,” proudly exerting their prowess in the art of tech titan speak. They are important, they innovate, they just might be wearing a black turtleneck and they each have a story to tell.
Sometimes, if luck will have it, some of the buzzwords in the story might line up smoothly next to the word strategy – thus further impressing the suited-up crowds with the hint of an actual plan that might – OMG – develop into real action. Ultimately, if the gods of fate will allow it, the story (both internally and to the public) will end up doing what it was meant to do: calming the thundering stakeholders by generating effortless, endless recurring revenue for the corporation.
A Tale of Two Angles
Storytelling is finally being recognized as a strategic business imperative owing to its inherent power to sway the consumer masses over to the side of reason (better known in the corporate world as “getting to yes”). Since ancient Greek times, when even just fathoming the trajectory of the sun gave the citizens a headache, mythology filled that fragile human need for a story that would explain the unexplainable in a seemingly random, sometimes tragic and always unpredictable universe.
But before we scoff patronizingly at the belief that gods riding chariots actually moved the sun across the skies, we need to admit that we still cling tightly to fairy tales and myths we should have given up long ago. As a generation primed to expect quick fixes and fixated on either becoming or investing in the next start-up to dominate the world market, we have become blind and deaf to logic and reason. If the tales told in the boardroom succeeded in cascading down the chain of command to be later regurgitated by the press, it only makes sense that they would be swallowed whole into throats of a gullible public. Like tons of garbage careening loudly down the steel chutes, who would have the audacity or the presence of mind to challenge the facts, and separate truth from fiction, garbage from gems of genius?
Move Fast and Break Things is NOT a Good Idea
A classic example of how a strategy coupled with -isms can be highly damaging (or even fatal) is the devastating story of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes. Despite quantum leaps in automated logic-based aviation technology, the golden Boeing chariot gods have veered off their planned course for public safety. How could that be, we asked ourselves? Well, it might have something to do with 5,000 standing orders for the aircraft piling up in the wings, and archrival Airbus fighting Boeing for air/market space in a crowded industry. Although new, untested software was in this aircraft, Boeing was to be securely locked into auto pilot mode. Its destination: rapid growth and market dominance. MOVE FAST, said the board, it doesn’t matter if you break things.
The glaring flaw in this sordid tale – not lost on the public – is not that the new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software malfunctioned, but that creators of the storyboard intentionally obscured critical information internally and externally in their rush to get the aircraft airborne and money streaming into “air” pockets. All along the sputtering timeline of before, during and after the Indonesian and Ethiopian crashes, corporate officials spun out carelessly false statements that propelled the aircraft into the air without proper safety testing and training. It seems that the -ism of move fast and break things was taken a little too literally. Unfortunately, in this case, the “things” that were broken forever were people’s lives. Congratulations, Boeing and the FAA, you moved fast and broke things. There is only one problem: It’s horrifyingly wrong and unethical to do so.
The Helicopter View and the Optical Illusion
Every story has an angle, but clearly, every angle also has a story. It seems the FAA neglected to brush up Euclid’s basic geometric theorem (re: optical illusion), which postulates that things seen under more angles are seen more clearly. It seems pitifully fitting and heart-wrenchingly sad that Boeing overlooked the importance of having both angles (formed between the wing and direction of air flowing past the wing) reading into the MCAS software before automatic activation would force the nose of 737 beast down. Not only was this omission a clear case of poor judgment, it was a testament to man’s hubris that the technology would most certainly be more reliable than human judgment. The human error was not a sleepy or inexperienced pilot; it was the haughty assumption from high up that a computerized angle measurement would not be wrong.
The Importance of Right Angles in Lots of Moving Parts
The most important angle of this story, though, is that 346 individuals in two separate sequential crashes had to die a fiery death before the aircraft was grounded. And, as the facts fly out, fast and furiously, we begin to comprehend that, once again, a system fueled by avarice and greed broke some rules at the expense of moral altitude. Flawed certification processes, intentional lack of pilot training to avoid high costs and lots of moving parts (mostly human) all played their part in this senseless farce. And, as the Boeing 737 MAX story continues to unfold like a recalcitrant oxygen mask dropping from its hidden compartment, it reveals at every turbulent turn, horrifying lapses in aviation safety protocol and callous indifference to the sanctity of human life.
It should be noted that Euclid also postulated that all right angles are congruent. Perhaps, in this case, he was foreseeing that mankind, in the search for greatness, will tend to overlook the RIGHT angle, the right thing to do – the angle of ethics and compassion that needs to be present in every story. Maybe corporations like Boeing should consider that angle when they scribble their aeronautical equations on tiny airplane cocktail napkins while lounging in first class.
If the Story Doesn’t Fly, Take it Down
We, the consumer public, as passengers in corporate flights of fancy, can only fight for stronger compliance controls and whistleblowing mechanisms in place for people to voice concerns when corporate stories just don’t fly. If the RIGHT angle would be factored in, it just might come about that we can force the nose of the next untested plane down BEFORE it takes to the skies.
Perhaps after all we can believe that the Tin Man, the god of fuselage, really does have a heart.