I was trawling the archives and reminded of this letter, into which we put a lot of work, which I share, edited a bit.
Sometimes I think our letters should get a wider audience. Somewhere between meetings, proposals and email exchanges, a great deal of effort goes into inviting people to make sense of story system possibilities for them and we do that as often through letters as through other kinds of briefing notes or exchanges. I may, if I get daring, also forage in my extensive archives of complaints letters, of which my favourite recent one is to Richard Branson. Let’s see.
The letter, like the essay, is a much overlooked form of communication and invitation, and in particular the exchange of letters so favoured by 19th century romantic poets and such a critical part of scientific discovery, which presumably now happens in a more more patchworked way through messaging, email, academic paper and correspondence. There’s a line of enquiry. Correspondence. That’s a word to revisit.
Story systems for your company
Philip and I both really enjoyed our meeting. At your request, I’m setting out some thoughts about how you and your company can take story systems and apply them to
- the balanced scorecard
- frontline engagement and toolkits
- knowledge transfer
- revitalising values
- mergers, acquisitions and restructuring
1 | balanced scorecard
You’ve put a great deal of work into this new monitoring system, which has senior backing. Story tools will help with implementing the scorecard and building feedback channels such that it becomes a shared tool for monitoring, reflection and capacity building, not just a management instrument. The exchange of stories and insights that result also feeds back into material with which to engage employees and strengthen the brand story. By seeding story into management systems or existing workflows, you are building it right into the business rather than dressing the business in new clothes, and your suggestion about starting here is a really excellent one.
2 | frontline engagement & toolkits
Simple toolkits, with some training support strengthen front line management/ supervisors’ ability to engage with, problem solve with, and innovate with their direct reports. The whole of our recent experience with the national rollout of a train the trainer programme about making spaces for rehearsal, challenge, communication and exploration near the frontline of the organisation feels very pertinent and translates well to your company, as a classic manfacturing company. The trick with the our current work has been to find an approach whose simplicity hides its subteltly quite well. I’m attaching extracts from a handout shared at a key meeting in the middle of last year, to give you a flavour for both toolkits.
What we’ve also learned during the national rollout is how important it is to provide a very accessible written toolkit, with minimal theory, explanation or even reference to storytelling, so that it just feels like a practical resource, and one easy for the managers to take, adapt and use, rather than one that needs experts in it. This means that Philip has been constantly simplifying the materials, while also giving clues to those who are more interested in theory and context, as to where they can dig further.
3 | knowledge transfer
Virtual and face—face connections can be designed to stimulate and channel the exchange of information, insight and experience to enhance local performance based on the experiences of other parts of the business – whether across geographic, line of business or major customer boundaries. In particular, encouraging the transfer of useful insight from one place to another means that groups have to shift to making sense of what they know and expressing it in a way that others can use it. This can also build pride and confidence, so there are benefits within as well as between groups.
To go into great detail here would take a great deal of space, and is probably better handled in another meeting, if this turns out to be an area you want to look at. However, an example I can point to in the context of the knowledge transfer research and piloting we worked on with the London Development Agency from 2007 – 2010.
I’ll say a little here about the pilot programme in 2009 by way of illustration.
There were four pilots.
The first of these was an exchange programme. Around a dozen people from both museum/archive backgrounds and business backgrounds met monthly over six months in different locations, from John Lewis to the Foundling museum. Each meeting was structured to use the venue, the collections, the expertise of those present and outside speakers to explore a particular avenue, for example innovation, employee engagement, corporate social responsibility. Leading up to and away from these events there were blogs, newsletters, and careful archiving of the methods used, and the experiences and ideas shared. These were fed back into other meetings, toolkits and ultimately into the final report. Of the three other pilots, two took small grants (seed capital) to invest in experimental innovation in relationship between the cultural sector and businesses, and these stories in turn were then collected as material to share more widely as springboard stories for other practitioners.
There is no doubt that marrying the process of building new reflective capacity within a group to a kind of publishing and meeting strategy dynamic that fuels a broader discussion that can be carried much wider, has been very successful in that case and I see every reason why the bones of it could transfer (perhaps with a more competitive edge) into your setting.
I’ve plenty of materials on this, and am happy to share them.
