Organizations fall into a common trap. They often rely on just their CEO, President, PR office to do their storytelling. The problem with this is any organization has is an Ensemble of storytellers doing storytelling: all the employees, managers, staff, customers, suppliers, and competitors. Some organizations try to ‘brand’ their storytelling, a kind of logo-centric approach. The problem is that branding storytelling is not a Process Model. A successful Storytelling Strategy needs an Ensemble to care for the storytelling process.
What is Storytelling Process?
Storytelling process is dynamic. Storytelling of a situation begins with the first phase of antenarrative, the ‘social’ and ‘material’ processes out of which storytelling you internal story, and what is storyable in performance, begins. As William James (1907: 98) puts it “things tell a story.” It is not just people that are storytelling agents, the products, services, the sculptures, the land on which the buildings rest, all tell a story. I work with the material storytelling labs (founded by Anete Strand, in Denmark) and have developed some methods to work with veterans and family members, working with material things, to tell their story, to tell it without words. I call it an ‘Embodied Restorying Process” a method for doing sociomaterial storytelling https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rni–9m4H7Y and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uh3ED76wxjs
Storytelling process also proceeds to creation of narratives (& counternarratives) of the Past, and the second aspect of the antenarrative process, world-making possible futures. Out of possible futures, one gets selected and changes our storytelling of the situation, including changes to the situation itself. Attention in the Here & Now creates an uncertainty effect, as does the performance of storytelling to some audience.
Let the situation define the storytelling action. Mary Parker Follett, the godmother of systems thinking, Ensemble Leadership (Boje, Rosile, & Nez, 2016) means working out a system of leadership in a new kind of human relations, in what Mary Park Follett called the Law of the Situation. Follett (1924) develops the law of the situation in its “total situation: (p. 152) and “as part of a total process” and “of the continuous process of self-renewal” (p. 153). The total situation is within the “total environment: the “immediate relation to the individual that its forces can be reckoned with both as cause of and effect of his activity, that is, that much of environment which comes within the appreciable range of circular behavior” (p. 109). Circular or integrative behavior is considered “seminal for our future thinking, a conception which is surely destined to influence largely the social sciences: (p. xv).
Ensemble storytelling is about democratic participation rather than the usual top-down CEO stump speech, or the glossy PR brochure. The problem with top-down storytelling is the personality cult of leadership becomes divorced from science of the storytelling process. A situation changes, shifts, emerges and the fearless leader comes up with a storytelling event. David Armstrong (1993) manages by storying around, walking about his company to ask workers, customers, and managers their stories. He is the Chief Storytelling Officer of his company (Armstrong, 2002). The storytelling gurus try to convince the leader that one stump speech, one elevator pitch, one story performed with passion of a Toast Master, will change an organization. Armstrong is not developing the usual stump speech. Snap goes the storytelling performance, and a day later, its all pretty much the same as before. Like Stew Jr., Armstrong makes storytelling part of the management process.
Ensemble storytelling takes it one step purpose, everyone is answerable for the storytelling process.
Let’s look at an Ensemble Process Approach to Storytelling
The problem is the personality cult of leadership is divorced from science. “A trembling subordinate enters, states his problem; snap goes the decision from the chair” (Follett, 1941: 119). Barry and Elmes (1997) write an amazing article on the ways a single source (CEO) storytelling strategy process is not as effective as a polyphonic strategy, where many voices go into developing it. I worked on the many spacetime ways of doing storytellings strategy (Boje 2008) and worked with colleagues to apply storytelling strategy to McDonald’s (Haley & Boje, 2014), and to Burger King (Boje, Haley, & Saylors, 2016).
Tourani’s (2014) dissertation worked out the storytelling in Sears and Wal-Mart annual reports. The main finding was that Sears lost the thread of one of the most successful storytelling strategies in corporate history. Growing up, Sears dominated retail marketing, and were the pinnacle of how to manage. They brought in new CEOS, who forgot everything that the founders new about storytelling. They tried to be high quality fashion, insurance peddlers, and in the end, they lost their market share. Wal-Mart, by comparison, kept the thread of their founder’s storytelling. They were cared for the Sam Walton storytelling legacy. Counternarratives developed, when labor practices turned exploitative. The supply chain was severely critiqued for sweatshop practices, and for environmental damage. However, Wal-Mart keeps restorying Sam, reinventing supply chain, making it sustainable, but still puts the squeeze on the supplier.
How can an organization care for its storyline?
Ensemble storytelling means facing the conflict, the many sides of the story, told and untold (Hitchin, 2014). Ensemble storytelling is dialectic, a development process of communicating everyone’s Living Stories to fashion a ‘polyphonic’ blend, one that abides by Follett’s Law of the Situation. Mary Parker Follett’s (1941: 94) recommendation to have the imagination to see the possibilities of enterprise democracy to ‘integrative unity.” y integrative unity, conflicts are resolves by face-to-face communication, by jointly investigating the facts and values, then jointly fitting the interests into one another (Follett, 1941: 39). As Follett puts it we need to implement the Principle of the Situation, in a process of scientific discovery, experiment, and evaluation of the results.
