Marrying Fiction and Nonfiction in Business Books


In my latest book, Match in the Root Cellar, I tell the story of Carolyn, a newly appointed CEO in charge of dismantling her company’s default culture of complacency and discontent. Many people reading her story might assume she is a fictional character in a fictional company. In reality, both Carolyn and her company are composites of very real people and organizations I’ve encountered in my 30 plus years in the industry.

Blending fact and fiction isn’t a new idea in business books and management literature. Many authors before me have used fictional narratives as vehicles for management allegory. What makes my book unique is its multifaceted approach to story-telling, graphic illustration, and practical advice. Match in the Root Cellar takes a holistic approach to educating and engaging its readers. The result is that readers across a wide range of learning styles will find something that draws them in.

Blending narrative, graphics and practical advice

Match in the Root Cellar is a two-part book. The first part uses Carolyn’s story to illustrate—both narratively and graphically—the challenges of working within a default culture. The second part is a straightforward field guide that provides actionable steps to transforming a default culture into an intentional culture of peak performance. Some people look at problems within their organizations as holes that can be filled with expensive strategy and methodology. Poor customer satisfaction? Buy the latest Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. Poor job performance? Implement a Lean transformation. Yet, these seldom fix the problems they were intended to solve. This is because people are focused on solving symptoms of a default or incongruent culture. I wanted to create a quick, easy to reference field guide for leaders to treat the root causes of their organizations ailments. 

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Planning and iteration

People today are flooded with information. An endless stream of emails, text message, and phone calls fills our daily lives. In today’s digital era, visual management is critical to engaging stakeholders. Strong visuals serve as memory anchors, helping us create meaning in the chaos of information overload. This is why the first thing readers will notice in my book is the graphic depiction of key characters in Carolyn’s story. The pictures weren’t added out of creative whimsy, they were carefully designed over the course of many iterations.

For instance, when I showed my wife the first draft of Carolyn, she took one look and said, “No female executive would dress like that.” We went through several versions of Carolyn before we found the right one. It was important that we got the look and feel of each character right. I wanted the characters to resonate with people reading the book. I wanted readers to take the journey with them, to see their physical and emotional transformations.

Similarly, in the field guide, it was important to both describe and visually represent the three ways of being and the seven disciplines to practice in order to achieve a peak performance culture. For instance, being persistent is one of the three ways of being. I not only describe what that means and the implications of it, I also visually depict it. This ensures the manual is equally engaging and useful for those who learn best with words and those who learn best with pictures.

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Setting the context

Through my experience, I’ve come to understand the simple reality of culture: It is as old as fire, as pervasive as wind and as inescapable as gravity. It’s a part of the human experience, and it will always be around you. It can be hard to see the culture of your own organization. As the saying goes, “I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.”

Carolyn’s story provides a useful framework for people to recognize and examine the issues they might be experiencing within their organizations. This powerful new perspective allows people to recognize their culture and the behaviors that define it.

Above all, my intention was to use Carolyn’s story to get people to realize that culture isn’t some amorphous monster somewhere in the ether, it’s as real as steel and it is something you must intentionally generate and shape every day. This is a book for leaders who want to move away from a default culture and learn how to change the tide of culture in their workplace, right now.

Putting it all together

Ultimately, people need to see culture as a difficulty to manage rather than a problem to solve. There is no quick fix and there are no shortcuts. Shaping and sustaining a peak performance culture requires a disciplined commitment. The good news is that change generates momentum. Leaders can use this momentum to take their organizations out of their default cultures and open up extraordinary possibilities for themselves as leaders and for their organizations.


Chris McGoff is the co-founder of The Clearing, Inc. a Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm where his client list includes many U.S. Federal Government agencies, IBM, AARP, Consol Energy, Benesch, Coffman Engineers, Harris, Lazard, the American Petroleum Institute, SalientCRGT, DuPont, the United Nations, and Boeing. He is the Washington Post bestselling author of The Primes,  and his new book Match in the Root Cellar (Forbes Books) publishes February 6, 2018.


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