Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

The Story Behind The Story

I used to think only lawyers and doctors needed to read between the lines when listening to their clients. Monday night I was reminded that consultants need to do that too.

Ten colleagues and I met to review non-profit applications for pro bono organizational development consulting. In the application, we ask for details about the organization and its leaders, the problem faced, why is it a problem, how does the applicant imagine us helping, and so on. We had seventeen applications and this was our first review before choosing those to visit for in-person screening interviews.

The most interesting thing to me about this two-hour affair was how drawn I was to making up interesting stories into which an applicant's responses might fit. I made it a game. For example, in one case where the executive director had filled out the form, the problem she described was "board development". Doesn't that pique your interest? It did mine.

So I blurted out something like "mutiny, mutiny, she wants us to help her takeover the ship", and that got a good laugh. Then, to my surprise, some of my colleagues chimed in with their own elaborations of the story behind the story, elaborations that tickled their own fancies. We wound up with a fairly compelling (and professional) picture of the organization's likely state, real needs, and challenges, and one that was a lot more nuanced than the one painted by the application.

In fact, many of the details in that three-page application looked different when we read them with our new back-story in mind. I found that most amazing! A lot of what had seemed vague now made perfect sense, and our playfulness had prepared us with important questions for the first screening interview.

The thing about this "game", and the professional attitude of exploration that goes with it, is that play is a very good way to get out of the box you're in. When someone gives you their perspective on something, they're giving you a box, make no mistake about that. If you can get out of that box, you will see and hear much more of what is really going on.

For organizations and leaders who are stuck in an unproductive or maladaptive pattern, the box is real, entrenched, and very effective in its confinement. Story-telling play may be the only tactic that opens a door to wider thinking.

So I encourage you, in your leadership role, to be more playful in discussing the possibilities for your business. And by all means, encourage others to be more playful too – play is much more fun, and much more effective, when it's a group activity. I will offer a warning, though. You will still be talking about business, and to stakeholders it may be very serious business. So the buoyancy of play must be tempered by the gravity of the situation.

There's a balloon image in there somewhere!