Lessons learning: using stories to share understanding

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 8, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

This morning (Happy Easter!) I started writing a paper on a narrative approach to lessons learning. I’m at the point of gathering my thoughts and had the idea of sharing some of them as they occur to me. I hope it’s not too ill-informed but if that’s the case I’m hoping you’ll help me correct my wayward thinking.

The paper I’m writing argues against merely capturing stories as a way to share lessons. I thought I would start the paper by reflecting on the nature of narrative in order to build a case against the database-only approach (notice how I qualify these statements about capturing and databases because I do believe they play a role).

Stories are told in context

Stories are told in context to illustrate a point. No one wants to tell a story to have the listeners cock they heads and say , “huh?” The story makes sense in relation to what came before and what is likely to follow. It also makes sense in terms of who is in the conversation and the collective identity of the group. A story in isolation is likely to require active interpretation—what did she mean here? A story in context is hardly noticed and usually makes sense immediately. Perhaps the real danger of an isolated story is that its original intention can be misunderstood. Perhaps even reversed. For example, people often quote Robert Frost’s Mending Wall advocating for barriers, saying “Good fences make good neighbors”, yet when you read the entire poem (in context) you realise Frost is questioning the need for fences.

Here is an anecdote I told last week—without context.

When we started ActKM each person on the organising committee had a title: president, secretary, treasurer, etc. After a while we heard that members felt obliged to seek our permission to kick off any new initiative and there was also some suspicion about what this group was doing. The members felt it was a closed shop. Once we realised what was happening we discarded the formal titles and called everyone in the organising group a coordinator and the group became known as the coordinator’s group.

Take a moment to reflect on what this story means for you and see how close that meaning matches my intent when I told it.

So here’s the context. Last week I was at a meeting with John Smith, Etienne Wenger and the members of a new group of people invited to work with John and Etienne to re-energise CP2. We were talking about what this new group should be called. Before the meeting the group was called the oversight committee but intuitively John and Etienne felt that the name didn’t reflect the intent of the group. At the end of the meeting we agreed to call the group the coordination group.

Did you have a different meaning for the original story?

Now you might be thinking “gee, Shawn is really getting hung up with the meaning of the story. Surely stories are powerful because they have multiple meanings?” I agree, the multiple meanings are an important feature of narratives. Please bear with me while I take you though the next point.

There are many versions of the story I told John and the gang last week. For example if we were talking about how not to setup a community of practice I might have told a version that emphasised how we ended up with the formal titles in the first place and how our dalliances with KMCI were misguided. A different meaning.

There is more to the story than in its telling. The story listeners recreate the story as it unfolds and imbue it with their own meaning which is dependent on the way it’s told, the context of its telling and the history of the listener. The story becomes a catalyst for a group of people to make sense of a situation and choose their next steps (action).

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting David Boje. In our meeting, which was attended by 15 or so people, I made the statement that “the magic is not in the story, it’s in the interaction among people who are prompted to relate by hearing the story.” David was uncomfortable with this statement because he felt there is magic in stories. In reflection I think my wording was inaccurate. What I should have said was that “the answer is not in the story but is contained in the sensemaking that’s prompted by stories.” Storytelling is a social phenomena and we need to seek opportunities to tell one another stories, perhaps prompted by stories the have already been collected.

So hopefully I will have more for you on this topic over the coming weeks. Love to hear your thoughts.

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. I have come across this issue a few times and it can be a bit of a double edged sword.
    What I do now with clients (small or large groups) is to play a game of “Flip Art”. In this technique I ask for a volunteer who I ask (on a post-it note) to draw something – a bike or something else obvious. At the same time the group is asked to guess what is being drawn.
    On the 3rd “turn” I ask them to draw something less obvious – Finance, Growth etc dependant on the sector. The subsequent 2 individuals are asked to draw the same “word” regardless if the group get it right or not.
    The eureka moment is when you say that they have all been drawing the same thing. Then ask them why did we just do that…..

