Storytelling in Organizations

Gopal's BlogIt’s years ago now since I enrolled for a one-week residential workshop on Storytelling in Organizations, run by WITS Business School (WBS).  I found these notes I made about my experiences in the workshop, and decided to publish them in this post, more as a personal memento than anything else – memories fade fast, and my mental notes aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

This workshop was a truly WOW experience. On the Sunday, we met for registration and lunch on the WBS campus, and then got on a large luxury bus for a three-hour ride to the Sunnyside Guest Farm near Clarens in the Free State. The scenery was reminiscent of Middle Earth, and I could see how being born in this part of the world would have had a formative influence on Tolkien. The farm itself, overseen by Mrs. Bowland and her able staff, was stunning – green, rolling fields cupped in the majestic Maluti Mountains. Ducks, geese, cows, dogs and pigeons were our companions, and one night, after supper we enjoyed stories performed by some of our facilitators around a huge bonfire next to the river that flows through farm.

When we arrived at the farm, we had a session of introductions and orientation, during which Peter Christie asked each of us to write our names on a piece of paper, and put it in a hat. We then each drew a name from the hat, and were told that we had to observe the person whose name we had drawn over the course of the week. I drew the name of Steve Bahegyi, one of the facilitators.

The pace of work was relentless, but exhilarating. Each morning after an early breakfast, we would be lead for an hour by the energetic Janis Mackay from Edinburgh, Scotland, in exercises involving poetry, song, and dance. Janis’s sessions, entitled The Storyteller’s Voice – Giving Wings to Words, taught us how to get the best out of our voices and body language – valuable assets in the craft of storytelling. The morning sessions with Janis were energizing, and set an uplifting tone for the day.

Then, after a ten-minute break, Peter Christie, who is a lecturer at the WITS Business School, would impart his daily episode of the what, why, where, when, who, and how of Storytelling in Business. This was not a dry lecture, with Powerpoint slides, but was unfolded by Peter through stories such as Jumping Mouse, and The Quilt-maker’s Tale.

After this, it was time for Sue Hollingsworth from Manchester, and Bernard Kelly, from London, to engage us in an exploration of Storytelling and Transformation – Hitting the Wall. This they did through the tale of the Frog Prince. They used the original, un-sanitized version from the Grimm collection, which brought home the fact that true transformation can be accompanied by deep pain. The beautiful brass frog that had accompanied the storytellers from England went missing one day in a way that uncannily mirrored the story, but it returned to join us again for the end of the tale.

After lunch, the participants split into two groups. On the Monday and Tuesday, my group joined Steve Bahegyi for two-hours on each day, in his Personal Narrative workshop, Making a Life Worth Living. Steve used to be a lecturer in Information Systems at WITS University, and is also a qualified Psychologist. His diverse areas of interest include AI, Cybernetics, Creativity, Systems Theory, African, American, and Eastern Systems of Divination, and a lot more. All of this contributed to a mind-blowing workshop that offered a much more than the title suggests.

In the same after-lunch slot on the Wednesday and Thursday, my group joined Alexander MacKenzie, from Ireland, for his Creativity and Innovation workshop, where he invited us to journey to our inner storyteller / inner leader. By using symbolic drawings of ourselves, visualization techniques, and parts of the Parcival story, Alexander got us to engage with our authentic selves, and our challenges from different perspectives. We also explored techniques for critically examining and revamping the language of stories that circulate in our organizations. Another WOW experience.

Finally, as supper drew closer, we would spend each day in close consultation with our facilitators/coaches, working on crafting our own stories. After supper each night, from 8PM until 10PM, we would engage in performance of stories, either as spectators, watching the masters (our facilitators), or performing our own stories.

On Friday afternoon we were each given a needlework kit, and asked to sew a section of a patchwork quilt to honour the person whose name we had drawn on the first day. Later, we each added our sections to the larger quilt, and talked about the person we had observed. I have included my tribute to Steve in a separate page on this site. The person who had drawn my name, was Cecile Badenhorst, and I was deeply touched by her words about me. The section of quilt she made for me can be seen here – I display it with pride.

As I looked at the whole quilt spread out on the floor, I considered the facilitators mentioned above, and all of my fellow participants: Cecile Badenhorst, Maxine Olofsson, Michael Pryke, Joan Rankin, Brenda Shafir, Johan Terblanche, Ingo von Boetticher, Edgar Watkins, and Donna Wyckoff-Wheeler. I thought about the immense amount knowledge, wisdom, and understanding I had gained from all of them. I felt that just a week ago we were complete strangers, and now we were a kind of family, bound by something at least as powerful as genetics – our stories.

On the bus-ride back to Johannesburg, I reflected on how I was the same person, and yet fundamentally different from the one who had entered this story a mere week ago. There is much to digest. The assimilation process might, indeed, take me the rest of my life. But I look forward to the story ahead.

PS: My attendance at the workshop was sponsored by PsyberGate, the company for which I worked at the time.  I subsequently used what I learnt within the organization, and I remain eternally grateful for the opportunity.

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