Author: Bex Felton

Storytelling your way to resilient teams and better business

A healthy business starts with healthy employees. Increasingly in the UK – where over half of all work absences in the UK are now due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression (HSE, 2018) – leaders know that healthy minds equal healthy balance sheets. But as we hear often from our clients, it’s a complex and confounding issue that many organisations lack the resource to adequately tackle.

At The Storytellers, we believe there is a simpler way to healthy, happy teams.  

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves determine the luck we have in our life. That was the finding of Professor Richard Wiseman in the early millennium after a decade of study into the felicitous and less-felicitous trajectories of various individuals. In so doing, Wiseman pioneered the first application of science to the field of personal development – an approach which has since spawned a growing global industry of professional and personal neuroscience that boasts varying levels of complexity and effectiveness.

Luck, he discovered, is a mindset. This mindset determines the ‘attentional spotlight’ we turn on the world. People who see themselves as unlucky live life in a state of high anxiety. When we feel anxious, we narrow our attentional spotlight, and we miss the wider opportunities, possibilities and connections available to us. Lucky people, armed with a larger attentional spotlight, as well as higher optimism, confidence and openness to the unknown, are quick to spot these opportunities, and confident enough to act on them. Luck, Wiseman stresses, is not the same as chance. No neuroscience will help you win big at the Casino. But luck – in terms of professional success and personal contentment – is largely up to us. By interpreting the world in a positive, ‘lucky’ light, we are creating a virtuous circle in our own lives.

Wiseman was one of the first to understand that by changing people’s mindset, you can give them the tools to change their outcomes. In today’s volatile context, his insights offer nothing less than the key to a resilience mindset – something we spend a great of time helping our clients cultivate in their teams. At its heart, this mindset comes down to story.  ‘It’s the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’, says Wiseman, ‘that really make the difference’. What’s more astonishing about the human mind, he continues, is that we have the power to tell ourselves different stories. ‘And by doing this, we can have a real impact on our happiness and success.’

At The Storytellers, these insights are core to our own approach. We know that humans are storytelling animals, hardwired to make sense of ourselves and the world through narrative. We know that mindset is the foundation of individual success, and that the narratives we form about ourselves are the most powerful determiner of how capable, open and optimistic we feel in the face of change and challenge – and therefore how resilient we are in today’s VUCA world. We know that resilient employees are the change makers and innovators of any organisation – which makes them the only true source of competitive advantage in today’s world.

We also know that these personal stories don’t occur through chance. They’re shaped by the cultural stories we experience throughout our lifetimes: the examples of success and failure from peers and role-models that help us form belief or negativity about our own outcomes.  That’s why, alongside the compelling business-wide narratives we work with our clients to craft, we help leaders build resilient cultures with positive storytelling at their heart – broadening everyone’s attentional spotlight by celebrating attainable stories of success, impact and innovation.

These little stories have big impact – from reversing resignations, inspiring some pretty extraordinary acts of customer care, and fuelling innovation with huge cost savings (defect parts per million in one factory fell 73% within three months following our programme). 

Looking forward, as mental health and wellbeing become ever more pressing issues in the workforce, Wiseman’s insights – and, we modestly believe, our own approach – continue to bear fruit for enlightened organisations looking for fresh ways to inspire, restore and fortify teams grappling with ever more uncertain and dynamic contexts.

Why purpose-led mission and narrative hold the key to transformation

A new report has recognised purpose-led mission as the driving force behind the world’s most successful business transformations. Narrative is the fastest and most sustainable way to harness its value.   

In these times of urgent global challenge and acute social awakening, it’s no secret that the world’s most influential and successful businesses have a distinctive mission at their heart. From Google’s quest ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ to Monzo’s wish to ‘make money work for everyone’, a defined objective of clear social value is the key to sustained collective effort and inspiration.

So accepted has this wisdom now become that the Business Roundtable – the influential US business lobby group – last month released a statement signed by 181 CEOs stating that “serving shareholders can no longer be the main purpose of a corporation; rather, it needs to be about serving society, through innovation, commitment to a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all.” 

But purpose-led mission lends itself more naturally to some industries than others. It’s easy to spin an inspiring story when a business has been built from the ground up to deliver a specific social calling. Far harder for the world’s most established organisations, operating in industries of increasingly dubious or tarnished repute, to boldly stake a claim on a mission that matters. Many leaders – paralysed by the fear of hypocrisy and the enhanced scrutiny such pivots entail – remain stuck in the quagmire of debate long past the point of timely action. 

One burning issue no board will dispute is the need for continuous change or wholesale transformation in this era of rapid reinvention. Given their hefty (but disputed) failure rate, transformations that truly transform garner huge interest – and now a fascinating new report has recognised purpose-led mission as the driving force behind the world’s most successful business transformations.

As its authors noted in Harvard Business Review this month, ‘that strategic impulse—to identify a higher-purpose mission that galvanises the organisation—is a common thread among the Transformation 20, a new study by Innosight of the world’s most transformative companies’. Furthermore, they argue, ‘it’s the decision to infuse a higher purpose into the culture, one that guides strategic decisions and gives clarity to everyday tasks, that has propelled these companies to success’ – over and above the new growth strategies the top-ranking businesses have pursued.

