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Organisational stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 28, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

A friend of a friend of our is a frequent business traveller. Let’s call him Dave. Dave was recently in Atlantic City for an important meeting with clients. Afterward, he had some time to kill before his flight, so he went to a local bar for a drink.

He’d just finished one drink when an attractive woman approached and asked if she could buy him another. He was surprised but flattered. Sure, he said. The woman walked to the bar and brought back two more drinks—one for her and one for him. He thanked her and took a sip. And that was the last thing he remembered.

Rather, that was the last think he remembered until he woke up, disoriented, lying in a hotel bathtub, his body submerged in ice.

He looked around frantically, trying to figure out where he was and how he got there. Then he spotted the note:

DON’T MOVE. CALL 911.

A cell phone rested in a small table beside the bathtub. He picked it up and called 911, his fingers numb and clumsy from the ice. The operator seemed oddly familiar with this situation. She said, “Sir, I want you to reach behind you, slowly and carefully. Is there a tube protruding from your lower back?”

Anxious , he felt around behind him. Sure enough, there was a tube.

The operator said, “Sir, don’t panic, but one of your kidneys has been harvested. There’s a ring of organ thieves operating in this city, and they got to you. Paramedics are on their way. Don’t move until they arrive.”

According to Chip and Dan Heath, this is one of the most successful urban myths. I hadn’t heard it before but I found myself retelling the story to my wife that afternoon. Chip and Dan use this story as an example of why some ideas travel and others don’t in their excellent book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. One of the reason this myth’s success is the simple fact that the information is conveyed as a story. It’s embedded with emotion. It’s surprising.

This got me thinking about the myths I hear in organisations. By myths I mean stories of larger than life characters that convey beliefs. They might be creation stories (how the organisation or community got started), heroic acts, tragedies, or amusing anecdotes that are frequently recounted.

Here’s one I heard the other day.

Our company has just done the mission, vision, values thing. The CEO, who came to us from one of our competitors, did most of the work. He went home on Friday, dug out the mission, vision and values statement from his old job, photocopied them on A3 sheets of paper and stuck them all over the wall on levels 22, 23 and 24.

Finding an organisation’s myths helps you understand the boundaries and constraints for any new interventions you might have planned. I’ve discovered that myth discovery is simply a matter of asking for stories that lots of people know. I was chatting to Dave Snowden about this last week and he suggested that you could also discover myths using his Sensemaker software by looking our for clusters of stories around particular archetypes. More on Sensemaker in a following post.

Let me leave you with one more myth from an organisation.

A new sales guys, Mike, starts at a Sydney company and he’s eager to make an impact. His boss says that the sales team in meeting in Jervis Bay (a coastal holiday spot about 3 hours drive from Sydney) on Monday morning at 9am. Mike gets up at 4am on Monday and drives down to Jervis Bay and on arrival calls his boss to get the specific location of the meeting.

On getting the call the boss says, “No, no, we are meeting in the Sydney office in a meeting room called Jervis Bay.”

What’s interesting about this seemingly innocuous story was how often we heard it told. I think it was an important story for the organisation that reminded people to ask questions and not just leap into things.

What myths are you aware of being told in your organisation?

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:

6 Responses to “Organisational stories”

  1. Dave Snowden Says:

    Shawn – it was great to spend time with you and Mark in canberra last week (despite the 0330am start!). However you are making me nervous with this post – I am due in Atlanta in two weeks time …..

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    You just have to refuse free drinks from attractive women 🙂

  3. Robert Hruzek Says:

    I once thought I was going to have a similar experience as that last story. It was my first week at a new company (I was hired contract engineering help). We were working heavy hours and started each day at 6 am. That was bad enough, but when they said they started at 5 am on Saturdays, I thought they were kidding! Everyone looked so serious, but I just knew I would be the only one who showed up while eveyone else had a chuckle about the “gullible new guy”. But, just in case, I arrived at the appointed time, and to my lasting surprise, so did eveyone else!

  4. Interactions - Creative Strategies for Business Says:

    Drama in Organisations

    Over at Anecdote there’s an interesting post about Organisational Stories and how organisational myths are a great way of understanding the culture of the system. Finding an organisation’s myths helps you understand the boundaries and constraints for a…

  5. francis carl Says:

    where is the examples of your anecdotes?

  6. Shawn Says:

    You will find many of our anecdotes here: http://www.anecdote.com.au/archives/anecdotes/

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