How to use storytelling for building organisational culture

Baba Prasad
Updated: Dec 18, 2014 09:12:55 AM UTC

Alisdair MacIntyre, the philosopher, called humans “story-telling animals”. Tom Kelley of IDEO wrote, “The Storyteller captures our imagination with compelling narratives of initiative, hard work, and innovation. This person goes beyond oral tradition to work in whatever medium best fits their skills and message: Video, narrative, animation, even comic strips. By rooting their stories in authenticity, the Storyteller can spark emotion and action, transmit values and objectives, foster collaboration, create heroes, and lead people and organisations into the future.” Although Kelly was writing about the storyteller in the role of an innovation driver, it is clear that the qualities are applicable to any situation across the organisation; in fact, they are applicable to every facet of our lives. Stories are the way we exchange information with each other—“What happened at work today” or “Then, what happened?” are story-triggering phrases that we use subconsciously everyday.

Stories are important for three reasons:

Stories inspire us; they move us.
They have a way of transporting us into the realm of the narrative—we become vicarious participants in the action as it unfolds; we experience the joy, we feel the anger, we cry in pain. But it’s not just “ordinary folks”; stories also move seemingly dispassionate juries. In the Steven Spielberg movie, Amistad (based on real events in 19th century America), John Quincy Adams, the ex-President of the USA has only one question for the people seeking his help in representing the African men of ship Amistad, “In a courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins. . . What is their story?” As Harrison Monarth once wrote, “A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: Our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.”

Stories provide models.
When we do not know what to do, stories provide models and templates. In the rush of life, what a character does in a story that has a setting similar to our own often becomes a template to follow. But it’s not a rigid template—it allows itself to a lot of “what-if” explorations so that the story’s setting and characters can be moulded to suit our settings and our personalities. This is what the case-study method of teaching in business schools draws upon to teach us lessons from the dilemma that another business or another executive faces.

Stories allow retelling
Leela Prasad, wrote in an award-winning book on narrative and ethics that, “Stories have a way of becoming our own….” Stories get under our skin, and become ours, so that we refashion them, and retell them to others, and our retold stories become models for others or grist for them for future retelling. Paul Ricoeur, the French-American philosopher, had a name for this continuous absorption and retelling of stories that we engage in. He termed it “mimesis” and described three different phases of this—the pre-hearing receptive phase, the actual hearing of the story, and the post-hearing retelling.

Given the power of stories to inspire, move, and in fact, shape a culture, they have tremendous value for business strategy. Strategists increasingly recognise that in today’s fast-moving world, strategic agility—the ability to move fast but keeping the long-term in mind—is a necessity; they realise that culture is more important than strategy (for instance, see Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast). So, how can we use stories in an organisation to influence the organisational culture? There are many ways to do this, but let us list three ways here.

Using Stories from History
When an organisation feels it is straying from its root identity and values, it can use stories to bring the organiwation back to its moorings. In such a context, the story often goes back into history. A story about an incident in which the founders of the company in its early days refused to do something unethical despite tremendous temptation and business pressure helps to build or re-build, the character of the company. In the 19th century, the Finnish, for instance, constituted a national epic from the folklore and oral narrative called the Kalevala, which talked about the origin of the world, the creation of man, and Finland’s place in it. As the Kalevala epic story spread, it created a national identity, a stronger feeling about the Finnish language, and ultimately, in 1917, led to Finland’s independence from Russia.

Using Stories to Involve Employees
Organisations often need to reshape culture or build it—for instance, there may be a distinct lake of creative initiative in the organisation, and the management may want to bring in a “culture of innovation”. Apart from processes and technologies that help in idea generation and prioritising, stories are a magnificently simple way to inspire innovation—stories of how one department’s or one individual’s success with innovation shared through in-house channels like a newsletter or over the intranet can inspire the entire organisation. HP, for instance, inaugurated in 2013, a dedicated news channel called HP News Now (HPNN) for employees to exchange information and stories. HPNN is the channel through which HP employees hear news first before other news media. Such a channel is a significant influence on maintaining HP’s culture or “the HP way”.

Using Stories to Paint a Vision
These are stories that are forward-looking and inspirational, and used to promote a vision for the future. They move the organisation forward in specific directions. For instance, there is the story titled ‘Acre of Diamonds’. Between 1900 and 1925, a Baptist preacher named Russell Conwell, narrated this inspirational story more than 5,000 times to audiences across America. In the story, the protagonist is a wealthy farm owner named Ali Hafed who lives in Hyderabad, India. Although rich and well-settled, Ali learns that there are things called diamonds which make their owners tremendously wealthy. Obsessed with possessing a diamond mine, he sells everything, leaves his family and goes across Persia and Europe looking for the diamond mine. Unfortunately, he does not find any, and ultimately, penniless and heartbroken, he throws himself into the sea and dies. In the meantime, the new owner of Ali’s farm takes his horse to drink in the stream running though the farm, and as the horse is drinking, the farmer spots a black rock shining in the water. He picks it up and it is discovered to be a diamond, and it is not the only one. By further digging and mining, he realizes that beneath every square-foot of the farm are diamonds—this becomes the famous Golconda mines of Hyderabad, the source of some of the world’s largest and most famous diamonds, the Kohinoor of the British crown jewels, and the Orloff of the Russian Crown jewels. The preacher Conwell told this story to inspire Philadelphians to invest in Philadelphia and not somewhere else—as a result, he raised large sums of money to fund many philanthropic causes in Philadelphia and even establish the famous Temple University.

Stories can thus be used to paint a vision, inspire an organization and move people. Storytelling is a wonderfully simple and inexpensive way of fostering an innovative, inclusive and dynamic organizational culture.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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