7 Essential Stories Every Organization Should Know and Tell
Back in the early ‘90s some good friends of mine, Tom and Mike and their lovely wives Tanya and Trish, opened a coffee shop in quite possibly the worst retail location in Hillsboro, OR. Numerous businesses had opened in that spot, and just as quickly closed. However, the Whitehorse Coffee Co would break that trend in a remarkable illustration of the power stories have to define an organization and lay the groundwork for success.
Sharing stories was integral to the business. Even before I asked to join them I could recite how they came up with both the idea for the shop (soaking in a southern Oregon hot spring) and the name (the name of the spring, of course!). They introduced me to the shop not through a mission statement or a collection of abstract values but through a very simple description: “Everyone needs a comfortable escape. We want to be our clients’ extra living room, but filled with good conversation (when desired) and no need to clean up.” Though not a story in the strictest sense, this description provides all the detail necessary to create our own story with the Whitehorse as the hero that saves the day.
This was the way of the Whitehorse. The foundation, vision, successes, and even the struggles were all shared in human terms with everyone involved. Because of this Mike and Tom had powerful ownership over the shop’s communal definition. Even in a rare streak of bad circumstance, the collective story that had been built was more than capable of absorbing (and even incorporating) the challenges they faced.
The result was a simple coffee shop that became one of the community’s most beloved hot spots. Music and art were shared and celebrated. People came in to announce their joys and seek solace in their grief. It was an oasis of its own making.
Any organization can position itself for greater success by collecting and sharing their integral stories. Here are the seven most essential story types every organization should know and tell:
The Foundation Story:
Every organization or business was established as a solution to a problem. What was the problem that prompted your organization to form? Who were the players? The Foundation Story provides your historical reason for being.
You may list words like “integrity”, “commitment” or “service” among your organizational values, but words by themselves neither lead nor inspire. In contrast, a story illustrating the courageous pursuit of any given value sticks in the mind and can have long lasting impact. Any organization should be able to illustrate each of its core values as a compelling story gleaned from the actual efforts of its employees.
Success Stories are an organizations proof of worth. These are the stories that illustrate the heart of your work. Are you capable of accomplishing what you set out to do? These stories show that you can, and not only for the benefit of your clients but for your own staff as well.
One of the least shared and most powerful stories any business can utilize is the Future Vision. Many organizations have vision statements, but these are often too abstract or general to be useful. Describing the future that has been made better by your unfailing efforts on behalf of your constituents and community creates a model that today’s employees can strive to build for tomorrow.
Beyond the Call:
Any time an employee goes above and beyond the call of duty there is a story that needs to be shared. Whether it’s the florist that works through the night to ensure a wedding delivery or a nurse who stays on to help a laboring mother with her own delivery, these moments define the best we have to offer. To allow them to fade away is to give up an opportunity to inspire the best from your staff and to set a higher bar. Share these stories often.
Many balk at the idea of sharing one’s failures. However, as great storytellers have always known, we connect with the rest of the human race most readily through our missteps. A story that illustrates both a past weakness and how we have bettered ourselves because of it can be a powerful tool for creating strong bonds.
Personal anecdotes, outside the realm of work, should be a natural part of the organizational dynamic. Not only do these stories help cement staff-staff bonds but they also reaffirm the wholeness of our lives, of which both non-work and work day activities are essential components.
These are the seven essential story types. By incorporating them you benefit your organization in many ways, not the least of which are:
- taking ownership of your real-world organizational definition,
- reaffirming you reason for being,
- illustrating the improved future you aspire to create, and
- building a culture of dedicated and positive pursuit.
The Whitehorse Coffee Co was not a success out of circumstance or even competent financial management (though they managed their funds well). It became a success because those in charge used stories to establish an intentional definition and to build a culture that reaffirmed that definition with every “Hello!” Anyone who chooses can do the same.
Next week: “4 Strategies for Assembling a Powerful Organizational Narrative”
Two weeks: “How Social Media Killed Old-School Marketing”
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“StoryForce” is a series of articles on the power stories wield in the lives of organizations. The purpose is to provide a guide for discovery of the nature of stories and to explore the ways we can put this discovery to valuable use for the benefit of ourselves, our organizations and the communities we serve. View Part One of the series here.
Robert L Killen – www.robertlkillen.com – is a speaker, thought leader and coach focusing on positive self definition for individuals and organizations. He is also the Executive Director of the City Club of Central Oregon, where he hosts vibrant discussions of important and often controversial topics. He is also a husband, father, artist and musician.