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The story‐driven organization

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Abstract

The old metaphors for business—war, science, the machine—are distancing and constrain an organization's ability to envision possibilities for action. Understanding motivation and behavior in terms of story—character, objective, and conflict—enables leaders to better engage both the minds and hearts of employees and manage change. The authors explain the elements of story and present six guidelines for tapping its power. Applications include connecting employees to the organization's mission; understanding and managing the cultural implications of system and process change; and marshalling the tension inherent in conflicting objectives, such as product performance and environmental stewardship, as a source of energy and innovation. © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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The Story-Driven Organization D AV ID B . D R AK E
& B R I AN L A NA HA N
The old metaphors for business—war, science, the
machine—are distancing and constrain an organi-
zation’s ability to envision possibilities for action.
Understanding motivation and behavior in terms of
story—character, objective, and conflict—enables
leaders to better engage both the minds and hearts
of employees and manage change. The authors
explain the elements of story and present six guide-
lines for tapping its power. Applications include
connecting employees to the organization’s mis-
sion; understanding and managing the cultural
implications of system and process change; and
marshalling the tension inherent in conflicting
objectives, such as product performance and envi-
ronmental stewardship, as a source of energy and
innovation. © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Fu t uris t Rolf Jen sen, wr itin g a decade ago, fore-
saw a paradigm shift with significant implications
for organizations:
We are in the twilight of a society based on data.
As information and intelligence become the
domain of computers, society will place more
value on the one human ability that cannot be
automated: emotion. Imagination, myth, ritu-
al—the language of emotion—will affect every-
thing from our purchasing decisions to how we
work with others. [Organizations] will thrive on
the basis of their stories and their myths.1
Story is increasingly the language of the twenty-
first century across so many domains in our lives.
Stories are central to how we perceive the world,
how we communicate our world to others, and
how we situate ourselves collectively in the world.
Inside organizations, however, storytelling is often
viewed as the proverbial icing on the cake, a more
“user-friendly” way to engage employees in the
company’s mission. Certainly we tell a lot of stories
inside organizations, but rarely do we think in
terms of story.
Stories, like brands, often have their roots inside
the marketing department of organizations, where
they are viewed as externalized objects, commodi-
ties to be packaged and presented. While impor-
tant, this view fails to account for the critical role
of the internal experience and the social construc-
tion of meaning in understanding the power and
purpose of stories in organizations—the key, per-
haps, to addressing the fact that 71 percent of
employees are not engaged or are actively disen-
gaged with their jobs (according to the Gallup
Management Journal’s semi-annual Employee
Engagement Index).2
We see the notion of a brand as a useful way to
think about the story of an organization as it is
experienced and shaped by employees. In looking
at brands as an internalized process, we recognize
that the first questions an employee asks of his or
her company’s brand is, “What does this brand
mean to me? What’s in this brand for me?” From a
narrative perspective, we can see these questions as,
“What story am I a part of? What is my place in
that story?”
This article will explore what it means to use story
as a root metaphor to more deeply engage employ-
ees. We will look at the common principles that
underlie story as a system of thought, and then dis-
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cuss how these principles can be applied to common
organizational issues such as mission, meaning, and
motivation. Cases from our respective client and
research base will be used to illustrate six strategies
for working within a narrative frame to create a
story-driven organization in which employees are
authentically engaged.
Metaphors We Live By
Through the use of metaphor in communication, we
turn what we mean into what we say. According to
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their book
Metaphors We Live By, “The essence of metaphor is
understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in
terms of another.”3One reason that metaphors are
so powerful is that they are sensed as felt, sometimes
primal, experiences. The word “metaphor” has the
same root as “amphora,” a container used to store
precious oils and spices and to carry them from one
place to another. Metaphors are literally a vessel for
carrying meaning, and they make language much
more potent and transferable.
At the same time, it is important to remember that
metaphors are very contextually dependent and sus-
ceptible to misinterpretation if not used consciously
and managed well. Dominant metaphors are also a
reflection of the power dynamics in an organization,
and power often accrues to those who shape the
organization’s internal discourse—the informal ver-
sus formal versions of stories being just one exam-
ple of this power struggle. Leaders can learn a lot
through an examination of the metaphors at play
within and about their organization.
