Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

John Seely Brown: introduction

Steve Denning: Now, John: you’ve got some props?

John Seely Brown: Yes, I’ve got some props. But let me first tell you a slightly different story and then I’ll show what I have to use the props for. 

    It’s quite an interesting occasion for me, because as there are several of the elements that have caused major transformations for me are actually sitting in this room. 

   I wanted to do a kind of bridge, as I was very excited when I learnt that Katalina was going to be on this panel, because I had my first introduction to the role of film and story about eight years ago, and I was something that I’ll never forget. It was before Katalina and I started doing anything together. 


    I got this call from George Lucas, and he said, “John, will you come up to the ranch, and spend an afternoon with me? I’m doing a film on education. And the future of education in the 21st century.” 

   So of course, I went up there and he’s actually an incredibly friendly approachable guy, and we ended up talking for about two hours, face-to-face, and a couple of people were there, and at some point, we were getting into cognitive theory, and all this kind of stuff, you know, and I looked at him and said, “George, there’s no way anybody is going to want to hear about this kind of stuff! No way!” 

   George Lucas then looks at me and says, “John, perhaps you don’t know, but most people consider me a pretty good storyteller.” (Laughter)  “John, let me worry about that side of things, o.k.?” (Laughter) We’ll come back to this when we see the kind of video that Katalina has done, but it was one of the defining moments for me.


   There was also a second defining moment, a kind of event for me. I was initially trained in theoretical mathematics and hard-core computer science. The event that actually transformed me was something that showed me that there was a lot that a theoretical mathematician understood about how the world really works. 

   So I just wanted to show you one sketch  (Audience laughter, when the sketch doesn’t appear) Ah, yes, physics has to warm up. This is like the film starting up, with the countdown. 

   This had happened before, before I was working in Xerox. It’s actually ironic that we are in this particular building. I had been doing a lot of work on troubleshooting for the Navy, and also how to build really hard-core computer science systems, these job-performance aids, for actually figuring how to really get people to be much more effective at troubleshooting. So I joined Xerox some time ago, and after a while, Xerox discovered my background in having worked for DoD, and the Navy in particular, and really rethinking troubleshooting. 

   So they said, “John, you really have to, kind of, help us.” Most days, those machines broke down. No comment. (Laughter)

   So I said, “You know, it would be really helpful if I could actually meet some expert troubleshooters.”

   They said, “Fine, we’ve got a great expert troubleshooter, actually in Leesburg, Virginia, about twenty miles from here. Why don’t you go meet him?”

   So I said, “Well, great, I’ll go and meet him.”

   And they called in advance, and said that this guy is coming. 

   Well the first mistake that happened, I walked into the office, wearing a suit. This was not good. 

   He was a real kind of guy who fixes real machines. So he was not happy. He was saying to himself, “Now here’s a suit, and it’s going to be a total loss. And he’s an academic, even more of a loss. Clearly, he has his head up in the sky somewhere. How can I get rid of him?” 

   And he kind of looks at me, and he says, “John, this letter says that you are an expert troubleshooter. I’m going to give you a little problem. Here is the problem. This is a relatively high speed copier. And this copier has an intermittent copy quality fault. Now those of you who have any done any troubleshooting know that an intermittent fault is nasty. (Laughter)  You know, if it’s always broken, it doesn’t take too much to figure it out. But if it’s intermittent, it’s tough. 

   So he says, “This is The Official Xerox Procedure for fixing an intermittent quality problem. It has five steps. So you take this brilliantly conceived computer generated test pattern. And you put it on the platen. That’s where you put the normal paper. We have a fancy term for everything. You dial in, ‘5000 copies’. And you push the START button.” And then he said “What do you next?”

   I said, “You get some coffee.” So I scored one point. (Laughter) I can compute fifty pages into five thousand. You know, a total loss. 

  He said, “Yes, that’s what you do. You go get some coffee. A few minutes. Maybe half an hour. Then you come back and the next step is that you take this pile of 5000 copies, ten reams of paper by the way, and you kind of plough through this pile until you find an example of something bad, and then you save that. And you plough through the pile some more until you get something and then you save that. And that’s how you do this.” 

   And then he said, “You, John, would surely have a better idea than that, how to fix this machine, right? So why don’t you tell me how you would go about doing this. Because clearly you are cleverer than this rote procedure.”

   And I hemmed and hawed and I tried to put off answering, and was trying to get him to say something, an old trick in the Navy. (Laughter)  So for about ten minutes, I danced around, and then he got really impatient, and he said, “Blah, blah, damnit, tell me how you do it?”

   And I said, “I can’t. I mean, I would use something similar.”

   And he said, “I thought so!”

   So I said, “Paul, how would you do it?”

   And he looks at me and he says, “It is obvious what you do!” Probably some of you have already figured it out. He said as he walked across the room and he found the waste basket next to the copier. He takes the waste basket, picks it up and walks over to a table like this, dumps it on the table, quickly files through the paper, and about thirty seconds later, comes up with brilliant sets of copy quality problems. 

   And he said, “You know, John, what do you do if you discover a copy quality problem? You know, you don’t classify it as a copy quality problem. You classify it as a damn, damn bad copy and you throw it away. So why don’t you let the world do a little bit of the work for you. Why don’t you work with the world, and see that there’s a natural way to have the world collect this information for you. Just step back and read the world a little bit.” 

   Now maybe you can see where I’m heading with you. “Read the world a little bit” is almost a kind of judo, or a better term from the French, bricolage. And so he said, “This waste basket was ready at hand. It was already there. It was already full of this stuff. Learn to work with the world, and you’re going to find your life a lot simpler.”
And I walked out and I thought to myself, “This guy is a genius.” (Laughter) I also realized that it was very hard to build computer systems that could do this. 

   So this was a major event for me. It was about the same time that I came across a book by Bruno Latour on bricolage. And so I ended up putting these two things together.


   Then another thing happened, and this has to do with, actually now looking at the organization, as you were talking about it, Larry. And it turns out that one of the problems that CEOs actually have is: how do you really communicate the message effectively throughout the entire corporation. So one day, I walked into our CEO”s office and he was talking about how hard it was to get this strategic message to everybody. And I said, “You know, actually, I have no trouble doing that.” I said, “I can get a message out in forty-eight hours, across the entire world of Xerox people, twenty-eight countries.” 

   And he said, “You can?”

   And I said, “Yes, it’s very simple.” Now I was thinking back to Paul, and the wastebasket. And I said, “You know, there is something called the social fabric of this organization.” I said, “You ought to see how fast I can spread a rumor around this corporation.” (Laughter) “A naturally occurring force happens in terms of spreading rumors throughout the social fabric. Is there not a way to tap that naturally occurring phenomenon in terms of: how do you spread something?”

   Well, of course, rumors are rumors. But stories are stories that live in that social fabric as well. And they have their own trajectory, wonderful rapid trajectories through that social space. And that has turned out to be another major lesson for me. .

Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
Copyright © 2001 Stephen Denning 
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