But to ‘infuse a higher purpose into a culture’, mission must become engrained as a cultural narrative that meaningfully connects everyone to their work, their leaders, and their colleagues. It must be brought to life by leaders who walk the talk. And it must provide a framework for change that everyone, whatever their role, can make their own. This is no easy feat, and requires a focused, holistic, and visibly leader-led effort to sustain it. Yet as the authors note, ‘in an era of relentless change’, it is this capacity for narrative – an organisation’s ‘ability to reposition itself to create a new future, and to leverage a purpose-driven mission to that end’ – which, more than anything else, determines success in today’s dynamic world.

When this is achieved, the results are truly transformational.

Consider wind energy business Ørsted, whose decision to divest its oil and natural gas businesses and begin phasing out coal necessitated a profound shift towards wind power, only to find the cost of off-shore wind untenable. Galvanised by the challenge and the opportunity, it succeeded in mission ‘impossible’: cutting the cost of off-shore wind by more than 60% while scaling into the world’s largest off-shore wind company and upping net profit by $3bn.

Yoghurt behemoth Danone achieved a similar feat when, under CEO Emmanuelle Faber, it set out on another ‘impossible’ task to improve biodiversity by halving its dependence on GMO products. Infused with clear-cut purpose, the business achieved the shift in two years while growing its US marketshare by 10%.

Ecolab – now one of the world’s leading water-efficiency businesses – evolved from its core business of industrial cleansers and food safety services in response to its clients’ growing concerns about water-scarcity. As HBR notes, this mission is made real by measurement: ‘A primary metric driving the organisation is how much water is saved by its clients annually, which now stands at 188 billion gallons, against a 2030 target of 300 billion gallons.’ Ecolab’s market value has now surpassed $55 billion, making it one of America’s top 100 most valuable firms. But as CEO Douglas Baker recognises, these shifts are not the guaranteed outcome of evident market opportunity. They’re rare examples of what is truly possible when people, fuelled by purpose, unite with one mind to make change happen. “We broadened our vision and our purpose changed,” CEO Douglas Baker says. “As our teams widened their awareness of global issues, our pride has been enhanced.”

The new story of leadership

Our interest is transformational leadership. Inspired by the work of Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD, we define transformational leaders as individuals who are willing, able and entrusted to articulate, embody and help to realise a story of possibility and, in so doing, build a model of mutual prosperity for employees, customers, shareholders and society.

At The Storytellers, we believe that there has never been a more important moment to cultivate transformational leadership.

Our contention is simple.

The last industrial revolution fundamentally disrupted and mechanised the meaning of leadership, moving dramatically away from classical notions of peoplecentred leadership.

Now, as we move into the fourth industrial revolution and the deep technological disruption that it brings, human mindsets and behaviours have unexpectedly emerged as the final frontier of advantage and the truest form of resilience. In response, people-centred leadership — which emphasises shared purpose, emotional connection, influence and authenticity — must come to the fore once again. A new paradigm is emerging that will determine who thrives and who dies. For leaders raised on the techniques of management science and confronting unprecedented amounts of personal, interpersonal and systemic change, the transition is profoundly challenging.

To create a lasting mindset and behaviour change, leaders must cultivate emotional motivation, means and momentum — both continuously and simultaneously. We contend that story is the most effective and coherent delivery mechanism by which to meet this need, which, when applied strategically in the form of integrated story-driven change programmes, holds the key to successful transformation.

Download our white paper in full by completing the form on this page.

Leaders! Kill the conference, make a moment

If ever there was a month where business as usual seemed more doomed than ever, April 2019 was it. Extinction Rebellion campaigners turned London’s busiest street into a post-apocalyptic refuge and blockaded our financial centres. A mass-movement of truant British schoolchildren shamed political inaction with 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg at the helm, who reminded Parliament that the UK’s oft-cited 37% carbon emissions reduction is actual a paltry 10% when aviation and shipping are accurately accounted for. Needless flying or travel of all kinds – in the days of sophisticated technology and tight budgets – is an increasingly indefensible business cost. Time is being called on the once-yearly, high-cost, low yield leadership conferences of yore as the pivot is made toward more agile, low key models of commune. 

There’s little to mourn in this outdated model. But leaders everywhere should hesitate before abandoning collective experiences entirely. Here is the debate as perfectly laid out by two passionate climate activists on the weekend news. 

The first, a lifelong Greenpeace member, has not flown for 20 years. He sees no choice in the matter: the only solution is for individuals to be the change they seek in the world without compromise. The other is a UN climate change advocate. Her work, she argues, necessitates flight; she relies on moments of face-to-face exchange and human connection to push through the policies that would otherwise remain as lifeless as a Skype screen.  

Change makers of any kind know the power of face to face moments and harness them to great effect. For business leadership teams recalibrating to the pace of change and the pressures of the VUCA environment, these moments are arguably more essential than ever – and the time is ripe to abandon the status quo and yield dramatic new levels of ROI. 

So what are the benefits of real-world face time and how can we ensure we’re maximising its advantages? 

The big benefits 

 1. Contextualised understanding

We’re all familiar with optical illusions. The letter B suddenly looks like a 13 when surrounded by a 12 and 14; the vase that becomes two faces in profile. Strategy, much like optical illusions, looks very different without the right context. Shared context is the key to shared understanding. Shared understanding is the key to aligned and accelerated execution. In these disruptive times, some messages just need space to be shared, explored and absorbed. Exploring as a collective also allows leaders to broaden their own horizons and reframe the paradigm in which they operate, reinforcing their own connection to the strategy and to each other. Miscommunication and disengagement are hazards that can drastically slow down execution.

