UPFRONT Why Denning is nuts about stories

Once upon time in not-so-far-off land, there was manager with mission. He wanted the big international organisation in which he had worked for several decades to embrace and value the then novel idea of managing knowledge.
But his well-reasoned arguments, finely wrought analysis and compelling charts seemed doomed to fall on deaf ears and hooded eyes. In desperation he tried something completely different, and started telling stories.
“In June of 1995, health worker in tiny town in Zambia went to the website and… “
Where the story goes doesn’t really matter, suffice to say the use of simple narrative sparked reader and listener imagination, allowing them to envision different future. The happy ending in this case segued into happy beginning because discovering the role of narrative set Stephen Denning, then programme director for knowledge management at the World Bank, on track that last year saw him ranked as one of the world’s Top 200 Business Gurus.
Denning was in New Zealand last month to run seminars and sign copies of his new book Squirrel Inc: Fable of Leadership and Storytelling*. He also promptly squelched the notion he’s straying into esoteric territory. The tales people tell must have purposeful business function. “I’m interested in storytelling as tool; means of communication used to achieve focused business objectives. It starts with what you are trying to accomplish. What is your goal? If you don’t have one, then the last thing I’d suggest is gathering around the campfire telling stories,” he adds.
“Some practitioners advise exactly that but, I’m sceptical about whether it’s useful. It also tends to bring the whole practice into disrepute by making it appear impractical. What I’m talking about is practical, focused, business oriented and about achieving business objectives.”
Denning’s discovery that simple stories had greater audience ‘cut through’ than portfolio of logical business analysis prompted him to explore how and when to use them most effectively.
He developed his concept of the “springboard” story, one that enables leap in understanding as to how an organisation or process might change. (The Springboard: How organisational story-telling ignites action, Butterworth Heinemann, 2000).
Springboard stories communicate “complicated change ideas while generating momentum towards rapid implementation. They help an organisation reinvent itself,” he says.
The most effective stories tend to have particular characteristics. Brevity is good. But they need to both resonate with the audience and employ an element of strangeness to capture attention and stimulate imagination.
Different situations demand different narratives. If, for example, the teller is trying to initiative change, positive story works best. If the aim is transferring knowledge or know-how, people tend to learn best from mistakes and hearing what pitfalls to avoid.
Narratives are the form in which most useful knowledge is embedded in today’s organisations, very little is revealed in abstract linear formulae, says Denning. Successfully managing or sharing such knowledge involves creating communities and opportunities to pass it on through individuals telling their own particular stories.
Stories work because they are engaging, easy to remember, non-adversarial, can readily encompass complexity and besides, we’ve been telling them for thousands of years. As Denning points out, their ROI has definitely passed the time test.
“Stories are tremendous way of communicating values. People ask how many stories you need. I say good parable can last couple of thousand years. Think about religion. The rate of return on parables is very high.”
There is, of course, plenty of scepticism, even antagonistic suggestions that stories represent backward step for rational society. But rationality has its own limitations.
As Denning says; “analysis might excite the mind, but it hardly offers route to the heart. And that’s where we must go if we are to motivate people not only to take action but to do so with energy and enthusiasm.” (Harvard Business Review, May 2004).
It is not, in his mind, case of ditching analysis, but of augmenting it. “We’ve been taught to take scientific approach. We all know that analysis is good and anecdote is bad. I’m saying that analysis is good and so is narrative. They’re complementary forms of thought.
“We’ve been looking at organisations as machines that can be optimised. That is one way of looking at them to see certain features. But it misses the fact that organisations are composed of living, breathing, laughing, joking, weeping individuals who all incessantly tell and share stories.”
Denning’s book focuses on why narrative is core leadership skill, gives advice on how to craft story that can spark transformational change and explores six other kinds of storytelling that are valuable in an organisational context.
It is, understandably, written as fable; about squirrels.
“People said I was talking about seven kinds of stories and five different story dimensions and that’s 35 different elements. This is complicated, so why not tell story that embodies all those elements in one narrative flow. I didn’t have story like that, so I created my own.”
But why is it about squirrels? Well, that’s another interesting story.
It can be found at www.stevedenning.com
*Squirrel Inc by Stephen Denning, published by Jossey-Bass, May 2004

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