Telling the Right Story: How to Stay Above Water in the Enterprise

Designing for large enterprise companies can be exhausting. With so many moving parts, siloed teams, and tangled lines of communication, you can find yourself treading water in a sea of ambiguity. On my first day designing in-house for an enterprise company, my wife gave me a set of blue pool floaties. You know, the ones you strap to your baby to keep them from drowning? They’re cute and a little embarrassing, and I keep them on my desk — a reminder to keep my head above water (her words). But, I’ll be honest, keeping your head above water is a lot easier said than done.

I’ve lately realized that, for me, staying positive in the face of so many challenges comes down to one thing – telling the right stories. In Rising Strong, Dr. Brené Brown writes, “In the absence of data [that explains what’s happening], we will always make up stories. It’s how we’re wired.” The key is choosing what kind of story you want to make up. Make sure you choose to tell the right one.

Too often we tell ourselves horror stories. We tend to overemphasize the darkest parts of human intention. We assume the worst, assign deceitful intent and start listening when our lizard brain tells us to despair. These stories are dead weight, pulling us under. What’s worse, we have a hard time keeping these stories to ourselves. We start telling other people, handing them more dead weight to swim with. Then, to top it all off, we start to behave as though our terrible fabrication is reality.

We can overcome this jerk of a lizard-brain storyteller. Instead of telling yourself stories about your fears, tell yourself stories about what you want to happen – the ideal state. Write them down, give them titles, illustrate them. Read them when you’re feeling under water. Strap them to your arms like blue pool floaties. They’ll buoy you. And not only will you find that you feel better, you may even find yourself behaving better, as if your hope-filled story is reality.

Finally, be sure you share your story. When your colleagues tell you their dark tale of deceit and despair, tell your story as an alternate narrative (this is where the illustrations are particularly handy). It’s informal leadership at its best. Don’t be surprised when they prefer your story to their own. In fact, they too might strap your story to their arms. Just imagine. You and your kick-ass colleagues all wearing the same blue floaties, telling the same good story together. I’ll take that over drowning any day.

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