Using Storytelling to Build Human-Centred Organizations — A Case on Toronto Pearson

Iris Cai
6 min readJun 10, 2021


If you had travelled through Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Canada’s busiest airport, in the last couple of years, you may not know that its passenger satisfaction scores were hopelessly low just years before. Pearson was among the bottom 10% of any large airports in North America and among those with the worst wait times. Driven by the new vision of becoming “the best airport in the world”, Toronto Pearson’s managing party, Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), partnered with design firm IDEO to develop a strategy for its transformation.

IDEO is not just any design firm. Originally known for designing the first mouse for Apple, the company has now expanded its design philosophy to domains such as branding, organizations, social impact, just to name a few. The term, “ human-centred design “, is a problem-solving approach that involves the human perspective in all aspects of the problem-solving process. Human-centred design encourages empathy for the needs of the people it is designing for. It is the cornerstone of all the work that IDEO does.

As GTAA and IDEO’s joint project team set out to observe key problems contributing to the airport’s dysfunctions, they discovered one major issue — when things went wrong, from a broken light bulb to a plane crashing, everybody pointed their fingers at somebody else. Collaboration, an element inherent in human-centred design, was lacking.

What was also lacking was a sense of empowerment. The GTAA seemed to always be the one telling other organizations in the airport (e.g. duty-free retailers, commercial operators) what to do rather than letting them decide what to do.

The team decided that one priority they need to address is to get everyone working in the airport to be part of their change journey.

But how? Let’s look at how a few key projects turned the tide and united everyone at Toronto Pearson to work towards its best.

Shifting the narrative that “nobody understands us”

At the time of this project, the GTAA had a broken relationship with CATSA (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority) and barely communicated with Air Canada, its flagship carrier. On the other hand, CATSA had this ongoing narrative that everyone at the airport sort of hated them and nobody understood what they had to deal with.

IDEO conducted a workshop where all these stakeholders were brought together. They started by presenting stories of all the inspirational work done by CATSA, which suddenly got a lot of people outside of CATSA to think about the challenges CATSA faced. This exercise, and a subsequent team building exercise (“the spaghetti bridge”), changed CATSA’s narrative that they were alone in this and nobody cared.

More importantly, it built a sense of empathy and connection among these core parties integral to facilitating change at Pearson. They finally understood that transforming the airport was not about individual entities solving their own problems. It was about rallying all the 50,000 people working in the airport to know they have a stake in it. This is where it led to the following project.

The “I Am Toronto Pearson” campaign

Starting from groups of ten, employees of the airport were asked to share stories of why they worked there. This initiative ended up surfacing stories of their experiences with customers and unveiled the pride they shared serving their customers, Toronto, and being ambassadors for Canada. “Tapping into that broke down a lot of walls around the airport,” Mat Chow from IDEO observed.

These early “storytellers” went back to tell their colleagues what happened in those groups. What was originally conceptualized as conversations became a movement. From 2016 to 2019, members of the “I Am Toronto Pearson” club grew from 5,000 to 25,000. New types of stories emerged showing people’s sense of belonging to the airport: One employee recounted how welcome she felt at Pearson after they fled the war in their home country. Another recalled how she and a group of her colleagues worked together to help a child find their lost teddy bear.

Scott Collier, the senior GTAA executive on the project team realized that people don’t just come to work to “grind away at the airport”. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. That sense of purpose drives innovation, stronger relationships, and is, perhaps surprising to some, great for business.

Human-centred design — the “force multiplier”

As management and employees shifted their perspectives about their work and developed an increasing sense of belonging and purpose, barriers to collaboration started to come down, leading to creative solutions from one area of the airport to another. By putting customers first, people at Pearson started to put their egos and self-interests away to solve problems. Employee engagement scores and the airport’s performance scores started to go up. In 2020, Pearson was ranked one of North America’s best airports serving 50 to 60 million passengers, and was ranked to be the 42nd best airport in the world, a substantial jump from the 50th place in 2019. As Scott Collier from GTAA observed, the human factor had been the “force multiplier” in the airport’s incredible transformation.


Recall that earlier we talked about how being human-centred means we must be deeply empathetic about the needs of the people for whom we design solutions? Storytelling helps us get there. It doesn’t just help us understand people’s physical, or practical needs (e.g. the wait time problem), but goes deeper to address people’s psychological needs (e.g. feeling supported by allies while struggling to find a solution).

When GTAA got together with CATSA and other key stakeholders in that workshop IDEO organized, it was stories of the great work that CATSA did that shed a positive light on something other parties barely paid attention to when they were so used to blaming many issues on CATSA. The empathy these positive stories afforded lowered the walls among these parties. Stories of the challenges CATSA had to go through also helped the other parties become more invested in helping CATSA solve their problems. In turn, the goodwill demonstrated by their peers allowed CATSA to feel safer psychologically among them. which paved the way for future collaboration.

Stories also unveil the common grounds we share as humans, which can connect us more strongly. The “I Am Toronto Pearson” campaign united 25,000 employees from different entities in the airport with one another by exposing their shared love for their colleagues and customers as well as struggles.

When GTAA put employees’ stories in the limelight by creating the “I Am Toronto Pearson” campaign, it sent a strong message that their employees matter. Feeling that one matters to an organization is where empowerment starts.

What serves as an organizing force is a strong culture where empowerment is inspired. By getting employees to share stories of why they come to work, what they find meaningful, the organization’s purpose started to emerge: GTAA realized that they need to organize what they do around their passengers. Hence the new mission statement, “Passengers are our passion” was born.

This new purpose-oriented around their customers is like the invisible conductor that orchestrates the performance of a masterpiece by 50,000 artists while letting each of them showcase their unique artistry.

Now that you’ve heard the story of Toronto Pearson, you may wonder how to implement storytelling in your organization. This series will focus on the what and how of using storytelling to:

  1. Enhance your team’s psychological safety;
  2. Cultivate a culture that engages and nurtures and;
  3. Coach employees to higher performance

It is my hope that with the help of storytelling, the very instrument that makes us human, you become the leader who builds truly human-centered organizations where employees look forward to coming to work, collaborating with their colleagues, and serving their customers.


Please reach out to me if you’d like to discuss how a human-centered approach such as storytelling can be used to make your organization one where employees feel connected, motivated and inspired to serve your customers.

Originally published at on June 10, 2021.



Iris Cai

Changemaker, storyteller, & positive psychology nerd, I write about innovative and research-backed ways to help people live more fulfilling and balanced lives.