  2. ken says:

    Well, I was going to write a lot more, but read an article/story (below) that – if you want some context, situational expectations, social proof, expert scenario planning – captures it beautifully, not unlike the bystander effect described in Gladwell/Klein, social creatures, acting alone together…

  3. John Parboosingh says:

    I agree. what about :“the POTENTIAL FOR LEARNING is not in the story, it’s in the interaction among people who are prompted to relate by hearing the story.” ?
    All too often lists (databases) of stories, especially about best practices, are viewed as accomplishments of the group or organization to be shared. Stories in these cases are being used merely as “pieces of information”.

  4. David Boje says:

    I am writing this in reply to blog you told me of in email, but not sure I found one to which you referred.
    You said it was a reflection on my feedback to you at the Las Vegas STORI (Storytelling Organization Institute) workshop held over the Apr 1st weekend.
    First let me thank you for being an awesome participants. Your work in the fishbowl gave gifts to every participant in the room, especially to me.
    Second, let me set the context for the story I will tell. You asked about the feedback I gave as a ‘gift’ to you. I want to tell one story of the ‘gift’ its antenarrative magic as story. Second story is more on ‘the magic of story’ in terms of the magic moment I experienced during my gift-sharing with you.
    During lunch on day two of the workshop, I went to lunch with Ph.D. students wanting help with the methodology of their dissertation. We walked from the Imperial Palace a short ways, winding among the kyiosks and exhibits of LV in-your-face ads, and people trying to put sex-cards in our hands. I wanted to relax and not be inundated by the LV hype, so I did something the postmodern situationists (e.g. Guy Debord) call the ‘derive walk.’ It is simple really, just look for a shift in aesthetics, something that does not quite fit the LV spectacle of hyperconsumption and excess. I started to notice trees, grase, flowers, and then I spotted something strange. It was a birthday box. I think it was sitting on the grass, in a raised sort of round brick area, on which people might sit to rest. It had bright glittery ‘Happy Birthdays’ all over it. It was one of the boxes you get in a department store, into which you can put any gift you like. Noone was sitting there, so I looked about, and noone was keeping an eye on it. I decided to do antenarrative, to make a bet that this box had a transformative power. I did not have a use for the box. I did not have a full or complete coherent story of it. I just sensed something magical could occur. I did the derive walk, now with the box. I spied a dime on the walk, and put it in the box. I would be one of the very few not to gamble and to leave LV with more than I came with. Someone handed me tickets to the monorail, and I put these in the box. I refused other items. Upon returning from lunch, I decided to put the birthday box in the middle of our STORI circle. I figured if others objected they would let me know. If others wanted to improv, I was up for seeing what showed up. “What is the birthday box for?” asked a participants. I reacted in improv, ‘For our gifts’ I replied. “wow, we are getting gifts,” observed another participants. And so the story of the birthday gift box grew. When the circle was set, I said, I feel led to ask, ‘what gift do you want to receive from this afternoon, our last round of the workshop?’ I added’ If other facilitators have something else in mind, tell me now.’ I got a nod from Jo Tyler who had the lead when we went to lunch. So I asked ‘what one gift do you want to take away for yourself, just one gift for you?’ I wnet round robin, around to each person, and helped thim narrow sometimes entire paragraphs and quite long lists, to just the one, since this was, for me, an equity of one gift to each of us.’ So the gifts were expressed and notes mode of them by Jo and Carolyn, and I ended that process. Next up was a fishbowl, in which Shawn took the lead, and in that fishbowl, everyone in the room, got their gifts, except for Shawn. Jo told us later she checked off the gifts, and all were met, except for Shawn. It is amazing what an antenarrative can do. No structured process, arrived at in advance, would have foresen such a result.
    Jo called upon me, after some processing, to give Shawn his gift. I had taken extensive field notes, but in my Warrior-gladiator-academic mask. I am trained in 30 years of being the academic gladiator in the arena. We academics are a warrior class. So I was writing notes on Shawn’s fishbowl, as he went through the method, and I was noting some very positive items, some surprises, that I thought quite different than Snowden-ology, or Demming-ification, and different from STORI-ism. But in my warrior mode, I was deconstructing, looking at the marginalized, the ways in which hierarchy might be creeping in. I noted differences to other methods such as Saval’s SocioEconomic appraoch (a version of Sociotechnical system), and to the Emery’s version, and to White & Epston’s restorying.
    With Jo’s request for gift, I looked at the birthday box, in the middle of the circle. Wow, I need to get out of academic warrior and into the gift-giver role, a more caring, nurturing, fun role, a more, for lack of better word, Shaman role.
    All of a sudden, I was tripped, and an arrow pierced my side. Another facilitator, had stuck his foot out, just as I was making the transformation from warrior to shaman. I reacted in survival instinct. I dropped into warrior stance, I took up my sword and shield, and I as in battle, dismember (deconstruct) the enemy mode. I had two warrior choice, revenge on the errant facilitator, or deconstruct Shawn. Both were unacceptable to the birthday box antenarrative, and to me.
