There has been a huge amount written about the benefits of storytelling in the organisational and commercial world, paradoxically most of it dank and lacking any vitality. So much of what people believe to be stories are not. Going beyond the “beginning, middle and the end” of our earliest years being made to sit in front of a piece of ruled paper and write something interesting to order, perhaps its the case that the components of a great story are also those of a fantastic workplace.
Steven James, prolific author and tutor of these things refers to a story as “a transformation unveiled”. Think about your workplace in that context for a moment. I should add that he also says “you don’t have a story until something goes wrong”. Again, you should be on the money, or you’re not being honest with yourself.
And so a story – and a workplace – should have the following….
A setting, an orientation – the context into which all of the characters are placed, and the reason for everyone and everything being there, wherever “there” may be. History, chance, co-incidence, or something else entirely. At this point we create our emotional connection, such that we want to stay with it. There has to be a reason to get out of bed in the morning, as there has to be to turn the page.
Characters – in which Steven James’ description of pebble people and putty people is wonderful. When thrown at a wall, a pebble bounces off – nothing happens to it, it remains the same. Putty on the other hand changes shape, and so we watch closely how, and want to keep throwing it. Forget traditional delineations in the workplace, just think about the pebble people and putty people you know, and how they interact.
Plot(s) – external struggles that need to be overcome, and internal struggles that need to be resolved. The workplace is an incredibly complex weave of plot, rendering it fascinating, frustrating and addictive. Perhaps too much of modern syrupy thought is directed at dissolving the drama in the human condition, flattening our emotional peaks until no more than foothills, stripping every fibre from our reflexes. Consider, perhaps people keep checking their e-mails not for the usual hand-wrung reasons, but because they need to know what’s happening. Because they “can’t put it down”.
Something unexpected – prompted by a discovery, something that will never be the same again. The reason stories are so often not stories is because nothing happens that changes everything, on whatever scale “everything” may be measured. In the workplace that could be reflected through the physical – features and aesthetics that alter the way we behave individually or towards others – or the personal – breakthroughs or accidents (beneficial, as well as negative) that bring progress, benefit or an altered state of understanding. Workplace design thinking has for many years fixated upon creating unexpected forms, and helping spawn the unexpected in us all.
A message – a lasting thought, idea or image, a visual or emotional imprint – conscious or unconscious – or a changed perspective. Something that means that while being absorbed in transformative events, YOU have been changed by the story. Just as the experience of our workplace renders us changed. The environments we create – physical and human – should leave us amongst other things more enlightened, more empathetic, more self-aware. They should help shape us – provided we allow ourselves to be shaped.
It may be time to rediscover the drama in ourselves, and in the environments we create. Because we won’t have a workplace until something goes wrong.