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 to ignite change: Steve Denning
Other limitations on storytelling

     What’s happening is that I am telling you something explicitly that you are hopefully listening to, but the little voice in the head is saying something different. It is saying, if I am telling the story right: “That’s me. I’m the person in Pakistan.”  And I am telling you about the predicament of the team leader in Pakistan and the little voice in the head is saying: “Yes, that’s exactly my problem! I know that situation. I’ve been in it many times.”  And when I describe how the problem got resolved, I hope that the little voice is saying: “Wow! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could resolve the problem like that! Way cool! We could do that. We could make that happen!”  And then I explain how it could be generalized across the whole organization, and if things are going well, the little voice is saying: “Why don’t we do it? Why don’t we 

become that kind of an organization?” And if you can get this process, then you can stand back and watch implementation happen.

Letting go

    There are other limitations. You have to let go of control. If I tell you these stories, “This is what happened in Zambia, or Pakistan,” and then I go on to say, “And now this is what it means for you in your unit. Let me tell you what it means for you.” Then, I am back, exactly in the command-and-control mode. So you have to stand back and trust that the story will ignite the listeners’ own creativity. And you have to have the self-control to avoid imposing your views on the listener. You are not in a battle of winnor losing your idea. You have to let the listeners make up their own minds.
And this is very hard to do. 
    There is a traditional zen exercise which demonstrates how deeply we try to impose order on the world. The exercise is simply this: you take a blank piece of paper, and a pencil, and you try to put dots on the paper, randomly, without any pattern. It sounds easy but it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to do. You find that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot refrain from imposing some kind of order or pattern order on the dots. Imposing order is bred into us. So giving it up is not a trivial thing, particularly if you have been a manager for many years, and have been in the habit of giving directions and making decisions and taking charge.

Some groups are immune

   And there are some groups that this kind of storytelling doesn’t seem to work too well on.  Accountants or old-style Soviets can be a problem. Anyone in fact who is intent on imposing their view of the world on others will immediately sense in this kind of a story a quickening of the pulse and a spurt of energy and adrenaline, and a vision of a different kind of organization, and will at once grasp that some kind of energizing virus is entering the environment. And warning signals go off in the brain that there is a risk of destabilization, a risk of loss of control. And so the control-minded person sets out to find and resist the virus. Actually, they usually can’t find the virus, because they never suspect that the destabilizing virus could possibly be anything as simple and innocuous as a mere story. Because they know that stories are ephemeral and subjective and anecdotal and are not to be taken seriously. But they themselves may resist the spell of the story for their own conduct, because they sense that something is amiss in their calm and controlled world. And so a springboard story doesn’t necessarily work on everyone. With some groups, you don’t get that “spring”.
The storyteller must believe
And the story to have the springboard effect, it has to be performed with feeling. The story has to be performed with passion. As the storyteller, you must tell the story as though you had actually lived the experience yourself, as though you had been that task team leader in Pakistan, desperate to get the answer to a difficult question. This is because what is rubbing off on the listeners is not just the intellectual content of the story, it is the feeling that imbues the story that is communicated to the listener. It is the emotion that makes the connection between the storyteller and the listener. And that is what catches the listeners’ attention, gives the story its “spring”, and pushes the listener to reinvent a new story in their own contexts, and fill in the gaps to make it happen.
The marriage of narrative and analysis
And of course I am not saying that storytelling is a panacea. I am not saying that you should forget about analysis of costs and benefits and risks and all the structural things that you will need to do to implement a complicated idea. What I am saying is: do all the analysis, but use the narrative to get people inside the idea, so that they live the idea, so that they feel the idea, so that they understand how the idea might work. And once they are inside the idea, and once they have felt it and understood it, then they can move on to tod the analysis. 
So what I am saying is: the marry the narrative to the analysis. What you find is that once listeners have lived the idea through a story, they are able to perform the analysis in a more balanced way looking at both costs and benefits. Often the analysis that is performed on new ideas is focused on the costs and risks and difficulties, because that is what people are immediately aware of when they hear about something that will require change. And it often happens that the analysts fail to think through what the benefits might be, while they are so preoccupied with the negative side of the balance sheet. A story can help listeners to analyze both sides of the balance sheet in a more even-handed manner.

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)

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The views expressed on this website are those of Stephen Denning, and not necessarily those of any person or organization
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