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Organizational Stories

Organizations are the storehouse of stories; stories of the individuals, of the groups, the system and the organization’s environment. Only a few passionate and courageous practitioners step into the exploration of organizational stories with the rapt attention that these deserve. Fewer still, are able to leverage these stories to explore the realities of the organization, as well as, facilitate the organizations rewrite new stories of success, growth and transformation.

A curious practitioner would find the stories narrated in myriad ways within the organization. The organization’s stories are told every day and heard every day within the organization, but not quite listened to. Those trained in and attuned to the Applied Behavioral Science and Organization Psychology, realize and emphasize the need of listening to organizational stories. Practitioners from Applied Behavioral Science background will surely heed a keen ear to the organizational stories right from the moment they step into the organization by way of ‘sensing the organization’. From the very first time the story of what is happening in the organization, in the form of presenting of a problem, by the first point of contact, the practitioner begins to gather the stories ‘about’ the organization. The hypothesis and the diagnosis process are means of confirming the first story heard and at the same time discovering the other truths, realities and versions of the story of the client organization.

There may be same stories shared by most in the organization or there may be contrasting or diverse stories about the same subject within the organization. The stories are a sharp tool to create change stories within the organization. While the OD world is now caching up with listening to the organizational stories and storytelling as an instrument to facilitate change process, Harvard professor John Kotter used the storytelling medium as an effective tool to educate about Change and managing change almost a decade ago in their book on Change Management.

The interesting aspect of the organizational stories is that, these stories seem to time-travel. The stories are from all time zones at the same time. The stories of the organization’s past, present and the future are all present at all times within the organization’s system.

Organization’s Stories – A multi-purpose tool

  Engaging the organizational members

Stories are not only a way to understand and make sense of the organization; it is also a potent tool to engage the members of the organization to create a new future of the organization. The organizations can greatly benefit from sharing inspiring stories of successes from within the organization to enthuse and motivate the organization members towards change, innovation, adapting new systems, adapting new behaviors, setting new norms and beliefs etc.

  Stories as Learning Resources

The organization which does not pay attention to the stories of successes and failures during its lifecycle doesn’t grow too well for too long. Much has been written and emphasized about the need for organizational learning and the learning organizations. The organizations can immensely benefit from curating their stories of success and failure by creating a repository of case studies. Once the organization creates a tradition of learning from the experiences, it sets pace on a growth trajectory.

  Stories to read the pulse of the organization

The organization’s emotions are often not paid attention to, unfortunately by many a practitioners as well. On the other hand, an OD practitioner with applied behavioral science practice would be unlikely to miss cues of the organization’s emotional state. Many such OD practitioners would not be afraid to delve deeper into the ‘touchy-feely’ reality of the organization. Often the problems presented to the OD practitioner as issues related to, say, process, compliance, compensation, quality, sales and retention etc. are found to be solved by tackling unresolved emotional energy amongst the organizational members. Stories narrated by the organization members, of the incidents, relationships, environment, system and people etc. related to the issue pursued for diagnosing, during the diagnosis process of OD projects, provide the data related to emotions (fears, aspirations, motivation etc.) of the organizational members, especially during qualitative interviews. During interventions, the narrations and descriptions by the participating members reveal the emotional energy carried by the members.

  Stories provide clues to the mental maps, structures and power centers

Irrespective of what the organization’s stated structures are, the people in the system are likely to have experienced the organization’s structures differently. The power centers within the organization may actually be different from those on the organization charts and organograms. What the organization’s leaders might have intended to convey to the organization’s members perhaps have been received with a meaning completely different from the intended. Only when the attention is paid to the narrations and meanings of these narrations, the actually prevailing mental models, existing structures and power centers are revealed.

  Stories tell patterns and patterns tell stories

When the practitioners listen keenly to the stories narrated by the organizational members and the stories which the organizational records reveal, they identify the patterns marked in those revelations. These patterns in turn reveal the compelling stories of the unattended realities of the organizations, the stories of the obvious which had been laid in the oblivion by the organization. The patterns and stories cry out for attention, of the practitioner and the organizational members.

  Stories reveal the energy state of the organization

The organization is an organism that lives and breathes in the environment it is in. Concurrently, it is also creating the environment by its very being. Just like the tree in a forest; it lives in that environment and it also provides for the environment to sustain. This relationship is entwined with the energy that is created. Every organization creates an energy field and lives within the energy field that it creates. Many practitioners are intuitively attuned to sense such energy as soon as they enter the organizations. The stories within the organization and the story of the organization itself, reveal the state of energy it is in. The practitioners trained in Applied Behavior Science, Gestalt OD and Unconscious processes of the Organization pay special attention to such energy field and the movement of the energy in the organization. Even in its simplest form one can clearly identify if there is a positive energy flow within the organization or a negative energy flow or if there is a proper channelizing of the energy in the organization system or if there is a stuck up energy somewhere within the organization and which stage of flow is the energy stuck at. Stories are capable of revealing a lot about the energy and the state of energy flow in the organization.