2. New mindsets

It takes a lot to break patterns of thought and see the world differently. But being plunged into a new environment, new ideas and new experiences is a surefire way to fast track the shift. Hearing real stories and having real exchanges in thoughtfully curated ways, with thoughtfully curated people, is another. The value of this sustained immersion is something no amount of high speed broadband can beat, and high impact events harness environment, storyline and activity to amplify this impact. 

3. Collaborative momentum

The manager of a major logistics business once proudly told me about his innovation plan: ‘Our team is going to spend the first four years evaluating where we need to innovate’. World champion sports teams know that off-site events are the best way to rapidly deconstruct tribes and build new ones, emphasising a common identity and agenda to break down silos and forge powerful new bonds. All team work is about trust and relationships; businesses looking to tap into the power of teams and global collaboration rely on these alliances just as much. Events also catalyse collaboration by tapping into the wisdom of the crowd to unearth barriers, solutions and opportunities in real time – giving leaders an unparalleled view of what can be done, and how best to organise to collectively achieve it, yielding value long after the event is done. 

The why

In their book The power of moments: why certain experiences have extraordinary impact, Chip and Dan Heath illuminate why certain events have such a disproportionate impact on the way we think, feel, act and behave, and how we can all harness these qualities to become authors of defining moments that create powerful shifts. 

The most powerful experiences leverage four key components. 

  1. Elevation: experiences that rise above the routine; that make us feel joyful, engaged surprised and motivated; that ‘break the script’, heighten the senses or raise the stakes.  Elevated experiences create an emotional peak that goes the distance – something organisations dramatically underinvest in, according to research. 
  2. Pride: experiences that commemorate people’s achievements by recognising others and celebrating meaningful milestones; that help us ‘practice courage’ by ‘preloading’ our responses to moments that require us to step up and meet a challenge. 
  3. Insight: experiences that deliver realisations and transformations – for example, by building in learning opportunities that help people ‘trip over the truth’ and experience revelation; activities that challenge us to stretch to new goals and get comfortable with the risk of failure. 
  4. Connection: experiences that bond us together by uniting us in the struggle towards a meaningful goal; create a synchronised moment of endeavour; and forge new relationships by responsiveness to each others’ needs. 

At The Storytellers, we use narrative structure and story-led design to leverage these components, creating meaningful experiences that help leaders all over the world kick-start movements of change in their business.

Storytelling gets real: How we can world-build our way to a better future

Skid Row is many different things, depending on who you speak to.

At the level of moniker, it is a space defined both by placelessness and haunting, visceral proximity: a catchall catchphrase for the streets of deprivation and misfortune that squat, omnipresent, behind more comfortable, more affluent lives. To others, it’s an icon of the failed American Dream. To most, as the downtown LA for the down-and-out, Skid Row occupies a far more literal, yet equally impermanent, geography. For nearly 100 years, since 1920’s itinerant workers first flooded its streets, it has been the largest, most enduring homeless community in America; never officially designated, never planned, never provided for – yet searingly, undeniably, stubbornly manifest across the single square mile it occupies. In this exposed, juxtaposed world – around which skyscrapers and glossy apartments are emerging at speed, fuelled by the building boom that’s cannibalising remaining affordable housing – thousands of people have settled; many more since the credit crisis, which has seen a 23% spike in the county’s homelessness. The luckier ones have tents, makeshift shelters and trolleys. Many simply sleep in open air, enduring the relentless desert sun throughout the day.

To local officials, it’s a public health hazard and huge economic drain. Filthy needles litter the floor; gangs pitch tents and shift drugs; arson attacks on tents arise often from embittered neighbourhood feuds, damaging surrounding warehouses. The stench in the air is a reminder of the silent killers in the streets. With barely any accessible sanitation– around nine filthy cisterns to over 1,800 people – open-air defecation and urination regularly lead to deadly outbreaks of hepatitis, E. coli, meningitis, tuberculosis and much else besides.

The people of Skid Row are vulnerable, largely unemployed, often addicts, often suffering from poor mental health, sometimes ex-convicts. Yet to residents, Skid Row is also a community, with a strong sense of social injustice and agency – as evidenced by the thousands who last year voted to form their own council and unofficially elected their own mayor, known locally as General Jeff. Their problems, like the problems of all homeless people, are complex, interconnected and entrenched. There is no simple solve, and no clear political agenda to drive change through. And this pattern of soaring need, political obfuscation and frustrated efforts is replicated across western nations – at enormous economic, social and individual cost. So what is to be done?

Alex McDowell is not a politician, social worker or an urban planning expert. He has no expertise or experience with homelessness or poverty. He is more commonly known as the celebrated designer producer of films from Minority Report to Fight Club. Yet his work may be the answer to this mass social blight. By designing and realising complete, data-driven, alternative futures for the visionary projects he has shaped (Minority Report alone spawned multiple real-world patents), McDowell has forged the practice of world building: a blend of design and storytelling through which we are able to ‘prototype the future and provoke change’. Now, under the remit of narrative designer, McDowell heads up both the USC World Building Institute and Experimental design studio – a team governed by the belief that ‘[we] have the power to build the futures we want to inhabit. Not by following the trends set by our current constraints, but by leading each step forward through imagination and ingenuity’. At the heart of this discipline is the power of collaboration ‘to action the collective vision of our shared future.’

