Book review: The Power of the Tale - Julie Allen

Apr 10
2006

This book has obviously been conceptualised as a primer. It provides a broad survey of findings in various fields, particularly psychology and to a lesser extent anthropology, philosophy and linguistics. In the treatment of its material it is very didactic: the language is straightforward and non-technical, themes and issues are gradually introduced and key messages are regularly revisited. ‘The Power of the Tale’ starts off rather inconspicuously with a short and very general presentation of the main themes of the book. Then it moves on to the central part, consisting of seven chapters in which the role of story-telling is highlighted in a range of different organisations: formal and informal, small and large, temporary and durable, business and non-business. Some of the settings are fictitious transpositions of the author’s real-life experiences, others are existing and recognisable organisations. Thus we dwell consecutively in a maturing start-up company, a large car producer, an informal community of practice, Britain’s National Health Service, a not-for-profit organisation in the cultural sector and a countrywide society. Each of these settings provides the backdrop for a different way of leveraging the art of story-telling: for building trust, for furthering personal and organisational learning, for dealing constructively with dilemmas, for spurring innovation and self-organisation, and for enriching the strategic conversation.

Of course this book implicitly invites to be read as a story. From this vantage point, it reveals a number of interesting subtexts. To my mind, there are at least two protagonists playing a key role in the background of this narrative. First there is ‘the stranger’, or ‘the outsider’. He can be an external or internal consultant, who joins a constituency and reanimates it with the power of story-telling. It can also be a full member of the organisation who, after having developed a certain level of proficiency in the discipline, takes her leave from her erstwhile peer group. This implicitly forces the insight upon us that stories by their very nature are subversive. The narrative paradigm constitutes a deep antithesis to the command-and-control approach which is still dominating many of our contemporary organisations. Stories are ‘Fremdkörper’, wayward entities that develop their own viral logic once they’re out in the open. A commitment to introducing story-telling in an organisation, therefore, is a serious affair. It constitutes a leap of faith which over time literally might change the organisational dynamics beyond recognition. It seems that the capacity for story-telling can only lead a tenuous, unstable existence within the confines of organisations as we know them today.

This brings us to the second mysterious protagonist: the ‘senior manager’ or the ‘decision taker’. At first sight he seems conspicuously absent from the scene. But he is present enough, and in not a terribly flattering role, as a ‘corporate bully’. Isn’t it striking that the capacity for story-telling is, with exception of the start-up company, invariably injected at lower management levels? It’s as if the top of the hierarchy is simply incapable of mustering a level of trust in their own organisations that allows them to constructively embrace the power of the tale.

If Allan, Fairtlough and Heinzen are right, then we have no choice but to wage a guerilla war in our own organisations. Long term viability is at stake. Whether we like it or not, the larger system we are part of is self-organising. So we’d better measure up and, humbly, unleash the power of story-telling. There are no guarantees, only that we’ll be better prepared for the pains of failure and the glories of success. It may not be what the average reader of business books these days likes to read. At least we need to congratulate the authors of this book for their honesty.

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