As such, using a metaphorical frame on organiza-
tional life gives leaders the opportunity to make
explicit both the tacit knowledge and the unofficial
perspectives often hidden from view. This is impor-
tant because recent research on conversations shows
that we use an average of four metaphors per
minute, a statistic that tends to surprise people
because we are not aware of the vast majority of
metaphors we use. Metaphor is so fundamental to
the way we think and speak that only the more
obvious ones register in our awareness.
But metaphors aren’t perfect. Every metaphor is by
nature an inexact fit for what we are attempting to
describe, and where the metaphor does not apply
can be just as important as where it does. Like a
lens, every metaphor brings some things into sharp
focus, while obscuring others. Anthropologist
Clifford Geertz distinguished between “thin”
descriptions, interpretations of events based on a
person’s unexamined and socially influenced mis-
conceptions, and “thick” descriptions, which
embody the meaning of those events to the persons
actually involved in them.4We can see this in many
organizational change initiatives where progress is
assessed and described from a leadership perspec-
tive—in ways that may or may not reflect the expe-
riences of the employees who are living them every
day. Therefore, it is important for leaders to under-
stand what is contained in the metaphorical frames
they use most often to reinforce the organizational
story, and just as importantly, what has been left out
from those frames.
Groups of people who spend a lot of time together
talking about the same thing tend to adopt com-
mon metaphors and ways of speaking that get used
so much they eventually come to be seen as “reali-
ty”—the way the world is, rather than as a com-
munication tool. This is especially true for
employees in the workplace. Tracking the domi-
nant metaphors used in and by an organization is
one way to get a sense for the story, the brand, as
seen by those who work there.
Leaders can learn a lot through an examination of
the metaphors at play within and about their
organization.
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Let’s look at four root metaphors found in most
organizations as the basis for the language they
use to position themselves in the world and to
their employees: war, science, the machine, and
the family. These metaphors have been studied at
length by organizational scholars such as Lee
Bolman and Terrence Deal, Gareth Morgan, and
Charles Handy.5
The War Metaphor
Have you ever noticed how much of our language
inside organizations comes from war or its proxy,
sports? When we talk about consumer targets, com-
petitive strategy, and winning market share, we are
talking about business as if it were war. When we
use terms like team player, out of bounds, and
crunch time, we are talking about business as if it
were a sport. We have a tendency to elevate a sub-
ject’s significance by speaking of it in terms of war,
and business is no exception: In the marketplace we
have cola wars, software wars, and cellular wars, to
name just a few.
Now we all know that business isn’t really war. No
one gets killed—usually. But sometimes it seems that
way, and sometimes it can be helpful to think of
business as war. It is our best way to quickly convey
the concepts and language necessary to operate
effectively in a competitive environment.
But companies frozen in the war metaphor pay a
cost in terms of their ability to create relationships.
War language objectifies people: Employees are
merely foot soldiers in the great battle, and cus-
tomers are abstracted into market share as a way of
keeping score. Your company may have heartfelt
goals about valuing people and serving customers,
but if most of your daily conversations are infused
with war-based language, the range of possibilities
that language implies will shape your thinking.
The Science Metaphor
Another root metaphor found in most organizations
is science. It contains concepts and language that
can help reduce large volumes of information to
metrics that can be analyzed and controlled. When
we talk about testing concepts, measuring results,
and segmenting consumers, we are saying that busi-
ness is like science—everything is knowable, pre-
dictable, and controllable.
And the “science” at the base of this metaphor tends
to be Newtonian science, the science of things rather
than the science of living systems. As such, it dimin-
ishes the difference between things and people.
In organizations frozen in the science metaphor, test
scores become more real than what happens in the
marketplace. Business is seen as an equation, and
the organization only pays attention to that which
can be quantified and measured. This creates a frac-
tured reality for the people in the organization
because people know that many of the activities
important to performing their job successfully fall
outside the range of what is formally measured. As
such, they straddle two worlds in getting their job
done and often feel that their humanity is marginal-
ized in their decision making. Yet we know that the
essence of metaphor and story is that which engages
the whole person—including the realms of emotion
and spirit.
