The human mind is organised around stories. We capture our experiences and make sense of the world through the stories that form our lens on reality. Since our knowledge is captured in story form, it makes sense to use stories as one of the fastest mediums for organisational and group learning. With these applications, story can move from an influences to a game changer.
The next two perspectives are:
Story can form the basis of a systemic learning practice in these ways:
Whether you know it or not, story already is your organisational currency. The stories people share about the organisation, their experience of it, the products or services you deal in and the people they work with and serve are creating the culture you work in. These stories not only pattern the space, they create the map of the territory.
Let’s unpack that a bit. The stories being told pattern the space for similar stories to be shared. That means the more negative stories are told, the more negative stories are welcomed in. A complaint culture tends to become a downward spiral, sucking the life force out of an organisational structure. Or think of an organisation where the prevailing storytelling sets up a “them and us” pattern.
One of my clients was a interisland ferry line connected to the national train service. Historically staff there had come from seafaring families with generations of stories about “management” and the enduring legacy of a dockside strike in the 1950’s which had ended badly for everyone. The main Story currency was a negative one. Young people arrived every summer as bright and shiny new workers with plenty of good ideas. How long did they stay that way? My non-scientific staff survey indicated about three months. That’s how long energy and motivation can last in a prevailingly negative system.
Story will trump fact (and I don’t use this phrase lightly!). As Peter Drucker supposedly said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So what kind of currency are people around you at work dealing in? Are the stories they are sharing bringing others down or are they intended to lift up the culture?
As both a medium for learning in various configurations and a knowledge management tool, storytelling and story sharing help make the most of organisational wisdom and keep people connected. Early in the 2000’s, for example, NASA used stories to spotlight the work of innovative scientists in their geographically widely spread organisation. Not content with merely publishing these stories in the usual in-house magazine, they took the bold step of putting stories on a face-to-face basis by taking their featured storytellers on the road and offering interactive sessions.
The more people who interacted with the storytellers of innovation, the more innovation there would be, was their thinking. It worked. Storytelling helped to make tacit knowledge visible and shareable. This makes stories one of your key knowledge management tools.
When you focus on what you are learning and how to deepen and integrate it with others, new individual and collective pathways open up. It’s more energising, focusing and enlivening to be on the learning edge together. This in itself creates new pathways of connection. As individuals and small groups make sense together, the collective wisdom of the field rises.
Story is also a powerful process partner. It can:
Story is a potent partner to other individual and group processes. Since it naturally deepens the connection between participants and allows knowledge sharing, it also strengthens the impact of the process it is used in tandem with.
Process facilitators often talk about the need to create safety so people can engage. (It is important to recognise that it might not be possible to create “safe” space for everyone. However, it IS possible to create “safe enough” space.) Sharing stories can help. Stories of experience in the workplace help us build a picture of what it’s like in different parts of the business. Stories about culture help us to understand why people come at the same thing in different ways. Stories of challenges help us to learn how to meet them, stories of success fill us with energy. These connections build the relationship necessary to approach the turbulent waters of complexity and change with enough “stick-to-it-ness” to stay together even when the going gets tough. This is especially needed when change and transformation are on the menu.
Most of us don’t willingly go into change. Remember those old maps from the Middle Ages with the words: “Here be dragons!” at the edge? When we believed the world to be flat, we also believed we could fall off the edge. There’s some of that belief still in the deepest parts of the human psyche. We know that the journey over the borders to the unknown will affect us in fundamental ways. It could be that we never return. But if we do, we could be forever changed. And none of us is sure exactly what that will mean.
It can be helpful to have a map. In my own work, we often start with a powerful question, which can point the way to the stories needed to add a powerful spark to group process work. In this case, the question provides the context, which can lead to different content. Questions act as the doorway to stories and stories act as the doorway to new and different conversations. This in turn can lead to new collective sense and meaning making as a way of deepening vision and values and exploring the learning edge for individuals, groups and the wider system.
Sharing stories does what I call “depthing the field“. When we listening carefully to each other, witness each other and harvest the gold from our stories together, it is like growing a collective root system. In a healthy forest system, trees share information and nutrients through their root systems., These in turn are connected by the mycelium sheath, which acts as a conduit for the flow and makes trees a community. The same is true for people — when we share a root system, we more easily share information, knowledge and wisdom. We become a learning field. We find some common ground, and from there, the possibility for higher ground. Stories are the mycelium sheath of the human community.
