Navigating in the Sea of Change

It was Douglas McGregor (The Human Side of Enterprise) from the MIT who distinguished two types of managers according to the way they are treating employees. Type 1 thinks that employess are lazy by nature und try to avoid labor whenever and whereever it is possible (Theory X). Type 2 thinks that employees are, by nature, ambitious and motivated to take over responsibility (Theory Y).

But it was not this distinction which made him famous. It was his insight, that it is not about the decision if "Theory X" or "Theory Y" is true and that both theories are right at the same time.

50 years later Frederic Laloux resamples this piece of thought to restory what we think about organizations.

If you view people with mistrust (Theory X) and subject them to all sorts of controls, rules, and punishments, they will try to game the system, and you will feel your thinking is validated. Meet people with practices based on trust, and they will return your trust with responsible behaviour. … At the core, this comes down to the fundamental spiritual truth that we reap what we saw: fear breads fear and trust breads trust.“ Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations, s.109

The consequences for classical (micro-)management approaches are shattering. Because the control and reporting system produces exactly the circumstances to which it considers itself to be the response. In this downward leading spiral even the classical opposition between process and culture becomes obsolete. Who still believes that in change-processes one has to carefully seperate artifically enacted wellness-events from the clinical implementation of prefabricated processes, is ignoring the fact that day-to-day interactions are always meshing hard and and soft factors, so that culture can be a nut too hard to crack.

In this new approach (based on Ken Wilbers integral theory) change is not anymore a hierarchical act of volition but a dynamic balancing of four closely correlated dimensions: individually 1) the taken-for-granted beliefs (invisible) and 2) the behaviour (visible), and collectively 3) the cultural dimension (invisible, soft) and 4) the structures and processes (visible, hard).


Worth the mention that the affectation follows usually a certain chronology: The assumption of a leader that 1) people are motivated by money and recognition is accompanied 4) by appropriate objectives and incentives (bonuses), which results 2) in a competitive and ego-centric behaviour as a 3) determining pattern for the corporate culture.  

At the same time this model is a showcase of systemic inter-dependency - underlining that any change in one of these four dimensions affects all the others.

What does this mean for the Re-Authoring-Process within organizations?

That you can - in T-group like protected spaces - reflect belief systems and cultural patterns and re-author personal stories and identity constructions, as long as you don't have linear implementation processes in mind and are aware of the structural forces which are at work outside the seminar rooms.

Hierarchical structures with non-hierarchical cultures – it’s easy to see the two together like oil and water. That is why leaders in these companies insist that culture needs constant attention and continuous investment. In a hierarchical structure that gives managers power over their subordinates, a constant investment of energy is required to keep managers from using that power in hierarchical ways. … (whereas) culture in self-managing structures is both less necessary and more impactful than in traditional organizations. Less necessary because culture is not needed to overcome the troubles brought about by hierarchy. And more impactful, for the same reason.“ Laloux (2014, s.228f)

Less necessary and more impactful. That sounds great and reflects the opaque moment of dialectics. Because culture is both a vehicle and the fuel it needs, but not the end. You will not find company culture on the vision boards presented by change managers. Because culture is what happens every day. It is how we construct meaning treating each other. It is made by the way people interact and what they consider worth telling.

Against this background we should abandon the metaphor of the organization as a ship - where the managers gather around the steering wheel while the employees are working below deck. That is last centuries thinking. Let us better imagine a boat, a rowing boat, a coxless eight. You can see it? We are rowing and steering at the same time.

Our Workshop Radar. To navigate through Hamburg

Heidelberg lies in the past and is still very present. Hamburg is coming up and also vividly challenging my presence and my thoughts. I see people around me trying to map the field of what we call "Re-Authoring Futures" - our conceptional lighthouse facing the ocean of narrative reconnaissances. And the more I listen to them, the more I am convinced that it is all about "learning to be a Jazz musician", as Michael White, the wonderful and truely inspiring Australian family therapist once noted while he was riding his bycicle. The maps he was creating were just a tool to set out to uncharted territory - mapping the unmapped.

Anyway I provide you with this map to show you the field our workshops this year are going to explore. Not to mention the shining keynotes and the in-depth masterclasses.


It is just a line-up converted to a map and it will never compete with the reality of being there and joining us. So get your Early Bird Tickets NOW!

Thinking and unmapping the landscapes of my consciousness, I stumpled upon the mission statement of a blog experiment called ZENARIO. I wrote it down about five years ago, and now when the BEYOND STORYTELLING PROJECT is bulging the sails of this vessel I cannot withhold it from you any longer:

"We have learned to focus on personal deficits in ways that speak of failure rather than accomplishment, that produce social hierarchies (experts who often appear to know more about people’s lives than they do themselves), and that erode our sense of communal interdependence and common purpose. The project is based on the belief that the success of money and benchmark driven organizations has become its limitation: because the old organizational model based on the tools of control has no answer to human hopes, values, interests, and needs. On the other hand organizations are forced to dump these tools and empower their employees in order to stay innovative, agile and productive in complex environments. Machines produce sameness. Human systems like organizations create diversity. The narrative approach helps to co-construct unity in diversity. An ambitious project.“

Mapping the Field – Interview with Mary Alice Arthur

Joanna Sell did a wonderful interview with Mary Alice Arthur on BEYOND STORYTELLING 2018. Mary Alice shares her thoughts on what Re-Authoring and working with stories mean for her. A beautiful call to connect and create the field for new and better stories to emerge.