The Machine Metaphor
Language based in the machine metaphor tends to
treat the organization as an inanimate object, a col-
lection of parts that can be reassembled as needed.
When we talk about ROI, reorganization, and out-
sourcing we are talking about the organization as if
it were a machine. It is common now to even think
War language objectifies people: Employees are
merely foot soldiers in the great battle, and cus-
tomers are abstracted into market share as a way
of keeping score.
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of people in these terms, as “human capital.” In part
this is useful in recognizing the need for ongoing
investment in this area, but it poses some interesting
questions at the level of metaphor. A common focus
within this frame is fine-tuning the machine to be
more efficient and profitable. Again, this is an
appropriate aspiration for an organization, but
unabated, this view leads to commoditization
because it views everything—and everyone—as
merely a cog in the machine.
The war, science, and machine metaphors all serve a
purpose or we would not be using them. They facil-
itate an understanding of the large-scale activities
that make global corporations possible. But they are
also vestiges of a mass-market era that objectified
consumers and employees as means to an end. As
such they leave us conceptually ill equipped to deal
with markets and people as we find them today.
All three of these metaphors are “distancing”
metaphors that make it difficult for organizations to
create the relationships that are their lifeblood,
because the relational and social language of con-
nection is not present in any of these metaphors. So
we need to infuse our vocabulary in organizations
with new metaphors, particularly those that facili-
tate a deeper understanding of emotions, aesthetics,
and connection. Some organizations have attempted
to build an internal and external brand around the
family metaphor in response to the shortcomings of
the other three common options. Perhaps as more
women and nationalities move into leadership posi-
tions, this metaphor will be embodied in organiza-
tions more fully and authentically.
We believe that the language of story, the oldest
form of human connection, has a lot more to offer
as a new root metaphor for organizations in the
twenty-first century.
The Story Metaphor
In order to examine story as a metaphor inside
organizations, lets first get clear on what the word
means. Story is one of those “fat” words that can
stand in for many things but consequently has got-
ten a bit mushy from overuse. To a storyteller,
story is the description of a series of events that con-
veys meaning.
You have not told a story unless you have created
meaning for your audience. Meaning is created
when the intellect and the emotions are simultane-
ously engaged. We come to an understanding of the
story in our mind and in our heart. Good stories do
this by creating a relationship between the audience
and the characters in the story. It is through our
connection to the characters in a story that we expe-
rience its meaning.
Making meaning through story is something that
comes naturally to people. Story is one of the first
metaphors we learn as children, and on a personal
level it is often how we try to make sense out of
life’s events. Narrative therapists Jill Freedman and
Gene Combs point out that “the narrative
metaphor guides us in asking questions that invite
amplification of answers so that the experience
generated has a past and a future, characters, a con-
text, and meaning—in other words, so that it’s a
story.”6As such, it helps us see organizations as a
set of individual and collective stories sustained (or
not) over time and space.
Cognitive scientists such as Roger Schank have
helped us see that we define ourselves based on the
interpretations of our experiences that we maintain
through repetition.7We invent our “story” to piece
together these interpretations into a coherent whole.
We believe that the language of story, the oldest
form of human connection, has a lot more to offer
as a new root metaphor for organizations in the
twenty-first century.
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The results in our life and work are largely a func-
tion of the stories we tell ourselves.
A key role of leaders, particularly in the manage-
ment of change initiatives, is to help their organi-
zation shift the stories it tells about itself. As part
of this process, it is important to understand the
critical role of objective in defining and under-
standing a person’s—or an organization’s—moti-
vation and ambition.
The Importance of Objective
In his Story seminars, screenwriting guru Robert
McKee talks about what shapes and drives a story:
The ritual container of story is shaped by an
inciting incident that happens in the early part of
the story.… The inciting incident is an event that
upsets the balances of forces in the primary
character’s life … it can be either positive or neg-
ative.… The character conceives of what will
put life back into balance if they achieve it. This
pursuit of this object of desire becomes the spine
of the story. At bottom, all stories take the form
of a quest.8
We identify with a character in a story when we can
empathize with what he or she wants. In story lan-
guage, this is objective, and it is all about desire.
