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Mary Alice Arthur, On the cusp of the new story
by Ovi Magazine Guest
2014-08-18 10:45:48
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By Andreja Cepuš

The interview with Mary Alice Arthur, founder of SOAR and Story Activist for positive systemic change

On the cusp of the new story

Defining herself as Story Activist, Mary Alice Arthur comes from New Zealand and has been part of organizations and groups all over the world since she remembers. She is specialized in using participative methods and storytelling for positive systemic change and with her approach she helps creating the space for accessing collective intelligence on critical issues followed by wise action. This allows people to come together do their work highly committed. We met in Slovenia, where she was co-hosting the Art of Participatory Leadership training and we talked about the power of stories, innovative approaches and mind set needed for time that we are in.

Q: You define yourself as Story Activist, can you explain that?

7648112_orig_400MA: I originally came to this idea when I saw a video of New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis, who was talking about what it was like to be from such a small country and make it big in Hollywood. He said anybody who is a storyteller is an activist. Stories are working on us constantly and I think the most important thing we can do is to become conscious of what it is that we will let ourselves through our ears, because that will influence our mind, our actions and everything that comes afterwards. So, I want to be Story Activist for something, in this case for positive systemic shift.

Q: What would you say are the elements of powerful story, a kind of that would have an impact on us

MA: Very basically, every story has the same spine. One of the main elements we as humans always pay attention to are the characters. The character doesn't actually have to be a human being. The story that happened to everybody around the Fukushima and there for everybody in Japan is also a character in the story. Secondly, we want to know what the setting is. Where is this happening? We also need a plot twist or a challenge. And if we are really going to like a story there needs to be more, we call this upping the sticks. Then the ones we like the best are the stories that got the resolution in them. Not necessary a solution but resolution. It might have been something very challenging in the workplace and maybe it didn't turn out well for everyone, but if I learned from it there is a resolution. We hunger for resolution. In general, if we want to hear a story of success we need to know what the challenges were in order for someone to succeed. That’s what interests us. Then the strength of the story depends on how you play with those elements.

Q: If we really want the story to contribute to the positive systemic change within the organization, when is the best opportunity for it to be shared?

MA: It all depends. What do you want to do with this story? One of the moments of the stories to be used is the teaching moment: How do you help somebody to know what the values of the organization or the society are or how you help them to know what not to do? A good way is not a rule, but a story. If you have a rule, back it up with the story, because the story will stick. Story will make the value alive. A lot of the organizations have the value statements but nobody pays attention to it, because it's not alive. You can invigorate and enliven both, your mission statement and your values through stories. Business leaders should tell stories about them and ask people to tell stories. That's what methodology of appreciative inquiry is about. If you want your values, your relationships and your culture system stay strong you need stories. In our stories we will automatically find how and what made those things successful.

Q: Is this how you actually create a space for systemic shift?

MA: I want to know the details.  If people tell 'O, we are a great team,’ I say ‘really? Well, why?’ You have good meeting. Well, ok. Do you stand up, do you sit down, do you…? If I know the details I can replicate them more often. I can do the conditions for the success. And that surely should be what business is about – really noticing what makes people happy and successful and willing and energetic and making that happen more often so that they are that way more often.

Q: It seems as the old structures we are used to do not hold the same old ways of working as they did…  Something new is being called for. Can you see the beginning of the new story already?

MA:  Yes. Old ways are not working anymore because we are on the cusp of our story. We are at the transition point from an older story of domination and power over to the new story that is already beginning to show itself we just can't completely see the shape and that is the scary point for most of us humans. This is why we need good stories ~ they are the bridge to the next place. And sometimes the bridge to the next phase comes from the back, when we remind ourselves of things which were important about who we are when we are the best as humans. Societies have always used stories to help people to know how it is to be a good citizen. And to know what not to do. That's the purpose of teaching stories.

Q: For good citizenship we need good leadership, probably. Lots of leaders have been educated for a different time and societies are reaching out for assistance in the transformation of their organizations, people, and institutions. There is a term spreading around lately: participatory leadership, which you are also a part of. Is this a new way of leadership, can you say more about it?

MA: In the participatory leadership work that we are doing there's inherent belief that the answer is in the group and our job is to set up the container for good learning, good co creation and good collaboration. So that we can finally answer together and everybody is committed to do good work and wise action together. A lot of action happens in the organizations but not all of it is wise as it could be. Our stories can help us to move forward with energy, power with the focus of being in it together.