Mary Alice Arthur held a powerful key note at BEYOND STORYTELLING 2017. Her harvest of our first conference on the 6 uses of story is a wonderful entry point for everyone interested in working with stories. Check out part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Mapping the Field – Interview with Chené Swart

Chené Swart has been working with Re-Authoring Practices for years. Her book, "Re-Authoring the World" introduces re-authoring practices into the work with organizations and communities. In this video, she talks about what this means for her and why it is important right now. At BEYOND STORYTELLING 2018 she will host a workshop together with Griet Bouwen and Marianne Schapmans. She will also hold a key note.



Mapping the Field – Interview with Sohail Inayatullah

We are proud to announce Sohail Inayatullah as one of our key noters today. He holds the UNESCO Chair in Futures Studies at the Islamic Science University of Malaysia (USIM) and a professor at Tamkang University (Taiwan) and an associate Melbourne Business School (Australia). He has worked extensively with governments, international corporations, and non-governmental organizations around the globe to re-author their futures. Here, he talks about what Re-Authoring Futures means for him:

Re-Authoring Futures – What's in a title?

A title for a conference should entail tension – it should carry questions and paradoxes that stimulate our conversations, imagination and creativity. A title should create a field that is worth exploring. 

The future is the stories we tell

Coming from narrative practices and ideas, the title „Re-Authoring Futures“ has at its core the understanding that our futures are created by the stories we tell about it. From this point of view, the future is not fixed as something with a finite goal. The future in this understanding is an open field in which we are the authors and co-authors that write and co-write this story.

We are all authoring the stories we live into constantly, knowingly or unknowingly. Some of these stories are based in our context – our community, the markets and society. Some are hidden and not known to us but shape our lives in very profound ways – by impacting what we believe is possible or impossible.

Indeed, these beliefs and ideas are spoken about as facts – both physical, social and historical – that are shaping our lives and organizations. Within the hidden nature of these beliefs and ideas we give meaning and daily experience their impact on our lives and our organizations as we unknowingly author and co-author organisational futures.

Choice and agency – Taking back the pen

The plural of „futures" in “re-authoring futures”, indicate the possibilities and choices that are inherent in this view. We also chose this title, now, because, in recent years, we are witnessing the justification of decisions through the small but powerful word „alternativlos“ (without any alternatives). This German word implies that there are no choices.

That the path of action taken only follows given facts, a given logic and rational. And these „alternativlose“ stories can also be found – very often – in organizations. Because of a chosen path in the past or some constraints in the environment, things seem to be impossible to change.

Assuming that the choice we take is „alternativlos.“ it is the affirmation that we do not really have a choice. For the organization that is affected by this „choice,“ all power is taken away. The very notion of futures implicates multiple options, alternatives and yes, choice and agency. The notion of authorship implies that an organization, a community or an individual can take agency to impact the stories told and the stories lived and created.

The prefix "Re-„ is important to us in many ways: It stands for consciousness and engagement. It acknowledges that everyone, every organization and community is part of a context with a set of taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas that supports and invests in the stories that are told by and about them and others.

These taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas make people, teams or organisations the problem as it situates problems inside people or organisations. These internalised problem stories become thin descriptions about the  potential and the possibilities that an organization or communities can live into and choose from. „Re-„ is about making these taken-for-granted beliefs visible and through living and telling alternative preferred stories change and re-write the context along the way.

The roots of Re-Authoring Practices

The title also has a history and roots in a specific field of practice. The word “re-authoring” grew out of the work of the two originators of narrative therapy, Michael White and David Epston. Re-authoring conversations enable people to separate their lives and relationships from knowledges/stories that are impoverished descriptions of who they are and encourage people to re-author their lives according to alternative knowledges/stories and practices that have preferred outcomes. Our colleague Chené Swart, who trained as a Narrative therapist in South Africa, translated these re-authoring ideas into her work as a coach and consultant in the organisational and communal fields with her book, Re-authoring the World: The Narrative lens and practices for organisations, communities and individuals.

Today re-authoring ideas and practices are seen as “ways of being and working with individuals, organizations and communities that seek to ignite the beauty, dignity and honour of their lives” (Carlson 2017) . In this re-igniting of dignity, beauty and honour, we are invited to again become the primary authors of our lives and re-author (take back the pen in) our relationship to the preferred moments, narratives and communities that have shaped our lives in ways that move us forward. The work focuses on moments that matter, the context that informs it and practices that dignify people’s lives. Taken into the organizational world, it is about creating possible futures that are viable in an economic sense while taking into account the way an organization is connected to its constituents and communities of concern.

Re-Authoring Futures – BEYOND STORYTELLING 2018

The transformational nature of the re-authoring lens and work invites individuals, communities and organisations to individually and collectively take up the pen as authors and co-authors to shape the futures they want to live into.

The heart and soul of re-authoring practices is to co-create moments that transform our past, present and future. At BEYOND STORYTELLING 2018 we want to do that for our field of practice and explore how re-authoring practices are realized in different fields. What do we see and do differently in adopting this particular view? How can we imagine and build futures that are worth living into – for our organizations, communities and brands? What does Re-Authoring Futures mean for you?

