Story & Conversation

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Story & Conversation in Organisations: A Survey

Richard Seel, 2003.

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Introduction—Images of Organisation

Gareth Morgan (1986) has taught us the value of using different metaphors to look at organisations. For most of the last century the mechanical metaphor, associated with Taylor (1947) & Fayol (1949), was dominant. Managers have been urged to find ‘levers’ for change; consultants have a ‘tool kit’ which can be used to implement new ways of working; team ‘building’ is seen as an appropriate activity; and so on.

Since the 1980s, and before, writers and consultants have been urging organisations to see themselves as living systems, employing a different set of metaphors. People must now be ‘nurtured’; managers are like gardeners, change happens in ‘ecocycles’ (Hurst 1995). These are sometimes coupled with metaphors taken from complexity theory: teams ‘self-organise’ (Macready & Meyer 1999); strategy ‘emerges’ (Mintzberg 1985); and so on.

Most recently we have seen the rise of linguistic metaphors: organisations are seen as a network of interacting stories (Denning 2001); culture is the emergent result of conversations (Seel 2000); the core elements of a process are the commitments made by individuals to one another (Winograd & Flores 1986).

I want to concentrate here on these linguistic metaphors because I believe they have something very important to say to us about the nature of organisations and organisation change. This is not the only, or even the best, way of seeing—there are times when the mechanical model is still best; times when organic metaphors will be most helpful. But stories and conversations are where much of the creative energy is currently being expended and that is where the focus of this piece will be.

The nature of organisation

I sometimes approach the nature of organisation by looking at kinds of change.


 Process change: BPR, process mapping, commitments, etc.


System change: IT, HR, Health & Safety etc. (Not the same as systemic change.)


Structural change: Functional, geographical, matrix, etc.


Organisational change: Changing the co-creating pattern of relationships between people who have an interest in one or more of an overlapping set of values, goals and aspirations . This pattern is the organisation.

Most change initiatives focus on process, system or structure, even when they claim to be focusing on the organisation or the culture (culture is what we call the emergent result of all the patterns of relationship which make the organisation.)

To use another natural world metaphor: organisations are like whirlpools or tornados—there is a reasonably stable and recognisable pattern which is only sustained because there is a constant throughput of energy and matter. This is the paradox of far-from-equilibrium dynamics: without constant change there would be no stability.

Conditions for emergence

In a system like this, fundamental change—that is to say, a move from one pattern to another—will always be emergent and self-organising, that is to say it will be the result of changes in the interactions between the people in the organisation and cannot be predicted or controlled. We still don’t know much about emergence in complex systems but I have come up with a list of possible factors which might have an influence:



It is not essential that everyone is connected to everyone else—indeed, that is likely to stop emergence. But emergence is much less likely if there are disconnected ‘islands’ in the organisation or if ‘silos’ exist.



If there is not enough diversity in the system if will be hard for different patterns to emerge; too much diversity will impact negatively on attempts to find sufficient cohesion for emergence. Most organisations tend to have too little diversity.

Rate of information flow


Information overload can inhibit emergence (too much cc-ing of e-mails, for instance). On the other hand, emergence is also unlikely if the free flow of information is blocked.

Lack of inhibitors


There are many factors which can inhibit emergence. Three which seems especially significant to me are related to power, identity and anxiety. Emergence is unlikely if power differentials are too great or too small;, if a sense of organisational identity is threatened; or if potential change arouses too much uncontained anxiety.

Good constraints to action


Emergence is much more likely if there are some clear constraints to possible action. It is generally more fruitful to specify what may not be done and then give explicit permission for anything else to be attempted.



Because people have free will and intentionality their desires can influence the shape of any emergent outcome. A clear sense of shared vision can be very fruitful.

Watchful anticipation


Because emergence is unpredictable, it may be necessary to wait. This is a skill which is not common among business people, especially in the West. It is best if this is not a passive waiting but is filled with an expectancy and openness to potentiality.

The interactions between people are what make up organisation. Patterns of meaning and commitment swirl and dissipate minute-by-minute without ceasing. The effectiveness of these conversations is, in large part, a measure of the effectiveness of the organisation. If the conversations are rich, diverse and unconstrained there is the possibility of creative and adaptive change. If not, the organisation will be doomed to repeat itself until it is so far out of alignment with its environment that it will die.


