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 in Organizations: Larry Prusak
II.G. Stories about the future 

Participant: What do you think about mission and vision statements? (Laughter) 

Larry Prusak: Well, actually that’s the next category. Those are stories about the future. That’s another category of stories. And that’s what mission and vision statements are. You are saying: here is what we’d like to be. Here’s what we’re aspiring to be. Here’s what we’re going to be in the future. So that’s another category of story. Stories about the future. “We’re going to gain market share.” Or  “We’re going to be a great firm.” Or “We’re going to rise up from the dead.” Or “We’re going to turn ourselves around.” (Laughter) 

   Well, you know, it works. We all tell stories about the future, don’t we? Don’t we spend a lot of our time doing 

things like that? You can call it different things. You might call it “religion”. You might call it “child-rearing”. But they’re stories about the future. I’ve help write them. They are prescriptive stories about the way life is. 

   When I was a Ph.D. student, I studied with a man who was a great authority on utopian visions, and utopian societies, and the two sides of it, how often that leads to some terrible horrors. In the 20th century, and other centuries. But also how it seems to be a real perennial need of people to have some vision of a better land. A better future. That in the future, things will be fine. The lion will lay down with the lamb. Woody Allen said, “That could happen, but the lamb wouldn’t get a lot of sleep.” (Laughter)

   So I think that’s what these are. Stories about the future. And we all tell them. And we all need to hear them. Who could live, when you come to think of it, without them? It would be awfully hard to go through life having no stories about the future. No planned script in your head about the future. And that’s what I think these mission statements are. They’re not bad. They’re not intending to deceive. I think they fulfill real needs. 


Participant: I just want to know what you think the chances are within a community, creating a story about the future that people will really buy into, how long does that take?

Larry Prusak: Ask Steve Denning. That’s exactly what he knows. (Laughter) I meant that in a serious sense. Steve actually did some things exactly like that at the World Bank. And it’s really interesting, because we have detailed rich case here, of someone who has really done this, and studied it and wrote about it. So I would reserve that for him. I can take a shot at answering it, but I haven’t worked so closely with it as Steve.

Participant: You talked before about stories about the future, and now you’re talking about stories about the past. There are some people who hold on to the stories about the past, which don’t allow the stories of the future. 

Larry Prusak: Absolutely. In fact, on balance, that’s exactly what happens.  People say: “You can’t do this. We tried it and it didn’t work.” 


Participant: How do you get beyond the stories of the past?

Larry Prusak: Kill the people who tell them. (Laughter) That’s a flip answer, but as I said yesterday, this stuff has devastating consequences. If you go to the Middle East, or the Balkans, or Ireland, what people do is tell stories about the past, which are terrible. Where I grew up, I was telling Katalina, I kept hearing stories about what occurred in World War II, and who did what to whom. 

   I really grew up with a lot of this. And these stories were telling me: don’t trust whole classes of people and countries. Don’t trust any of them. Now how could that be? There are 70 million of these people. How could you not trust any of them? But they were very strong stories, and they are told with guts and gore and blood and murder.

   So it has a terrific impact. And it’s hard to overcome this. The first time I went to a country where I was told by my parents and other relatives that the country was full of murderers. Even though I knew that it was nonsense and even madness – these people weren’t even alive during World War II – it still had an impact on me. I was still nervous. I was still feel something there. These stories were strong. And I like to think I’m a fairly rational person. 

   Think of Serbs telling stories about Turks. Turks telling stories about Greeks. Greeks telling stories about Turks. Albanians telling stories about Serbs. Serbs telling stories about Croats. These stories go back to the 14th century. And they’re resonant. Palestinians telling stories about Jews. Jews telling stories about Arabs. 

   I’ve been to Ireland and I hear over and over again, stories about the viciousness of the English. The English tell stories about the viciousness of other people. And this stuff resonates. It’s strong. So it’s a real dilemma in human life. It’s sort of like rationality. Burke said, “How can you indict a whole people?” Well, we do it all the time. And it’s done in the form of stories. It certainly constrains peace-keeping missions, and if you try to ask these them: “Why are you killing these people? What is it about them?” Really, a lot of it, the impulses, are communicated through stories. Stories that are so resonant with blood, resonant with death, they have terrific salience. 


Participant: I just wanted to say that when I started working for the Federal government eight years ago, I began working on a presidential commission for the award of medals and it had always been done a certain way.  And it was the story of, “Well, we can’t do what you’re talking about.” And, “We can’t get publicity for it ahead of time.” And all these things we couldn’t do, because they had never been done. And to answer your question from the earlier participant, I really went to war. It was ninety days of total focus, of getting buy-in from the leadership where I worked. And I finally won. And I got people in trouble. And it was war to make the change, a total effort of will and focus. And then about a year later, everything that I’d fought for had gotten institutionalized. Now there are probably people fighting to change that! (Laughter) 


Larry Prusak: Right! I’d say that one way is just to switch jobs. It’s a great way to break free. You know, when you change jobs, you get a honeymoon period. It’s like the U.S. President. So if you’re feeling very constrained, just go somewhere else and you’ll probably get a honeymoon: the stories won’t affect you for a while. You don’t know them well enough. . 

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 Larry Prusak 
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