How to build a story culture

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How to build a story culture

The last weeks I’ve been asked on several occasions how should companies do storytelling. What kind of strategies companies can implement to foster the use of storytelling?

Storytelling has been extensible used in Marketing and branding, mostly for external communication purposes. It’s only now, that many companies are realizing that the same storytelling techniques can be applied internally, a field called Organizational Storytelling. The question of how to do this is, of course a critical one. Many companies look at their ad agencies with envy, wanting to become as creative but failing to do it.

I think the major problem strives from seeing storytelling as a product instead of a culture. Most people tend to reduce creative cultures to processes, an ABC they can execute to obtain the deserved product. That’s one of the reason why most creative agencies don’t care about creating a company culture for their customers, but they just deliver the creative product.

 The major problem strives from seeing storytelling as a product instead of a culture

I don’t see storytelling as a product, but as a communication strategy that has to permeate deep into the corporate culture, the story culture. The problem with cultural changes is that, it takes time, an awful long time. Sometimes it’s even impossible to change the current company culture without burning it to the ground first. So yes, it’s hard and time consuming, but on the other hand it’s very very rewarding.

Creating a good and healthy communication culture not only benefits the organization from a branding or customer service point of view, but it massively helps to become more efficient, agile and innovative. Once we understand that before deploying storytelling, we need to build a culture for it, we need to ask ourselves how should we start about this. Many organizations jump at the challenge with technology solutions, but sooner or later they will realize that starting with the tools is usually the wrong choice.


 Creating a good and healthy communication culture […] massively helps to become more efficient, agile and innovative

Culture starts with a small group of highly motivated individuals. A lot of the corporate culture efforts I see are driven in a top down fashion. That rarely works if it doesn’t resonates with the employees. We start small but steady. Ok, IT department some will say. Wrong, even that is too big (if you’re only 5 guys in IT, then it’s small enough), we need to go smaller. We’re talking about a group of 4-7 people.  Normally, in many organizations, this represents a part of the product team. Many companies are built around a product or a service, so it makes sense to start with the core of the organization, its product team.

The first step is to locate a highly motivated team within product. This is not always easy and in most cases, there isn’t even a team, in such cases we should just select a team that’s working on a product part that isn’t the most challenging or the less either. Our goal is to start documenting the teams culture. Just on this note, it’s important to understand that a group of people sharing an office doesn’t means they work as a team.

So, we take that random group of people and we start both, documenting the current culture and pushing the team to start creating their unique cultural elements. For example, giving the team a name is a very important step. Names have power and having one for a team creates a deep sense of belonging. Once the team has a team we need to start developing this team’s rituals. What is a team ritual? Things like Friday pizza night, Hackathons, pool day, etc. Each team will have their own set of rituals we need to identify, empower and document.

 Names have power and having one for a team creates a deep sense of belonging

How should we document and codify such team culture? This is where we connect with storytelling. Stories are the best cultural vehicles. They allow for easy remembrance, fast communication, propagation and evolution. Using stories to narrate how a team operates, what do they value or how do they think is human nature and we sometimes discard those stories because they seem obvious, but those are the essence of building the storytelling culture. These stories needs documenting and we need to encourage the team to tell them to each other. It’s only when someone points out that what they just told is a great story that people start seeing stories everywhere.

The team should then build meetings where these stories get shared among the members. Maybe after their daily stand-up meetings, maybe once a week, etc. Each team should decide how, but we should build a way to regularly share stories and evaluate them. At this point we can most definitely employ tools to help with this effort, but such tools should be evaluated to see if they’re really helping or hampering the communication. My suggestion is to, instead of imposing tools to the team, let them choose the ones that work for them. We’ll have time to normalize the tool set if the habits extends.

Once these stories start growing, we can start releasing them internally to other departments or teams. It’s good to start sharing the stories with similar teams, either within the same department or similar ones. You want to share it with teams that resonate strongly with the original’s team culture. How do we locate them? Once you’ve documented the initial team’s rituals, values and quirks, you just need to look for team that share similar values or rituals. Most probably the team can point out to other peers they get along well within the organization.

If the stories of the team are powerful enough, we well eventually start seeing a snowball effect, where more and more teams will start hearing the stories and telling their own. We need to be vigilant at this point so we identify interested or curious parties within the organization and help them learn how to tell their own stories, how can they do the same, what practices worked for the other teams and how to share it among the growing storytelling community.

If the new habits takes ground, it’s important to keep the momentum going by involving senior management, have them share their own stories, comment on others, always with a positive tone. Finally, we need to build a strategy on top of all this cultural movement we’re starting. We need to set the strategic organizational storytelling lines. What are we going to use this stories for? Can we segment them? Can we feature some on our public media channels? Can we forward them to the sales team? Can we use it to train the new recruits?, etc.

 It’s important to keep the momentum going by involving senior management

All in all, this is a huge undertaking and only organizations that truly believe in story will succeed, but it’s definitely worth it, even if it only sticks with small pockets of people. It seems a little bit awkward to start with product teams, but story use has to be seen as useful, and that is one of the reasons while pushing storytelling for the sake of storytelling normally fails miserably. We need to locate places where story enhances the day to day relations of the organization and empower those parts to adopt story as their communication vehicle. Also is important to avoid spinning the organizational storytelling effort as a company wide PR move. Many departments feel a universal rejection against PR, and with good reason if you ask me, so it needs to be seen and evidenced as an important and useful tool, not just one of those useless things PR people do to get more clicks.

I hope this throws some light to some ideas on how to grow a powerful storytelling culture. It’s by no means the only way and most definitely each organization should develop tricks and behaviors that reinforce such culture. I would love to hear of how your organization or your team works with story, so please leave a comment if you want to share.


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