Putting Story to Work
 April 12, 2003: Rob Creekmore
Smithsonian Associates 2003

Rob Creekmore

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

Introduction by Steve Denning
Rob Creekmore's Opening Remarks
Joseph Campbell
The Fannie Mae Story
The Reflection Exercise
Paul Costello's Commentary

Steve Denning: Rob Creekmore is going to be taking us into: putting storytelling to work, gathering stories and listening to stories. 
· Up till now we’ve been living in this natural environment of stories. 
· In the afternoon, we’re going to be deliberately crafting stories. Consciously using new stories to get results in business. 

· Rob is going to be providing a bridge, between the world where we are gathering stories, listening to naturally occurring stories, “wild stories” if you like, and using these stories to achieve business objectives. 
· Rob is also someone that I met in the context of knowledge management and storytelling in the Washington area. He’s had a very diverse experience. He’s seen the world from a number of different perspectives. At various points, he’s done things like:
· Being trained to be ordained as a minister.
· He’s worked in the heart of corporate America when he worked at GTE. 
· He worked in the public sector in government
· He’s currently working on a book on mindfulness, being mindful of who you are, and how that plays out in our lives.
· I asked him, “Given that you’ve done so many things, what really turns you on?” He replied that it was to tap people’s deepest human potential.
    So Rob is here today to help us all tap our deepest human potential. So without more, here’s Rob Creekmore. (applause)

Rob: I’m going to be building a bridge between what we’ve been doing this morning and what we’re going to be doing this afternoon. 
· This morning, we’ve been sharing stories about our past experiences. We’ve been talking about stories of what’s brought us here. We’ve just been discussing stories that reflect our values, being touched by acts of kindness, and shared values. 
· This afternoon we’re going to be talking about stories that we can use in the future. We’re going to be crafting stories for particular purposes. 
    We’re going to be building a bridge. We’re going to be taking the stories that are told naturally and spontaneously as we’ve been doing this morning, and we’re going to be putting those stories to work. We’re going to be putting those stories to work. We’re going to be using them for work. We’re going to the workplace now. Aren’t you delighted? (laughter) 
So why do this? Why take the stories that are naturally told and try to do something with them? Sometimes it’s enough just to tell the story. 
    But sometimes you want to take a story and go more deeply into it. Maybe you want to identify the patterns in a number of stories. There might be underlying meaning. Sometimes a story is like a treasure chest. It might be a beautiful treasure chest, but sometimes if you look inside, you might find even more stunning treasure. The idea is to unfold some deeper patterns that might not be apparent on the surface. We may want to learn from the experience embedded in the story. There are things occurring to us all the time where if we had the time to reflect on it, and we thought, “What was going on below the surface when I was talking to that customer the other day?” The person gave me a strange look and that was the end of it. Sometimes it’s beneficial to go more deeply into and see what was going on, underneath the events. 
   If we do that, then there’s a natural process of learning that occurs. It may help us generate a pattern of future action. 
   Someone who spent a whole lifetime doing this is one of my lifetime heroes, Joseph Campbell. He gathered stories and myths and rituals. He came up with some interesting underlying patterns. Like the pattern of the hero’s journey. It’s the sequence of events that occur in many stories about heroes or heroines. Stories of initiation in many different cultures across the world.
· The hero hears the call to adventure to go out on a journey of discovery.
·  The hero is challenged and undergoes some trials. 
· And then eventually, they’re transformed by that experience, and they come back. 
· They return to the community and offer the boons of what they’ve learned.
That’s the underlying pattern that Campbell discovered in all these different stories across the world. That’s a grand example of what we’re talking about: going into story, going beneath the story.
But I found that we can all be doing this, in our organizations, with stories that we would consider ordinary stories, barely even stories at all. What I found is that if we take the time to listen to those stories carefully and go beneath the surface, there are these rich treasures, lying underneath those stories. 

