Starbucks and the Power of Story
In this story from Summer 2008’s S+B, Tom Erhenfeld explores the myths we create around companies, magic fixes and management wisdom. He notes that Starbucks has spawned no less than eight books by current or former employees, all recounting the mythical story of Starbucks, from founder Howard Schultz to silver-spooned barista Michael Gill Gates. Most of these books, as Erhenfeld puts it, add to the halo effect of Starbucks. But do these stories really tell the truth? Why DO some companies inspire a stack of books, and do the secrets revealed in those books recount the real reasons the company has ended up where it is?
Commenting on one of the more balanced books, here’s Ehrenfeld’s take:
“Unlike the field of science, in which one can conduct replicable activities with relative certainty about their outcome, in business, managers cannot assume that following a formula will produce predictable results. So they gravitate toward stories, which represent ‘a way that people try to make sense of their lives and experiences in the world,’ writes Rosenzweig. ‘The test of a good story isn’t its responsibility to the facts as much as its ability to provide a satisfying explanation of events.’”
Certainly not everyone who writes an article or a book has discovered the real reasons behind an organization’s success or failure. And typically it’s not just one reason. Organizations are made up of people simultaneously making choices about where the organization is going. But I think in their cautioning, Erhenfeld and his favorite Starbucks author, Phil Rosenzweig, go a bit too far. In my opinion some principles are basic, and can’t be ignored in most contexts.
My rule: Apply the common sense test. If it makes sense, think about whether it holds in most cases. If so, you probably have a good rule of thumb.
What do you think?