** Thanks to Chené Swart for co-authoring this piece with me **


From Moments to Stories – Chené Swart's Moments Portal

A constant in my work as consultant and change facilitator in the past months is a concern about „moments“. It was brought into my focus by Chené Swart talking about her work in the Masterclass at BEYOND STORYTELLING 2017 and in the many conversations that followed afterwards.

I believe that as facilitators, we want to create „moments that matter“, in which we can support the people we work with in their search for new meaning, sensemaking or transformation. In creating these moments I used an approach from Chené Swart to invite the remembrance of significant moments to create relevance.

Generating new meaning and making sense of a situation is a key ingredient for transformation. Often it is about discarding old assumptions and creating new meaning. Not only in cognitive terms but also emotionally. Working with stories is a powerful way to connect the emotional and cognitive aspects of transformation.

Sensemaking is one of the key uses of working with stories. Stories speak to our head, hearts and minds. The question is how we get to the stories that map the field in a way that is useful and relevant for the people we are working with.

Entering the moments portal – Relevance

In any setting that has the stated goal of stimulating transformation of some kind, one of the key questions is how a topic becomes relevant to the people we work with. I don´t mean relevant only in the sense that people say „Yes, this topic is relevant or important for me.“ Relevance, for me, in the settings I work in, is an emotional stance towards the topic. A concern with the topic and an engagement and commitment to find out what the topic at hand really means for the people and the community involved. In some cases we do have a sense of urgency in the room but this isn´t always the case. So how do we invite engagement and honour people´s presence and time?

If you are used to working in participatory settings a lot of different methods might spring to your mind that enable you to set in motion ways for people to engage with a topic and with each other. But even with some years of experience with different approaches to the design and facilitation of such settings, Chenés work with moment is a constant eye opener – both for it´s simplicity and the impact it creates. The key to this approach is asking people to tell about moments in which a topic or theme was / is / became relevant and important to them. And this works magic.

Working with the moments Portal on Trust During the Berlin Change Days 2017. Pictures by @miriaminchange

Abstraction and experience

As human beings we are bound to our bodies. In each given situation we perceive with all our senses. Going up the ladder of abstraction, we create meaning out of the different impulses we get from our senses. With each step up the ladder, our experience is enriched, filtered and transformed by our mental models and interpretation routines. We move from experience to abstraction.

By doing this, we don´t perceive the particulars of the situation but the commonalities it has with our pre-established modes of thinking and seeing the world. Both as a means to make sense of what is happening and in an effort to reduce cognitive load. This enables us to react swiftly and orient ourselves. Albeit this „fast thinking“ works in a lot of situations, it also carries the risk of missing important pieces of information and makes us prone to oversimplifying things.

In a situation in which we want to invite people to really re-think a certain topic, fast thinking often leads to a situation in which we either see a new topic through our well established frames of reference (meaning: there is nothing new) or that we engage but without linking it an emotional element that is necessary for true transformation. Our attitudes and belief systems are shaped by the experiences we make and systems of symbols (culture) we use to make sense of them. All this adds layers of abstraction and generalizations. The magic of asking for moments is that people are recalling specific situations or moments in which a topic has or had relevance to them. With this simple question, we invite people to strip away their interpretations and simply recall. Indeed, if we ask people to take us to the moments that mattered for them, it becomes even more than recalling, it becomes reexperiencing. 

The power of this way of working lies for me in the fact that there is also no abstraction needed to talk about moments. The cognitive effort is not focused on making interpretations or finding deeper meanings or patterns. The cognitive effort is low in that it entails „simple recalling“. Letting people talk about moments is – in a sense – making people listening to themselves anew. This also invites the emotions and feelings that made up the experience of this moment. Working with moments, the invitation is to step down the ladder of abstraction and get close to the „raw data“ of our experiences.

Emotional and cognitive effects of working with moments

On an emotional level, this work invites being a true witness and builds relationships and community. As listeners to the moments of others we move from interpretation to perception, as we see a situation metaphorically through the eyes of the other. This often creates a sense of belonging and intimacy. Not only towards others, but also towards ourselves. We are not only witnessing others but we are also listening to ourselves. We experiencing the moments anew through our recalling and retelling.

On a cognitive level, I believe that this work – revealing the „raw data“ – cracks open our interpretations of situations, moments and the experiences we made. By stripping away our interpretations and mental models, we are able to re-interprete these moments anew. This creates the possibility for new ways of looking at things and the opportunity to tell a story in a new and different way.

From moments to stories

I experimented a while with asking the participants to my workshops to tell a story in which the topic at hand was relevant. From my experiences with the moments portal, I believe that this creates a hurdle that is not necessary. On the one hand people ask themselves what constitutes a story worth telling in the specific setting we are in. It concerns people with what to tell and how to tell it. Instead of focusing on relating themselves to the topic and the other, they are concerned with style and form. That is not necessary. If you ask people about moments, they will tell a story anyway.

Reconstructing the story of an R&D Team through the moments portal. What story emerged? What do we learn about us as a team looking at these moments?

Reconstructing the story of an R&D Team through the moments portal. What story emerged? What do we learn about us as a team looking at these moments?

From a narrative standpoint, this also enables to re-write the stories that shape the actions, decisions and interactions within an organization. Stories are made up by moments connected by a plot outlining the landscape of action and the landscape of consciousness. These stories, once established, are easily triggered for the interpretation of a given situation.

„While some community narratives are quite direct, many well-known narratives are coded as visual images, as symbols, as stereotypes, and as performances of behavior so ritualized that we may be unaware of the narratives we implicitly accept and enact, [...].Underlying much of what we know, and can recall, are encoded stories indexed by certain cognitive handles. […]. They are cues to the underlying story.“ (Rappaport, 2000, S.5)*

By going back to the moments in which the themes and narratives emerged, these moments become free of these assumptions and pre-established storylines. They become building blocks that can be re-interpreted and re-storied in a different way. A story that is more in line with what is now required from the organization or community.

Constructing a story out of these moments is again a step up the ladder of abstraction. But this abstraction is not as abstract as a model or theory. It is still a story with all the elements that go along with that. More importantly, every step that follows in this meaning making process is fueled with the experiences and emotions of the people involved.

Because they became relevant through the personal engagement and through community in passing through the moments portal.

*Rappaport, J. (2000) Community Narratives: Tales of Terror and Joy. In American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 1.

More on Chené's work:



Interview zum Buch "BEYOND STORYTELLING"

Von Springer Professional wurde ich Anfang Juli zu unserem Buch "BEYOND STORYTELLING" interviewt. Das Interview fasst die zentralen Gedankengänge des Buches und der Konferenz gut zusammen.

Das Interview kann hier eingesehen werden:

Das Buch kann über alle bekannten Versandhändler oder direkt bei Springer bezogen werden.

Into the field – Rients Verschoor and Martijn de Jong Posthumus on Applying the ‘learning history’ method in local government

In 2015, a group of ten Dutch history students from the University of Groningen gradually found out that their core business – thinking, writing, and telling about continuities and discontinuities – was useful. Indeed, all jokes cast aside, history could be useful. That is to say, these young historians discovered that their discipline, which is often seen as fun but practically irrelevant, could have serious impact. They made this discovery when they wrote a so-called ‘learning history’ of the place-based approach of the local government of Groningen. An assignment during the course ‘Learning History & Organizations’.

                  Learning history is a method that enables organizations to learn from their past. Based on a paper trail (various documents, reports, correspondences, etc.) and interviews we write ‘learning histories’. These learning histories then become the basis for dialogues in and between organizations to foster processes of collective learning. The goal, in the Groningen method, is to enable organizations to become ‘learning organizations’, and – even better – systems of organizations to become ‘learning systems’. Groningen, however, is not the only area where this method gains ground. A strongly overlapping method is the storytelling method of Christine Erlach and dr. Karin Thier, which we hoped to further explore during the master class of Christine Erlach at the congress Beyond Storytelling. So we packed our bags and together with dr. Rik Peters travelled to Heidelberg, curious what we would find across the border.

                  Aside from a lively and historically intruiging city and loads of enthusiastic people passionate about storytelling, we found two splendid additions to our own learning history method: a new interview technique and various effective ways to present the results of these interviews. In order to trace valuable tacit knowledge possessed by employees, Christine interviews employees using an ‘Ereigniskurve’. The Ereigniskurve is a supporting tool with which the employee can visualize his or her experiences on a time scale, and which enables the interviewer to in depthly and accurately interview the employee about these experiences. In addition, and it may sound silly at first, Christine emphasized the importance of truly listening. Whereas we were trained to accurately and actively interview, specifically searching for information based on the paper trail we analyze, Christine claimed the gist is in how people tell their stories – and they have their stories; don’t worry about that.

Christine also taught us new ways of production after the harvest of the interviews. Central to our Groningen learning histories are the experiences from employees, combined with the historical knowledge of the researcher, and presented in a narrative filled with citations and reflective learning questions. However, Christine demonstrated various different ways of presenting the harvest: combining the stories of the employees in one visual ‘roadmap’, in a comic, or as we saw in ‘Augenhöhe project’ from Daniel Trebien, in a film. It is important to stress, though, that the welding of the stories in a format is not the end of the story. In fact, when the format is ready for use the story begins. For the stories have to be shared, through dialogue, within the organization in order that people learn from it.

                  Eager to blend Christine’s method with our own in our line of work, we gave it a shot in our local government in Groningen. This local government is dealing with a major transformation from the Dutch welfare state to a ‘participation society’, in which many national tasks have been decentralized and another approach in relation to collaboration with civilians is being implemented. A large aspect of this transformation in Groningen is the further development of the so-called ‘place-based approach’; a task for which we have been employed. In short, the place-based approach is a contextual approach in which integral aspects of an area are decisive for governmental policy-making and operationalisation, as opposed to sectoral urban policy.

                  Right now we are busy interviewing our collegaes and collecting stories. Every interview we start by asking: could you please visualize your professional experience on a scale from positive to negative by drawing a line. This question asks people to think about their professional life in order of a story. They recollect their different experiences – which are stories in themselves – and connect them to each other in a bigger story of their professional experience as a whole. The Ereigniskurve in the form of a line then serves as a guideline for the interview. The next question we ask is if they want to explain the line they drew. From this point onwards the listening begins. Sometimes we interrupt by asking, for example, what they learned from this or that experience. But we try taking the advice from Christine to heart: stop asking, start listening.

                  We already collected a bunch of beautiful stories. The next step is analyzing all the material and discussing it within the organisation. In analyzing the stories we search for tacit knowledge. That is implicit knowledge of which the owner doesn’t know he or she has. There is not one way for doing this. In the Dutch language we have a saying that you have to ‘read between the lines’ which, in this context, can be used as a metaphor for the method. On presenting and discussing the stories and their hidden knowledge we are thinking of (innovative) ways for doing that. One idea is to present and discuss the stories (whether in a classic presentation in text, a ‘roadmap’ or a comic) in a room which is totally filled with prints of citations from the interviews. In the end this blog is a story of our own learning history in making learning histories and we are somewhere in the middle of it. We ourselves are curious how the story continues…

Rients and Martijn supported us throughout the BEYOND STORYTELLING conference.

Learn more about them on their linkedIn profiles:







It's not about the genitals - A reaction to the workshop: Let‘s deconstruct Gender: Does Gender Diversity need different Leadership Narratives?

The first thing I notice upon entering the workshop space is what I usually notice in events and discussions around the topic of gender – there is absolutely no gender diversity in the audience. Conversations around gender in leadership (or, let’s be honest, gender anywhere) are held almost exclusively amongst women – with the possible exception of the LGBT communities, where gay, bisexual, transgender and generally non-hetero-normative males might also be present. A am generalizing, off course, but personally I’ve yet to experience a gender-balanced conversation on this topic. I see the resemblance to how Kimmel describes the situation in gender studies classes in the university: there are usually one or two men “cringing defensively in the corner, feeling blamed for the collective sins of two millennia of patriarchal oppression (Kimmel, 2013, pg. 57).”

Diversity is a buzzword that has been around for a while now. Growing scientific evidence shows us that businesses with a higher level of diversity in the workplace reach sustainable success, create more innovative cultures, share an increased collective intelligence, are socially more responsible, more ethical, incorporate a multi-perspective view and are also socially more attractive (Marte, Müller & Wieland, 2017). And still, the world as a whole still fails at creating equal opportunities for both men and women. It is not just about being nice and more accepting; when it comes to business, money matters.  The Landmark McKinsey Global Institute report finds that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 if the gender gap is narrowed (McKinsey & Company, 2015). On average, only 23.3 % of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in the EU are women. This marks a significant increase from 11.9 % in 2010 (Jourova, 2016). However, there is still a very long way to go if we are to achieve gender balance; business is still largely run by men. If leaders care about success of their organizations, this should matter to them. And yet, men consistently stay out of this conversation. How can that be possible?

There is the simple and straightforward answer of men simply not being interested in a conversation that seemingly does not concern them. It’s feminism; it’s a woman’s issue. Not my gender, not my problem. The issue of the women in the workforce is seen as outdated – women in the western world legally have equal rights to men in all aspects and fields. Female participation in tertiary education overall has increased globally and currently surpasses male participation in almost all developed countries and in half of developing countries (United Nations, 2015). What is left to complain about?

Nevertheless, it’s hard to disregard the countless experience of me or another woman raising the topic of gender in leadership and at least some of the men in the room giving a “not the feminist again” comment, hiding their eye-roll or just simply shutting down and mentally exiting the discussion. Male voices in these conversations are rarely explicitly invited and hardly ever present. Even though they might not be excluded per se, for some reason the men just don’t show up. Given that we now have a lot of clear scientific evidence of gender balance contributing to better performance of the organizations, we cannot pretend anymore that this is not everybody’s issue. Any leader who desires results for their company must be motivated to invite diverse coworkers into their team. So why do men keep silent? What keeps them out of the conversation?

Obviously, I cannot speak for men. I can only describe what I experience and what I hear from men and women I interact with. These conversations have led me to believe it is not out of carelessness or meanness or superiority; it’s out of the lack of awareness that men rarely even perceive a problem. It is really hard to see your privilege unless someone points it out and you are willing to listen. Like in the example that circled around the web recently about the coworkers, Martin E. Schneider and Nicole Hallberg, that changed their e-mail signatures for a week – you just don’t know your privilege until you live without it for a while. In the workshop, we talked about this problem and realized how hard it is to create situations where men can experience what it’s like to be a woman in business. We came to the conclusion that maybe, sometimes, sharing our stories is the best we can do.

Therefore, let me share my own experience. I am a woman in consulting business. What’s worse, I’m a young, attractive woman, working in leadership development. When I came to the company, my boss kindly engaged in training me to deal with the male dominated world of our clients – he called it resilience training. He asked uncomfortable questions and made comments to test me. He would feedback me on my blushing, fidgeting or giggling and praise me when I “handled it like a man”. According to him, I was doing great and playing the game. This already hints to where women stand in business – men will be men, they set the norm, so I need to become resilient to being seen as an object of desire.

