The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

self, us, now

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Iain Christie – barrister, mediator, actor, facilitator – was at a talk given by Victoria at the University Womens’ Club recently. Here’s his take on what she said.

But before that, the talk sparked the idea of a day on organisational storytelling. And we have worked with Incidental and the Museum of London to turn the idea into stories in action, a day on organizational storytelling at the Museum of London on 26 April. You can book tickets on our Eventbrite page.


‘Where to start?’ is a common problem faced by any speaker. It’s a question I heard posed at the beginning of a recent talk on organizational storytelling to members of the University Women’s Club by Victoria Ward, founder of Sparknow and old school friend with Magdalena Groszek, our host at UWC.

Victoria resolved the conundrum by first telling the story of how she came to be standing there. As a newcomer to Sparknow, it was interesting for me to hear how Victoria’s 16 years in derivatives, starting out as a broker on the floor of the London International Financial Exchange (LIFFE), prepared her for a future in narrative.

It was a melting pot where people came from all kinds of background. I had a lot of chance to play with understanding how markets work, how risk works, how trust works, when will people do something with each other and when they won’t.

But it was what Victoria began to notice gradually happen to these inspiring colleagues over the years that had the biggest influence in her decision to leave the trading floor in the mid 1990s and start up in knowledge management.

A lot of people would leave themselves at the door and go into work. Going to work I would feel it was going dark as I went up the escalator.

She began to get curious as to why people stopped contributing and stopped having any sense that their voices would be heard.

They had no idea that what they knew about the organization really mattered to anyone very much.

So, the key questions on which Sparknow was founded were how do people bring all of themselves to work? And how does an organization listen to people, and make it possible for people to listen to each other?

At the same time others were asking similar questions elsewhere. In Washington DC, Steve Denning started bringing in performance artists like Seth Kahan to help build communities and networks across boundaries as part of his knowledge management programme at the World Bank in the late 1990s. In the early 2000s a chapter of people started to form, calling themselves The Golden Fleece. People who knew a lot about performance storytelling mingled with people who knew about organizational development. Everyone was curious about this organizational storytelling beast and where it was going, but nobody had all the pieces of the puzzle.

Nobody had the high ground. And that made everybody very generous because everybody was in this sharing mode, and in finding this new space.

In parallel, in the late 1990s there were some other vital new thinkers, people from the other end of the spectrum such as David Snowden, the founder of Cognitive Edge, a scientist who loves complexity and understanding complex adaptive systems and resilience. David’s contribution has been to understand the need for many hidden first-hand eye-witness accounts to be gathered, coded at the point of gathering and analysed so that out of lots of small fragments of things big patterns can be seen, and how by shifting the small parts you can shift the big patterns.

That feels to me like one of the most important emerging developments in applications of storytelling, and hooks up with social media today.

Finally, Victoria identified a number of challenges and opportunities facing those in leadership and development in industry and storytellers called in to help them. One is how to take the values of the organization off the page and put them into people’s hearts.

How can we make sure that the thing we say we stand for is really who we are, and how all of us carry out being who we are as an organization every day?’

A different problem is how to change a story when a person who was synonymous with the brand has moved on or the organization has suffered serious damage to its reputation, something that has happened to many businesses in the recent recession. Some organizations have resolved this by delving into their past, researching their heritage and accumulating material using methodology associated with anthropology, ethnography and oral history from which a new identity and purpose has emerged.

Add to these the particular problems posed by the rapidly developing use of social media and transmedia, and organizations have another set of issues to deal with. The boundaries between inside and outside blur. Speed takes over.

It creates many more storytelling possibilities for organizations, and those can also be quite complex because it’s so much quicker for a story you don’t want to have travel about you to travel, and it’s so much harder to contain that story, so viral storytelling can just take over.

By shaping her presentation as she did Victoria modelled one of the key methods of an effective storyteller, according to research by Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Starting with the story of self, then telling the story of us and finishing with the story of now an audience is moved from inaction to action.

  • The story of self explains why the speaker has been called to serve.
  • The story of us communicates the values and experiences of a community and what capacity or resources that community has to accomplish its goals.
  • The story of now communicates the urgent challenges we are called upon to face now and what action to take.

As an organization Sparknow says it ‘helps to turn corporate strategy into reality, knows how to break through barriers of indifference and even hostility that every organization encounters at least occasionally, particularly in times of change or transition.’  In this presentation it felt to me that the thing Sparknow says it stands for is really what it tries to do.


  1. Iain is a barrister, mediator, actor and facilitator. One of his most recent projects has been an oral history at Inner Temple.  You can find out more about that here – soon to be updated with fresh material – and he’ll be working with that case study for one of the sessions at stories in action. He and Victoria share an interest in the exploration of healing and reconciliation through storytelling run from St Ethelberga’s.
  2. David Snowden ’s work is available at Cognitive Edge and you can find out more about SenseMaker there.
  3. Steve Denning continues to explore leadership storytelling among other things.
  4. The Golden Fleece has no individual website, but you can find out more about its current activities from Madelyn Blair at Pelerei, who was vital to bringing Sparknow into the Golden Fleece activities in the mid 2000s. Madelyn has recently been writing about the Golden Fleece and what it achieved and will be pleased to share that with you. The picture, by the way, was taken by Victoria of Madelyn at the Anthony Gormley Blind Light exhibition at the Hayward art gallery.
  5. Seth’s jumpstart storytelling has become a key part of the Sparknow repertoire since we first learned it from him at the Golden Fleece. We are very grateful. There’s an outline of how to run a jumpstart session in the SDC story guide. Seth has moved on to establish himself in visionary leadership and as a performer of stories.
  6. LIFFE has been ‘demised’ (to use HSBC’s choice word for sacking people). 30 September 1982 – tbc 2014. The ‘End of LIFFE as we knew it’ drink is due to take place on 1st May 2014. We will drink, we will be nostalgic, we will be merry and sad. Life will go on. 
  7. The Marshall Ganz self, us, now worksheet is here.
  8. The University Women’s Club is a hidden treasure of a building in Mayfair. We owe special thanks to Magdalena Groszek for her invitation to speak. You can hear two edited extracts from the talk on Soundcloud.

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