Storytelling 
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

Storytelling: Scientist's Perspective: John Seely Brown
How does a motorbike turn?
    The example that drove this home, and I am going to do an experiment here, is that the notion of what came to me personally is a motorcycle. I am as some of you know a fanatic motorcyclist for many, many, many years. 
   But about ten years ago, I had to give up motorcycling, because it turned out that my reflexes had dropped about a hundred milliseconds, and a hundred milliseconds on a motorcycle usually means death. So my wife and I kind of decided that I should really give this up. 
      Well, about five years ago, computers came back into motorcycling, and they decided to build very sophisticated computer-based brakes, a new kind of generation of ABS brakes.
       And I did all the calculations and I am so excited, and I come running down the stairs to Susan, and I said, ďSusan, you canít believe it, but with these new brakes, this time Iíve bought back 250 milliseconds of reaction time, I have lost 100 milliseconds and Iíve gained 250 milliseconds, I have got at least 150 milliseconds leeway, so I have got at least ten years more to motorcycle.Ē 
   Now, it turned out that she was not impressed. She really wasnít impressed at all. But she also realized that she wasnít going to win this argument when it comes to changing behavior, as opposed to knowledge. So she said, ďJohn, Iíll make a pact with you. Go ahead and go buy your new super-toy, but do me a favor, and youíve got to agree to go back and take a course in high-performance motorcycling.Ē
   And I said, ďSusan, give me a break! Iím too busy. I have ridden cycles for fifteen years.Ē 
   And she said, ďJohnĒ in that special tone of voice.
   And I said o.k. And what happened is that I decided that these courses took some period of time. I called up an instructor and said Iíve done this all my life, I canít believe that I have to do this, but I have this deal with my wife, and can I hire you to just kind of certify me, that I know how to ride. 
   So he said, ďWell, maybe, you can hire me, and I can take you through all the paces, but at your own pace.Ē 
   So he came out and he started this course, one terrible Saturday morning, and one of the first exercises you do in this course, is you learn how to swerve. It turns out to be very important in high-performance cycling. And so one of the tests you have to go through, it sounds a little bit brutal, you have to drive toward this wall, this brick wall. He stands in front of the wall, and when you get to about ten feet in front of the wall, he will signal left or right, and you have to swerve around that wall, and then come back within the pylons laid out, into that alley. So no longer can you really just turn by shifting your weight. You really have to drive that motor cycle, because you are going at a moderate speed. You know, you donít want to screw up. After all, thereís that wall! 
   Now it turned out that I was going at 2 miles an hour and I just wasnít getting it. I just couldnít learn how to swerve. I was making such bad progress that he took me aside and said, ďJohn, you know, Iíve just got to tell you, maybe we should re-think your even taking this course at all. I donít want you used to do, but you canít drive worth a damn.Ē 
Ouch! Total crisis of confidence! My performance had dropped almost to zero. We decided to go out to lunch. And then I said after lunch, ďLet me try it again.Ē Blah, blah, blah.
   Now hereís part of the problem and Iím going to give you a test as well, because let me just show you the next slide directly. This is a test. A bicycle has some properties like motor cycles. They are smaller, lighter. You actually are less aware of what you are actually doing. Suppose on a motor cycle or a bicycle, you are riding the bicycle, and you want to turn left, o.k.? Which handlebar do you pull toward you, in order to turn left?
  Left, yes? 
  Well, it turns out that thatís not true. 
  If, in fact, you want to go left on a motor-cycle, or a bicycle, you actually push the left-hand bar away from you, and turn the wheel this way in order to go left. Now it turns out that you all do it. And I could take you through the physics of it. I can take you through some of the experiences, to show you, you remember back when you were a kid why there were certain things that seemed so bizarre like magnetic forces, working towards you, if you want to later. You turn the opposite way from where you are going. You see, you have got to understand that there you are driving toward this brick wall, at a furious speed, and they are trying to get you to push the handlebar as hard as I can away from me, I have to use a tremendous amount of force, so you really have to be committed to this. 
   Well, this is so bizarre that in fact, and I have done multiple experiments, on bicycles, not motorcycles, that even when they do it, they wonít believe it. So finally I created a tell-tale experiment. 
   An experiment that canít lie. That is, I took two ribbons, one ribbon hanging off the left-hand handle bar, and one ribbon hanging off the right-hand handle bar, and the beautiful thing about a ribbon or a string is that you can only pull it. You canít push it. So now what you are doing is riding this bicycle, perhaps no-handed, with these two ribbons and now you have to turn left. Which you ribbon do you end up pulling? Well, you have to believe me, you have to pull the right ribbon, o.k.?
    Now when you donít, you constantly pull the left hand ribbon, you will see that you will constantly go right. Now here is an experiment that tries to bring the tacit to the explicit, and even when that happens, you refuse to believe it.  Now I can go all through this, I can describe the experiment, I can tell you that it is true. I can get you all to try it.
   And ninety percent of the people in this room think Iím crazy. Audiences absolutely refuse to believe this. The catch, and let me just tell you one tiny story for those of you who used to ride bicycles when you were a kid. This story works better on the East Coast than on the West Coast where we donít have kerbs. Have you ever done these things as a kid when you tried to see how close to a kerb you could ride a bicycle, without hitting the kerb? People tried this. What happens is that you get within a certain distance, a threshold, maybe itís about three or four inches, what happens is, it feels like to you, as a kid, a magnetic force that sucks you into the kerb. You just canít get away from that kerb. You donít understand what it is. As a young kid studying physics, this bothered me a great deal. 
   And of course the reason is that in order to turn left, you actually have to turn right. Now what happens here when you turn right, it basically is that the front wheel acts as a gyroscope, and the front wheel has an axis which acts as a pivot which when you turn it slightly right, it knocks the bike over left. And basically what happens is that the front wheel goes this way, tilt, and then pulls the bike left. So you go right, the gyroscope takes over and at that point, the procession pulls you around. So that actually it is multiple types of physical experiments. 
    Now some of you are beginning to believe this. Iíll write you a partial differential equation if you want. That wonít convince anybody of anything, except that Iím a lunatic.
    But basically, this is an incredibly powerful experience to realize that here is a piece of tacit knowledge that virtually everyone in this room has but they simply canít get a grasp of it. Perhaps by now, you begin to believe that there is something partially true about this story. And perhaps you will go out and try it. And when you try it by the way, you should try it in a safe place as you are apt to kind of crash. 
The mystery of the tacit
    But this is an example of just how mysterious the tacit is and how getting at that, and bringing that up to the surface so that you can do something about it is incredibly complicated. Now I am going to come back to that a little bit later, since one of the places where that is so important, not only do we in our bodies encode tacit knowledge but our organizations encode tacit knowledge. And so as we try to change organizational structures, we are actually trying to change the tacit as well as the explicit, and the trouble with tacit knowledge is that it is almost impossible to get hold of it, reflect on it, and work with it. 
    And of course, part of the power of stories, part of the power of the narrative, is actually creating a framework that our mind seems to understand. You can at least begin to think about how to challenge some of this type of knowledge that is tacit.
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 2000)
Copyright © 2001 John Seely Brown 
The views expressed on this website are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of any person or organization
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