I vividly remember one of the most unnerving experiences in group facilitation. I was facilitating a communication workshop in a group of engineers; there were 20 men and me in the room. While talking about dominant nonverbal communication, I invited one of the participants to demonstrate a handshake with me. What happened next utterly shocked me. He pulled me towards him with one hand, and reached over my back with the other to grab my behind. He was taller and stronger than me and I felt small and helpless. I reacted on impulse, shook him off and pushed him away with a force I didn’t know I had in me. It was such a reflex to just get him off me that I was very glad I didn’t punch him in the face. I asked him to sit down and went on to explain about appropriate physical distance in a business interaction. When we talk about the comfortable distance of strangers in communication, this distance is very often “just far enough that neither a punch nor a kick can reach us”. I asked him to volunteer again to demonstrate why. I told him to stand at an appropriate distance. And then came a moment of surprise for the poor man: I swung a punch and a kick towards his face, stopping first my fist and then my foot a few centimeters away from his face. “And that is why this is the distance most people feel comfortable with when talking to strangers.” He gasped; the audience fell silent, hiding their amusement. Then I announced a break (even though it was less than one hour into the session) and went into the bathroom to calm down (and do some power posing :)). My whole body was shaking. I finished the rest of the day mostly on autopilot, not making any more eye-contact with this man. After the workshop, he asked me about my martial arts training (and yes, I did do some ninjutsu, I knew how to control my punch) and I told him to be careful with touching women without their consent. Now, let's be honest here, what I did was an obvious change of status in a power play. I answered aggression with aggression, a display of power with a display of power, and successfully gained respect from him and the rest of the group. Still – is that really how we need to be in a man’s world? To become like men, only better, faster, stronger?

Another question going through my mind was: “How did I contribute to this? Was I too familiar? Was I flirting? How am I responsible for this man’s behavior? Where are these thoughts coming from? A guy grabs me and I feel responsible? Chené Swart talks about “the water”, i. e. the taken for granted beliefs that inform the stories we buy into.


What is the water we are swimming in when discussing gender in leadership? Next to the stereotyping exercise we did in the workshop, I also asked my friends and colleagues and here’s what I’ve collected:

·       Men are better leaders, because they’re more goal-oriented, decisive, dependable and charismatic. Both men and women prefer men leaders and facilitators, because they have better authority.

·       To gain trust from the audience, any facilitator must (and an emphatic woman definitely will) adapt to their frame of reference – if they already see a woman as an object of desire, she will be most successful if she uses it to her advantage.

·       Men are rational, women are overly sensitive. If as a woman you notice and respond to sexual objectification, you are over-reacting and lack a sense of humor. It was, after all, just a joke.

·       Generally, women aren’t funny. However, women, who take part in the sexist conversation, are considered cool and fun.

·       Men will be men; it’s normal for men to feel and express sexual desire to an attractive woman and she should, if anything, take it as a compliment as it was meant.

·       It’s a men’s world and women should adapt to its’ standards.

·       To succeed in business as a leader, a woman must (excuse the expression) “grow some balls”.

I could go on, but I think we get the point. The ocean of taken for granted beliefs that we swim in makes it extremely hard for a woman in my situation to set appropriate boundaries. These beliefs are not just “out there”, they’re inside of my own mind, making me question my own beliefs and values. After a few years I gained some confidence in my professional identity and set clearer boundaries. I told my boss that my resilience training can end and that I’d appreciate it if he stops making sexist comments. Now he asks permission when he opens the topic of gender in my presence, which is an improvement. It gives me the opportunity to opt out.

Like most women do, I bought into these socially accepted messages and expectations. I considered myself cool for being manly enough to live in the men’s world. But it’s more than just about being cool. It’s about trying to be functional.

As Angelica and Michael point out, diversity is a problem. Diversity is a problem because it enhances complexity, increases differences, massively slows down decisions processes and building of trust, and finally, it causes conflicts (Marte, 2015). The current solution to the problem of diversity is its reduction. Women, who enter a culture that is dominated by men, perceive these problems and work to avoid them. Stereotypically, women focus more on the community and engage more in emphatic-intuitive thinking and decision models. They strive to manage and reduce conflicts and enhance trust (Chao & Tian, 2011). Women intuitively realize that we like those who are similar to us. That means that upon entering a male-dominated business and leadership culture, they adapt to the prevalent communication patterns in that culture to avoid diversity issues. This surely leads to a smoother career-path for a woman and less problems with diversity for the company, but it also diminishes its benefits to near zero.

When we talk about this, I can clearly observe all of this in our workshop facilitators, dr. Angelica V. Marte and Michael J. Müller. It’s intriguing to watch them interact with us and with each other. Angelica has spent a lot of her career in the academic research world and then in the business world, dominated by men. She is the first and the last person to speak to any topic, talks straight and direct, makes her messages clear and focuses on her 42 slides in the presentation, sometimes failing to notice that we as participants want to contribute to the discussion. She is professional, to-the-point and underlines her statements with her scientific background. Even in her picture on the slide, she embodies the male stereotype (or the stereotype of a successful woman in a men’s world) – arms crossed, looking straight into the camera with a slight social smile. Michael, on the other hand, stays playful and engaged with the participants in the workshop; he is the one to notice when we have something to say. He had prepared colored pencils and papers, chalk, and play-doh, in case we get inspired to create something during the workshop. He presents himself as an actor, and in his picture he is looking away from the camera with a child-like curiosity in his eyes. This difference is so obvious I wonder if they do it on purpose, just to give an example that male and female communication and behavior patterns are not necessarily connected to gender or biological sex. What’s interesting is that they perfectly balance each other. They demonstrate this diversity we talk about – and hint to the possibility of an integrated approach.

