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5 Ways to Attach Business Stories to Organizational Strategy

Having top management in your business support a story initiative is critical to long-term success. Yet storytelling initiatives have also been successfully birthed from grassroots efforts. So where's the easiest place to start infusing story into strategy? You can attach it to the implementation of another strategy or introduce it during strategy work— both are great opportunities.

Here are five ways to attach stories to strategy:

  • Use story approaches in strategy work. Future stories can be used in scenario planning and when articulating an organization's vision and individual long-range strategies.

    Shawn Callahan, founder of Anecdote, adds two additional story-based strategy applications that he used with a pharmaceutical company in Vienna: On the first day, he says, "We delved into the important events that have shaped them and the lessons they've learned so far. we looked at the challenges they faced and told stories of how these challenges were really impacting their work. . . .

    "On the second day, we focused on the future. I stepped them through a visualization to get them out of their heads and then we shared stories of where the future was already happening in their business. We call these Gibson stories inspired by William Gibson who is reported to have said: 'The future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed.'"

  • Strategically build story into the organization from its birth. Here's how it happened for a nonprofit called Kiva that connects entrepreneurs to loans as little as $25 while treating them with dignity and respect:

    In March 2004, Jessica Jackley was working in East Africa with the Village Enterprise Fund. Her job was to assess the impact of the $100 grants this nonprofit gave to entrepreneurs to start or grow small businesses.

    She says, "I would sit down with a goat herder and listen for an hour or two about whether they received the money, what they used it for, what their business was, and whether their lives had changed because of the funding."

    Jessica was deeply inspired by these stories. "Yes, there was need, but they were stories of triumph and stories of effort and of people doing extraordinary things with a little bit of money."

    Matt Flannery who came to visit her on this trip, experienced these stories first-hand. She says, "After hearing all these stories, we knew they had to be shared." This desire to share authentic stories about the people being served, their funders, and the experiences of their staff inspired them to conceive Kiva.

    What has resulted from Kiva's storytelling efforts? Between 2005 and 2006, its first official year, the organization distributed $500,000 in loans to entrepreneurs. The next year, over $14 million was distributed. In 2012, the nonprofit made over $453 million in loans in 70 different countries with a 99.02 percent repayment rate.

  • Make story a strategy, among others. Coca-Cola's Content 2020 initiative is an example of story as a conscious strategy. It's now being instilled at the work level into all of the company's marketing processes.

    Vanessa Chase, a writer, non-profit collaborator, and philanthropy advocate, says, "Decide at an organizational level what your priorities are for program development and fundraising; then create some strategic messaging around those priorities. Once those have been set, you can clearly communicate to all staff members what kind of stories you are looking for."

  • Attach story to another strategy. Here story is the means to an end, not an end in itself. This is what happened at U.S. Geological Survey, a scientific organization with 10,000 staff in 400 offices.

    As Nancy Driver, Leadership Program Manager in the Office of Employee Development explains, "Part of the organization's strategic plan is to develop innovative leaders. Our vision is to create a leadership-centered culture."

    She goes on to say, "We established our leadership program in 1999 and purposefully integrated story into it. . . . Because story falls under the umbrella of leadership, it works." Leaders are accountable for modeling story both within and outside of the classroom environment.

  • Make story a core competence, both internally and externally. Here, story becomes part of the organization's DNA.

    It's woven into all external-facing processes and strategies with consumers, customers, partners, and others. It's woven into the organization's mission, vision, values, and all internal processes and systems — the daily work of all employees. And it's woven into the employee lifecycle, from recruitment and selection, to job descriptions and performance appraisals, to the time staff depart the organization.

    As we've shared, this is our dream. We've found organizations that come close, like Erbert & Gerbert's Subs & Clubs. But none that has fully embedded it as we've described here.

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