Orchestrating with stories
“Stories are a way to capture the relationships between things.” – Gregory Bateson
We live in complex times: organisations are constantly changing, teams are more diverse by the minute. And in our global world, people work across languages, cultures, and time zones on a daily basis. While this complexity certainly keeps things interesting, it can also be quite challenging.
In March, Deloitte released its report on Global Human Capital Trends, which surveyed over 11,000 business and HR leaders across the world. They found the “most pressing human capital issue” facing organisations today is the need for the C-Suite to break down their own siloes and collaborate. “To navigate today’s constantly changing business environment and address cross-disciplinary challenges, a company’s top leaders must act as one.”
Deloitte calls this model “the symphonic C-Suite”: the members work together as “a symphony of specialized experts playing in harmony— instead of a cacophony of experts who sound great alone, but not together.” There is a shift towards teams leading teams, and the goals of this symphonic C-Suite are: tapping opportunities, managing risks, and building relationships with stakeholders, ultimately leading to growth for organisations.
Storytelling is particularly valuable in these dynamic environments where many factors are constantly in flux. When dealing with complexity and many moving parts, it is important to see things in context rather than isolation. Stories capture the interconnected nature of things, allowing us to hold certain things constant as others are changing.
Returning to Deloitte’s model of the symphonic C-Suite, storytelling can be a key tool for leaders to communicate their own context and values to connect with their team, both in terms of who they are what they do. The goal of the symphonic C-Suite is to foster a collaborative team of cross-functional experts. Building effective cross-functional teams can be difficult: when we come from completely different areas, it can sometimes feel like we’re speaking entirely different languages.
Stories help bridge this divide by establishing a common language, helping us see that the different fields are not actually disparate languages, but rather different dialects of the same language. When we tell stories, we offer the listener space to process our experience through their own lens. We build connections and see overlaps that may otherwise have been missed.
If we hope to decentralise power structures, we need trust, a clear understanding of vision and purpose, and a combination of macro and micro views. With shared narratives, people can weave in and out of various roles, so long as the vision is always clear.
A professor of mine at university told me that years after taking her class, students wouldn’t remember much but they always remembered her stories.
And it’s true. We remember examples and stories because we connect with them emotionally. As an educator, I have seen how you can explain something to students for 30 minutes with no success, but give them one example and they’ve suddenly got it.
Stories give us something to latch on to and can be very effective teaching tools: they tell us what happened, how leaders acted, how people responded, and what the outcome was – in a clear and engaging way. They are examples of demonstrated action (or perhaps, inaction) that give us a chance to consider how we might behave if faced with a similar context or situation.
In an article in Harvard Business Review, Maura Thomas talks about the difference between intention and action. She quotes the famous psychologist William James, who said “your experience is what you attend to. And your experiences become your life.” Consider the shift several years ago to behavioral interviews over the old standard interview. Why do employers care about “a time when…” something actually happened rather than a hypothetical example of what someone might do in the future? Because we learn a lot from stories and behaviour: it’s demonstrated action in context.
They say it can get lonely at the top. Senior leaders can use storytelling to identify shared challenges and successes amongst themselves, helping to build genuine relationships and modeling for others to follow suit.
At The Storytellers, we view leadership as a capability rather than a position. So the question is: how can leaders empower others to actually take the reins and to develop their own leadership capabilities?
Most leaders are familiar with the case of the timid intern: the one who can’t make a decision on his own, can’t generate new tasks independently, and is constantly asking you what to do. Understandably, it’s hard to take the reins if you are not quite sure where to go.
Consider a jigsaw puzzle. People first identify task preferences, potentially based on their strengths (e.g., I’ll take the corners, you collect all the blue pieces). They can then work independently but must also keep an eye on what others are doing to identify points of overlap or connection. For any of this to work, however, the first and most crucial step is that everyone understands the goal: the picture on the puzzle box.
In organisations, the “picture on the box” is a shared narrative. It allows cross-functional teams to collaborate effectively; when teams and organisations craft a shared narrative, people feel a sense of belonging and ownership, and can see their own evolving role in the greater story. They can feel more comfortable taking on leadership if they know that they’re moving in the right direction and have a sense of the interrelatedness of the team and their work.
Stories also help us connect to our team members: understanding who they are and what they care about. As teams become more interdependent, they build trust and begin to feel accountable to one another. Strengths and weaknesses come to light and each person’s growth and development becomes a success for the team.
As a graduate student at Harvard, I worked with some colleagues to investigate the team dynamics of a high performing a cappella group. We observed weekly rehearsals and interviewed several members about what they felt made them so successful. The one thing we heard time and again was: we are all friends; we love hanging out with each other. It seemed their close relationships were not so much a by-product of being in the group, but rather, a pre-requisite to join; friendship was central to the group’s ongoing narrative and an integral part of how they on-boarded new members. The group agreed that the depth of their relationships was largely connected to the high quality of their musical performance.
The phrase “team-building” is thrown around so often these days that it has lost some of its meaning; it often ends up as a box to check or another PD exercise to endure. But the value of actually taking time to build relationships cannot be understated. It’s important to remember: strong relationships are the foundation of strong teams. And stories are the foundation of relationships. While data can give us information about things, stories also communicate the relationships between them. In fact, I like to think that if humanity could be measured, stories would be the unit.
Associate of The Storytellers.
Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends (2018). https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/focus/human-capital-trends.html
Thomas, Maura. (March 15, 2018). To Control Your Life, Control What You Pay Attention To. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/03/to-control-your-life-control-what-you-pay-attention-to