Narrative: Getting more than you bargained for

September 18, 2007

I (Aiden Choles) sometimes wonder if business leaders know what they’re missing out on by not embracing narrative techniques within their businesses. I remember facilitating an Anecdote Circle that drove this point home for me (which also caught the business by surprise a little). It was the first time this business had engaged in a narrative process when dealing with a problem. The issue at hand was a particularly bad run of resignations that had gutted the business of talented individuals during the course of a 12 month period.

When asked how I would approach the problem, I suggested that a narrative enquiry, in the form of an Anecdote Circle, be used to elicit narratives on the problem.

These narratives would be used to explore the nature of the problem and to expose emergent solutions. The answer caught them off-guard a little. I suspect they were anticipating that I’d suggest a unique blend of tried-and-tested retention initiatives as their solution (just like a competitor who was also punting for the work had suggested).

And so, in running the Anecdote Circle, I used one question to elicit the narratives: What are the significant experiences you have had as you either entered, or exited, this organization? (The “exited” part gave the participants space and freedom to share anecdotes that weren’t necessarily theirs). As the anecdotes began to surface, I had a sneaking suspicion that we were hearing about more than just retention in the organization. This was confirmed by the group when we reviewed the anecdotes for emergent themes.

“These stories tell us more about who we are as a company than they do about retention!” said an Exco-member who had participated in the session. It was then that I realized that an anecdote, shared in relation to a specific question, will embody and communicate a deeper characteristic of the organization. I kind of knew this on an intellectual level, that narratives carry with them complex levels of information, but now had confirmation from a client as well!

After one Anecdote Circle we had more than enough information regarding the nature of the retention problem as well as a heap of information regarding the organizational culture in general. All in one Anecdote Circle! Now I’ll grant that this is in part because of the sample of employees we had in the session (representative from all the business units). But consider the cost implications for a business who wants to gather organizational culture information in a time and budget conscious manner! Not only do narrative techniques gather more than one would expect, they gather all of this in a very short amount of time.

There are no doubt some advanced narrative practitioners reading this and muttering to themselves, “But we know this already Aiden?” Sure, but the reality is that in many parts of the world (South Africa being one) such techniques need fairly extensive and in-depth sales processes to convince business leaders to engage with them. My experience above captures some nice selling points for practitioners aiming to sell narrative projects (both internally and into clients).

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