1: It was the mid-1990s. Stephen Denning was successfully climbing the managerial ladder at the World Bank, the large international organization which lends billions of dollars to developing countries to help eliminate global poverty.
Stephen describes himself as a “quintessential left-brained, analytical kind of person. Clear, crisp, succinct, bottom line: that was me,” he writes in his book The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling. “And as you know, big organizations just love that kind of person.”
In February 1996, he was named the director of the Africa Region, which accounted for about a third of overall operations.
2: Then, however, things changed. The president of the World Bank suddenly died. Next, Stephen’s boss retired. Soon, someone else was appointed to his position.
Now what? Stephen met with one of the top managers at the World Bank and asked: “Do you have anything in mind for me?”
“Not really,” was the response.
Stephen kept pressing, and eventually, the top manager suggested he look into the area of information management. “Now information in the World Bank in 1996 had the status of the garage or the cafeteria,” he recalls. “So I was not being offered a promotion. I was being sent to Siberia.”
Still, the assignment interested Stephen, so he began to look into it. “I saw we were wasting a lot of money there. But our real problems lay elsewhere: we needed to share our knowledge with all the millions of people who made decisions about poverty.”
So, Stephen began working to persuade his World Bank colleagues to share knowledge more intentionally across the organization.
“I offered people cogent arguments about the need to gather the knowledge scattered throughout the organization. They didn’t listen. I gave PowerPoint presentations that compellingly demonstrated the value of sharing and leveraging our know-how. My audience merely looked dazed. In desperation, I was ready to try almost anything.”
3: Then, Stephen, our logical, left-brained, analytical manager, stumbled onto something: A story.
“In June 1995, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia went to the website of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and got the answer to a question about the treatment of malaria,” Stephen recounted. “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!”
Stephen’s story hit a nerve. He was given ten minutes in from of the change management committee of the World Bank, which included many of the organization’s most senior managers.
What happened next? “Two of those executives raced up to me after the presentation and started asking why wasn’t I doing this or that to get the program off the ground. And I thought to myself: This is a very strange conversation. Up ’til ten minutes ago, these people weren’t willing to give me the time of day, and now I’m not doing enough to implement their idea.
“This is horrible!” he thought: “They have stolen my idea.
“And then I had a happier thought. How wonderful! They have stolen my idea. Now they own the idea. It’s become their idea!”
Which is precisely what happened: “It was one of those executives who was able to get to the president of the World Bank to explain to him that knowledge management was the very future of the organization.”
Later that year, the president announced at the World Bank annual meeting in front of 170 finance ministers that knowledge management would be a major initiative from now on.
“The man from Siberia was back!” Stephen writes. Soon after that, he was officially appointed Director of knowledge management. Four years later, “the World Bank was benchmarked as one of the world leaders in knowledge management.”
And it all started with a story.
Stephen’s simple story about Zambia “helped World Bank staff and managers envision a different kind of future for the organization,” he recalls. The “story somehow had the capacity to communicate the idea of knowledge management and get people rapidly into action.”
Much more tomorrow and later this week!
Reflection: What about storytelling done right creates interest and drives change? What story might I tell to generate interest and action towards the achievement of a critical initiative?
Action: Tell it.