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Leaders need narrative intelligence to inspire action in modern organizations

In his books, The Springboard (2000), The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (2005) and The Secret Language of Leadership (October 2007), Steve Denning explains how storytelling is able to catalyze action in modern change-resistant organizations. Telling an appropriate story helped spark thoughts among the managers and employees about a different kind of future both for the organization and themselves as individuals.

"Just think if we were able to operate in this way, and get these kinds of benefits at that kind of speed! Wouldn’t that be exciting! What kind of organization we could become!"

By stimulating the listeners to think actively about the implications, they can understand what it will be like to be doing things in a different way. When a springboard story does its job, the listeners’ minds race ahead, to imagine the further implications of elaborating the same idea in other contexts, more intimately known to the listeners. In this way, through extrapolation from the narrative, the re-creation of the change idea can be successfully brought to birth, with the concept of it planted in listeners’ minds, not as a vague, abstract, inert thing, but an idea that is pulsing, kicking, breathing, exciting – and alive.

Often the changes that need to be implemented in large organizations are complicated, and have many dimensions and facets. Not all of them are fully understood when the management embarks on the change process. Resistance is inevitable when a bold new change idea emerges. The dilemma for managements in such situations is how to turn resistance into enthusiasm when even they only partially understand the idea themselves. Often the attempt to explain the idea can kill enthusiasm before it even begins implementation.

Denning's books show how stories can avoid this dilemma by having the listeners themselves fill in the blanks as the change process proceeds.

Much has been written about the use of stories to preserve knowledge and culture. This book however is not so much about using stories to preserve organizations: it is about using stories to change them.

It’s about a particular kind of story, which is christened the springboard story. By a springboard story is meant a story that enables a leap in understanding by the audience so as to grasp how an organization or community or complex system may change.

A springboard story has an impact not so much through transferring large amounts of information, but through catalyzing understanding. It can enable listeners to visualize from a story in one context what is involved in a large-scale transformation in an analogous context. It can enable them to grasp the idea as a whole not only very simply and quickly, but also in a non-threatening way. In effect, it invites them to see analogies from their own backgrounds, their own contexts, their own fields of expertise.

Beyond storytelling: narrative intelligence

The Springboard (2000) and The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (2005) focused mainly on the describing the features of stories that could move audiences into action.

However it's not enough for leaders simply to "tell a story", a kind of one-way sending of a message. What Steve's latest book, The Secret Language of Leadership (October 2007) makes clear is that leaders They need to be aware of the stories that the audiences are living, and be able to anticipate how a new story will interact with those stories. In effect they need to use narrative intelligence.


Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, October 2007)

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

Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000, chapters 4-7.

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