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Storytelling In The News: #170

Financial Times reviews Squirrel Inc


A kernel of truth within a fluffy tale

By Stefan Stern

July 29, 2004
In the hard, competitive world of business there is supposedly little room for anything soft and fluffy. So it is a brave business writer who not only delivers a message on leadership in the form of a fable, but who does so using some of the softest and fluffiest animals - squirrels.

That last sentence may have lost this review half its readers. And this is the risk that Stephen Denning - former head of knowledge management at the World Bank and author of Squirrel Inc - is running. Even the nimblest of his furry friends would struggle to break through the barriers of scepticism that most people have put up around them just to get through the working day.

But Denning is undaunted. As someone who survived a 30-year career at the World Bank in Washington DC, he has probably already had just about every kind of sceptical response thrown at him.

The author has not plunged into this world of make-believe because he is away with the fairies. Denning believes in the power of story-telling - narratives and examples - to ignite action within organisations. He believes leaders need to tell their people simple stories to reveal who they really are, to win engagement and commitment.

In a time of change, organisations need shared stories, he says, because shared stories build community and a sense of common purpose. Denning says that today's hard-headed, hard-hearted business orthodoxy ignores this eternal truth about human beings: that we enjoy and relate to stories more powerfully than could ever be the case with mere facts.

Denning's narrator is a bartender in a subversive hang-out favoured by employees of Squirrel Inc, a once hugely successful corporation now struggling to cope with changing market conditions. A cast of fluffy corporate rodents from varying pay grades drift in and out, bringing their own perspectives on the corporation's difficulties. Lively debate is fuelled by the barman's "double fermented rose nectar" (you get the idea).

The challenge for Squirrel Inc is to move on from its traditional business model - a "nut-burying organisation" - and become a more adaptable and effective "nut-storing organisation". Denning latched on to the squirrel metaphor when he read that squirrels fail to find as many as half the nuts they bury.

The barman consoles Diana, a once high-flying vice-president, who is struggling to explain to senior managers how and why the business must change. And from this starting point a series of dialogues on story- telling is launched.

There is no need to get bogged down in Denning's anthropomorphic fantasy. A biographical note reveals that he has published a novel and a volume of poetry, and on every page you feel the presence of the frustrated fiction writer. It is in his analysis of why organisations can't or won't change - and what leaders need to do about it - that the value of this book lies.

"When you tell a story," one squirrel suggests, "you engage us in your experience. You entice us into your life. If we accept the invitation we can get beyond mere facts or chatter. No matter what the story's about we learn who you are. We begin to see things from your perspective. We begin to live your story. With luck, we begin to trust you. Your story becomes my story becomes our story. That's what we need from the CEO. We need to learn who on earth he really is."

Other insights emerge from the debate at the squirrel inn. Storytellers must keep their narratives simple, and avoid too much distracting detail. This allows audiences to find their own personal resonances and meanings within the broader narrative.

The same story has to work at all levels of the organisation. You can't give the shop floor one account of the company's destiny and another to the executives. And leaders should remember that it is the act of story- telling, and not simply the story itself, that matters. "It's your interaction face-to-face with individuals that makes the difference," the barman tells Diana.

Stories help organisations understand properly what their core values really are. "Values don't come from cards or posters," declares one rebellious squirrel. "They reside in the stories that are told and acted on and our reaction to those actions." This idea of the story-telling community provides "a new metaphor for the organisation in a world of rapid flux", says another.

Such thoughts and more are offered by our furry friends, which is a bold move by the author because, as everyone knows, squirrels are inherently ridiculous. They are "rats with fluffy tails" to their detractors, often easy prey to neighbourhood cats. Squirrels have been used in the UK for road safety campaigns (the Tufty Club) and to advertise Carling lager (now owned by Coors). In the 1970s Mars marketed its Topic chocolate bar with the catchy question "What has a hazelnut in every bite?", to which schoolboys had a ready (and ribald) answer, which involved squirrels.

Still, storytelling with animals was good enough for Aesop, Kafka and Orwell. And Denning makes serious points about leadership and change, identifying in a useful appendix seven different types of organisational story-telling.

Like a squirrel attempting a perilous or ill-advised leap, Denning's book teeters on the edge of disaster throughout. At times it seems ridiculous, at others almost inspired. Take a deep breath, wrap it in a plain cover, and give it a try. For, as one of Denning's heroic squirrels declares: "They can cut down our mulberry tree, but they can't cut down our courage. We are squirrels!"

To learn more about Squirrel Inc, go here

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