Create Your Organization's Living Story to Rise Above the Chaos


What is a living story? It is the everyday experience organizations live in and is continuously evolving. The individual stories people tell about the organization, and the organization tells as a whole are all ALIVE! They are being lived in every conversation, action and decision. Keeping the question of “what story are you living in?” clearly in front of people reminds them of the choices they face each day to stay on the path to greatness. It also reminds them to tell their stories in ways that invite others to be a part of them and shape them.

This is one aspect of the skill of sensemaking I help leaders develop, and one of a leader’s greatest allies in complex times and conditions. In my mind, the kind of story needed today is one that transcends conditions, complexity and challenges while provoking insights and the energy to not just tell the story but “be” the story and “do” the story as a series of in-the-moment choices. It’s a story where people can clearly see who they will become in the midst of it.

What is the success story you want people to live and tell more of every day? What will people become if they stay in it?

The living story continually emphasizes a world that others can belong to, contribute to and make a difference in. It is a story that must be lived and retold repeatedly to actually come to pass. If the existing story people are telling drains their energy, leaders must find ways to get them into a living story that represents hope, aspirations and new possibilities. If you want your future to be better than it is today, everyone has to work from the place of telling the new story and living that story with each choice they face.

Living stories start with a “declaration.” A declaration generates new possibilities, actions, and results in the world. It generates a new way of seeing things and a new field on which to play. “I do,” for example, is a declaration that opens a new possibility for a couple while closing other possibilities as singles. Declarations that have power are made by people that have the authority to make them, so they are not dismissed as a fantasy. In the early 1960’s, the U.S. was behind the Soviets in the space race. John Kennedy declared that a man would be on the moon within the decade, and it happened. His bold declaration inspired large numbers of people to take new actions to make this future occur.

Living stories start with leaders declaring what story the organization will “come alive in” to set the context for new results to occur. They then engage individuals to fill in the details and declare their own place in the story and motivate new and powerful actions towards the organization’s strategy and goals.

Let’s repeat: What is the success story you want people to live and tell more of every day? What will people become if they stay in it?

Elements of a Successful Living Story

How many of these can you identify in your organization’s conversations, decisions and behaviors?

  1. There is a purpose that goes beyond shareholder wealth. It no longer flies to focus on the endgame of profit at the expense of how the game is played.

  2. There are clear declarations of what will be pursued and what won’t be pursued, made as needed. Sometimes there are clear behaviors called out that WILL be done and WON’T be done. Sometimes there are clear conversations that WILL be had and WON’T be had. Boundaries create clarity and help people find who they are in the story, who they want to become and what they want to accomplish in it. Oddly enough, those boundaries create freedom when people can consistently count on clarity of where to focus.

  3. “I don’t know” is a common declaration around the organization. This means everyone has an opportunity to shape the story, and themselves in it. There is great learning, curiosity, loads of questions, uncertainty, and zero punishment for saying, “I don’t know.” Everyone is living in the question of “what might be possible because we don’t know?”

  4. Values that are to be lived by all are clear and accepted, because they are necessary to the living story agreed upon. Values-in-action are regularly visible.

  5. Everyone knows how to communicate, agree to and act on clear requests, commitments, agreements, and promises. Conditions of satisfaction are clearly articulated so people know to what standard to complete a task. Tasks are complete when “thank you” is declared to consider the task complete. “How are we committing to each other today?” is a regular topic of conversation.

  6. Interpretation of events, situations and people are open for discussion. Again, this is so everyone can live in the story and shape it to fit their strengths, hopes, aspirations and dreams. In a living story, knowledge is shared to shape outcomes and no one leader or person knows it all. In fact, the living story is filled more with “learn-it-all’s” than “know-it-alls.”

  7. Stories of blame are replaced with stories of promise-based accountability rather than organizationally imposed accountability.


When these steps happen, what kind of story are people living in? One where:

  • The future, with all of its wonder, expectations, and excitement is continuously declared. While there is no denying “reality,” good leaders invite people to invent a new future each day, in conversation and action, so that the future coming at them is invented rather than accepted by “default.”

  • What occurs for people in metaphor shifts to the positive. Key memes shift from “crushing the competition” to “win-win possibilities”, or “putting out fires” to “growing the business,” or “being a team” to “being a community” or “a bleak forecast” to a “stunning new horizon.” Metaphors create possibilities not previously considered.

  • Conversations for possibilities are the norm and occur more frequently than conversations for problem solving. All it takes is for everyone to brush up on and expand their storytelling skills, and leaders expanding their sensemaking skills to make the first declaration. Your people are counting on you.