Madelyn Blair
 April 12, 2003: Future Stories
Smithsonian Associates 2003

Awakening to a larger world
A new world from old roots
Madelyn Blair

I grew up on a vegetable farm in Southern New Jersey. My life was made up of being on the land and visits to my grandparents. On a farm, life is very busy, and my parents had little time for us as children except to make certain we were cared for. But when I went to my grandparents’ house, things were different. Here the focus was on futures -- where are you going Madelyn? And to help me to answer this question, they told the stories of how each of them had come to America. But it was my grandmother’s story that really spoke to me. 

Isabel was 16 when she said goodbye to her mother for the last time. Her sister was supposed to go, but she didn’t want 

to. Isabel had already decided that she wanted a better life for herself and her family. She grabbed the opportunity to say, “I will go.” Now Isabel was a tiny woman -- not even 5’ tall with a waist of 18”. I have a waist of 31” -- almost twice my grandmother’s and I am considered small. Yet, she took the risk to go from a tiny farm village in the mountains of Italy all the way to America.


When I got to be 16 myself, I was told that I should study to become a secretary. “You can always find work if you are a secretary, Madelyn.” Now my real love was mathematics, and I remembered Isabel, and I said, no, I’m going to study mathematics, and I did.

When Isabel arrived in this country, her cousin told her he had a husband all picked out for her. Isabel checked him out and said, “No, I want to marry a tall man, because I want a better life for myself and for my family.” She took her time and looked around, and she found the right man. She married John who was a strapping 5’6” tall. Now, my grandmother always said she was looking for a tall man, but in the end, she must have had other, slightly more practical reasons for selecting John, because he shared her desire for a better life for his family, too. 
When I finished my education and entered the work force, I discovered that most of my colleagues were men. This was different and a bit scary. But I remembered Isabel, and I began my professional career with lots of energy and a lot of guts. As I proceeded up the ladder, I was often the only woman in the room. But the story of my grandmother was always in the background, and I loved the challenge. 

Eventually my path led to the World Bank where my first assignment was to get six warring units to sign up to a new approach to sharing information. It was considered strategic and maybe impossible. I pulled out every technique I had learned and created a few more to convey both how and why this would be the right thing for each of these units to do. The moment I got the last one to say yes was the moment the Bank began its first step in information management. Less than three years from joining the Bank, I was named a Division Chief. 

As a Division Chief at the World Bank, I began with a small unit that was being asked to do something that had never been done before, provide customer support to 4000 end users of a brand new technology called the PC. Again, I pulled out all my techniques and ideas to define what we needed to do. In fact, when I brought in a consultant to help us ‘do more,’ she told us we were already ahead of everyone else in the field -- both in function and performance. Our unit grew to 57 people with a $12million budget. This was heady stuff. I had made it. Working with my staff, we created a vision for what we wanted to become, and we became it. I was excited by the kind of challenges this position offered. And then we were reorganized. 

Reorganizations are painful. The story of the organization suddenly has a gap in it. You feel discombobulated. You don’t know how you got where you are, but you know the trip wasn’t pleasant. You want things to be the way they were. You want to work the same way you always did. You want to be yourself again. And you can’t. You are suddenly in a new story. Oh, I was still employed, still managing a large group, and still a person who wanted to manage. But the story had changed. Heroes who had in the past been heroes  because they helped their staff, now were 
being called to use them. Managers who had in the past been about to build a dream and work to fulfill it were being called to ignore or tear down every dream they had created. The challenge was no longer worth it.

Then I thought of Isabel. In her story, she simply said yes to an opportunity that fit her needs and started a new life. I knew that my need was to be able to continue to help people do what they needed to do while somehow making a living. I wrote a new story for myself where I could be who I was and started Pelerei, Inc., a management consulting business


   I didn’t tell you the rest of Isabel’s story, and I need to. She and John were married many years, and they did things that no one else did at the time. They studied English so that their children could from the start. They required their children to remain in school when everyone else sent their children to work as soon as they could. They encouraged their children and their children’s children to do their best. And when Isabel died at 93, her legacy to her world was made up of PhDs, doctors, a chief economist, entrepreneurs, teachers, principals, superintendents, religious leaders, artists, and musicians. All this from keeping her dream in her mind while doing the practical things that made it all happen. 

   I knew creating a business would be hard, but I had experience and training, too, that would keep my dream grounded in reality. I bring the techniques and tools to help my clients achieve their dreams. I learned to work with clients in a way that allowed me to walk with them in their own story. And we created new stories together that energized them to move to new places smoothly as a natural part of their journeys. 

