Category: Blog

HRD Summit 2020 – ‘Harnessing Human Creativity’

It’s 2020. The corporate landscape is more volatile than ever. At The Storytellers, we see this as an exhilarating challenge. Live in the now, look to the future, and ask yourself: is your organisation ready to be the hero of its own story?

On February 4th– 5th, the annual HRD Summit plays host to the most senior HR and business leaders on the globe. And we will be there. This year, at the ICC in Birmingham, 150 speakers – including our Co-Founder and Director, Alison Esse – will discuss the theme of ‘Harnessing Human Creativity’. 

Here’s the Summit’s ‘call to action’:

“The pace of change is more rapid than ever. Economically, politically, socially; as the world changes, it’s the organisations that can transform right along with it that will find success. Organisations are being required to rethink it all or risk being left behind, from their basic business models to their core identities. What is their purpose? Who do they want to be?”

What is your business’ purpose? Who do you want to be? Alison will be giving a masterclass at 12.30pm on the 4th of February titled ‘Resetting Your Organisation’s Narrative to Inspire Change’. At The Storytellers, we harness the power of storytelling to move people to accelerate change and transform business performance. How do we do this, and how can it help you harness the creative potential within your organisation?

Alison will be discussing:

  • How storytelling brings meaning and purpose to work,
  • Why people resist change (and what to do about it),
  • How leaders can use storytelling techniques to inspire change, and
  • How to construct an emotionally compelling strategic narrative.

We make meaning through stories. As Alison will show, an organisation can utilise the universal power of storytelling to identify and articulate its struggles and endeavours, create a hero’s ‘call to action’, and help its people to contribute to something bigger than themselves. All great stories – from Aristotle to Ad Astra – use this narrative framework to develop and foster a deep and satisfying emotional connection. Why? Because when people feel empowered and inspired by storytelling, they want to become the hero of their own narrative. They feel they can change.

In a business context, storytelling helps us to recognise and celebrate what we have achieved, understand what is possible, and engage us all in the role we need to play. Great storytellers are thus great leaders – because they inspire us with what we can achieve together. By creating the motivationmeans and momentum essential to shifting behaviour, we’ve helped leaders at over 170 major organisations move their people to accelerate change and transform business performance – through the power and influence of storytelling. 

Want to know more? Attend Alison’s masterclass on the 4th of February and drop by for a chat at stand 27 in the ICC. We’d love to tell you more about how we can help you use the power of storytelling to navigate more effectively through the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that characterises the business landscape today.

Here’s our ‘hero’s call to action’: See you in Birmingham! 

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.”

From villain to hero – telling the whole story of the ‘Superjob’

“Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand,” wrote the Scottish essayist Thomas Caryle in 1820 of the First Industrial Revolution. “Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions, turn on mechanism, and are of a mechanical character.”

He was addressing a fear which seems eerily familiar today, as we embark upon the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an epoch delineated by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. This is the era where the lines between the physical and digital are becoming blurred: automation, artificial intelligence, and mobile supercomputing of a power unimaginable to a previous generation, let alone the world of the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is the age of the ‘superjob’.

Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report identifies the ‘superjob’ as the apex evolutionary offspring of the ‘hybrid job’. Hybrid jobs marry technical skills with ‘soft’ skills; superjobs “combine parts of different traditional jobs into integrated roles that leverage the significant productivity and efficiency gains that can arise when people work with smart machines, data, and algorithms.”

The advent of the superjob creates a significant challenge for the leaders of today. Organisations need to be actively ‘recoding’ their activity, i.e. “integrating machines and humans in the flow of work and creating meaningful roles for people.” Without this crucial shift in perspective, businesses risk falling behind in the race to re-skill existing staff with the tools they will need for the future, and opportunities to recruit  new employees already comfortable with this changing work dynamic – the ‘architects’ of the revolution – will be lost. By proactively replacing traditional job descriptions with inspiring new ‘job canvases’, in which the benefits of automation and augmentation to an individual’s productivity become central to the organisation’s story, a company can recode risk into reward.

