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Using Storytelling in Organizational Change



Telling stories can inspire people to make change happen in organizations. By co-writing the company’s future story you can embrace current strengths to explore future opportunities. Storytellers should step into their story to become their story whilst telling it says Hans Donckers. At the Dare Festival Antwerp 2014 he gave a presentation about storytelling and shared leadership.

InfoQ did an interview with Donckers about the importance and value of storytelling, how you can use storytelling for organizational change, co-writing stories, and practicing storytelling.

InfoQ: For those who are unfamiliar with storytelling can you describe what it is and how organizations can use it?

Donckers: Storytelling in business is nothing more than telling stories, but in a deliberate and purposeful way. It’s not sharing anecdotes in the bar on a Friday night. Storytelling in organizations is using the innate and ancient capacity of people to inspire and be inspired through narrative. And if leaders, or any professional, want to have impact they should not neglect this capacity.

Any story, anytime? No. Different purposes require different stories. For instance, if you want to let people know what type of leader you are, then you need to bring a story that reveals some strength or vulnerability from your past, a story that let listeners experience how you see the world and how you deal with challenges. Or when it’s about transmitting values, you need a narrative that sketches a dilemma. You don’t necessarily need to reveal how you dealt with it. On the contrary, your story should describe in a recognizable and believable way the difficulty of navigating through this moral turmoil.

InfoQ: What makes storytelling so important, what is the value that stories can bring?

Donckers: People often refute that business shouldn’t be about stories but about facts and figures? About rational analysis and objectivity, rather than about emotions and subjectivity. Probably it should be when it comes to taking important decisions. But once decisions are taken, the biggest challenge lies in changing the mindsets of people to adhere to the decision and in igniting the action that is needed to make the decision real.

It appears that storytelling is a highly effective tool to tackle those challenges. Why is that? Because our brains were built this way. Research shows that storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Our brain produces the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moment in a story, which allows us to focus, while the human, emotional factor releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy.

Other neurological research teaches us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.

And what’s more? Powerpoints or corporate talks don’t have a viral effect. Stories do. I remember a senior leader in the banking industry who shared a personal story during a strategic session with his top management. The story was about him taking a dive in the pond next to his house, every single day of the year, summer and winter. The leader called his story the Ice bear story. Although the story was a very concrete one, it also symbolized the entrepreneurial strategy of the company and the attitude everyone in the company had to adopt, i.e. taking a plunge, facing fear and doing it anyway. Since that strategic day ‘doing an Ice bear’ became a common expression, a corporate narrative to challenge people on their behavior.

People value their own conclusions more highly than yours. They will only have faith in a story that has become real for them personally. If people make your story their story, they will recall and re-tell the story to others. They become the missionaries of your story.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of using storytelling in organizational change?

Donckers: The first time I applied storytelling was actually in one of the largest IT consultancy firms in Belgium. The CEO had defined a new strategy and a new service model. However, he knew that this required a cultural change and that it wouldn’t be easy for his management to embody the new story and to convey the message to the broader organization. So instead of planning typical roadshows to cascade the message, we gathered with the management to translate the abstract and rational message into real, emotional stories that would be recognizable for employees.

It’s important to note that we didn’t make up these stories. During ‘corporate campfires’ we identified concrete events in the company’s past that were actually good illustrations of what the future should look like. For instance, at a certain point of time one of their main client’s building caught fire in the evening. Driven by a very dedicated and self-steering account manager, a number of consultants teamed up, drove to the client’s offices, worked all night and had the whole system up and running by the morning. This case really symbolized a new way of looking to customer service for this company, and ever since is has been a guiding story for their new service model.

All the stories collected around the corporate campfire (Stephen Denning calls this ‘springboard’ stories) actually happened and most employees had been part of one or more of them, so it wasn’t just management bullshit. It was their story!

Obviously, there were also many other events and practices from the company’s past that would be no longer in line with the new strategy. Those are the stories that you need to abandon. In many companies I use ‘transition rituals’ to leave part of the habits or culture in the past, and to take the successful ones with them into the future. Concretely, I use a 10 meters long timeline on which we plot all the stories from the corporate campfire. We then reflect together on which of these stories can serve as inspiration for the future and which ones should become past tense. It’s actually no different from the parables in the bible or other stories in other religions. The selected stories become symbols and touchstones that can guide or inspire behavior in future challenges.