Q: There is a shift in this paradigm…

MA: There's a metaphor shift from a dominant power structure and what we would call the triangular form - one leader on the top and everybody is following- to other way around- an inverted pyramid: what if the leader would actually be in service of everyone else being great leaders. What if the answer were in the system? Not just in a head of one person. You release more energy, you release more resources. The organizations have paid a lot of attention to resources but they don't seem to pay as much attention as they could to unleashing the resource that is inherited in people. They talk about their people being important but they don't walk the talk.

Q: What is the difference in the role of the leader within the new story?

MA: In old story there was the leader and we followed them. We are moving to the new paradigm, which says everybody is a leader. So, less than a roman army and more like an expedition to a new territory where everybody in a group was chosen for their strengths and their skills and everyone leads at the certain point of time depending on that skill and when is needed. The rest of us make the condition for great leadership to happen all the time.

Q:  Where does the Art of Hosting fit in?

MA: Well, Art of Hosting, an approach to leadership that scales up from the personal to the systemic using personal practice, dialogue, facilitation and the co-creation of innovation to address complex challenge, is one way when we ask this question how can we get all of the potential that is in our system especially if we happen to be hitting the complexity or being in crisis. How do we get all the energy and all the potential and resources that's in the system is to involve people in contributing. People don't want to just participate, they want to contribute. If you ask them to be a part of something that matters, if they help to create together, if they have enough time to be in conversations, so that they can see our differences are really our strengths, where we can begin to share our stories and get a deeper understanding of each other and were we are supported to try things, this really make a difference in times of transformation.

Q: You've been at Telecom New Zealand as an outer consultant to manage the human side of the merger they've been going through. This case is also presented in the book Wake Me Up When the Data is Over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results (by Lori Silverman). What happened there?

MA: Telecom New Zealand purchased a successful IT company to merge into one of its existing divisions to create Gen-i. It had a very clear measure of success for the merger – no loss of staff or clients, a continuation of revenue targets and becoming the leader of its sector. I came in fulltime for five months to manage the human side of the merger using Appreciative Inquiry.
We decided to not call it a merger (A merger is a very awful word, mostly it is painful, poorly done, people are lost either literally or figuratively), we called it 'best plus best'. The idea was that we want to bring the best of Telecom and the best of GEN-i together in create the new organization. If we could share stories with each other’s of where we are at our best it would show people they don't have to be afraid of these new people, in fact it would be a wonderful thing to come together because there's so much we have to offer each other and it would reenergize the system into how could we work even better together if we took the best of our systems and put them together.

Q:  The approach really brought some good results…

maryalice_400MA: An advisory team, representing a cross section of the business – and dubbed “The Fusion Team” – was formed. We had a goal of involving one third of the entire business (1300 people) in a conversation about the future and held 17 Fusion Forums across New Zealand and Australian sites to create a meeting point for both businesses. We gathered stories and metaphors around “irresistible leadership”, “positive people” and “raving fans” – the key elements the team named for success, as well as benchmarking other industries around these factors. This phrases that help you go to the next level need to have two components: stickiness and ‘Ooohh’ factor (Ooohh, I want more of that!). The work culminated in a 3-day summit with 200+ staff representing a cross section of the business, and developing the internal vision statement, business strap line and stretch targets together. Fifteen innovation teams resulted and more there were as many hits to the live blog as staff. The organization is still a key player in the market. I met people years later that said to me– I wish I was there. That was the best feedback, and their business is doing really great at the moment, they've really stepped into this number one in their industry.

Q: Form the viewpoint of strategic story impact in the organization; can you relate your work in terms of positive systemic change and financial growth, too?

MA: Yes. Talking about the systemic change, here is an interesting case. For the last two and a half years we've been working on a story of Denmark going bankrupt in 1813. It's not in the history, but the seeds what Denmark is today is in this particular sphere. This could mirror a story of any organization. Every organization has a founding story and some organizations really use their funding story and many don't. This story gives energy and strength to work continuing. Hewlett Packard use well their story how they've made their first computer in the garage of the founder's parents. The story of Ikea is so strong, because the founder of Ikea is so present. He is a great storyteller and is a person who keeps reinforcing the values.

Q:  Is this characteristic of the good leader?

