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Other Methods and Variants of Storytelling

  • Karin Thier
Chapter
Part of the Management for Professionals book series (MANAGPROF)

Abstract

This chapter will briefly introduce a selection of storytelling methods that have been successfully tested and applied in organizations. For example: “Appreciative inquiry”—involving stories for large conferences, “Transfer Stories” for preserving expert knowledge, “Springboard Stories” for the support of change processes, and “Re-authoring Leadership”. Their depiction will direct particular attention toward the domains of cultural change, organizational culture, knowledge transfer, and leadership.

Variants of storytelling (© Armbruster)

The storytelling method described in detail in Chap.  6 is by no means the only possible way for organizations to work with stories. A wide array of approaches of varying empirical quality has been published. These methods were often developed by executive consultants or employees in large companies who discovered the perks of storytelling either by accident or through their professional expertise. Unfortunately, some of these methods lack a solid scientific or practical foundation and their documentation is patchy.

This chapter will briefly introduce a selection of storytelling methods that have been successfully tested and applied in organizations. Their depiction will direct particular attention toward the domains of cultural change, organizational culture, knowledge transfer, and leadership. In addition, several other approaches to rhetoric, presentation and public relations in organizations have already been covered in more detail elsewhere (e.g., Sammer 2014; Fog et al. 2010).

8.1 “Appreciative Inquiry”: Stories for Large Conferences

What Is It About?

The method of “appreciative inquiry” was originally developed by Cooperrider and Srivastva (1990) at Case Western University and has its foundation in the empirical findings and theories of modern behavioral psychology. The main thrusts of the approach are the identification and strengthening of already existing qualities in an organization to purposefully apply them to current economic tasks and needs. Zur Bonsen (2000) and zur Bonsen and Maleh (2012) adapted this principle for conferences with small and large groups. Before a conference begins, the participants actively search for positive experiences and the “highlights” of their organization. With the help of a sophisticated interview technique, hundreds or even thousands of employees are encouraged to question one another about their personal “highlight” stories. A selection of these stories is then presented during the conference and all participants discuss possible ways in which the “inspiring” narratives might be recreated and spread throughout the organization.

In the eyes of zur Bonsen, a story in this particular case is a kind of fairy tale written especially for the individual situation of a company. Its goal is the creation of a new positive outlook for present and future.

According to zur Bonsen, stories can elicit positive images and emotions about big changes or difficulties in the employees of an organization. In contrast to mere facts that can only reach the employees at a cognitive level, stories can release an energy that turns new situations into rewarding challenges or desirable goals.

Following the conference, zur Bonsen suggests reminding employees of the inspiring stories throughout many places in the organization with pictures and other media.

How Can It Be Used?

The method is particularly useful for large companies that want to create a positive outlook among their employees prior to transformations or cultural change measures. Zur Bonsen proposed the following list of possible changes in organizations that can benefit from the use of stories in conferences:
  • Winning employees’ support for new strategies

  • Cultural changes

  • Imminent financial difficulties

  • Conflicts in teams or workgroups

  • Past disappointments

  • Dysfunctional behavior of individual groups or departments

Zur Bonsen cautions organizations against judging the success of interventions in large groups solely based on the immediately realized measures. The true impact of stories usually takes more time to fully manifest itself.

8.2 Stories to Decipher the Unofficial Culture of an Organization

What Is It About?

Based on its experiences with various project consultations, the consultant network “System+Communication” developed a method to uncover the “organization inside the heads of the employees” (Frenzel et al. 2000). They found that the images of managers and the images of employees about “their” organization frequently differ tremendously. Their method, which they also dubbed storytelling, helps identify knowledge about the organization that goes beyond its official identity. This knowledge can be used to ensure that change processes or new motifs, visions and communication strategies actually suit the individual organization.

According to System+Communication, storytelling unearths a previously “hidden system of rules” that often differs significantly from the “official organization” promulgated through concepts and organigrams. Successful changes or the analysis of malfunctioning processes within the organization, however, require an understanding of these hidden rules.

