3 things to consider when recreating your company story: a response to Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 20, 2012
Filed in Strategy

I was pleased to see that someone of the stature and influence of Rosabeth Moss Kanter in the Harvard Business Review blog is advocating for business to create or recreate their company’s story.

Reading Rosabeth’s post it might sound like an easy thing to do. Just get the executive team around a table and knock out the new story and then simply tell it to everyone in the company.

Our experience in helping companies do exactly what Rosabeth is advocating has taught us there are at least three things to consider and address when creating a new strategic story.

1. Business leaders don’t really know what stories look and feel like in a business setting. Business people have gotten so used to speaking in opinions and viewpoints that telling a story is mostly alien to them. The first task, therefore, is to get them used to what they naturally do in informal settings and transpose these natural storytelling instincts into a business context. We’ve created a website to help you learn about what makes a story. Without being able to spot stories and tell the difference between a story and an opinion, it’s impossible to make effective use of narrative methods.

Just based on Rosabeth’s post I get the sense that she might not have a strong sense of what a narrative is (see my take here) because in the examples she provides none of the business stories are actually told. A narrative is a story and therefore must have a story structure. For example IBM’s narrative in the late ’90s might have been something like this:

From the day we began the company we focused our efforts on building, selling and servicing business machines (it’s in our name), computers large and small. And we got damn good at it. But by the 1990s our customer needs had changed. PCs reined supreme and we missed that boat on the hardware front. In fact it nearly put us out of business. But the proliferation of PCs, globalisation and a myriad of other factors resulted in our clients having incredibly complicated computing infrastructures and they now need help in tying everything together to provide real business value. This is our new opportunity and so we are moving our focus to services and software to meet this need so that in the future we will be an indispensable partner who is helping make a significant difference to our customers.

Stories have events (growth in hardware, near death experience, increased infrastructure complexity), characters (IBM, clients), times (in the beginning, 1990s) and most importantly something unanticipated happens (the move to software and services). The story should illustrate why the new direction is being adopted.

2. Organisations have incredibly strong immune systems and therefore it’s important to take the company on the journey of creating the new strategic story together. People own what they create and our objective is for people to relish telling the story rather than merely being able to tell it. This means involving a wider group in developing the story and then having a way for everyone in the company to engage with it and add their own personal flavour. We follow a three phase approach: create the strategic story; connect leaders to the story; involve everyone in the story.

And keep in mind that for every official story told by the organisation there are the anti-stories that can counter it. In the world of story work it’s the best story that wins. Here is a paper we wrote on how to combat anti-stories.

3. The whole executive team must believe in the importance of a strategic story. Let me share a failure to illustrate. We were engaged with one of Australia’s largest logistics company to help create a strategic story for a merger that was happening. Our client was the branding executive and the person responsible for employee engagement. I outlined the approach and was told that the CEO was too busy to be involved but we needed to get started pronto. With more than a little trepidation we started and when the sponsors were happy with the story we gathered the executive, including the CEO, to share the progress. As we got started the CEO piped up and said, “I have to be frank, in my view stories are lies.” all the goodwill developed with the executives evaporated and the meeting was a failure. The next day the project was cancelled.

Contrast that with all the other projects where the CEO was on board and driving the process. You can see why We now insist on their commitment and enthusiastic support for the project.

I applaud Rosabeth’s support for strategic stories and her advice on creating plausible and authentic narratives is spot on. I’m hoping when companies begin this journey that they avoid a superficial approach and recognise that new company stories mark the beginning of a change that must be thought through carefully. These stories are not merely an advertising or branding exercise, they are a new way to energise and direct your business.


KM Australia 2012

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 19, 2012
Filed in News

I just wanted to let you know that I will be at: ‘KM Australia 2012’ on the 24 -26 July 2012 in Sydney. Here is more info on the forum http://www.kmaustralia.com and you may also want to join the KM Australia LinkedIn group:


If you can’t make it, we will be using the hashtag #kmaus during the conference if you wish to follow the tweets.

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Three elements of a movement

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 13, 2012
Filed in Collaboration, Strategy

Read this today and thought, right on! (is that too Tom Peters?)

Senator Bill Bradley defines a movement as having three elements:

1. A narrative that tells a story about who we are and the future we are trying to build

2. A connection between and among the leader and the tribe

3. Something to do—the fewer limits, the better

Too often organisations fail to do anything but the third.

From Godin, Seth (2008). Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. Portfolio Hardcover. p. 26. ISBN 1-59184-233-6.

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Genes, themes and memes—quickly forming relationships so people speak up

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 11, 2012
Filed in Collaboration

Two stories came together recently that gave me an insight about the importance of forming quick but stronger relationships so people can speak up.

A couple of weeks ago I presented at the Association of Strategic Alliance Professionals (ASAP) community. This community  is coordinated by Phillip Sack and Chris Elliot. Chris is a striking fella who I reckon must be at least 6’8″. A seasoned practitioner, Chris often helps alliance partners (typically people from construction and engineering firms coming together to build a road, railway or some other large bit of infrastructure) bond and form as a team. He told me that one of the first things he does with a new alliance is get all the blokes seated in a circle and do an activity he calls Genes, Themes and Memes. He asks them to share something that’s happened in their life that’s really shaped them (genes), tell something that’s a repeating theme in their life (theme) and recount a story they often tell (meme). The session can take two to three hours but at the end everyone has an insight in what makes the others tick and from that point on they are less likely to slag off at each other. They know each other as people not just roles and companies.

