Applications of Narrative and Storytelling
Why Organizational Communication in the 21st Century
by David Hutchens
Note to the reader: This text was originally prepared for the 10th Anniversary Edition of "Outlearning the Wolves."
My conference call isn’t going that well. I’m interviewing a group of executives from a global pharmaceutical company for a learning program on the subject of trust and teamwork in organizations. I’m not getting what I need.
“Trust is a bedrock of effective teams,” one of the executives tells me.
“That’s a good point,” I say as I lean into the phone. “Can you illustrate that with a story?”
Another disembodied voice comes back through the speaker: “You have to establish trust with your actions, and it has to be backed up by systems.”
“Great,” I say. “Can you give me an example of that or tell me a story—perhaps one about learning that lesson the hard way?”
“Sure,” says another. “You have to be authentic. You can’t fake trust.”
“Yes, but I’m looking for your stories . . . .”
And so it goes. The group delivers a series of pointed truisms with efficiency, and their correct answers are all the more credible for having been tested in an intensely competitive, results-driven culture. But I am intrigued by their seeming refusal to articulate their knowledge in the form of a narrative. Is it because they can’t or they won’t?
I have to believe this shortcoming is not a matter of capability. It isn’t a stretch to imagine these smart, experienced practitioners going home to their families and sitting around the dinner table as their spouses ask how their day went. “Well, I had an interview with this writer guy from Tennessee . . . .” They will pass the green beans, and they will tell stories, as all of us do, because from the dinner table to the campfire to the town square, story is the currency for human communication.
So what is it about the corporate setting that often makes it an inhospitable environment for narrative? Would telling stories simply have taken too long for this group of time-crunched executives or perhaps left them too emotionally vulnerable? Would their open-ended tales from the trenches have been too ambiguous for a culture that demanded precision and correct answers? Or have the PowerPoint body snatchers finally assimilated all of us so that we can now speak only in bullet-pointed reductionism?
Ten years ago, I stumbled into the world of organizational storytelling somewhat accidentally, when I wrote a silly story for one of the most influential brands in the world. I developed my tale, which hinged on a group of talking sheep and pop-culture references, as a catalyst for conversations about learning at a Fortune 100 company. I confess that upon submitting the first cartoon-illustrated draft to my client customer, I feared that it would be the end of my employment there. It wasn’t. Even though the company ultimately passed on Outlearning the Wolves for strategic reasons, I was surprised by the enthusiastic reception that Otto the sheep received in the hallowed halls of that organization. And I was surprised once again when I received a call from a forward-thinking publisher called Pegasus Communications only a couple weeks after I mailed the manuscript to them, unsolicited, in a plain manila envelope.
In the decade that has passed, Otto and his wooly friends have found an enthusiastic worldwide audience that has proven itself willing to surpass me in the practice of play as a path to learning. Oh, I’ve heard the stories:
Indeed, Otto seems to have no fixed audience. He is equally at ease in the graduate-level classroom and my own living room, where my nine-year-old daughter digested the book easily, telling me I did a “pretty good job.” (Her praise for her dad, though understated, is nonetheless invaluable because of the infrequency with which she dispenses it.)
Today, more and more people are talking about how stories can be used to create change, build culture, disseminate learning, and capture knowledge. Thinkers like former World Bank vice president Stephen Denning are elevating the discourse with disciplined tomes like The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2005). Some of my colleagues and clients have revised their organizations’ leadership competency models to include storytelling as a core capability. And an unmistakable constructivist tone is creeping into the business vernacular: “Markets are conversations; and brands are stories” claimed one dramatic online manifesto as it slapped organizations out of their comas and challenged them to find more relevant and human ways of talking with customers and among themselves.
Storytelling is innate and intuitive, and yet I encounter a lot of people who feel anxious about it.
“I don’t have the charisma or speaking skills to be a good storyteller,” many people tell me.
“Neither do I,” I say. “I think it is more important to tell the right story than it is to tell the story well.”
“Stories aren’t going to fly in my culture,” they say.
“I think you will be surprised,” I say. “The stories are already in your culture. It’s just a matter of recognizing and relaying the right ones to create the future that you desire.”
“Storytelling is a soft skill,” executives complain.
I counter: “Storytelling is a solid business discipline that goes to the core of your leadership.”
Ultimately, the conversation about organizational narrative turns on a fundamental question: How do I know which story is the right story?
That’s a tough one.
Sometimes I answer in terms of templates, distinguishing between stories of identity and stories of aspiration and change. Or perhaps I will challenge the person to start with the desired outcome and identify the existing stories that will help others envision the relevance of that outcome.
Which story is the right story? The real answer is, I don’t fully know. That’s where the art comes in.
* * *
I’m hanging out with a friend in an Atlanta club at the end of a corporate learning gig. Though we have left our ties in the car, our slacks and button-down shirts make us indistinguishable from the other working wonks in this Buckhead crowd. My colleague poses a variant on the which-story-is-the-right-story conundrum: “So how do you know when to use the Learning Fables?” he asks. “And how do you know when you should use another approach?”
“I’ll show you a way I’ve been thinking about this,” I say. I draw a line across a cocktail napkin, appreciating how this impromptu, beer-stained canvas adds instant drama and credence to my noodlings.
