Anecdotes: transcribed or documented

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 23, 2005
Filed in Anecdotes

Obviously anecdotes play a key role in our work. We use these real life business stories to help people see patterns that typically remain hidden using traditional techniques. Recent projects include topics like staff morale, client satisfaction, occupation health and safety and staff work load. Unlike using interviews and surveys you tend to hear what is really happening when people have the opportunity to share their work stories.

There are two ways we collect anecdotes: 1) transcribe people’s anecdotes, usually in an anecdote circle; or 2) hear an anecdote and document it in the words of the listener, after the fact. Most of our work uses the first method of transcription but there have been a number of times where I have worked as a type of corporate anthropologist listening and recording the stories I hear.

I thought you might like to see a couple of examples. This first example is from a project on occupational health and safety and it has been transcribed verbatim.

You can go the other way and just get extreme neglect, whereas I’ve seen, in subdivisional work, an instance that didn’t result in a death, but near, could have; 30-tonne excavator benching out, bulking out a trench, swings off to the side, releases his bucket, sticks another bucket on and swings back over the trench, bucket falls off, no safety pin.  It’s simple.  Bucket falls off, man down trench looking at a target, bucket straight over the top of him, and I mean straight over the top of him.  Now, that was that close to being dead.  But it was just a simple, instead of taking the time to put in a safety pin, which means getting out of the machine and doing so.

Here is one I’ve documented recently after it was told to me.

An industrial designer came up with a type of periscope device you can mount on a rifle to see around corners. The designer’s manager said “stop wasting time with that idea, we have more important things to do. His manager’s boss shared a similar view. One day the designer happened to wander past the Chief Scientist who was having his morning smoko. “What are you working on lad?” the chief asked. He told the chief about his periscope and the chief loved it. He immediately told the Chief of Army who ordered it to be made and put in production. It was a hit. The designer received a medal for his work and his managers were left with egg on their faces.

When a group of people such as decision-makers, planners, clients, are exposed to these anecdotes they begin to detect broad patterns of behaviour and key themes emerge. These insights form the basis of new interventions that are designed by the organisation rather than by an external ‘expert.’

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, 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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