Storytelling & Values 
 April 12, 2003: Alicia Korten
Smithsonian Associates 2003


Alicia Korten

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

Opening remarks by Alicia
Part One: 
   Core value stories
   My first traditional Kuna meeting
   What I learned: a turning point
Part Two: 
   The exercise: the image
   Triad exercise
Participants' stories
   #1: Never close down possibility
   #2: The generous waterman
   #3: Help
Paul Costello's commentary
Steve: Now, we’re going to have another exciting module, looking at the way narratives and values intertwine. Narratives are the place where values reside. And we’ll be getting a deeper look at that. This segment is about the relationship of narratives and values.  One of the interesting things that been discovered embarrassingly recently is values reside in narratives. They reside in the narratives that people tell, and the actions that are consistent and compatible with those narratives, or inconsistent and incompatible with those narratives. If they’re inconsistent or incompatible, then there are new stories about the incompatibility of those actions and narratives. There is a profound relationship between narratives and values. This session will start to plumb that relationship, and give you an experience that will help you see how narratives are the home of values. 
    This segment is conducted by a friend and colleague, Alicia Korten, whom I met in the Washington group of storytelling practitioners which is called the Golden Fleece group. One of the reasons why it is called the Golden Fleece group is a story, of which Alicia was one of the primary creators. We may hear that story later. (see end of Section V below). That story became the emblem of this group. Alicia is someone who has lived in more countries than most of us ever visit in our entire lives. She’s had a very international experience. She’ll bring some of that to us today. 
   She’s also someone who embodies a commitment to values, and the importance of values in people’s lives, as you’ll see in the session.    It’s also important to mention that she is one of the reasons why we’re having this whole weekend of storytelling. When I was discussing with her this workshop which was going to be on Saturday, she said, “Why just one workshop? Why not a whole weekend? Why not a storytelling theater? Why not a walking tour?” So this little vignette brings out some of the strategic insight that she brings to issues.
   So without further ado: Alicia Korten (applause
Alicia: Thank you. One of the wonderful things about Steve is that you throw out an idea and the next thing, he’s come up with a brochure, and a plan for how to do it, and he’s emailing all his colleagues to get them here. So it’s good to have a team behind the ideas. (laughter)
About twenty years ago, Johnson and Johnson was faced with a crisis – a crisis that many of you here are probably familiar with. Some of their bottles of Tylenol were laced with cyanide and seven people died in Chicago because of it. Now the CEO, James Burke, was very clear about what to do.  He yanked every bottle of Tylenol off the shelf across America.  Now this was a very expensive decision.  He put 2,500 employees on the job of alerting the public as to what had happened. 
   But through that investment he gained two things that were precious –  he may have saved some lives, and two, he gained a story – a story that is embedded in the public consciousness as to what Johnson and Johnson stands for. The story is now famous – you have probably heard this story. 
What Johnson and Johnson has is something I call a Core Values Story.  A story that communicates to others what their values are, and also a story that makes them clearer as a company about what they stand for.  In addition to being a good ethical decision, it also turned out to be a tremendous business decision. Here they have a story about their values embedded in the public consciousness. 
Now to help bring the richness and the power of these Core Values Stories home to you – I’m going to take you on a journey.  Paul talked about how storytelling sometimes seems like a new fad in business and organizations in the West. But many traditional cultures have been using them and sanctifying them in formal spaces in their communities for millenium. 
I worked for many years with traditional societies of native peoples in Central America. 
One of the peoples I worked with were the Kuna peoples of Panama. I lived in Panama and was helping to ensure their participation in the planning of road projects for their lands.  These were projects that were often funded by U.S.-based institutions – development banks, U.S. government agencies. And they were projects that historically had excluded indigenous peoples from the table.  The Kuna peoples often had no voice in how those projects were moving forward. So I was helping them to ensure that seat at the table – and provide opportunities for the many parties with interests in these projects to find creative solutions for the sustainable development of the region.
    What I’m going to do in the next hour – is to tell you a story about some of the meetings of the Kuna – and how they are using stories to connect to their values, to help them as a community to embody their values more fully, and to drive decisions that are based on those values.   And then I will be doing an exercise with you to take some of the principles of these meetings and translate them into something that you can use in a Western context and in Western organizations.
Now I had grown up in many cultures so I wasn’t completely naïve when I arrived in Panama – but these Kuna meetings were unlike anything I had ever seen.  Let me take you to one of those meetings now.
    I’ve woken before dawn with Kuna leaders and walked with them all day through the rainforests of eastern Panama to arrive at a Kuna village. We get there after dark, eat and bathe and then as is the custom, we gather for one of the communal meetings – the first traditional Kuna meeting I’ve attended. It’s all new to me. That’s why I’ve chosen to tell this particular story, so that you can see it with me with fresh eyes. 
    I walk into the communal hut.  A space in the village that was created specifically so that people could gather together and share stories.  Many people are already there.  The scene is very colorful.  The Kuna love color.  The women particularly – they wear beautiful red and gold 
headdresses, and these beautiful brightly colored blouses. They are famous for what’s called a mola that they sew into their blouses.  These molas are layers of multicolored cloth. They are cut in a way that the cloth forms images often of something from the natural environment, or an image from an origin story.  So as they walk in they are actually carrying symbols of a story on their clothes.
So all these people are gathering. Men, women, children.  And I come in and sit down on one of the hard benches lining the sides of the hut.  But not everyone is sitting on benches – there is a custom in the Kuna tradition in which the leaders of the community actually lie in hammocks in the middle of the hut. But remember – this is new to me – this is one of my first meetings of the Kuna – so this strikes me as a bit peculiar.
   The meeting starts. It begins with a spiritual leader who sings a song of prayer.  And then the 
stories begin.  The Kuna are renowned for their oratory skills and they stand up and begin to speak one by one.  Sometimes one person will talk for an hour, maybe two hours. 
  Now this has been a very long day and my eyes keep straying to those cozy looking hammocks and the leaders lying in them and you can imagine this isn’t helping my own state any.  And here I am watching these leaders  – and you know, to my untrained Western eye, it looks like they are sound asleep. (laughter) And as it turned out – they were. (laughter) And there in the middle of this meeting hut – one of the leaders begins to snore. (laughter)
   And when I leaned over and asked a Kuna colleague what was happening. He says: “Alicia, esta sonando.”  Meaning: He’s dreaming, Alicia. I later learn that dreaming in Kuna means “to see in the hammock.”
    Now if you can get beyond what might appear to be a rather chaotic way of running a meeting – this is fascinating. I don’t want to imply that I understand everything of what was going on, as a Westerner coming in and observing this culture. But what came to me was this: when do we more fully embody a story than in our dreams?  We become the characters, the emotions feel so real that they can wake us up at night in fright, or if it’s a good dream – they can leave us in the morning with a clear, peaceful feeling.  So what I observed was that these people were embodying these Core Values Stories and then in the process of dreaming they become those stories.  And through that dreaming those values become more fully part of them.
   Now don’t worry – I’m not going to be advocating that everyone here goes to their next meeting with a hammock.(laughter) But there are some principles here that I’m going to try convey to you through the exercise we will be doing together.
Kuna meetings.  Hours and hours of storytelling.  To be honest – my reaction wasn’t always – wow, this is amazing!  I arrived with a Western mind-set, and when I first began working with them these meetings would often frustrate me. Remember I was helping them to secure participation in infrastructure projects being planned for their lands.  Part of my role was to act as a bridge between various indigenous organizations in Panama and people in the United States and Europe who could support them financially and politically – people within the foundation world, the not-for-profit world, the multilateral development institutions, the U.S. government, the media networks.  And each one of these parties had it’s own set of pressures, timelines, expectations about how they wanted to support this movement. 
So I would come into these meetings aware that – if decisions weren’t made there were opportunities that were going to be lost – whether funding proposals, or a bank project cycle deadline or a film crew who wanted to come into the villages and take footage.
I knew that at the end of the meeting, they needed to have clarity. How are they going to engage these people?  So these stories would unfold and unfold and I would wonder – are they ever going to make the decisions that needed to be made?
What I learned is that the decisions did get made.  They got made through the storytelling.  And these were translated into specific decisions - sometimes only in the last few hours of the meeting.
A large part of that storytelling were these Core Values Stories - those stories that most fully embodied the values that the Kuna hold.  Those were stories about their origins, how they were created by the Mother Earth, they were often hero stories – particularly those heroes that had played pivotal roles in helping them secure ownership of their beautiful lands along the Caribbean Coast. These were stories that represented values such as autonomy, courage and their role as stewards of the land.
And these Core Values Stories provided an anchor, a moral compass that could then guide how decisions needed to be made. And they spoke to them not as one dimensional words – we believe in autonomy -  but as living, breathing multifaceted stories.
   And these meetings set the groundwork for success after success after success.  Through those meetings, they developed a coalition platform - a declaration of principles of what indigenous people wanted before road projects were built through their lands. And then I helped them to link those wishes to people in the United States who could support their claims.
   The results of that work set national and international precedents.  Let me give you just one example.  The work got a major international development bank to incorporate civil society into the negotiation process for a development project in the region – that included the paving of a major dirt road in the region. Now this is unprecedented. It’s simply not done – development banks don’t negotiate loans with civil society, they negotiate with governments.  But suddenly we have a major bank flying indigenous peoples to Washington D.C. to negotiate this loan.  And that project ended up adopting many elements of the declaration of principles that the indigenous leaders had written.
   The time that I had thought was time “lost” telling stories was actually time gained.  Those stories connected people to what was most essential about being Kuna, what was most essential to them as a people, and that rooting allowed them to develop positions and make choices that clearly aligned with the values that they hold.
    So stepping back to connect to those core values stories is very powerful.  And it’s powerful not only in a Kuna context but also for people in Western contexts.  When I work with clients, I often start meetings asking them to tell stories about the things that they care about. And sometimes just that simple act of telling these stories – helps the people in the room connect to what is most important to them and helps to align the decisions that they make later in the meeting with the things that they care about most. The simple act of telling the story helps align them with their values.
    So how does this story about the Kuna translate into your work?  I am going to take you through an exercise to help you do that. There are worksheets on your table.
    When building values within an organization – here is a key: you start with the values that are important to you, to the individual members of that team.  So we will be eliciting your Core Value Stories.
    If we had time I would then walk you through ways that these stories can inform decision making processes – but that would be part of a longer workshop.
    So for now we’re going to focus on eliciting and listening to Core Values Stories.
    If you remember from the story, dreaming is very important in the Kuna meetings. Through dreaming we become the story.  So the values are not a one dimensional word – but a multifaceted diamond, with many layers, many meanings.  And through becoming the story – we begin to embody those values that we hold most dear.
    I’ll be taking a couple minutes to help you to get into the right side of your brain – this is a place of pictures, of creativity, of dreams.  It’s not the place of words and analysis – which is the left side of the brain.
    After I’ve done a warm up exercise with you, I’ll ask you to tell a story about an every day act that someone in your organization or your life did that you admired or that touched you in some way. I’d like you to not grab at a story just yet.  Just hold the question in a space of unknowing of what will emerge. 
    Remember the Kuna listening with his eyes closed in the hammock. I want you to hold that image as to how you feel in your body. I want you to get you in a relaxed state. Like to bring you into a relaxed state by asking you to focus on your breath for a moment. If you’re breathing in your chest – see if you can drop your breathing into your belly – so you are taking deep breaths.
    Now let emerge in you that story of an every day act that someone in your organization or your life did that you admired or that touched you in some way. 
     See if you can let images emerge of a person or a feeling, sounds and smells.  See if you can start to feel that story as if you were there right now with that person who has touched you.  See the color of their hair, their eyes. 
    And see if you can find within you that thing they have done that has touched you. See what story emerges inside of you. (music plays) (I.42.1.10) What person has touched you. Someone you admire. Try to hold the image of that person and imagine that the values that they embody are moving through you.
    When you’re ready, open your eyes. Do people feel like they have a story? Now take that first worksheet, and I want to invite you to draw a symbol of that story you just imagined. I’m inviting you to draw because stories are like dreams. Dreams are a place of pictures. I am encouraging you to draw – but if that is uncomfortable, write or just reflect for a few moments.
                (Participants draw images of their stories and then get into groups of three.)
    Here’s the exercise – and it is written on your handout so you may want to read the instructions as I explain them.  This is a bit confusing, so do listen or you won’t know what you’re supposed to do. 
    One person will tell their Core Value Story. The other two listen. Then the second person repeats the story as if it was their own story. And then the third listener tells the story from the perspective of the person who is being admired.   Each story will be timed – so you will have only two minutes and then I will ring the bell to signal the end, give you five seconds and then ring the bell again for the second person to begin speaking. 
    The principles at work here are these:
· Core Values Stories gain power in the retelling.  Each time a story is retold  the values that that story hold become more fully rooted within you. 
· We take on characters of stories – like in a dream – to see what this reveals to you about the values hidden in the stories.
          (The participants tell and retell the stories.)
     Now take five minutes to reflect as a group on the stories that you heard and think about the values reflected in those stories. 
          (The participants reflect on the stories)
      These core value stories are sacred stories. Stories that have a special place within the realm of storytelling. These are the stories that connect us to what is most essential to our being. You can do this process as individuals or as collectives in organizations, coming up with a set of common values within an organization.  Since we only have an hour, I’ve chosen to work with you on the initial stage – helping individuals within a team connect to their own personal Core Values Stories.
Now, to close the session, I want to ask three people who feel that they have a story that needs to be shared today, to come forward.

