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'This book - full of stories about storytelling - contains some remarkable, real life examples of how story-telling in organisations leads to learning and dilemma resolution and how it makes possible the realisation of a vision.' Arie de Geus, Former Head of Group Planning, Royal Dutch/Shell Group and author of The Living Company
'The real power of narrative is that the threads can be interwoven to create ferocious antagonisms, happy endings and elegant syntheses. This is a book for all who would enthral others with their enterprise.' Charles Hampden-Turner, The Judge Institute of Management Studies, University of Cambridge. Co-author of Riding the Waves of Culture and Building Cross-Cultural Competence.
'Tales, of the sort described in this book, are a powerful antidote to the overly analytical culture that afflicts many organisations today. Like many of the best business ideas, telling stories is both old and new. This book develops a new way to use stories to create the elusive competitive edge - a must for managers in our increasingly complex world.' DeAnne Julius, Former Member of the Monetary Policy Committee, Bank of England.
'A gift to story-lovers. After an hour or so, one is entirely engrossed by this delightful book. Full of rich stories, narratives and ideas, it will appeal to the scholar, the student and the practitioner, the story-teller and the listener.' Yiannis Gabriel, School of Management, Imperial College, University of London. Author of Storytelling in Organizations.
People learn from stories in a different way from the way they learn from generalities. When I'm writing I often start out with abstractions and academic jargon, and purge it. The red pencil goes through page after page, while I try to make sure that the stories and examples remain to carry the kernel of the ideas, and in the process the ideas become more nuanced, less cut and dried. Mary Catherine Bateson (Personal Communication)
In this chapter we show why story-telling has such a strong influence in organisations, how it works, what different kinds of stories there are, and discuss the various ways of creating stories. We also give an outline of the rest of the book.
The collection of stories known as The Thousand and One Nights, or The Arabian Entertainments, includes tales from India and Persia as well as from Arabia. The collection is framed by a story of stories that tells of Scheherazade, the daughter of King Shahriyar's vizier.
The king had a horrible habit of marrying a woman, spending one night with her and then having her killed the next morning. Scheherazade managed to escape this fate by telling the king stories, always stopping at a vital point and promising to continue the next night. The king was so keen to learn whathappened next that he slept with her night after night. In this way, Scheherazade saved her life each night for 1001 nights. By then, the king was so captivated by her cleverness and courage that he gave up his wife-killing habits. They lived happily ever after - in Scheherazade's case, as happily as she could as the wife of a brute like King Shahriyar!
The Thousand and One Nights is a fantasy that has gripped the imaginations of generations all over the world. It has inspired many re-tellings, including Rimsky-Korsakov's musical version. Some of the individual tales are well known in themselves, such as that of Sinbad's adventures. Its depiction of a woman's sustained bravery, resourcefulness and creativity is powerful. Also, it has power as a story about stories.
Although, thank goodness, most story-telling is not a matter of life and death, The Thousand and One Nights symbolises the role of the story in human affairs. Among family and friends, in entertainment of all kinds, in politics and in many other spheres of society, the story is relevant. This book is about the equally vital role of stories in organisations of all types - business, government and non-governmental.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare showed how the story of a murder, told in a play within the play, could be used to discover a real murderer. Hamlet suspected that his father been killed by Claudius, who by doing so was able to become King of Denmark in Hamlet's father's place. Hamlet arranged for a troupe of players to enact a murder scene. Preparing for the play Hamlet said: 'The play's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king'. Claudius's emotional reaction to the play convinced Hamlet that his suspicions were right.
Before human beings learned how to read and write, story-telling was the medium of collective memory. The stereotypical scene is of the tribe around the fire, listening to Homeric epics or Norse sagas. The rhythmic poetry, the evocative language, the communal setting and the skills of the venerable teller burn the tale into the minds of the younger listeners. Well, something like that, anyway. No doubt this stereotype is only partly accurate, since in pre-literate societies story-telling probably appeared in many more situations than just the fireside gathering. During routine tasks, mothers would sing and tell stories to their children. Hunting, collecting things in the forest and early agriculture would be taught through stories as well as by example.
Aesop's fables, Christian parables, innumerable rhymes and songs - these are more examples of the power of the tale. Story-telling works because the human brain finds it user-friendly. Young children, who are of course pre-literate humans, learn through stories, whether these are classic fairy-tales or new tales.
