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Once Upon a Time…(How to Use Storytelling to get People Enthusiastic about a Major Change)

In my 25 years of working with organizations to implement and manage change I've seen, participated in, and recommended an emphasis on excellent analytical thinking: fix the systems; re-engineer processes; enhance quality; streamline procedures; flatten the organizational structure.... Unfortunately, the mechanistic analysis alone applied to problems rarely succeeds in persuading organizations to change. It simply does not take into account the complexity, the clutter, the chaos, the confusion of a living, breathing, modern organization. While it might excite the mind, it rarely touches the heart.

StorytellingWhat I have come to know is that storytelling, done appropriately, is the key to catalyzing change. It doesn't replace analytical thinking; it supplements it by enabling one to imagine new perspectives and new worlds. The right story can communicate complicated change ideas while generating momentum toward rapid implementation. The right story can help an organization reinvent itself by getting into the minds of individuals and affecting how they think, wonder, agonize, and dream about themselves and their organization. It can help them see things in a different light and change behavior. Simply put, a powerful story can transform individuals and organizations. It can drive commitment and action.

This issue is devoted to the art and craft of storytelling in the business environment. Settle in and journey along with us as we explore this powerful tool for managing change.

Craft the Right Kind of Story to Accomplish Your Business Goal

Different kinds of stories achieve different results. Crafted and told properly, a story can spark action, communicate who you are, transmit values, foster collaboration, tame the grapevine, share knowledge, or lead people into the future.

Choosing the right narrative form allows you to accomplish your business goal. Business author Stephen Denning explains how to pick your story carefully to match it to your business situation. Denning advocates that the ability to tell the right story at the right time is emerging as an essential leadership skill.

To determine which kind of story to tell, ask yourself:

  • What do I want my listeners to FEEL after they hear my story?
  • What do I want them to REMEMBER from my story?
  • What do I want them to BELIEVE as a result of hearing my story?

Are You a Good Listener to Other People's Stories?

Being a good listener to other people's stories has a big payoff.

First of all, people who are good storytellers learned how to tell stories by listening to others and picking up storytelling skills from them. It may have been a parent telling you a bedtime story, or it may have been a teacher who made the subject come alive through storytelling, or perhaps it was a manager who achieved remarkable results through the stories she told. But from each you can learn what storytelling techniques really work and then you can weave them into your storytelling efforts.

Secondly, by being a good story listener, you can learn a great deal about the people and environment around you. Business guru Tom Peters has long advocated "management by wandering around" as an effective leadership tool. It works because you hear stories as you wander. By listening to the stories of your employees and customers you can uncover problems and solutions that you may never have otherwise known existed. And only by knowing about them, can you respond.

In her book Corporate Legends & Lore, Peg Neuhauser reminds us that "storytelling is a two-way street that requires telling and listening to forge strong relationships with lasting results."

Questions to Consider for Getting Stories Started in Your Organization

Whether you are the supervisor of a work team or the CEO of a large company, storytelling can be one of your most effective management tools. Even if you are not an experienced storyteller, your job is to continually talk about and emphasize the key values and goals of your organization. If you are relentless in this effort, you will find that members of your organization will take this "material" and fashion their own stories to exemplify these key values. In her book, Corporate Legends & Lore, Peg C. Neuhauser poses six questions to consider for getting stories started within your organization:

  • What are the two or three key ideas or themes about this business that the people who work in this organization associate with me?
  • When and where can you repeatedly bring up these themes so that everyone knows they are on your mind all the time?
  • What stories are they already telling that have these themes?
  • How much time do you spend listening to other people in your organization, at all levels, tell their stories?
  • When and where could you repeat stories you have heard that represent the themes you want to encourage? Or, how could you get other people to repeat these stories?

Using Storytelling to Determine: What does Your Organization's Future Look Like?

Here's a way that we use storytelling techniques when working with organizations to envision their future.

