How I used a story spine

Posted by Shawn Callahan - July 11, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling

Viv McWaters has just posted an example of a story spine which reminded me of how we are using story spines in our sensemaking workshops. I was inspired to used this technique after observing how my dad made sense of something (a trivial example) after he had the opportunity to tell a story. Here’s what happened as I told it back in January this year.

Last week I spent a week with my parents at their home at Jervis Bay. My father was telling me how he had some problems with a tank of petrol recently. He had to drain his little Datsun truck of all its fuel. When I asked where he got the bad gas he said it was one of two places. “One of the service stations was being refuelled by a tanker and was probably churning up all the rubbish in the underground tanks and I happened to fill up when all that muck was floating around,” he said. “I will never fill up again if I see a tanker parked at the service station.”

When Dad told this story I was immediately struck with how he quickly moved from his story to a heuristic without analysis or considering the options. But of course, this is just how we often make decisions, so I thought I could replicate this process in our workshops.

My first opportunity was at a workshop in Tasmania where we were helping natural resource managers develop a knowledge strategy for their region. We had reached the point in the workshop where we had identified a set of issues that were either working well or needed some attention so I asked the groups to grab an issue and tell a story explaining what happened. People busily jumped into the activity but I noticed they were just writing dot points detailing their opinions about what had happened. No one wrote a story.

It seems that they didn’t know what to do to write a story. I had just assumed that everyone else thinks about stories like I do and has a sense what one looks like. Big mistake!

My next opportunity was at another knowledge strategy workshop but this time with a government department in Canberra. I had remembered Andrew introducing us to story spines so I dug out the blog post. Here is the simple story spine (Viv’s example is more elaborate).

Once upon a time…

Everyday…

But one day…

Because of that… (repeat three times or as often as necessary) Until finally…

Ever since then…

And the moral of the story is…(optional)

Rather than use “Once upon a time” I instructed people to start their stories with “Way back when”. I find the fairy tale beginning too foreign for business people.

Well, the groups took to the tasks with gusto and in a very short time (30 min) we had eight stories that described various aspects of what was happening. Each group recited their story to great applause.

This is an effective way to get people primed for intervention design and we found that the groups were more aware of the subtleties and multiple viewpoints by going through a set of sensemaking tasks, this being just one.

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About Shawn Callahan
Shawn is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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