How Hemingway, a hundred-dollar bill, and digital technology helped kick-start Stantec’s storytelling culture
In September 2013, we launched our Six-Word Story Project on Stantec.com. We thought it was time for a refresh. How the project came about, and its impact on our company, is its own story, which began once upon a time...
A six-word story wall in Stantec's Edmonton, Alberta office.
What inspired our Six-Word Story Project?
In 1770, Johann Wolfgang Ritter von Kempelen de Pázmánd wanted to impress Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina, the Holy Roman Empress (and Marie Antoinette’s mom). So he invented an automated chess-playing machine called The Mechanical Turk. The Turk toured the world, defeating such notable opponents as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. But it turns out that the Turk was an elaborate hoax. The machine needed a human—a chess master hidden inside—to perform the task that the machine couldn’t do on its own.
Fast forward to 2005. Johann’s Turk inspired Amazon to launch a Mechanical Turk of its own. Amazon’s web-based, crowdsourcing job board gets humans to perform tasks—everything from itemizing expense report receipts to finding missing persons—that computers can’t do on their own.
In 2008, digital media artist and crowdsourcing pioneer Aaron Koblin used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to create Ten Thousand Cents, a fundraiser for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project (formerly known as the $100 Laptop Project). For Koblin’s project, 10,000 individuals around the world worked in isolation from one another to paint tiny parts of a US $100 bill without knowledge of the overall task. (That’s the bill with Benjamin Franklin on it. Coincidence? I think not.)
What does any of this have to do with Stantec?
When I saw the Ten Thousand Cents project a few years ago and watched Koblin’s TED Talk, Stantec had 10,000 employees. Although employees from different regions collaborated on projects, we didn’t have anything (other than maybe our stock price) that we could collectively point to and say, “We did that together.”
Koblin’s work inspired an idea: Create a digital project that employees from across Stantec could all contribute to. A project to break down silos. To unite us. When we updated our brand in 2013, we found our the opportunity; we launched our Six-Word Story Project that September.
Here’s how we defined the project: A digital, employee-crowdsourced project using words and images to engage, celebrate, and unite employees around our brand. It had to be easy for employees to participate in and be completed using only internal resources. Those images are employee headshots. And those words are employee six-word stories—a genre long thought to have been invented by Ernest Hemingway (it probably wasn’t) when he supposedly penned “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”
Most importantly, the project had to support our brand. Six-word stories about employees’ lives at Stantec were a perfect fit given that storytelling is a big part of how we’re trying to humanize our company. Showcasing employee stories is another way “we put people first” and shows that “we are better together,” two of our four values. Hundreds of employees from across the company have told well over a thousand stories to date.
What was the impact of the Six-Word Story Project on Stantec’s storytelling culture?
In its first year on the web, the original Six-Word Story microsite attracted almost 2,000 unique visitors per month. “What a great concept,” commented one visitor to the site. “I really enjoyed browsing through [the stories]. It’s a fabulous mixture of true value statements, pride, and humor through very genuine comments.”
But the story doesn’t end with our microsite. Our six-word stories have been used in
- Offices across the Company, who have created several types of story walls and displays
- Our quarterly employee magazine, spark, where we tell two “stories behind the six-word story” in every issue
- Business development and promotional materials, like proposals and tradeshow displays
- Mini six-word story challenges on topics like health and safety and leadership
- Presentations by president and CEO Bob Gomes
Our revised online project repurposes our spark stories and highlights our story walls and will soon include “story behind the six-word story” videos, making it a true multi-media experience.
The Six-Word Story Project has also been a big part of our growing storytelling culture. Employees like Denise Pothier, Keith Shillington, the winners of our employee writing challenge, and many more are telling impactful stories connecting their personal and Stantec lives. “It took a lot to show your vulnerable side to bring awareness to a good cause,” one employee said of “The Movemberist” video, which tells the story of Ryan Capelle’s battle with cancer.
What have we learned from the project?
We’ve learned a lot from our Six-Word Story Project:
- Make storytelling easy for employees. It only takes employees a few minutes to share their six-word stories.
- Connect storytelling to our values and culture.
- Listen to your moments of inspiration, no matter where they come from. If Wolfgang von Kempelen had never been inspired to invent The Mechanical Turk, Stantec would never have launched our Six-Word Story Project.
- The best thing about being a storyteller at Stantec, as Dubai employee Mohammed Ibrahim Shahbaz says in his six-word story, is that “Every day, a new story begins.”
But the most important lesson is this: The best stories about Stantec aren’t about Stantec. They’re about people. They’re about life.
Stefan Riches is Stantec's director of content marketing.