Finding success stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 14, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

Have you ever been asked to find success stories and been unsure where to start? Done well success stories slide effortlessly from one teller to the next conveying company values, strategic directions and the good reasons why your company should invest in initiatives like communities of practice. Done badly the stories remain captive and moribund in content management jails.

What is a success story?

We have all heard the term ‘success story’ but what are we really talking about? First let’s take a look at a few examples.

In their Change This manifesto, Talking Strategy, Chip and Dan Heath retell this story from FedEx, the company that promises to deliver your package “absolutely, positively” overnight.

In St. Vincent, a tractor trailer accident blocked the main road going into the airport. Together a driver and ramp agent tried every possible alternate route to the airport but were stymied by traffic jams. They eventually struck out on foot, shuttling every package the last mile to the airport for an on-time departure. 

Here is one from SCORE—the counsellor’s to America’s small business.

Judith Moore, a lifetime baker, was on a quest to find the “perfect” chocolate chip cookie recipe. Her son-in-law thought she should start her own business.

“I started investigating what it would take to start a cookie company,” she says.  Charlie Elberson, who owns an advertising agency, offered to develop a brand identity for her. In return, Judith would supply him with free cookies for a year.

Judith next contacted Coast SCORE in North Charleston, S.C., for advice on her business plan. SCORE Counselor Greg Kopatch helped her focus her vision. Greg also recommended that she create a spreadsheet and produce cash flow projections for three years of business.

His encouragement and enthusiasm helped to keep Judith going forward. “I could not have accomplished this much without SCORE’s help,” she says. Greg’s guidance was crucial to the completion of Judith’s business plan, as well as the necessary financial data to support it.

Greg continues to advise Judith on her ongoing business and its structure, business management and growth. And, it’s been a recipe for success. Judith recently entered into a new partnership with Dean & Deluca, a retail and catalogue gourmet food company based in New York City.

“It’s been a pleasure working with Greg, and a thrill to have all that information available to a small business, like we are, at no cost,” Judith says. “Having the expertise of SCORE counsellors is invaluable!”

And finally here is an example of a success story from Sun Microsystems.

SIM University (UniSIM) has to operate in a different manner than other educational institutions — the curricula, modules, programs, and even classes have to be flexible to enable students to strike a balance between work and study. The university recognised that it has to invest in its IT infrastructure to efficiently manage and operate an online e-learning solution to give its students a flexible learning environment. “Since we have decided to implement the e-learning infrastructure, it is increasingly critical that the system that supports this remains highly available and that the archives are easily managed,” says Gary Teo, Senior Manager of Educational Technology and Production for UniSIM. “We have to have systems that are always available so that our students can log in anytime, anywhere. We need something that is robust, stable and scalable. Most importantly, it must be cost-effective and highly reliable, which is why we turned to Sun.”

With almost everything online, learning becomes more flexible and interactive as students can now submit their assignments online, chat with their tutors and peers, download course materials online and even watch lectures online — from the comfort of their homes or wherever they happen to be. “We knew we made the right choice to go with Sun when the company took these seemingly irreconcilable requirements, customized them, and set up our infrastructure within a very short time,” adds Teo. “We are all very impressed.”

In order to run the Blackboard Academic Suite, the school put together an array of high-performance Sun products, including a storage area network (SAN) to house its mammoth database of lecture materials and administrative documents. To minimize the need for staff to manage the system, UniSIM acquired high-performance Sun Fire T2000 servers for high availability and automated recovery, and a Sun Fire X4100 server to support video streaming applications. To manage its database, UniSIM chose the Sun Fire V890 server. UniSIM’s critical storage and archive systems runs on a Sun StorageTek 6130 Storage Array and Sun StorageTek C2 Autoloader. As a result, UniSIM is now set for future archive expansion with additional arrays that can easily be added seamlessly.

Success stories come in all shapes and sizes but they share the trait of wishing to communicate, “look at us, look how clever, persistent, innovative [insert positive characteristic] we are.”  But that’s where the similarities end. The FedEx story can be told and retold—it’s an oral story. The cookie story is more like a journalist’s version of a ‘story’. Sun Microsystem’s is more like a case study. These three examples are a microcosm of the possibilities.

Most organisation have had experience writing case studies and commissioning journalists to write pieces for their corporate newsletters. As such, I would like to focus on the characteristics of oral stories and how to find them.

The first thing to notice about an oral story is their length. They’re short; an anecdote. While there are examples of storytellers retelling epics like Homer’s Iliad, mere mortals like us find it difficult to remember really long stories. A good oral success story is memorable. Its short length helps but there are more important features that make a story memorable.

People remember concrete details that create a picture of what’s happening in our mind’s eye. What did you see when you read the FedEx story? Did you see anything while reading the cookies or Sun stories? If the story recounts events we’ve seen before—airports, delivery truck, traffic jams—we can picture the story and it’s memorable. We simply replay the pictures to remember the story. If the scene is unfamiliar other devices are needed such as analogies, similes and metaphors. But, beware of the dead metaphor.

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves (George Orwell, Politics and the English Language)

Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald noted: “The very phrases were worn so threadbare that they evoked no image except that of a turbaned ‘character’ leaking sawdust at every pore as he pursued a tiger through the Bois de Boulogue.” The Great Gatsby.

But this is not an essay on writing. We just want to be in a position to identify good success stories when and where we hear them. Some of the other characteristics to look out for include:

  • a hero overcoming adversity
  • detailed and concrete rather than vague and abstract
  • simple and clear
  • and most importantly, authentic and plausible

BHP Billiton, one of the world’s largest resources companies, justified its significant investments in communities of practice through the collection and retelling of success stories. They purposely created two versions of the same story: an oral retelling and a case study replete with detailed graphs showing savings, increased quality and reduced downtimes. Their most successful story is the rope shovel story. Here is how it was told to me.