Bruno Bettelheim's view of fairy-tales was that they help a child to make coherent sense of his feelings and thoughts about the world, so as to develop the inner resources needed to cope. Examples are The Three Feathers, which starts with the king contemplating his death, Hansel and Gretel's dangerous journey, and the many other stories in which challenges are met and problems overcome. Bettelheim suggests that these tales help children to deal well with the difficulties intrinsic to human existence. While Bettelheim's concern was primarily with children's development, many of the themes are applicable to the adult who has the capacity to address the metaphorical and symbolic transmission of wisdom. As Bettelheim writes in The Uses of Enchantment (1991, p. 26):
Some fairy and folk stories evolved out of myths; others were incorporated into them. Both forms embodied the cumulative experience of a society as men wished to recall past wisdom for themselves and transmit it to future generations. These tales are the purveyors of deep insights that have sustained mankind through the long vicissitudes of its existence....
Resistance to Story-Telling
Despite the advantages of story-telling, listed above, there is often resistance to the use of stories, for the following reasons:
The tradition in organisations is 'the drier the better'. Arguments must appear to be fact-based and objective. Bias must be concealed. Quantification is highly regarded, even for things that are actually pretty hard to quantify, like intellectual capital or emotional intelligence.
Time is limited and people's energies are mostly absorbed by their day-to-day tasks. So attempts to enhance an organisation's learning capacity often meet with fatigue. 'Please, no more flip-charts', is a frequent response. Story-telling gets lumped in with other, more ponderous approaches, when in fact it is simple, flexible and friendly.
An organisation that knows how to improve current activities may not also be good at more radical learning. Success in shorter-term learning may inhibit 'thinking out of the box', which is necessary for long term learning.
Narratives usually engage the emotions, which can make storytelling seem frightening.
Knowledge is often considered to be one vast database, and once you have the means to access this, your knowledge is complete. We believe this is a very limited way of looking at knowledge. Much of what makes up knowledge is constructed by the interaction between the knower and the world.
Because of resistances like these, conscious attempts to tell stories in organisations may be dismissed as 'the latest managment fad', even by those who themselves love telling gossipy tales in the pub after work. A story-teller may be told she is trying to be clever. Listeners may be told they are naive to spend their time listening to stories.
Our book will provide guidance for using stories to overcome these barriers and to achieve a wider set of goals. Using stories will:
expand the range of perspectives on an issue, beyond the pseudo-factual perspective usually employed. This produces a richer picture and creates negotiated and shared meaning as part of learning;
grab people's attention, quickly and economically. Narratives work better than other ways of stimulating learning, because they are a central part of human intelligence;
work on the imagination, in order to generate creativity in an organisation;
surface suppressed emotions which are dangerous in organisation life. Story-telling is a safe way to do this;
tap into powerful areas of cognitive capacity in the brain. Organisations operate in an increasingly complex world. Attempts to make sense of such a world by using fact-based, cause-and-effect logic often fail because of the vast number of interactions and feedback loops that have to be taken into account.
When stories are used confidently and consistently, cynicism dies away. An example we give in Chapter 2 shows how growing confidence in the use of story-telling helped a management team to think constructively about a future that was teeming with opportunities and threats. Another example, given in Chapter 3, shows how a bold and skilful story-teller was able to get a difficult change programme back on track. At IBM, the knowledge management programme became increasingly dedicated to story-telling, as a team led by Dave Snowden developed a range of story-telling aids and techniques (described in Chapter 9). These techniques are now being widely applied by that company. Box 1.1 gives an example of story-telling in a society that suppresses the flow of information. These examples show that the cynics are wrong - story-telling really is effective.
The aims of this book are to show why stories are so important in organisations, to show individual readers how they can benefit from story-telling as a regular practice, and to help readers develop their own story-telling skills.
BOX 1.1 Radio Trottoir
In the mid-1980s, a group of academics met in London to discuss a phenomenon they had noticed in Francophone Africa: 'Radio Trottoir', or sidewalk radio. Radio Trottoir was something that had become increasingly important in politics and had been created out of two strong features of African society: a highly controlled press and a long tradition of story-telling. Because people could not get accurate news about political developments from the media, gossip took the place of published news. In order to make an item of gossip credible the speaker needed to trace the source of his information, which might be something like, 'My wife's cousin is the driver to the Minister of Finance and he heard that ...' Sometimes the news on Radio Trottoir was completely accurate; at other times it was rumour stimulated to achieve a particular purpose; at other times it was simply wrong. No one ever knew which was the case. However, equally, no one could afford to ignore the news on Radio Trottoir. The academics even reported that government officials had been known to circulate counter-rumours whenever some item on Radio Trottoir was giving them particular trouble.
How Story-Telling Works its Magic
Although there are several ingredients in the magic spell, first and foremost stories work because they are memorable. Most people find it difficult to remember a list of more than seven items; but tell a well-made story and your listeners will be able to recount the tale effortlessly, with twenty or more events. Stories are memorable because their structure is like life. In a story, events unfold much as they do when you live through them. We all know how films, plays and books can grip the imagination. They seem real. Human memory seems to treat a story as if it were real life.
