Can business education be entertaining? Examining a Business "Fable"

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I like to call myself a hybrid business writer. I love writing about business, but I hate business-speak. What really excites me are the stories behind great companies, brands, and ideas.

Therefore I'm intrigued by books that try to encapsulate new business management models with storytelling, or "the business fable" to get a point across. Most commonly, when we hear of business fable, we think Who Moved My Cheese. But this book is to business concepts what Everyone Poops was to my four-year-old niece, a bit basic. And, like, no duh.

If we can get over our issues with feeling infantilized by some of the less adept versions of fables, the ones that almost literally start with "Once upon a time in a corporate office park far, far, away..." we realize that storytelling can be an enjoyable way of taking our management medicine. And I think this is why management specialists such as Patrick Lencioni are so popular--they write books that don't feel like a graduate seminar. But they can often feel like a network sitcom--not always funny or that entertaining, and not very applicable to real life.

Take Lencioni's books. His latest fable, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job pulls you in with the title, even if the book is, itself, more about managing properly. Personally I love any business book that hints at finding fulfillment. But alas, I'm not sure I found it here.

At first the book reads like a Fast Company profile: We learn that the protagonist, a hard-working and rather earnest executive, has become for the first time in his life gainfully unemployed, following the purchase of the company he led. (Here would be a good opportunity to dwell on the topic of fulfillment and answer a question most of us workaholics wonder about: What would we do with ourselves if we weren't so myopic and one-dimensional? But I'm getting away from the plot here.)

While contemplating his next step in Lake Tahoe, which lasts all of a page, the executive encounters a malfunctioning Italian take-out restaurant and bam, he discovers that he is meant to turn the place around. Some people are born again, some learn that their purpose is to treat the sick in Bangladesh, and this guy discovers that he is meant to ensure that no one forgets to pack a spaghetti marinara in a take out order--EVER AGAIN.

The executive takes an ownership stake in the restaurant, with the intention of turning it around. In the process of transformation, he learns three basic signs that signal an unfulfilling workplace: anonymity, irrelevance, and "immeasurement" or no tracking of performance improvement.

The pages that follow remind me of the first half hour of Atonement, only all the initial painstaking attention to the mundane details of running a restaurant doesn't lead to a bestselling epic, or much of anything. Whenever I'm forced to notice details, and when I'm made privvy to random comments, I assume the effort was made for the purpose of foreshadowing some major event, and this just was not the case. Lencioni likes to pepper his characters with attributes like surliness or shyness, or even a tattoo, but none of these characteristics mean anything later and are too vague to paint a picture, as strong descriptive narration does. I'm left wondering, what did I miss? What was I supposed to pay attention to?

Spoiler alert: Later, the executive applies these principles to his new gig as an interim CEO of a flagging athletic retailer. And, at the very end, Lencioni takes off the storytelling masquerade altogether and returns to what he is most comfortable with--being a management consultant. He, the consultant now, reiterates the three points he made during his protagonists' catharsis in the fable, only now he walks you though it like any old-fashioned business book writer would, just in case the reader has no clue what she was supposed to glean from the past two hours of reading.

I wish I could say I felt more enlightened by this book. But rather I felt like I'd just been lured by an engaging title into an approximation of reality by someone with good intentions, but who sounds like the poor HR manager who kindly asks you all to sit down while she fires up the exciting corporate video. You almost want to see boobs just to stay awake.

I wish that more consultants would think like my favorite history teachers in high school, who would show movies like Brazil to teach about the ill-effects of fascism, or The Gods Must Be Crazy to teach about cultural difference. Some forms of entertainment educate in ways experts can't. We may think that Steve Carell's character in the TV Show "The Office" is absurd, but don't think he doesn't remind you of someone, even yourself. I could see aspects of myself in his need to constantly entertain. Just by watching this program I've learned that, sometimes, the greatest way to help your people is to leave them alone. Let them participate on their terms.

Taking off from this discussion, I would love to hear what are some of the best unintentional business books, movies, TV shows you'd recommend. I won't be recommending any fables.

Jory Des Jardins also writes at Pause.

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