Storytelling as an organisational gestalt

I have found a fascinating article by master storyteller Steve Denning. Storytelling is a unique art – written, told live or recorded, storytelling has the power to change the way people think and do things.This is how Steve Denning starts his own story:

“In 1998, I made a pilgrimage to the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, seeking enlightenment. As program director of knowledge management at the World Bank, I’d stumbled onto the power of storytelling. Despite a career of scoffing at such touchy-feely stuff — like most business executives, I knew that analytical was good, anecdotal was bad — my thinking had started to change.” (“The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative”, p.3, my own links.)

Steve Denning tells the kind of stories you simply have to listen to. He is the widely acknowledged guru on Knowledge Management (KM) and storytelling (I’m talking about the 21st century version, not about the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault (he’s the mostly unknown guy who gave birth to Mother Goose.)

Denning is, in his own words, an “organizational storyteller extraordinaire.” Over the years, he’s managed to amass an impressive array of accolades, he is one of the world’s ten Most Admired Knowledge Leaders (Teleos, 2000), he also ranked as one of the world’s Top Two Hundred Business Gurus, by Davenport & Prusak (2003.) I read two of his many books, and still refer to them on an ongoing basis “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art & Discipline of Business Narrative” (2005) and “The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations” (2000.) His latest book, a sequel to “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling”, is called “The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative” (2016) – it is high on my reading list.

In “The Springboard” Denning refers to an inherent aspect (‘need’) of narrative — the need to share. “In narrative” he says “there is […] an implicit invitation to the listeners to fill in the missing links in the story. If the listeners accept the invitation, they are thus inside the story, projecting themselves into the situation, living the predicament of the protagonist, feeling that he or she was feeling, experiencing the same hopes and fears… they will find it difficult to resist adding necessary patterns and linkages to the narrative.” (pp.68-69.)

Denning’s article, mentioned above, is called “Seventeen Myths of Knowledge Management” (PDF.) it debunks prevailing myths about knowledge. Here are three examples:

  • “Knowledge is always a plus” — not always, says Denning, sometimes knowledge may stand in the way of innovation, “what do the innovators have? A mere dream of how the world could be different: for instance, a world in which hundreds of millions of people might fall in love with an iPod. This wasn’t knowledge. It was a hunch, a surmise, a guess by Steve Jobs.” (p.1, all the links are mine)
  • “The concept of knowledge is infinitely extendable” — Denning remembers how, once upon a time, “knowledge was ‘true, justified, belief.’ Then “Michael Polanyi told us about tacit knowledge. More recently, the KM literature tends to include in knowledge, insights, hunches, surmises, educated bets, business models, strategies, scenarios, whatever.” (p.2, all the links are mine)
  • “Knowledge is the only sustainable competitive advantage” — what about people’s own skills, special traits and knacks, idiosyncrasies? “What about smarts? What about courage? What about values? What about imagination? What about an ability to innovate?” (p.4)

Steve Denning’s parting words are worth mentioning here — “Instead of command and control, leaders need to engage and enrol: storytelling is uniquely adapted to this challenge, because human beings tend to think in stories, and base their actions on stories.”