This will take collaborative organisational imagination, and a shared vision of how man and machine in tandem can bring about exciting new outcomes – less Carlyle’s ‘mechanical’ men than humans using machines with their whole heart. Technologically-enhanced super jobs can be heroes of this revolution, not the villain.

In 2016, the creators of DeepMind, the British artificial intelligence company acquired by Google, challenged 9thdan professional South Korean Go player Lee Sedol to a five-game match against its AlphaGo program. ‘Go’ is the notoriously difficult 2,500 year-old board game played with black and white pieces on a grid of 19 x 19 lines. It takes years to master, with a quantity of potential moves that famously outnumbers the entirety of atoms in the universe.

Sedol, a boyish hero of the game ranked the second greatest player of all time, accepted the challenge with the nonchalant swagger of a champion at the peak of his powers. He positioned himself as the torchbearer of human intelligence entering the valley of this dark shadow of automation, the redresser of a balance lost by Gary Kasparov in his defeat to the IBM chess computer Deep Blue a decade earlier. 

The story would be different in this sequel; now it would be the humans striking back. Sedol emphatically predicted that AlphaGo would not win a single game.

In the second game, and already ahead in the series, the program played a maverick winning move so exquisitely odd, so alien, Sedol was frozen in its otherworldy headlights. “It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move,” he said.

“So beautiful.”

AlphaGo won the series 4-1.

Sedol was crestfallen at the defeat, and apologised for letting mankind down, but at the end of the series he said that he was overwhelmed with gratitude to AlphaGo for allowing him to see the game he loved from a fresh and exciting new perspective. The program was not the obstacle, or the enemy – it was a catalyst for novel ideas and possibilities.

Sedol reworked the story of his interaction with technology from one of hubris and defeat into a narrative of hope and possibility. Fear of the unknown had become the joy of potential; man and machine had created a strange and exhilarating shared adventure. This is the impact of the storytelling perspective – the “efforts, attachments, opinions” of your workforce protagonists can be transformed into a dynamic shared vision of a prosperous future.

Visions of the Future: #TakeYourSeat

November 8th, 2013: Take your seat. The world is dying.

The world is dying, and you’ve been given a front-row seat – a privileged spectator spot. Others take their seat in front of televisions and computer screens, where storms are rendered via satellite, and climate change is experienced via tweets rather than typhoons.

Take your seat: passivity, spectacle, experiential and ethical distance.

Not for you. For you, to take a seat is not to observe the tumult from afar but to live it: the uprooting of community, a city ripped asunder in moments, submerged and swept away in the space of an afternoon.

It is to live waves as weighty as windmills and wind wild as whirlpools. It is to live loss as immediate as the breath you barely kept. It is to be crushed by the blows of a planetary ecosystem crumbling under intolerable strain, to feel climate change as not a noun but the most violent and vehement of verbs.

When chairs are strewn across streets like seaweed on seashores – empty chairs and empty tables – how to take a seat?

How to take a seat when yours no longer exists?

December 3rd, 2018: Take your seat. The world is dying.

The world is dying, and the distance between those who experience and those who execute – between those who spectate and those who strategise – can no longer be perpetuated.

It’s not as though the climate clarion calls haven’t been intensifying for not just months but decades. It’s not as though the increasing incidence of extreme weather events – insatiably destructive wildfires, hurricanes that direct destruction towards families, cities and livelihoods, flash floods and snowstorms and drought, the tick-tock of minute but relentless temperature increase – haven’t offered sufficient justification for a watershed moment.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference – snugly situated in Poland’s Katowice, where it would be easy to forget that climate change will not be experienced as half-degree global temperature rises but as lived loss – hopes to be that watershed moment.

