Future Stories
 April 12, 2003 Madelyn Blair
Smithsonian Associates 2003

Madelyn Blair

Transcript of the April 12, 2003 session at the Smithsonian Associates

Steve Denning's Introduction
Madelyn Blair's Presentation
One Year Later
Characteristics of a Future Story
Creating Our Future Story
   Story #1: The Grant
   Story #2: Reforming Government
   Story #3: Storytelling at the UN
   Story #4: Becoming a Believer
   Story #5: The Red Shoes
   Story #6: Acknowledging
   Story #7: Connections
   Story #8: Story Without Words
Paul Costello's Commentary

Steve: This afternoon’s sessions will be very much focused on storytelling as a tool, and how do you actually use the power of 

this amazing thing that we human beings have developed. How do we use that for constructive purposes in an organization?  I stumbled on this almost by accident, as I tell the story in my book, The Springboard. I was trying to do something, and nothing else worked. I stumbled on the power of a story to spark ideas and action in a very difficult change-resistant organization. But once I’d found that, I discovered that storytelling actually has other dimensions that I hadn’t been aware of.    So it’s certainly both things. It is a tool; and as a tool, it can perform wonders – things that nothing else can do. But it also has other dimensions, linked values, and identity, and so on. And we’re trying in the workshop both these aspects. So this afternoon is very much in the pragmatic or tool track, but nevertheless with a tinge of wonder (laughter) that something as simple and familiar as a story can move these huge seemingly immovable and invulnerable organizations. How is that possible? I always feel a sense of wonder that such a simple thing could have such powerful effects.’
  This afternoon, we are going to start with Madelyn Blair. She is a person who also has many facets. At one point, she worked in the World Bank. We have that in common. And she is the tallest person I know. She has her head in the clouds and her feet firmly planted on the ground. (laughter) She is someone who is immensely practical, focused, results-oriented, and sticking to the schedule. But at the same time, she’s also a dreamer. Someone who can cause a whole group of people to dream. And this is what a lot of storytelling is about. There’s a Brazilian proverb: “When we dream alone, it’s just a dream. But when we dream together, it’s the beginning of a new reality.” What Madelyn can do for us is to help us to dream together and create a new reality. So without further ado, Madelyn Blair. (applause)
Madelyn: It was reorganization time again. Forty people in three years had to reorganize one more time, and they had just done it the year before. In addition, this particular group of people were doing two different kinds of functions. One of them had to do with knowledge management. The other had to do with training and at the time this group was coming together, it had never been done before. Just been reorganized. Been reorganized again. Forty people. All three units. Doing something that nobody else has done. 
That’s basically how the manager said to me: “Can you help us do something here – in one day?” (laughter

      ONE DAY!!!
   And I thought to myself, “ONE DAY!!!” 
   But I said to him, quietly, “I’ll try.”
   Now I knew that what I had to do for them was first of all, make them feel very good about being individuals. I also had to make them feel very good about part of a new unit. I also knew that that step that I was going to take them on, had to be the right step, because it was going to lead to the future for them. It had to help them feel that they could do their very best, even though their contribution was now going to be part of a whole different group. And not just themselves. I had to help them create a space that they could find themselves within, to find themselves in a larger story. Forty people. Three units. They’d just been reorganized. They had to do it again. And they were going to do something that had never been done before. 

   I began the day at ten o’clock. Did I tell you it started at ten o’clock. It was ending at four o’clock. (laughter) One day. (laughter
   We started at ten o’clock, and I said, “I want you to think back to the last year. I want you to think about a time when you were doing something so exciting.” 
   Now I could tell by the looks on their faces that, yeah, o.k. it was a problem, but they we were willing to give it a shot.
   So I said, “Now I want you to tell the story of that time. I want you to tell it to the group.”
  Well, about an hour later, we had forty beautiful stories out on the table. I mean, we had skills! We had talents! We had interests! It was great! It was this lovely pile of things that we could work 
 with. But I knew that this wasn’t quite enough for them to move forward.    We’ve got three units now. I want to hear the stories from the units. 
   They went, “Well, we didn’t tell you, but we’ve got six different functions here.”
    I said, “It’s o.k.! Six stories are better than three.”
    So we had six stories from the functional areas. They talked about things they did. Now this pile in the middle of the room was getting really big. Now we had resources. We had functions. We had talents. More skills. I looked around and I could see people beginning to turn on. 
    I could hear someone say, “I didn’t know you did that!” 
   And someone else was saying, “After the retreat, I want to get together, because I want to talk to you about that.”
   So you could see those linkages already being made.
   I said to them, “When you form this new organization, you got to look at four different dimensions. Everybody that wants to deal with the identity of this group, who we are, I want you to go over there, in the corner over there.” And a group of people went over there.
   I said, “The second thing is, anybody who wants to talk about the values of this new story.” 
   Notice I said story? “You go over there. I want you to talk about the values that you want to exist and how will they work.”
   I said, “Now the third dimension is what you’re going to do. So those practical people who want to talk about that, I want you to go in this corner and talk about your mission.”
   “And over in this last corner over here, for the really tough guys, who want results on the ground, strict measures, come over here and work on measures.”
   I said, “Now before you start, I want you to throw your mind into the future. I said that this was no longer – I’ve forgotten the year – but I gave the long time into the future, something like 2005, and you’re a reporter. You’re looking around and I want you to tell us a story about what you see.” I said that if there was only one additional thing I was going to tell them, it was: look at all this pile of stuff in the middle of the room. I want you to draw from this, to create the new story. And also I said, “I want you to really be in 2005. I want you to speak in the present tense. Those are my only instructions.”
   They went off and about twenty minutes later, I could tell they were done. So I said, “All right. You guys over there on identity, tell your story.”
   They told their story and you could see big smiles coming on their faces. They could recognize themselves in what they said. They could see the threads and the pieces that they had picked up out of the middle of the room.
   The ones interested in values told their story. When they finished there was applause. This was getting fun, you could tell!
    Then the mission people told their story. I mean, there was screaming and laughing. They were having a good time. By the time we got through the measures story, they were ecstatic. It took this group all of twenty minutes to write the action plan that they wanted to do, to implement those stories. 
    Doesn’t that sound neat, to implement a story, rather than implement a plan? I don’t know about you but I get tired of implementing plans. Plans always feel like they keep you in a box. A story is something else. It’s pulsing. It’s breathing. It’s alive!

   Well, about a year later, they called me and they said, “Madelyn, we need your help again. They said we have a new manager. We want to brief this person on us. Can you help us?”
   This time, I said, “Sure!” 
   This was a lot easier. Well, I went in and they started talking to me about what they wanted to do. And what they had to do. And their accomplishments over the year. It was really interesting. This group, within one year, had practically become those stories. They were ninety-percent there. 
Then they said to me, “Madelyn, can we put up those four stories on the wall, when we do our presentation.” 
   I smiled to myself and I said, “Why would you want to do that?” (laughter)
   They said, “Because those stories can say some things like nothing else can say.”
   So I said to them, “Sure! We can put them on the walls.” 
   And they did. (laughter

   That was a time when I used future story in an organization. They had to reorganize they had to create a new identity. They had to get off and running. Now I want you think about a time when you heard a story, and it was a future story, and you felt drawn to become that story. 
Participant: Plausible!
Participant: Exciting!
Participant: A challenge!
Participant: An improvement!
Participant: Doable with a stretch!
Participant: Visionary!
Madelyn: Tell me what “visionary” means to you?
Participant: It’s open. It goes beyond what’s been asked.
Participant: I know there are others who will support it.
Madelyn: You’re not out there all alone.
Participant: It’s worth doing.
Participant: Engaging!
Participant: Hopeful!
Participant: It’s different!
Participant: More than one player! It talks about relationships.
Participant: It’s bigger than today!
Participant: Builds on details that already exist.
Madelyn:: In that example, remember how they drew on the pile of stories in the middle? Remember the movie, Apollo 13? Remember how they had to put everything on the table and they had to create a square peg in a round hole? Wonderful scene!
   That’s very much what I was thinking of as people were telling their stories. In this pile were the components that people were going to build their stories from. It allowed those future stories that were visionary but were built on things that existed today. It’s grounded in today. One more?
Participant: Values driven! It’s got values embedded in it that people can see and relate to and connect with. 

