Stephen Denning: An interview by Bob Morris

Stephen Denning

Denning is the author or co-author of several acclaimed books which include The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge Era Organizationsw, Squirrel, Inc.: A Fable of Leadership Through Storytelling, Storytelling in Organizations: How Narrative and Storytelling Are Transforming Twenty-first Century Management that he co-authored with John Seely Brown, Katalina Groh, and Larry Prusak, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative, and most recently The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative.

Morris: What’s the evolution of your thinking about the business narrative, especially within the context of your association with the World Bank?

Denning: For most of my life, I was the quintessential left-brain, analytic person. My education and my professional career both reinforced that tendency on a daily basis. It was in 1996 when I was trying to introduce what was then a strange new idea—knowledge management—to the World Bank at a time when no one was particularly interested in listening to what I had to say, that I found that the abstractions I’d been using as a manager for several decades didn’t work. Nobody listened. So I became desperate and became willing to try anything—even something as implausible as a story. I landed on one that worked—the Zambia story—and found that when I didn’t use it, everything was turmoil. So I kept on using it, and other stories, like it. But I was still in denial for more than a year after that. Story was working for me but I barely believed it. It was only when Harvard Business School Press invited me to write a book about storytelling that I started to think about it seriously. I mean, if Harvard thinks there’s something in storytelling, maybe I’d better check it out. So I did and I wrote The Springboard, and suddenly found myself in a new career of organizational storytelling.

Morris: Storytelling has been a popular activity for centuries. How do you explain the fact that, only in recent years have executives begun to understand and appreciate the potential value and, more importantly, the impact of the business narrative?

Denning: We are entering an era with a rapidly growing need for leadership. This is caused by the convergence of irresistible socioeconomic forces. Accelerating economic and social change in the global economy, the consequent imperative for ever faster innovation, the emergence of global networks of partners, the rapidly growing role of intangibles, which can’t be controlled like physical goods, the increasing ownership of the means of production by knowledge workers, the escalating power of customers in the marketplace, and the burgeoning diversity in both the workplace and marketplace—all these forces imply a vastly more important role for transformational leadership in the future. The ability to get results in the face of these challenges will depend at least as much on leadership as on management. It will depend on a capacity to inspire enduring enthusiasm in people over whom we have no hierarchical control.

These irresistible forces will drive organizations to develop genuine leadership capability as a necessary competence. Leadership—the ability to connect people to meaningful goals without hierarchical power to compel compliance—will become a requirement for organizational survival. Management won’t disappear. We’ll continue to have much to thank management for. It has helped us achieve the wonders of the modern global economy—its stunning scientific accomplishments and the massive improvements in the physical standard of living of most people, at least in the developed countries—and it will go on doing so.

But the challenges now facing the human race won’t be solved by better management alone. Management will still be needed, but it will be less pivotal. In fact, it will be mostly taken for granted. Our capacity to manage will give us the technical means to solve our most intractable problems. What is needed now is the will to solve them. So goals, ends, purposes—what we are trying to accomplish—move to center stage. In the world of management, the goals are largely given. Management is about finding the quickest, cheapest, and best way to reach those goals. The language of management is naturally abstract. Human goals are naturally absent from its discourse. Once the emphasis shifts toward goals, ends, and purposes, then it is natural for the language to shift from abstractions to narratives, which have goals built into them.

Morris: To what extent (if any) are the elements of the business narrative relevant to the writing of white papers?

Denning: Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca noted in their classic The New Rhetoric, more than three decades ago that managers and scientists delude themselves in thinking people listen intently to abstract presentations and reports.

Abstract writing works fine if you are addressing people who basically agree with you. It breaks down when you’re inviting people to change their behavior in some significant way and when they don’t already agree with what you’re proposing.  That’s where leadership comes in, and it turns out that storytelling is one of the most important ways—though not the only way—to get people to change their ideas and their behavior, not grudgingly and slowly, but quickly, willingly and enthusiastically. My new book, The Secret Language of Leadership, describes how this happens—specifically what works and what doesn’t.

Morris: Now please focus on The Springboard. Its subtitle suggests that storytelling can “ignite action in knowledge era organizations” How?

Denning: A springboard story doesn’t overwhelm an audience with a magnificent epic narrative that lasts for an hour or more sweeps them off their feet. Rather it’s a rather simple anecdote that invites the audience to dream, by suggesting an analogy of the change being proposed. It sparks a new story in the mind of listener. “If this happened over there, perhaps it could happen here? And if it happened here, my life would be better. Suppose I started helping implement it. We would need to do this. And that? Well, why not?” In effect, the listener begins to dream. And when one person dreams, it’s just a dream. But many people dream, it’s already the beginning of a new reality.

Morris: What is required to be an effective “storyteller,” one who presents that narrative in one form or another?

Denning: In The Secret Language of Leadership, I’ve encapsulated what’s needed in the term, “narrative intelligence”. Narrative intelligence means the capacity to understand the world in narrative terms, to be familiar with the different components and dimensions of narratives, to know what different patterns of stories exist and which narrative patterns are most likely to have what effect in which situation. It also means knowing how to overcome the fundamental attribution error and understand the audience’s story. It implies the ability to anticipate the dynamic factors that determine how the audience will react to a new story and whether a new story is likely to be generated in the mind of any particular audience by any particular communication tool. In some ways, it’s more than simply mastering a new communication tool, although that’s certainly part of it. In developing our narrative intelligence, we find that it’s a fundamental shift in the way we think and act in communicating. In effect, we become different kinds of people.

Morris: How can – and should — the structure and principles of a business narrative be involved during the process of, let’s say, strategic planning or problem solving.

Denning: It’s important to distinguish between solving a problem and communicating the solution so as to get it implemented. Abstract thought is good for understanding and solving problems and thereby developing reliable knowledge about how to act in the world. It’s not so good for persuading people to change their behavior, particularly if the idea is new or strange. So in making the case for narrative, I am in no way trying to undermine science or drag the world back to the dark ages of myth and superstition. On the contrary, I am committed to science and its self-correcting methodology.

But when we’ve applied the best analytic thought, and it’s vital that we do it, how do we communicate the results of what we have discovered, particularly if our findings are highly disruptive to people’s lives? If we try to communicate those findings by the same methods through which the findings were derived, what usually happens? Pushback. Resistance. Cynicism. Hostility. If we use narrative intelligence and employ the language of leadership, the results can be very different.

It’s a matter of using science and analysis for what they are good at, and using the language of leadership to communicate science’s findings and get them implemented. Just think for a moment. Would it be scientific to go on using the language of analysis for an activity for which it isn’t suited, while refusing to use a different language that does work? To adopt such an approach would be the height of unscientific behavior.

Morris: Now let’s discuss Squirrel, Inc. Two separate but related questions? Why did you select the fable genre, and, why squirrels?

Denning: I was beginning to write a textbook on the use of storytelling and an agent said to me, “Hey, this is complex and abstract. Why don’t you tell a story?” So I sat down and wrote what was to become the first chapter of Squirrel Inc. and sent it to her. I picked squirrels because Washington DC where I live is like the world capital of squirrels. There’s a tremendous density of squirrels—they’re all over our garden, running around, playing, climbing, leaping, chasing each other, making love. Looking out the window, that’s what I see every day. It wasn’t a very large step to start imagining myself in that world. It’s a playfully serious book.

Morris: Based on your experience, what are the most common barriers to new ideas in business, such as changing the core business, as is the situation in Squirrel, Inc.?

Denning: As I explain in The Secret Language of Leadership, the biggest problem is what psychologists call, the confirmation bias. This is the well-researched phenomenon that occurs when people with preexisting opinions are given reasons to change their ideas or behavior: the normal human reaction is to reject the proposal and to impugn its source. So giving a difficult audience reasons to change not only doesn’t work: it actually makes things worse. Getting around the confirmation bias is perhaps the biggest single problem in getting people to change their minds.

The second is of course the persistence of business leaders in trying to change people’s minds by giving them reasons at a time when we know that doesn’t work. Some business leaders go on doing it, because they “know” that analytic is good and anecdotal is bad. And so they go on making PowerPoint presentations full of abstractions and bullet points, like medieval doctors slicing patients’ veins to remove excess blood, not realizing that everything they are doing and saying is making the situation worse.