The starting point of this method is a narration-based scientific approach to data collection and analysis. First, a specific goal is set (e.g., uncovering the hidden identity of an organization, the real organizational culture or potential problem areas). Next, the organization provides a list of interviewees that is three times longer than required, so the actual participants can easily remain anonymous. This crucial third of listed employees is invited to one-hour individual interviews during which they share their personal work biography. All interviews follow this biographical path and are, collectively, the basis for the analysis. Depending on the size of the organization, there are usually 10–50 interviews that are recorded and subsequently transcribed. The interviewees should ideally be recruited from all hierarchical levels and professional areas.

The interview data from the first phase is later analyzed with the method of structural-analytic interpretation (SAI) developed by Michael Titzmann. With this method, the transcribed interviews can inform initial hypotheses about the “organization in the heads of the employees.” This process necessitates a reconstruction based on the available information. During a second set of interviews, the hypotheses guide the conversation with selected employees to improve the reconstruction and fill in potential gaps (Frenzel et al. 2000). The procedure ends once additional interviews do no longer lead to new hypotheses, but instead merely support the already formed assumptions. (This principle is based on the “grounded theory” by Glaser and Strauss.)

The storytelling experts at System+Communication call the result of this analysis the “reconstructed model of the organization in the heads of the employees.” This reconstruction is presented and discussed in workshops during which the participants also develop first recommendations for how to handle the identified problems. Interested readers can find more information in the German book Storytelling. Das Harun-al-Raschid-Prinzip (Frenzel et al. 2006).

How Can It Be Used?

This method is particularly helpful when an organization wishes to learn more about its own culture and the perspective of its employees on this culture. Potential contexts include change processes or the development of guiding principles, visions and communications strategies.

8.3 “Transfer Stories” for Preserving Expert Knowledge

What Is It About?

The consultant network NARRATA Consult developed “transfer stories” as a method for the transfer of expert knowledge. In principle, the procedure resembles the development of learning histories as they were described earlier in this book. It is, however, particularly concerned with the idiosyncrasies of preserving the knowledge of leaving experts. The special characteristics of transfer stories are: (1) the documentation of expert knowledge with narrative and semi-structured interviews as well as with systematic question techniques and visualizations; (2) the analysis of knowledge structures with methods of the social sciences and text analysis; (3) the knowledge transfer from leaving experts to their successors through a moderated dialogue; and (4) the contextual documentation of the results as stories or in visual form (Erlach et al. 2013).

In general, the method can be divided into four phases (Thier and Erlach 2014):

Phase 1: Defining Which Knowledge Should Be Preserved (For Colleagues)

During the first phase, the involved parties (i.e., the expert team; the successor; possibly a manager) decide on the concrete knowledge to be documented. During a kick-off workshop they discuss what they hope to learn from the leaving expert. At the same time, the expert compiles a personal list of the most important topics. These items are subsequently clustered and arranged by priority.

Phase 2: Knowledge Transfer Talks

The second phase consists of two to four open conversations with the leaving expert. The goal of these conversations is to gather concrete examples and experiences that are related to the knowledge the organization wishes to preserve. Ideally, the successor is already present during these talks.

Phase 3: Drawing a Knowledge or Network Map

Now it is time to evaluate the conversations with the leaving expert. For this purpose, evaluation categories at several hierarchical levels (i.e., main categories and subordinate categories) under which the expert’s stories, examples and anecdotes are grouped thematically. This procedure results in a detailed knowledge and network map (usually as a digital mind map) that provides a general overview of the expert’s various areas of knowledge alongside more detailed contexts in the form of brief stories at its lower levels.

Phase 4: Transfer Workshop and Methods of Transfer

The knowledge or network map is presented, discussed and possibly improved in a workshop during which the leaving expert, the storytelling team and the successor should be present. The participants also decide on concrete ways in which the collected knowledge can benefit the organization in the future and develop a schedule for any further steps.

How Can It Be Used?

This method was developed for the concrete case of knowledge transfers from leaving experts. Because it is more time-consuming than other methods of knowledge transfer, it is usually reserved for particularly important experts who leave the organization.

8.4 “Springboard Stories” for the Support of Change Processes

What Is It About?

