It’s early in the morning and I’m in a preliminary Zoom meeting for an international executives’ forum. My interlocutor opens his camera. He’s in a faraway country, where it’s already afternoon. His surfboards peak out over his shoulders. He doesn’t know me yet, nor what to expect. The ocean awaits him, and our meeting is the only thing standing between him and the waves.
At this point, the conversation comes alive over who was the actor to best portray the secret agent. I tell him that thanks to my son and my partner, I’ve watched all of James Bond movies, and to this day a fierce debate rages over who inhabited most accurately the character of 007
The ocean can wait. My counterpart eases into his chair. He’s interested in the conversation, and understands I’m genuinely interested in what interests him. Through beloved stories – including action movies, thrillers, and romantic comedies – the conversation naturally rolls into the big and small dramas of competition, brand loyalty and working relationships with business associates.
These preparatory conversations are meant to explain what may not be obvious: The link between storytelling and organizational and business development.
“What’s your favorite story?” is the question I open every storytelling workshop. The answers are always delightful, moving, and unexpected. I discover new stories, as well as refreshing prisms to examine familiar ones. I learn much about the people in the room, even on Zoom. Because storytelling is not simply the art of crafting a tale, it is also the art of curiosity, exploration and listening to people – who are, after all, the most valuable resource a company has.
Timeline – every organization has its moment of inception. It could be the moment when the idea was concocted inside the head of its founder, the first run-in in the office kitchenette when the decision to go for it was made, or when they opened that original WhatsApp group that quickly welled up with companions for the road. As time goes by, the shimmer of the origin story can fade. Sometimes it’s forgotten because of the years that passed since its authors departed. Other times, the sheen comes off because it’s the identity of the author that’s disputed. In some cases, something in the sense of urgency and trailblazing that was ever present in the beginning is worn out, and then the question is, how does a group maintain the spirit of creativity and innovation of the early days. Often an organization grows and expands in such a way that younger generations feel less of a connection to its origin and are preoccupied in the story of the present and future. Either way, the life of an organization along a timeline is always a critical component worth lingering on.
The lateral axis – Whether it’s an organization or a decentralized movement with a broad geographic spread, local or international, there can never be one figure who knows everything that is happening in each wing, department, branch, or group of activists. There is a tension – both beneficial and healthy as well as obstructive – between different locations and needs within an organization. Working with storytelling helps expose these friction points among the different parts of a group.
Multiple perspectives – people join an organization – as employees, activists, or volunteers – for many different reasons. The needs, desires and values guiding them are various. Whether we joined just to provide for ourselves, or perhaps grow professionally, to promote social or political goals, we expect the organization to meet our needs and reflect our values. In both hierarchical and flat organizations, the power to influence decision-making is not shared evenly by all. One of the most frequent sentiments I encounter is “It’s clear to me how decisions are made.” Behind that usually lies a feeling of frustration stemming from the directions an organization chooses to take, and the inability to have a say in those choices. When creating an organizational story, it is critical to be attentive to voices of frustration and dissent.
Core values – Every organization, governmental, business, or non-profit, has formative values. Declared or otherwise. Listening to members’ stories often brings to light the disparities between stated values and actual organizational practices and climate. A unifying organizational story that emboldens people can only be formed when the organization is aware of these gaps and is committed to narrowing them to the best of its ability. The more a group’s conduct reflects its principles, the stronger its story will be.