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Storytelling In The News: #147

ComputerWorld looks at organizational storytelling

May 12, 2004

Another article on organizational storytelling is appearing in ComputerWorld this week. It's entitled:

Tall Tales: Storytelling as a Management Tool

Nothing motivates people like a story.

Q&A by Kathleen Melymuka

MAY 10, 2004 (COMPUTERWORLD) When he was director of knowledge management at the World Bank, Stephen Denning discovered a powerful leadership tool: storytelling. He found that it often succeeded in inspiring and motivating people when cold, hard logic failed. In May's Harvard Business Review, Denning describes how good storytelling can galvanize an organization around a business goal. He told Kathleen Melymuka how IT leaders can make this low-tech tool work for them.

When we talk about storytelling in an IT environment, how are we defining story? I've defined it in a fairly broad way to be any account with time, place and a sequence of events.

How do stories succeed in moving people to action where logic and analysis fail? The presenter of a logical analysis asserts a proposition: "The cat sat on the mat." To which the response is, "No, it didn't." If, on the other hand, I say, "Let me tell you about a cat that was sitting on a mat," then we're arm in arm, looking together. I'm not forcing a conclusion. But when the listener thinks, "Maybe that could apply in my context," then you're one millimeter away from starting to implement something. Actions follow from narrative.

Why do business and IT leaders resist the idea of storytelling as a business tool? The 20th century was the high point of the premise that anything not analytic and logical doesn't have any intellectual respectability. Many disciplines have come to see that that vision of life isn't the whole story, but management and IT are among the last bastions of the world as a machine.

Given that bias toward the analytic, if an IT leader starts telling a story, don't you think the department will roll its collective eyes? If you announce, "I am going to tell you a story," you'll get the rolling of the eyes, but when I was reporting to the CIO at the World Bank, I never said that. I said, "Let me tell you about something that happened two weeks ago," and curiosity is raised, and before you know it, they're following the story.

You talk about the need to match the story to the situation. How would an IT leader use a story to spark action? In the fall of 1998, I was called to give a presentation on why the World Bank should bother with knowledge management when we seemed on the brink of global financial crisis. I said, "Let me tell you something that happened two weeks ago. A World Bank highways team in Pakistan got an unexpected question from Pakistani highway administration. They wanted to try different technology, and they needed to make the decision the next week. What did we advise? The team contacted 300 highway experts in and outside the bank by e-mail. In the next 48 hours, they got help from someone in Jordan using that technology, someone in Argentina writing a book on the subject, someone in New Zealand with guidelines. ... Now that we have this knowledge, we can make it available through the Web for anyone." They said, "Why aren't we making this happen all over the organization?"

What is it about that story that makes it work? There's a particular pattern underlying that story. It has a protagonist with whom the audience is likely to empathize. It actually happened, and the truth of the story snaps listeners out of complacency. It's positive in tone. And it's told in a minimalist fashion, because I don't want them thinking all about what's going on in Pakistan; they need space in their minds to think, "Yeah, I can do this in my environment." Once executives can learn to understand that pattern, whether they're introducing CRM or SAP, they'll know how to find a suitable story to spark people to action.

Another high priority in IT is fostering collaboration. What's an example of how a story could help a project team jell? We were asked by a director to help get his squabbling group to be more collaborative. We had a meeting with them and asked for a volunteer to tell a moving story about some recent work-related event. We said, "Pull out all the stops and tell everything you felt about what was happening to you." That story sparked a whole series of stories from the rest of the group. People were interested in hearing the stories because they were about the same subjects they were grappling with, and they wanted to tell their stories. By the end of an hour, the group realized they had a common perception of the problems and what needed to be done. With a chain reaction of stories, it's remarkable how quickly a group can move to a collaborative mind-set.

IT isn't known for loquacious folks. Can introverted, analytical people become good storytellers? The most effective storytellers are not glib extroverts. In fact, when a storyteller is stumbling and clearly struggling, then listeners reach out and help and fill in the blanks. But we're all storytellers. We start telling stories spontaneously at the age of 2. Then school and work tell you to put away stories. But we are a storytelling species. Dogs sniff each other; humans tell stories.

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