Shawn Callahan Q&A
It’s a very special treat to continue this series of interviews with some of the gurus of both performance and applied storytelling. This interview is with Shawn Callahan, founder of Anecdote, described as the leading business narrative services firm in Australia, “renowned for its work in knowledge management, collaboration, leadership development and facilitating complex change initiatives.” Learn more about Shawn under his photo.
Shawn’s bio from the bio page at Anecdote:
Before starting Anecdote I was the knowledge-management practice leader for IBM Australia and regional leader of IBM’s Cynefin Centre. I’ve been working as a consultant and researcher for more than 15 years now, and have undertaken a wide variety of projects—including community-of-practice development, knowledge-mapping, knowledge strategy, and using narrative techniques to tackle seemingly intractable issues (such as trust, cash economy, and workplace safety).
In 1999 I co-founded the ACT Knowledge Management Forum (now known as ActKM), an international community of practice for knowledge management in the public sector, and helped to develop the group from eight members to more than a thousand. I now have a new community project underway, a small group interested in applying complexity theory to management practices.
As a teenager, I once played Wally Masur (once Australia’s Davis Cup coach) in a tennis match and was thoroughly trounced, winning only two points in eight games. This spelt the end of my tennis career, but other sports, such as basketball and golf, have provided many years of pleasure.
Q&A with Shawn Callahan:
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: In 1999 I joined IBM in Australia to lead the knowledge management practice and the first thing I wanted to organise for my clients was an interesting seminar on the current state of knowledge management. I figured there must be a KM thought leader in IBM and in my search I found Dave Snowden. We was renowned for a unique and provocative perspective on knowledge management and was an entertaining speaker. But he was based in the UK so I emailed him and asked whether he had a video of any of his KM talks I could show my clients. Dave said he could do much better. He was coming to Australia and would be happy to give a one-day workshop. I organised the event at Old Parliament House in Canberra, and I was mesmerised by Dave’s ideas on complexity, business narrative and the way he told stories that captured the imagination of everyone in the audience. That’s when I said to myself, “I’m going to do that.” Eventually Dave and I worked together in IBM’s Cynefin Centre for Organisational Complexity where we had fours years together with a handful of other inspirational people applying our ideas with IBM’s clients around the world. It was a terrific experience.
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?
Businesses have made tremendous progress in the past by dealing with their organisation as if it were a machine. It was all about making the parts more efficient, oiling the cogs, turbo charging the processes and pulling the right levers. But things are getting more complex and the old ways of dealing with problems seem to be losing traction. People, particularly professionals (and there many more professionals in the workforce these days) hate to be told what to do. Consequently leaders are looking for new ways to understand what’s really happening in their organisation, they looking for better ways to engage and better ways motivate people. Stories are integral to the new ways of working in complex environments. They are effective as a way to work out what’s happening. In our work we call this story listening. It’s a kind of anthropological application of narrative. Then there is the skill of telling stories, which seems to have a tremendous effect in motivating people to take action. Business people are recognising the utility of stories.
Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?
A: Our local council is redeveloping one of its shopping precincts. The plan is to partner with a property developer and share the risk. Our region has a rich Italian and Turkish heritage so we are blessed with many superb ethnic restaurants. This multicultural heritage defines our region.
The two companies competing to be the council’s partner are the renowned corporate property developer giant Lend Lease and the successful, Melbourne-based company Grocon. Each company made presentations to the council and during the Grocon’s presentation a councillor asked the Grocon Managing Director, Daniel Grollo, “so why did your company bid for this project?” Daniel Grollo, a man in his thirties, an impressive executive said, “I’m probably not the best person to answer your question but my architect, Lorenzo, can tell you what happened.” Lorenzo stepped forward and said, “I noticed the ad in the paper so I rang up Daniel and said, hey, we’re wog boys, we spent our youth in this area, we should do this project.” And with that tiny anecdote there was a noticeable change in how the Grocon bid was viewed. They were doing the project for the right reasons. Grocon won the contest.
Q: You started Anecdote just a few years ago — in August 2004. What has been the biggest surprise since you’ve been running Anecdote? At what point did you feel the company was a success?
A: Probably my biggest surprise is the fact that we have convinced some of the largest corporations in Australia and the world to adopt narrative approaches to things like change management, leadership development, collaboration and learning. When we started we would often get cock-eyed grimaces when we mentioned stories but today people seek us out for our business narrative experience. It doesn’t hurt that popular management books like A Whole New Mind, Made to Stick, Influencer, and a myriad of others feature stories and storytelling as key capabilities for the future.
I would say we turned a corner and really felt we could make Anecdote a successful business when we started getting people finding us on the web and wanting to engage our services. We still have a long way to go because there are so many things we would like to do including running more of our workshops in the US and UK and helping more people understand that narrative work is much more that helping people tell better stories.
Q: You created Worldwide Story Work, a Ning social network. What was your motivation in creating it? Has it lived up to your expectations, and if not, what has to occur to enable the network to align with your vision?
A: In 1998 Kate Muir and I started the A.C.T. Knowledge Management Forum. We started with a handful of members in Canberra and met monthly to learn about knowledge management. We also linked everyone together on an email list. Today ActKM (as it is now known) has over 1,000 members and is arguably the most active and influential online knowledge management community in the world. We learned a lot about online communities with ActKM so Madelyn Blair (the co-coordinator of WWSW) and I thought we could take these learnings and our other community building experiences and build something useful for story practitioners.
I expect WWSW to develop slowly and gradually find its feet, so it’s living up to my expectations. It will be interesting to see how the culture of the community emerges. I’m keen for it to be a friendly place where everyone feels they can ask questions and they will get answers.