Participant: (Jean Peelen)
I was in a coaching group with about fifteen people and we were coaching each other. One person in the group was named Kathy and she was about forty-five years old, an African-American. She was financially in dire straits. She had essentially no money. In the middle of the group, or in the time allowed for the group, Kathy developed liver cancer. She had a very very bad prognosis. I was not Kathy’s coach. A friend was Kathy’s coach. After her surgery and in the middle of chemotherapy and Kathy was clearly wasting away, her body was wasting away, she told 

her coach that she had decided to become an actress. Not just an actress but an Academy-award winning actress. I don’t know what I would have said, if I had been Kathy’s coach at that time. I am grateful that I was not. What my friend – her coach – said was: “Great! What a great idea! Go for it!” So Kathy started taking acting classes. Kathy died two months later on the way to her dream. The symbol that I drew for this story was an Academy award, which Kathy won. My core value lesson from this story is that I will never, ever, ever close down possibility for another human being. 
STORY #2: 
I was on the Eastern shore of Maryland on my boat as a professional photographer. I approached this waterman who was out oyster-gathering. I asked him if I could photograph him. You have to be careful as a professional, since you photograph them and you don’t pay for it, they treat it like it is nothing. But he was : 
very generous and he treated it as something special, and he did all this work. And I photographed him and it took about thirty minutes or so. And at the end of the day, I asked him, “Can I publish this? Can I make use of it? Including the marketplace.” 
   He said, “By all means.” 
   So a little while later I got my work back and I showed it to him and I said, “Would you like me to send you any profits if I sell them.” He said, “No, you’re young. Go ahead and take them and use them for yourself.” 
    The interesting thing is now that the work is in three museums. My last piece sold for a thousand dollars. And I thank him for his generosity. 