Kaylynn Twotrees (2000) Seven Directions storytelling approach is an ensemble process. It is a process that takes months for people in an organization to share their stories, to construct a generative account, one where people recognize their input in the narrative they are co-constructing.
Storytelling needs to be cared for. At Stew Leonard’s very popular dairy stores, there is a storytelling meeting every morning, and managers actually read the stories told by customers, and then actually change their systems that day to get different results.
Boje (2007) “Stew Leonard Jr. (of Stew Leonard’s Dairy) took two Ph.D. seminars on storytelling when I was at UCLA, and he was in the MBA program. Here are few more of Stew Jr.’s ideas on stories. “Here’s a few ideas” (Stew Jr. told me) Pick anyone you like or mix and match.”
“If there’s no story, it’s too complicated to explain to over 2,000 team members”
“If you hear a story being told in the company cafeteria by a front line worker, promote the manager that initiated that story!”
“Our company is made up of lots of stories. We’ve found that “stories” get told and retold and become the fabric of an organization. “Policies” lay unread in the company handbook or training manual”
Storytelling to be most effective has to be the lifeblood of the organization, a process that is cared for: “At the Stew Leonard’s organization there is a focus group every week. Every week, Stew Jr. and his other family members sit and listen while customers tell them stories about services and products” (Boje & Dennehy, 1993/2008: p. 89)
“How do you get your message heard in an organization with thousands of people? David Boje taught me the value of stories in an organization. Stories are the “oil” that makes the gears work.” – Stew Leonard Jr.
“If there’s no story, it’s too complicated to explain to over 2,000 team members”
If you hear a story being told in the company cafeteria by a front line worker, promote the manager that initiated that story!
“Our company is made up of lots of stories. We’ve found that “stories” get told and retold and become the fabric of an organization. “Policies” lay unread in the company handbook or training manual”.
Ensemble storytelling is part of the ensemble leadership process. . “Our conception of [Ensemble] leadership is everywhere restricted by the persistence of the fallacy in the old idea of obedience, namely that obedience is necessarily passive” (Follett, 1941: 275, bracketed additions, mine). For Ensemble Leadership to be effective there is an active obedience, a testing of consent, an intelligent self-direction, an empowered action to be reciprocally involved, in the group process in order to accomplish what is “integral to the situation” (IBID.). Being actively obedient to the Whole Situation means checking out an order from above, sideways, and below, and being exigent with our voice of fore-caring, assertive in our dialogues with other leaders of every kind.
Ensemble storytelling means facing the conflict, the many sides of the story, told and untold. Ensemble storytelling is dialectic, a development process of communicating everyone’s Living Stories to fashion a ‘polyphonic’ blend, one that abides by Follett’s Law of the Situation. Mary Parker Follett’s (1941: 94) recommendation to have the imagination to see the possibilities of enterprise democracy to ‘integrative unity.” y integrative unity, conflicts are resolves by face-to-face communication, by jointly investigating the facts and values, then jointly fitting the interests into one another (Follett, 1941: 39). As Follett puts it we need to implement the Principle of the Situation, in a process of scientific discovery, experiment, and evaluation of the results.
”You must remember how Alice in Wonderland had to run as fast as she could to stand still” (Follett, p. 264). The Storytelling Process has aliveness (Tyler, 2010), is moving and running fast, and it takes a lot of care to keep up. Follett’s Law of the Situation, engage in co-operative study, making actual experiments, evaluate results, and only then make an informed decision about university reorganization. As Follett (1941: 51) puts it “we should try experiments, and note whether they succeed or fail, most important of all, why they succeed or fail.”
What Follett proposes is a joint responsibility for integrative unity, implementing democratic participation by everyone taking responsibility, an d jointly analyzing the Total Situation, scientifically.
Storytelling is a Dialectical Process
I need to develop how Follett’s dialectic (Hegelian) approach. Her focus is on systems thinking, and implementing democratic modes of organizational involvement. We are not talking about thesis-antithesis-synthesis. There is no synthesis, just a process of unfolding contradictions in thesis-antithesis, narrative and counternarrative interplay. Follett rejected the idea of Hegelian synthesis as a misunderstanding of Hegelian dialectic. This more precise understanding of dialectic, as the uncovering of differences, and how to develop power-with rather than power-over. The tie-in to Ensemble Storytelling is that is power-with, and integrative unity of differences.
Mary Parker Follett (1918) stresses self-organization to negotiate a fore-caring process. Follett (1941: 280) puts this last point this way: “foresight is essential to leadership” and if you are not ‘fore-caring’ in Ensemble Leadership, outcomes (results) are disastrous. It is a ‘fore-caring’ for the Whole Situation, to its constant changes, to new trends. It is an “uncanny approach to the complexity” of the emerging Situation, the ability of leaders to interrelate and co-ordinate to “organize its essential elements” (p. 281). Ensemble Leadership is captured by Follett (1941: 281) when she says “anticipating the problems of to-morrow” and “solving the problems today” Situations that are “complex, intricate, far-reaching.” That is the Law of the Situation as it relates to Ensemble Leadership.