What does the protagonist most want? This desire
sets the spine of the story and determines what it is
about. But we need to really feel what the character
wants, and it has to be something worthwhile, a
human value worth pursuing. No one wants to
watch a character pursue an objective that is too
easy or without meaning.
Naming the primary objective for a character can be
as difficult as finding the mission at the heart of a
company. People as well as organizations seem to
want many things. How to discern what is really
central? McKee suggests that one way to get at the
objective is to ask what the character so desires that
if you gave it to him it would stop the story.9The
answer to that is the character’s true objective.
What does your organization so desire that if it got it,
its story would be over? Get clear on what you are
relentlessly pursuing and you will know the true
nature of your brand and authentic mission as an
organization. One of the unintended consequences of
the focus on task, project, and deadline in most
organizations is that many employees lose sight of
what they were working toward in the first place.
Notable exceptions can be found in companies such
as Toyota, which has found ways to successfully inte-
grate its philosophy and practices around teamwork
and continuous improvement into its American man-
ufacturing plants.10 As we shall see, part of what
makes this possible is viewing challenges as tensions
to creatively engage, rather than as battles to fight or
machines to repair. Every good story needs a conflict,
the tension between two opposing forces through
which the protagonist struggles before emerging.
The Law of Conflict
Which brings us to a key concept of storytelling: the
law of conflict. Conflict as a story tool describes the
sources of struggle, difficulty, and hardship that
characters face. Conflict is the medium of a story.
Nothing moves forward in a story without conflict.
Through conflict we get to see the character make
choices where true character is revealed.
Any character needs a struggle—something to over-
come—otherwise he or she will be static and
unchanging, offering nothing to involve us, no hook
Get clear on what you are relentlessly pursuing and
you will know the true nature of your brand and
authentic mission as an organization.
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to compel us to watch the story through to a resolu-
tion. The most compelling characters are those who
struggle, whose actions revolve around conflict.
The Three Basic Conflict Types
There are three basic types of conflict that generate
stories: the character against other characters, the
character against the world, and the character
against himself or herself. The first two types of
conflict are external to the character, and the third
makes up the character’s internal or interior strug-
gle. These struggles allow for the emergence of the
central themes and values at stake in the story.
The character against other characters. Our character
has wants, needs, or ideas that cause him or her to
struggle against other characters. Many times these
represent aspects of their unconscious drives pro-
jected onto and/or embodied in other characters.
(Think Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in the Star
Wars movie series.)
The character against the world. Our character must
struggle against some element of the physical world
or relationship to the environment in order to suc-
ceed or survive. Many times these represent arche-
typal and universal forces the person or
organization must face in order to reach the objec-
tive. (Think Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away.)
The character against himself or herself. Our charac-
ter has some unresolved internal struggle that
shapes his or her perspective and actions. This is the
most complex of the sources of conflict. It is essen-
tially a description of internal compulsions, con-
cepts, or frames of reference the character carries
within that can stand in opposition to achieving his
or her objectives. A simple example of this would be
a character whose goal is to cross a rope bridge but
who is afraid of heights. (Think Indiana Jones con-
fronting his fear of snakes.)
Often a character can consciously desire one thing
while having an unconscious desire that is in conflict
with it. For example, in his narrative coaching work,
David (coauthor of this article) often sees clients
ostensibly driving toward a promotion but whose
stories actually form around tensions rooted in a
stronger unconscious drive—for example, for greater
attention to their inner world. Part of his work is to
help them make choices around which desire to fol-
low so they can do so with clear intention.
Six Principles for the Story-Driven Organization
For those in them, organizations feel like open-
ended stories where the primary challenge is to keep
the narrative consistent while allowing for continu-
ous change and evolution. So how do the dynamics
of objective and conflict from the world of story
apply to the world of organizations? Here are six
lessons we have learned from studying and working
with story-driven organizations, with examples,
including several drawn from David’s narrative
coaching work with clients.
1. Know your story.
How do you start to look at your company in story
terms? The research from The Gallup Organization
and others has shown that employees are most
engaged and productive when they are able to have
strong relationships and clear communication with
their manager and others; a clear path to be at their
best; and a strong sense of commitment. These
requirements reflect the fundamental questions an
audience asks of every character in a story:
Who are you?