    I worked at the Fannie Mae Corporation for a year. This was in the period leading up to the Y2K crisis. You may have forgotten, but for organizations like Fannie Mae it was a real crisis. They had to rewrite millions and millions of lines of code. They had to reinvent business processes. They had to reinvent how they would interface with a lot of the banks that they had to work with. 
It was a difficult situation for them. I worked with a team that had to coordinate the efforts of the different departments of Fannie Mae, getting ready for Y2K. It was a political minefield. All the skeletons in the closet started coming out. There were inter-departmental rivalries. Entrenched resistance. Things that are typical in organizations, but they all tumbled out of the woodwork. And this poor team had to navigate through this minefield. 

So we met every other week for three hours. I had them tell the stories of their experiences at work. “Gosh, I was dealing with this internal customer, and this happened.” 
But we didn’t just stop with the stories. We had people share stories and then we would go deeply into some dialogue about the stories. We’d ask questions like: “O.k. so this is what the person said. What do you think they might have been thinking? What kind of assumptions or intentions or agendas lay behind that story?” So we would look at the underlying dynamics. And they started having insights into what was going on behind the story. 
I worked with them for a whole year. They went from being a 
team that felt victimized, the risk of the minefield and so on, and fears that they would never get the job done, to being a team that was very proactive and positive and not only feeling that their job was not only to prepare Fannie Mae for Y2K, but also to deal with other challenges. “We can go on to something from here! We could be change agents for creating a different kind of Fannie Mae!” There was this transformation that occurred. 

    Now I’d like to take you through this method. 
    I’m talking here about a particular kind of stories – everyday stories. Spontaneous stories. They don’t necessarily have a conclusion. They’re not about what brought you here. Or your values. Often in the workplaces, the stories don’t have a neat conclusion. Or stories that end in the middle and we don’t know where they’re going to go. 
    So go back to your tables of six and think if there’s a story like that among you, some experience that you’d like to investigate.You’re curious about it. You’d like to get some insight into it. You’d like to learn something about it. 
                   (The participants reflect.)
Now tell that story on your table. Take three minutes.
(The participants tell their story.)
Think of a moment that you’re curious about.

(II.15.0.00) Take the moment that you’ve identified for yourself and identify a character in the story. What character resonates with you the most?
                   (The participants reflect)
What is the character feeling?
                   (The participants reflect)
What are the assumptions, the agendas of the character?  (The participants reflect)
Finally what are the values of the character? 
 (The participants reflect)
Then share with your table your reflections on the story.     (The participants share their reflections.)
Now consider some key questions. What does this tell you about the story? Is there some kind of deeper meaning to the story that’s starting to come forward? What patterns might be emerging here? What different interpretations emerged? Does this reveal something about you as a group? 
             (The participants share their reflections.)
    This is just one technique aimed at getting inside a story. There are others. It’s one way of working with a story that’s already told and understanding that more deeply. What’s it for?
· It may reveal hidden thinking not visible even to the storyteller. 
· It can also be used to reveal lessons learned. They may be useful or they may be dysfunctional. 
· It’s a way of uncovering the tacit understanding and values. Then you can do something with them, like the future stories that Madelyn will introduce us to after lunch. 
· It can build bridges of understanding in a group, say, in a team building session. We start to understand metaphors and patterns in the stories. 
· It may reveal hidden talents and skills.
So that’s the presentation. (applause)

Paul: I just wanted to pay tribute to Rob, who trained for the ministry. Although he didn’t go through with that, he hasn’t lost his sense of calling. One of the new things that happened in this last session was that he invited us into the longest chunk of silence that you’re likely to get today, in terms of that meditative piece. This is one of the interesting things about the story tradition and Rob brings a deeply meditative presence to the work. He reminds us story-work isn’t only about sound and noise. Story-work is also about deep reflection and about silence. 
That draws from a religious tradition. If you want to know how to interpret stories that go to deeper levels, then you go to Midrash , and Kabbala. You go to Lexio Divina, that the Benedictine monks have evolved over thousands of years. So there’s a deep religious tradition and a theological tradition. The pioneers of narrative thinking, if you want to think about the modern era, happened in the 1970s. It’s in narrative theology. It’s names like John Shea . There’s an untapped goldmine of knowledge on narrative and it’s in the area of theology, whether it’s Jewish, or Christian. 

Go to the next session on April 12, 2003: Madelyn Blair on Future Stories

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Steve Denning
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Rob Creekmore
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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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