The Power of Failure Stories

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 13, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling

Your willingness to share a failure can have a powerful effect.

I remember this one clearly. It was a real punch to the gut. I was standing in the foyer of the Melbourne Fire Brigade headquarters when I received the call. The voice on the other end of the line was a new client: ‘I’m sorry Shawn. We’ve terminated your contract’.

Failure stories

About a month earlier, we’d won a project to develop a strategic story for a large logistics company. They were rebranding and wanted a story all their executives could tell that explained why it was happening, and why now.

Our way of creating a strategic story usually involves a group process where executives work together in a series of meetings to develop the story. This helps them all get on the same page; in actual fact, I’ve discovered this process helps leaders work out what their strategy really means.

But in this case, our sponsors said the executives were really busy and didn’t have time to get together – they would rather I interviewed each of them separately and developed the story myself.

I told them this was not our standard process but they were adamant. Against my better judgement, I agreed. Then I was told the CEO was too busy to be interviewed. I should have seen what was coming.

After interviewing all the executives apart from the CEO, I crafted the strategic story and shared it with my sponsors and some of the executives. They received it enthusiastically, pleased with the way it had come out.

So we organised a meeting where I would present the strategic story to all of the executives, including the CEO. I found them all sitting around a boardroom table, smiling, excited to hear the story. So I started to tell it.

People began nodding in agreement, smiling to themselves. The story seemed to be having the desired effect. But then, a couple of minutes into the telling, the CEO interrupted me: ‘Shawn, I just want to say, I think stories are just lies’.

All of a sudden, all those smiles turned into frowns, and everyone rounded on the story. The next day, I was fired.

When to tell a failure story

One of the best times for me to tell this story is when a prospect asks whether we can short-cut the group process and just interview the executives one by one. After they’ve heard me out, they understand why this experience should never be repeated – no-one wants that embarrassment and loss of social capital.

I will also tell a story like this when we are proposing new work because it shows we’ve learned some things along the way and we have the strength of character to admit our mistakes. These types of stories bring people together.

A failure story also encourages the person you are hoping to work with to share their own failures, or those sensitive things that are really happening in the organisation. It helps people to open up.

After you get over the hurt of the failure, you’ll find that its retelling will be extremely valuable. I recommend you have a few failure stories ready to be told.

Here is another one about something that happened in the early days of Anecdote.

DMO Workshop Story from Anecdote on Vimeo.

We still refer to it today, and as a result we never arrive at an interstate workshop on the morning of the event.

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:

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