MA: For me, there are four things that a good leader does. First, he needs to be a stringcutter. Most organizations are so tied down with their rules and control, they don't have space to breath and the role of the leader is to cut the strings. Then he needs to be a strategist. We want someone to help us navigate, because the things are complex out there. There was a HBR article that said most senior teams spend only 12% of their time on strategy which is far too small. And the board of directors is even worse. They are two wrapped up in the details; they have not freed themselves enough to have an overview. Third thing, he needs to be a Social Architect. This is something that Peter Block talks about in the book The answer to how is yes. This is someone who creates beautiful but also functional space for people to do their work together. Leadership is invitation and leaders should be aware what invitation they are being. A good leader also needs to be a storyteller who is telling the story of who we are being in the world and why. There are many organizations around the world that have their mission statements that sound like 'we want to be the best in the world'. This is boring because it just reinforces the old story of competition. This is not the paradigm we are moving towards.

Q: From competition towards…?

MA: We are moving towards paradigm of collaboration, mutual support, cohesion or even co-opetition – competition and cooperation also. So, that story of being the best in the world is not a relevant one for me. But being ‘the best for the world’ is very interesting. That enables me to be curious about what we could do now to be the best for the world and for us. It is livelihood in there.

Q:  Communication seems one field that we could expand on while moving towards the new paradigm…or where do you see the main challenges within organizations globally?

MA: Typical results from a “staff survey” would be: ‘I love my job, my team is great, what rest of you do out there I am not sure and our communication is terrible.’ Mostly people say the communication is terrible when they know something is not right but they don't know what that is and they say they need more of a communication. Most of the times people are overloaded with communication, so it's not that they don't get any, maybe they don't get it in the way they need it or in the way that they can understand it.  But most organizations at this moment are about engagement.  Studies will show you that people are more engaged when they see how their work fits into the larger whole and supports the story. I think organizations right at the moment need a group of Trojan Mice: people who stay connected, who are looking for potential transformation, leverage points and spread stories about innovation and creativity. Who notice the opportunities to work in different ways and know how to empower that to happen.

Q: Within this field…what time is it for leaders right now?

MA: I think it’s time for the leaders to become quite self-reflective because they need to be aware of what invitation they are being. They need to be aware that in so many systems people are really noticing in every moment what you do. Not necessarily what you say, but what you do. I love the concept of servant leadership ~ Robert Greenleaf's work. It means to lead in a way that others want to become servant leaders themselves. Servant leadership is like leading from the middle. Perhaps the new story of leadership is 'I am hosting the field for the best answer to emerge'. The new leadership is holding the field for good inquiry.

Q:  So, the answer lies in the question?

MA:  In European Commission in Brussels where I work, too they are finding out there's the challenge for most managers. They think they know the answer and they want to be in control. It's not about knowing the answer anymore, in fact for me; the better leader is one who asks really great questions.

Q: Can you give us an example of life changing question for you?

MA: I love this question: Where do I throw my pebble? This is also an interesting question for leaders. And that is also the entry point into a number of questions, for example what is my legacy? What do I want to be remembered for? What has been my gift to the world?

Q: Back to storytelling. What kind of stories does the good leader need to be able to tell and why?

MA: A business leader needs to be able to tell many different kind of stories. They need to help to make it clear to people what they expectations are and what kind of person they are if they want to gain the trust of the people they work with. Then they need to make themselves a human being to those people and help to set some expectations of how they want to be worked with. So, who am I, what has it shaped me as a leader and how do I want to work? This is a kind of story a team leader needs to be able to tell, manager needs to be able to tell, CEO needs to be able to tell at any time. Because it helps people to know and it's a much easier way to make information across than a list of rules. It's not so easy, but the story will go into people's minds or better hearts and stay there. And there’s even more: it will help people to take committed action.

Q: Any advise on how can we collectively commit to really act on and embrace the new story of ours?

The best thing we can do is to tend to hosting ourselves so that we can continue to be curious about the world and keep inviting the story; because it is already there we just don't see it yet. So, keep engaging with it. Keep hosting the new story. If we are on a cusp, what we need to do as humanity is not to fall apart from each other and be afraid, but rather to lean in and invite and be curious.


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Emanuel Paparella2014-08-18 22:54:10
Indeed, the new story is that everything is a story, including the story of science and the story of history which is the story of humankind and best told by the feminine, intuitive and imaginative mind. In Italian the word “storia” has a double meaning: it can mean history, but it can also mean story.

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