“Springboard stories” encourage their audience to make a mental leap that prepares them for upcoming change processes in their organization. Concretely, listeners are expected to “leap” from the content of the springboard story to their personal experiences by themselves. The method is less about purely sharing information and more about truly understanding the whole dimension of a change (Denning 2002). Denning developed the springboard story approach for the introduction of knowledge management at the World Bank. His goal was to elicit a deeper grasp of and acceptance for knowledge management in supervisors and employees.

All springboard stories share three central characteristics (Denning 2001): They should…
  • …make a connection between a new idea and a protagonist who has undergone the particular change. The readers should be able to identify themselves with this protagonist. Springboard stories can only fully reach their audience if the protagonist is relatable and readers find themselves in comparable situations.

  • …astonish and surprise the audience. Although the story should feature familiar or understandable settings, it should simultaneously introduce something new and unusual that piques the readers’ interest.

  • …depict an idea or position in a way that allows readers to draw conclusions or gain new insights. The readers should develop a better understanding of critical elements by reading the stories.

A springboard story does actually consist of two distinct narratives. On the one hand, there might be the story of an American developmental worker in Zambia who finds a special malaria medicine online. On the other hand, readers encounter a second, much more relevant story that transfers the superficial narrative to their personal work experiences. This latter story is a creation of the readers themselves and thus beyond the storyteller’s immediate influence. Denning, however, claims that a skilled storyteller can deliberately construct springboard stories that evoke this type of simultaneous narrative in the audience. Readers believe this story because they created it themselves.

In Denning’s eyes, the impact of a good springboard story does not stem from the narrative on the surface, but instead from the reactions it can conjure in its readers.

Springboard stories are thus not merely told for fun. They serve a particular purpose. Their goal is to empower their readers to create their own future. Springboard stories are therefore catalysts for organizational change.

Denning (2001) identified several key characteristics of springboard stories. Concretely, the stories should…
  • …be relatively short.

  • …easy to understand for readers.

  • …be interesting.

  • …raise readers on a higher level of understanding.

  • …have a “happy ending.”

  • …imply a change.

  • …enable readers to identify with protagonists.

  • …refer to a particular person or organization.

  • …be tested as much as possible in the organization.

How Can It Be Used?

Springboard stories were primarily conceptualized for acquisitions and events that introduce change processes in organizations. Their goal is to increase the understanding and acceptance in the people involved.

They are particularly useful as a way to get an audience’s attention when cultural change measures are introduced. The presentation of relevant results should either be integrated in the story or accompany it. One possible way to utilize springboard stories is to first describe a problem and then tell a story that delineates a possible solution to the problem. Even though the springboard story does not feature a complete solution, it functions as an ice-breaker for the development of solutions by the audience.

Springboard stories are sometimes also used by themselves. This can be particularly helpful when an organization does only have limited time to discuss an important topic, e.g., when running into a colleague in the hallway and trying to explain what knowledge management is.

More details about springboard stories can be found in Denning’s (2001) book The springboard: How storytelling ignites action in knowledge-era organizations.

8.5 “Story Construction” to Change Organizational Culture

What Is It About?

Former IBM Director of Knowledge Management Dave Snowden developed another approach for the use of stories to change the culture of an organization. In addition to the method described here, Snowden also introduced other narrative techniques and he has become one of the first proponents of a humanistic take on knowledge management. More information is available on this website: http://www.cognitive-edge.com.

His story construction method revolves around real everyday stories and anecdotes in organizations. These stories need to consist of two components: a storyline (content) and a message.

Collected stories and anecdotes are split into their smallest coherent components and stored this way. These components are thought to contain the true values and rules of an organization. In contrast to the norms and rules to which the organization openly aspires, these true components might also disclose undesirable cultural characteristics. During the next step of the method, new stories are constructed as counterparts to these undesirable aspects. These new stories are based on the pool of collected story elements, which allows for the creation of a believable narrative. This means that the various real stories in an organization are transformed into newly constructed narratives made up of the identifiable components. The new stories communicate the ideals of the organization. Upon completion, these stories are circulated throughout the organization, for which various methods can be used. For example, stories might be shared in informal settings such as lunches or during breaks, incorporated into presentations (e.g., during meetings) or disseminated via the intranet (Snowden 1999, 2001).