But how to turn the silent spectator’s tragedy into the catalyst for change? How to ensure that those that theorise are joined at the table by those that feel – when the latter group is comprised by millions, each as deserving of a voice as the next?

How to ensure that those millions are perceived not as a sigh-inducing statistic but as a chorus of individual voices, each with a human story that demands immediate progress?

You give each of them a chair at the table, using the possibilities that digital technologies offer for democratic engagement with society’s leaders.

You create a space where politician and Executive are held to account by citizen, and the voiceless become the vocal.

You create the catalyst by which we translate abstraction into action, safeguarding the future of our planet.

You ask each of them to #TakeYourSeat.

Climate change had been on the agenda of those that lead since well before Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the small city of Tacloban, The Philippines, on November 8th, 2013, killing 6,300 and shattering the lives of those that survived. One of those was Joanna Sustento, whose family was lost to the storm.

Sustento is the perfect example of those who are reduced to deindividualizing noun (‘people’, ‘those affected’, ‘millions’) in high-level talks about counteracting climate change, yet those who are most susceptible to its imminent effects.

Ever since that day, Sustento has spent her life agitating for action, attempting to hold those most responsible for our warming planet to account. However, the world no longer has the leeway, or the luxury, to wait for more Sustentos to live climate tragedy before they are heard.

This year, the UN took note, and created a symbolic space that those seeking to salvage our planet could occupy, irrespective of location or status: the People’s Seat. Using the virtual communal areas created by social media and digital technology, it invited all those wanting to join the conversation to #TakeYourSeat.

In doing so, it ensured that the act of taking a seat was reconfigured as active participation rather than passive observation, and that active participation was a possibility offered to the many, not the few.

Climate change has regularly been spoken of as our greatest, and existential challenge. Daunting though the prospect of tackling that challenge is, we believe that the ‘incalculably diffusive’ effects that can arise from mass participation are imperative if we are to succeed – if we are to prevent global temperature from rising 1.5% above pre-industrial levels.

We perceive the People’s Seat as an initial ripple that we hope might facilitate tidal waves – tsunamis – of climate action: waves restore breath to a choking planet, and make manifest a world in which all of us can take a seat at tables where the stakes, and the potential costs, are rather lower.


What can we learn from the Yellow Jackets?

We Brits are not the only ones facing a political crisis. Whilst we endlessly debate our exit from Europe, the good folk of France have been taking to the streets to vent their feelings about their government. ‘Who are France’s ‘Yellow Jacket’ protesters and what do they want?’ headlined NBC News. The question was prompted by the lack of political leadership behind the protests. This is no legitimate government opposition; it’s a real movement of change.

Putting aside the politics, and the antics of the protesters, what interests us at The Storytellers is the identity this movement has adopted. We know that creating a strong and emotive identity can help to motivate and mobilise people behind change efforts. And this is a great example.

They’ve taken the neon vests French drivers are obliged to carry in their vehicles in the case of roadside emergencies and use them to create a visual symbol of solidarity: the ‘Yellow Jacket’ activists. By donning their ‘high vis jackets,’ this disparate group of people, whose only physical connection is through social media, now feel like a united force. The jacket says, ‘“I belong.”

The identity is both practical (most French people own one) and symbolic. This is something you are supposed to keep in your car. It’s decreed by government. Unleashing it from its usual role feels like an act of rebellion which is just what the protesters want to create. And the ‘Yellow Jackets’ have now become a short hand for the media to use, communicating to others and raising awareness of the cause.

In a recent talk, Michael Bierut, the designer of Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, talked about physical symbols being the ‘new logos’. Reference the women in America who donned their ‘PussyHats’ when displaying their displeasure of President Trump’s behaviour. Of course, physical motifs are not new; just think of the power of the Poppy. Maybe the shift is how these identities are developed. After all, if you want to create activists, why not give them an active part in its creation?

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.