Perhaps the most common complaint about modern organisational life is ‘poor communication’. Nothing could be more eloquent in support of the position that organisational life is essentially about conversation. Good conversations lead to high productivity and customer satisfaction; poor conversations do the converse.

It is also clear that most of us are not very good at workplace conversations. We say things which we ought not to say and we do not say things which we ought to say and there is no health in the organisation (with apologies to the Book of Common Prayer).

A simple example will suffice. Patterson et al (2002:22) tell of a woman who went to hospital to have her tonsils removed. The surgeon amputated part of her foot! Of course, there was an inquiry and the chilling fact emerged that seven people had thought that there was something wrong happening and not one of them spoke up. Mistakes will happen in any system, but here, because the culture did not permit open conversation (or because the conversations had not created an open culture—it’s co-creating) an avoidable accident turned into a culpable disaster for the poor patient.

There are no quick fixes for poor conversations and toxic cultures but a number of the approaches indicated below offer some food for thought. Many of them try to put forward effective ways of having good conversations; or else they are concerned to try to disclose the ‘atomic units’ of conversation.


The physicist David Bohm developed an approach to conversation which he called dialogue. Dialogue, “creates the opportunity for each participant to examine the preconceptions, prejudices and the characteristic patterns that lie behind his or her thoughts, opinions, beliefs and feelings, along with the roles he or she tends habitually to play. And it offers an opportunity to share these insights.” (Bohm et al 1991)

Bohm contrasts dialogue (derived from Greek words implying ‘a flow of meaning’) with discussion (derived from Latin words implying, ‘a shaking apart’). The former is generative and collaborative, the latter analytical and often competitive. Table 1 gives a flavour of the difference between the two:



Starts with listening

Starts with talking

Is about speaking with...

Is about talking to…

Focuses on insights

Focuses on differences

Is collaborative

Is adversarial

Generates ideas

Generates conflicts

Encourages reflection

Encourages quick thinking

Encourages emergence

Encourages lock in

Table 1. Dialogue & Discussion

Dialogue can often be frustrating. David Bohm viewed this frustration as essential and felt that it should be experienced and valued rather than dissipated. This generally requires a lot of meeting time and a lack of ‘escape routes’. Dialogue, for Bohm, is essentially subversive. It will therefore always tend to destroy or at least re-make an organisation. Furthermore, dialogue does not have a ‘purpose’ or outcome in mind. It is its own justification and so will probably not be useful in organisational life.

Bohm’s view has not stopped people trying to use and develop forms of dialogue for use in organisations and a few of these are given below.

Dialogic Leadership

William Isaacs, director of the MIT dialogue project, is also interested in dialogue though his approach is somewhat different from Bohm’s. Using ideas from Donald Kantor, a family systems therapist, Isaacs offers a ‘four player model’ of conversation.

Figure 1. Four player model.

Any effective conversation has four aspects, or roles. Although each of us has a preferred role, we can play all of them. The art of good conversation is to find the right balance between roles; if one dominates, conversation will be stilted and ineffective. Dialogue tends to break down if one or more of the participants gets ‘stuck’ in a role or if patterns arise which exclude one or more of the roles.

Isaacs also fits Argyris & Schön’s distinction (1978) between ‘inquiry’ and ‘advocacy into his four player model. Inquiry requires bystanding and following; advocacy requires a good balance between moving and opposing (figure 2). An effective leader will work to find a balance between inquiry and advocacy in conversations.

 Figure 2. Inquiry & Advocacy

Isaacs also offers four conversational skills which can help each of the four roles to be more effective (figure 3). Learning to voice effectively is important if we are to be heard by others in the conversation; the better we can listen the more effective we will be in the role of following; respect for the other participants is key if we are to oppose in a constructive way, keeping the conversational flow intact; and finally, it is essential for the bystander that we are able to suspend our own ideas and opinions in such a way that both we and others can examine them and see their strengths and weaknesses.

Figure 3. Skills for dialogue.


Anthony Blake has looked at some the basic configurations which can occur in conversation. By isolating some ‘ideal types’ he offers us the opportunity of noticing patterns and practising them. A few of Blake’s configurations are given here.


Monalogue—one person speaks, others listen deeply but with no feedback. The experience of being listened to can in itself be therapeutic and revelatory. Respectful engaged silence is not often practiced in organisations; perhaps it should be.