Working with a group, we tell them: "It is January 2010 and you have just learned that your organization will be featured in Fortune magazine's June edition. In addition to a cover photo, the magazine will include a full feature on your organization. The reason your organization was selected is its outstanding success over the last five years." We then ask them:

  • What/who is on the cover of the magazine? Draw it on a flip chart.
  • What is the title of the article?
  • Please write an outline of the article. Be sure to include quotes from your customers, professional staff and employees, industry experts, and competitors. Describe the factors that have contributed to your outstanding success. Note the barriers that had to be overcome.

When each individual is done with this exercise, we have them exchange stories with other members of the group and then identify what the stories had in common and what was unique among them. Later they share their collective story with the whole group and then work to develop a common vision from the stories.

A Gatherer of Stories

by Judy Futch, associate of The Wunderlin Company
I'm a gardener. I have a variety of baskets and crates and two wheelbarrows to carry produce, weeds, tools, rocks, and plants. If I go into my garden and find too many ripe tomatoes that I can't hand carry, I improvise and use the tail from my workshirt as a carrying sling.

Stories are like my carrying devices - they hold the richness of people's experiences, their beliefs, values, hopes, and dreams and also dark-side fears and blocks. Stories operate on two levels - the level of the story text and the level of the subconscious - where the images conjured up in the telling simmer and mix. Our thinking mind is engaged answering the questions who did it or how did that happen? and our imagination and intuitive intelligence is awakened and engaged making connections, enlarging our ideas, stretching our boundaries, and stepping outside our current realms of possibilities.

Everyone is a storyteller - a weaver of their experience. If we operate from the assumptions that people in organizations are rich with insights and understandings to share about their positive perspective of the organization, and that by asking questions the organization begins to shift in the direction of the inquiry, then it makes sense to ask our organizational "partners":

  • What are the best times that you have had at our organization - a time that you felt most alive, involved, or excited about your contribution?
  • What do you value deeply about yourself, your work, and our organization?
  • What do you think is at the core of this organization - what would make this organization more vital than it currently is?
  • What in our organization gives you confidence for the future?
  • If a genie emerged from a bottle and gave you three wishes for this organization, what would they be?

The stories that emerge from the simple asking of these questions can be "mined" by listening appreciatively for the words, phrases, ideas, and emotions and truly hearing the responses. This approach begins the appreciative inquiry process which seeks to understand the forces within an organization that encourage vitality. EPA, Roadway Express, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, University of Kentucky Hospital, and ANZ Bank (Australia's largest bank) all have embarked on appreciative inquiry processes to align their organizations and to accelerate whole system changes.

We have included a number of resources you may want to explore on our website. Visit to check our favorites on this subject. Or step out into your hallway and ask a colleague for a story about a time when they felt "most excited about their involvement at your workplace." Be that gatherer of stories! "Stories are like my carrying devices - they hold the richness of people's experiences, their beliefs, values, hopes, and dreams and also dark-side fears and blocks."

"Let's Count Motion Instead of Doors"

In one of the first Workouts at GE Appliances we had a team of employees working on a number of refrigeration factory productivity issues. One of those issues was the factory's inability to consistently manufacture the same number of refrigerator cases as doors. Numerous analyses and continuous improvement projects had been initiated in this highly automated plant to address the issue; none successfully. At the report out on the last day, a manufacturing engineer stood up to begin presenting an idea. Soon, a member of the team, a union member who actually worked on the line, stood up and said, "Here, let me tell them what's really going on." He went on to recount how he worked downstream from the paint booth. Because of his quality circle training, he knew that a door with a drip, crack, or imperfection should not go to the customer. So he would pull those doors to be reworked. Trouble was, right past him was an electronic eye that counted motion, not doors—so the system didn't know that hook was empty! This fellow's idea was, "Let's start counting doors instead of motion."

This story so graphically demonstrated many of the issues we were struggling with to transform the organization—it got told and retold.

Managing by Storying Around

The story above comes from Karen's experience at GE. In his book, Managing by Storying Around: An New Method of Leadership , author David Armstrong offers a collection of 75 stories from his experience running a family business. Each of Armstrong's stories has a moral. They work for him because he "invests a bit of his soul in each of these small sagas." It makes for good reading-and makes a good case for the power of storytelling within your organization!

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