Storytelling and organisation design

There’s a lovely Heritage Centre at Nant Gwtheyrn where I was staying last week.  One of the wall posters says ‘We love a good story in Wales’, which continued my thinking about storytelling.

It had been prompted the previous week when I’d been at a 90-minute storytelling session led by RADA Business  (The business arm of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).  It was a great session, and I jotted down the facilitator’s list of ‘what stories need’ (I think I got it all).

  • Conflict
  • A hero (not necessarily a person)
  • The given circumstances (where we are, context, time/place, here/now)
  • High stakes that create tension (it must matter)
  • A choice
  • A consequence of the choice
  • The end – something has changed.  The journey ends at a different place to the start.  We know what has changed along the way.
  • The structure of a story comes from choice, consequence, change

Storytelling in organisation design crops up from time to time. One is in ‘The Palace: Perspectives on Organisation Design’,  from the Institute of Employment Studies, ‘ The story begins:  ‘Once upon a time not that long ago and not that far away, there was a large palace… The Palace was ancient and large, having been built up over very many years, and experienced numerous modifications over its long history….’

It’s a delight to read, with most of the story elements in the bulleted list, and anyone working in a bureaucracy will recognise the barons ‘being in charge of sectors or wings’ and ‘at times’ being ‘more focused on settling their scores with other barons than watching out for their common enemy outside the wall’.  Making me laugh each time I read the story is the ‘Group Architecture Touchstone Document conjured at great expense, by some wizards called McKinsey, decreeing how the barons should work together’.

The story of an old palace is used, very successfully, ‘to consider the challenges of design in a complex and highly connected world, where organisations are expected to be agile and innovative, work globally in a seamless way, and continually engage talented employees through an attractive employer brand.’

I’ve also enjoyed Dee Hock’s story of designing Visa’s leadership .His story begins: ‘There was a time a few years back when for one brief moment the essence of leadership was crystal clear to me. Strangely, it was after leaving Visa and moving to a small, isolated ranch for a life of study and contemplation, raising a few cattle. I was attending to chores in the barn, comfortable and secure from the wind howling about the eaves and the roar of torrential rain on the tin roof. Through the din, I became aware of the faint, persistent bellowing of one of the cows’.

Another favourite of mine is ‘Faster, Shorter, Cheaper May Be Simple; It’s Never Easy‘,  the story of how Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff redesigned one of IKEA’s processes which became the prototype for others. This chatty case study, has all the elements of a story, and the section on ‘The Meeting’ has emotional resonance for me  – Weisbord and Janoff report: ‘A jarring surprise for us was the promised flowchart. We anticipated a detailed systems map. What we found on the wall was a simple diagram with three circles on it. We looked at each other. “We can’t get there from here! ”We were starting from scratch after all. People were already filing in, many having just flown half way around the world. Despite the bare-bones flowchart, we saw no choice but to proceed with our original plan and hope for a breakthrough.’

I wonder if we underplay storytelling in the design process.  There is masses of information and practice tips on storytelling but not so much applied specifically to organisation design, beyond the ‘tell a compelling story’ that leaders are urged to do when motivating people to change or undertake a ‘transformation journey’.

I’ve noticed that when I’m facilitating organisation design training programmes people like the stories I tell about my day to day design work.  What I don’t do as much is apply storytelling into my design processes.   Now I’m thinking that I will do more of it and see if brings any different/positive dimensions.

A research article Design Process and Organisational Strategy: A Storytelling Perspective, suggests it would have ‘substantial value’.  The researchers found that storytelling in design work:

  • develops a sense of community and shared experience
  • helps people to construct meaning in a situation or context
  • achieves or aids change and fosters a cultural shift
  • offers new knowledge and different perspectives/interpretations
  • brings emotions and feelings into play

The same researchers developed and tested a Design Storytelling Impact-Approach Framework,  incorporating both visual and verbal stories.  Their testing found that ‘storytelling that uses familiarity has proved to have positive relationships with constructing meaning and critique of design concepts. Storytelling that uses imagery has proved to have a positive relationship with altering perceptions and critique of design concepts. Finally, storytelling with a higher degree of audience involvement in authoring is positively linked to developing a deeper understanding of the design concept.

An example of using storytelling in service design is described in the article Storytelling Group – a co-design method for service design: ‘Storytelling Group combines collaborative scenario building and focus group discussions. It inspires service design by providing different types of user information: a fictive story of a customer journey is created to illustrate a ‘what if’ world, users tell real-life stories about their service experiences, users come up with new service ideas, and they are also asked about their opinions and attitudes in a focus-group type of discussion.’

The authors describe it as ‘a quick start for actual design work but still includes users in the process.’ This approach could equally be used in organisation design.

In the Journal of Organisation Design, there’s an article, Constructing M&A valuation: how do merger evaluation methods differ as uncertainty and controversy vary?, with a section devoted to storytelling in the M & A process.  In the section we are told that ‘stakeholders construct and tell stories in support of their goals. Subgroups with the strongest combinations of concrete and intuitive stories tend to win the debate about the [M & A] deal.

The author of another research article that has applicability to organisation design, Storytelling in Organizations: The power and traps of using stories to share knowledge in organizations, tells and interprets several short stories, concluding, ‘Cases like these illustrate why storytelling is so effective in a variety of domains. Stories can be a very powerful way to represent and convey complex, multi-dimensional ideas.  Well-designed, well-told stories can convey both information and emotion, both the explicit and the tacit, both the core and the context (Snowden, 2000).

Do you use storytelling in your organisation design practices and processes?  What impact does it have on the design outcome?  Let me know.

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