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 Friday 4 December, 2015

Insight and the power of stories

by  Jenny Lanyon on Friday 4 December, 2015

‘Learn the facts, Steed-Asprey used to say, then try on the stories like clothes’
(Le Carré, 1974)

Organisations are powerhouses of stories. This applies not just to the top-level messages which describe the organisation’s mission and objectives, but also to the day-to-day maelstrom of conversations, emails and instant messages. Where there is no clear, overarching story, competing narratives can create disarray, as employees seek to make their own sense of the system. Pulling the strands together, and weaving them into a coherent narrative of the organisational purpose, achieves greater buy-in from employees at all levels.

Reaching for authenticity
Telling stories does not mean disguising unpalatable truths or hoodwinking an audience. Authentic stories are much more likely to succeed than fiction. When working with organisational narratives in consulting, it is not just the polished version which are the focus of attention – the one which trips off the tongue in sales presentations. That is also important, of course, but we are also looking for the sub-text, the underlying themes, the disconnects – it can be here that the organisation’s real power and dynamism lies.

Building resilience
Organisations exist in an uncompromising world, and resilience – ‘bouncebackability’ – is needed. Once the new story begins to emerge, it needs to be engaged with to highlight inconsistencies, and to toughen up the narrative. This might include thinking about the ways in which the messages will be received by different groups within the organisation. A new story will not hold up unless it has everyone’s support. There is a great deal of work involved in creating new storylines, but it is a powerful process. It makes the stories tangible. They can then write themselves into the organisational memory and become a shared good.

Working with the story
Focusing on stories helps us to manage the unpredictability of life, both in organisations and in the wider world. All the greatest tales involve some kind of battle with the darker side – think of the ‘Iliad, ‘Julius Caesar’, or the ‘Lord of the Rings.’ By the end of each story, a resolution is reached, although much turbulence occurs on the way. Exploring what is causing pain or anxiety means that the issues are out in the open, where they can be discussed and appreciated. It is through engagement with people’s genuine opinions and feelings – within a non-judgemental framework – that real insight and understanding occurs. The consulting relationship provides a safe, reflective learning-space in which existing and potential stories can be ‘tried on like clothes’, to use Le Carré’s metaphor, and then extended and rewritten.

Reference: Le Carré, J. (1974) Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy London: Hodder & Stoughton.