July 14, 2019

The Importance of "Second Stories" -- The What > Who at Your Company and at Three Mile Island

Second story questions ask about the "what" rather than the "who" is responsible. This might have saved one nuclear disaster, and it might optimize the potential of your company.
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Now and then, something ends up in my field of attention, and I find I want to share it with all of my executive coaching and consulting clients. I also want to share it with everyone I know.

I should say first that this week has been a 70's and 80's highlights, or lowlights, reel on nuclear power accidents. I watched HBO's "Chernobyl," heard a Fresh Air podcast on the same topic, and then watched a video from a tech conference (how perfect is that) on the disaster at Three Mile Island.

My friend Karin Ray told me about the latter, a recording of a session called "Who Destroyed Three Mile Island?" by Nickolas Means. This presentation could have been a bit shorter on the content front, but you get to learn a bit about another less catastrophic reactor accident, and the set up is worth it for the payoff.

Karin told me what the video meant to her in the context of her work, and she said it better than I might have. She summarized the theme -- the difference between first and second stories -- this way:

First stories: Looking at the actions people took with the benefit of hindsight. This typically attributes blame to individuals and not systems.
Second stories: Looking at the system and seeing WHY mistakes were made. This approach makes the reasonable assumption that everyone is a rational actor and makes the best decisions they can with the information they have. Using this approach typically allows organizations to grow and improve, tackling the real root causes of problems instead of taking the easy route of blaming individuals.

What stood out to me most about the distinction between first and second stories is that first stories ask "who" is responsible, and second stories ask "what" is responsible. This last question gives organizations -- especially growing companies -- a chance to look beyond what often is a short-term fix of changing up the people. Companies can focus on something that may be far more systemic. They get to ask questions like "if we pay no attention to who is on our sales team and how they performed in the first half of the year, what other reasons might have caused our top-line miss?" I think it is critical to get curious about potential root causes that often can be ignored by keeping one's eye on human error.

I have a number of executive coaching clients and portfolio CEOs who routinely look for second stories. It can be difficult, particularly in the rapid-fire environment of a growing startup. It forces a level of self-reflective curiosity that is far more challenging and vulnerable than simply letting go of the last person who dropped a ball. It invites recurring questions about foundational assumptions. This is a great example of the Conscious Leadership principle of 100% Responsibility.

Most of the leaders in my life are not running nuclear power plants, but all of them care about delivering on promises and exceeding expectations. Take this as a prompt to consider second stories, particularly when you've been asking first stories around the same topic again and again. In addition to offering potentially massive insights that affect your near-term and long-term success, asking these questions as part of your company culture also creates a safer, more innovative climate for your team.

My friend Karin loved the final words of this presentation: "If you take the time to find the second stories for everything that happens and not just your outages, you'll make your organization a safer place for the people that work there and you'll fix the things which affect your delivery speed and quality."

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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