Madelyn: Today, we’ve heard a lot of stories. Stories that have come from you. Stories that have come from us. I want you to take a minute now and think about one of those stories. 
Are any of those stories calling to you? Are any of those stories ones that really excite you? Are any of those stories that create something in you that puts a longing in you? 
   Now turn to your table group where you should have around six people. Now I want you to create a future story. And what are the components of a future story? You’ve listed them over here, beautifully. 
    Now you have twenty minutes. I want you to come back with a two-minute story. 
I’d like you to write a story about the hundred people in this room. I want you to cast your mind to 2004. I want you to write a story about what you see. 

(The groups spent twenty minutes creating stories.
Then they told their stories in plenary.)
Participant storyteller: (Susan Burton) It’s 2004, and it’s the next Smithsonian storytelling event and our group wants to report on the success of what has been going on. Our group developed a small network of storytellers, and we made a contract between us, that every single one of us would use the stories, with 50 people or organizations, in a six-week period. We would see how we would use stories to make a difference. So we got back together, and then we reported more on this. We collected more and more of these stories. We also had followed through with the organizations, and the result is: many of us have written books, (laughter) and articles. We’ve developed a web-site. And what’s most exciting that we’re going to report on, our group is making some of the presentations at this workshop, right here, now. And we have just been given a five million dollar grant from one of the U.S. agencies interested in knowledge management and storytelling. And we’re asking all of you to participate in helping us develop this knowledge management and storytelling initiative. We are looking for your participation. 
Participant storyteller: Our team is happy to have a copy of an article from the Washington Post that reports on the impact our team has had in the last year. 
We decided that we would come together as a community of support as we took storytelling into the areas we work in. So we’re proud to report that we have had major shifts and we have left our finger prints  pharmaceuticals, health care, mortgage financing, the Food & Drug Administration (which became the template for change in the federal government), the legal industry and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
After we'd revolutionized the legal industry and the Department of Veteran Affairs, some of the things that we accomplished included more transparency, collaboration, knowledge sharing in pharmaceuticals, so that people weren't as protective. Mortgage applications became a joyful experience for home-owners. (laughter) The FDA continued with its process of internal reform with the medical library and its website to help produce empowered consumers who could make great choices on medicine and medications. And the FDA became much more nimble than they are today. Skills not taught in law schools were introduced into law firms, with improved consumer experiences in working with the legal industry. And we bridged the gap in the DVA in terms of common expectations and really turning from creating adversarial stories in creating common ones. (applause,cheers)
Participant storyteller:  I’d like to welcome you all to our week long event, here at the United Nations. (laughter) I am pleased to say that Noa Baum will be performing. We also have Paul Costello doing a series of workshops with the peace folks. The heads of government are going to be meeting over in the Second Plaza building, to listen to stories, to hear and create stories for their people. The World Health Organization is participating with us, to educate populations about health, and to use stories as part of that educational process. Now, we’re not all alone here at the U.N. We do have people around the world participating, through our virtual community and the collaborative technologies. We also have a series of workshops in which we will be exploring the use of our cultural artifacts, and various aspects of our own indigenous cultures, to share the storytelling process. Throughout this week, translations will be available, on the fly, so that we can fully participate with people from around the world. So please be very clear in your speaking, so that the translators will be able to translate as fully as possible. Now, our goal for this week is to ensure that people understand throughout the world that they have a voice, and that their voice matters. We want to thank all of the people who have made this wonderful week possible. It’s going to be an exciting experience. We particularly want to say thank you to the organizers, most of whom had met through a program back in 2003 at the Smithsonian Associates. That conference on storytelling has risen to a kind of Jonesborough Festival scale. (laughter) We are delighted to see that the process of storytelling is growing around the world. Welcome and enjoy your week! (applause, cheers)
   Participant storyteller: (Joe Mancini) The story that we created is a lot less ambitious, but no less important. The title of it is, “One person at a time.” You see, it’s April 2004. It’s a wonderful spring day, the kind of day in which no one wants to be in a hole. (laughter)
   Jack is coming down the corridor with his wife, who is saying to him, “You know, I don’t know why I let you drag me down to this storytelling thing. I told you last year when you went that it was probably going to be boring and foolish and stupid. And it has nothing to do with the kind of results that I want to find and bring to an organization. This is ridiculous and I am just doing this for you and you’re going to really ‘owe me one’.” 
   So they come towards the door, and his wife can hear these whoops of laughter, punctuated also by moments of silence, and some murmurings. And she’s looking around thinking this is really going to be weird. And they come in. They’re a little bit late. They’re standing near the back, but they’re near a table. And the people are already engaged in conversation and she’s hearing their stories. And suddenly their stories are about fathers. And suddenly Jack’s wife turns to him and says, “That’s a story? I didn’t know 
