A person reading a book for Fairisle article Story time. Photo by Rain Bennett on Unsplash

Keep the story real

The power of a good story

 

BY SARAH WILLCOX

A person reading a book for Fairisle article Story time. Photo by Rain Bennett on Unsplash
Article Author Sarah Willcox

Sarah Willcox is the Founder of Fairisle Consulting

You might have heard of a phenomenon called the ‘Mandela Effect’. Even if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve almost certainly experienced it. It’s when lots of people claim to remember something that didn’t actually happen. In 2010 a researcher observed that a large number of people shared a memory of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s. But in reality Mandela left prison, alive, in February 1990. He went on to become President of South Africa and a global statesman. So it’s really hard to see how people continued to believe he was dead, especially as he was featured regularly in world media up to and beyond his actual death in 2013.

Theories

It’s not really clear why the Mandela Effect occurs, and there are a lot of theories about it. For what it’s worth, our explanation is that people seem to remember things in a way that makes sense to them, regardless of the reality. In the case of Mandela, it’s sadly true that a number of opposition figures did die in prison in apartheid-era South Africa. So it’s not impossible that Nelson Mandela could have shared that fate.

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Whatever the reason, it seems the Mandela Effect is part of our tendency to rearrange facts into stories. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the way we are. Before the ability to read became really widespread – which in the UK was only just over a century ago – information was primarily communicated verbally. And this communication was often in story form, because humans respond to narrative far more readily than lists of facts.

The problem with this, as with the Mandela Effect, is a tendency for the story to become more important than the facts. A particular example is the power of the origin story.

The origin story

Pretty much all organisations will have a piece on their website about how and when they started, and if they’ve been around a while, some account of how they got where they are now. This is valuable information, because it can tell you a lot about how an organisation views itself. But there are problems. Firstly the official version will be rose-tinted, to present the organisation in the best possible light. Secondly, the official version is nearly always at odds with the stories the people in the organisation tell. And lastly, none of these stories are particularly close to the facts. Not a big deal, really. Unless or until the story dominates the culture of the organisation to such an extent that it drives decision making.

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Many organisations have rather humble beginnings, simply because they had to start somewhere. Early development is often due to the hard work and vision of one person or a small group of people. They were focussed on delivering their product or service, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. As the organisation grows however there’s more and more stuff to do. Stuff like making sure the accounting system works, that the hiring policy is fair, that the allocation of resources is effective. But not many organisations want to tell those stories, because they don’t seem as exciting as the origin stories. And because these aren’t the dominant stories, this can lead to lack of attention, under-investment and sometimes bad practice. The origin story stays in place as the touchstone, even though circumstances may have changed completely since the early days.

Keep the story real

The answer to these problems lies in promoting these other stories to the same level of relevance as the origin story. And this is why stories are at the heart of how we work with our clients. We use a particular format – the user story – to tell the story of how things work now, and how they should work in the future. The difference with our kind of storytelling though, is our stories reflect the facts, rather than overriding the facts.

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When the facts change

‘When the facts change my opinion changes’. A useful rule of thumb, and probably something we should all aspire to. It’s sometimes trotted out by politicians to explain a screeching U-turn in policy. The quote is typically attributed to either Winston Churchill or the economist Maynard Keynes. In fact there’s no record that either of them actually said it. But it’s the kind of thing we think they would have said.

It’s the Mandela Effect.

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