INTERVIEW Making Change Happen: Steve Denning Tells the Story of Storytelling

By Cagna, Jeff De | Information Outlook, January 2001 | Go to article overview

INTERVIEW Making Change Happen: Steve Denning Tells the Story of Storytelling


Cagna, Jeff De, Information Outlook


What is Storytelling?

WHEN WE THINK OF STORYTELLING, OUR MINDS MAY RETURN TO FOND MEMORIES of childhood when, tucked snugly in our beds, our parents would read us a favorite fable or fairy tale. We may remember scary stories shared around summer campfires, or even family anecdotes that help us better understand our heritage.

But, as Stephen Denning of the World Bank discovered, storytelling can also be a powerful tool for catalyzing organizational change. In his recently published book, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations (published by Butterworth-Heinemann), Steve tells his own story of storytelling and offers guidance to other change agents on how to master the craft. Information Outlook sat down with Steve to find out more about The Springboard, and to learn how you can use storytelling effectively in your organization.

IO: What do you think is the most common misconception that we have about organizational change?

SD: Well, I would say the conventional wisdom is that you get an organization to change by explaining the reasons for the change as clearly as you can, and that people--being rational beings--listen to what you have to say and weigh the reasons. If your reasons are good and your idea is good, they accept them and they get on with implementing the change. In reality, the opposite is the case. The people usually do not welcome an idea that is going to turn their working lives and personal lives upside down and inside out as something that is positive and the addition of reasons rarely places the idea in a positive light.

In fact, even before one has explained the change idea, the listeners are already offering their own arguments about why they do not want the change. One of the reasons why this happens is that the idea is coming from the speaker to the listener. It is the speaker's idea that is invading the territory of the listener, and the listener is wondering what to do with this new idea that is going to have a possibly radical impact on his or her life. This is a remarkably ineffective way to communicate change, although it is the approach recommended by most of the leading books on change in organizations. But then you do it and realize that it doesn't happen that way. It doesn't work.

IO: So how does storytelling help overcome that disconnect?

SD: What I have stumbled across in my own journey of trying to make change happen at The World Bank is that telling a certain kind of story enables a listener to understand an idea in a way that is much less threatening. So, for example, if I were telling a story about how someone in Zambia got the answer to a question on how to treat malaria from the website of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, I am simply telling them about something that happened in the world a few months before. It is not a frightening idea that is invading their territory. It is simply a story about something that has happened.

What I discovered is that if you have chosen the right story and you tell that story in a certain way, then not only do listeners understand the story about a health worker in Zambia but they also begin to imagine stories in their own lives. They begin to draw on their own experiences, their own knowledge, their own understanding, and they start to imagine possibilities for themselves. They might think, "Well, I am not in health care, and I am not in Zambia, but I am in highways in Latin America and we could do that, too. We could get organized in the same way. Of course, we would have to have a body of knowledge. We would have to have a community of experts to assemble it. We would have to have a website. We would have to have some technology to make it happen. We could, in fact, do that in our environment, and maybe we should think about how we should do that."

And so a process of imagining in their own lives what this change idea can do starts to take root. …

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INTERVIEW Making Change Happen: Steve Denning Tells the Story of Storytelling
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