Q&A with a Story Guru: John Caddell

I’m so happy to present the eighth installment in this series of interviews with some of the gurus of both performance and applied storytelling. This interview is with John Caddell, who founded the Ning social networking group The Mistake Bank, “a place to share stories of mistakes people have made in their lives and careers.” Learn more about John from the link under his photo.

Learn more about John on his Profile page on The Mistake Bank.

Q&A with John Caddell;:

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: I’m a business consultant, so I take this question from a business perspective. There has been an immense amount of investment in the last 20 years in business-process re-engineering and process standardization and in IT systems and to support those initiatives. We’ve taken process improvement about as far as it can go.

In fact, we’ve taken it a bit too far. With companies applying Six Sigma to things like sales processes (???), and not surprisingly achieving poor results, it is time to seek new tools.

And narrative is a perfect tool to help shed light on complex questions (is our reorganization helping the company to perform better? Is this a good or lousy place to work? Why aren’t people buying our new product?).

Businesspeople are finally realizing that this “soft” tool actually has very practical and useful applications.

A separate but important benefit of storytelling in the workplace is that it helps bring the whole person into the office. For most of history work and personal lives were completely separate, not to be intermingled. Now, with telecommuting, flextime, job sharing, anywhere-anytime communication and global organizations, it’s dysfunctional to keep work and home separated by a firewall. Storytelling, then, allows us to communicate who we are to our co-workers and managers, what we need, and how we can be more successful — not just more productive.

Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?

A: I participate in all of the above, but I would say that when I tried Second Life, I just basically stood around in a room and didn’t do anything. So let’s strike that experience.

I use storytelling all the time in my blog — perhaps 50 percent of the posts have a narrative component. Twitter is all narrative to me — like an online diary of minutiae. YouTube is a great home for storytelling. It’s so much more powerful to hear and see a storyteller than to read the words on a page.

The social-network tools aren’t very storytelling-focused (except for the “what are you doing?” bits they stole from Twitter). My site, The Mistake Bank, is in a social network form, but is story-driven. It’s first-person stories from members, and the social-network features make it easy to discuss stories and share experiences connected with the stories.

Q: You wrote on your Ning social networking group The Mistake Bank: “I’ve been probing the use of stories in companies for learning and assessment, for more than a year now….” Can you talk a little more about this process of probing the use of stories in companies and how it came about?

A: Well, I spent my career living two lives. At work, I was on a typical managerial track — software development, moving to marketing, then leadership and finally senior management. At home I read lots of fiction, wrote short stories and even a lousy novel, and spent time in the writing community.

After I left my senior-management job and went on my own, I attended a storytelling breakout session at the 2006 Fortune Magazine Innovation Forum. It was a revelation. I could actually fuse my two lives together and do something of value with them. Then I blogged about the experience, and connected with Shawn Callahan of Anecdote as a result. I did some work with Shawn, started reading everything I could get my hands on, finally working with companies, and there you go.

Q: You also wrote: “The Mistake Bank idea came out of trying to create a story library of mistakes that people could consult when they underwent some change — say, a large investment, a new company, a new job, etc. …. I’m finding, not surprisingly, that there are all sorts of interesting side benefits as well.” In what ways did you feel it would be helpful to have “a story library of mistakes that people could consult when they underwent some change”? It seems like kind of a natural, but how exactly did the idea evolve in your mind? Can you talk about some of the “interesting side benefits?”

A: The idea coalesced over a period of months. I wrote a couple of funny blog posts titled “Worst Practices in Customer Service,” in which I recounted experiences where a big company did dumb things that made a customer (me) mad. Soon thereafter I read a blog post by Dave Snowden where he discussed the value of learning from avoiding worst practice (and the severe limitations of best practices). That was interesting to me.

I mentioned this idea of learning from mistakes to my hairdresser, and she said, “Oh yeah, when I started this place the first thing I thought about was all the things my previous bosses had done that I didn’t want to repeat.” So there was something there.

And of course I liked the surprising aspect of the idea. People told me, “Who is going to talk about their screw-ups in public?” And, lo and behold, some do!

As far as side benefits, when someone (especially someone prominent) admits to a mistake, it has this neat result of making him/her human to the rest of us. “Hey, she may be a world-renowned organizational-behavior expert, but she messes up just like the rest of us.” I think that’s beneficial to the workplace, and to society.