The role of a story in lessons learning

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 22, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes

Chris Collison is pondering the usefulness of the Kolb learning cycle as the basis for many of the lessons learning activities organisations conduct. I agree with Chris’ observation that most organisations don’t build in reflection and therefore are unable to reformulate what they have learned to change behaviour. And like Chris I’m not sure of the effectiveness of write-ups to achieve this last point. In fact I think we create our abstract conceptualisations (Kolb’s language) by telling ourselves and others a story of what happen. Ironically the abstract comes from the specific of a story. Something like this happened to me just last week.

I got a friendly email from someone who has been a long-time subscriber to our newsletter. After mentioning that she had gained many useful tips and ideas from it she went on to say that she had only just realised we provided consulting services. I was nearly knocked off my chair—were we that poor at telling people what we do?. So I rang Mark and told him the story. He was gobsmacked. We obviously weren’t letting people know in our newsletter we provided consulting services. What shall we do? Our first idea was to put a line at the top of our newsletter that said, in effect, ‘we provide consulting services.’ Actually we wordsmithed it a bit more than that. Then I called up our graphic designer, Kerenza, and told her the story and shared our plan for the oneliner. ‘Ahhrg, that oneliner is awful,’ she said. ‘Before you were sending useful tips and information to me, now you are selling to me.’ It was immediately clear that the one-liner approach was wrong and Kerenza and I came up with a new way forward.

So on reflection it was the story of the original email, told a number of times to different people that created new conversations that helped me learn about our brand, how we communicate to our newsletter subscribers and how we keep what we do authentic, fun and useful. And it changed my behaviour. To me, that’s learning.

[thanks to Patrick Lambe for putting me on to Chris’ post]

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. Andrew Woolfson says:

    Shawn, it comes down to this, do we think that this is a story about feedback or a story about learning or a story on the simplicity of management, or a story about the power of conversation.

    Its all I suspect and the stuff of everyday actions. If its possible to let people know that they have the means to make things happen by engaging with whats around them and coming into them, then we would be better off. Its the gradual decline that comes from not assessing, not listening, not thinking, not sharing through conversation and not taking responsibility for action which a great deal of people seem to live their working life within, which gets depressing.

    Your short storyella (as in novella…if you see what i mean) makes the point admirably: communicate, listen, converse, bring others in. It works.

    You have shown the rare sense in understanding that a nail, its head and a hammer were all potentially lined up by her feedback. Then before taking action, your colleagues responded in kind and showed some more rare sense.

    This will hopefully lead to your consulting service awareness going up and hopefully a sustainable uplift for your revenues will result. This is good all round.

  2. Gloria Fox says:

    Hello Shawn,
    I was really taken with your little story about your naive reader. I must say, your blog would never give that impression. I can always count on it for really useful information and I am looking forward to the day when I can attend one of your trainings here in the USA.

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