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Telling stories – fairy tales, case-studies & scenarios….

Telling Stories - At the ICI/Atelis competitive intelligence conference that took place last week (April 6-7, 2011) in Bad Nauheim, Germany there was a panel discussion on story-telling as a method of reporting intelligence. At about the same time, the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) held their 25th annual conference in Vancouver, Washington in the USA. Mary-Ellen Bates described how stories can help information professionals market themselves by showing how their skills can solve client problems. The fact that both conferences looked at story-telling shows how businesses are adopting the technique as a way of addressing complex issues.

Story telling is an ancient art-form that might seem strange as a business tool. However, often stories will be an excellent approach for solving business questions as they allow people to look at a situation objectively, remove themselves from the scene and take an outside view. The trick is to tell the right story, catching the imagination and making people think. During the ICI / Atelis conference I suggested a framework for when different story styles can be used.

The first story type is the “fairy-tale” – the “Once Upon a Time in a Kingdom Far Away” type of story. Fairy-tales are possibly the most abstract example of a story that can be applicable to business. The danger is that they can be seen as childish and far-removed from real-world business realities. In fact, they can be a powerful way of highlighting deep-seated organisational problems, as management refusal to see such problems can be illustrated with stories. Such stories can help managers recognise their own situation, and so identify the problems and think of possible solutions.

Consider a company where the CEO or other senior management refuse to see that their business has changed.  Often such management grew up in the industry and believe that they know it inside out. Accepting that things have changed is anathema to them. A standard comment given by such managers when asked why things are done in a particular way is “We’ve always done it that way“. Essentially such management suffers from corporate denial – or what Ben Gilad called a business taboo in his book “Business Blindspots“.

Telling such managers a fairy-tale story can help them see the problem (assuming that you can arrange a session they will be willing to attend).

Once upon a time, in a far-away country there was a king who loved to sing. He loved to sing so much that he made laws that all his people were to learn his favourite songs.

Every Sunday, the people were to gather in the town squares and village greens and sing the songs the king loved.  The people were happy as they also loved the music and they prided themselves as being the most musical people in the world.

One day, a travelling minstrel sailed into the the kingdom from across the sea – singing a new song. Soon, children started to sing this new song, followed by their parents, and word reached the king that the people were no longer singing the king’s songs but were singing something different.

The king flew into a rage, and put the minstrel into a deep and dark dungeon. However this didn’t stop the minstrel singing – and soon the guards started to sing the new song. The king then made laws saying the new song lacked harmony, was discordant, and that anybody caught singing it would be severely punished.

Gradually the people became unhappier. They liked the new song and wanted to sing it along with the old songs. Instead they stopped singing – and the king got angrier and angrier that his songs were no longer being sung. He tried to force people to sing, but they just sang out-of-tune. He made new laws that said they had to sing on Sundays and Mondays, but found that lots of people said they’d lost their voices from singing so much and so couldn’t sing on Sundays or Mondays. And so the king also got unhappier as he no longer heard his songs being sung as in the past….

The basic lesson for a story such as this is to accept and embrace change – rejecting change is likely to be self-defeating. There are many companies and industries that fail in this – the music industry being a classic example, that lost out by refusing to recognise the impact of music downloading, Napster, iTunes and peer-to-peer file sharing. A fairy-story can help highlight the problems – although the solution will need to come from full discussion and management acceptance.

The second story-type is the traditional case-study. Case studies should be used where the organisation knows the problem, but not the solution. Finding the solution directly is difficult as management is too close to the situation. The case-study serves as a way of examining the problem dispassionately, by looking at a parallel situation involving a company or organisation, from another industry, or market. The aim is to analyse the problem and work out appropriate strategies to solve the problem and apply them to the real situation. The key for a case-study is to find one that matches the organisation’s problems. There is a vast bank of case-studies for a range of industries, topics and problems at the Case Study Clearing House.

A third story-type are future scenarios, generally generated as part of a scenario-planning exercise. Such stories attempt to answer “what if” questions by looking at external factors and their correlations and impacts, and then considering how these could play out in the future. It is essential that such scenarios are internally consistent and that there is a clear line of development from the current situation to the future scenario. This can then allow for strategies to be put in place that take into account what could happen. Such strategies need to be adaptable to changing situations and allow for organisations to prepare for any eventuality.

As a reporting approach, telling stories is one way of putting across ideas that stimulate the imagination, and so can help organisations develop strategies that lead to success. There is a common theme to all three story types: problem identification, its acceptance and the need for strategies to cope with change. They differ in their perspective on the world. The fairy-tale approach looks at understanding problems and overcoming blindspots that relate to the past imposing on the present; case studies look at solving present problems; scenarios are aimed at preparing organisations for the future.

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  1. May 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Looks like you are an expert in this field, good article and keep up the good work, my friend recommended me it.

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  2. September 13, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    I love your article! I intend to incorporate story-telling in my academic teaching, my workshops, blog and my own team-building. As well as corporate work, I work with many women entrepreneurs who do not have advanced degrees and for whom case study examples might be overwhelming. The simplicity and effectiveness of your recommendations will help them achieve Aha! moments.

    • September 13, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      Thank you for this. I’m also a fan of story-telling as a way of putting across information. Also comedy – as this is a great way of communicating things that are uncomfortable or not intuitive. (BTW – not sure if this is relevant to you, but if you come across any entrepreneurs working as information professionals – library consultants, genealogists, marketing researchers, or any other information consultancy, let them know about the Association of Independent Information Professionals – http://www.aiip.org – as this is a great support organisation for newcomers to business as well over 50% of our members are women).

      • September 13, 2012 at 10:40 pm

        And now, the comment on the comment. Funny you should mention comedy. After two years of initial corporate immersion, I left the corporate world to study and work in improvisational comedy for a number of years in Chicago. I am mindful that forcing funny and making fun of are not the same thing as deftly raising sensitive issues and dealing with difficult to discuss problems. I enjoyed working in the corporate arena, where we were asked to bring difficult issues to light through humor and communication. I find that tuning into my passion for humor results in my most authentic and impatcful blogposts, presentations and writing.

        Finally, I will definitely visit http://www.aiip.org. I’m sure it is inspiring. Please feel free to be in touch with any other great suggestions you have. ~ Tess

  1. April 15, 2011 at 10:17 pm

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