Article: Building a sustainable storytelling organization

Life @ Work

Building a sustainable storytelling organization

When organizations create narratives for communicating key messages and use story-telling to share them with the organization, it drives the adoption of new behaviors across the organization
Building a sustainable storytelling organization

Four years ago when I started StoryWorks, a consulting and training firm focused on business story-telling, the task of selling the idea seemed to be uphill. Given my credentials of a management degree from an IIM and my 21 years of experience in “Ivy League” organizations like Unilever, Tata and Mahindra getting an appointment was not a very difficult task. But as soon as the conversation started and I mentioned about our focus on business storytelling, eyebrows would start rising. A fleeting smile would pass over the listener’s face and inside his head he would say “and I thought this was going to be a serious discussion”.

This is not a unique experience. Twelve years ago when Yamini Naidu, a fellow proponent of business storytelling from Australia, went to her mother and informed her that she was starting a business specializing in Business Storytelling, her mother said “Business Storytelling, is that even a job?  Why can’t you be a Doctor or in I.T.? Storytelling you can do on weekends.” 

The prevailing myth in business is that stories are usually made-up; stories are for entertainment and children. This myth is ingrained. Imagine that you are one among ten people sitting in a conference room waiting for a very important meeting to start and someone in the room says ‘let me tell you a story’. Pause and think — what would be the first thing that would go through your mind about that person. Take a minute.

If you are like 95 percent of the 1000+ senior leaders that have gone through my workshops then your first thought would be along the following line — ‘Why is he wasting our time?’, ‘It’s time to be serious!’, ‘What an idiot!’, ‘Has he not prepared for this?’, ‘How long will this take?’ or ‘Why do I have to listen to it?’ Very few of you, the 5 percent, would say ‘maybe he has a point’ or ‘I hope it is interesting’. That is the barrier stories face in business. 

So, the first task we have in order to bring storytelling into the organization is to break the myth. A great way to start is “to be the change you want wish to see in the world”. Start using stories yourself. Watch out for the next occasion when you catch yourself giving an opinion. Usually, something that is bound to happen on a daily basis. Choose the instance when the opinion you are going to share is one that you feel strongly about. It is certain that the opinion you have was formed due to some experience. Strong opinions happen when either the experience had significant consequences or when the experience had been repeated several times. Now, share the opinion and also share one of those experiences.

Here is an example: Imagine I am about to share a very strong opinion I have about how new projects should be approached. I believe strong project planning is the only way to guarantee success. I think a minimum of 20 percent of the allotted time for the project needs to be spent in thinking about the problem, discussing the several approaches and weighing the pros and cons of each approach before taking a decision. Surely, this is not a belief that I was born with. Something must have happened which has made me have this belief. Perhaps I had jumped into execution in an important project sometime in the past and discovered after a lot of work had gone on that I was on the wrong track and I rued the fact that I hadn’t paused to plan. Or perhaps in a recent case, I did spend 20 percent of my time thinking and planning and the project was successfully completed. Often, if the opinion I have is very strong then I have had multiple experiences that have shaped the belief.

Now when I gather my team to tell them the importance of project planning, I would say “I believe a minimum of 20 percent of the project time needs to be spent in deciding the approach”. I would make this assertion and then add “Three years ago…..” and narrate the incident that caused me to have this belief.

You would probably start this in low stake, low judgment situations like discussions with the team that you lead or with peers. Once you get confident, you must use it with the senior leaders who would be critical to your agenda of bringing the power of storytelling into your organization. With this you would be demonstrating the power of stories. 

Another way to get senior management buy-in is to have an expert in business storytelling come and deliver a keynote on harnessing the power of stories in business with a lot of real life case studies. This way, in a short time, you would have exposed to the decision makers the entire gamut of narrative work and the benefit of using stories at work.

Once you have senior leadership buy-in, here are a few steps you can follow.

Capability Building

The best way to drive change and get an organization to adopt a new behavior is to go top down. It is best to start with the CEO, the leadership team and key influencers from internal communication and human resources. Role modeling by senior leaders does wonders to drive the change. Not only does the larger employee base have examples that they learn from, they also understand how important this is to the organization.

