Building a Story Ecosystem

Post By Stephen Berkeley

In 2011 I had the fortune of spending three days with Peter Senge, the Author of “The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation” and “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies for Building a Learning Organization” identified in 1997 by the Harvard Business Review as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years. The event was the Society of Organisation Learning‘s “Fundamentals of Leadership” workshop in Boston. It brought alive for me the importance of active listening in the building a story ecosystem.

Peter has a very Zen style, so when he spoke his words seemed to go deeper into the cerebral cortex than any speaker I have ever heard. One of his pearls that has shaped my work as an Organsiation Development Practitioner was “What we say and don’t say and what we do and don’t do creates culture”. From my experience of working at a leadership level in healthcare over the last thirty years in Australia, UK and India, I would rephrase this to, “what we say and don’t say, what we do and don’t do, creates stories, in our minds and the minds of others, and it is these stories that create culture”. And of course, as Peter Drucker famously said: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

One of the hypotheses we are testing with the “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a time” workshops is that “When whole systems engage in deep listening to each other new realities emerge for the whole system that can be infectious. Systemic change will bring about lasting impact for the system and its constituents”. The exact opposite is also true, when we do not engage in deep listening to each other, new realities will still emerge and can be infectious for all the wrong reasons, because the untold stories live on in our behaviours.  The grapevine is stories that have not been listened to. So it can also be said that untold stories can have a “lasting impact on the system and its constituents”.

In healthcare, a reputation that has taken years to be built can be destroyed in a flash, whether it be an individual or an entire organisation, because lives are at stake. However, a system does not break down overnight. There generally is a steady stream of stories that would have been symptoms that the system is about to implode. But as leaders, we are often caught up in getting things done that we do not pay attention to the emerging stories within our organisations. Stories not tended to, have the capability of derailing everything from our overall vision to a new product launch, to a project or just everyday productivity. Not to mention destroying relationships. Stories like stones can be used to build a bridge or a wall. How we tend to stories determines whether we build a bridge or a wall.

I took the above picture at Haines Falls in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York shortly before my workshop with Peter Senge in Boston. I had just finished co-facilitating a 4 day Dialogue with 60 healthcare leaders from 7 countries who gathered to explore the intersection of spirituality with healthcare. It was a vibrant but intense experience as I was the graphic recorder, my first attempt. But I needed a bit of a release so I decided to go for a walk in the woods and discovered this epic bridge.

After four days of listening to stories and synthesising them into a graphic, this bridge represented our journey. We started the four-day dialogue with our own individual stories, but through a well crafted facilitative process involving Open Space Technology, World Cafe and Appreciative Inquiry we identified our commonality and the areas we could individually provide more leadership on. Each story was like a stone, we could have used them to build a bridge or a wall. We chose the bridge.

Trust plays a central role. To draw out the stories that are shaping your culture needs a facilitator skilled in creating a safe environment for conversations that count. Currently, there is a trend towards “storytelling”, but it is only part of the picture. There is, in fact, a Story Ecosystem. We need to pay equal attention to the component parts of this story ecosystem.  The art of story work requires you to be a story detective, a three-dimensional listener, a harvester, a curator, a synthesiser, a sense-maker and a facilitator. You need a systematic way of hearing all the perspectives and understanding the narratives.

Our workshops on “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a Time” and the online conversation we hope to create, will dive deep into the StoryWork Ecosystem. Do hope you can join us at #IAFAsia17 in Seoul on the 18th August. You can also follow our journey on our FB page

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