This article was contributed by Burkhard Schaffitzel, a strategic analyst at goodroot. The article was originally written in three sections. This is the final section.
Based on Krüger, S. & Schaffitzel, B. (2014) Wirkungsgeschichten – Wie die Arbeit mit Geschichten zur Entwicklung zivilgesellschaftlicher Organisationen beitragen kann; Stiftung&Sponsoring – Die Roten Seiten 12/2014
Storytelling: Opportunities, Challenges and Crucial Preconditions
Storytelling holds great potential for impact assessment and organizational development. However this article aims to highlight some of the potential, and common, challenges that enthusiastic storytellers und story collectors should be aware of. Based on our experience at goodroot, we also share our learnings, specifically the crucial preconditions for a successful storytelling process.
Working with stories for the (strategic) development of an organization can happen on different levels. The story itself is always an event from an individual perspective at a given point in time. This individual experience is also incorporated into the interpretation of the higher-level narrative Therefore, stories are particularly suitable in exploratory contexts in which there is little reliable information about causal relationships and where impact assumptions about programs are still in development or in question.
Stories can describe change vividly, emotionally and accessibly - these also happen to be the goals in most impact assessment processes. Stories are so omnipresent that they can be assumed to be used understood independent of expertise and experience on the part of the "storyteller", as well as the audience. This is an important criterion for organizations working in socially deprived areas or with people who have little contact with scientific language or analysis.
By taking into account multiple perspectives, the collection and analysis of stories offers new and often surprising insights – more so than usually is the case with traditional monitoring and evaluation methods. The interpretation of narratives leads away from linear cause and effect chains and opens up the space for complex and multidimensional reality, enabling a more holistic view of results-based management and evaluation.
An interesting side effect of collecting stories is appreciation for individual experiences and the achievements every organization earns. We have often found this aspect to be very powerful and have begun to integrate it into project development.
Participatory processes in general and story collecting in particular involve some risks as well. The involvement of many stakeholders in processes of impact analysis, change or strategy development leads to a high expectation of visible results. It is demotivating if stakeholders feel that the process in which they have been personally involved may run into the void. The results of participatory processes should therefore be processed quickly and transparently and lead to comprehensible decisions or changes.
A prerequisite for success is the willingness of the participants, particularly those who have responsibility, to engage with the results of the process. If the management level of an organization lacks openness for surprising, and in some cases uncomfortable results, the process will not contribute to a positive development.
A challenge in the collection of the stories lies in the design of prompting questions (see part 2 of this series), as well as in the distribution of roles between process owners, storytellers and story collectors. Cynthia Kurtz, scholar and author of Working with Stories puts it this way: „I don't recommend conducting interviews yourself unless you have a natural knack for interviewing (some do) or considerable training in interviewing from another field.“  (Cynthia Kurtz). We have found that these challenges can be overcome with careful process design, alignment and support from top leadership and sufficient resources for the tasks at hand.
Working with stories in the way described here requires careful process and research design in order to reap useful results . In our experience, four basic conditions increase the probability of a productive process:
Support from the leadership team: The management level makes us of the process for valuing the experience of employees, partners, target groups, etc. and integrates relevant stakeholders from the beginning. It communicates clearly what will happen to the stories and how the results will be used.
Openness towards the results: All stakeholders, especially at the leadership level, are willing to accept new knowledge and question their own work. Anonymity is granted whenever it is requested.
Resources for professional process management: The collection of stories takes time. Individuals who want to bring in or collect a story should have enough time and space to do so. In planning, implementation and evaluation external support might pay off for three reasons: First, storytellers might find it easier to tell their story to external interviewers. Second, it is often difficult to see unexpected and surprising connections from within (group think and other biases). Third, the appreciation of stories by externals increases the self-esteem of participants from within the organization.
Mix of methods: Stories alone will not be accepted for evaluation. But they can usefully complement the process and often lead to extraordinary results.
When all four conditions are met, the use of stories not only helps to communicate impact, but serves to enrich and strengthen organizational culture. It thus offers an important way in which to express appreciation to social enterprises and non-profits and make use of participatory organizational development.
About the Author
Burkhard Schaffitzel supports goodroot in various evaluation und strategy projects. He is especially interested in analysis of and orientation towards impact in organizations as a basis for sustainable strategy development. During his studies at the University of Witten/Herdecke, Burkhard gained experience regarding evaluation and strategic consultancy in various settings (i.e. with osb International and in a research consultancy initiative by Prof. Dr. Dirk Baecker). After completing his Bachelor, he worked as a Teach First Deutschland (TFD) Fellow at a secondary school in Berlin-Neukölln focussing on helping underprivileged students to excel. Additionally, he represented TFD on international conferences and worked as junior trainer for the training and development departmend of TFD. Most recently, he initiated a virtual feedback dialogue for the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung to improve the integration of media in political education. Since 2011, Burkhard is enrolled in the Masters’ Programme in Management and Entrepreneurship at Humboldt University in Berlin. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published March 23, 2015