Dyalogue—Blake experimented with three forms of two-person conversation. The first is yes-and (not ‘yes-but’), where each participant must agree with what the other has said and then amplify and develop it—a bit like a positive feedback loop. The second is no-but where each has to disagree with the other but without simply repeating the same argument; each ‘round’ of the conversation has to come up with something different. The third is sameness in which, when one person stops talking, the other continues in the ‘same voice’, not adding or subtracting but really trying to ‘get inside’ the other’s position.


Trialogue—each of the three participants has to speak in turn. Each can take a different position. For instance, A may ask a question, B answer and C comments. The comment must be relevant to what A and B have said and must enhance the meaning. Then the cycle continues. Other roles are possible: for instance, A may speak from intellect, B from feeling and C from sensation.


Tetralogue—with four participants the possibilities become even richer. “Out of several possibilities, the following structure for the roles of A, B, C and D seems to work best. A expresses some view on the topic. B then expresses a contrary, alternative, view (cf. dyalogue). In turn, C expresses an enhanced, supportive version of B’s view. D then expresses a contrary view to C; and A must then express a view supportive of D! And so on.” Blake also notes that tetralogue has a number of similarities with Isaac’s version of Kantor's four roles and suggests that it could be used to help people become more sensitive to the flow of positions in an effective dialogue.

(See more at

Circular questioning

The Milan Group of systematic family therapists was greatly influenced by the work of Gregory Bateson who came to believe that families are systems of individuals who are themselves systems. Mind, body, action and the bodies acted upon are all part of a circuit of  mental activity. The mind/body dichotomy is thereby dissolved. What in linear dualistic thinking might be called a disease of the mind became for Bateson a result of patterns of interaction in the client’s system, probably the family system. The Milan therapists developed a range of interventions designed to help family members become aware of some of the patterns of interaction which they habitually repeated.

Some consultants have used some of these interventions in their work in organisations. One of the most widely-used is ‘circular questioning.’ Essentially, it consists of avoiding the direct question and instead asking a less direct question, often of someone else—“Peter, what is your sense of the way John is feeling about Jane’s point of view?”

There are three aspects to circular questioning as practiced by the Milan therapists. The first is to do with helping people shift perspective. Instead of asking John, as a first-person participant, why he feels the meeting is a waste of time, Peter is asked to act as observer and offer his comments. In this way the patterns of interaction start to become explicit and John receives feedback about his interactions with Jane.

Secondly, circular questioning can help with neutrality—instead of the therapist or consultant engaging directly with the client or offering feedback, the responsibility is put back into the system. This is not to say that the consultant or therapist is outside the system; family therapists will ask themselves circular questions in the presence of the client: “What do you think the biggest challenge this board is currently facing?” Again, being confronted with this indirect feedback from the consultants can help make the tacit assumptions of the group become clearer.

The third aspect of the Milan approach involves hypothesising. The therapists will ask questions which trigger exploration of possible explanations for behaviour patterns: “what benefits do you think there might be for the board in failing to come to a decision about this matter?”

Circular questioning can also be used to connect past and present, future and present: “Peter, you mentioned that things were different when you joined the organisation. How would it be if we still did things that way?”

Systemic interventions such as circular questioning or ‘circulating conversation’ (break into a number of small groups; one group starts discussing a topic, the other listen; after a few minutes the next group takes up the topic, building on what they have heard; and so on at least twice round the whole circle) are not widely used in organisational work, yet as more people experiment with them I am sure that they will become more common and more useful.

(See, e.g. and

Conversation mapping

The work of Marcial Losada (1999) is not as widely known as it should be. He observed a number of business teams at work, mainly involved in planning activities and coded the interactions on according to a number of criteria—ration of advocacy to inquiry; ratio of positive to negative statements; ratio of internally-focused statements (self) to externally focused statements (other) and the amount of connectivity between team members. He also assessed the effectiveness of the teams on a number of dimensions. His results were as follows:

Team Type





High Performance




Positive Dominant

Medium Performance


Towards Advocacy

Towards Self


Low Performance


Advocacy Dominant

Self Dominant

Negative Dominant

Table 2. Characteristics of high performance teams

I have used this model as the basis for a conversation mapping exercise with an executive team. Together with a colleague I coded the interactions between the members of the team while they were engaged in one of their regular meetings. The subsequent feedback was very illuminating for them.

Conversing as Organising

Patricia Shaw uses conversation as the basis of her organisational work. Indeed, she is explicit: “I will not be writing about conversations that take place ‘in’ an organization, but about conversing as organizing.” (2002:11)

Shaw works by joining conversations which are already taking place between people. Using her skill and experience (she is a Gestalt therapist as well as an experienced consultant) she enables people to have conversations about the things that interest and matter to them, rather than the things they think they ‘ought’ to talk about. From this, new patterns of relating, influencing and energising may emerge. Her way of working is subtle and not easily explained unless experienced. One way in which she attempts to uncover it is by using a hypothetical questioner to interrogate herself about her practice. For instance:

Questioner: What part did you play? Were you facilitating the meeting?

Responder: If by facilitating you mean participating as fully and responsively as I can in the conversation, voicing my opinions, associations and ideas along with everyone else, then yes.

Questioner: But surely that is what everyone is doing! Why engage you?

Responder: Yes, exactly. But I have slowly developed a practical feel for the process of shaping and patterning in communication as I participate. (2002:32)

Of course, that’s not most people’s definition of facilitation but this is key to Shaw’s work—the notion of a detached facilitator does not make sense in this way of viewing organisation. One of Patricia Shaw’s opening questions is often something like, “Who else would be interested in having a conversation about this? Why don’t we invite them along?” She is interested in people who are interested in conversing. The Q&A is continued after an account of a meeting Shaw had had with a client group.

Questioner: You seem to have picked out a key group of informal influencers to gather together to initiate further change at the plant.

Responder: Be careful. You are looking at the process of how informal leadership emerges and then ascribing this as something ‘in’ the individuals who came together….I am paying attention to the way influence arises in webs of relationships in particular contexts… (2002:38)

Questioner: You do not seem to discuss any ‘ground rules’ for making the most of the gatherings or discuss any kind of objectives, you just seem to start.

Responder: Yes, I am not trying to set up a special kind of interaction. These discussions have an ‘everyday quality’—they are messy, branching, meandering, associative and engaging. (2002:39)

Crucial conversations

Kerry Patterson and his colleagues have produced a somewhat different guide to have more effective conversation in organisation. They concentrate on crucial conversations (2002); on how to be effective when the stakes are high. The perspective is very much focused on the individual and how individuals can become more effective communicators.

They emphasise the need to get the ‘pool of shared meaning’ as full as possible, preferably by using dialogue. But in crucial conversations we are likely to become anxious and if we do, primitive flight or fight reflexes—or silence or violence, as they call it—are likely to take over. Three styles of each are identified. Silence can take the form of masking, avoiding or withdrawing. Violence can be controlling, labelling or attacking.

The book is full of useful information and perspectives but has a rather ‘old paradigm’ flavour—for instance, the subtitle is “tools for talking when stakes are high.”

Nevertheless, there is a lot of good advice, packaged in a series of charts and acronyms. For instance, if you need to confront someone in a situation where you might otherwise either keep silent or else make muttered asides or explode into full anger, remember STATE (2002:124). That is Share your facts; Tell your story; Ask for others’ paths; Talk tentatively; Encourage testing. The ‘path’ referred to is their term for the route from perception to action:

“See/hear Ù Tell a story (to yourself)  Ù  Feel  Ù  Act”

This is similar to Senge’s ‘ladder of inference’ (Senge et al 1994:242ff): The key point is that the story we tell ourselves belongs to us alone and we have the option of telling a different story and so evoking different feelings within ourselves and thus different actions. By sharing our stories we increase the pool of meaning and offer the chance for genuine dialogue to take place.

(See also

Organisation as a network of commitments

One of the first books to look at organisations as networks of conversation was Computers & Cognition by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores. In it they propose the idea that organisations are networks of commitments. A commitment is an implied promise made in a speech act (1986:59). There is an implied contract made between speaker and listener even if the speech act itself is not a commissive (a commitment to future action). For instance an assertive such as, “This ring is pure gold” implies a commitment to truth. If the listener subsequently discovers that the ring was brass, a commitment will have been broken. Similarly, a declarative such as, “You’ve definitely got the job” implies a commitment to future action; the speaker may not be in a position to undertake the action personally but does imply that they have certain knowledge that the action will occur.