The great thing is that you can do this with very large groups. Recently I facilitated a session with 180 persons. We brought the collective memory of the organization into one room.

InfoQ: What does a great story look like? Can you give an example?

Donckers: A great story always deals with the questioning of the status quo. The protagonist suddenly can no longer act as he did before, faces a big challenge, discovers tragic news, becomes part of a conflict, etc. In other words, daily business is put on hold and a specific challenge should be tackled first – and it won’t be easy. Whether or not the protagonist succeeds in tackling the challenge, the uncertainty about it is what makes the story exciting.

The German novelist Gustav Freytag called this the ‘introduction of conflict’ or the ‘inciting incident’. The story then builds up to a climax, after a number of fights, attempts or other demanding activities. It’s this part where you build up tension, where you grab people’s attention. Without this tension, your story becomes a mere description of a sequence of events. Or as Andrew Stanton, screenwriter and producer at Pixar, puts it in a 2012 Ted talk: “Storytelling is joke telling.” What he means is that a really compelling story constantly builds up to that one point where everything comes together: where the problem is solved, the challenge is overcome – or not. That’s what people need. Throughout the whole story they want to feel the ‘promise’, that it’s worthwhile listening to the story until it ends because at the end they will learn something, will be relieved, …

Some stories can end with the climax, others need a description of how the climax resolved everything. And in some cases you need to explain the moral of the story. Good storytellers know where to stop. Lousy storytellers kill their own story by going on, adding redundant information and repeatedly explaining why the story is important.

There are examples galore. Frodo who has to get rid of the ring, the story of Jesus Christ, the emotional struggle of Werther in Goethe’s story, etc. Or consider the classic faire tales. Will Hans and Gretel be able to escape from the witch? Will Little Red Riding Hood be eaten by the wolf? Etc.

Whether you’re telling a story to your children or to the executive board, the underlying structure is exactly the same.

InfoQ: Do you have suggestions how storytellers can avoid seeming fake or false when they prepare the story?

Donckers: The only advice I can give is to ‘become’ your story whilst telling it. If you don’t embody your story, if you don’t tell it as if you are part of the action again (or at least are a close observer of the action) they will not believe you.

And yet, some people are damn good at telling fake stories. Think about the first episode of Boardwalk Empire where Nucky Thompson addresses a group of women who are supporting the prohibition. Nucky, a corrupt politician who plays an active role in the illegal liquor market, tells these women a story about his childhood, when he had to take care of his little brother because his parents were too drunk. His story is made up, but the women in the room get all emotional and love the guy. When he leaves the room he tells his assistant: “Never let politics get in the way of a good story.” Boardwalk Empire is fiction but there are plenty of Nucky Thompsons out there. And from research we know that when it comes to influencing it is more important to be perceived as authentic than to actually be authentic.

InfoQ: You mentioned that you try to engage people to ‘co-write’ stories. Can you give some examples of how you do this?

Donckers: In the IT example above the new strategy was already defined. However, more and more organizations understand that strategy can no longer be defined top down. You need to engage many people, ideally the whole organization. And not just because you want to avoid resistance, you should do this because this way you can tap into the collective intelligence. In VUCA times the omniscient leader has become obsolete. We don’t need hero leaders that tell the story, we need an environment of shared leadership where people can co-write the future story.

When co-writing the company’s future story you don’t select springboard stories based on coherence with a given strategy. Based on a reflection of the shared past, you start imagining potential futures that embrace current strengths and at the same time envision future opportunities. For instance, one of my clients in the financial industry discovered during a storytelling workshop with corporate campfire sessions that some people in the organization had been successfully experimenting with open co-creation workshops with their clients. These few examples were considered seeds or germs for something bigger and when co-writing future scenarios for the organization, these small events from the past were projected as compass for the future. Their future story was about taking care of these rare seeds so that they would become the dominant vegetation in the future. Anecdotes from the past became the organizational narrative for the future, thanks to a deliberate process of story sharing.

It’s often amazing to see how much energy and entrepreneurship emerges when people experience that they can hold the pen of their own shared future.

InfoQ: What is the difference when writing a story vs telling it in person?