It is important to find the right partner to build this skill. Unlike when I started, there is now a buzz around business storytelling. Everyone is calling themselves a storyteller — every company, product and services ‘must’ have a story and there are many outfits offering business storytelling training. How do you choose the right one? Before I start, I must do a self-disclosure — this information is not without self-interest — we do ourselves provide training in business storytelling.

There are four key criteria for choosing the right partner. The first is, learn business storytelling from business people - corporate experience matters because storytelling seems so foreign for many executives. They want to feel comfortable that they are being guided by someone like them who has done it before in similar circumstances. The second, learn from storytellers - anyone teaching business storytelling must be proficient at telling business stories. Storytelling is a craft learned through imitation and practice. If during a pitch, the prospective trainers presentation is full of assertion and opinions and devoid of stories, then clearly that is not a great choice. The third, focus on forming a storytelling habit - a single workshop doesn’t change behavior because storytelling is a habit requiring persistence and repetition to develop. Having a follow-up plan which brings the knowledge into practice at the workplace is essential. The fourth, include coaching - deliberate practice requires coaching. Students of storytelling benefit from timely feedback applied to real world problems. Coaching helps in getting participants get feedback on real business stories that they have used in real situations.

Introduce storytelling linked to key business issues

This skill-building is best sustained when it is linked with the rollout of key business communication such as a new vision, a new strategy, new values, new leaders behavior expectations or some large transformation.

When organizations create narratives for these key messages and use storytelling to share this with the organization, two powerful things happen. One, the skill learnt is put to practice and hence reinforced. Two, the communication success that usually follows this process drives the adoption of new behaviors across the organization.

Create a process of continuous story collection

Capturing stories from across the organization on key themes gets everybody involved and is probably the most pervasive way to build the story culture. The story collection is best linked to the key business issues chosen in the point above. If the organization chooses to communicate a new strategy or a transformation via a narrative, then the stories being collected can be around the key themes of that strategy or transformation. If the organization is looking at embedding values, then the story collection would be around examples of these values in action across the organization. The process should include employees from all parts of the business. Stories that come from various levels of the organization are usually seen to be more relatable and more believable than stories that come just from the top. This also allows us to get storytelling into the fabric of the organization. It creates a storytelling culture. Isn’t culture nothing but ‘the way we do things’?

Create a story-sharing process

In order to get the benefit of storytelling, we must be telling these stories regularly and across the entire business. Having collected the stories, we must create a system through which we select the best stories and then broadcast it.

The most powerful way to share stories is orally and hence the best way to share these is to get the people who have been trained in storytelling to record these stories. One doesn’t need fancy equipment for this. Our smartphones are very powerful audio and video recording devices. The recorded stories can then be put on the Intranet, the companies You-Tube channel, pushed through WhatsApp groups, shared on Facebook for Work etc.

My favorite way is to create a system where every monthly meeting of teams from across the organization starts with the best stories selected for that month. This is not only a great form of recognition for the hero of the story but also creates peer pressure. More people would display the required behaviors so that their stories get selected. The Ritz Carlton has been using this process for decades. It doesn’t achieve its exemplary customer service by merely training people on the things that they must do or avoid. Instead, they have built a story-based program that instills a customer service ethic in all their employees. So, rather than receiving a corporate directive on how to behave, the staff vicariously experiences behavior that everyone recognizes as exemplary.

Investing resources to run this program

This is where I have seen many companies falter. In a time when getting an additional resource for important business projects seem difficult, very few people assign dedicated resource to run the companies story process. This is a vital element. Creating any new behavior is not easy and very often, after the initial buzz, it becomes the flavor of last month. A dedicated resource is required to keep the process going till it becomes a habit. As this happens and as people see the benefit of this, storytelling will become a key component of the way your business works.

A vibrant storytelling culture creates a difference between an organization that has a living, breathing portfolio of different stories, from different perspectives, that share its impact—or just a single, somewhat stagnant story. It’s the difference between having one person in the organization dedicated to storytelling (whether that’s the CEO or the head of communications) and everyone in the organization having compelling stories at their fingertips. 

Topics: Life @ Work

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