In Ok Tedi there was a rope shovel, the largest moving machine on the planet, that was up and running 63% of the time. The very same type of rope shovel in a mine in Santiago had very little downtime by comparison and the Global Maintenance Network (the internal CoP for maintenance) wondered why. So they sent a team from Ok Tedi to Santiago to find out. After a few weeks with their colleagues in Santiago, they worked out that lubricant cleanliness made the difference. After changing their practices at Ok Tedi their rope shovel gradually improved its availability over a five year period saving BHP Billiton more than a million US dollars every year. And that was just one thing the Global Maintenance Network has done.

The details might be wrong but the message remains intact. The Global Maintenance Network is helping members improve their practices and saving the company significant money.

We could improve this success story by finding out the names of people who were involved and then tell it from their perspective. Some dates would make the story more concrete and verifiable. An analogy might help those of us who haven’t seen a rope shovel. I know its big, but how big? How about, a rope shovel would barely fit into the MCG and could be seen poking out above the stadium and be mistaken for an additional lighting tower. I guess this only works for Australians, but football stadium comparisons are always effective.

One last story before we look at how we find these examples.

Ruby S. presented with lower abdominal pain. She was tender in the right iliac fossa, and was therefore operated on as acute appendicitis. On opening the peritoneum there was a smear of turbid fluid, but the appendix was normal. Loop after loop of small bowel was pulled out, much to the irritation of the registrar, and there, in the upper jejunum, was a toothpick sticking through the wall. (Cox, 2001)

This story illustrates the effectiveness of an unexpected ending, the power of specific and visual language (loop after loop), and the need to use the language of the intended reader.

How do you find success stories?

The first step is to know what you’re after. Who are you trying to impress? What do they value? What is your purpose? Kathy Sierra recently posted a request for success stories which shows a woman who knows what she’s after.

The overall point is to find success stories about people whose lives have been affected by the web or software apps. I’m particularly interested in places where there is an intersection between live (face-to-face) interaction and online interaction (like people who’ve met online then forge off-line relationships). But even purely online experiences are important to me as well.

So here’s the first strategy. Ask for success strategies. This approach works when you have a large group of people listening. Kathy Sierra certainly has a large audience being one of the most popular bloggers in the world. You might have a similarly popular communication channel like a well-used intranet, email lists, or newsletters. But in large organisations this if often not an option. Broadcast communication channels are carefully guarded.

A good plan ‘B’ is to go to your social networks. Who are the connectors and mavens who know what is going on in the organisation? If you don’t have a well established network, I suggest you seek out roles that tend to be performed by natural connectors.

  • Personal assistants
  • Professional association leaders
  • Community of practice leaders
  • Union reps
  • Successful business developers (connectors outside the organisation)
  • Good (internal) head-hunters
  • People who travel around the organisation

Social network experts say that we’re most effective in finding the people we are seeking by first exploring likely physical locations. “We need stories that illustrate good safety behaviours. Where are some of our most dangerous operations? Don’t we have operations the Ukrainian Donbas?”  The next place we should look is in the organisational structure. “Our mine operations people will have some good stories. The coal division would be a good place to start. Who heads up that division?” In combination with getting to know the company’s connectors you should be able to pin point a plethora of possibilities.

A way to use oral stories to target case studies

Many companies are obsessed with writing customer case studies. The Sun Microsystem example above gives you a feeling for what these case studies look like. When I worked at IBM we had an extensive case study database. These systems cost a fortune to maintain. And I have to tell you, I’ve never really found them that useful. I suspect because each case study requires so much effort to compile they are never done well. Here is an approach inspired by what I learned when I ran a photographic library.

Our photo library had over 100,000 photos. All the images were transparencies ranging from 35mm to large formats. It was impossible for us to catalogue the entire collection with the resources at our disposal. So we developed a general understanding of where groups of slides were physically located (which slide box) and when we sold a picture we catalogued it.

Oral success stories could represent an organisation’s first attempt at recording a success story. It’s essential that the oral story can be easily retold, just like the FedEx van driver story above. Some stories will be what Dan and Chip Heath call ‘sticky’, that is, they will be told and retold and eventually there will be a queue of people wanting the full case study. This is the signal to investigate and report the full story enabling a wisdom of crowds prioritisation of which case studies get written up and when.


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:


  1. Liara Covert says:

    I have found lessons learned stories to be invaluable in teaching, public speaking and writing. My life has taught me that people tend to become engaged and identify with plights and triumphs. This is not only because they may have experienced something similar, but also because they learn frolm the qualities and traits they may wish to develop in themselves. I store stories in my head, not a database, though admittedly, I haven’t yet memorized 100,000. I think we get out of stories what we choose to learn.

  2. What you say is so true! The success stories we hear around the office are part of the cultural background that actually moulds our behaviour – we all want to partake of the same success!
    Here’s a recent story of mine. It’s applicable because it’s still being retold weeks later!

  3. Great story Bob. I though for sure you were going to get mown down. I see you are also enjoying Made to Stick. What a great book. Can you tell me about how the story was retold? Was it retold to you or did you hear about it on the grapevine?

  4. I’m like you Liara, I store my stories in my head and have never got around to writing them down. But I do find many excellent examples in books and articles. From a organisational perspective I think they need to write them down and then allow communities to comment on them. In fact it should be the communities in the organisation that are the stewards for the stories.

  5. I’m hearing it through the grapevine, but I would dearly love to hear how it’s being retold. I think.

Comments are closed.