Preserving Vital Knowledge: A Storytelling Approach

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 27, 2024
Filed in Business storytelling, Decision-making

Whenever a key person leaves a company, vital knowledge goes with them. That might include ways to innovate, take risks, employ great people, adapt to change, effectively sell your products, maintain quality, scale in your industry or a myriad of other vital knowledge. A big loss will be their network of relationships.

Companies must prepare themselves for when a critical person is leaving. Since most of their knowledge can’t be written down, this paper outlines the challenge and proposes a set of initiatives to minimise the impact of lost knowledge.

As psychologist Maria Konnikova says, “You can show people all the charts you want, but that won’t change their perceptions of the risks or their resulting decisions. What will change their minds? Going through an event themselves or knowing someone who has.”[1]

Finding, capturing, sharing and discussing stories becomes vital to the solution.

The Challenge

When a founder, inventor, or someone with vital corporate knowledge leaves a company, the result can be catastrophic. Some potential losses a company can suffer include the fading of the strategic vision, the loss of core values, and the deterioration of vital relationships.

For example, when Jerry Yang left Yahoo in 2012, the company struggled to redefine its identity, lost its vision, and regained its competitive edge in the market. These strategic missteps contributed to Yahoo’s eventual sale to Verizon in 2017.[2]

But the departure of a significant person can be managed.

By 2009, everyone at Apple knew Steve Jobs was terminally ill. The company implemented a set of knowledge transfer initiatives. These included capturing and sharing significant stories of essential decisions. Future Apple leaders learned from these stories at the newly formed Apple University.[3]

Most lost knowledge is ineffable, deeply embedded with the person leaving and shaped by their vast experiences. It can’t be easily documented.

Stories provide insight into deeply held experiences and the knowledge they can be transferred through active conversation, reflection and sometimes by getting out there and creating new experiences.

The Power of Storytelling

Stories have four features that make them essential for mitigating lost knowledge:

  • A story conveys the messiness of an experience.
  • Stories are seven times more memorable than facts alone.[4]
  • Stories convey meaning because they provide context, showing why something happened.
  • A story engages an audience, so it’s fun to learn.

The Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, has a long-held tradition of hearing one of their project managers tell the story of a lesson they have learned or a failure they have overcome each week. These sessions are always packed and generate a ton of questions and conversation. They are at the heart of how knowledge flows in that technical organisation.[5]

And that’s just one story-based initiative. There are many more a company can take.

As I briefly mentioned before, Apple created its Apple University and offered courses to everyone in the company designed to “internalize the thoughts of its visionary founder to prepare for the day when he’s not around anymore.”[6]

Mentoring programs are popular, as is simply shadowing someone to hear their stories and see them in action. These are often part of succession planning.

At the heart of these initiatives are stories of tough decisions, unexpected successes, and painful failures, all of which contain vital lessons for the next generation of leaders.

Finding and sharing stories become the vital element in addressing lost knowledge.

One of my most enjoyable projects was eliciting stories from Energy Australia’s network controller, Mike, before he retired. His office was strewn with maps, and he had more computer screens than I’d ever seen. All these artefacts were triggers for a wealth of stories, which were then embedded in training programs. The big lesson from Mike was the wealth of relationships he fostered to do his job and that his knowledge was partly contained in the objects around him.

Using stories to mitigate lost knowledge

A story-focussed approach has three parts.

  1. Determine the highest-value knowledge. Not all knowledge is equal, and you never have the time or resources to transfer everything. Therefore, the first step is identifying high-value topics, such as making strategic acquisitions, maintaining corporate culture, selling the product, and forming and maintaining business partnerships.
  2. Capture stories of vital experiences. Develop practical story-eliciting questions.[7] There’s an art to helping someone uncover their stories, which we call story-listening.[8] Then, record these stories orally using video or audio rather than writing them down, as written stories differ significantly from oral ones.[9]
  3. Actively share these stories. It’s a mistake to store these stories and expect people to seek them out. They won’t. Instead, embed the stories in training programs and systemically share stories in a way that generates conversation.

