Using storytelling to make sense of corporations in transition

BARCELONA -- Spanish start-up Quimica Visual guides companies in times of transition -- mergers, takeovers, bankruptcy, rapid growth -- to change the way they communicate and to strategize for the future.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor on

BARCELONA -- Imagine corporate head honchos in thousand-euro suits, sitting cross-legged in a circle, sharing really personal stories, maybe even crying. Now picture them taking a break from their spreadsheets to paint and put on plays.

That's what happens at Química Visual. This story-telling consultancy gets companies in moments of crisis, transition and rapid growth to stop thinking linearly, in order to open channels of cross-company communication in a big step towards developing long-term strategy.

In Spanish, the word historia translates to both story and history. Evidenced by the 40,000-year-old cave paintings in Cantabria, long before written word, people looked for ways to communicate, practicing the art of storytelling from generation to generation. The need to share is something that unites mankind across cultures, boundaries and millennia.

Química -- self-proclaimed pioneers in organizational development and workforce management -- has applied our inherent obsession with storytelling to companies going through rapid change. Co-founders Eva Snijders and Montecarlo (who only goes by one name) say they can help a company in transition innovate by encouraging its leaders to get in touch with their own and their colleagues' emotions to better facilitate empathy and communication.

Química was founded in 2007 on the idea that you can't just let change happen, and you can't just throw money at a problem and make it better. Humans, like all animals, are naturally averse to change; we instinctively associate change with danger. Even a small change, like in technology, requires a growth period. Implementing a new software at the office without proper training can actually hinder workflow.

"Going digital has changed everything, and it demands us as human beings to change. We cannot keep on thinking like it's the 19th century," Montecarlo says. He defines 19th-century managing as maintaining the "typical superior-subordinate pyramid structure," with communication patterns flowing in one direction: from the top down. He says that a high number of Spanish companies cling to this hierarchical structure, which could explain the commonplace Spanish acceptance of the daily grind without passion and without questioning the status quo, for fear of losing your job.

Many Spanish companies, because they are in the hands of financial institutions, areconcentrating on numbers and changing from quarterly to monthly goals, leaving no room for strategic analysis. Since Química isn't a pharmacy offering a magic pill, thecompany refuses to work with these short-term thinkers. They're only looking for companies that are ready to truly alter their modus operandi and strategize for the future. They even ask potential clients where they see their company in five years.

Stressing the confidentiality of their business -- in Spain, people won't tell you if they're seeing a therapist nor a corporate coach -- we will just call one of Química's current clients Company X. X is a large, industrial multinational going through a merger, with a change of C.E.O. and half the first-level management. Snijders describes X as a very hierarchical, protocol-rich company. The way the company is set up, one plant doesn't know what another is doing and employees are so focused on maintaining control, with no allowance for relationships outside of the hierarchy. This leads to turf wars, everyone trying to protect their piece of the pie.

Snijders describes the company as filled with very left-brained engineers that, at the start of the intervention a few months ago, lacked empathy, communication and negotiation skills. She now has the same top-level engineering execs painting, sculpting, and acting in theater. The program is mandatory. On day one, she opens up the conversation by telling something really personal about herself, before asking the group members to do the same, setting the tone for a high level of communication and trust. Since these workshops must be safe zones -- where everyone can speak freely, without fear of risking his or her job -- no employees are ever groupedwith their direct managers.

Snijders promisesQuimica's method works, even when companies are initially reluctant. For instance, the head of the training at X was skeptical, until he came in and found all participants crying. "He never checked in again," she says, grinning over her cafe con leche. She explains that this emotionality is necessary to change the atmosphere and to make working relationships more efficient.

It's not all arts and crafts and mushiness either. This communication across function and level also forces different teams to interact. For example, one of the German participants hated working with the French team because they kept "messing up" the forms and the work the German did. In workingmore at each others' offices and in the Química workshops, this man realized that the French office uses an entirely different IT system and they had to re-input everything by hand. The instant empathy led to a discussion on how to change workflow to the increased effectiveness of both sides.

Química argues that only when these lines of communication are opened can strategic planning for the company's future actually begin. Then, Química will help that company retell its story to the world.

Photos: Illustrations made for SmartPlanet by Química Visual

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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