I was helping an organisation assess their safety culture recently and was told something very interesting time and time again by different individuals. These people kept saying that they were an organisation that learns by stories – specific, powerful examples of situations that made a big difference to how people worked.

Woman holding a blank antique book in her hands. Isolated on a white background.

To illustrate this, they gave an example. Some Israeli journalists had come over to the UK as part of a delegation trying to understand the business better, because of a large contract the organisation was trying to win. The idea was to get a picture of the real business, so they were going to come in and film interviews on the night shift at one of their sites.

As you’d expect with media types, they popped out for a nice dinner with the odd drink or two prior to going on site, and when they got there it was clear to the site manager that they’d just come back from dinner. Now, there was a no alcohol policy on site so the site manager flatly refused to let them on, despite much protesting and some initial pressure coming from on high.

Despite this initial pressure, people quite quickly recognised the importance of this stance, even given the commercial context. And the business reputation actually rose a lot higher as a result, as well as the reputation of the individual manager involved. This story turned into an incredibly powerful example of how the business expects their leaders to behave, especially in the face of considerable commercial pressure.

The story got me thinking how organisations are surprisingly efficient vehicles for sharing stories – especially for those people who are based in the same location every day.

Although unfortunately, in my experience organisations are pretty bad at bottling this; encouraging collecting powerful stories and using them as an inspired source of shared learning. Instead, you get a lot of target driven stuff like balanced scorecards and dashboards, which are essential for understanding progress of change initiatives, but are the sort of things which in my experience don’t inspire change in the majority of people.

A more directed approach

So what kind of things can you do to encourage collecting of useful stories? Well, in no particular order here are some examples I’ve seen which are quite inspiring:

  • The Zappos Culture Book: Zappos (the American clothing retailer) decided to record all their inspirational stories in an annual culture book. This was, in their words, to “Remember the current culture whilst simultaneously inspiring themselves for the next year”. Their culture book has now become something of a phenomenon, being downloaded by many other organisations across the globe as an example of how to create strong culture through narrative.
  • Johnson and Johnson’s blog: Johnson and Johnson have always had a strong sense of purpose and one of the things they’ve been driving over the last few years is the use of an inspirational narrative, both through the use of blogs from their senior team – and collecting them from employees making their products and the use of the products by their customers.
  • Social networking: I’ve been amazed to see the direct impact on organisational culture through social software like our Engage product. Its features mean you get an ongoing stream of narrative on the front page, with each of these stories being used to illustrate some of the effective conversations people are having about safety in the business. You can literally see when one of these stories has an impact, because cross-comments suddenly explode and you get lots of people joining in to post similar experiences. Take a look in our Engage demonstration on YouTube.