Working out what our corporate values really mean?

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 26, 2009
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Strategy

Most organisations I know have a set of stated values. You know what I mean, things like integrity, professionalism, respect for the individual. And in most cases they’ve been developed for the wrong reasons. And when developed for the right reasons, most employees don’t understand what the values mean anyway. Let me explain.

Often the starting question for establishing a set of organisational values is, “Which values should we hold each and everyone accountable for so our organisation thrives?” This gets translated to “What values do our stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers) expect us to hold?” The list is then drawn up and the result is a moribund list of words.

I was reading a paper by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras and they suggest an alternative set of questions (in my words): “What values do we deeply hold that reflect the essence of our company?” and “Would we still hold these values if they created a disadvantage for us if things changed?” If you can answer these two questions in the positive then you’ve identified your core values. What I found really interesting was looking at some examples Collins and Porras gave and noticed how each company held a different set in that the usual suspects weren’t repeated: they didn’t all have to value innovation, or customer service, or integrity. The lists I’m seeing are starting to look the same.


  • Elevation of the Japanese culture and national status
  • Being a pioneer – not following others; doing the impossible
  • Encouraging individual ability and creativity


  • Corporate social responsibility
  • Unequivocal excellence in all aspects of the company
  • Science-based innovation
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Profit, but profit from work that benefits humanity

Walt Disney

  • No cynicism
  • Nurturing and promulgation of “wholesome American values”
  • Creativity, dreams, and imagination
  • Fanatical attention to consistency and detail
  • Preservation and control of the Disney magic

Collins and Porras’ research shows that companies who have enduring values and a clear purpose out perform their competitors. But here’s the thing, their core values are not chosen because they think they will be competitive advantages, rather they are chosen because they are held deeply by the core group. Art Kleiner, who wrote a terrific book on core group theory, makes the good point that “The organisation goes wherever its people perceive that the Core Group needs and wants to go. The organisation becomes whatever its people perceive and want to become.” And this is double true for organisational values.

Values and meaning

When I worked at SMS (Australian consulting company) in the 90s we had three values: add value, maintain unity, enhance reputation. I knew what the 2nd and 3rd values meant but ‘add value’ was a bit fuzzy for me. Value fuzziness is a common problem. And you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to suggest as a way to provide meaning: that’s right, STORIES.

Imagine if for every value everyone can tell one or more stories to illustrate what that values means. I often ask people to give me an example to illustrate a value and in many cases all I get is a very intense look of someone desperately trying to remember a story to tell. I’ve said it before but if a company values [insert value] then it should be teeming with [insert value] stories.

Tyco has worked this one out. Tyco is a global business involved in fire safety, security and manufacturing. A few years back they released a booklet called Doing the Right Thing: The Tyco Guide to Ethical Conduct . For each ethical guideline they included one or more stories that either illustrated what the ethical value means when it’s working or what it looks liked when it is broken. For example, Tyco values safety and a healthy work environment and here are their stories of that value when it’s broken.

Unsafe Behavior Related to Health, Safety, and Environmental Issues Looks Like …

To save money at his plant, Sam provides half the number of safety goggles as there are employees on the line and instructs them to share.

Piette, the plant operations manager, instructs her people to dump used machine oil on unused acreage at the back of the facility.

Al, the plant manager, allows the contractor responsible for the removal of organic waste material to dump it in a local lake.

At Anecdote we do a lot of work helping organisations find and tell the stories that illustrate their values and also help design systematic ways to embed those values throughout the consciousness of everyone in the organisation. It is only by working at this level of values and purpose can people make the best decision possible in a complex and dynamic environment. Rules don’t cut it. And if we think about what really makes an organisation it’s those thousands and thousands of decisions are made each and every day, each one guides by the values in action.

Collins, J.C. & Porras, J.I. 1996, ‘Building Your Company’s Vision’, Harvard Business Review, vol. September-October, pp. 65-77.