Decision games are one technique to consider. The facilitator tells a story (captured from the person leaving) to a group of experts (can include the departing person) and novices and stops halfway to ask what people think will happen next. Then, the facilitator prompts participants to explain their reasoning and discuss alternative endings. After discussion, the story is finished.

The primary goal of a decision game is to transfer judgment through conversation, allowing participants to explore different perspectives and improve their decision-making skills through discussion and reflection.[10]

This is one of many knowledge-sharing initiatives that help transfer knowledge to those who will step up to take on the role of the person leaving.

Benefits to the Company

Using storytelling to capture and transfer vital knowledge offers several benefits to the company.

It provides peace of mind by ensuring that key people’s essential values, decisions, and mindsets are retained within the organisation.

This approach saves time and resources by preventing the need to relearn or recover lost vital knowledge.

Additionally, it protects the company’s reputation by avoiding poor decisions arising from not understanding the full picture held by recently departed key staff.

Overall, these benefits lead to smoother transitions and help maintain a competitive edge.

Next Steps

To effectively capture and transfer vital knowledge of someone leaving the company, consider the following three steps:

  1. Identify and Capture High-Value Knowledge
    • Pinpoint Critical Areas: Focus on areas such as strategic acquisitions, maintaining corporate culture, product sales, and business partnerships.
    • Develop Questions: Craft story-eliciting questions to uncover valuable insights. Employ the art of story-listening to ensure comprehensive and insightful story capture.
    • Record Stories: Use video or audio to preserve the stories, capturing the depth and nuances often lost in written documentation.
  2. Integrate Stories into Training Programs and Knowledge Transfer Initiatives
    • Embed in Training: Integrate the recorded stories into existing or new training programs.
    • Create Interactive Formats: Develop decision games and other interactive methods to actively engage employees and enhance their learning experience.
    • Regular Updates: Establish a process for periodically reviewing and updating the stories and training materials to keep the knowledge relevant and beneficial.
  3. Monitor, Evaluate, and Refine
    • Implement Metrics: Develop metrics to assess the storytelling approach’s impact on leadership continuity, cultural preservation, and competitive advantage.
    • Gather Feedback: Use feedback from these evaluations to continuously refine and improve the initiative, ensuring it meets the organisation’s evolving needs.

By following these steps, companies can mitigate the impact of a significant person leaving the business.


Addressing the challenge of losing key personnel through a storytelling approach significantly benefits a company. By capturing and sharing vital knowledge embedded in the experiences and insights of departing leaders, organisations can preserve their strategic vision and core values, ensuring cultural continuity and a competitive edge.

Implementing this approach through structured initiatives such as story-listening, recording oral stories, and integrating them into training programs not only enhances decision-making capabilities but also engages employees in a meaningful and memorable way. By taking these proactive steps, companies can manage transitions smoothly, retain critical expertise, and foster a more resilient and knowledgeable workforce, ultimately securing long-term success.


[1] Konnikova, Maria. The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Take Control and Master the Odds. 4th Estate, 2020.
[3] Chen, Brian X. “Simplifying the Bull: How Picasso Helps to Teach Apple’s Style.” New York Times, 2014.
[4] Callahan, Shawn. Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling. Pepperberg Press, 2016.
[6] Guynn, Jessica. “Steve Jobs’ Virtual DNA to Be Fostered in Apple University.” Los Angelos Times, 2011.
[7] Schenk, Mark and Shawn Callahan. Character Trumps Credentials: 170 Questions That Help Leaders Find and Tell Great Stories. Pepperberg Press, 2015.
[8] Callahan, Shawn et al. The Ultimate Guide to Anecdote Circles. Pepperberg Press, 2006.
[9] Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. Kindle ed., Taylor & Francis, 2002.
[10] Klein, Gary. Intuition at Work. Currency Doubleday, 2003.

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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