It’s not so much about the gender of the people in the leadership teams, but the diversity in their thinking and behavior patterns. If we reach the goal of having 50 % of senior leadership positions held by women, but do not change the culture, we have done very little to enhance our progress. I believe that sooner or later, the gender-battle must become superfluous and terms like “male and female patterns” meaningless. These patterns have very little to do with our genitals and much more with what we learn to be right, good or accepted.




Chao, C. & Tian, D. (2011): Culturally Universal or Culturally Specific: A Comparative Study of Anticipated Female Leadership Styles in Taiwan and the United States. In: Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, No. 18 (1), p: 64 – 79, Sage, Thousand Oaks.

Jourová, V. (2016). Gender balance on corporate boards: Europe is cracking the glass ceiling. European Comission.

Kimmel, M. S. (2013). Who's afraid of men doing feminism; in: Digby, T. (Ed.) Men Doing Feminism, Routledge.

Marte, A.V. (2015): Mit weiblichem Durchblick zu mehr Aufsicht? ZU|Daily online

Marte, A.V., Müller, M.J., Wieland, J. (2017): Wenn Geschichten Führung führen. Narrative Perspektiven auf Führung, Führungs- und Führungskräfteentwicklung; in: J. Chlopczyk (Hrsg.), Beyond Storytelling, Springer Verlag.

Swart, C. (2017). Re-Authoring Leadership Narratives With and Within Organizations; in: J. Chlopczyk (Hrsg.), Beyond Storytelling, Springer Verlag.

United Nations. (2015). The World's Women 2015: Trends and Statistics.

Woetzel, J., Madgavkar, A., Ellingrud, K., Labaye, E., Devillard, S., Kutcher, E., Manyika, J., Dobbs, R. and Krishnan, M.  (2015). The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth? McKinsey & Company – September 2015.

Stories for Europe - Kick-off Aachen; September 15 & 16 2017

Coming out of the BEYOND STORYTELLING network, Stories for Europe is an initiave that aims to re-author new narratives about the future of Europe.

The narrative of peaceful co-existance and cooperation that carried Europe through the decades following world war II is eroding. Stories for Europe is an initiative that invites people to conceive our troublesome times as a times of opportunity and possibility to re-author shared ideas and visions of what Europe can and should be.

We want to cordially invite everyone interested to our Kick-Off Event in Aachen on September 15 & 16 2017.

What is it about?

The purpose of the gathering is to co-create ideas how new narratives about the future of Europe can be developed, shared and spread and to connect people interested in shaping the future story of Europe. The guiding questions for the event are:

  • What does Europe mean for us today?
  • What are our hopes and fears for and around Europe?
  • What is Europe calling us to do?
  • How can we shape the stories of Europe?


Akademie für Handwerksdesign Gut Rosenberg der Handwerkskammer Aachen – Horbacher Straße 319 – 52072 Aachen, NRW, Deutschland


  • Friday September 15, 2017. 15:00 – Evening
  • Saturday September 16, 2017. 09:00 – 16:00


The Stories-for-Europe Kick-Off will be a highly interactive format, building on different facilitation methodologies to establish an environment that invites dialogue and co-creation and embraces the expression of different points of view.

The format and program of the Kick-Off will reflect core values that are needed to shape the future of Europe together:

  • Willingness to listen
  • Openness for diversity
  • Sharing our own stories
  • Advocacy for our own ideas

The program is currently in development but it will revolve around our guiding questions and support us in building connection and spark ideas.

Friday September 15, 2017. 15:00 – Evening

  • Opening and Welcome – About stories for Europe
  • Get-to-know each other
  • Connecting to the topic: What does Europe mean for us today?
  • The shape of things to come: What are our hopes and fears for and around Europe?
  • Harvesting Day 1
  • Sharing stories, further connecting and networking in the evening

Saturday September 16, 2017. 09:00 – 16:00

  • Welcome Day 2
  • Emerging narratives: Imagining futures for Europe
  • From idea to action: What is Europe calling us to do?
  • Lunch
  • From idea to action: How can we co-create and shape the stories of Europe?
  • Closing and farewell


Stories for Europe is run as a not-for-profit event that depends on the shared funding of the expenses.

The tickets will serve to pay the room and the catering. Therefore we try to keep the ticket prices as low as possible. For covering the fees we set the ticket price at 70 Euro + VAT and registration fee for each person. We also know that this amount is a lot for many European citizens!

Therefore we also released Scholarship tickets. These are intended only for people who can not afford the regular fee.

We also released Supporter tickets for those who want to support the project by a donation. So please use the possibility to support if you can by using the option sponsorship ticket by just typing a sum you are willing to pay for the ticket. Each person who donates will get a receipt for tax billing.

For more information visit...

