"Through a story, life invites us to come inside as a participant." -- Steve Denning, author of the Springboard: How Storytelling Ignited Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations and Squirrel, Inc.: A Fable of Leadership and Storytelling
In his new book, "Squirrel, Inc.," Convergence 2004 keynote speaker, Steve Denning, describes seven types of stories:
Sparking Action. Leadership is, above all, about getting people to change. To achieve this goal, you need to communicate the sometimes complex nature of the changes required and inspire an
often skeptical organization to enthusiastically carry them out. This is the place for what I call "springboard story," one that enables listeners to visualize the large-scale transformation needed in their circumstances and then to act on that realization.
Such a story is based on an actual event, preferably recent enough to seem relevant. It has a single protagonist with whom members of the target audience can identify. And there is an authentically happy ending, in which a change has at least in part been successfully implemented. (There is also an implicit alternate ending, an unhappy one that would have resulted had the change not occurred.)
The story has enough detail to be intelligible and credible but not so much that listeners are but -- and this is key -- not so much texture that audience becomes completely wrapped up in it. If that happens, people won't have the mental space to create an analogous scenario for change in their own organization. For example, if you want to get an organization to embrace a new technology, you might tell stories about individuals elsewhere who have successfully implemented it, without dwelling on the specifics of implementation.
Communicating Who You Are. You aren't likely to lead people through wrenching change if they don't trust you. And if they're to trust you, they have to know you: who you are, where you've come from, and why you hold the views you do. Ideally, they'll end up not only understanding you but also empathizing with you.
Stories for this purpose are usually based on a life event that reveals some strength or vulnerability and shows what the speaker took from the experience. For example, Jack Welch's success in making General Electric a winner was undoubtedly aided by his ability to tell his own story, which includes a tongue-lashing he once received from his mother after he hurled a hockey stick across the ice in response to a disappointing loss. "You punk!" he reports her saying in his memoir Jack: Straight from the Gut. "If you don't know how to lose, you'll never know how to win."
Unlike a story designed to spark action, this kind is typically "well told," with colorful detail and context. So the speaker needs to ensure that the audience has enough time and interest to hear the story.
Transmitting Values. Stories can be effective tools for ingraining values within an organization, particularly those that help forestall future problems by clearly establishing limits on destructive behavior. A story of this type ensures that the audience understands "how things are done around here."
These narratives often take the form of a parable. Religious leaders have used them for thousands of years to communicate values. The stories are usually set in some kind of generic past and have few context-setting details--though the context that is established needs to seem relevant to the listeners. The "facts" of such tales can be hypothetical, but they must be believable. For example, a story might tell the sad fate of someone who failed to see the conflict of interest in not disclosing his or her financial interest in a company supplier.
Of course, narratives alone cannot establish values in an organization. Leaders need to live the values on a daily basis.
Fostering Collaboration. Every management textbook talks about the value of getting people to work together. But most don't offer advice on making that happen in real-life work environments--except, "Encourage conversations." Yes, but how?
One approach is to generate a common narrative around a group's concerns and goals, beginning with a story told by one member of the group. Ideally, that first story sparks another, which sparks another. If the process continues, group members develop a shared perspective, one that enables a sense of community to emerge naturally. The first story must be emotionally moving enough to unleash the narrative impulse in others and to create a readiness to hear more stories. It could, for example, vividly describe how the
speaker had grappled with a difficult work situation.
For this process to occur, it is best if the group has an open agenda that allows the stories to surface organically. It is also desirable to have a plan ready so that the energy generated by the positive experience of sharing stories can be immediately channeled into action.
Taming the Grapevine. Rumors flow incessantly through every organization. "Have you heard the latest?" is a whispered refrain that's difficult for managers to deal with. Denying a rumor can give
it credibility. Asking how it got started may ensure its spread. Ignoring it altogether risks allowing it to grow out of control. Rumors about issues central to the future of the organization -- takeovers, reorganizations, major managerial changes-- can be an enormous distraction (or worse) to the staff of an organization and beyond.
So as an executive, what can you do? One response is to harness the energy of the grapevine to defuse the rumor, using a story to convince listeners that the gossip is either untrue or unreasonable. This kind of story highlights the incongruity between the rumor and reality. You could use gentle satire to mock the rumor, the rumor's author, or even yourself, in an effort to undermine the rumor's power. For example, you might deal with a false rumor of "imminent corporate-wide reorganization" by jokingly recounting how the front office's current struggles involving the seating chart for executive committee meetings would have to be worked out first. Keep in mind, though, that humor can backfire. Mean-spirited ridicule can generate
a well-deserved backlash.
The trick is to work with, not against, the flow of the vast underground river of informal communication that exists in every organization. Of course, you can't ridicule a rumor into oblivion if it's true or at least reasonable. If that's the case, there is little that can be done except to admit the rumor, put it in
perspective, and move on.
Sharing Knowledge. Much of the intellectual capital of an organization is not written down anywhere but resides in the minds of the staff. Communicating this know-how across an organization and beyond typically occurs informally, through the sharing of stories.
Knowledge-sharing narratives are unusual in that they lack a hero or even a detectable plot. They are more about problems, and how and why they got--or, more likely, didn't get--resolved. They include a description of the problem, the setting, the solution, and the explanation. Because they highlight a problem--say, the challenge employees face in learning to use a new system--they tend to have a negative tone. And because they often focus in detail on why a particular solution worked, they may be of little interest outside a defined group of people. Though unashamedly entertaining and lacking most elements of a conventional story, they are nonetheless the uncelebrated workhorse of organizational narrative.
They present a difficulty, however. In a corporate setting, stories about problems don't flow easily, not only because people fear the consequences of admitting mistakes, but also because, in the flush of success, people tend to forget what they learned along the way. As a result, the knowledge-sharing story cannot be compelled; it has to be teased out. That is, a discussion of successes may be needed to get people to talk about what has gone wrong and how it can be fixed.
Leading People into the Future. An important part of a leader's job is preparing others for what lies ahead, whether in the concrete terms of an actual scenario or the more conceptual terms of a
vision. A story can help take listeners from where they are now to where they need to be, by getting them familiar and comfortable with the future in their minds. The problem, of course, lies in crafting a credible narrative about the future when the future is unknowable.
Thus, if such stories are to serve their purpose, they should whet listeners' imaginative appetite about the future without providing detail that will likely turn out to be inaccurate. Listeners should be able to remold the story in their minds as the future unfolds with all its unexpected twists and turns. And clearly, they should portray that state in a positive way: People are more likely to overcome uncertainty about change if they are shown what to aim for rather than what to avoid.
Note that telling an evocative future narrative requires a high degree of verbal skill, something not every leader possesses. But the springboard story, described above, provides an alternative. Hearing about a change that has already happened can help listeners to imagine how it might play out in the future.
We'd love to have you join us at Convergence This is the 10th annual conference of innovation practitioners and it's an incredible opportunity to exchange ideas with folks from organizations around the world.