Where do you come from?
There are three basic types of conflict that gener-
ate stories: the character against other charac-
ters, the character against the world, and the
character against himself or herself.
What do you do?
What do you want? What do you care about?
Where do you fit in the world?
These are the same questions employees frequently
ask themselves and others.
Healthy organizations are clear on their story and
align how they tell it externally and how they live it
internally. What story does your organization live
out now, and is that the one you want? How could
you engage your employees in creating clear and
compelling answers to the five questions above?
When Nike introduced an enterprise software sys-
tem for its global supply chain, it asked David to
provide training in narrative skills to sixty change
champions to increase their capacity to lead their
teams through this major transition. A story-based
approach enabled the project leaders to better
understand the true nature of this change and to
support their peers in finding new answers to the
five questions above. A critical step was to recognize
the ways in which the new software system would
challenge Nike’s long-held norms and practices
reflective of the company’s “just do it” brand.
Taking a narrative approach—i.e., examining the
situation from within the frame of character, objec-
tive, and conflict—helped the project leaders to do
the following:
1. Make explicit the deep roots of the “just do it”
brand in their culture.
2. Identify actions reflective of that brand that were
no longer possible or desirable.
3. Identify ways to maintain brand legacy and
coherence in the face of the requirements of the
new system.
4. Integrate new stories about who they were in
order to be successful in the new reality.
The sessions prepared these leaders to address the
cultural and organizational issues that would
accompany the system’s implementation, such as:
Moving from a casual and consensual decision-
making culture to a more standardized system,
schedule, and language
Leveling the playing field, on the one hand, and
redistributing the power based on relevant
expertise, on the other
Attending to the upstream and downstream
implications of actions as well as to the social
and cultural implications of the new software
In the end, Nike was successful in supporting its glob-
al supply chain staff to create and know a new story.
2. Lead with desire.
Story-driven organizations articulate their core mis-
sion in human terms. They have an objective that
transcends the organization itself and connects to a
larger human purpose.
This larger objective is the ground where employees
can connect their self-story to the organization
story. Story-driven organizations do not ignore the
need for profit (e.g., the money story); they just real-
ize that every company needs to make money and,
therefore, it is not unique in terms of their story.
What does your company care about beyond its
money story? What abiding values does it serve?
What does your company so desire that it would
stop your story if you ever got it?
As an example, a large U.S. organization had
chronic difficulties retaining new management
staff, most all of them young women in their first
career. Its managers had studied this problem quite
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Healthy organizations are clear on their story and
align how they tell it externally and how they live
it internally.
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extensively from within scientific and machine
metaphors hoping to find solutions to “fix” the
problem. David invited them instead to reframe
the problem from a story perspective: What does
this conflict between efficient use and retention of
talent say about the true story of the organization’s
mission in the world? What they came to realize
was that while many of these new leaders were
indeed leaving for better paying jobs, this could
actually become a brand rather than a liability.
Rather than fight it, why not embrace it and
change the organization’s story?
The organization went on to build an extensive
leadership development and mentoring system for
these young leaders; sought out additional funding
to support it; and became known as the region’s pre-
miere launch point for young leaders in this profes-
sion. The organization attracted many of the best
and brightest to join and contribute in return for the
opportunity to launch their career in strong fashion.
The new talent the organization developed went on
to enrich the broader community, and enough of
them remained to competently fill the organization’s
ongoing roles.
3. Connect to a larger narrative.
Organizational life is increasingly influenced by the
tensions between the networks and the hierarchies
in and across which people work. Within these
increasingly connected environments, people want
to believe that they are contributing to something
that is greater than themselves. Many of these aspi-
rations are based on ancient archetypal drives. As
Willa Cather observed, “There are only two or three
human stories, and they go on repeating themselves
as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” A
key role for leaders in this regard is to tie the orga-
nizational objectives to some broader contribution
in line with the organizational values, and to create
paths for people to see their role in making that
vision come true. As a colleague once shared, “We
can only go as far as our stories will take us.”