Visions of the Future: Driving Diversity, Inspiring Innovation

November 6th, 2018: A day for, and of, history, perhaps. A day of historic firsts for the United States government: a moment at which its Congress began to look, in however ostensibly imperceptible ways, a little more like the country it claims to represent.

A day when Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland became the first Native American women to be elected to Congress; a day in which Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar joined them as America’s first female Muslim representatives; a day in which Jared Polis became America’s first openly homosexual male governor in Colorado; a day when, at the age of 29, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez becomes perhaps the most prominent millennial in American politics as the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives.

A day, then, when diversity of gender wasn’t enough for the American electorate, and they opted – in some corners of the country, if nothing else – to try and ensure that the country’s decision-makers weren’t just a little more diverse in their gender, but also in their age, religion, sexuality, and class.

Imagine these midterm moments not as fodder for pub quizzes and episodes of Pointless– the catalyst for momentary scratching of heads and groans – but as watershed moments – moments at which the American people, collectively, chose to start washing away the social detritus left by past inequities.

Imagine these midterm moments as not, in fact, moments – but part of movements. Moments when we remove the glass ceilings and build elevators in their place, requiring not so much violent smashes as vibrant steps to conquer.

Imagine that those glass ceilings weren’t just removed in the political sphere – that ‘diversity’ wasn’t just restricted to those few individuals fortunate enough to have the right electorate and the right face at the right time. Imagine if our businesses and parliaments took similar leads, and replaced barriers with opportunities; uniformity with diversity.

What happens?

November 6th, 2022: Less history, perhaps, on this day. Fewer firsts. Fewer headlines. But imagine that below the surface – behind the headlines and away from the spotlight – diversity had become a norm, not an exception.

Imagine, then, a world where companies weren’t forgoing crucial growth opportunities because they weren’t misunderstanding or missing new markets.

Imagine a world where the UK economy was boosted by £24 billion each year or more – an extra one percent or so of its current GDP.

Imagine a Parliament, or a House of Representatives, or a boardroom that was more diverse and inclusive – intellectually as well as interpersonally – where new ideas were more likely to take shape, be heard, and be implemented.

Imagine those new ideas forming the cornerstone of transformational innovation, then, with individuals from disparate backgrounds and experiences bringing new modes of thinking and new ways of interacting to your organisation.

Imagine missing fewer opportunities, making fewer strategic mistakes – giving your company the competitive edge, or giving our society the optimal conditions, it needs to succeed in a world driven by the capacity to innovate effectively.

What if it all starts by smashing a ceiling and building an elevator?

What if it all starts with a gay governor or a millennial Congresswoman?



Currently, the uppermost echelons of our society don’t look particularly diverse. For all the noise garnered by the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, fewer than one in four US House Representatives are female. Fewer than one in three members of the UK parliament are.

In the corporate world, where ossified (and ossifying) modes of operation and prejudices still prevail, the rooms where it happens look even more homogeneous: only 9.7 percent of Executives at FTSE 100 companies are female, and only 6 percent of top management positions are held by BAME individuals.

The price of this lack of diversity isn’t just ethical – there is good evidence that it is also economic. Research repeatedly suggests that companies that have greater gender diversity in the boardroom receive greater innovation revenue. Other research reports that companies with 2-D diversity out-innovate and out-perform others, are 45 percent more likely to report a growth in market share over the previous year, and 70 percent more likely to report that the firm captured a new market.

However, with a majority of companies – 78 percent – reporting that they do not possess diverse leadership, and the figures in the political sphere broadly similar, it could hardly be clearer that most organizations are still ill-placed to derive the economic and social benefits of diversity.

Innovation occurs in environments where new ideas can be raised, heard, and enacted with as little friction as possible – and research also suggests that diverse workplaces are more likely to create those conditions. For example, in environments where leadership is homogeneous,women are 20% less likely than straight white men to win endorsement for their ideas; people of colour are 24 percent less likely; and LGBTs are 21 percent less likely.

