The Spark Blog

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

Twists and turns

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Bailey Bain
, author and coach,
 shares her ‘aha’ moment of organizational storytelling. 

Stories work for me. This is how I learned about
the spark power of story.

For some years, I was a consultant on development projects
in LDCs. My focus was social issues: poverty, gender, ethnic groups. Were
project funds really reaching the poorest people? Such detail often isn’t shown
in financial reports. To assess that, you have to know what’s happening on the

Photo I Sabine Jaccaud

Each project is actually a story. It’s made up of
dozens of incidents, turning points and unexpected outcomes. You read about
them in reports from economists and sector experts. You hear them in conversations
between people from the community. Everyone involved in the project has a role in that

All those tales that are told by participants and
beneficiaries are part of the fabric of the project; they are just as important
in assessing if, how and why it works as the formal evaluations, if not more

When you visit a project as a consultant, you
become part of that narrative. And how you act your role makes a great deal of
difference to how well the project works.

One time, I was assessing a fish farming scheme in
Sumatra. All morning we traversed boardwalks between murky ponds. The project
manager suggested a local restaurant for lunch. After couple of beers, he
started to talk. This job was really driving him crazy. The project had been targeted
by environmental activists. Stupid kids with no appreciation of economics or
community benefits. One night they’d smashed the sluice gates from the tank…

My first response was to commiserate and suggest he
call the police. But that didn’t seem to help. Should I tell him about similar situations
I’d seen elsewhere? But this man was an experienced field worker; I was a newcomer
with too many theories. Telling him what to do seemed rather patronizing.

Instead, I tried a different approach: I asked him
to tell me the whole story. Actually he could see why the youngsters felt that
way. He knew what might change their perception of the project. He had some strong
suggestions for the funding agency. That report was one of the best I’d written.

Giving advice is like providing a sticking plaster:
it doesn’t help people develop long-term solutions. Tit-for-tat tales sound
sympathetic, but you’re crowding people out to crow about your own expertise.

Stories work, for both the storyteller and their
audience. Listen to your informant carefully. Ask questions about exactly what
has happened, and how, and why. When you give someone your full attention, you
empower them. You help them work out the reasons behind the story, what needs
to be changed, what they could do differently in future. And you find out what
you really need to know, and do, to help things change.

Jane is an author and executive coach. Her latest book ‘StoryWorks’
(2015) is a practical handbook for leaders, writers and speakers.

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