    At that moment of being, the floor of the room, openned into an abyss, a nasty abyss, a slippery, raging water, turbulent winds, reverse whirlpool of an abyss. I was being sucked into the vortex. I was clawing at the slippery moss, my feet already in the water, trying to climb out, but sinking and sinking. I was in survival mode. Watch out for Boje in survival mode!
    “Well I guess [since you do not want my gift] I will shut the F— up” I replied to the facilitator’s barbed arrow. I noted the language, definitely in warrior costume. What to do? I got up and headed to get some tea. I put on my iPod (or started to) to get to the meditation mood music, the sound of a calm brook, the gentle breeze, a flute playing, very calming to me. I looked to where the tea once was, but was no more. No help there. Jo sent me a life preserver, “David I want you back in the circle, and ‘give your gift the Shawn’.” I looked again at the birthday gift. “This is not about me, its about Shawn. Get a grip, give Shawn his gift!”
    I sat and looked at my pages of notes (about 8 or 10, too many to reread now), and the list of the 6 deconstruction weapons. They were a list of nasty swords, ripping knives, hammers to strike blows, all useless as gifts.
    Then something magical started to happen. I noticed I was putting down my sword, but kept the sheild, and the armour. I look at the first item on the list.
    I asked Shawn, “would it be alright to comment on what you said, ‘story is not magical’?” He gave me permission. The gifts.
    1. As I looked at his comment on the page, it transformed, and it was a writing without penmanship, that appeared as if by magic, ‘story is magical’ In the workshop, you did ‘noticing story’ to let story strike you. This is magic of story, in the moment of being, in the situation of where story lives in realtionship to you and others.
    2.The next weapon on the page transformed into a sort of vine. I noteced some ways what you are doing Shawn is unlike what Snowden and others are doing. THis to me is very positive, in many ways. It is like woork of another Austrailian, Fred Emery, their ‘jury system’ could be a gift to you. That is the way you assemble the people who have an ability to put new story into action. The Emery’s (Fred & Merrelyn) do a brief history session and a future session, akin to story, but not as focused as in your method.
    3. The next weapon did its transmutation on the page. And I noticed I was no longer supporting my warrior sheild. I was in full shaman ropes, and open to being caring. I looked at the harsh words on the page: “herding into a direction of managerialism.” This would take TLC. Shawn, ‘are you faimiliar with the word, ‘managerialism?’ ‘Yes’ he replied. OK, I would not need to unpack the term. Should, I unpack it for everyone in the room. No, this is Shawn’s gift. I began, “there is an addition yu could consider making in your method.” To okk at story and counterstory, to look at what is the official management story, and the counterstories in relation to one another. Look for stories that resist.”
    4. The next barbed weapon was “the action of the workshop – actors of organization in [their] arena.” I awaited the transformation into something caring. I saw it and the gift was clear. “Shawn, you mentioned working with the ‘high’ rated stories, but discarding the ‘low’ and ‘medium’ coherence stories. What if you kept the low and mediums and looked at them as low cohesion, antenarratives, or fragment ways of sensemaking, as fragments distributed across Tamar (mansion of many story rooms)?” He nodded and seemed to understand the gift.
    5. I skipped this one. I had already dealt with it in the idea of dialectic. For you the bloggers I will put it here. “Shawn” I asked, are you familiar with dialectic?” “Not really,” he replied. Ok there is another Australian and a New Zealander, White and Epston. They do restorying, the interplay of the old (dominant, problem saturated power story) and the new (marginalized, covered- over) story. This ia a dialectic, a way to compose out of the margins and fragments a new sotry that has been masked (oppressed) by the dominant story. It is akin to finding the middle path as Aristotle talks of it (a reference to an presentation I did on virtue ethics).
    6. This would be easy. The hammer read “Walter Benjamin.” Ok this gift is something you have but may not have noted, I told Shwan. “When your interventions in the firm you mentioned, got at setting the environment, name tags, tea, etc. This was amazing. “Do you know Walter Benjamin’s work?” No recognition. “Let me explain. Walter Benjamin said that, ‘storytelling is dead.’ In its place we have the information age. The old skills of the sailors [sea sense in Pat Reilly’s dissertation, a participant) the weavers, the printers doing old style typeset, — they had a community in their crafts, in which one learned deep skills in story telling and deep skills in story listening. One learned to tell sparsely, to let others fill in-between-the-lines. One did not need the exposition of over-narrating, as in information age. Nor did one need an omnisicent narrator as in the novel. Rather, in the craft was the source of the skill training, a time to listen, a time to tell, embedded in the crafts.
    For more on Walter see the book Illumination, and chapter on storyteller. It was written in 1936. See also Gertrude Stein’s 4 narrative lectures given at University of Chicago 1935. Both speak to loss of story skills. But Stein is optimistic that we can regan them. Benjamin is more critical and pessimistic.
    OK, there you have, two stories of story magic. My gifts to Shawn. Shawn you made everyone else’s gifts come true.
    For me, I had the most dramatic experience, of many years. I entered the mythic space, and I came back a gift-giver.
    Thanks for that
    David Boje