This may sound like lofty stuff, and it could be easy to dismiss in the face of such a grimy, glaring, immediate need. But for millennia, fiction has been the site of our most radical social revisioning. And today, technology-driven worlds mean we don’t have to stay on the page and in the individual mind to see a different world. At the Future of Storytelling, the softly-spoken McDowell urged us to see the deep power and pragmatism of this next-generation approach. The world’s problems, he said, are design flaws, not inevitability. They are a failure of collective vision. By listening carefully and learning from the wisdom of lived experience and diverse expertise – ‘coming to the table ignorant’ –  we can take our current trajectory and imagine a new, better path forward. We can design a complete world by breaking down its structures – broken, in McDowell’s framework (‘The Mandala’), into context, scales, domains and ecologies. And when we can collectively tell a new story about what could be possible – when we can experience it as a vividly, coherently designed world – we can extrapolate backwards to solve the problems of the present.

For storytellers everywhere, for anyone involved in change of any kind, the potency of this practice cannot be underestimated. We can shape the future, instead of being shaped by it. We can build the world we want, not the world that will be. But we have to believe in the future we imagine before we can take action. We have to share the vision. And this is where storytelling becomes empowerment in its rawest form. To tell the future story – to build belief – to make it happen – has always been the art of leaders everywhere. At The Storytellers, this is what we help our clients to enact across their organisations. But in our VUCA world, where so little can be promised or known absolutely, this is no easy task. World-building is future storying born in volatility and speed. It draws on the wisdom of crowds to build the spaces we don’t know and can’t individually imagine. It allows for rapid prototyping and iterative testing. It uses virtual spaces to tests outcomes, not just imagination. It draws on the power of fiction to reform reality in ways that entirely redefine human agency.

Through this practice, the Experimental team has helped a Bedouin tribe of Saudi Arabia envision a sustainable future community; native Alaskan tribes engage the next generation in the story of their future and develop new food practices; biologists collaborate at quantum scales by allowing them to enter the world of a cell.  Now, McDowell and his team are working with the Skid Row community to help them build their own better future as a self-sufficient, empowered community. Watch this space.

Empathy in Action: Narrative 4’s Story Exchange

On paper, the story exchange doesn’t look like much. Sit with a stranger. Tell your story. Listen to theirs. Take on their story as your own and tell it back to a group. Such simplicity, in this age of bio-hacks and cognitive reprogramming and empathy increasingly understood as a neurological response triggered in specific conditions, and increasingly not at all.

But with this simple technique, Narrative 4 – a not-for-profit founded by author Colum McCann – have led an empathy revolution through the world’s schools and conflicted communities; giving young people bridges to each other and repairing the wounds of religious division, gang violence, gun crime, racial and sexual violence. Their model is fearless hope through radical empathy. They ask you to ‘dwell in someone else’s body, dwell in someone else’s country, dwell in someone else’s skin and mind for a while’.

They do this because as an organisation, they believe that if we can see our own story as valuable, and we know that the story of the other person across the wall is valuable, then we can begin to put right the vast majority of ugly things in the world. At The Storytellers, we powerfully agree, and have long admired the work they do.

Because of this, I was thrilled to have the chance to take part in a (dramatically accelerated) story exchange at the Future of Storytelling festival. With only an hour, we were paired off and given seven minutes each to share a story about ourselves; an experience that is, in and of itself, worthy of reflection (where to begin? How to choose? What do your choices say about you?). But the important thing to note here is the immediate gravity of the experience. The knowledge that you will take responsibility for a stranger’s story weighs heavily. You listen harder than you’ve ever listened. You try to piece together the things your partner says and does not say, and understand the silences between them. You build a bond in seconds because you know you have entered into a pact, however momentary, to protect the story of them. And as you re-enter the room, and begin to hear the stories being shared, you feel this bond in the wider group. Everyone listens respectfully, quietly. And this is part of the Narrative 4’s expertise. They create the conditions for people to share in unguarded, unusual and unselfconscious ways by laying the ground rules of respect, privacy and equality. Everyone’s story matters, however small or banal; however heroic or cruel, remote, or emotional.

We all carry around an inner story: who you are, why you are, what you’ve done – all contained in the single story you’ve just told your partner, however inarticulately. This inner story is an expression, not of fact, but of belief: a castle we construct from the fragments of experience, interaction, and outcomes we accumulate as we move through life. We experience this narrative, consciously and sub-consciously, as the fact of who we are. And this narrative, in big and small ways, determines much of our lives: how we conduct ourselves in the world, what we have the courage to pursue, how we treat the people we love.

When we’re young, this story evolves as elastically as our neural pathways. We learn from our interactions and reshape our sense of self accordingly. By the time we’re 25, this story is synaptically engrained; it becomes our short-hand to the world around us, making it harder and harder for us to change as we get older. To listen to another person tell your story is to see the same ray of light refracting through different prisms. You realise, in the most literal way – and perhaps for the first time in many, many years – that the story of you may not be quite what you thought it was.

For some people in the room, the experience illuminated a new sense of cause and effect; a new linearity; a different emphasis that betrayed an undisclosed truth. A new clarity on an unsolved riddle of lost love; a new accountability for actions taken or not taken. Those who had their story retold said it felt like a very powerful form of therapy: like walking around themselves in the therapist’s chair.

But above all else, the story exchange is about empathy in action. And in the care of the retelling; in the kindness of the details; in the fluidity of the story arc, taken so deeply to heart; in the visible connection between partners, who flinch and smile and steady themselves in synchronicity, there is something undeniable and wordless and true. Every story matters. Every story is different. Every story is the same.