As an example, the employees in the IT Department
of a large health services company were having dif-
ficulty effectively collaborating with the various
lines of business they supported throughout the
organization. One of the core issues that surfaced
for them was that the company had grown so large
and complex that they seldom got to see the results
of their work—unless, of course, someone called to
complain because it was not working. David shared
a story with managers about the value provided by
the various electronic monitors attached to his
father-in-law while he lay in a coma dying; the
information displayed on the monitors—colored
lines and changing numbers and occasional soft
beeps generated by the equipment and its soft-
ware—presented the only indications of life and a
welcome gift to a family coming to terms with its
grief. Taking inspiration from this story, the man-
agement team reinstituted a practice of regularly
exposing the technical staff to the fruits of their
labors for patients and other employees so they
could connect the story of their work, often done in
isolation, with the larger narrative of serving people.
4. Keep conflict alive.
Remember that conflict and struggle are the medi-
um of story, and that internal conflict is what makes
a character human and compelling. A company
without conflict tends to be a company without
energy. Embracing conflict and a bit of struggle in
your story will give permission for conflicting ener-
gies to coexist in your brand and in your culture.
Honor your conflicts; they are where your unique
story lies. Often your conflict lies in those topics you
don’t want to talk about, the ones that everyone
Embracing conflict and a bit of struggle in your
story will give permission for conflicting energies
to coexist in your brand and in your culture.
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seems to avoid. Follow that aversion to its source
and you will find the makings of your story. In the
creative tensions inherent in conflict is a source of
energy that great companies harness for innovation
and success.
A story is over when its central conflict is resolved.
Therefore, story-driven organizations work to keep
conflict alive in their story instead of trying to
resolve it. They actively embrace the tensions, seek-
ing a third space in which creativity can flourish.11
Think about the dominant brands in our culture;
most work with conflict by managing to hold two
opposing energies in dynamic tension—Southwest
Airlines, for instance, combines a fun-loving free
spirit with the discipline of low costs. These organi-
zations frame the conflict as between two good
things, rather than a good thing and a “bad” thing.
Freedom and efficiency are both virtues in their own
right. Southwest does not try to “solve” this conflict
but, instead, celebrates it as an integral part of its
company story and continually plays with both
energies without a need for one side to triumph over
the other. This approach provides it both a source of
energy for the brand and a barrier to competition.
5. Protect your stories.
True character is revealed through the choices a pro-
tagonist makes under pressure. Pressure in a story is
created by life not proceeding as the character
expects. “The stuff of storytelling,” says Robert
McKee, “is the gap between what we think will hap-
pen when we take an action, and what actually hap-
pens.”12 Using a narrative frame can help here,
particularly during times of change or growth when
an organization has little to guide it but its shared
sense of identity, what Peg Neuhauser calls the orga-
nization’s “sacred bundle” of stories.13 What is your
organization’s sacred bundle? If you could only take
five stories with you to start the organization all
over again, what would you take?
As an example, an organization in the western
United States had routinely won regional and even
national awards for its performance. However,
when the direction of its business shifted as a result
of new federal legislation, it fell way behind many of
its peers in the industry. Working within the typical
metaphorical frames, it was having minimal success
improving its results. In working with them from a
narrative perspective, David turned the focus from
the external brand in the marketplace and its per-
formance to the internal experience of that brand
among employees.
In doing so, it became apparent that many of them
had not sufficiently relinquished or grieved the old
story of their past successes. The disconnect
between who they saw themselves to be at that
point (a failure) versus who they once were (leaders
in their industry) was great. A daylong organiza-
tional wake was organized to help employees cele-
brate and be honored for the many years of great
success so they could move beyond their collective
past and apply those same strengths to the new sit-
uation. Within the year, they were back near the
top.
6. Give your story away.
Paradoxically, the primary goal of a storyteller is to
“give” his or her story to the audience. Story tech-
niques are there to invite the audience into the story
so that they can make it their own. Story-driven
organizations set an inspiring objective for the busi-
ness and then invite employees and suppliers to play
with it and make it their own. They focus on
engagement rather than control. The rise of social
networking and blogging technologies, for example,
are tools organizations can use to engage employees
Story-driven organizations set an inspiring objec-
tive for the business and then invite employees
and suppliers to play with it and make it their own.