 that was a story?” And Jack says, “You can whisper. You’re disturbing the people.”
   And after a few more minutes, she says, “You know what? I’ve really been thinking about my father.” There are tears coming down her eyes. “We’ll talk later.” Soon, there’s a break in that exercise, and another one begins. 
   And it’s hosted by someone named Madelyn Blair. And Jack’s wife says, “Who is that?” ‘
   And Jack says, “Just listen!” 
   So Madelyn Blair starts to talk about this impossible task of reorganizing an organization one day, and Jack’s wife’s eyes almost roll through the back of her head. But she listens and Jack says, “Please, just listen.” 
   And by the time the conversation is over, the presentation is finished, she was nodding her head and as they left, Jack’s wife is chattering a great deal, but it’s a different kind of chattering. She says, “You know what? I haven’t told my grandchildren about my father. And I really need to do that. And by the way, I also think I want to call Madelyn Blair.” (laughter, applause) 
Participant storyteller: (Karen Dietz)  Well, all right. I would like to welcome all six hundred of you here today in the year 2004. Last year, everybody here agreed that we would take at least one story, to tell that had some value embedded in it. And we would tell that throughout the year. And I tell you that the listservs have been very active, how this has happened and the results we’ve experienced, so congratulations to everybody for doing that. Now today, we’re also going to talk about the tools, of using stories in organizations, and what we’ve accomplished, even if it’s just in some of those small social changes that we’ve been looking for. So we’re going to hear about the group results that we’ve achieved. And also the individual results. Now we’ve done this. All with lots of humor. And pizzazz. And color. And playfulness. And lightness. In other words, thoughout the whole year, we’ve been wearing our red shoes, instead of our brown Oxfords. (laughter) 
In  fact, there has been such a boom in the economy, because of the manufacture of red shoes. And we’ve all been telling our stories with our red shoes on. These stories are all about the power of people connecting, and some of these stories have actually been used, and have become ambassadors for global peace. So we’re looking at the fundamental change, also in the attitudes that has happened through the power of storytelling and the ability to see possibilities through the stories, and looking at the positive side and the benefits, of how stories have changed us and our organizations, and our social culture. And we’ve become open to new ideas, in our work with stories, and how we’ve been sharing those with others. (applause)
Participant storyteller: (Carol Russell) Good afternoon, everyone. I’d like to welcome you back here to the Smithsonian Institute in the year 2004. You’ll be hearing from some people later on today who have taken part in our “Each person acknowledged blossoms program”. (laughter) We decided from last year, a group of us who attended the workshop in 2003, that we would go and find at least one person to acknowledge. We did this. You will hear from six people who represent the six thousand people that we’ve managed to reach in that year. I do hope that you have a wonderful day, and that all of the stories that you hear teach you something about acknowledging one person. Thank you. (applause) 
Participant storyteller: (Larry Forster) It was getting harder and harder to follow all the visions that we heard. Nevertheless, being down here, the first vision that came to mind sounded like 
thundering hoofbeats, from the sound of all the people trying to get in here next year. So manageability came to mind. So we provided a structure to capture all the creativity and not let it get lost. So that was a big thing – the planning. We didn’t get it done in twenty minutes. The planning would have to start now among all the established leaders, and adding on the additional ones, to take this and shape it, the rest of the way. Structure-wise, we thought there were three key elements:
· Making the core values visible through our stories, giving us all something to take home and we said, “Yes!! That’s why this is worth doing!”
· Then tools. Everybody wonders about it. They’re not sure whether this will work or not. It did work. We need examples to take back. This did work and why. This didn’t work, but it could work if we did this. 
· Lastly, connections. I don’t know whether we need a bigger room. Or video-conferencing. Some screens? But we need connections. I walked the Mall during lunch. This is a great place for a core group. The values of our country are all around on the outside, the stories that brought those to light. We need a structured way to ensure that we will connect with the geographically diverse communities that we spawn. (applause)
Participant (Ann Orban) I’m going to tell a story without words.
                    (Ann, Seth, Rob, Madelyn and Steve play out 
                     a short ritual)
Paul: Costello: Madelyn just brings so much dynamism, so much energy, doesn’t she? (applause) I am going to steal that line. It’s related to the work that I do in Northern Ireland. “A shared future is far more powerful than a shared past.”
In places like Northern Ireland, a shared past is still imprisoning people in stories that need to be exorcised, and put to bed, and put to rest and buried in the cemetery. Madelyn brings to the group today that wonderful energy that you saw. But it also reminds me of another constituency that’s represented in the storytelling field. 
In Northern Ireland where I work, it’s the women, it’s the mothers, who nurture the future stories of the next generation. And you know, in this city here, where there are families that have broken apart, and put children’s futures at risk, how very very often, and I don’t want to sound sexist here, but how very very often, it’s the mums and the grandmums and the aunties who nurture the future stories to the rising generations. I think that in the field of story and story practice, it’s well worthwhile looking at some of the wonderful writing and research done by women writers and feminist theorists and feminist practitioners who teach us so much about this field which is evolving here. 