How Can It Be Used?

Story construction is a useful tool to alter undesirable cultural components that have taken root in an organization.

8.6 Story Management for the Support of Successful Leadership

What Is It About?

Story management, a method developed by Swiss executive consultant Michael Loebbert, turns a company, a product or a project into a good story to boost employees’ identification with their organization. The stories are meant to increase the support for managerial actions and interventions.

The starting point for story management is a set of “basic stories” about the primary purpose of an organization. They are blueprints of how employees tend to perceive problems and solutions. Depicting the organization’s secret of success, these stories illustrate how problems are solved and which actions have helped overcome challenges in the past. The basic stories tell of the adventures of company heroes who, after various hardships, get a happy ending (Loebbert 2003).

To further develop the story of an organization, these basic stories must first be identified. New narratives only work if they have a clear connection to basic stories and present a systematic variation of their contents. This is the only way for new narratives to be understood by employees, be integrated in the self-image of the organization and support internal processes. Narratives without connection to basic stories remain meaningless.

Four steps are necessary for the introduction of story management in an organization (Loebbert 2003):
  1. 1.

    The management must first begin to discuss story management internally. The guiding question is: How does the presentation of the organization as a story differ from other forms of depiction?

     
  2. 2.

    Narrative interviews with key personnel help reconstruct the basic stories of the organization. The management helps validate the identified basic stories.

     
  3. 3.

    Now the following questions need to be considered: Are the changes of our strategy, self-concept or production cycles compatible with our basic stories? How can we expand on these basic stories to have them match our intended changes?

     
  4. 4.

    New stories are constructed that allow for the expansion of the identified basic stories with regard to the plans of management.

     

The main challenge of managing new narratives is to construct new stories that make sense in the eyes of employees, customers and investors. To create this perception is the central duty of management and managers need to constantly update and evoke the meaning and purpose of the stories.

How Can It Be Used?

To Loebbert, story management can be useful in various areas and situations, including:
  • Change processes: Stories simplify the complexity of change.

  • Leadership: Retelling the actions of managers in the form of stories makes them more effective in the eyes of the employees.

  • Preservation of knowledge: Stories are a great way to update and transfer relevant knowledge about complex relationships. (This includes unofficial knowledge that is missing from official databases.)

  • Brand management: Stories can portray the personality of a brand in a way that appeals to customers. Loebbert’s German book Storymanagement: Der narrative Ansatz für Management und Beratung (2003) provides more detailed information about his approach.

8.7 Re-authoring Leadership

What Is It About?

The Re-authoring approach to leadership was developed by Chené Swart, who works as a coach, consultant and trainer in re-authoring practices. She is the founder of Transformations (www.tranformations.co.za). Her approach to leadership sees human beings as storying beings who have three very important capacities with which they navigate their lives: meaning-making, embodied knowings and story-making. As leaders, we connect the dots of our lives through our meaning-making capacity as well as through the rich storehouse of knowings that reside in our bodies. These threads of meaning and embodied knowings are expressed through language that again informs the narratives we tell about who we are (identity), what our relationships are like (community/organisation) and how we see the world (reality) (Swart 2013).

But the narratives of good leadership do not exist in an individual bubble or fall mysteriously from the sky. They are crafted in a particular cultural and societal context governed by taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas that inform the narratives we tell about ourselves, teams, communities and organisations. Examples of these taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas are the dominant belief in the scarcity of life, the competitive nature of mankind, the inevitability of war, and the belief that only certain elites are authorized to “know” and declare what is true.

These beliefs and ideas then influence what leaders do and don’t do, say and don’t say and choose and don’t choose. Therein lies the constant experience of leaders who feel that they have failed, don’t measure up or are not good enough (Swart, Chene, About Re-authoring [Blog Post], Retrieved on [06.11.2017] from http://www.dewerf.org/about-re-authoring/).

