Storytelling and Storymaps:
"Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the
error of defining it."
It is no wonder most successful senior executive tell stories. Stories have the unique ability to engage, enchant, disarm, persuade and motivate, often all at the same time. Since the time of cave paintings, stories have helped give meaning to all human activity. Storytelling builds and changes cultures, and reinforces values more powerfully than does any other interaction among people.
In a business setting, storytelling can express the passion a leader has for a vision and, at the same time, build everyone's commitment to the vision's goals. Yet few organizational leaders fully appreciate storytelling's value and fewer yet use it to full advantage.
Organizations already tell stories. They do it with financial reports, slide presentations and the company prospectus. Although this data is important, is it the whole story? Can an organization grow and prosper when motivated solely by data-centric stories?
Imagine if your next staff meeting began with a manager saying, "Once upon a time our founders were working in a garage trying to find a way …." People would immediately be drawn into the meeting in a way that an overhead presentation could never accomplish.
This storytelling approach appeals to the human desire to identify with something larger than us. It connects logic with emotions because it affects the brain's frontal cortex as well as its limbic system.
Now take the example above and imagine behind the speaker a poster depicting your organization's history using a combination of words, illustrations and photographs. A far cry from a pie chart, indeed!
Stories that are expressed graphically, as in the example above, have even more power because they put people on the same page in a memorable way. These graphics, or storymaps, are used in many different ways but fundamentally help organizations communicate. The storymaps serve as touchstone documents for planning and implementing organizational change.
By clearly illustrating streams of activity and transfers of responsibility, storymaps are vital in depicting change initiatives within organizations, including initiatives that are implemented simultaneously on many different levels and in far-reaching locales, They help organizational leaders make compelling presentations that portray complex information in a manner that increases understanding and retention in people.
Storymaps and Archetypal Symbols
Storymaps were used with great effectiveness in a research project aimed at identifying the right mix of ingredients for a household-product company's new breath freshener. The unit's leaders framed the issue with a storymap that depicted two islands - one in shades of green that represented breath freshness and another in somber colors signifying the status quo. The voyage of new product development was represented as a ship moving from one island of sameness to the new island of discovery.
Ships and islands are archetypal symbols, recognized universally for what they represent. It's essential that the elements of a storymap have unambiguous meanings for everyone, irrespective of culture or the impact of recent experience. There are subtleties here.
Shortly after 9/11, a draft of a storymap that used hang gliding to represent change in an industry brought to mind for some unpleasant memories of people leaping out of windows and planes flying into buildings. In another instance a storymap that used river rafting as a symbol for the shared journey a team was about to take had no meaning for people in cultures unfamiliar with the sport. In both cases, new, more compelling metaphors were identified.
For some, visual imagery implies lack of seriousness, childish cartoons, or unfocussed thinking. Yet we use imagery in advertising to tell stories. In fact, entire industries are built around visual storytelling: film, publishing (including graphic novels and comic books), graphic arts, and the fine arts. Visual storytelling is serious business.
Storymaps that Help Implement Change
It's important that employees who are challenged by change be given an opportunity to tell their stories. Employees in a traditional telecom firm being acquired by a new high-tech company feared their history - its tribulations and triumphs - would be disregarded. When storymaps helped employees from both companies tell their stories to each other, both groups realized that they went through similar industry challenges. Each group learned how the other's culture dealt with these challenges, and the newly structured company moved forward with a greater sense of unity and purpose.
Another organization used storymaps to help implement a highly successful system-wide ERP process. The organization's leaders wanted the storymap to meet a broad set of objectives:
The employees had been frustrated by their inability to satisfy customers because of the current system's shortcomings. A storymap expressed this frustration in the form of illustrations depicting various employees, along with comments in comics-type bubbles over their pictures. Another set of illustrations depicted customers and quoted their dissatisfaction with the existing system.
Management took the storymap on the road to help explain the changeover to employees at the various district offices and call centers. Teams of two managers guided small groups of employees through the storymap, group by group.
Following the changeover, the storymap was updated to show the changeover's results and express management's thanks to the employees for their cooperation. It was taken on the road again. It's common for storymaps to appear in new editions and be tagged with version numbers the way software is.
Storymaps can be a valuable change-management tool for leaders in any organization.
Three Steps for Using Storymaps
Following is a step-by-step process for using storymaps to support organizational change of any kind.
1. MESSAGE DEVELOPMENT
The process begins with a definition of what the organization wants to accomplish. What will success look like? Is the strategy sound? Are the implementation plans thorough? Is the entire leadership team on board?
If the leadership team is not aligned on what the finished map will look like and how it will be used, it is likely the project will founder. If, however, the team is committed to the transformative power of storytelling in the organization and empowers a team to leverage its use, it is more likely that the map will become the focus of myriad strategy and communication sessions across the organization.
It's important to resist the urge to immediately jump into resolving the challenge without taking the time to carefully evaluate the planning.
Equally critical is understanding who the stakeholders are and how they will be affected by the change. Storymap development presents the rare opportunity for organizations to solicit opinions and perspectives across the employee base. At the same time, it is important to identify the key stakeholders impacted by the communication. Oftentimes projects have become derailed when a late entrant questions some fundamental aspect of the process.
How the story materializes in the course of developing a map is often difficult to put one's finger on. Sometimes a key executive creates a white paper that, in turn, is vetted and accepted by the organization's leadership. In other cases, a leadership group works on a plan collectively, and out of its work emerges the germ of the story needing to be communicated.
This step in the process begins with the creation of the narrative the storymap will be based on. Beginning with rough, conceptual drafts, and moving through ever more refined iterations, storymaps begin to house the imagery that brings the story to life.
The story is then honed. Each successive version of the map is examined for accuracy, and the manner in which its components are illustrated is evaluated for appropriateness and importance. The nuance here is as subtle as is required, given that the goal is to create a map from which common stories can be told. If the map is confusing or incomplete, the resulting stories will be equally so.
The versioning process mirrors that of software releases in that each succeeding version is more complete and coherent than the previous version. It allows for the fact that the story is never finished and another version could be right around the corner.
The final, rollout phase in the storymapping process can be thought of in traditional ad-campaign ways. Usually the organization's leadership assigns an internal team to plan the rollout of storymap communications, taking into account the unique culture of the organization. Managers need to be coached all through the process on how to leverage the storymap. The methods employed can range from a traditional training program to the creation of a "media event" wherein guest speakers use the map as a way to tell stories and generate excitement within an organization.
Sustaining the message involves returning to the map periodically and updating or reworking its content when appropriate. New-hire orientations, strategic offsites, online corporate portals, training sessions, and the like all can play a powerful role in having stories live on in organizations.
Laurie Durnell is a principal consultant and Robert Pardini is director of design for The Grove Consultants International, which helps organizations visualize and implement change. Durnell has 15 years of experience in organizational consulting, team development and management. She has designed and delivered programs incorporating storymaps and experience-based training for many corporations and public-benefit organizations. Pardini has managed the firm's design team and worked with clients in the design and production of learning systems, process tools, storymaps and other customized communications materials for more than 15 years. A published author who is currently working on a graphic novel, he coordinates the firm's extensive network of design and production specialists. Visit www.grove.com for additional information and contact Laurie_durnell@grove.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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