Then a week later I was talking to David Green, a remarkable leadership consultant, and he was telling me about one of his clients who were trying to get to the bottom of a failure that occurred on site. This engineering firm is contracted to maintain a railway line and they were called out to fix a problem with the line. It was a delicate job and if they caused the line to be closed they would be penalised $10,000 per hour it was out of action. To do the job they needed to gently lift a set of cables adjacent to the line so they decided to do it by hand. After the job was complete they had to carefully lower the cables back into place at which point one of the workers said, “I’ll just use the forklift” and jumped into the machine, wheeled it around, placed the forks under the cables and then lifted them up not down and they snapped. No one said a thing.

When the supervisor arrived and asked people what happened everyone agreed they thought it was the wrong idea to use the forklift and they all could see what was happening yet no one said a thing. When the supervisor asked why no one spoke up the bystanders said they didn’t really know they guy, we was new to the shift and he seem to kind of grumpy.

I wonder whether in these high risk environments if a cut down version of genes, themes and memes could be done so everyone knew each other as a person rather than just a name and a face. Perhaps then people would be more likely to speak up, especially when they thought something dangerous was about to happen.

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A new type of political ad airs in Canberra

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 6, 2012
Filed in Business storytelling

Yesterday in Canberra a new political advertisement aired for the very first time. As luck would have it I was in Canberra and happened to see it. The moment it started I hushed everyone in the lounge-room. I could sense that this was something different for a political ad in Australia. It was clearly a story.

In the 2 minute TV version we’re told how the Labor government in the ACT turned the best performing hospital system in Australia to the worst in the country in just 10 years. Here is the 6 minute version.

It certainly created a poor impression of the Labor leader for me. She appeared incompetent and at a loss. That’s a powerful conclusion for the ad to generate with any viewer.

I asked Mark, a Canberra voter, who watched the ad with me whether he thought the ad was plausible. This is the first test of any story. Mark just shook his head slowly and said, “yep, that’s pretty much what’s happened.”

The ad feels like a mini documentary, something like a Four Corners expose. The newspaper clips shown throughout the ad give the impression that we’re merely hearing the facts of what happened. The big story is the demise of the hospital systems but inside that we hear the smaller stories about hospital data being changed to make things look better, patients being flown interstate because they can’t be treated in the ACT, and how parts of the hospital are at war with each other and the good doctors are leaving.

Toward the end of the story the advertisement jumps out of story mode and tells us what we’ve just learned are “the facts, pure and simple.”

I think this takes the listener out of the story and moves from the natural pull the listener experiences as they draw in each anecdote and event to being pushed a set of facts, bullet-point style, and our natural response is to push back. I never like it when I’m told what to take away from a story. For me it reduces its power.

A colleague once told me that you can only beat a story with a better story; you can’t beat one with denial or just recounting the facts. The best response the Labor party could make is to tell their own, better, more plausible, more authentic story. The worse thing they could do is simply say it’s untrue or unfair. I sense we are seeing an entirely new type of political ad in Australia and political parties on all sides will need to hone their narrative skills to even compete.

(In full disclosure I’m friends with the creator of this advertisement but I have no affiliation with any political party. I just found the use of narrative in this field an interesting one to discuss)


Diagnosis requires observation—both are essential for good strategy

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 5, 2012
Filed in Strategy

An article in the Wall Street Journey describes how medical students at more than 20 medical schools, including Harvard, Columbia and Cornell, attend an art museum intervention to improve their skills of observation. The students are assigned a painting and observe as many details as they can and then get together to discuss what they’ve seen. Students who partake become on average 10% better at diagnosis. 

Diagnosis is a fundamental step in strategy development. Yet it is one that seems to be skipped over in many organisations. Companies are rushing to create ‘the strategy.’ Perhaps executives should be attending a similar art-based intervention and then train their improved observation skills at diagnosing their own organisations so that real strategic initiatives are designed rather than foolish fill-in-the-box attempts such as ‘great customer service.’ Have a look at this simple test for your strategic initiatives.

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Story quote of the week

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 3, 2012
Filed in Business storytelling

Dickman Story Quote

Click to see larger version 800×600

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Stories affect a slow burn

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 3, 2012
Filed in Business storytelling

This week I presented at the Sydney knowledge management round table and Rod Irwin, the co-ordinator of the group, remarked at just how long one can remember a story. He remembers one he heard in 1978.

There are many reasons why we remember stories much better that other types of information.

Firstly, if the story engages our emotions we will tend to remember it. We remember what we feel.

We will remember a story if it’s particularly visual. John Medina points out in Brain Rules that seeing is our strongest sense.

Because stories have a combination of people, events and places, if we forget one part, say a place name, we can often remember the other bits which is often enough to remember the story. And as we tell it the place name can come back to us or our extended memory (our family and friends) fills in the details.

Jerome Bruner suggests that stories are about 22 times more memorable than facts alone.

For all these reasons (and more) stories stay with us and slowly work there way on us, seeping into our unconsciousness and changing our minds.

So don’t be disappointed when you tell a story at work in an important presentation and people don’t immediately change their mind. An effective story stays with them and in weeks, maybe months, a new way of seeing things will emerge. Patience is needed.