Stories Are Having a Moment

Given what I’m about to write, this blog should be a hero story about a frustrated exec who uses storytelling to transform disinterested employees into faithful followers….

Maybe next time.

For now, what I will say is that THE common thread we’re hearing across clients and industries is an interest in learning to tell stories. The secret is out. Something that we’ve known intrinsically from the power of children’s stories and our ability to pass stories over generations is getting the enthusiastic attention of psychology and neuroscience researchers.

The gist of what brain science is telling us is that stories are the most powerful way to change attitudes, motivate, influence, connect with and inspire people.  And this is what has leaders listening.

  • But what is it about stories and business?
  • Why did 3M ban bullet points in favor of strategic narrative?
  • Why are top business schools incorporating story into their curriculum?
  • Why does story have the unique power to persuade and motivate?

To put it simply, it’s how we’re wired. When we’re presented with a list of bullet points, our brain activates its language processing capacity- where words take on meaning. And that’s great. But when we hear a story, we relate it to our existing experiences. The frontal cortex, responsible for experiencing emotions, is activated as if we were actually IN the story- tasting the waffles, feeling the panic of an unprepared presentation.  Likely for this reason, studies show that people accept ideas more readily when their minds are in story vs. analytical mode. Uri Hasson at Princeton and Paul Zak at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center are both doing exciting work in the space.

So what does this mean for leaders? Stories motivate and inspire staff because they “bring brains together” in a way, something narratologists refer to as transportation. The brains of storyteller and listener(s) synchronize in the moment a story is being told. I’m reminded of how getStoried storytelling guru and gothamCulture friend, Michael Margolis, describes the “invisible lines of connection” that stories create between people.

Think of a leader who is trying to help her organization be more risk tolerant. The most effective way to motivate risk-taking behavior is through story – a time she took a risk, the fears she had, how she created something new, and the reward she reaped. This is the difference between getting people to do what you want and getting people to want what you want.

Not to mention that culture IS the stories that we tell. Stories and culture are inextricably linked. To initiate culture change, leaders need to change the stories they tell – and this refers no less to the stories we tell in passing in the hall as it does company-wide briefs.  As deeply embedded as stories are in our history, it’s no surprise leaders are anxious to harness the power of story for positive organizational change. And we at gothamCulture are excited to be involved.

A Bright Idea @ IDEO

What does a flying fish tell us about corporate culture?

At design consultancy, IDEO, the answer is – quite a bit. When IDEO’s chief creative officer, Paul Bennett, hoisted an Icelandic lamp made from a lacquered, deboned cod above his desk in IDEO’s office space, it was more than a quirky design decision.

The lamp is a symbol of Bennett’s experiment to work differently. One day, the chief creative officer realized that his hyper-scheduled workday was preventing him from living an important cultural value at IDEO: ‘Talk less, do more.‘ Scheduled in back-to-back, ten-minute micro-meetings left no room for doing.

One of Bennett’s core roles as chief creative officer is to ‘help inspire people’. With no space for the type of organic interaction and spontaneity that inspires creative thinking, Bennett felt his energy was misdirected.

So, he ran an experiment:

  1. Clear the calendar: Say no more than yes
  2. Buck the ‘hot desking’* trend: Be an anchor amidst the fluidity
  3. Do ‘doctor’s rounds’: Spend ½ day at the desk, ½ day visiting colleagues
  4. Respond in real time: Allow for 5 minute or 2 hour interactions depending on the real needs of the organization

*Hot desking = No designated workspaces; Employees at IDEO sign up for desks every morning

Claiming a permanent desk and stringing the massive cod lamp above it are symbols of Bennett’s commitment to change his leadership behavior:

“When the light is on, it’s a signifier to the office that I am there, and a symbol to me that I should be accessible and approachable. And it’s a huge incandescent fish: As a surreal object in a public place, it can shake you out of your office stupor and help you think more creatively” Paul Bennett (

Bennett’s experiment is a perfect response to one of the trickiest aspects of managing culture. Culture is grounded in habits. Thankfully, habits exist to save us the time of making drawn-out decisions about…how to sign an email, for example. But, leaders and organizations run the risk of relying on habits that once served them well but are no longer driving high performance. Left unchecked, this is how culture can derail organizations.

Bennett’s habit of hyper-scheduling wasn’t helping him contribute to the creativity and organic interaction that IDEO values. Leaders should be deliberate, like Bennett’s experiment, in course-correcting behaviors that aren’t aligned with their company’s values. Ultimately, leaders set the cultural direction for their organizations. The fish lamp, the dedicated desk over which it hangs, and the stories behind them are artifacts of IDEO’s culture that can’t help but reinforce the value of ‘talking less, doing more.’

On Being Unreasonable

Last week, I watched an executive address 150 leaders in his organization – an organization known for its unparalleled ingenuity, ‘against all odds’ innovation, and global impact. In his remarks to close a three-day ‘leaders summit’, the executive made a request of his team:

“Please…Be unreasonable.”

Unreasonable: difficult, obstinate, without good sense…

The negative connotation of the word hit first. But within seconds, the meaning behind the request settled. And the reaction was visceral– an energy spurred by the idea of disruption, dissatisfaction with the status quo, an urge to take risks. I envisioned Monday’s to-do lists being mentally rearranged by listeners, “reasonable” tasks being shuffled off the list indefinitely.

We hear leaders struggle with the pace and complexity of today’s changing environment. How do we inspire innovation? Breakthrough? How do we stay ahead of the curve?

Doing something remarkable requires risk-taking. Inevitably, with certain risks comes failure. To motivate employees to take risks, leaders need to drive and maintain a cultural acceptance for failure. “Please…be unreasonable” set the foundation for just that.

If your organization feels starved for fresh ideas, a good first place to look is how failure is perceived culturally. Is risk being recognized and rewarded – whether it ends in success or failure? Are failures broadcast as organizational learning or swept under the rug? Are leaders encouraging employees to tackle challenges that seem impossible? If we think about what innovation truly is – upheaval, disruption, breakthrough, how could we achieve it any other way than being unreasonable?

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw