Using stories to reveal valuable insights in an organisation

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 22, 2018
Filed in Communication, Culture

We’ve recently been doing some work around diversity and inclusion for a project with a large construction company. An insight we’ve taken away from this project is how much leaders can be shielded from the underlying issues in their company.

No-one wants to worry or disappoint the senior leadership because it could make them seem incompetent. As a result of this, leaders are kept in the dark. It’s usually not until an issue becomes a major problem that a leader becomes aware of it.


You can imagine how this sort of thing might go. There are whispers down the grapevine that the CEO is doing site visits. One site calls up another: ‘Hey, the CEO has just been to our location and they’re coming to yours next. Just thought I’d give you a heads up’. Before you know it, the place has never looked cleaner, more staff have been rostered on, and everyone’s on their best behaviour. When they visit, the CEO sees that everything is going well and everyone’s doing a great job. But does this reflect how it always is? No. As soon as the CEO has gone off to the next location, everything goes back to normal.

We have a technique that can get right underneath the surface of a company, a technique that’s based on collecting stories from people in the field.

A common question we get asked is: ‘But how do you actually find these stories?’ Our approach is to run anecdote circles. These are akin to focus groups, but instead of collecting opinions, we collect stories. We run these anecdote circles with about 8–12 people, ideally without senior leadership present, and we record the sessions. We then anonymise the transcripts, extract the stories, and present them to the senior leadership in a sense-making workshop, where they use the stories to identify both negative and positive patterns of behaviour within the organisation. The leaders then work out interventions to quash the negative patterns and promote the positive ones.

Leaders are often surprised by this process. They get raw, sometimes confronting insights into what’s actually happening within their organisation. When a leader is given an opinion they don’t want to hear, they sometimes debate whether that opinion is correct. But stories change all that. What we do is different, because a leader can’t argue with an individual’s personal experience.

Needless to say, the insights that leaders gain through this process are invaluable.

Our Storytelling Programs give you the power to inspire change in your workplace. Learn more here

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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