Kleiner, A. 2003, Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success, Currency Doubleday, New York.


Blog action day

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 16, 2009
Filed in News

On Tuesday morning this week 27 members of the Creative Performance Exchange (CPX) met to work out what we could do to make a difference to climate change. Georges McKails and I facilitated the session and the group developed ideas for what we could do as individuals, what we could do in our role at work and what we can do as CPX members. Amir kindly volunteered to write up all the notes but I can tell you there was a passion among all of us to make a difference. Here are some photos of the morning. I’ll post the results of our efforts as soon as we have them.





Celebrating Story

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 11, 2009
Filed in Business storytelling, News

I’m sitting here watching the sun peak up over the trees and bushes that define the boundary of our backyard thinking about the enjoyable conference I attended last week. It was called Celebrating Story and it was held at the Abbotsford Convent. Andrew and Sasha Rixon did a tremendous job organising the event. They created a lovely atmosphere that encouraged everyone to open up and share what they knew.

There were a few aha moments for me at the conference. The first came chatting to David Drake. Actually it all started listening to his presentation where he mentioned that some story practitioners dealt with stories as commodities. This made me bristle a little so I asked David after the session what he meant. What I learned from this conversation was something I knew from my knowledge management interests but never thought to apply it to stories. If you view a story as a thing then you will focus on the story structure, its impact, the lessons that can be drawn from it etc. and you will have a tremendous urge to capture it and store it in a database. If you view storytelling as a process you’ll focus on the people involved in the moment, the narrator, the listener, the context and the environment and will probably look for ways to create these types of experiences. One view is neither better nor worse than the other, you need both. But it is worthwhile pulling yourself up now and then and being mindful of your perspective.

Have you seen playback theatre? It is when a troupe of improv actors act out, at a drop of a hat, a story contributed by the audience. Melbourne’s Playback Theatre were a feature of the conference and I learned some valuable lessons from them.

Here is little technique the playback folk used which I think is great. I can see myself using it to help people enrich their visual palette when telling a story. Pair people up: a storyteller and a listener. The storyteller has to start their story by describing the place where the story begins: It all started in a tiny red brick house on the upside of the street. The poplar trees were blowing in the wind and my Dad was sitting on the front steps … That sort of thing. The listener then has the job of interrupting the story at anytime to get more description. “Popular tree?” they might ask, at which point the teller needs to say more about the popular trees until the listener says “continue.” The storyteller then just keeps telling their story from that point on. One of the variations they had us do is then walk side by side and reflect on our stories. There is something about strolling which improves the conversation. I’m sure Jane Austen would have had something to say about this phenomenon.

The other thing that was a little bit confronting for me, but highly valuable, was when the playback performers facilitated a large group to break down and respond to a story I told. They essentially played back the story and then yelled out the feelings they had when listening to the story. It was surprising what people felt really passionate about and helped me understand some of the really important things that were in that story.

My last discovery was fairytales. Andrew Rixon has been trying to convince me of the importance of fairytales in a business context and I must admit I dismissed them as too ‘out there’ for my business clients. But Andrew ran a session where the group explored a single issue (getting unstuck) and then in small groups we had to create a fairytale that illustrated elements of that issue. Ours was ‘awareness and options’ and we had no problem coming up with a dragon-killing knight and his inability to see what was really happening around him. The fairytale structure is a ready made collection of metaphors that any group can use to explore organisational issues.

My presentation was on our leadership development program where we use stories from the organisation to illustrate good and bad management behaviours. I also used the opportunity with a room full of story practitioners to explore some of the challenges we face in our work. The two I shared were the general inability for many people to identify a story because we interpret many things as stories and so find it difficult to differentiate a story from opinions; and how using the term ‘storytelling’ on a corporate setting can make people uncomfortable and how other language can be used.

Well done to Andrew and all the other people involved in organising the event. It was great fun.


How to tell a story

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 2, 2009
Filed in Business storytelling

Some great advice from Scott Simon.