1: Imagine we are leading an organization. We have a challenge. We must ignite action to implement a radical new idea.

How should we proceed?

“The conventional management approach to this challenge is to give people reasons,” writes Stephen Denning in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative.

The only problem with this approach? It doesn’t work. “Asking people to stop doing the things they know and love doing and start doing things that they don’t know much about amounts to asking them to adopt new identities,” Stephen writes.

What happens when we give people “rational” reasons to change? “Skepticism. Hostility. Sitting on the fence. Anything but enthusiastic implementation,” he observes.

How does this reaction make us feel? Likely, frustrated. So, what do we do next? We use our power. “I’m the boss,” we say. “My way or the highway!” Which generates more resentment and resistance. The exact opposite of what we need to be successful.

2: The good news? There is a different approach that not only wins people over but motivates them to take accountability for making change happen.

So, how do we achieve this? We tell a story. But not just any story. We tell what Stephen calls a “springboard story.”

“If I was a leader and could choose to tell only one kind of story,” he writes, “that story would be a springboard story. That’s because a springboard story performs the most useful thing a leader can do: communicate a complex new idea and inspire action to implement it. That’s what leadership is centrally about—inspiring people to implement new ideas in the future. And not just grudgingly but enthusiastically, because they believe in it.”

There’s more good news. A springboard story is “one of the easiest kinds of stories to tell,” Stephen observes. “It’s a story about the past that is told without a great deal of embellishment. It has the advantage of getting the listener to do the hard work of inventing the future. Even better, as the future evolves, the listener keeps updating the story as the future changes. The story doesn’t become stale because the listeners keep seeing new meaning in it—which they themselves provide.”

3: Let’s look at an example. The year was 1998. Stephen was serving as an executive at the World Bank. His focus? Championing “knowledge management” across the organization.

“With the wisdom of hindsight, this successful outcome may seem inevitable,” he writes. “Today, it’s a no-brainer that an organization like the World Bank needs to share its knowledge. But at the time, the situation was agonizingly fragile.”

The implementation of any large initiative is often tricky. “The opponents of knowledge management, including some at the highest levels of the organization, viewed the glass as half empty and wanted to rethink everything,” he recalls. “We felt we had made good progress and should press on to complete the job.”

Stephen was asked to present to the organization’s president and senior managers. It was decision-time. And the decision could go either way.

What did Stephen do? He told a story:

“Just a few weeks ago,” he began, “the government of Pakistan asked our field office in Pakistan for help in the highway sector. They were experiencing widespread pavement failure. The highways were falling apart. They felt they could not afford to maintain them.

“They wanted to try a different technology that our organization has not supported or recommended in the past. And they wanted our advice within a few days.

“I think it’s fair to say that in the past we would not have been able to respond to this kind of question within this time frame. We might have proposed to send a team to Pakistan. The team might send the report to the government, and eventually—perhaps three, six, nine months later—might provide a response.

“But by then, it would have been too late. By then, things would have moved on in Pakistan.

“What actually happened was something quite different. The task team leader in our field office in Pakistan sent an e-mail to contact the community of highway experts inside and outside the organization and asked for help within forty-eight hours.

“And he got it. The same day, the task manager in the highway sector in Jordan replied that, as it happened, Jordan was using this technology with very promising results. The same day, a highway expert in our Argentina office replied and said that he was writing a book on the subject and was able to give the genealogy of the technology over several decades and continents. . .

“And so the task manager in Pakistan was able to go back to the Pakistan government and say: this is the best that we as an organization can put together on this subject, and then the dialogue can start as to how to adapt that experience elsewhere to Pakistan’s situation.

“And now that we have discovered that we as an organization know something about a subject we didn’t realize we knew anything about, now we can incorporate what we have learned in our knowledge base so that any staff in the organization anywhere at any time can tap into it.”

Stephen’s simple story won the day. “Immediately following the presentation, the president decided to push forward with accelerated implementation of knowledge management,” he recounts. Two years later, the World Bank was benchmarked by several organizations as a world leader in knowledge management, achieving a stretch objective it had set for itself.

The purposeful story Stephen told follows a narrative pattern which makes it possible to find effective stories in virtually any situation. “Understanding the narrative pattern,” he writes, “is one of the steps necessary to move leadership from the realm of an arcane and mysterious art that only a few people possess to a skill that anyone can understand and learn.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Why did Stephen’s Pakistan story persuade the World Bank to move forward with knowledge management?

Action: Read tomorrow’s RiseWithDrew post to understand the narrative pattern of a springboard story.

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