One of our first projects was a training-needs assessment for part of the Australian Defence Force. Our discovery phase involved two teams; one adopted a structured interview technique and the other collected stories.
After our first day in the field, we met with the structured interview guys to compare notes. “On first blush,” they said, “it seems that most things are in order. They‘re adhering to OH&&S processes. Sure, there are some areas for improvement but generally things are OK.” As they shared their assessment, those of us on the story collection team looked at each other in astonishment. So we shared what we’d learned: “So, you didn‘ hear about the soldiers who are showering in their own urine because their recycling system is broken? Or the workshop where everyone wears protective footwear because some poor fellow lost his toes in an accident, but no one wears protective eyewear because they have never had an eye accident?” We’d heard story upon story of major transgressions that weren’t picked up in the structured-interview approach.
This experience confirmed our view that a narrative approach is great for yielding new, and otherwise hidden, insights.
A number of years and many clients later, we have seen that there is something even more important that story-based techniques provide: a resolve among people to do something about a situation, and concrete examples illustrating how to do it.
Here’s an example.
In 2006 we delivered a narrative-based leadership development program for a global pharmaceutical company. We collected 150 stories of good and bad management behaviour from their staff, and then used these stories in a two-day development program. Twelve managers attend every month and a regular activity is to talk about which stories are most significant.
One story is often selected as significant. It’s a seemingly simple account of a woman whose manager stops whatever he is doing when she visits his office. He moves to a table in the middle of the room, invites her to sit down and then totally focuses on her. As a result, she feels that she is being listened to and her ideas are important. It’s remarkable for this woman because other managers don’t do it. The leaders in the program often choose this story because they feel that if they could only get more managers to do this it would create a groundswell of positive change.
A year into the program we refreshed the stories, and lo-and-behold, staff told stories of how their manager, whenever they knock on the office door, stops working, comes out from behind the desk and … you guessed it … focuses totally on them and their issues.
Imagine if we conducted the leadership development program by merely listing the behaviours that a good leader displays and then tried to persuade the participants with logic and reasoning. Change would have been unlikely. But in this case the leaders worked things out for themselves and inspired themselves to change.
A few years ago Shawn gave a talk on storytelling at IBM’s internal university. There were about 150 people in the audience and the presentation before Shawn was given by one of IBM’s distinguished engineers, Dan (not his real name). His talk was on privacy and technology. He had heaps of slides, each one jam packed with dot points and diagrams. The core of his presentation was summarised as seven dot points which he carefully described.
After Dan finished Shawn asked him whether it would be OK to use one of his slides to illustrate a point about storytelling. Dan was interested in what might happen so said “sure thing.”
The first thing Shawn said as he walked on stage was, “so we have just seen a really interesting presentation by Dan on technology and privacy. Who can name two of Dan’s seven key points without looking at your notes?” Silence. Not a single had was raised.
“That’s OK,” Shawn continued. “Who remembers what happened at HP? Hands up.” A sea of hands shot into the air. Dan had told a story of HP inappropriately using video cameras in the workplace. “That’s the difference between a story and dots points,” Shawn said.
Some estimate that stories are 22 times more memorable that facts alone.
A few years ago Professor Adam Grant from University of Pennsylvania conducted an intriguing experiment and showed that simply reminding people of the meaning and significance of their work can double their productivity. And he did this by simply sharing stories from those people who benefited from the call centre worker's hard work: in this case benefactors of a fundraising organisation.
Here is how Grant ran his experiment. Working in a fundraising organisation call centre, Grant divided his participants into three groups: people who were reminded of their personal benefits of the job; people reminded of the significance their tasks was having on the benefactors of their work; and the control group. The personal benefit group read stories from other employees about the benefits of the job such as money, skills and knowledge. The task significance group read stories from the people the organisation was giving scholarships to and how these scholarships effected their lives. The control group didn't hear any stories.
The results were astounding. People from the control group and the the group reminded of the personal benefits looked almost the same and didn’t see any significant change. However the people who were reminded of the the significance of their task was having on the benefactors more than doubled their weekly pledges (from an average of 9 to an average of 23) and more than doubled their weekly pledges (from an average of $1,288 to an average of $3,130). The biggest gains came from employees who were previously unmotivated.
Grant, A. M. (2008). The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 108-124.
The Ritz Carlton is renowned for exemplary customer service. It doesn’t achieve this excellence by merely training people on the things that must do or avoid. This list would be endless. Instead they have built a story-based program that instills a customer service ethic in all their employees. This is how it works.
Everyone in the company is encouraged to submit stories of Ritz Carlton people going above and beyond. Each week a story is selected and sent out to all the Ritz Carlton hotels around the world and this story is read out at the Line Up meetings, the gathering of staff before starting a shift. The Ritz Carlton call them their WOW stories.
Three times a week staff recount WOW stories in the Line Ups, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Each time a WOW story is told it triggers a conversation about what everyone sees as significant in the story and often prompts the retelling of other stories of things that have happened in their own hotel. So rather than receive a corporate directive on how to behave staff vicariously experience behaviour that everyone recognises as exemplary.
Staff receive a $100 if their story is selected and at the end of the year there is a competition to select the top 10 stories.