Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Managers are from Mars and Storytellers are from Saturn

Last month I asked a question - Why don’t we hear more stories in presentations? I didn’t know the real reason that time. Now I do. It is because: Managers are from Mars and Storytellers are from Saturn. Stephen Denning, the father of organizational storytelling, explains this in his book “The leader’s guide to storytelling: Mastering the art and discipline of business narrative

Stephen himself hails from Mars. For several decades, as a manager in the World Bank, Stephen talked the Martian language of rate of return, cost-benefit analysis, risk analysis, performance targets, bottom line. I guess you get the point. Then one day, Stephen was “sent to Siberia” and asked to head a newly created department of knowledge management. Like any other fellow Martian, he created a PowerPoint presentation that offered cogent arguments about the need to gather the knowledge scattered throughout the organization. The ppt demonstrated the value of sharing and leveraging knowledge. Audience looked dazed (sounds familiar?). And then in a moment of desperation, something happened. Some may say it was a flash of insight. But I think it was a bug from Saturn that bit him (remember Spiderman story?) This is how Stephen narrated his vision from this point onwards. Remember this was 1996 – Internet was still like a baby learning to crawl.

In June of last year, a health worker in a town in Zambia went to the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and got the answer to a question about the treatment of malaria. Remember that this was in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it was in a tiny place six hundred kilometers from the capital city. But the most striking thing about this picture, at least for us, is that the World Bank isn’t in it. Despite our know-how on all kinds of poverty-related issues that knowledge isn’t available to the millions of people who could use it. Imagine if it were. Think what an organization we could become.

This simple story had a remarkable effect on the audience and it helped World Bank staff and managers envision a different kind of future for the organization. Subsequently, knowledge management became an official corporate priority for World Bank and Stephen continued to use similar stories to maintain the momentum.

But the best of Stephen was yet to come. In fact, over the last few years he has developed organizational storytelling as a discipline. In “The leaders guide to storytelling” he looks at eight different uses of story—sparking change, communicating who you are, transmitting the brand, getting people working together, transmitting values, sharing knowledge, taming the grapevine and leading into the future—and the different narrative patterns associated with those uses.

Stephen likes to think of it as the possible “sixth discipline” Peter Senge referred to in his classic “Fifth Discipline”; something as profound as the other five disciplines but perhaps more easily actionable. Bestselling author Chip Heath deservedly calls Stephen “The Warren Buffett of business communication”. I prefer to call him the “The Aesop of organizational innovation”.

1 comment:

  1. Came through Blogchai.com . Thought that a light stuff but made me to think a lot. Beyond Genders!lol!