Because there is an implied contract in every speech act, all conversations are relational. Meaning arises in listening to the commitments expressed in speech acts. Furthermore, how we talk about the world emerges in recurrent patterns of breakdown (where one party believes that the commitment is satisfied and the other does not) and the potential for discourse about grounding (one party persuades the other that the commitment is indeed satisfied). (1986:68)

It is these ever-shifting networks of requests and promises which make up the fabric of the organisation. Flores hypothesises that work flow consists of a series of interlocking loops of speech acts of the following basic shape:


There are four speech acts, or equivalents, in the loop:

1.      Customer:      I request

2.      Performer:      I promise

3.      Performer:      I am done

4.      Customer:      I am satisfied

Of course, the performer will often need to engage others in order to satisfy the request. He or she will then become the customer in one or more loops and so the interactions ripple out throughout the organisation. For more on Flores' methods see an article in Center for Quality of Management Journal. Flores started his own consultancy to use his approach. This was later taken over by VISION Consulting, which still uses a commitments-based approach.

Flores has developed his insights further with work on Trust and Assessment. A 1998 article in Fast Company offers an insight into how he works with organisations.


Some patterns of narrative flow and meaning spread out from individual conversations and seem to take on a life of their own. We call these stories. We tell stories all the time. Even the simplest story can have a great impact. While I was at the BBC a new head of department arrived, having been recruited from a commercial environment. She told a lot of new stories. The simplest was only one word long—she started referring to the ‘business’ instead of to the ‘department’. The implications were huge and the responses were sharp. Some people hated it, others began to see new possibilities. Eventually a new culture emerged as people started to have different conversations about the way we did things and the way we might do things in the future. In the following sections I am going offer some notes on a number of approaches to storytelling and conversation in organisational life.

Springboard stories

Stephen Denning (2001), writes about his experience of discovering and telling stories which can make a significant different in helping people see new possibilities for the future. Denning worked at the World Bank and was keen that they should share their knowledge and expertise with the developing world. Yet whenever he put forward his ideas they seemed to fall on stony ground.

One day he heard of a health worker in a remote town in Zambia who was able to log onto a health website and immediately access the latest information about the treatment of malaria. “Wouldn’t it be good if the Bank were able to share its knowledge in the same way?”, he wonders. In the coming weeks Denning uses the story in presentations. What he notices is that this little episode, with the same question he asked himself, is remarkably effective in opening people to explore new options—much more so than reams of analysis and clever PowerPoint presentations.

Denning’s book explores the beginnings of his discovery and the way in which he developed his approach. Interestingly, he also notes that, “…my experience was that storytelling, more than stories per se, was having the impact. The look of the eye, the intonation of the voice, the way the body was held, the import of a subtle pause, and my own response to the audience’s responses—all these seemed to make an immense contribution to the meaning of a story for my audiences.” (Denning 2001:xxii).

One particular power attributed to storytelling is that it offers the potential for each listener to incorporate the story within their own framework and situation and the re-tell it in ways which are relevant and appropriate for them. In this way unity of purpose can be obtained without any need for bureaucratic uniformity.

(More at

“Squirrel Inc”

Stephen Denning has taken this work further in his 2004 book Squirrel Inc which identifies seven different kinds of story which may be effective in different organisational situations. The following table gives an overview of his approach here:

If your objective is:

You need a story that:

Your story will need to:

You will also need to take these actions:

Your story will use or inspire these phrases:

When successful, your story will have the following impact

1. To communicate a complex idea and spark action

      is true;

      has single protagonist who is prototypical of your audience focuses on the positive outcome;

      be told in a minimalist fashion;

      be told with the context;

      frame the story so that the audience is listening.

      provide “guide-rails” that help direct the listener towards the hoped-for insight;

“Just think …”

”Just imagine…”

“What if…”

Your audience will “get” the idea and be stimulated to launch into action.