“There really is no end to the kinds of stories that can be used in an organizational setting,” I tell him. “I find that I always begin by answering two fundamental questions. The first question is how close to reality should the story be? So on the left side of the line are stories that directly reflect the reality that we live in. And on the far right are stories that are very different.”
I continue, “On the far left are stories that simply describe the world we live in. For example, they are the stories that companies might tell in their annual reports, citizenship reports, and so on.”
My friend points to the middle point of the line. “The learning program we just developed would go here, further over to the right,” he says.
I agree. “Yeah, our learning program today was an extended case study. Case studies are drawn from an organizational reality that we all recognize. But some of the details are changed so that people don’t get defensive. It’s in a distant reality, but not too distant. That’s why case studies make great learning tools. They look a lot like our world, but the names and other key details are changed so that, in effect, we can talk about ourselves without actually talking about ourselves.”
My colleague’s eyes are still tracking along the horizontal line. “Your series of Learning Fables goes all the way over here on the right,” he says and points to the “Distant Reality” end of the continuum. “In the Learning Fables, you’re using talking animals and fantasy worlds. It looks nothing like our world.”
“But it’s a metaphor for our world. The audience recognizes that the story has been constructed to tell them something about themselves. By immersing themselves in a world where sheep can talk and where the illustrations look like they were made for a children’s book, readers feel invited to relax, be playful, explore, and exercise their imaginations to think expansively. They’re not limited by the way things are in their current world. Out in the meadow with the sheep, readers experience the constant threat of the wolves; they can reflect on the feeling of vulnerability that comes with being in a changing world; and they can explore solutions that aren’t limited by the rules and structures of their real-world organization. It is very freeing.”
We both stop and reflect for a moment. Stories on the left side lead us to think analytically about what currently is; stories on the right lead us to reflect expansively on what could be. And, of course, there are all varieties of stories in between that accomplish both to varying degrees.
My friend breaks the silence. “So the first question you ask is how close to reality,” he says as he orders another beer. “What is the second?”
“The second is something I always struggle with. I ask how overtly do I draw out the learnings?” I draw a vertical line down the napkin; the ink bleeds where the line intersects a beer ring.
In developing the Wolves manuscript, I struggled with the question, how much of the metaphor do I explain? At first, I really didn’t want to provide any explanation at all, putting my trust in the power of the narrative to stimulate the audience and motivate them to draw their own connections. I eventually backed down from my extreme position, and I’m glad I did. I have learned that when connections remain too buried, audiences may feel a little lost. If the end goal is to create meaning (and not just to entertain), then you have to establish some kind of framework, model, or language. The question is, how much? Draw too many connections, and the audience is robbed of the process of discovery and lateral association; draw too few, and the audience doesn’t have enough context to have a meaningful conversation.
Fairy tales, for example, are relatively low on this continuum. Theorists like Bruno Bettelheim argue that the meaning in stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” is deeply buried. It’s in there; we just respond to it at a subconscious level.
Aesop’s Fables, on the other hand, are higher up on the continuum. There are no hidden connections; they have explicit morals. The audience for “The Tortoise and the Hare,” for example, knows that the message of the story is “Slow and steady wins the race.” You don’t have to dig at all to get the meaning; Aesop makes it easy and just tells you. One could argue that “Little Red Riding Hood” offers a deeper well of meaning than “The Tortoise and the Hare” and is therefore a richer resource for learning. (Indeed, Bettelheim says that, for this very reason, fairy tales are essential for the moral development of children.)
Similarly, the richest organizational stories are the ones that capture the essence of the organization’s identity—either “who we are” or “who we will become”—but also contain enough ambiguity, frayed edges, and unresolved plot threads and metaphors so that there is still plenty of meaning for organizational members to unpack. With the Learning Fables, I am continually mindful of drawing out the meaning in bites that are just the right size. The stories are followed by a short piece that initiates the meaning-making process, but then hands it over and says “your turn.” Big questions about the metaphor are posed but never conclusively answered. (One of my favorites: In your organization, what do the wolves represent?)
So which stories are most effective in organizations? The answer is all of them (see the Storytelling Matrix below). Start anywhere on the horizontal axis, depending on whether you want descriptive stories of your current reality or stories that can be catalysts for new ways of thinking because they are fixed in a distant reality. Then, “move upward” and have conversations to draw out the meaning of those stories. Because while the first purpose of the story in a movie or novel is to provide entertainment and escape, in organizations it is to create change. And the possibility of change grows only when the story has engaged people’s imaginations, invited them to reflect upon the story’s meaning, and moved them to respond with stories of their own.
David Hutchens’ Storytelling Matrix ®
The Realm of the Literal.
The Realm of the Allegorical.
The Realm of the Transformational.
The Realm of the Aspirational.
So where do we go from here? Given the potential of stories—any story—to create new meaning in your organization, I say with all sincerity and conviction that that depends on you. My hope is that your exploration of stories won’t end with Otto the Sheep, Sparky the Penguin, and the other characters in The Learning Fables, but that you would continue drawing connections between their stories and your story. The ultimate application occurs when you re-live and also create your own true stories of learning . . . and then share them with others in your organization. If you wish to embark on the journey of organizational learning, I can think of no better way to begin than with these words: “I’d like to tell you a story...”
All content is copyright (c) 2009, David Hutchens