Maybe you can change the world in an hour.

The real millennial story  

It’s a messy business, the work of intergenerational definition. Almost impossible to do in real-time, the work falls latterly to the older cohort – tasked with setting the parameters that shape the next through the cloudy lens of age. These parameters are increasingly subject to anxious scrutiny from businesses concerned with the needs, wants, moods, skills and yet-unobserved deficits of the future workforce in a world that faces – in the short-term at least – a battle for competent new recruits.

The millennials – the most debated, disputed and denigrated generation to enter the workforce in living memory – will soon be the most dominant presence in the workplace, accounting for a third of all employees by 2020. At the same time, this 1.8 billion-strong demographic will also become our most dominant and voracious global consumers – making them the target market for the majority of the worlds’ increasingly millennial-led enterprises. Together, this is a decisive moment for the way we work, the work we do, and the things we consume. The millennial moment has arrived.

But as one generation gives way to the next – as the rule-breakers become the decision-makers – the anxiety persists, lacing questions of legacy with endemic categoric confusion about just who it is that will be taking up the mantle. Because despite the millennial moment we are now in, despite the presumably now-commonplace presence they exert on the office, markets and society at large, questions persist among politicians, business leaders, managers, marketers, media. Who are the millenials? Are they forty, or twenty? Entrepreneurs or flight risk? Selfless socialist or entitled brats? Woke or lit? Pink or yellow? What do they need? What do they want? How do they think?

By the Pew Research Centre, the line has finally been drawn. Those born in 1981 will be the first millenials. Those born in 1996 will be the last. The new post-millenial cohort – who have never known a world without smart phones, the war on terror, extreme partisan politics, austerity, immigration crises, and everything else that shapes a generation – present the next big headache. And just when we thought we were all getting comfortable with the new status quo.

I’m a millennial. So are many of my colleagues, and my clients. So, probably, are you.

So what do we want?

Spanning nearly two decades, the millennial experience, drivers and values will be as diverse as the life trajectories we’ve known. But there are some things we do all share. Our first, inescapable bond: we’re all post-recession. One way or another, as Pew observes, the credit crisis hit us with a ‘slow start’ – either losing us more developed careers altogether or stalling the ones we’d been promised.

A decade ago this month, my own breed of squarely mid-millenial watched Lehman collapse from the cloistered world of college: bankers in suits on sidewalks, clutching cardboard boxes and dazed faces. We didn’t understand sub-prime mortgages. We had finals. It was a ripple, we thought, in a world very far away from us. When we graduated, it was into an economy with almost zero opportunity. To be paid for work was a luxury that suddenly did not fit the new world order. Those with means could work for free. Many, most, could not. And to be young and unemployed – or young and underused, or young and exploited – is a bad thing for fledgling minds. So yes. We’ve been delayed. Because of this, we’re impatient. Where 62% of our boomer forebears were married with a house by the age of 34, this is true for just 31% of us. We are statistically unsettled, forced to place value on different things in life. We’re reformers, because we’ve had to imagine something better.

And because we’ll be working for a long, long time – to plug the gap between our lengthening lives and our shrinking pension pot – we need our work to be meaningful. Meaningful in the sense that we have a clear and positive impact for our teams, for our clients, and for society. We expect our work to support and align with our values, because we see our work as an extension of ourselves: the place where the majority of our time and experiences will be spent, for most of our lives. We demand authenticity because, after decades of unfettered capitalism, we’re highly attuned to the gap between brand and reality. We need to feel invested in, because work will be our life and our life will need to be enhanced by our work in ways that keep us engaged and productive in an economy where no one can ever afford to stop learning.  We seek purpose because the great myth of money is no longer enough to sate our freer, more restless, more educated and global-minded appetites, in a world full of problems we can no longer afford to ignore. We crave a story to tell ourselves and our peers about who we are and what we do because this is the currency of our times, and we know that no one else is going to make our meaning for us.

So who are the millennials? What do we want? What do we need?

Meaningful work. Positive impact. Opportunities to learn and contribute. A story we’re proud to tell.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be so complicated.

Narrative and resilience in the age of acceleration

When Mayor de Blasio issued a cap to licenced drivers in New York city in August 2018, his language was definitive. Uber and Lyft, and any other ride hailing app that could appear in the future, are congesting our streets and hurting our taxi-cab drivers.  Every month, for six months, a taxi-cab driver had taken their own life; reportedly driven to the edge by the plummeting value of their trade in a brave new world of algorithmic transport. These symbols of Silicon success – so lauded for the ‘gig economy’ they unleashed and the job creation they spared cash-strapped governments – were, in fact, destructive. Their free market momentum – on which this heartland, in this nation, had been built – was in need of a leash.

The message was clear. We can no longer afford to be laissez-faire about the pace of change. It’s time to take a hammer to progress; to buy back some time; and hope that, in the interim, we can recalibrate – as governments, businesses, and individuals – to a world now reinventing itself at an exponential rate.

For Thomas L. Friedman, whose Pulitzer-prize winning ‘Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations‘ offers a masterclass in our new global rules of play, none of this will be surprising. “So many people today,” he wrote in 2016, “seem to be looking for someone to be put on the brakes… or just give them a simple answer to make their anxiety go away”.

