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Web Extra: Author Steve Denning on his Discovery of Storytelling
This Q&A with storytelling guru Steve Denning was written to accompany the feature story, "Once Upon an Enterprise," in the May 2001 issue of Knowledge Management magazine.
Posted Apr 19, 2001
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Steve Denning is the author of The Springboard: How storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations, KMCI Press, 2000. Here he discusses the genesis of his interest in storytelling with KMM editor at large Steve Barth.

Q: How did you arrive at the idea of storytelling as a way to transform individuals and organizations?
A: If you'd asked me five years ago how important storytelling was going to be to my work in knowledge, I would have said totally irrelevant. I was a quintessential manager--an analytic thinker who used things that were solid and objective and analytic and abstract. Storytelling was irrelevant, ephemeral and subjective. It was something you do for entertainment, not something you do in business.

But I was in a predicament trying to sell what I thought was a good idea to a large number of people who seemed totally disinterested. I tried charts, and people just looked at you. I tried prose and people didn't listen. Then I stumbled on the Zambia story and suddenly I had an audience and I was moving forward at a very rapid pace. I still didn't think much about it, I simply used the story. Then the next February, management decided to indoctrinate the managers of the organization in knowledge management. I had to present to a whole series of groups.

Eventually, by trial and error, I found stories that worked very well. That was around the end of '97 and I still wasn't thinking much about it. People were asking me, "How come [some things are working but] a lot of good ideas aren't making any headway? There must be something else." I thought maybe it has something to do with the stories I'm telling and I got a huge response to that. People said I should write a book.

Q: At what point did you realize that it wasn't storytelling in general but a particular type of story?
A: Well, as I say, I didn't know anything about storytelling. I started finding out what else was known about stories and we started to experiment. We tried out all kinds of things in relation to the stories, and the book is really an account of how I stumbled across this type of story.

Q: Can you give me a short definition of a springboard story.
A: It's a story that springs the listener to a new level of understanding and it happens very rapidly and traumatically.

Q: Nonaka talks about internalizing information so that it becomes knowledge. Are you talking about transmitting something through a story and then there's a sort of alchemy of meaning that happens in the listener?
A: What I discovered is there are two listeners. There's the physical listener sitting in front of you listening to what you are saying. Then there's the second listener--the little voice in the head. When I'm talking to you about the town in Zambia, a little voice is saying, "You've got a lot of e-mails backing up in the office, why don't you get out of this place and go somewhere else?" In the springboard story it is not the explicit story that important, but the little voice in the head that invents a new story. I'm talking the health worker in Zambia and the little voice in the head is thinking, "We can do that here."

The first time I noticed this was when I made a presentation in April 1996 to the Change Management Committee, which was supposed to be orchestrating change in the organization but often doing the exact opposite. They weren't very interested in hearing from me but eventually I got 10 minutes on their agenda and I told a brand new story. At the end of the presentation two of the vice presidents rushed up to me and said, "Why aren't you making this happen?" Suddenly it was their idea and I wasn't the person pushing it.

Q: Is that what you want?
A: Initially I was taken aback, but on second thought, it was wonderful. I can sit back as they champion this across the organization. That was the magic of storytelling that it sparked hundreds of people across the organization to want the idea. It wasn't Steve's idea; they invented themselves, and everyone loves their own baby. Now I only work part-time in the organization and there still all these people who are championing the idea. So the Zambia story is just a scaffolding to get people to invent the story for themselves.

Q: We're talking about supplementing--not supplanting--traditional analytical methods, these other things. And yet, storytelling remains pretty controversial, right?
A: It has had two and a half thousand years of bad press. Plato's Republic is a violent attack on poetry and storytelling. Telling stories is regarded as folk knowledge and you get attacked by people in science. They say you're going to drag the human race back into the dark ages.

But this is our native language. We start telling and listening to stories at the age of two and it's hardwired in our brain. At the age of eight you have abstract language beaten into you. But whenever we hear an abstract lecture, we rush out of the room and start sharing stories with our friends and colleagues. Why not talk to people in their native language?

When we were trying to figure out how to deal with the wolves and the bears attacking the village, we sat around the campfire and shared knowledge. In turbulent times that are difficult to understand storytelling helped carry us through. These times are becoming similarly turbulent, unsettling, unpredictable, unexpected. Wrenching changes are happening. It's not surprising that we find ourselves sitting around virtual campfires sharing stories, learning how to cope.

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