This isn’t just a loss for the individuals who see their capacity for innovation trammelled. It’s also a loss for companies, voters, and society – who all benefit from outstanding innovation.

Imagine turning this loss into an opportunity, and opportunity into outcome. Imagine replacing exclusivity with inclusivity, and stagnation with innovation.

We think that’s a vision of the future worth creating.


We are The Storytellers. We exist to move more people to do great things through the power and influence of storytelling.

Which story will move you and the people around you to do great things in 2018? Share your story with us.

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 Value of Senior Team Alignment

One of the quickest ways to watch a strategy and vision unravel after its inception is to start with an Executive team that’s not aligned.

Because it’s one of the pre-requisites of the successful launch of a strategic or change narrative into a business, the question ‘is your senior team aligned?’ is one we always ask our clients at the outset. I can’t remember a time when I’ve talked to a new client at the start of an engagement who’s sagely nodded and said ‘yes, our Executive is aligned’, at least not without a wry smile. By alignment, we are not talking about ‘broad agreement’ with a strategy. We are talking about complete and utter unity, where the Executive team is speaking as one, and there is no room for dissent. ‘Slightly aligned’ doesn’t exist. It’s like being slightly pregnant. You either are, or you’re not.

Of course, every individual will look at the strategy through a different lens. It’s normal for those responsible for different aspects of the operation to have different perspectives. After all, the richness and diversity that Executive teams bring to the table is a huge asset to any business. And in the shaping a strategy or strategic narrative there will of course be arguments, different points of view and many an ‘energetic’ conversation around the Board table.

But when that narrative is signed off, to be disseminated through every layer of the organisation, the senior team must be speaking as one: ‘One Story, One Team, One Voice’. With every departure from the party line, with every ‘tweak’ to the Story “because it’s not relevant to us”, or “I’ve cut that bit out because it’s the bit that I didn’t agree with”, the story becomes a massive Chinese whisper. By the time it’s reached the grass roots of the organisation, it bears no resemblance to the story being told in other parts of the business. And that story, in turn, might just as well come from another organisation for its similarity to the one being told down the road. The end result will be confusion, lack of clarity, inefficiency, disorientation, lack of teamwork, poor behaviour and a disfunctional culture: an organisation that’s pulling in every direction but the one you want, with a discredited Executive team looking on helplessly, wondering what the hell happened.

There are a few courses of action to take to avoid such entropy:

    1. 1. Allow every member of the Executive team to have a voice when shaping the story. In this way everyone will take ownership of the story and will champion it as a team

2. Don’t assume everyone is aligned just because the CEO gave final sign-off. Take time as a team to come together to iron out the wrinkles and clarify the nuances of the story. Listen to and respect each others’ views before it’s finalised. Two, three or more times if necessary.

3. Keep the story reasonably high-level. The devil is in the detail, and you risk alienating large swathes of the organisation if you try and include the minutiae that sits behind the story, which will vary from region to region, division to division, team to team.

4. Commit to the story and to each other. Role model constantly. Agree the ground rules before the stable door is opened. Maintain visible unity in public and keep any disagreements for the privacy of the Boardroom

5. Keep the story at the forefront of every conversation that takes place in the business. In this way you will maintain alignment around key messages, whilst having the freedom of interpretation according to your local environment or team

6. Allow leaders to personalise the story so they too can take ownership of it. This means bringing it to life with personal anecdotes and data from their own part of the business

7. Be honest and authentic when telling the story. Don’t try and whitewash it with good news if there’s an uncomfortable truth or challenge to be resolved

8. Hire an external consultant(s) to shape the story with you. It’s sometimes easier to talk honestly and openly to a third party and/or peer and it’s certainly valuable to have an experienced, objective Executive facilitator at the table

9. Regroup regularly to reaffirm commitment to the story and progress being made

10. Remove hard-core terrorists from the team if they are simply unwilling to tow the party line. It sounds drastic, but will save you millions in the long run and will avoid putting the strategy at risk