Today, in 2018, Moore’s Law shows no sign of slowing. The compounding forces of exponential technology, globalisation and climate change continue to accelerate change in almost every facet of society, for every nation on earth. The collision continues to feel, as Friedman observed in 2016, like the gut-wrench we experience in an accelerating car: the dislocation as we hurtle through one set of natural laws into another.

Because while humans are adaptive, we adapt slowly. On a societal level, our ‘social technologies’ – the ways that we structure ourselves to ‘capture the benefits of co-operation’ – are now so far behind the pace of change in our physical technologies that they’re increasingly obsolete. It takes roughly 15 years for society to play catch up. But our technology platforms are transforming every five to seven. This is producing fundamental ruptures in everything from ‘nuclear proliferation, bio-terrorism, cybercrime’, to the quiet but stark inequalities produced in societies no longer able to catch or equally share the benefits of advancement. Add to this the deep damage done globally to our social technologies by the years of recession and cuts, and that rupture becomes even greater.

We’re racing to catch up even as we’re begging to slow down.

This is also profoundly true on an individual level. Not too long ago, it didn’t take much to be middle class in the western world. We lived in world of defined benefits. Today, the collision of globalisation and technology has dramatically raised the stakes for all of us. The hustle is now a world of defined contributions. The fixed point of the American Dream – a job for life, the security of home, a clear path to tread – is now, Friedman observes, more like a never-ending climb up a downward-moving escalator. ‘You need to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, make sure you’re engaged in lifelong learning and by play by the rules – while also reinventing some of them. Then you can be middle class.’

And this pressure cooker has barely warmed up. Human skills continue to evolve at breakneck speed. Many are hurtling towards complete obsolescence; the most recent modelling suggests around 800 million jobs are at risk[1]. Simultaneously, we are confronting a global talent pool expanding at precisely the rate of digital connection. The ‘digital divide’ that has for so long limited ‘what you could learn, where you could do business and with whom you could collaborate’ will largely disappear within the decade. And this new talent pool is hungrier, more motivated, more adept at self-education; tapping in, for the first time, to the global flows of knowledge that leapfrog outdated educational systems.

This is an extraordinary shift. And in it lies, for all of us, nothing less than our future prosperity. Because when the digital divide disappears, there will only be one thing left: the motivational divide. ‘The future’, Friedman notes, ‘will belong to those who have the self-motivation to take advantage of all the free and cheap tools and flows coming out of the supernova’ – to those, in other words, who can embrace a state of continuous adaptation that optimises the right skills for our future world.

Because in the face of automation that will replace both repetitive and cognitive tasks, resilience lies in distinctly human capital: in communication, creativity, and collaboration; in the ability not simply to compute, but to empathise, to connect, to influence and persuade. These, Friedman argues, are ‘the massive, undervalued human assets to unlock – and our educational institutions and labour markets need to adapt to that’. They’re also assets that emphasise, more than ever, the power and necessity of narrative and storytelling as a primary skill and tool for every leader – regardless of seniority, industry or community – in a world that can no longer rely on old forms of power, or certainty, or security.

This is not an easy or natural transition. The chasms opened up by these accelerating forces continue to leave millions of people ‘desperate for navigational help and sense-making’ as they try to construct a new narrative that will help them recalibrate in this moment of great change.

And when this phenomenon occurs on a mass scale, a few big things happen. At a national level, democracies – dependent on the decision-making of an informed populace – cease to function. Populism rises as voters seek out the reassurance of simplistic world views and clear solutions. At an industry-wide level, organisations must contend with great swathes of apathy, disengagement and low productivity as people grapple to find their place in the new reality.

The emotional impulse, for all of us, is to simply stop; to dig our heels into our fear. And increasingly, we may see more and more governments constructing, as in New York, these moments of artificial relief. But the pace of change will not slow down. We must now accept that there are no more placid lakes. There are only rapids. And in the rapids, ‘every time you rudder or drag your paddle to steer you lose momentum – and that makes you more vulnerable to flipping over’. For businesses, for individuals as economic contributors, for problem solvers of any kind, the only solution is to throw ourselves into the currents: ‘to move as fast or faster’ and achieve a state of dynamic stability: a state of agility that no longer expects change to end at point B.

This is the challenge of our time: to build systems of true resilience into our communities. To win, we must reimagine the social contract between workers and employees, students and educational establishments, governments and citizens. It’s a tall order, and one that few of our leaders – of government and industry – have the stomach for in these post-recession days.

And yet there are shining examples of success littered throughout Friedman’s book. All of them share the pre-requisites for long-term behaviour change: a clear mechanism to motivate people, the provision of means in skills and tools, and the momentum to sustain the virtuous cycle. The most effective harness narrative as the mechanism to underpin, connect and amplify all three components.

In AT&T, the world’s telecoms giant, the advent of the iPhone and its role as network provider triggered an overnight transformation. To keep pace with the most innovative business on the planet, it would need to become a data business. To become a data business, it would need to rapidly reskill its 300,000 (mostly blue collar) workers. In doing so, it created a solution that today AT&T’s leaders call the ‘intelligent assistance approach’: a process which, at every stage, provides the blueprint for a mass-agile organisation of the future by ‘providing the scaffolding and incentives that make a new learning journey for so many people sustainable’.

