Improve operations with story circles

Things are changing so fast that leaders and managers need to adapt their operations almost daily. At the same time, they have to find ways to keep their people engaged amid ongoing churn. One of the most powerful tools I use to help clients lead through change like this is a simple story circle.

Here’s how it works.


Start by scheduling some kind of regular check-in with your team. You can do this face-to-face, or via technology, using video, audio, chats, email or even a Google Form.

Then, before the first session, spend a bit of prep time helping your people understand what a story is and how to tell one simply. At its core, every story describes the way someone solves a problem or meets a goal. The stories can be as short or as long as you want to make them – most can be told in under a minute. To keep this brief, when they’re sharing stories, try to have them do it in just three bullet points:

  • What I was trying to do (the problem)
  • What actually happened (the quest)
  • How things turned out (the solution)


During every check-in, ask each person the same questions.

  • Tell us about one thing that worked well (WWW – what worked well).
  • Tell us how we could make one thing even better. (EBI – even better if).

This wording is critical, as it keeps the focus positive. Rather than opening the door for people to spew out a list of what’s broken, it invites them to generate useful suggestions for improvements. Make sure they follow the story structure and don’t just give 2-3 word answers that only give you the outcome. “I made 3 sales” isn’t going to be helpful. This might be a hard habit for people to break, as we’re used to only reporting outcomes. But the real gold of stories is found during the quest, where you discover what people try or do to overcome obstacles. So encourage your team to acknowledge the obstacles. It’s only by showing us how they worked through them that we can see what heroes they are!

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Once the group finishes sharing their stories, you have several options. You can analyze them as a group or on your own. Either way, the process is the same.

First, you look for patterns. Are several people experiencing the same things? If so, what does that mean? And how can you address it? If you find a pattern in the “what worked well” stories, then you’ve identified a core strength that you can build on to address issues elsewhere in your work or organization.

Then, you review the EBI stories. Inviting people to suggest improvements is a fantastic way to seed innovation. Even if their ideas don’t work for the initial problem, they might be perfect for another problem somewhere else in the organization.

For example, I worked with an organization that implemented story circles via Google Forms. They decided only to focus on “what worked well” stories – and to integrate it into their performance improvement and communications systems. Every time an employee experienced success or a win, she submitted the story. Her manager was automatically notified, which triggered a follow-up conversation to celebrate. And the Communications team reached out to see if this was a story they could share in their internal or external products. The benefit for performance was that it shifted reviews from a once-a-year event that everyone dreaded, to an ongoing, appreciative conversation to help employees continually develop. And the comms people loved it because it was always so hard for them to find success stories to share.


Story circles are most powerful if you can embed them across the organization. Building on a process called Most Significant Change, you can set up a story chain that feeds intel, insights and ideas up, through and across the organization. One person takes responsibility for each story circle or node, choosing the most important or significant stories to share. This synthesis process continues up the hierarchy or across the matrix, with one person at each level short-listing or synthesizing the key stories to share.

If your group is too big to share stories in a live meeting, you can have them do it via something simple like a Google Form. The form should contain the two questions. When people fill it in, the form automatically populates a spreadsheet, creating an instant story database for further analysis and action.


Sharing stories like this isn’t just good for continuous improvement. It has several benefits for your team as well.

  • It offers them a chance to connect and develop stronger relationships with each other.
  • It shows them that you’re listening and you care.
  • It creates learning opportunities across departments and roles.
  • It develops reflective practice skills for ongoing improvement.
  • It engages them, by making them feel more in control of their work.

Story circles cost nothing but time and can pay off in big dividends. Give it a try at the end of this week. You’ll be blown away by the results.