The story-reality gap

Whether or not you consider yourself a marketer or a salesperson, one way or another you’re telling stories all the time.  It happened the moment you traded in your college rucksack for that nice Kenneth Cole leather briefcase; it happens each day when you talk (or don’t) in meetings, when you speak (or don’t) about topics that are a stretch for you, when you write an email (or don’t) in a voice that stands out from the crowd.

Your organization is also telling stories all the time, and the easiest, most obvious water-cooler scuttlebutt is about your story-reality gap: how the software suite that your company just touted in a $3 million, 30-second Superbowl ad is just a mash-up of so-so apps that were just rebundled and re-branded; how the ink wasn’t even dry on the financing plan when it was put in front of your Series B investors; how you don’t have everything just right yet, so how can your CEO be talking about the next phase of growth?

Here’s a dirty little secret: that gap is supposed to exist, it has to exist, it’s the gap between where you are now and where you’re going.  And without this gap, you might never get there.

If your organization isn’t living this gap then it’s going too slowly, it’s dreaming too small, it’s getting too comfortable in its little sandbox.  This doesn’t mean you always have to grow fast – in terms of revenues, employees, customers – but it means that you have the potential to teeter on the edge of exactly what you know you can deliver today and what you dream of delivering tomorrow.  Daring to dream out loud is just the first step.

Never lie, and never ever make promises to your customers that you can’t keep (nothing spreads faster than stories about broken promises).

But the world understands that five-year plans are aspirational.  You’ll never rally the troops with small dreams.

4 thoughts on “The story-reality gap

  1. Yes! If you’re not creating a gap between where you are now and where you want to be then you’ll never be more than what you are now (that was a mouthful).

    It’s just as important, though, to note that you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know exactly where you are now. Take the time to not only aspire to be greater, but also take the time to really find out who/what/where you are now so you can correctly choose your direction moving forward.

    Good stuff to think about.

  2. The challenge here is for leaders to deftly manage the emotional cost of constant change on employees. Human nature being what it is, workers will seek stability after teetering on the edge for any length of time. It’s simply exhausting to stay in that posture. So, there’s something to be said for providing rest stops along the road.

    A tuned in leader not only creates the gap, but manages it to provide rest stops, allowing employees, investors and others to re-connect with the purpose of the journey and, more importantly, each other as fellow travelers toward the goal.

  3. Janelle, thanks for posting, you are exactly right — one of the most common maladies in modern fast-growing organizations is “change fatigue”, and the reconnection to the mission or purpose is what is necessary to combat it.

    Another way to think of this is along the line of Daniel Pink’s work on motivation: people get complacent (or burnt out) when autonomy, mastery, and purpose are out of whack. With too much change, too fast, people lose their confidence in their own ability to master the challenges, and feel pinched in their autonomy, as well.

    So a reconnection to purpose, while necessary, is not always sufficient for the troops to solider on: they oftentimes need guidance in improving or re-tooling their skills, and a clear vision of why this latest change will improve their own experience of the work, as well.

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