Christine Erlach über die wahren Schätze: Communities

Christine Erlach mit einer kurzen Reflektion über die wahren Schätze – Communities of Practice:

Die wahren Schätze im Arbeitsleben? Das sind für all jene Experten, mit denen ich sprach, ihre Communities! Ich kann mich ihrer Meinung nur anschließen: Die Gewissheit, „da draußen“ Menschen zu kennen, die ähnliche Interessen verfolgen, Fachwissen und hohe Kompetenzen haben und die gerne und bereitwillig ihr Wissen und ihre Arbeitszeit einbringen, um einander zu helfen, ist in der Tat ein wahrer Schatz – dies gilt umso mehr in einer zergliederten Arbeitswelt, die uns einen Großteil unserer Arbeitszeit an Bildschirme und einsames Tippen in die Tastatur zwingt.


Niklas Gaupp on The Possibilities of Narrative Management – Michael Müller’s Approach to Organizational Consulting

In an inspiring introductory keynote, Michael Müller laid the groundwork for our journey “beyond storytelling” by providing us with a comprehensive summary of what the field of narrative management is about.

Michael Müller started out as a self-employed communications consultant 20 years ago, and is now not only one of the leading experts in the field of narrative management consulting but also professor for media studies and director of the Institute for Applied Narratology at Stuttgart Media University.

Michael Müller began his career with the observation that one learns more about an organisation over what gets said during a coffee break than what you find in the company brochure. Having studied literature among other subjects, Müller recognized the significance of these findings and turned what was merely a curious observation into an elaborate approach to organizational consulting.

Whilst Müller’s method would come to be known as the practice of “storytelling”, it could have initially been more accurately described as the practice of “listening” to stories. Only later did the focus shift to systematically looking at possible interventions once “the company in the mind of the employees” had been accurately described. This is how storytelling as an approach to organizational consulting came of age.

Müller emphasized that “storytelling” is not comparable to the many buzzwords in management literature that gain widespread currency before becoming a trend of the past. Rather storytelling belongs to the depth of Man’s cultural heritage. As pointed out in Yuval Noah Harari’s best seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), the ability of humankind to construct and tell stories has been crucial to the survival of groups of 150 people or more. To borrow from the title of Jonathan Gottschall’s recent work, we are The Storytelling Animal (2012). Indeed, with our natural tendency to live and coexist together in large groups, applying the art of storytelling to an organisation is the logical conclusion.

When working with stories, the first thing that comes to mind is the subject of identity. Developmental psychologists argue that it is through stories that identity is constructed. This is no less true for organizations as well – with broad implications for the experiences employees and customers make and the placement and perception of products and services in the marketplace. Müller specified three areas that need to be distinguished when dealing with corporate identity: the external narrations (how customers, media and partners view the company), the internal narrations (concerning internal developments, experiences and projects) and the contextual narrations (related to society and history). However, whereas the importance of external narrations is widely acknowledged, for example when a major scandal necessitates a wholesale rebranding effort, internal narrations must also be fully embraced on an executive level.

The second crucial dimension in dealing with this task and corporate storytelling is that of time. It follows then that there are three angles from which to look at the subject: past, present and future. When exploring the past of our stories, the focus is on learning and gaining knowledge: how did stories develop, how do they define and predetermine who we are today? In the present, storytelling is crucial to how we act and communicate: what is the story we’re telling right now? This leads to the possibly decisive question for the long-term survival of a company: what is the story of our future? This is the area where storytelling skills are most often lacking. Many companies have no stories of their future, only a corporate document which cannot generate the necessary motivation to join in. In interviews, employees then often say: “we don’t know whether we have strategy”, whereas executives emphatically contradict: “of course, we do – we communicated it so many times”. When employees think of their company’s future, it’s hard for them to relate to a fact sheet.

In addition, when stories of the future are crafted, the essential role of the past is often overlooked. Following Jens Beckert’s Imagined Futures (2016), one must take into account that a good future story has to relate to and build on the past. Corporate stories often revolve around a main event which is not part of the “official” identity of the company but looms large in the “experienced” identity of its employees. In one company Müller consulted, many events in the past had led to the overarching story that change projects never get finished and fail anyway. This was the reason no one wanted to join a new change effort, as employees understandably didn’t want to be part of a failing project. The solution was to change that story by starting a relatively easy small-scale change project that was able to dispel the belief that “change projects never get finished”. Small change makes big change possible.

Müller’s final warning was to be aware of too simplistic a future story: “more, more, more” is not the recipe for a good story. Such straightforward stories are mostly unbelievable and almost always hard to relate to. Therefore, it makes sense to study the art of storytelling, and it is not a coincidence that the best and most convincing storytellers, such as Steve Jobs in the case of Apple, often build and develop the world’s most successful companies. The study of stories can help us navigate the cunning passages and contrived corridors of what is actually going on in an organization, and it is the art of narrative management that uses this as the foundation to lead a company into its successful future.

Niklas Gaupp works with narrative approaches in the area of change management after having received his doctorate from Oxford University for a thesis on Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory. He helped with and participated in the 2017 Beyond Storytelling Conference in Heidelberg.

Further readings:

Müller, M.: Einführung in narrative Methoden der Organisationsberatung. Heidelberg: Carl-Auer 2017.

Harari, Y.N.: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. London: Random House 2014.

Gottschall, J.: The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013.

Beckert, J.: Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press 2016.