To segue into that, there’s also the field of family therapy. There’s a school which originates out of New Zealand and Australia, and it’s called narrative therapy. You’ll see in the chronology, people like Michael White from Australia and David Epstein. Someone was asking earlier for tools. Narrative therapy has developed for twenty five years of the most practical tools, and it doesn’t take a great amount of imagination to transfer directly into the areas of work we’re involved in in organizations and corporations. There’s so much knowledge and wisdom out there. But I think so much of it is in silos. We’re here. And they’re in another conference, five miles down the road. And we don’t even know of each other’s existence. Part of the whole convergence that we’re trying for is to get these groups together and talking to each other. 

   So there are many aspects to future story. You can see it on the last page of the booklet. Golden Fleece doesn’t need to get all the honors and glory. It’s not just happening here in Washington D.C. It’s happening in San Diego. Where’s Karen Dietz? Karen is part of a story that’s evolving on the West Coast. (applause) Boston. Where’s Boston? Boston is a story that’s emerging strongly around Cambridge. (applause) Chicago. Is there anybody here from Chicago? There are people doing things there. 
   There seems to be a kind of bushfire starting. That’s an Australian image. It’s a fire that’s spreading. We’ve got people here from Great Britain. You’ve heard the accents. Welcome to London. (laughter) There’s something happening over there in the U.K. The National Storytelling Network! It’s a huge resource to tap into.  We have someone here from Holland. (applause) There’s the Holland contingent of this future story. Think what they might contribute. Then there’s …. Denmark. What about Denmark? Welcome to Denmark! (applause) There are things happening Denmark and Sven-Erik has come over. New Zealand! Where’s New Zealand? There’s New Zealand! Things are happening there. Who else? Canada! Let’s give the Canadians three cheers. (applause, laughter) Anybody else? Brazil! Wow! Welcome (applause
Fantastic. So I guess we should recognize as we come together here is that the future story is not owned solely by us. We’re just a part of a whole chain, a whole network of wonderful, wonderful good infection that spreading around the world. We want to make sure that you feel included in that story. We may be up here presenting, but by God, it’s a shared story that belongs to all of us, and hopefully to more and more people, as the story unfolds. Thanks very much. (applause

Go to the next session on April 12, 2003: Steve Denning on Springboard Stories

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To buy:
The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Steve Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston, USA

          Paperback - 192 pages. ISBN: 0750673559 
To read 
of :
The Squirrel: The Seven Highest Value Forms of Organizational Storytelling
          by Steve Denning (work in progress) 
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