45
Gl ob al Bu sin es s and O rga ni zat io nal E xc ell en ce DO I: 10 .1 002 /j oe Ma y/ Jun e 200 7
and stakeholders in the organization’s unfolding
story. A significant benefit of such efforts is they
engage people in wrestling with the tensions inher-
ent in running an organization.
California-based Patagonia, a leading manufacturer
of high-end outdoor apparel and equipment, is a
good example. Patagonia’s mission statement is
“Build the best product, do no unnecessary harm,
use business to inspire and implement solutions to
the environmental crisis.” In story terms, this last
part is a desire that transcends the organization and
one that connects employees to a larger human pur-
pose. It is a meaning-based objective.
Patagonia’s products have to work superbly to ful-
fill the first part of the mission statement, but they
also have to be good for the planet. This conflict
between product performance and environmental
stewardship—two good things—is what defines the
Patagonia culture and powers its brand. The com-
pany is quite transparent in discussing its struggle,
stating in one product catalogue, “Everything we do
pollutes.” Managers were surprised when cus-
tomers responded by saying “Keep doing this, keep
trying; thanks for being honest.”14 Having a worthy
objective and sharing its struggle made the compa-
ny more engaging rather than less.
Patagonia also makes a space for employees to
engage personally in the company mission. Aside
from actively encouraging employees to make time
for the outdoors—the company posts a daily surf
report at its Ventura, California, headquarters—
Patagonia also pays employees to work for up to
two months with an environmental group of their
choosing. When the company decided to switch to
organic cotton in 1994, it organized tours of cotton
farms for 350 employees—a third of the work-
force—so they could experience for themselves the
difference between conventional cotton farming and
organic farming. By allowing employees to see for
themselves what was at stake, the company engen-
dered the commitment to overcome the challenges
such a change would entail. As a result, Patagonia is
now credited with creating the first large-scale mar-
ket for organic cotton in the United States, enabling
later adoption by larger corporations such as Nike.
What is remarkable about Patagonia is how its
influence as a brand and a company is so much larg-
er than its size. By leading with desire and embrac-
ing its struggle, the company has enlisted the best
energy of employees, suppliers, retailers, and con-
sumers. As one Patagonia manager put it, “We hon-
estly want to give our lives’ purpose to this
company; this is an opportunity to do that—you
don’t get that very often.”15
Conclusion
We live in a time when business and society are con-
fronted with issues on a planetary scale, such as
global warming and sustainability. In such a con-
text, it is imperative that organizations find ways to
relate their mission and challenges on a human scale
in order to engage and energize their employees.
Towards this end, story is a powerful medium for
touching both mind and heart. Business leaders who
develop narrative competencies will better under-
stand the metaphors upon which their organization
is based and through which it tells its story to
employees and customers. Leaders will also be bet-
ter able to manage change by helping their organi-
zation reshape its reality through new stories.
Story-driven organizations use the narrative
metaphor to engage their employees and other
stakeholders in creating a compelling and
Business leaders who develop narrative competen-
cies will better understand the metaphors upon
which their organization is based and through
which it tells its story to employees and customers.
46 M ay /Ju ne 20 07 D OI: 1 0.1 00 2/j oe G lo bal B usi ne ss an d Org an iza ti ona l Exc el len ce
excelling environment for work. In doing so, they
have shifted away from a dependence on out-
dated, limiting metaphors. Images of war as
sources of victory are reframed to include conflict
and creative tension as sources of innovation.
Images of science as sources of measurement are
reframed to include objectives as sources of mean-
ing. Images of the machine as sources of efficien-
cy are reframed to include plots as sources of
coherence and purpose. Images of the family as
sources of allegiance are reframed to include char-
acters as sources of identity.
Rather than focusing heavily on problem solving as
a way to make something they do not like go away,
story-driven organizations engage employees in
making what they truly care about exist.16
Connecting employees to sources of meaning, iden-
tity, and purpose makes it possible for them—as
Southwest Airlines tells its employees—to “feel free
to actually enjoy what you do.”