  Stories as feedback

Stories are also a valuable source of feedback for the organizational members. Even the stories circulating through the grapevine has potential of feedback if proper attention and processing is provided. What people talk about within the organization tells about the areas of concern for the organization’s members. The nature of these stories serves as feedback for the leaders of the organization. It may reveal about the fears and anxieties of the members, it may reveal the joy, motivation and enthusiasm of the members, it may provide insights about what is working right within the organization and what are the areas of pain and improvement. It may also indicate the organization member’s perceptions and beliefs about the policies and procedures, the relationship networks, the power corridors and even the change process as well.

  Stories of shadows

Stories of the organization carry a certain potent energy within them. As organization is an organism in Whole, more and beyond the sum total of the people in that system. All types of energies coexist within that Whole. As with any being, the organizations also have shadows; the untapped, the unattended, the suppressed, the abandoned, the un-nurtured, the dark, the potential and the fantasies of the organization, holding the collective unconscious of the members and the legacy of the organization. The stories of the organization and those of its members, when examined carefully and meticulously, by the trained and talented OD practitioners, are a great source of information about what lies within the shadow energy of the organization.

Where and how to find the stories

  Norms, artifacts, manifest behaviors

When the practitioners enter the organization, they make note of the organization’s culture to learn about what the organization’s personality. As soon as one enters the reception area, the artifacts, norms and behaviors are available for learning about the organization. The non-verbal stories are displayed through the artifacts present in the organization, the norms which people follow and the behaviors they manifest, explore these stories and they shall reveal the underlying and embedded beliefs and values of the organization.

  Metaphors, pictures, imagery & presentations

When the practitioners engage in discovering about the organization for any change endeavor they look for such visual and verbal imagery, which reveals the picture the organizational members hold within their conscious and sub-conscious and that of the collective unconscious of the organization. Metaphors used by the organization members for describing the organization and the happenings are stories in disguise. The pictures and the photographs that are displayed in the organization, reveal the stories of what the organization takes pride in, what it nurtures, what it projects and what it wants to retain etc. The presentations the organization leaders make may be the representations of the stories they hold about their organizational vision and aspirations, of how they relate to organization members and of the tone and colors of the relationships within the organizations. During the interventions, the OD practitioners sometimes encourage the participating members to present imagery of what the future holds for them within the organization and of the organization itself, the imageries reveal the stories of the future and the fantasies about themselves in the organizations and about the organizations. The talented interventionists can easily facilitate the organizational members to identify, write and rewrite the stories of self, group and the organization.

  What people are talking about?

In the organizations there is always a network of informal communication channels. The stories on these networks travel faster than any formal channel. It pays to pay attention on which stories this informal communication network is circulating, as that may provide valuable insights about what is of importance to the organizational members. The channel often circulates not just one version of the same story but perhaps several versions of the stories. The practitioners and the organization leaders can gain insights on several dimensions of an issue, when they examine the various versions of the stories.

When there are topics being discussed informally at break times, beyond work hours, outside meeting rooms, irrespective of whether these topics are being discussed in formal meetings or not, such topics hold enormous energy to stay alive. It serves as an indication that the matter holds importance for the members of the organization and perhaps it has not yet been attended to with as much emphasis as it requires or in the manner that it needs to be attended to. What the members are talking about the discussed matter also tells of how they perceive the matter to be and reveals their feelings about it, and that is certainly an important feedback.

  The publications

Paying attention to the how the organization projects its image to the outside world, whether through the advertisements, print media and social media, practitioners can identify the stories the organization wants to tell the world about – who they are, what they do, what is their purpose, their social values and beliefs etc. Such stories told to the world, especially when compared with the stories of within the organization establish the authenticity and congruence or discrepancies / misalignments in the stories or the organization.

Leveraging the Organizational Stories for Change

Stories, being an effective tool for facilitating change, must be leveraged to aid the change initiative of the organization. Appreciative Inquiry and REAL Model are such effective tools to leverage the stories of the organization. Practitioners are gaining facilitative advantage by using these and other ways of using stories and storytelling for organizational change.

- By Nihar

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