2. To get people working together in a group or community

      is moving; is interesting to the listeners: is a story about a subject that the listeners also have stories;

      reflect multiple perspectives;

      establish an open agenda

      engender a process of story swapping;

      have an action plan ready;

“That reminds me…”

Your audience will be ready to be working together more collaboratively

3. To share information and knowledge

      includes a problem, the setting, the solution and the explanation; captures the granularity of the relevant area of knowledge:

      be focused on the difficulties and how they were dealt with;

      be amusing or satirical

      verify that the story is in fact true

      cross-check with other experiences;

”We’d better watch that in future!”

Your audience will understand how to do something and why.

4. To tame the grapevine and neutralize negative gossip

      reveals humour or incongruity either in the bad news; or in the author of the bad news: or in the storyteller.

      is true;

      be a blend of truth and caring for the object of the humour;

      make sure that the bad news is indeed untrue or unreasonable;

      commit yourself to telling the truth, however difficult;

“You got to be kidding!”

 “That’s funny!”

“I’d never thought about it like that before!”

Your audience will realize that the gossip or the bad news is either untrue or unreasonable.

5. To communicate who you are

      reveals some strength or vulnerability from your past

      is true

      is moving;

      be told with context;

      make sure the audience has the time and the interest to hear your story;

“I didn’t know that about you!”

“How interesting?”

Your audience will have a better understanding of who you are as a person.

6. To transmit values

      exemplifies your values in action

      is relevant to the “here and now”

      is moving

      is believed;

      provide context:

      be consistent with the actions of the leadership;

      make sure your actions are consistent with your story;

      make sure the context of your story fits the listeners;

“That’s so right!”

“We should really do that all the time!”

Your audience will understand how things are done around here.

7. To lead people into the future

      is about the future

      captures the basic idea of where you are heading

      focuses on a positive outcome;

      be told with as little detail as needed to understand the idea;

      be evocative

      resonate with the listeners;

      provide context from past and present;

      make sure that people are ready to follow (if not, use type #1 story, i.e. a story to spark action);

“When do we start?”

“Let’s do it!”

Your audience will understand where they are heading for.

Table 3.

Stories & Power

David Boje takes a postmodernist approach to storytelling in organisations. In his article about storytelling in the Disney Organization (1995) he points out that some stories are privileged by the organisation, others are marginalised. Thus Disney has an official history of its development and the pre-eminent role of Walt Disney. Yet there are other stories which could be told, stories in which Walt is not such a hero nor so single-handedly responsible for the artistic and financial success of the corporation.

What Boje reminds us is that power is always relevant in organisational life. Those with the most power are likely have their stories heard, often at the expense of other stories. Yet stories themselves have a way of subverting powerful people; they can seem to take on a life of their own and resist all efforts at suppression.

Boje also writes about ‘restorying’, a process for enabling people to find their voice and re-tell the stories which have previously been corporate orthodoxy. His wife Grace Ann Rosile (1998) tells the story of how she and David worked with an organisation to help it find a new story. Their process is to help the organisation’s leadership frame their current situation as a story and then to see it as a story rather than the story so that other stories can be envisaged and told.

(More at

Strategy as story

I once worked with a client to help the board of an organisation with some scenario planning (itself an example of storytelling in organisations—see below). It became clear that they had no common sense of strategic intent or purpose. It seemed to me that they would benefit from the opportunity to work together to find a shared story which could encapsulate their desire and vision for the organisation.

Using a 1-2-7 format, I devised a workshop to help the board with this process. Firstly, I invited them to share stories of times when the organisation had been really effective—performing as it ‘should do’. Then each individual thought of a future story which would sum up how they desired the organisation to be in five years’ time. After sharing in pairs, each pair came up with a new shared story using elements from the individual stories. The whole group of seven then came together, shared their combined stories and worked on a single shared story.

The implications of this story for the future of the organisation were then explored and some first steps fleshed out. Afterwards I was told that this was the first time the board had ever shared at such a deep level.

Storytelling as inquiry

Peter Reason & Peter Hawkins have written (1998) of their explorations into using storytelling as an aspect of inquiry. They argue that there are two modes of reflecting on and processing experience: explanation and expression. Each has value and their interplay opens up a space for dialogue:

Figure 4. (From Reason & Hawkins 1988:84)

Perhaps one of the most interesting and productive aspects of Reason & Hawkins’ work is their experimentation with telling a story in response to a story, or even attempting to ‘go up’ the path of expression—hearing a story and then loosely re-telling it in the form of a saga, then a fairy tale and so on. It’s not easy but it can produce some very rich knowledge about a given situation.

