Organizations act as a result of a complex field of stories, past, present and future, that they are not always conscious of, and rarely deliberately embrace. Here are seven prompts to help you explore organisational storytelling and challenge your assumptions about the contribution of storytelling to strong organisational cultures.
1 | curating the organizational storyfield
We don’t build our own reflective, curatorial and story shaping skills. What’s missing, at the level of both individual and organization, is a systematic, deliberate practice of collecting and sifting the raw materials of one’s own experience and the choosing and shaping, with care, those small stories that shine a light on big insights.
photo | ted.sali
2 | performers or participants?
In the setting of the firm and the workplace we are primed for telling at the expense of listening, shaping, and giving back/passing on. We are on performance settings, at every level of the organization. These encourage display and show, rather than discover and shape.
With high performance comes plenty of rehearsal time and space.
3 | story as a verb, not a noun
Story is most often seen as a produced thing. The value in seeing story as the verb of organizational change is immense. Once you see it as a verb, then all the moving parts of the organization, all the relationships, all the encounters, are part of a dynamic storyfield.
4 | how ordinary the special stories are
We worked on story collecting skills with Countryside Agency teams around the time of the merger that made Natural England, exploring turning point stories that illustrated the value the Agency brought. The moment of revelation was in finding how ordinary the special stories were: it wasn’t car chases through the backstreets of Norwich that powered the difference the Countryside Agency made, but knowing who held the key to the parish hall so that you can work on a parish plan inside and out of the rain.
The habits of Hollywood drama are such that there’s a leadership thirst for dramatic success stories and that skews the way the storyfield of the organization is observed and put to work.
5 | the risk of controlling the story
Not only does the organization want to control the story that is told, it also wants to instruct the listener, or recipient, in how to receive the story, so most stories come heavily larded with direction and explanation. The trouble with a moral is that it closes the story, crowds out the person receiving it, and places them at a distance from the story rather than engaging them in stepping into it, making themselves part of it and making it their own story.
6 | of heroes and happy endings
Flowing from this unwillingness to let go of how the story travels, to let it enquire rather than instruct, we’ve found that it’s very hard for organizations to stand in an unspun neutral place.
It’s very tempting, and not very convincing, to spin a tale with the organization as the constant hero that does no wrong. Can the organization be bold enough to make a story that allows more complex colours and threads to be woven together, and so build more authentic relationships with staff, suppliers, customers and business friends?
Like a moral, a happy ending is a closed door, not a gateway that opens onto something new….
7 | storytelling as part of the change environment
Very early on in Sparknow’s existence, a team came back, deflated, from a story workshop at one of the big five consulting firms. They felt, they said, like the end of the pier show. In a subtle way, I’d offer that this is the greatest danger of all with storytelling: that it’s seen as entertainment rather than a substantial and vital part of the change environment.
Summing up, we’d offer this thought for a chilly January Thursday.
At its very worst, story distracts, or avoids. Story becomes a kind of fantasy world, disconnected from reality, rather than a careful way of rooting action in a complex and subtle reality.
But at its very best, storytelling disrupts, finds hidden truths and evidence, exercises the imaginative muscle, explores complex feelings and experiences, makes room for multiple perspectives and a more grounded conversation and builds channels for newly charged energy flows by breaking down patterns of perception and assumption.
Storytelling has the power to prompt the organization, and the people associated with it, to see itself and themselves in new and surprising ways. The surprise creates potential.