   A story from another photographer about a waterman who was generous. (laughter) I was in Waikiki, learning to surf. I had just gotten my first good wave of the day, and I was starting to turn left to catch the wave, when all of a sudden I was blown off my board completely flying through the air, and into the water. I looked back as I was going under the water and there was this big Hawaiian guy, going right past on down the wave. I thought, “Where in the world did he come from?” 
   As I picked myself up and pulled myself back on to the board, and started to turn around to paddle back out, another big Hawaiian guy paddled up next to me and said, “Let me give you a word of advice. Stay out of Java’s way.” (laughter
   I then started to get a little defensive, and I said, “I thought I was on the wave by myself.” Then I said, “How could I stay out of his way? Could you tell me.” 
   He paddled right up next to me and started talking to me about how the waves form and how the path for the best surfing goes down the wave. He began to explain some things to me. And I listened. Then as we paddled back out, he paddled along side me. He says, “Another word of advice.” He told me how to shape my hands a little differently to get more effective paddling. I listened and I tried it and it worked. As I got out to the place to wait for the next wave, he introduced himself. His name was Leo. 
   Leo talked to me about a number of things that day that helped me how to understand how to enjoy and share the water with the others. The friendship continued till the end of his life, when the people he introduced me to that day, became a band on the beach, and we were able to play for him, in the hospital, on his deathbed. 

Alicia: Hold those stories for a moment. Once stories like these are told, you don’t always want to analyze them immediately.  Sometimes it’s good to take a moment to let them settle and then come back and do the analysis – which we unfortunately don’t have time for today. 
So more stories are being folded into the web of this larger story of the day. Thank you. (applause
   With more time for a session, we would begin to unpack these stories, identify more clearly the values hidden within the stories and look at how those values might inform decisions that these individuals are making in their organizations.  Or if these three individuals were part of the same organization, then one might begin to look for common themes in the stories to see if there are a common set of values held by all three members of the organization. Perhaps a value of altruism, or generosity or supporting another’s growth and sense of possibility. 
   In building a team or an organization knowing that this is important to the individuals that make up the team or organization is an important step in building trust within that community.  And through identifying what is important to the individuals within an organization, one can begin to identify core values that might help guide the organization as a whole. 
Paul: Thanks very much, Alicia. I just think that Alicia brings, in the team that is presenting today, a wonderful gentle sensitivity. I can see how she has communicated that to you. And she also has a wicked sense of humor. So she brings enormous gifts to the team. 
   As Seth opened up the day, setting up our “songline”, and mapping for us the beginning of the day, our hopes, I think that if you know anything about mapping, you trace the hidden rivers and dreams. You do the Lewis and Clark thing. You find one tributary and you set your sail. You 
become a waterman. You try to find the major source of that river. It’s like: “There must be a Mississippi here!” This stream is flowing stronger and stronger towards the sea. 
   I think that we’re mapping our values and our aspirations of today, and our hopes at the beginning of the day. When you’ve unwrapped a hope, when you’ve mapped what’s underneath a hope, you find: a value. Because a value is really what we most treasure. 
    So this day starts to “unpack”. We’re mapping. We start the day with the sharing of the quick stories. Now we move to the next level. 
    Alicia comes from the anthropological tradition. It’s one of the streams that informs this continent of story and storytelling. She spoke about the Kuna. It reminded me of the Margaret Mead’s, the Gregory Bateson’s, the people who have mapped that.
    With the stories that we’ve heard this morning so far, we’ve gone to Panama. We’ve gone to the Chesapeake Bay with the watermen. We’ve gone to Hawaii. People who work with stories are anthropologists. We sit. We listen. We get inside an experience and a people. 
   But something else has happened today. We’re not in Panama. We’re not on the Chesapeake Bay. We’re not in Hawaii. One of the things about being an anthropologist of the every day, is that you sit and listen and observe and treasure what’s happening in this very chemistry that we’re creating, so far in the first three or four hours of our day. 
    So thanks again to Alicia. She brings that stream to this rich continent of story. We’ve whetted our appetites now. Isn’t it interesting? What’s next? Can’t wait! (laughter, applause)
 Steve: What’s next is Rob Creekmore. 

Go to Rob Creekmore's session on Putting the Story to Work

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

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To read 
of :
The Squirrel: The Seven Highest Value Forms of Organizational Storytelling
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