May 2013

Storytelling for the Great Transition

Experience with Spanish development NGOs

Since the Cologne Storytelling Workshop last November with Jonah Sachs, I´ve had the opportunity to run a series of workshops with change agents from the Spanish Development sector.

Under the label ‘collaborative lab’, we co-convened a project with the Spanish Development NGOs Confederation (CONGDE), exploring new ways to empower their social base towards systemic change. The storytelling workshop was part of it and is well documented on the project website:

The aim was to provide new tools to civil society within the scope of the Smart CSOs leverage point CSO Strategies for Cultural Transformation towards the Great Transition. My main reflections were:


What were the learning goals for the participants? What did they expect to be the role of the public in the project? The participants were looking for more effective ways to engage their audiences towards their organisational mission. Storytelling is already quite widespread as a tool for communication. However, the specific approach we used, The Hero’s Journey, can be challenging for participants when they notice that living the story means that the main character (the hero) is someone in their audiences and not themselves (as organisations).

What theories were they willing to test? And what skills to train? Among meaningful organisations that live their purpose in their daily actions it’s becoming widespread that living the story means changing the way they operate, changing their role from hero to mentor, living the values of their social base and employees. There is a strong interest for this new internal culture of happiness, conscious leadership, art of hosting, the importance of soft skills in becoming an open organisation, etc.

What kind of stories were developed? All stories developed were published on the project website. Although each of the four groups developed different plots, all shared a deeper connection between people and organisations. This can be attributed to the tools used in the workshop (listening to stories, mindful design thinking etc.), which helped building an atmosphere of profound common purpose.

How does meaningful storytelling help them achieve their goals? It’s a complete change in the mindset of the organisation: From seeing themselves as heroes to become mentors; they have to return to rely on qualitative insights (stories) based on emotion, meaning and less on quantitative data. Technical staff and volunteers seemed to grasp this more easily than managers, who are often quite exposed to command and control methods as well as quantitative approaches.


What went well? The workshop material is open source (available on the project website). This helps to spread the methods and content as widely as possible. For example, we are aware of several experiments that took place after our workshop in the participating organisations. Secondly, people love to be treated as humans and not machines. Overall, storytelling is very engaging with groups. This includes writing stories in future perfect tense (stories from the future).

What went poorly? There are some “old paradigm” habits which are difficult to abandon, especially for managers. For example, building stories aimed at motivating others and look attractive but are not actually lived by the organisation. I usually emphasize that, as the era of social media is maturing (what Jonah Sachs calls the digitoral age), the stories to be significant they need to be lived. Otherwise they won’t be meaningful and therefore not shared. So we need a design approach in terms of what our organization stands for (building real stories that can be communicated horizontally), not so much a community manager with a broadcasting attitude.

What did we learn? We mainly learned that we can transmit the main ideas and give a flavour of experimentation with the a strategic framework of empowerment marketing as well as some storytelling exercises in a very short time frame (five hours).

What will we do better next time? The atmosphere of the workshop venue is important as it can nurture creativity: space (inspiring, unusual), personal centering, relaxed atmosphere…

How does this project help us to get to our goal and vision? I find it a great tool because stories connect with our deepest wisdom as interconnected humans. And once you start building stories it’s obvious that you need to live them and facilitate them to happen. This creates a change in mind sets during the design phase of campaigns, value propositions, etc. In the 21st century you must be open, collaborative and conscious of the personal journeys people are supposed to live or you will be irrelevant. The transition starts in the way you approach yourself as servant leader: a mentor in the journey of the people towards the Great Transition.