I was enjoying a pint of Red Ant Ale in the Mountain Brewery here in Big Bear Lake and chatting with the owners and locals about narrative. I’ve been up here in the San Bernardino mountains the best part of week writing and you get to know people. If you ever come here breakfast at the Grizzly Manor cafe, not just for the food but for the whole ambiance, not to mention the staff.
One of the questions that came up was what types os stories you see in organisations. I came up with a few at the time and started to take notes completing the list this evening over a glass of Bunnahabhain. Now Patrick Lambe in a typically well written blog makes the point that Typologies can be useful devices for structuring a conversation and I offer the list in that spirit and also as a tentative list for comment. It is not a rigid or closed typology but an indication of functions. In practice any story will have aspects of several of these in its nature, few if any will be in one type. Neither are they necessarily good or bad, its a common mistake to assume that a particular story form can achieve a specific outcome or has some essential nature.
These type of stories evolve over time in organisations. Fragments clump in similar ways, additional anecdotal material is added, the story modifies over time to accommodate changing context. The form and structure may change.
- Identity stories are those which help define the ideation culture of the organisation. Most people pick up the basic form and create their own versions or modifications. This can include Founder stories in some organisations. Most people in IBM for example used to tell Thomas J Watson Jr. stories, and I have some my own Gerstner stories, built on direct experience, but which have many of the common characteristics of other peoples. You see the same thing in families, those stories that are told time and time again whenever the family assembles.
- Sacred stories have an overlap with the above, but represent something beyond the ordinary. They can take many forms, fictional and reported facts. Stories of how an organisation came back from near bankruptcy for example. They are not always positive, they can be controlling stories that prevent people from breaking orthodoxy.
- Training stories represent one of the most valuable knowledge assets in any organisation. Often told and retold many times by a small number of trainers/mentors to new joiners they convey keen learnings and can establish phrases and sayings. They may be generated for each individual afresh through common shared experiences. A lot of organisations lost something of value when they moved to eLearning solutions in part through the loss of trainers, but also through the loss of a shared training experience.
I am not all sure about these, and have had one major run in with Steve Denning (I will post the exchange next week) on the issue of the ethics of “taming the grapevine”, and I have removed one type of story virus from our teaching on ethical grounds. However they are worth knowing about.
- Propaganda created centrally to convey an attitude or belief, intention can be negative or positive, form is always manipulative in nature but can be very effective. Now my firm belief is that organisations are better working with the natural flow of anecdotes within their organisation, encouraging and discouraging through multiple safe-fail experiments rather than some centrally designed communication programme.
- Janet & John Stories represent attempted propaganda which is simply too good to be true. The names differ in other cultures: Bob & Betsy in Canada, Dick & Jane in the USA and Sion a Sian in Wales. In cases early reader books with a hero and heroine are too good to be true. I could have called this one ineffective or counter-productive propaganda, but I like Janet and John better.
- Character Assassination stories associate an image or an idea with a group or individual that make them an object of hatred or contempt. To be effective they should take a commonly known characteristic of the individual or group, exaggerate it and associate it with believable lies so that even the persons best friend will believe they are true. A common tool of corporate politics their use is to be despised. There is of course the Mark Anthony variant in which the pretense of support is given: I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him …
Other naturally occurring stories
This is a less complete list (I had moved on from Red Ant to the darker and delightful Grizzly Bear) and I will expand it later
- Entertainment remains a staple form of story, both public performance and also the semi-private after dinner yarn
- Memory triggers are stories that act as reminders of key events or learning and can be linked to ritual
- Belief stories are a specialised form or identity story which may also be sacred
- Metaphor stories can create complex meaning or act as sabotage
The form of delivery can also be significant and is easily nuanced. Stories can be nihilistic, cynical, factual, naive, artificial, evangelical and other stages between and beyond but I will leave that for another day