   When three units were merged into one, I helped them write a common story that embraced all three of them. The story was not a storybook story. It was the real story of what their dream

 looked like in narrative. They joined each other in a lot less time and a lot less pain. 

I have helped many organizations examine their knowledge management strategies, challenging them to stretch beyond the norm  of data bases and move to the foundation of creating a learning environment. 

“How do I help a new member join my management team,” asked one of my clients. “I’ll find out,” I answered. Through research, we defined a model of action that streamlined this important action. We learned together that telling the stories of the organization itself is an essential part of the process.

Learning Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as another organizational tool saw me face to face again with storytelling. You can’t do AI without telling stories, without writing stories, without working in the story. While there were those who took AI as a concept, I made it a powerful tool for helping organizations by defining their dream in a story -- a story that can be seen in the telling. 

In survey work (no, I never lost my love of mathematics), I always leave room for stories to be told. My clients have said again and again, they learned more from Pelerei surveys that they ever had before, because they can see what the issue means to the respondents. 

When I coach instructors in design and delivery, I start by helping them find their own strengths on which they can build their capability. It works fast, because they are building on an existing skill. 

When asked to look at issues of diversity, I look for real stories as well as numbers to convey the message. The numbers are essential, but the stories are what can be both understood and accepted by management  without question. I have watched these organizations begin the change process and stay with it over the long haul. They were unable to abandon the people in the stories they heard. 

My continued task is to keep the dream alive -- for myself and for my clients -- while keeping my feet on the ground so that together we walk steadily toward their dream. 

Today, I am bringing story more and more into my work with clients. Helping them to discover the power by finding their own stories. I have written “Storytelling at the Heart of
Appreciative Inquiry.” Another paper to be published soon is “The Teams, They Are a Changin’” about how storytelling invigorates teams under stress. 

I have introduced storytelling and story creation in my work with Boards. As one client said, “It was especially exciting to watch how skillfully you made it all happen, with grace, professionalism, insight, firmness, sensitivity, intelligence, perceptiveness, and humaneness.” It’s that last point that made me feel really great. Stories make things human! Stories keep the dream while we do what has to be done. 

Recently when listening to the song Who I Am by Jessica Andrews, I listened to the words that went, “If I live to be a 100 and never live to see the 7 wonders…  I’m gonna be just fine, ‘cause I know exactly who I am. I am Rosemary’s grandaughter.” Yes, I am Isabel’s grandaughter. 

My continued task is to keep the dream alive -- for myself and for my clients -- while keeping my feet on the ground so that together we walk steadily toward their dream. 

Today, I am bringing story more and more into my work with clients. Helping them to discover the power by finding their own stories. I have written “Storytelling at the Heart of
Appreciative Inquiry.” Another paper to be published soon is “The Teams, They Are a Changin’” about how storytelling invigorates teams under stress. 


Madelyn Blair is the president of Pelerei, Inc., a firm dedicated to helping clients turn vision into reality. She is also a facilitator, designer of learning experiences, and expert researcher. 
But her joy is in working with individuals and groups to bring them to another level of accomplishment. From individual coaching to building knowledge sharing groups to corporate strategic planning, she brings out the best in her audience. 

She is one of the founding members of Goldenfleece, the storytelling-in-business group in DC. Her clients include Bank of Canada, The World Bank, Transamerica Reinsurance, American University, and the International Monetary Fund.

Dr. Blair has extensive line management experience. Prior to her work with Pelerei, she was a division chief in the World Bank.  Dr. Blair also spent five years as Director of Institutional Research at the Universities of Colorado and Maine. Her most recent work has been in applying appreciative inquiry to teamwork and in coaching instructors in distance learning design techniques.Based on her extensive research and experience, 

She has written extensively and is called upon frequently to speak.  She is a wife and a mother and an enthusiastic gardener. 

Pelerei is a woman-owned management consulting firm built around the premise that helping the client occurs most effectively when it is combined with creating a learning environment for the client. Pelerei has been in business for 15 years operating from the DC area (USA) with clients around the globe. 

Our product philosophy: "The product should meet the client's needs, use the client's language, and help the client produce the desired result."

Go to Madelyn Blair's session on Future Stories at the
Smithsonian Associate's event: April 12, 2003

Tel 301 371-7100 :; www.Pelerei.Com
Steve Denning
Tel. 966 9392
 Tel  301 585-3610
Seth Kahan 
Tel 301 229-2221; Email:
Rob Creekmore
Tel. 703-435-4623

Tel.  202 364-5369;

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) 
RECOMMENDED LINKS Copyright © 2000 Stephen Denning-The views expressed on this website are those of Stephen Denning, and not necessarily those of any person or organization.
Madelyn Blair
 April 12, 2003: Future Stories
Smithsonian Associates 2003