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: