Squirrel Inc.: A book review by Bob Morris

Squirrel Inc.: A Fable of Leadership through Storytelling
Stephen Denning
Josey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint (2004)

Nuts R Us

Think about it. Who are among the greatest storytellers throughout history? My own list includes Homer, Plato, Chaucer, Aesop, Jesus, Dante, Boccaccio, the Brothers Grimm, Confucius, Abraham Lincoln, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Joel Chandler Harris, L. Frank Baum, and most recently, E.B. White. Whatever the genre (epic, parable, fable, allegory, anecdote, etc.), each used exposition, description, and narration to illustrate what they considered to be fundamental truths about the human condition.

In a previous work, The Springboard, Denning focuses on “how storytelling ignites action in knowledge-led organizations” and does so with uncommon erudition, precision, and eloquence. His narrative covers a period of approximately three years during which he used what he calls “springboard” stories to “spark organizational change” at The World Bank. More specifically, to forge a consensus within that organization to support the design and then implementation of effective knowledge management, first for itself and then for its clients worldwide. How he accomplished that objective is in and of itself a fascinating “story” but the book’s greater value lies in what he learned in process, lessons which are directly relevant to virtually all other organizations (regardless of size or nature) which struggle to “do more with less and do it faster” in the so-called Age of Information. Maximizing use of their collective intellectual capital is most often the single most effective way to do that.

In this volume, Denning uses many of the same devices which Orwell does in Animal Farm: He creates a stressful situation to which anthropomorphic animals respond; the lead characters discuss what to do; strategies are selected; conflicts and crises immediately develop; tension is increased by the perils the lead characters encounter; ultimately, the situation is resolved. In Animal Farm, the pigs prevail. In Squirrel Inc.,….

Whereas Orwell’s purpose is to dramatize the evils of totalitarianism, Denning’s purpose is to give “detailed advice on how to craft and perform a story that can spark transformational change in an organization” by examining six different kinds of storytelling “which illustrate the impact of storytelling on our work and our lives.” Although this is a fable of leadership, it is important to keep in mind that (a) everyone throughout any organization tells stories of various kinds each day; therefore (b) the value of the information which Denning provides and the recommendations he makes is by no means limited to senior-level executives.

Why a fable? When considering how he could best communicate the various kinds of stories (e.g. “springboard” stories that communicate complex ideas and spark action), their specific uses in modern organizations, and their relevant similarities and differences, Denning “quickly discovered that conveying an understanding of seven types of stories across four or five different dimensions represented a level of complexity not well adapted to text-book style presentation.”

I include that excerpt because many of those who read this book will also find themselves in situations in which they are preparing to make an especially important presentation and use of a traditional format is not appropriate. Their audience will not respond as well to the “textbook-style” as they will to a entertaining as well as informative narrative which seeks to achieve one or more of these objectives:

• To spark action
• To communicate who the speaker is
• To transmit values
• To get everyone working together
• To share knowledge
• To “tame the grapevine”
• To lead people into the future

Here’s the situation. Diana is a fast-track executive at Squirrel Inc. who is frustrated by her inability to convince senior-management to transform the company’s core business from helping squirrels to bury nuts to storing nuts for them. Why should it? Because approximately 50% of the nuts buried are lost, either because squirrels forget where they buried them or the nuts are dug up by human gardeners. Great opportunity for Squirrel Inc. She shares her frustrations with Bartender who is the owner/host of a nectar tavern located high in an oak tree near the Squirrel Inc. headquarters. (He is also this book’s narrator and thus, in several respects, a surrogate for Denning.) Throughout the remainder of the book, Denning focuses on Diana and Bartender’s joint efforts to use effective storytelling to mobilize the support needed to transform Squirrel Inc.

Because Denning is himself a master storyteller, never does his narrative become precious, cute, quaint, darling, etc. Credit him with wit, style, grace, and — yes — intellectual rigor. His characters may be squirrels but the relevance of his material to human experience is profound: “The underlying reason for the affinity between leadership and storytelling is simple: narrative — unlike abstraction and analysis — is inherently collaborative. Storytelling helps leaders work with other individuals as co-participants, not merely as objects or underlings. Storytelling helps strengthen leaders’ connectedness with the world. Isn’t this what all leaders need — a connectedness with the people they are seeking to lead?”

I especially appreciate Denning’s provision of a chart (“Seven High-Value Forms of Organizational Storytelling,” pages 150-153) that clearly and cleverly summarizes all of his core concepts and specific suggestions. It serves as a useful reminder that the most effective story is one that has a crystal clear objective and includes the appropriate elements (e.g. problem to be solved, situation to be explained, value of the information provided). The story must also meet certain requirements of the given purpose. For example, provision of relevant background information and an analysis of current situation before proposing a future course of action, especially one that may seem bold and threatening to others.

For whatever reasons, only in recent years has there been an awareness and appreciation of the importance of the business narrative. Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor, Doug Lipman’s Improving Your Storytelling, and Storytelling in Organizations co-authored by John Seely Brown, Denning, Katarina Groh, and Laurence Prusak.

 


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