1: World Bank executive Stephen Denning had just spent the morning teaching a master class on storytelling to seventy executives from private and public sector organizations.
He had shared his story about how a health worker in a remote town in Zambia found the answer to her question about the treatment of malaria on a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website. This simple story inspired the World Bank to embrace the strategic importance of knowledge management.
One of Stephen’s key messages was how important it was for leaders to tell positive stories to stimulate change.
That afternoon, to Stephen’s dismay, the next speaker emphatically proclaimed the opposite.
Dave Snowden, then director of IBM’s Institute of Knowledge Management, found purely positive stories troublesome. “In a corporate environment, Dave told his audience, listeners would respond to such rosy tales by conjuring up negative antistories about what must have actually happened,” Stephen writes in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling.
Dave’s message: “Beware the positive story!”
His point? People learn more from their mistakes than from their successes. “His stories might describe how and why a team failed to accomplish an objective, with the aim of helping others avoid the same mistakes,” Stephen observes.
Dave’s message sparked an insight with Stephen: “It dawned on me that our points of view were complementary,” he notes. “We were talking about organizational stories used for different purposes: my stories were designed to motivate people, and Dave’s were designed to share knowledge.”
As leaders, we need to understand the type of story we tell will be determined by the desired outcome we seek.
“Stories told in an effort to spur action need to make good on their promises and contain sufficient evidence of a positive outcome,” Stephen writes.
But stories intended mainly to transfer knowledge have a different goal. “Because their objective is to generate understanding and not action, they tend to highlight the pitfalls of ignorance; they are meant not to inspire people but to make them cautious,” notes Stephen.
Even seemingly “boring” stories can be highly impactful.
In his book, In Talking About Machines, Julian Orr writes about stories that circulated among photocopy machine repair techs at Xerox. “While rich in detail, they are even less story like than my little anecdote about the health care worker in Zambia,” Stephen writes.
Let’s say… “you’ve got a malfunctioning copy machine with an E053 error code, which is supposed to mean a problem in the 24-volt Interlock Power Supply. But you could chase the source of that 24-volt Interlock problem forever, and you’d never ever find out what it is. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll eventually get an F066 error code, which indicates the true source of the malfunction—namely, a shorted dicorotron.
“Apparently this is happening because the circuitry in the XER board has been changed to prevent the damage that would otherwise occur when a dicorotron shorted. Before the change in circuitry, a shorted dicorotron would have fried the whole XER board…”
These stories, which provide solutions to technical problems technicians face, lack plot and character. Still, they spark interest in their intended audience “because they are driven forward by a detailed explanation of the cause-and-effect relationship between an action and its consequence,” notes Stephen. “This makes the account negative in tone and almost unintelligible to an outsider, [but] both informative and interesting to its intended audience.”
The big takeaway? Select the stories we tell based on the outcome we want to create.
Reflection: Consider a current professional challenge. Is my goal to spur action or share knowledge? How will my answer to this question impact the type of story I tell?
Action: Tell the story and pay attention to how my audience responds.