Designing with stories

Story telling seemed to be the natural topic for this week's blog. Why?

First, because today (6 August) I've started a one-week residential creative writing course focused on short stories. It's got a daunting amount of homework and is described as 'intentionally rigorous'. I'll let you know how I got on with it.

Second, last week I was reviewing the book Design a Better Business which has a whole section about storytelling as integral to organization design work and offers a downloadable template + instructions on how to construct stories.

Third, also last week I started a new assignment and am listening to stories people tell about the organization and the piece of work that I am doing with them about why we need to change. Some people specifically said 'we need to be better at telling the story of why we have to change'.

I am a bit sceptical that stories consciously designed to be 'tools' can change organizations. Possibly they can help change organizations or contribute to changing organizations – depending on how you constructed them, but how would you know any changes were due to the stories being told, and can you design or contrive stories that work well alongside the naturally occurring sort that get told in organizations?

Steve Denning, well known in organizational story telling circles, suggests in his 2004 HBR article they can be constructed and offers a neat summary table of what he calls 'The Storytelling Catalog', a kind of 'at a glance', list of different types of stories to meet different types of 'need'. The article tells Steve's story of how he came to his views on organizational stories and their relationship to knowledge management and leadership.

Yiannis Gabriel, irritated 'by the really awful state of the entry on 'Organizational storytelling' in Wikipedia, which is enough to discourage anyone from ever taking this topic seriously' offers a more academic, grounded in theory, discussion of organizational storytelling.

He wrote the piece at the end of 2011 and lists 6 reasons why 'in the past fifteen years, interest in organizational stories has increased considerably', moving on to explain the relationships between narrative and story, saying that confusing the two 'unfortunately obliterates some of the unique qualities of stories and narratives that make them vivid and powerful but also fragile sense-making devices'.

Over the years since then, organizational storytelling has gained ground, but its value as a 'change tool' appears to be moot. In June 2017, the University of Portsmouth hosted the 22nd Organisational Storytelling Seminar – making the point that: 'While the literature is clear about the centrality and functionality of stories in leadership processes, it is also acknowledged that stories are uncertain and complex, and hence difficult to use as tools (see e.g. Boje, 2006; Parry & Hansen, 2007; Sintonen & Auvinen, 2009).' It's well worth looking at the call for papers that the organizers put out as it headlines the current questions around the topic.

NOTE: If you're not familiar with the work of David Boje, a storytelling philosopher, take a look at his fascinating website. You can also join him at the December 13-15, 2017, in Las Cruces, NM for the 7th Annual Quantum Storytelling Conference.

A field related to organizational storytelling is Dialogic OD, and Gary Wong commenting on my last week's blog says that 'the new Dialogic OD perspective that folks like Peggy Holman are exploring explains why stories are preferred over surveys and interviews [for gaining organizational information]'. See Gary's full comment here.

Gary also sent me a useful article by Gervase Bushe who says: 'change occurs when the day to day thinking of community members has altered their day to day decisions and actions, which leads to a change in the culture of the community that entrenches those new ways of thinking. Their thinking is changed when the language, stories, and narratives the community uses is altered in a profound way (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995; Grant & Marshak, 2011). An interview with Bushe on the topic of stories used to challenge the status quo is here.

The general principle is (simplified version) that if, through storytelling, people start to change both their language and their stories then the organization is changing, the implication being that change stories can be consciously 'seeded'.

I'm now wondering if I should examine my scepticism about organizational storytelling – can stories be carefully constructed and told and have the outcome of changing the design of organizations? Should they be? What's your view? Let me know.

Note: This piece also appears on LinkedIn