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Storytelling In The News: #160

It's official! Storytelling is a core management skill

Financial Times

May 25, 2004

There was a startling headline in the Financial Times yesterday, May 24, 2004: "Storytelling is a fundamental skill of management." I have always believed this, of course, but to see it in print in the peachy pages of the august Financial Times was startling.

What prompted the headline?

The occasion was the publication of a letter that I wrote in response to Lucy Kellaway's column of May 10 in the Financial Times about organizational storytelling (Once upon a time, we had managers). I and others had noted that Kellaway, who is normally quite a sensible writer, was mistaken in seeing storytelling as a fad. On May 24, the Financial Times was kind enough to publish (most of) my letter in reply to Kellaway, which sets the record straight.

However it was the Financial Times that added the startling headline, "Storytelling is a fundamental skill of management". What more is there to say?

Here's my letter:

Storytelling is a fundamental skill of management

A letter from Stephen Denning
published by Financial Times on May 24 2004

From Mr Stephen Denning.

Sir, Lucy Kellaway is right in thinking that once upon a time we had managers ("Once upon a time, we had managers - not storytellers", May 10). That was an era of stability and gradual change, which now seems strangely long ago. In today's rapidly morphing world, organisations themselves have to undergo rapid transformational change in order to survive, and mere management of the status quo is not enough any more. Now, we need leaders.

So long as the task of management consisted of deciding, controlling and directing, managers could get by with the traditional tools of abstract analysis. Analysis has rightly driven management thinking, because of its objectivity, its impersonality, its heartlessness.

Yet in these strengths lies a weakness. Analysis might excite the mind but it hardly offers a route to the heart. And that is where leaders have to go if they are to motivate people to launch transformational change and spark rapid action with energy and enthusiasm.

Now that most managers are being called upon to tackle the challenges of leadership, they are discovering what great leaders have instinctively known all along: it is stories that inspire and persuade.

What is also overlooked in the excitement of the rediscovery of the power of narrative is that storytelling already plays a huge role in the world of business and politics. The choice for managers in organisations is not so much whether to be involved in storytelling - they can hardly do otherwise - but rather whether to use storytelling (a) unwittingly and clumsily or (b) intelligently and skilfully.

Management fads may come and go but storytelling is a phenomenon that is fundamental to all nations, societies and cultures, and has been so since time immemorial. The idea that the vagaries of management fashions might cause it to disappear is at odds with thousands of years of human history.

Stephen Denning, Washington DC 20016, US

Bottom line

If the Financial Times is right, as I think it is, in thinking that storytelling is a fundamental skill of management, how many managers have mastered even the basics of this skill? How many business schools even recognize it, let alone teach it? How would millions of managers around the world go about acquiring this skill? The implications for the future of organizational storytelling are mind-boggling.

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