Donckers: When writing a story you have to observe it, take a distance and than craft it very consciously and intentionally. You need to shape and reshape, craft, grind and sharpen. Writing a story requires craftsmanship. But once it is written and you start telling it, get rid of the distance and jump into your story. Live it and breathe it.

InfoQ: What are the pitfalls of storytelling? How can you deal with them?

Donckers: Obviously storytelling is not the single, sanctifying skill any leader or professional should master. The pitfall lies in believing that a story will help you get away with anything or that it is the key that will fit any door.

A pitfall that has to do with the nature of the story you are telling is the temptation to make it all sound easy or spectacular. Robert McKee, an advisor to many award winning Hollywood storywriters, says we should never star an ‘overdog’ and that we should never star ourselves. It’s good to share successes but what people really want to hear is that you – or whoever the protagonist is – are also vulnerable. That you also face bad luck, that you also have to fight your inner demons, etc. Your story must draw them into empathy or identification with you. No identification, no connection.

InfoQ: If readers would like to practice storytelling, can you give them advice to get started?

Donckers: The first step is getting over anxiety and embarrassment. Every single individual has stories and every occasion can be suitable for sharing them. In my storytelling workshops I follow a very simple sequence that your readers can easily apply: mine – craft – share. The mining part is about founding your own story material. Usually I let people draw personal important events or turning points on a timeline. By drawing it the events instead of using words it immediately takes a ‘flesh and blood’ form, not abstract thoughts. By reflecting on the deeper meaning of the events to them, participants discover the existential importance or become aware of the personal learning. And that’s exactly what listeners want to get from you. No corporate bullshitting but authentic testimonials that inspire, move, ignite, … A common pitfall is to only focus on successes. This will not add to the authenticity. Real people fail, struggle, have doubts, … If you share a success, don’t forget sharing the hardship or the challenges that preceded them.

The next step – crafting – is simple but requires some blood and sweat. Every story – from Hans and Grettle to The Matrix – follows a simple structure. An exposition of the situation at the start of the story (once upon a time), an inciting incident that caused stress or conflict (the appearance of a villain, a fight with your boss), the endeavors to overcome the conflict (from fighting seven-headed dragons to facing your team after a negative evaluation), a climax where the protagonist finally overcomes (or not), and a resolution in which everything can return to a normal situation (and the lived happily ever after). If the clue of the story is self-explaining you can stop here. However, if there’s a moral or a deeper learning you want to convey, make sure you make this explicit (What I learned from this …).

Understanding this structure is easy. The blood and sweat come in when you start writing it out. It’s writing, re-writing, grating and refining. And again. What usually helps is to start with the end in mind. Once you have a clear view on the point you want to make (And how often have we heard stories where you think at the end: So what?) you can work out every element so that it builds up to this final point.

And then for the seasoning, add these three key flavors: action, color and emotion (ACE). Add action by describing the event in the present tense from the first person perspective. Add color by describing a few details: the name of a person, the color of his tie, the weather at that moment, the smell, … Emotion is a key ingredient for every listener – even if they pretend being walking brains. Bringing in emotion is very simple. Just say what you felt and your listeners will also feel it. “I felt so relieved. I was really afraid. …” It’s like saying ‘lemon’ to someone and this person will experience sour taste in his mouth.

The final step is – oh surprise! – telling the story. And again. And again. Look for occasions where you can practice it, where you can test how your listeners react so you can discover where your story really grabs attention and where it doesn’t. There’s no need to master presentation skills for telling stories. Even if you don’t have an impressive voice or full control over your bodily language, you can inspire and move people. Step into your own story. If you live it, feel it and believe it, your listeners will do so as well. Become your story!

About the Interviewee

Hans Donckers (1976) is owner at Mingle Consult. He started his career in academia where he did research in philosophy and was particularly interested in narrative ethics, i.e. how values are transmitted and clarified through narrative structures. Today he works with organizations that are looking for new ways to organize themselves and to tap into the collective energy and intelligence of people. Based in Belgium, Hans has worked with organizations from diverse sectors and in multiple countries on different continents. Some of his previous clients include Bayer, BASF, BP, Ingersoll Rand, ING, BNP Paribas Fortis, Barco, Doctors Without Borders, GDF Suez, Thomas Cook, EDF Luminus. Hans is also professional faculty at the Antwerp Management School (Belgium).

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