Storytelling, tacit knowledge and a leadership Indaba

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Rudyard Kipling

Stories matter; everyone seems to be taking on board storytelling – is it a fashion, a fad?

Storytelling bookHuman beings have been telling stories, transferring knowledge, values and history through hundreds of years and generations of tribes. Attention seems to be turning back to our delight in oral histories and stories. Even in electronic forms we see videos and read wonderful blogs that continue the ancient tradition of storytelling through generations, transferring some of our oral traditions to new digital media. It makes me glad – I enjoy stories and they make me laugh and sometimes cry – and I have learnt so much from these stories – they expand my mind.

My personal experiences tell me that stories are a powerful way for me to share my stories, find meaning and knowledge in what I know, that they have a power that charts and sterile traditional business words sometimes miss. My blog has become a place where I try to share stories and in doing so try to unearth some of my tacit knowledge that I wonder if has any value in the world. My stories and reflections are part of my endeavour to share and to move from ‘stuff that is in my head’ to sense making, making it social, transferring and transforming thoughts to a deeper understanding.

Tacit knowledge is deeply personal and hard to extract and measure. It flies in the face of much scientific study and is known to be hard to draw out and share. The spoken and written word, gestures and emotions are in my view part of its transfer and the recipient of it needs to be able to listen, watch and actively participate in the story to sense-make, participate and share.

It is also my view that it is a social activity for many, but perhaps not all; marrying together story tellers and listeners in networks creates a more fertile space for the development of concepts, ideas and taps into our imagination to assess possibilities and create new ‘castles in the air’. I understand that scientific enquiry is vital in our world but I believe that stories allow us to share and interpret experiences in a way that complements our more logical and scientific understanding.

This week I attended a Leadership Indaba.

Indaba is a South African word, with its origins meaning ‘gathering’ or ‘meeting’. More recently they are styled as conferences where there is space for creative thinking and where story telling is likely to have a strong role.

So this week a group of people with an interest in leadership gathered in Leeds as part of an Indaba organised by Centre for Innovation in Health Management in Leeds. The Indaba has an international flavour with colleagues from South Africa and the Netherlands – a great opportunity for story-telling across different cultures and experiences, a chance to collide our experiences and stories together in a way that creates new meaning informed by the people in the groups.

Everyone has a storySo, I went to the day thinking I knew nothing, I knew no theories, and that I may not be able to participate – that I might not be up to the task (Imposter syndrome at its most active). But Indabas are not styled that way…. Story-telling is what I think they are about. I came away bursting with stories and new ideas taken and processed alongside stories from others. It was a social activity, sharing stories, processing meaning and this was just the very first day we had met. I know not everyone was comfortable with the unstructured social nature of the day but I found it liberating. Telling stories links us to emotions that create new ways of thinking and behaving; maybe a creative way to find new and different solutions to complex problems?

So what happened at the Indaba? Storytelling started the process of weaving us together and started us on a new journey. For me it was, and remains, exciting; the chance to hear others talk about their experiences and to weave those stories through mine to create new understanding and meaning. Its early days, we are still building trust and confidence and we also need to work out how we share this learning more widely – I will blog more as our journey unfolds.

Finally, I think that there is a risk in having a single internal story. In this wonderful Tedtalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie she explains about the danger of a single story. If you don’t think that storytelling and sharing is important watch the video – it may just change your mind.

14 thoughts on “Storytelling, tacit knowledge and a leadership Indaba

  1. Lovely blog . Made me think about how we learn to love stories. As children and how deep the scripts run into our adult life and how we must help our children learn when a fantasy is just that. Then it made me think about the single story many run about our partners in the private sector , that they are all bad. I have met some great private sector colleagues who care passionately about our NHS services and who want to deliver them just as well as I do .

    And then I returned to my thinking about is it a fad . Well about 4 years ago we brought story telling into our organisation as part of the leadership development work. Some people loved it some people didn’t . Even with development some people seem to be uncomfortable . It’s clearly not yet part of our culture , maybe one day. I was remind of a visit to North Africa where in a square in the dusk local people came down from the mountains to hear the story tellers , all sitting in a ring, maybe a hundred in the crowd. And what struck me than and seems to resonate with your experience this week is it also about community , being and hearing together . For some of us the community of telling and hearing stories might be just as important as the story itself.

  2. Thanks Annie, very interesting.
    Might be worth a chat about something I’m involve in trying to make sense of stories and tackle some of the complex problems.
    Video from Prof Dave Snowden explaining the approach here.
    Dave has his own interesting story about diabetes.


  3. Great post Annie. Something close to my own heart as a communicator. I wrote a similar piece a while back.

    For me too I think there is something about the process of sharing and listening as well as the tale. It reminds us of when we were small and we wanted our stories reading again and again even though we knew what happened in the end. We liked it because we also trusted the people who ‘involved’ us in storytelling.

    Whilst we need what we call corporate narratives, they can sometimes put people off as folk don’t see them as ‘their story’ and people lose interest in what is being said. Perhaps then trust with those telling the stories breaks down too. Just like the single story video you link to.

    Maybe local stories that people associate with and then tell themselves is the way to go. Folk don’t generally change what they do until they change their view on something. Stories that involve people are game changers.

  4. Thanks Annie, I resonate with your blog & your quest to find ways of translating the tacit into transferable knowledge. In my work as a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, I use analogies a lot to explain concepts & processes. People can struggle with understanding some concepts head on, but framed in an analogy or story (this can be in the form of appropriate self-disclosure), the meaning behind it has a far greater and long lasting impact.

  5. Love this. Strongly reminds me of Wenger (et al)’s Communities of Practice.

    Nursing,especially, is an experiental mode of working. Tacit knowledge is extremely important – how many times has a nurse ‘known’ that something was seriously wrong with a patient and they were right even when the numbers didn’t bear out the feeling?

    Thanks for the distraction – lots of food for my brain …. 🙂

  6. Lovley blog but reinforces the need to be conscious in our use of stories and if we never change the story we dont change the behaviours. So in education the curriculum can say one thing but the stories of teachers models somethigng different. So how do we help colleagues to change their stories to encourage some of the changes we would wish to see. How do we enable individulas to be more self aware of stories on culture and the role their stories play?

  7. Hi Susan
    I agree, if there is an inconsistency in the story and behaviour which wins – I suspect its not the story at all. I think this links to authenticity too, another leadership characteristic. I know you believe in the power of stories – you have told me many 🙂

  8. Thanks for the comment Mandy.
    The unearthing of real tacit knowledge fascinates me. Somehow in terms of knowledge it seems to me that is where the true treasure hides :0) x

  9. Hello Jodi
    I use analogies all the time as I think it helps people to link to meaning and sense making. Sometimes I use self disclosure other times I use the ‘Imagine’ technique. I hope it works 🙂 x

  10. Hi Phil

    I think community stories are a little bit like family stories and the trouble is there is a danger if we don’t listen to difference and alternate versions of the same story but I agree that stories have power – great blog BTW 🙂

  11. Maxine
    I love the vision you create in your very own mini story here about your visit to North Africa!
    I think that the comfortableness, or not, of people with story telling is about trust and deep relationships. Those in turn are part of the cultures we live and work in. Also some people are deeply private and reflect internally – it doesn’t mean they can’t listen to others stories but they may reflect alone.
    I just know for me they can change things and I am hoping the leadership Indaba can go on to use them in more positive ways – experimentation! x

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