In this world of increasingly one-way talk and ever shorter soundbites, so many are hungry to be seen and valued. With so much information passing by so rapidly, the capacity for deep listening and witnessing seems to be missing. When we are listened to, we can in turn listen to others. In these times of conflict, building emotional resilience and offering your presence is some of the most important work you can do to strengthen respect, trust, empowerment and engagement.
And finally, working with storytelling can create capacity to be in the “not knowing” together. In participatory practice, the space between divergence and convergence — literally the space between ideas and action — is called emergence. This space of emergence was named “the Groan Zone” by San Francisco based facilitator Sam Kaner and his colleagues, because this foggy place of “not knowing” can appear terrifying, even painful. It can make you groan out loud!
But just in case you think you’d never want to go there, it could as easily be called the “Grown Zone” because it is a place of fertile possibility IF you can stay in it well together. Stories help us to find the connection and trust enough to keep going together instead of falling apart. They offer us a red thread to keep finding each other in the complexity of daily life and amidst the differences that would otherwise pull us apart.
So many of us are focusing on story and storytelling as a tool for getting the word out there, but I think what comes next in the future story of Story is working with the bounty our stories carry. The next wave is the realisation that stories are key in creating collective sense and meaning making. Creating a medium for collective sense and meaning making is a game changer, especially in conflicted systems. Stories are the ideal change partner.
It is time to move beyond the focus on the single hero’s journey and look at the journey we can make together. Some of the major tensions in our world can be seen, from my perspective, as the dance between the individual and the collective. On one side we have the inquiry and confrontation of how ME and WE fit together. We can see the fault lines in our communities and the rising call for more control, more rules and regulations, even though we know that humans do best when they are engaged in creating the changes they need to be part of. At the same time rising environmental and societal challenges are forcing us to consider how we move from a consumer-based paradigm and reclaim citizenship, with both its opportunities and challenges for self- and collective responsibility.
As we negotiate the sharp edges of difference and division, we need to make spaces for finding the common ground that can lead to higher ground. Stories can help us to explore the edges and the heart of these conversations and can encourage us to stay together — in teams, groups, organisations, communities and as a humanity — for long enough to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity.
By their very nature, stories help us to create collective experience. Scientists mapping brain function have seen that listening to stories creates important changes in neurochemistry that help us bond as humans. The brain releases dopamine – a feel-good chemical that helps us remember with greater accuracy and during the rising arc of a story – the hormone cortisol, which engenders an emotional reaction, even when we know the story is fiction. And finally, during character driven stories, the brain releases oxytocin, the hormone responsible for community feeling and the sense of belonging.
For this reason, stories are especially powerful at helping groups of people make collective sense and meaning together. For the past seven years I’ve been working with a simple, but powerful process called Collective Story Harvest. This method revolves around strategic selection of listening themes, aimed at specific sense making.
Using the stories of projects, initiatives, teams, organisations, communities, personal and leadership learning journeys, groups work together to comb through the narrative to find the gold that will take both the storytellers and the group further. In doing so they build teamwork, the ability to listen between the lines, strategic thinking, energy and commitment. By working together in this way, the learning is more deeply nuanced and considered, both for the group and the storyteller(s).
By combining storytelling and a focused harvesting strategy, this simple method uses targeted listening to dig into the often hidden learning in experience. Choosing a number of “listening arcs” focuses attention on key elements and offers new doorways into the story. The selection of listeners is also a strategic choice, enabling a diverse group of individuals to add their unique skills or expertise to the group learning.
SUMMARY: The second wave of how we work with stories focuses on collective sense and meaning making. This is the unsung power of story – its ability to create common ground and from there, open a doorway to common action. The two perspectives that fall under this second wave are story as a learning practice and story as a process partner. In group contexts especially, storytelling and storywork can serve as a bridge building between disparate groups or groups connected by mission, but not by function, focus or geography. As the intangible currency of organisation, story is a strategic choice for knowledge transfer, connection and enhanced collective wise action.