Gaining insight with archetypes

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 12, 2009
Filed in Employee Engagement


To change the way we work we need to change our mental models, and that requires insight.

In The Neuroscience of Leadership David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz describe how our improved understanding of the brain is helping to reorient how we design organisational change initiatives.

The article recommends leaders create situations where their people get a new insight into how they view things: what is the dominant mental model?

Myrtle.jpgOne of the most effective technique to help create this insight is archetype extraction. It involves collecting anecdotes from people in the organisation on a theme such as customer service and extracting the archetypes from the many stories.  

An archetype is a embodiment of the organisation’s culture in the form of a complex yet familiar character. An archetype is usually partly good and partly bad; a complex mix of traits. Not to be confused with a stereotype, which is typically an oversimplification based on simple categorisation or role: “Oh, he’s a librarian.”

We take these anecdotes into a workshop of 10-20 thought leaders and influencers who could benefit from an alternative perspective.

Indiana Jones.jpgThe workshop participants identify the characters and their character traits from the collected anecdotes on customer service and using a facilitation process they morph into the archetypes, which are often drawn by a cartoonist for greater visual impact.

The cartoons in the post depict some of the archetypes that illustrated the culture of a large Australia organisation. Once the archetypes are identified people can then use them to discuss some of the un-discussables without getting personal.

Most importantly the participants will have obtain a new insight on how the organisation views itself or another group.

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. Tom Smith says:

    Are you aware of “usability personas”… a very similar thing to Archetypes but whereas Archtypes may lean towards the comic and cliched, personas try to believable (like film characters)… we even given them “real photos” and back-stories.
    What I think is interesting is that although personas aim to be realistic… at their root there is always an element of the cliche/cartoon because it makes them memorable and ( perversely ) believable. I can already spot some “classic” personas in the cartoons you’ve shown above.
    I can imagine all sorts of insights into customer behaviour by aiming to produce an awful 70s sitcom cast-list rather than a worthy feature film list of characters.
    I will try this…

  2. Tom Smith says:

    And another thing… It’d be great to have an example… I found personas a challenge until I saw how better UX people did it….
    or an example on how you gather the data …

Comments are closed.