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Pulling the Trigger on Chekhov's Gun

Friday, May 29, 2015

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Anton Chekhov was a Russian author and playwright and is largely considered one of the best short story writers in history; the term 'Chekhov's gun' is said to have come from a piece of advice he shared with other writers:
"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."

Chekhov's warning is simple: guard against extraneous detail
Guns are powerful images. They invoke a particular meaning, they carry with them great potential for danger and death. To give something as symbolic as a gun attention within a narrative is to signal to people that they should pay attention. However, if nothing comes of it, if it is never used, they can feel confused or let down. Chekhov's view is that every detail must have purpose and if you as an author give something significance early in a story, it is incumbent upon you to follow through and actually use it as a plot element.

The way of the gun
However, Chekhov's advice is neither limited to guns (it could be equally applicable to any detail, object, setting or circumstance) nor narrative story telling. As a principle, it applies equally well to both employee/stakeholder engagement efforts (e.g. Blueprint 2020) and innovation infrastructure (e.g. Innovation Labs). These are both highly charged areas where expectations run high and even the fine details matter.

The decision makers shaping these initiatives are no different than Chekhov's short story writers. They are responsible for crafting the narrative. They introduce elements, set the tone and set the action in motion. In so doing they create meaning and expectation, whether they intend to or not. If they don't pay close attention, a misstep or misleading detail will undermine the experience (and thus the resolve) of those working along side them.

My advice is simple
Success in these endeavours ultimately hinges on the willingness and ability of leaders to pull the trigger on Chekhov's gun.