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Story Power for Teams, Part 1

Once Upon a Time...

In recent years the business world has rediscovered the ancient tradition of storytelling, a communication technique that team leaders will find to be a highly effective management tool. The practice has received attention from some of the country's most successful, well-established companies and Fast Company magazine; the self-described arbiter of "how smart business works" has featured the power of story a number of times. One such article featured executives at Nike, which operates on the belief that "the best way for a company to create a prosperous future is to make sure all of its employees understand the company's past." ("The Nike Story? Just Tell It!" is available online by visiting the magazine's website at http://www.fastcompany.com/online/31/nike.html and launching a search for "Nike.")

Stories Captivate Listeners...

Stories are an effective way to communicate because they captivate people, reaching both their heads and their hearts. The Walt Disney Company is one stellar example of an organization that applies this principle very effectively. In The Disney Way, authors Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson explain that Disney not only operates a business with the purpose of telling great stories but also runs the business with storyboarding. And, as Brian Ferren, planner, futurist and Executive Vice President of Creative Technology and Research for Walt Disney Imagineering, points out, "I've never seen a great military, political, or corporate leader who was not a great storyteller. Telling stories is a core competency in business, although it's one that we don't pay enough attention to."

FedEx, 3M, and The Container Store are among the leading companies that deliberately use stories to achieve their goals. Why? Stories help companies - and the teams within them - to:

  • Clarify and perpetuate values
  • Communicate vision
  • Build understanding, agreement and community (shared meaning)
  • Share knowledge and successes
  • Engender pride in identity and accomplishments

Story Conveys Meaning

Through a well-crafted and well-told story you can convey complex concepts and meaning quickly and successfully because stories are:

  • Memorable - We live in stories. Even though story plots might be more complex than a set of numbers, the fact that they engage both sides of the brain makes them more memorable. According to research done by Roger Schank, director of the Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, when we hear a story we take it in and compare it to what we already have in memory. By noting its similarities or differences we can index and understand new information more quickly and effectively.
  • Believable - According to research with quantitatively trained MBAs - who were asked to evaluate the believability of information about a winery's advertising campaign - stories are more believable than statistics or statistics combined with story. Stories show us, they don't tell us about a situation or individual; they relate the universal to the particular and vice versa.
  • Inspiring - Good stories have emotional content that enables listeners to connect with the teller while personalizing information and making meaning based on their own experiences, values and goals. Telling and listening to stories can help to align individual and company values and goals; this is a crucial requirement for effectively harnessing the collective power of individuals comprising a team.

Using Stories In Teams

Stories and teams have a lot in common. For example, successful stories don't just happen, and neither do successful teams. They require time and attention to develop. Just like stories, teams have a beginning, middle and an end. Just like stories, teams have characters, a story line or plot and a purpose. Just like stories, teams generate emotions. In fact, the work of most teams follows the classic plot line of ancient hero stories; each team member leaves his or her everyday world to take on a challenge or adventure and must overcome obstacles along the way. Throughout the adventure (project), each member grows and learns, then returns to the everyday world a changed person who has accomplished a "great feat." In working together, each team creates its own hero story: they come together for a given purpose, meet the challenges along the way, and emerge victorious (or not). When team members return to their everyday worlds and "tribes," they've been transformed by the shared experience and bring fresh insights and expanded wisdom that contribute to improved organizational performance.

How Stories Help Teams

Stories also can help facilitate the team's progress through the inevitable--and often challenging--stages of its development:

  • Forming. At this stage, the team members gather to get acquainted, to identify the skills and strengths that each brings to the project, and usually, to identify the team's leadership style. Team members have left their everyday world and are learning about this new world of the team. Sharing personal and/or career development stories to inform the other "characters" of relevant experiences and to establish personal connections enables team members to establish bonds and commonality and begin creating a cohesive, mutually supportive team.
  • Storming. After the group forms, team members begin to express differences as they work on establishing goals, assigning roles and agreeing on priorities. This stage is the first of many challenges the team will face. It is crucial that each person has a chance to express his/her perspective in a safe environment to set the stage for future discussions and high quality decision-making. Consensus is achieved more easily when each person has an opportunity to tell stories, either of past successes or of contributions that they expect to make toward achieving the team's goals. Storytelling also is helpful in conveying the importance of hearing all perspectives before making decisions.
  • Norming. Next the team sets out the rules or values that will guide its working throughout its adventure. These rules or values are what will enable member to fulfill the roles and meet their goals. These become touchstones for the team to use when they face difficulties and are often reflected in stories about "how we do things around here" or as the core of survival stories. They are a key part of the team's heritage or "sacred bundle" that make it what it is. The plot thickens as the team story continues to develop!
  • Performing. As the work project that brought the team together gets into high gear, each member of the group contributes their unique talents, knowledge and skills. Now as the adventure progresses and the heroic team works toward success, members celebrate accomplishments and congratulate one another as is made toward the ultimate goals. A true team spirit emerges and fuels the team's rededication to its shared purpose and the team story builds to its climax.
  • Adjourning. When the work of the team is completed and the adventure is over, it may be appropriate for the team to disband and bring this particular team story to an end. At the end of its work, the team will find it helpful to review their shared story and heritage before returning to their regular jobs. By doing so everyone can relive and relearn, recounting their hero and survival stories in celebration of their success and their stories of learning, gained both from their successes and any failures along the way. A final telling of the team's tales increases the likelihood that the story and its lessons will live on. And rather than the end of a team's project being the end of its story; it actually becomes a step in moving the entire organization into the future together.

Continue to Part 2

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Story Power for Teams, Part 1
Story Power for Teams, Part 2