The leadership team begin with a narrative that creates clarity and motivation. Every September, the leaders lay out a high-level narrative of journey the business will take in the next five to ten years, underpinned by the specific objectives of the next 12 to 14 months. ‘The idea’, says AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, ‘is to be totally transparent about where the business is heading and what the challenges will be.’ This is filtered consistently through the organisation so that, ‘by July, everyone has the message.’ By offering people an ever-evolving narrative to help them navigate shifting sands and re-connect to the purpose of change, Stephenson notes, ‘people say I get, I want to be part of it.’ The next question is ‘how can I be part of it? Those who decide they’re not up for the ride can leave’. This clarity of messaging means they lose 10% of their work force every year – but the space is filled by those who are willing to play a part and feel connected to clear sense of purpose.

Once they’ve created the motivation, Stephenson continues, it’s about ‘giving people the opportunity to pivot’: providing the means to upgrade their skills in an accessible, personalised format. Every employee is connected to an internal LinkedIn equivalent, where they can promote their growing range of skills and pitch for new roles. They’re provided with a personal learning budget, bespoke world-class courses designed with world-leading establishments – increasingly also designed to harness the cognitive impact of narrative and storytelling as a learning tool – and a suite of cutting-edge digital learning platforms. They’re given the freedom to pursue new skills and request new courses. In this way, each employee is empowered to play their part in the bigger story of change. ‘If you want to learn,’ according to Stephenson, ‘we’re all in because it leads to more engaged employees; that equals better customer service, more loyal customers, higher shareholder value.’ But the emphasis on self-motivation and autonomy is key.  ‘You can pick a different future and how to get there. But you have to optin.’

And embracing this continuous learning is designed to build a clear sense of momentum. Every person’s commitment is tracked through big data; those who learn more and better are put forward internally for promotions faster. As these stories of success are shared around the business, the desire to upskill increases. Stephenson is absolute in this intention: ‘people need to know that if I am clearly motivated to learn, I am going to get rewarded.’

The new social contract, in a company like AT&T, is this: ‘you can be a lifelong employee if you are ready to be a lifelong learner’.

The benefits are undoubtedly two-way. AT&T’s leaders are certain that this social contract is raising both the company’s average skill level and its morale. ‘We’ve taken our best and made it our average.’ Absenteeism down 30%, ideas are actioned faster and scaled through the company from any origin. ‘People feel more empowered, more connected, more engaged’. And it’s in these three words – if we can get the transition right – that we find the true promise of this accelerated age.

[1]McKinsey, 2017

In defence of story

“It sounds to me that it would be Russia based on all the evidence they have,” Trump told reporters. “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”


Most great cultural epochs begin and end with the loss of Truth. The loss of God, of King and Country, Good and Bad, Right and Wrong; of Communism, Socialism, Capitalism. The last century was full of this loss, and now, in the fledgling years of the next, we find ourselves sheltering, a bit miffed, in the ruins of these grand abandoned notions; noting that even in these brave new worlds – in the midst of global warfare, state controlled propaganda, the profound destruction of social values and the industrialised transformation of human possibility – it would still be possible to agree on the facts of the day. Facts were facts, spades were spades. Solid things, inarguable things. Things that just were.

Today, we find ourselves in a new kind of era: one in which my facts are not necessarily your facts; where objectivity crumbles into spin; where Truth is what you make it, if you know the tricks. And it is here that Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality finds us: bruised and a bit sad, quite probably at the end of the echo-chamber we fell down again after parsing the morning news. Like Hector Macdonald, author, long-time friend and writer at The Storytellers, it offers us a smart, insightful guide to this smoke-and-mirrors terrain: astutely observing the dangers ahead, the dangers unknown and the dangers within – all illustrated, of course, by many wonderful stories.

Stories, deservedly, play an important role in Truth. Not simply as a means to demonstrate points in memorable and meaningful ways – which of course is just one great power of storytelling – but as a possible suspect: dealing in the shady art of truth-selection and suggestive construction that has come to figure so prominently in any narrative about the success of Trump or Brexit.

Storytelling, argues Truth, is a form of partial truth. As its opening inscription reminds us, there was a time where this was not a problematic assertion. “To hell with facts!”, iconic 60’s author Ken Kesey declares in its opening inscription. “We need stories!”. But for the modern reader, post-all of it, alarm bells ring. Trouble, we suspect, lies ahead. Because in the construction of this refrain (worthy indeed of the very brashest Brexiteer and the tools Truth itself offers to arm us against such verbal foul play) story isn’t just better than fact (more effective, more emotive, more coherent – all of which believe to be true). It’s counter to it. Worse – it’s superseded it. This is the age of story! To hell with the facts. Welcome to the age of Post-Truth.

Truth defines story as ‘a selective account of a process of change, which emphasises causal relationships between situations and events’. Neutral descriptor or loaded gun? It’s a tough call, in this particular moment, where story stands accused of aiding and abetting a most troubling state of affairs. In the selection, we all know, there is an ocean of agenda to navigate – usually in the micro-seconds our brains have to process such content. We’re shown the power of extreme, but effective, selection in the example of Mervyn King’s story of the credit crisis; a narrative in which the huge, unyielding complexity of that period is chiselled, cleanly, into a coherent domino-effect that most of us could really, genuinely grasp – perhaps for the first time. That’s quite a feat – and for Truth, where the ‘true value’ of stories lie. ‘They make complex stuff simple and clear’; and by ‘seem[ing] to show how one thing leads to another, they help us make sense of a chaotic world’. In Truth’s example of Kew Gardens – transformed, by the act of storytelling, from a lovely irrelevance with no place in Austerity Britain to a vital global hub of cutting-edge ecological research, deserving of public funds – we see the power of this selection for unequivocal good. And yet. There’s a price to pay for this partiality. ‘Real life’, we’re reminded, ‘is rarely so black and white’. By emphasising ‘seeming’ causation, we can attribute significance where there is none. What we gain in simplicity, we lose in complexity. We habitually forgo the multiplicity and difficulty of experience; we over-engineer cause and effect. Worse, we expose ourselves to agenda of another person’s selection. We trust that the facts they string are the ones we need to know. All this is undeniably true, and easily exploited (we agree with mutual head-shaking) in a cynical, cynical world.

