Recently, I had the chance to speak with two organizations who had both attended the same training as part of the Think Money First Accelerator program I co-presented with Social Sector Partners in October 2017. The storytelling part of the program was a half-day focused on storytelling for communicating with funders and, perhaps more importantly, transforming internal culture and core beliefs.
Six months after the training, many of the organizations reported not only retaining much of the information from our time together, but also implementing new strategies and approaches.
Two organizations in particular stood out. Both had implemented story-based strategies with the aim of increasing team members’ connection with themselves, each other, and the organization’s mission.
One reported great success, the other reported challenges with the process. Examining each organization’s approach reveals a few key best practices when it comes to moving organizations towards a Storytelling Culture.
Organization A: ‘We were amazed at how quickly we saw change!’
The first organization decided to start at the staff level. They invited two staff members to participate in a new storytelling program. Each staff member sat with a teammate who had attended the training and had the chance to find, develop, and workshop their story.
The stories were solicited using specific questions including:
What is a moment that has really resonated with you during your time here?
What has surprised you most about your experience with our clients?
What’s a moment where you felt particularly effective or ineffective? What did this moment teach you?
With questions like this as a starting point, the staff member and story-facilitator worked together to shape a ‘Self-Us-Now’ narrative, practice the story, and workshop it in preparation for sharing it at a staff meeting. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but, according to the story-facilitator, only took about two hours.
Dedicating the first 10 minutes of a staff meeting to sharing the stories had an electric effect.
The storytellers reported feeling empowered, supported, and more connected with their fellow staff members. The staff shared that the stories had helped them see their teammates in more depth, but also helped them reconnect with their own stories. Most notably, many people expressed interested in cultivating and sharing their own stories. Today, all staff meetings start with stories and the organization reports that the practice has radically changed the tenor of their meetings.
At the Board level, the organization introduced storytelling in much the same way. They started with two board members and walked them through the workshopping process. The impact was similarly powerful:
The board members who shared their stories felt more connected to their role on the Board and to the organization.
Other members of the board gained an expanded understanding of their fellow members.
And, as happened at the staff level, other board members expressed strong interest in sharing their stories.
Beyond the cultural impact, the introduction of storytelling organization-wide also impacted the agency’s strategic priorities.
‘As more staff members shared their stories, opportunities for strategic growth presented themselves. These opportunities were brought to the Board level, presented both through story and data, and subsequently adopted as priorities.
What began as an effort to bring more humanity into the organization not only succeeded in its original intention, but also brought a new approach to the development of organizational strategy.
The process described above took six months and no additional expenses.
Organization B: ‘We found it really challenging.’
Like Organization A, Organization B sought to bring storytelling into their agency to deepen relationships among staff and board members. However, their implementation looked a bit different.
Instead of offering an invitation to specific staff members and moving through a process with them, they simply asked staff members to share a story at a meeting. Without orientation, preparation, and support, the staff members felt like they had been ‘put on the spot.’
Rather than asking specific questions, Organization B simply requested that staff members ‘tell a story.’ The stories that emerged were broad and unstructured. Both storytellers and staff reported feeling confused and ungrounded in the process.
The experience was so uncomfortable that the organization backed off and put the project on hold until they could receive additional guidance.
When Organization B shared their experience with me, they wondered if there was something intrinsically more challenging about the dynamics within their organization. Without spending much more time with them, I couldn’t help address that concern. I did, however, use the example of Organization A to point out where they could strengthen their approach to the project to address the challenges that emerged.
The experiences of these two organizations, both of which received the same training at the same time, sheds a light on strategies and practices that can help organizations integrate storytelling into their culture with relative ease:
Because ‘story’ is so universally accessible, it may seem as though integrating into something as basic as a staff meeting is simple. As Organization B’s experience demonstrates, this assumption may lead to deep challenges. As with any new program, initiative, or offering, adopting a conscious, step-wise approach is integral to building a storytelling culture.