Madelyn Blair Q&A

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I love Madelyn Blair. I have experienced her twice — at the 2005 and 2007 Storytelling Weekends in Washington, DC, and corresponded with her via e-mail. She is warm, funny, inspirational, and a strong voice of leadership in the organizational storytelling movement. Madelyn has gone way above and beyond what I’ve asked of my Q&A interviewees. I’ve asked them to respond to five questions out of an assortment of about a dozen; Madelyn responded to almost all of them. Her Q&A will appear over the next six days.

Bio of Madelyn Blair: Madelyn Blair, Ph.D., is the founder of Pelerei (a consulting firm that provide innovative management solutions to help organizations transform themselves) and has been its president since its inception in1988. Dr. Blair brings extensive line-management experience. She is expert in the fields of organizational development, knowledge management, instructional design, and research technique. Dr. Blair is an early advocate and practitioner of Appreciative Inquiry. madelyn_hat.jpg She developed the first content analysis of written performance evaluations. She designed and created the methodology of Information Flow Analysis, which Pelerei has used to create information strategies that are understandable, workable, and efficiently developed. She has designed and conducted custom-designed courses and other learning opportunities in such topics as leadership, gender, organizational change, knowledge management, communication, problem solving, and research design. She has done so for the classroom and for distance learning. She has extensive background and experience in the area of gender in the workplace and has worked with more than 20 organizations in developing programs to address the needs of women and men working together.

Most recently, she has become a national leader in the area of using storytelling in organizations. As a founding member of one of the leading organizations in this field, she is called upon to speak about how this powerful tool can be used in many different organizational and social settings.

She brings a practical approach to addressing business needs, often creating solutions with minimal resources by harnessing the energy of client teams. Dr. Blair has published extensively and is a popular speaker. She also loves climbing mountains.


Q&A with Madelyn Blair:

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: About 10 years ago Seth Kahan arranged for me to be invited to a brain-trust session on story in business. What I found was a group of about 30 people who seemed to understand that story was an important vehicle for communication that could be employed successfully in the business community. As I listened to their ideas, my understanding of story expanded, and I could see that I had been using story for a long time in my own work without knowing that was what I was doing. It was familiar to me, and as I learned more and more, I discovered the power of story in so many areas — direct communication of ideas, team building, understanding culture — all very useful to an organizational developer. After this brain-trust event, I began using story more consciously. As I used story more in my work, I became aware of the efficiency of story to convey ideas and concepts; the effectiveness of story to build solid, trusting relationships; the pleasure of story to engage audiences. It seemed that no matter what I was doing, when I could bring in story, my work was made easier. What’s not to love?

Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?

A: Life in the 21st century has begun to embrace the true complexity of life and the challenges that emerge from such complexity. Having been introduced to chaos theory, the world no longer sees itself the same. Problems no longer have smooth, clean edges, and trying to understand these more complex problems taxes the mind to just get the whole problem in the mind at one time. As one aspect of the problem enters the mind, another aspect leaves consciousness. At a time when the problems of the age are completely overwhelming, having a means to at least take the problem into the mind is essential.
Story has the wonderful ability to capture great complexity into a simple form, allowing listeners to take in the concepts, ideas, challenges, without feeling overwhelmed. From this first step, the mind has the opportunity to explore the apparent ambiguities, the natural linkages, the interactions, and more by exploring the story. Because the story holds the problem in a container that can reside in the mind in its entirety, the mind is never turned off by the enormity of the problem. Partitioning of large, complex problems was the manner in which such problems were dealt with in the past. This partitioning is no longer possible if the problem is to be properly dealt with. Thus, being able to hold the problem in the mind all at one time is a breakthrough. Often unconsciously but not always, I feel that people appreciate this ability of story to help them deal with the complex issues of life.
One could also say that story resonates because there has been a confluence of authors (Annette Simmons, Steve Denning, Rick Stone) and others (Karen Dietz, Seth Kahan, Victoria Ward) who have begun to articulate the power of story, offering ways and means of using story. This has been helpful as well, and one can never ignore this work. But in the end, it is the ability of story to capture the enormity of life’s issues and our nascent understanding of the complexity of the universe that has come together. Oddly enough, early civilizations and cultures saw and used the same power of story to capture and hold great truths in the simple container of the story. Just check out any of the great Greek myths.

Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?

A: For the last 7-8 years, there have two conferences in DC that have been most influential to me. Steve Denning hosts day-long sessions at the Smithsonian Institution, and Goldenfleece hosts a day-long international conference the day after the event at the Smithsonian. I usually speak at the Smithsonian and play a major role in the creation of the Goldenfleece Day (as it is known). At these two related events, some of the very best people in the use of story in business come to speak. Moreover in preparing my own talks, I find it a strong learning exercise for myself as well. More recently, the collaborative space, Worldwide Story Work, on ning.com has become a great source of insight into the topic of the use of story in general. Such luminaries as Limor Shiponi of Israel and Victoria Ward of London contribute to the discussions along with those of us from the US such as Karen Dietz, Terrence Gargiulo, Steve Denning, and more. I have found that the international perspective has been enhanced in this forum. Lastly, there is the Center for Narrative Studies, here in Washington, DC. Paul Costello is stellar in his understanding of narrative practice and shares his insights with alacrity.

Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?

A: I find it a bit wasteful to spend either time or energy on the definition of story. I know that there are those who feel this is important, but for my work in organizations, I find that people can work effectively using story without burdening them with definitions.

Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?

A: When the news media manipulate the story, I am outraged. Stories are used to tell a truth or a fact in a manner that helps the listener get beyond his or her biases. Thus, the implied truth or fact assumes higher credence when told as part of a story. When the news media purposefully alter stories either through commission or omission, it is a violation of the trust that citizens place in the news media. Their range of influence is broad, and their sense of responsibility should reflect this reality.

Q: What future trends or directions do you foresee for story/storytelling/narrative? What’s next for the discipline? What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?

A: I don’t think that I can anticipate how others will use story. As more and more people, learn about story, they will begin to use story in ways that meet their needs using processes that fit the situation. That said, I hope to use story to help people discover ways in which they can keep their knowledge current. We live in a world where information and knowledge comes at us at a pace that can’t be absorbed. Moreover, we are able to go after specific knowledge with an ease that has never before been offered. Yet, how to manage this barrage? Through the use of story, I hope to show that there are many, many ways in which individuals, teams, even organizations can keep themselves appropriately current. (My book on the subject is about to be published.) [Editor’s note: Madelyn tells me the working title of the book is “Riding the Current: How to keep your knowledge up to date without drowning, furthering noting, “it is a book filled with the stories of people who have figured out how to do this along with a process for the reader to create what works best for them. Publication will be within the next 6 months.”]

Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?

A: I wrote a paper on this called “Renewable Energy: How story can revitalize your organization.”. It is all about finding stories inside words, and allowing the stories to reenergize even redefine the words. I have used this technique in several situations to great effect.

Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?

A: Stories are powerful. They can change lives completely. Use them with care. Use them with great care.

Q: On your Pelerei Web site, you note that you have been involved with an astounding 300+ projects over 18 years. Can you describe some highlights from one or more of the most satisfying story-based project you’ve worked on?

A: One of these projects, I have already written up. The paper is called, “Future Story Told in a Day” and can be downloaded from my web site (www.pelerei.com). But there is another that is worth talking about.
I had been invited in to help a board create its strategic plan for the year. This was a board made up of about half new members and half former members. It was clear that the group had to first form themselves into a coherent, interdependent group before they could achieve any plan they defined. I asked each of the members, new and old, to think about why they had decided to work in this particular organization. (It was an institution devoted to helping the world.) I asked them to then tell a story that reflected that calling. When the day came for the work session, we began with these stories. I was amazed at the things that had happened to these individuals that called them to leave much higher paying jobs to devote their time to the work of this organization. But the one that always has stayed with me was the story told by the person considered least qualified to be a member of the board.
She began by telling them that she had redecorated her bathroom all by herself. But this was only the beginning of the story. She then told them that she was committed to doing this the right way. She said that in order to do so, she knew that when she painted the walls, that she had to remove the toilet in order to paint behind it. Being committed to doing it herself, she then went to the library, read about how to remove a toilet, made the list of tools she would need, and proceeded to do the task herself. In the end, she not only removed the toilet, she also painted the wall properly and then, replaced the toilet - all in the correct (and fully functional) manner. The other members of the board were struck dumb. They couldn’t believe that this person had done such a task all by herself. In the end, she said that she felt as a result of this that she would be able to do anything presented to her in the future. She became a highly esteemed member of the board to her delight and to what turned out to be the board’s great advantage. It continued to seek ways to do things right. Never have I seen one story have such great effect on a group in such an unexpected way.

Q: On your Pelerei Web site and also in your chapter in Wake Me When the Data’s Over, you discuss the “future story.” What are some of the most significant guidelines for gleaning strategy from a future story?

Let’s assume that what you mean is that the future story is the strategic direction that calls for defining specific strategies in order to get there. Thus, gleaning strategy from a future story is how to define the specific strategies.

From my experience with groups, the most important thing is to create a future story that resonates with the group. As they read it or tell it, it becomes a part of them. As it becomes a part of them, they begin to ‘embody’ the story. If and when this happens, the means to achieve the story begin to happen. In the words of Aristotle, “A vivid imagination compels the whole body to obey it.” In an organization, this kind of self-energized action does call for some coordination. In my experience, the best way is to allow the group (who created the future story) to begin defining the actions needed directly. Their interest and excitement in the story tends to energize their imaginations as well, and actions are identified fairly quickly. Critical to achievement of the future story is to revisit the planned actions to assure that they are still the best given that the world doesn’t stand still while you implement. Some would say that this is not strategy, but indeed it is. And allowing it to be refined over time allows it to respond to the emergent (some might even say resultant) world in which the group finds itself.

Q: You discuss the future story’s use for organizations, but do you believe it can also be effective for individuals? For example, if an individual wants to change careers or advance in his/her career, could crafting a future story work just as effectively for the individual as it does for organizations?

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big>A: A future story can be used most definitely by an individual. In fact, I have used this in my coaching work with individuals. Moreover, I have used it in the work I do on keeping current. A great future story truly energizes the person to actually be the embodiment of the story. For example, on a trip I took about 2 years ago, I decided that my story was that it was an adventure. I was visiting several places I had never been before, and I was traveling alone. As I told myself the story of the trip being an adventure, every glitch (and there were several) ended in laughter and eventually, success. It was a wonderful adventure. The body follows what the mind is thinking, so think a great story.

Q: On your Web site, you ask: “What keeps you up at night?” What keeps YOU up at night?

A: Actually, at this stage of my career, very little keeps me up at night.

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A Storied Career explores intersections/synthesis among various forms of
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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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