But we would like to add another, more wholesome, dimension to story, rooted in countless experiences with our clients, and with the world at large, and even, perhaps, a preference for optimism. For us, a story is a selective account of a process of change which connects our emotional and rational minds: contextualising the relationships between people, situations and events in order to make meaning, take action, and adapt continuously to a changing world.  Storytelling, then – the primary means by which our brains evolved to navigate our environment as a collective, finding patterns that allow us to prioritise survival-critical information – is the process by which we enact that process of change in ourselves and in those around us. The thing about stories, as Truth reinforces, is that it’s innate. We tell stories, naturally, all the time, as our primary means to deny the chaos of life. When no story is offered, we can’t help but find patterns in the mess. For public entities of any kind, the conclusion is undeniable: if you’re not telling your story, you’d better believe somebody else is. And that story might be big – a political campaign, a biopic, a history book – but it might also be small.

The power of anecdotes is profound, as Truth notes, because their defining characteristic is their reality. When wielded by an organisation as a means to share learning and shape behaviours, they can indeed be ‘extremely powerful tools’. But of course, anecdotes aren’t just tools to be wielded. They’re a fundamental form of human exchange, sprung from the well of collective, daily, lived experience. Wherever there are communities, there are anecdotes. And where we find anecdotes, we find multiplicity: realities that contradict the grand origin myths of a nation, or business, or group. When hundreds of these anecdotes come together, each with their own challenge, pressing in on those foundations, the conflict in a society, organisation, or family, can be profound. And these ‘counter narratives’ tell the observant leader (or family member, or citizen) something important about their tribe. The lifeblood of a collective runs through the stories it tells. As Truth shows us, and as we help our clients to practice, by listening to these stories, we can intervene at the root: changing behaviour and shifting mind-sets by through real examples that show a different way really is possible.

Taking control of the narrative you want to tell – the things you believe, what you stand for, why you do what you do – as a leader, an organisation or an individual (all, today, expected to constantly narrate life choices and career paths to expectant employers, employee and peers) has never been a more important or essential part of life. But our discomfort lingers.

It’s a discomfort rooted in the deeply held sense that to tell stories is to fictionalise, or falsify. Indeed, it was this, Truth’s opening pages confess, that originally spurred its creation. Yet here, too, we’d like to offer a different take.

Stories might select facts, but they don’t have to run counter to them. They give meaning to the ones they hold by providing the emotional context needed to make sense of information that would otherwise be overwhelming or irrelevant. In the irresistible logic of the narrative structure – the emphasis of cause and effect that Truth rightly positions as central to the story form – we’re given a sense-checking framework that demands credibility of its author. Just as Truth offers an invaluable set of heuristics to help us assess the information we hear, so, we believe, a narrative framework holds the storyteller to account: shining stark light on the wild or implausible or misconstrued as we move sequentially through the process of change to an attainable, believable outcome.

Yes: we must be alert to the people controlling the narrative. But in today’s environment of mass communication and mass consumption, where the paralysis of information overload frequently numbs us to issues that deserve our attention and comprehension, the bigger risk is that we retreat entirely – burnt out by the analytical burden that must accompany every perspective, every thought, every action. And yes: emotional stories can be abused, as per Truth’s analysis; needlessly included in our news to elicit undeserving or unsavoury responses. But by allowing us to zoom into the emotional experience of the individual, stories neurologically reconnect us to the empathy we struggle to locate in today’s world, powerfully reconfiguring the way we respond to the people around us. By offering us a familiar structure through which to anchor ourselves – the grand narratives that recur time and time again, the stories we seem to hold inside ourselves and tell as soon as we can speak – stories offer us a steady point in a fast moving world; the context we need to stay afloat. It’s this, more than anything else, which perhaps explains why the craft of storytelling has seeped into every part of our culture in recent years. We’re all just trying to connect the dots.

Truth leaves us with an important warning: that stories can often be taken as The Truth, instead of just one truth; and it falls to all of us, in this age, to remain vigilant in the stories we consume and the weight we allow them to bear. We’d also like to propose an additional take: that story can be the framework where we define, discover and sustain a bigger (and constantly evolving) truth – of who we are, why we do what we do, what experiences lead us to this point. Our lives are characterised by the restless pursuit of this small, personal truth: and as everything else falls away, as we move deeper into this Post-Truth world, we can return to this framework, and relocate, and recalibrate, in order to bring purpose and direction and fulfilment to our lives. But Truth also leaves us with an even more important reminder: that ‘eliminating diseases, feeding billions, building global companies, defending nations, developing miraculous technologies, connecting the world: all of this has been done by humans co-operating’ – and this co-operation ‘depends on the ideas we share – the truths we tell each other’. The stories, in other words, that make the world go round. On that, I think, we can all agree.


Bex Felton