The re-authoring approach makes visible and helps leaders to realise how these societal beliefs and ideas are influencing and shaping their lives as it asks profound questions about them and provides ways of working and being that creates distance from these ideas and beliefs. Dominant problem-saturated narratives flow from and are supported by these societal beliefs and ideas that often make claims about what is normal, good, right, development and successful in a particular time and context for a leader. Some of the dominant problem stories for leaders may sound like: “I am always alone”, “We never work together as a team”, and “We are an uncommitted organisation”. These kinds of stories are thin descriptions of lived experiences and are informed by taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs from our different contexts and societies; they often tell us, “This is just the way things are.” Not so (Swart, Chené, About Us, Retrieved on [06.11.2017] from http://www.transformations.co.za/index.html)!

In the pursuit of handing back the pen in the hands of leaders, communities and organisations, we look through the lens of dignity and careful curiosity that grows from a willingness to be moved and touched by what we hear and experience. Leaders are invited to name the narrative or to create or name a metaphor or image because in a word or an image, lies a world! In our questions, ways of working and being with leaders we explore how their relationship with these problem moments or narratives are influencing their lives, what ideas and beliefs are supporting them and what is the nature of the history of these problem stories in a way that leaders are not the problem, but the relationship to problem moments or stories is the problem.

The work continually looks for moments, embodied knowings and relationships in the leader’s history where the dominant problem moment or narrative was not true, was not the whole truth or was not present. Those different or exceptional moments, embodied knowings and relationships become the seeds for exploring the counter moment or narrative. The next step is to give this counter moment or narrative a name or an image and to further explore the ideas, beliefs, hopes, gifts, dreams and community that can support this counter moment or narrative for and with leaders.

The re-authoring approach to leadership seeks to address and confront us with our relationship to authorship, as it invites leaders to live a life where their participation in their narratives and in the world, really matters. As leaders re-write the narratives they once held to be the truth—and the only truth—about their lives, their communities, their organisations and their world, they shift the future of their own lives and the communities they form part of. Re-authoring work invites leaders to live a life where their participation in the world really matters (Swart 2013, 2015).

The re-authoring approach is influenced and informed by the Dialogic OD Mindset, Narrative Therapy ideas, Critical Pedagogy, Presence and Meaning cultures (Gumbrecht) and Interpersonal Neurobiology.

How Can It Be Used?

The re-authoring leadership approach enables leaders to live and lead from the moments and experiences that move them forward, but also enables leaders to facilitate the enriching of narratives that move the organisation forward, and ask critical questions of the narratives in an organisation that get the organisation stuck. This approach is particularly useful when an organization wishes to engage in organisational transformation and can also support initiatives that include leadership development and diversity and inclusion work.

More details about re-authoring leadership practices can be found in Swart’s (2013) book, Re-authoring the World: The Narrative Practices for Organisations, Communities and Individuals.

What Is the Benefit?

Re-authoring leadership ideas and practices enable leaders to effectively lead from their preferred narratives, influence, facilitate and lead organisational transformation and also participate in challenging ideas and beliefs in the context that influences possibilities for the organisation.

The transformational nature of the re-authoring lens and work invites individuals, communities and organisations to individually and collectively take up the pen as authors and co-authors as we re-write our lives and systems into preferred ways of being that shape our world.

General Summary of the Storytelling Variants Introduced in This Chapter

The different storytelling variants covered in this chapter tend to focus on the management of cultural change, i.e., transformations in organizations. Without a doubt, stories can be particularly impactful in such situations. By no means, however, should this suggest that narrative approaches are only worthwhile when organizations undergo change.

Other areas and contexts in which stories can play an important role are introduced in Sect.  2.3 “The Power Stories: The Effects of Stories in Organizations”. Additionally, Chap.  4 discusses concrete fields of application for the method presented in Chap.  6.

Before deciding on a particular storytelling approach, it is crucial to identify the aspired goals, the context of application and the ideal method for the particular circumstances. Approaches that can easily be combined with the culture of an organization and already existing methods are usually the best fit.

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Karin Thier
    • 1
  1. 1.NARRATA ConsultBad BergzabernGermany

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