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Using narrative intelligence for innovation

The Napoleonic or engineering approach

The engineering approach entails the aggressive application of scientific discovery to practical invention. It asks: How do we get from here to there? And it believes that there's a logical path--a more or less straight line to the goal--if not now, then next year or the year after.

In academic terms, the twentieth century saw a determined effort to reduce all knowledge to analytic propositions, and ultimately physics or mathematics.

In practical terms, the zenith of engineering thinking was reached with the effort at the end of the 20th Century to impose enterprise-wide systems on large organizations under the guise of averting the supposed threat of the Y2K bug.

Despite the dubious returns on such efforts, they continue. Many years of schooling have instilled in us a continuing itch for reductionist simplicity. This itch reflects what Freeman Dyson calls the Napoleonic approach, and leads to hierarchy, procedures, rules and a distinctive form of myopia. It doesn’t help us much in coping with a rapidly changing world, where innovation is the key to success.

The Tolstoyan or ecological approach

Innovation – what Freeman Dyson calls the creative chaos and freedom of the Tolstoyan approach – swims in the richness and complexity of living. It breeds on the connections between things. As participants, we can grasp the inter-relatedness of things in the world – and so are able to connect them in new ways – much more readily than when we are seeing them as an external observer through the window of rigid analytic propositions.

Storytelling provides direct access to richness and complexity of the Tolstoyan world, When I saw how easily round-edged stories could slide into our minds, I found myself wondering whether our brains might not be hard-wired to absorb stories. For purely pragmatic reasons, I ended up following what Plato, as one of the greatest storytellers of all time, actually practiced – and told stories.

The standard management manual, written in the rigid grip of theory, relies almost entirely on analytic thinking. Fix the systems. Re-engineer processes. Enhance quality. Streamline procedures. Re-form and flatten the organizational structure. Analyze things in terms of grids and charts. Develop plans in which individuals are programmed to operate like so many obedient computers. Hone our interpersonal mechanics and build skill inventories. Bring to our difficulties a fix-it attitude, as though our past errors can be easily corrected with straightforward explanations.

And the cheerful optimism of this thinking sheds little light on innovation.

The unhelpfulness of most writing on innovation

Chapter 11 of The Leader's Guide to Storytelling points out that most of the leading thinkers on innovation (Clayton Christensen, Gary Hamel, Peter Senge, Michael Schrage, Henry Chesborough) focus their attention on invention rather than innovation, i.e. how to come up with new ideas. This is the easy part of innovation.

The hard part of innovaion is inspiring enduring enthusiasm for change in people who are not particularly interested in changing. These writers have little to contribute on this central challenge of innovation. Fortunately, help is at hand. The Secret Language of Leadership (particularly chapters 1, 8-12) shows in detail how to tackle the hard part of innovation and spark enduring enthusiasm for strange new ideas, even in difficult, cynical or skeptical audiences, inter alia by using narrative intelligence.


Stephen Denning, The Springboard, (Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000); chapters 4-7, 11-12.

Stephen Denning, The Leader's Guide to Storytelling, (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership, (Jossey-Bass, October 2007).

Freeman Dyson, Imagined Worlds (Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures), Harvard University Press (1998), 52.

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