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Storytelling and openness to change: de Bono

Edward de Bono eloquently explains the difficulties that we encounter when we try to catalyze change and innovation:

"Perhaps the greatest dangers of those of arrogance, complacency and the ability to defend that arrogance and complacency. An acknowledgment of inadequacy is a prelude to change. A defense of arrogance is a denial of any need to change…. Every belief system sets up a framework of perception within which it cannot be attacked. The arrogance of logic means that if we have a logically impeccable argument then we must be right – "I am right – you are wrong". Yet the value of any conclusion depends on both the validity of the logic and also the validity of the starting perceptions and values." (de Bono, p 27)

The difficulty of reconsidering fundamental assumptions is aggravated by the adversarial nature of abstract argument. Thus, in Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff & Johnson pointed out how profoundly abstract argument is combative in its character. The expressions that are used are aggressive and violent in their connotations:

She attacked every weak point in my argument.
Your criticisms are right on target.
If you use that strategy, you'll get wiped out.
He shot down all of my arguments.

Such an environment is inimical to innovation and change, because ideas come forward in a threatening adversarial manner. "I am right and you are wrong!" is the mindset that de Bono identifies.

What if there was another way?

"Imagine a world," said Lakoff and Johnson, "where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, no gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance…"

This is in effect the world of narrative intelligence.

Narrative invites the reader inside the story as a collaborator so as "to embed a way of looking at the world in the listeners’ minds, and tighten its grip and deepen its roots and hence induce in their thinking a view of the organization and the world with new planes of order and opportunity. In the process, an understanding of the potential of the change idea – sharing knowledge – can erupt into the collective consciousness, producing a sudden coalescence of vision in the minds of listeners." (The Springboard)

Narrative intelligence can provide a practical tool to achieve the world of non-aggression that the sages have always preached:

Achieve success, but without vanity;
Achieve success, but without aggression;
Achieve success, but without arrogance;
Achieve success, but without gain;
Achieve success, but without force.
- Lao Tzu

To learn more about narrative intelligence, read The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, October 2007)


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

See Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000, chapters 4-7, 11-12. Edward de Bono, I Am Right – You Are Wrong.

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