What is dialectic?
There are many kinds of dialectic. Hegel (1807) wrote against the idea of a ‘synthesis’ kind of dialectic. You have heard of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Do a search of Hegel’s book online, and you will not fund the word ‘synthesis.’ If you read a commentator on Hegel, and they tell you Hegel’s dialectic is thesis-antithesis-synthesis, they really never read Hegel at all. Close the book, and go to the original. Instead of synthesis, Hegel wrote about a kind of dialectic where thesis and antithesis in a conflict unfolding, each have contradictions that come forth, and those difference keep intertwining in entanglement after entanglement. See Appendix for more on dialectic. more on this point
In sum, a storytelling process that is effective is well cared-for, ongoing reflection by many participants on the efficacy of the storytelling strategy. There are untold stories that need to be addressed, and counternarratives to the dominant organizational narrative.
References and Related Blog Posts
Armstrong, D. M. (1995). Managing by storying around. David M. Armstrong.
Armstrong, D. M. (2002). Chief storytelling officer: More tales from America’s foremost corporate storyteller. Armstrong International.
Barry, D., & Elmes, M. (1997). Strategy retold: Toward a narrative view of strategic discourse. Academy of management review, 22(2), 429-452.
Implementing Mary Parker Follett’s and Bernie Sanders’ Social Democracy Practices could SAVE New Mexico State University!
Boje, D. M. (2007) Living story consulting. https://business.nmsu.edu/~dboje/690/cpscBOOK/cpsc0intro.htm
Boje, D. M. (2008). Storytelling organizations. CA/London: Sage.
Boje, D. M. (Ed.). (2011). Storytelling and the future of organizations: An antenarrative handbook. Routledge.
Boje, D. M. (2012). Reflections: What does quantum physics of storytelling mean for change management?. Journal of Change Management, 12(3), 253-271.
Boje, D. M. (2014). Storytelling organizational practices: Managing in the quantum age. Routledge.
Boje, D. M., & Dennehy, R. F. (1993/2008). Managing in the postmodern world: America’s revolution against exploitation. 1993, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. Reissued 2008 Charlotte, NC: Information Age Press.
Boje, D. M., Haley, U. C., & Saylors, R. (2016). Antenarratives of organizational change: The microstoria of Burger King’s storytelling in space, time and strategic context. human relations, 69(2), 391-418.
Boje, D. M., & Henderson, T. L. (Eds.). (2014). Being quantum: Ontological storytelling in the age of antenarrative. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Boje, D. M., & Rosile, G. A. (2001). Where’s the power in empowerment? Answers from
Follett and Clegg. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 37(1), 90-117.
Follett, M. P. (1918). The New State: Group organization the solution of popular government. University Park, PN: Penn State Press.
Follett, M. P. (1919). Community is a process. The Philosophical Review, 28(6), 576-588.
Follett, M. P. (1924/1930). Creative Experience. Рипол Классик; NY/London: Longmans, Green and Co. on line at http://ww.pqm-online.com/assets/files/lib/books/follett.pdf
Follett, M. P. (1926). The giving of orders. Scientific foundations of business administration, 156-162.
Follett, M. P. (1941). Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of mary Parker Follett, edited by Metcalf, H. C., & Urwick, L. F. NY/London: Harper and Brothers.
Follett, M.P. (1949.1987). Freedom and Co-ordination. Lectures in Business Organization. Edited, with an Introduction by L. Urwick. NY/London: Garland Publishing.
Haley, U. C., & Boje, D. M. (2014). Storytelling the internationalization of the multinational enterprise. Journal of International Business Studies, 45(9), 1115-1132.
Hegel. (1807). The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller with analysis and foreword by J. N. Findlay, Oxford University Press download online version:
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|Phenomenology of Spirit – G. W. F. Hegel.mobi||1.04 MB|
Hitchin, L. (2014). Method and story fragments: Working through untold method. Pp. 2130238 in Izak, M., Hitchin, L., & Anderson, D. (2014). Untold stories in organizations (Vol. 33). Routledge.
Twotrees, Kaylynn . (2000). Seven directions practice: A practice for the crossroads. The Fourth R, 92.
Tyler, J. A. (2010). Story aliveness. Dance to the music of story: Storytelling and complexity. Mansfield, MA: ISCE Publishing.
Rosile, G. A., Boje, D. M., Carlon, D. M., Downs, A., & Saylors, R. (2013). Storytelling diamond: An antenarrative integration of the six facets of storytelling in organization research design. Organizational Research Methods, 16(4), 557-580.
Rosile, Grace Ann; Boje, David M.; Nez, Carma Claw. (2016). “Ensemble Leadership Theory: Collectivist, Relational, and Heterarchical Roots from Indigenous Contexts.” Leadership journal. CLICK HERE for online prepublication draft
Tourani, N. (2014). Storytelling and strategy in annual reports: A study of Sears and Wal-mart annual reports. New Mexico State University.