N o t e s
1. R. Jensen, The dream society, The Futurist, (May-June
1996), 9–13.
2. Gallup study: Engaged employees inspire company inno-
vation, October 12, 2006, available on the Internet at http://
gmj.gallup.com/content/default.aspx?ci=24880&pg=1.
3. G. Lakoff & M. Johnson, Metaphors we live by (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1980).
4. C. Geertz, From the native’s point of view: On the nature
of anthropological understanding, in P. Rabinow & W. M.
Sullivan (eds.), Interpretive social science (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1979), 225–41.
5. See L. G. Bolman & T. E. Deal, Reframing organizations:
Artistry, choice, and leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,
1997); G. Morgan, Images of organizations (Thousand
Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1997); and C. Handy,
Understanding organizations (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1993).
6. J. Freedman & G. Combs, Invitations to new stories:
Using questions to explore alternative possibilities, in S.
Gilligan & R. Price (eds.), Therapeutic conversations (New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 291–308.
7. R. A. Schank, Tell me a story: A new look at real and arti-
ficial memory (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990).
8. R. McKee, presentation at Story Seminar, Los Angeles,
(2004).
9. Ibid.
10. C. Fishman, No satisfaction at Toyota: The presumption
of imperfection—and a distinctly American refusal to accept
it, Fast Company, 82 (December-January 2006).
11. D. B. Drake, Narrative coaching: A psychosocial method
for working with clients’ stories to support transformative
results, paper presented at the Second Australia Conference on
Evidence-Based Coaching, Sydney, Australia, October 8, 2005.
12. McKee, Story Seminar.
13. P. C. Neuhauser, Corporate legends and lore (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1993).
14. L. R. Rowledge, R. S. Barton & K. S. Brady, Mapping the
journey: Case studies in strategy and action toward sustain-
able development (London: Greenleaf Publishing, 1999), 15.
15. Ibid., 27.
16. P. M. Senge, Personal transformation, Society for
Organizational Learning, 1990, accessed February 6, 2006,
from http://www.solonline.org/res//kr/transform.html.
David B. Drake, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for
Narrative Coaching in Sebastopol, California. He teaches
and consults internationally on story-based strategies for
development and change. He can be contacted at
ddrake@narrativecoaching.com. Brian Lanahan is managing
director and cofounder of Character LLC, a consulting firm
in Portland, Oregon, that develops story frameworks for
brands. He can be contacted at Brian@characterweb.com.
... Storytelling is a means of engaging people, whether in their work-place (Drake & Lanahan, 2007;Durrance, 1997;James & Minnis, 2004) or at an institution of learning (Frisch & Saunders, 2008;Higgins, 2008;Zerba, 2008). Also, a good story is fun to hear. ...
... In poorer communities, business education often occurs in the workplace rather than in a formal institution of learning. Storytelling provides an important method of learning at work (Drake & Lanahan, 2007;Durrance, 1997;James & Minnis, 2004). Through stories, aspects of the job, its tacit knowledge, © Copyright 2011 Frances Miley and Andrew Read workplace culture, and the experiences of employees can be shared to build understanding and a collaborative working environment (Boyce, 1966). ...
... With the accepted definition of metaphor as "two concepts of different things embodied in a single word or phrase … whose meaning results from their interactions" (Strati 1997, pg. 309), their power rests in that fact that they are often sensed, and felt (Drake & Lanahan, 2007). This aids not only the experience but also the ability to conceptualize and structure (Kelemen 2000) across into the world of organizational life. ...
... Coaching and narrative Some may say my approach was unorthodox, and from a practitioner researcher's perspective, I was taking a risk (Dadds and Hart, 2001). There is a considerable body of research (Vogel, 2012;Drake, 2007;Drake and Lanahan, 2007;Polkinghorne, 1991) maintaining that stories help coaches and coachees think narratively: the narrative imagination captures the interplay between language and discourse and helps us to order our thoughts in a clearer, more coherent structure. If writing is the means to propel "us to come to know ourselves through the multiple voices our experiences take, to describe our contexts and histories as they shape the many minds and selves who define us and others" (Holly, 1989, p. 78), then story and narrative have a central role in the coaching process. ...
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