Should you doubt the magic effect of stories, think of this. You hear a story at a party. It is such a good story that you ignore the surrounding chatter, you leave your glass of wine untouched and you stop thinking about the attractive stranger standing next to you. The next evening you go to another party and, without premeditation, you launch into the story you heard the night before, creating the same rapt circle of listeners, with the same intent expressions on their faces. Why were you able you perform this feat? Because you were able to remember the story effortlessly and could therefore tell it in an exciting way. And it won't only be you who tells the tale. Before long you will hear the same story told by someone else. Good stories spread quickly. As human beings, we all need to make sense of what is happening around us, helping us to survive in changing conditions, and no doubt we have mental equipment devoted to sensemaking. Sensemaking, or construing, could be seen as telling ourselves stories. Listening to our own stories may be much the same as listening to other people's. Story-telling seems to be part of our mental equipment.
As well as being memorable, stories are economical. Since stories engage the listeners' and readers' minds, not everything has to be spelled out. The hearer works on the story, imagining details of his own as the narrative develops, just as the story-teller adds details of her own during her particular telling of the tale. To use the language of information theory, there is redundancy in stories which helps the receiver fill in a gap in the message. A gap may be due to a lapse in the listener's attention, or it might be that the story-teller inadvertently omits a piece of the story that she had planned to include, or that she had included when she told the story on previous occasions. In any case, there is usually no such thing as a 'complete' story. The sender can therefore change the message slightly, without harming its intelligibility or losing the receiver's attention. In an organisation with plenty of shared language and shared mental models, abbreviation can be extensive. There may be no time for more than a rapid-fire anecdote, but if the organisation has a tradition of story-telling plus lots of shared concepts, this may be a highly effective communication.
A story, with its more-or-less continuous narrative, actively engages the sensemaking faculties of listeners, making the story memorable and, when necessary, making it more economical than other ways of transmitting information. With a story, sensemaking by the listener is much stronger than when a list of items is simply read out. This active engagement of listeners has further advantages beyond being memorable and economical. By activating listeners' imaginations, their creative faculties become aroused.
Art and Emotions
Most northern European and North American organisations have cultures that severely limit any reference to the emotions of the people involved. The cultural norm is that there is a job to be done and personal feelings only get in the way. Of course, many people do feel strongly about their work, or about some aspects of it, at least. They love or hate various tasks they have to do. They love or hate their bosses, their immediate colleagues, or people in other parts of the organisation. Turf wars, resentment towards people in power, commitment to the goals of a sub-unit at the expense of the goals of the organisation as a whole - all of these are familiar and all have a strong emotional component.
In organisations whose official line is that feelings just hamper objective decision-making, people do have feelings all the same. But they are concealed feelings. So tensions build up, communications are a sham and poor decisions get made.
Excerpted from The Power of the Tale by Julie Allan Gerard Fairtlough Barbara Heinzen Excerpted by permission.
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1 Stories in Action
Resistance to story-telling
How story-telling works its magic
Types of narrative
Ways of creating stories
The rest of the book
What readers will get from the book
2 M4 Technology -
Stories for Truth and Trust
A theory of truth and trust
Practices and stories
Support truthful politics
3 AutoCorp -
AutoCorp: the past
AutoCorp: stories for the future
A training tale
A coaching tale
A mentoring tale
A cautionary tale about not learning
4 Themis -
Using Stories in a Professional Development Community
Perspectives and practices
The history of Themis
A note on written stories
5 Matters of Life and Death -
Using stories in the National Health Service
Trusting your judgement
A positive approach to dilemmas
Stories about stories
6 AutoCorp -
Coping with complexity
Another virtuous circle
AutoCorp's change programme
Self-organising change at AutoCorp
An experiment in self-organisation
7 LIFT -
Stories for Innovation
The London International Festival of Theatre
Imagination, vision and stories
Stimulating your imagination
The right space to tell the tale
Building an organisation
Expanding the vision
Renewing the vision
8 Kenya -
Scenarios for a Country's Future
The Mont Fleur scenarios
The benefits of scenarios
Story-telling and scenarios
Mount Kenya Safari Club
The research workshop
Detoxifying the mind
Further workshops -
Lake Baringo, Mombasa and Amboseli
Influence of the scenario project
9 Thinking about Stories
Stories in organisations
Stories and learning
Stories and society
10 Tools and Techniques for Story Use
A note on ethics
Story-telling frameworks and starting points
Workshop games and activities
Developing your own skills
A note on story-telling and organisational research
11 The Future of Story-telling in Organisations
Key points from the seven histories
What we learned while writing this book
Story-telling and complexity
Respect for other people
Art and emotion
Story-telling and sustainability
Further Reading and Resources
Index of Stories
Subject and Author Index