Happily this is now changing. There is growing recognition around the world that storytelling is a very important component of leadership. But it’s still not yet fully in the mainstream everywhere and in some organizations, it’s still heresy and anathema.

Morris: What have you observed to be the most effective strategies to overcome those barriers?

Denning: One aspect of it is to acquaint business leaders with the psychological literature that shows why their leadership practices are counterproductive. “You know, what you’re doing doesn’t work: it makes this worse!” This can start to get their attention.

More important though is to show them how to communicate more compellingly so that they are able to inspire enduring enthusiasm for change, even in difficult, cynical, hostile audiences. Once they see that there’s a better way, they’re usually smart enough to use it.

Morris: What new ideas does The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling introduce?

Denning: The Springboard tells the story of one use of storytelling—using narrative to spark enthusiasm for change.

Squirrel Inc. (as a fable) and The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling (as a business textbook) look at eight different uses of story—sparking change, communicating how you are, transmitting the brand, getting people working together, transmitting values, sharing knowledge, taming the grapevine and leading into the future—and the different narrative patterns associated with those uses.

Morris: How does your new book, The Secret Language of Leadership, fit in?

Denning: It looks at leadership more broadly, and shows how storytelling fits into the full array of rhetorical tools available to a leader, where it should be used, and how, and where other communication tools might be better.

It provides a comprehensive guide to what’s involved in inspiring enduring enthusiasm for change: what must every leader do to generate sustained excitement for new ideas, even in difficult, skeptical, cynical or hostile audiences?

It explains a new triad that underlies every effective leadership communication. It shows how you make the shift from the traditional approach of, “describe problem >> analyze problem >> give solution” to the new triad: “get attention >> elicit desire >> reinforce with reasons”? It makes clear why is this crucial. It gives 18 ways to get your audience’s attention, 20 ways to elicit desire and 8 ways to reinforce with reason, and shows which work best—and those that don’t. It introduces the concept of narrative intelligence and explores the requisites of an inspiring leadership goal. It shows why isn’t winning likely to be a goal that inspires enthusiasm. It covers what’s involved in crafting a goal that can inspire genuine enthusiasm.

Morris: Based on your extensive experience over the years, which business applications of storytelling skills and techniques seem to be most valuable? Why?

Denning: The most valuable use of storytelling is in sparking enthusiasm for new ideas. That’s the central leadership challenge of our age, and there’s very little in the way of alternatives for accomplishing it. Transmitting values is also becoming very important, as vast global organizations come to realize that their future, even their survival, depends on tens of thousand of employees having the same set of values.

And of course storytelling has always been a large element in branding and marketing, even though not always recognized as such. What is coming to the forefront here is the growing importance of authenticity in storytelling. For a very long time, sellers could get away with stuff and sell a lot of snake oil. Now there is a radical shift in power from sellers to buyers, as buyers now have dramatically expanded access to information, and an ability to communicate with each other. The old familiar snake oil game is almost over for most organizations. Their brand—and their future—depends on being able to communicate through authentic stories. Storytelling is still dominant but the bar has been raised.

Morris: One final question. When compiling a list of the greatest storytellers throughout history, people usually identify Homer, Aesop, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Dickens, and E.B. White among them. Who are on your own list and how has each helped to shape your thoughts own about the business narrative?

Denning: There’s a big difference between being a great entertainment storyteller, such as those mentioned, and the use of storytelling in organizations. As it happens I love those storytellers and their stories. Right now, I’m reading Marcel Proust’s 3000 page story about France at the turn of the century. But those kinds of stories don’t work in an organizational setting. There are several reasons. For one, people just don’t have the time in business to read a 3000 page story. For another, those stories, wonderful as they are, may entertain us, but they don’t typically spark action. There is a very different pattern of story that sparks action: it’s told without a lot of detail and, frankly, it’s not very entertaining. But it’s a very useful form of story because of the effect that it has in terms of human action. The two genres of storytelling are related, but they are very different.

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Note: Since this interview was conducted, Denning has published what I consider his most valuable book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century, published by Jossey-Bass.

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