Reflecting on stories

Stories abound in the workplace. Many of them are fragmentary and apparently insignificant—“Did you hear what Jean told me yesterday…”; “I was at reception a moment ago and I heard this man say…”; “Apparently Sandra is going to complain about Rachel, or perhaps she’s just thinking about it…”; and so on.

Mostly we just let stories like this wash over us or else we participate in them. But sometimes it can be worth inquiring into them. In the midst of a frantic Y2K project, with blame, confusion and guilt flying around everywhere Rob Creekmore (2003) took three hours every other  week with his team to try to get inside some of the stories that were being told in the organisation.

Firstly they spent time just telling stories that they had heard or of things that had made an impression on them. Then they tried to get ‘inside’ some of the stories by using a reflective process; something like this:


Think of a story


Find a moment you’re curious about


Take that moment and identify a character within the story


Which character resonates with you most?


What is the character feeling?


What are the character’s assumptions and agenda?


What are their values?

By taking the time to reflect imaginatively on the stories which they were hearing the team members became much more sensitive to what was really going on in the organisation. They moved from feeling scapegoated and victimised to confidence and authority and a feeling that they could become a powerful force for change in a renewed organisation.

This kind of inquiry has a lot in common with many ‘spiritual disciplines’ such as the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius or the Benedictine lectio divina (this may not be too surprising since Rob Creekmore trained for the priesthood at one time of his life). There is a vast literature on these approaches (see, e.g. Johnson 1998) and I will just indicate briefly an approach to ‘reading’ organisational stories which has been adapted from the classical lectio divina approach to ‘reading’ the Bible:

Listening to the story (The Literal Sense)


One person tells the story twice, as the others pay attention to some segment that is especially meaningful to them.


Silence for 1-2 minutes. Each hears and silently repeats a word or phrase that attracts.


Sharing aloud: [A word or phrase that has attracted each person]. A simple statement of one or a few words. No elaboration.

How the story speaks to me


Re-telling of the story by a different person


Silence for 2-3 minutes. Reflect on “Where does the content of this story touch my life today?”


Sharing aloud: briefly, “I hear, I see...”

What the story invites me to do


Re-telling of the story by still another person.


Silence for 2-3 minutes. Reflect on “As a result of hearing this story I will……today/this week.”


Sharing aloud: at somewhat greater length the results of each one’s reflection. [Be especially aware of what is shared by the person to your right.]


After the sharing, the last stage in the lectio divina is to pray for the person on your right. This may be a bit too much for most work teams but some offer of support for them might be appropriate.

Note: Anyone may ‘pass’ at any time.

Scenario planning

Scenario planning is well-established as an effective approach to strategic planning. At its heart is the telling of stories about the future. These stories should be plausible and relevant to the organisation. They offer ways of exploring future possibilities without having to guess which possible future will turn out to be true.

There is a large literature on scenario planning (Schwarz 1991, van der Heijden 1996, Ringland 1998, etc.). For a less formal, more ethnographic account I think that anthropologist Robbie Davies-Floyd’s story of her fieldwork at Shell (1998) is very illuminating, especially about the way that stories are told and constructed.

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry, too, is a story-based form of organisational intervention. In particular, the Discover and Dream phases (see, e.g., Watkins & Mohr 2001:25) are focused around telling stories—stories of times when the organisation was really effective and stories of how things might be if this was the norm.

Collaborative Poetry

Lew Perrin (1999) tells of some work he did with a disparate group of managers on a development course. He invited them to think of some significant change event in their professional lives. Firstly they brainstormed some significant words which seemed to be associated with the changes. Then, in pairs each crafted a poem with the help of the other. The poems were then read and some of them subsequently ‘published’ in their parent organisations.

The participants found the experience both cathartic and energising. In a brief time they had shared significant knowledge about themselves and had learned much about each other. Poetry writing in a context such as this is a form of storytelling which may not always focus on narrative but which encourages a concentration on the essentialities of a situation.


The above rather breathless account of some of the uses of story and conversation in organisations is longer than I had anticipated though far from comprehensive, of course. What it shows is that there is a breadth of work taking place at present. I am sure that this will continue to thrive and prosper, perhaps until it becomes the dominant metaphor—and then, of course, it will be time to find a new one.


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