Once and Future Stories

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Once and Future Stories is a tool that you can use to move your organisation forward, using stories.

We’ve recently been using it with a CEO who wanted to really listen to her people and understand their experience.

This is how it works:

In pairs initially, participants tell each other stories about things that they think have been great about the organisation.

And then a story about what isn’t great about the organisation.

The pairs listen to each other. They don’t interrupt, they ask open, non-leading questions, such as:

  • Why is that important?
  • How did that make you feel?

Then they write down on a card a summary of the story.

The cards are collected up at the end.

They do the same again, this time about an imagined future where they are really happy, what the organisation is like and what the stories might be in this possible future.

Again, they listen carefully, ask open questions and capture the stories.

All the stories get put out on a table, the participants ‘dot vote’ them – if you’ve heard the story before, put a dot on it.

This simple process generates a map of most powerful stories or memes about the organisation.

What you’ll find is that there are four or five powerful narratives – some negative, some positive – that everyone’s heard, that fundamentally shape what people believe and feel about the organisation, and which affect how they behave.

In contrast, the future stories show how people would like it to be like. This is also really rich and valuable, especially as people are voting on what they agree with.

It gives a crowdsourced sense of the present, or recent past, and the desired future.

Why this is good for leaders

If you host a process like this, you will be modelling a listening behaviour, and facilitating a process that allows people to be heard. This can be a novel experience in some organisations: To be asked, to be heard and to have access to a senior leader.

You’ll be owning the process of exploration, and also including everyone in defining the future. There is a direct connection between the responsible person and the people affected. No consultants required.

The process might not change anything that needs to be done, but it will change people’s feelings about how it needs to be done and their perceptions about the commitment from leadership to do it.

The next stage will be to get people involved in changing some of the things they come up with to move them closer to the shared future they want.

None of it will have been imposed, it’s all come from the people.

You might believe you already know what the answers are, but it won’t feel like you are doing it to people without having listened.

And that way, you can bring everyone with you.

Once and Future Stories is a great tool for sharing stories.

Use it to increase empathy, good practice, and bring stories out in the open. It allows people to connect, to discuss damage, and to talk about ‘us being our brilliant best’.

Here’s a link to a Once and Future Stories worksheet that you can download and use with your group.

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