The Big Sad Wolf

The Big Sad Wolf

Here's an article that appeared in the National Storytelling Network's Storyteller magazine in the autum of 2019.

VWL works primarily with organizations on transformation projects. Working with the shared services division[*]of a major international corporation recently, we were equipping them in several ways to tell and trigger[†]stories, and to adapt stories to connect to the overall employee brand story we were working on. We’d made great progress over a couple of workshops.

I threw in an exercise with the intention of helping them learn 1) how to adapt a story to fit a particular situation and 2) how sometimes it’s easier to have a few moments on hand that you can string together to create a story for a particular situation, than to generate a story from scratch.

This was a company based in Europe, so I thought of a fairytale they might all easily be able to sequence and then play with. I chose “Little Red Riding Hood.” First, I said, let’s figure out the sequence of events. There was some disagreement, but we eventually agreed on half a dozen events (e.g., “Her mother sends Little Red Riding Hood to Grandmother’s house”) that, strung together, made up the basic story spine.

Now then, I said, we don’t need to worry about telling the normal version of the story. Instead, let’s think about different points of view. They suggested the wolf, the mother, the woodcutter, being parents, the grandmother, Red Riding Hood herself. I couldn’t persuade anybody to be the basket or the woodcutter’s axe, or social services, or Age Concern[‡], but I did try! In small groups they retold the story privately. Hoots of laughter.

When we’d done that, I paired them up. The wolf with parenting, the woodcutter and the mother, the grandmother and Red Riding Hood. And they told their stories to each other. More hoots of laughter.

In the debrief, the first thing that came up completely bowled me over. Among other insights this one stands out:

The wolf had a pretty hard life story and we never take time to think about why he turned out the way he did. Maybe we need to be more thoughtful when we are handling big suppliers and not just treat them like the big bad wolf.

So now it’s an exercise I’ll always incorporate when getting people to feel their way in to how to work with story, because it can help people experience the point of view of an unlikely character. This, in turn, increases compassion and reduces unconscious reliance on a single perspective. This is always a concern, but can be crippling when any individual part of an organization fails to perceive the perspective of the other parts.

Sleeping Beauty anyone? Who’s ready to be the spinning wheel?[§]

'Wolf' (c) Jenny Wiener

[*] “Shared services” is the consolidation of business operations that are used by multiple parts of the same organization. Each division in a corporation, for example, might have its own human resources department. It may be more efficient to have a single “shared service” human resources department that serves all the divisions.

[†] Shawn Callahan defines “story-triggering” as “what occurs when someone does something so remarkable that the people who see, or experience it, tell stories about it.” I include also, “to ask the right questions or share a story that starts a round of story sharing.”

[‡]Age Concern” was a banner under which several charitable organizations campaigned for rights and services for the elderly in the U.K. . It might be compared to Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the U.S. (They would likely be worried about the fate of the grandmother in this folktale.)

[§] With thanks to Doug Lipman who first taught me this technique many moons ago, when getting us to work on Robert the Bruce as a BRIO (Brief Reminder of Image Order) exercise. And to a collection of museum educationalists I worked with once, who taught me the power of telling the story through the journey of the object. Finally, thanks to Thaler Pekar, who runs an exercise which pivots a story from the point of view of the obvious protagonist to the hidden hero(ine) and witness whose tale is more ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.