  5. Tushar Panchal says:

    I have been following the excellent work on this website for sometime I must confess I am a big fan of what Anecdote offers. However, I would like to make the following 2 cents worth comments(purely anecdotal based on personal experiences):
    1) Stories are context sensitive. However, the context is determined by factors such as:
    a) Are the individuals from the same organisation/working group? If that is the case then the stories are driven more by situations existing and afforded by the inner working culture of the organisation/working group. Of course individual personalities do vary the flavour.
    b) If the individuals are interacting from different organisations but share a common theme/platform/interest etc then the stories are much more driven by the common theme/platform/interest and not necessarily the organisational cultural.
    2) Stories have a much profound effect not only in the terms of the situation and their context sensitivity but also how emotions are delivered during story telling. The emotions are powerful not only to convey a message but also to feel the intensity of a certain situation.

  6. Hi Tushar, thanks for your observations. They accord with my experience too. The emotional aspect is vital. Just read David Boje’s example and you get a feeling of the emotion shared at the Las Vegas workshop. Interesting, however, is how much is lost in the written expression of the story. I guess you have to be Hemingwayesque to convey the emotions effectively via the words on a page. And thanks for the kinds words about our work. Much appreciated.

  7. dave Snowden says:

    Shawn, I am fascinated by this statement “I noteced some ways what you are doing Shawn is unlike what Snowden and others are doing”. Now I reallise that Boje demonises me and that you and I have previously established that he has misrrepresented CE methods. However I am interested to know what the differences are? Would you summarise?
    PS – not no trackback has been authorised to my original post. Does your blog not accept those?

  8. Your name was only mentioned once during the entire 2 day workshop and that was when David B was critiqing the way Anecdote conducts narrative projects. Essentially David B was saying that they way we do things is different to how he understands the way you do things. My impression is that there is a big misunderstanding on both parts, which is a function of the personalities involved rather than what is actually is done. I really can’t summarise the differences because I’m still unsure of David Boje’s methods.
    My trackbacks have been playing up. I will check it out.

  9. dave Snowden says:

    Email exchanges with David established that he had never read any material on CE methods, but had taken a position on the basis of “other people’s comments” He subsequently refused to read the material or accept any correction on fact. So I think you are right to say that there is a misunderstanding. I have made no comment on Boje’s methods per se, other than attempt to correct his unsupported statements about ours.
    It may well be (and one can but hope) that know he has heard you he may have the academic integrity to check things out. However I feel that his comment above (Snowden-ology, or Demming-ification) and other comments that he has assumed an ideological position from which he feels he cannot retreat.
    Thanks for the clarification. I remain curious as to what are the differences in his mind (warrior, sharman, or fool)

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