We’re also currently working with a client on another example of building a story system that seeks to increase the lateral transfer of knowledge and experience. The idea starts with bringing a companion a recognised expertise in the field equipping the companion to be a story collector and translator, if I can use those terms. They’d have questioning and recording protocols, observing guidelines, PDA’s, recorders and so on, and the guidance to collect a body of materials and then recast these into items which make them accessible to others in the organisation. This is a quadruple win if properly managed:
- building awareness in the story holder
- developing the skills of the story collector
- building their role as a broker of the materials (with which they’d be more intimate given how close they have come to the holder), and,
- finding modular publishing formats that take this beyond a static storybank and into something quite different and dynamic.
Something like this could be applied either to existing travel, or job exchanges or moves, or be a new development, call them missions, that could also be knitted into organisational development and into planning meetings too for an extra kicker.
4 | revitalising values
Mission and value statements are hard to bring to life and sustain. You could use techniques such as story competitions or ‘story in a word’ to bring the ‘Our Values’ to life, making them relevant at the individual level and team level – shifting behaviours (in the right way), reinforcing the brand and brand values, improving coherence of the organisation (particularly if there is a direction of travel from many cultures towards a ‘One Business’ culture).
The theoretical underpinnings of this come largely from social constructionism and Ken Gergen’s work and we’ve used it extensively as a minor or major part of programmes of work, but perhaps the best example I can point to is the work that Madelyn Blair of Pelerei (a sister company) has done with the United Nations to refresh their charter.
A handful of ambassadors picked a word from the charter (say neighbourliness) and shared a personal experience of that word in action in UN work. The collected materials, on a DVD, are part of a communication programme within and beyond the UN to share those as trigger stories, and then invite others to share their own experiences of such a word, so taking it off the page, out of the charter and back into the lived meaning of the organisation.
I’ve also included a very sweetly designed example of story in a word in the appendices, not ours but really economical and simple in design and execution in its own cultural context.
5 | mergers, acquisitions, restructuring and change programmes
You spoke of a restructuring which has led to readiness for growth, either through building or buying. Story systems, in this context, can be a profoundly useful way both to honour the past, the new business(es) have their origins, and at the same time to make space for new joint possibilities. If there is to be a return to growth by acquisition as your trading position continues to improve, working with story can certainly help with the integration of new businesses into the organisation.
Our approach here is an embrace of fact and story, top down strategy and collections of personal, felt experiences that can help translate that strategy into an immediate and compelling invitation to the organisation to be participants, not passengers, in the change. We’d need to meet again for us to talk about this in more detail, but the moment of transition, ‘the neutral space’ as William Bridges calls it in ‘Managing Transition’ can be actively resourced with both the processes and the products of story to bring the new business about in a participative way that makes for an immediate and suprising statement about how things are different around here, and what role you can play in that.
I can also offer you here a more speculative design idea, building in part on the design of the Audit Commission research into strategic financial governance – in particular the successful use of timelines to prompt new insight, and on the knowledge transfer research programme.
I’m thinking in particular of one programme participant who worked at a major bank with many history archives (different banks, building societies and so on) that are regularly used for social research, but had not, until recently, been used for employee engagement.
As part of strengthening the brand, alongside the normal brand work, the communications team worked closely with the archivists to make sure that the distictive histories and characteristics of each of the original entities are woven into the broader engagement programme. So it’s a both and, brand & heritage, working alongside each other. I’m also reminded that Boots, in launching new products, will have an archivist, a research person and somebody from communications on the launch team and will use the stories from the archives to build the history of a product into the launch campaign.
Having sessions to find and share stories of individual product timelines, collectively, so that each of the merging entities gets a sense of the product history of the other, could be coupled with a knowledge transfer twist where several product teams across the divide could do this together and then explore the new possibilities that result from a better grasp of the histories, both recorded in the archives and remembered by participants. There might be some additional archive research, or use of objects here given how rich the language, imagery and history of of your product range is.
I hope that all gives you some useful expansion of our discussions in the meeting, and acts as food for thought.
I do also have various papers and case studies about knowledge things, and narrative work, and am sitting on a report on knowledge transfer in London businesses which is due to be published soon. I would be happy to share all of those, but don’t want to overwhelm.
I do hope your Great North Run went well. I’ve been watching swimming ladies training up in wetsuits for triathlons at the Ladies Pond and love the way the great outdoors is starting to be so much more part of our lives.