Notable passages from
The Springboard by Stephen Denning
Butterworth Heinemann, Boston, 2001
The standard management manual, written in the rigid grip of theory, relies almost entirely on analytic thinking. Fix the systems. Re-engineer the processes. Enhance quality. Streamline procedures. Reform and flatten the organizational structure. Analyze things in terms of grids and charts. Develop plans in which individuals are programmed to operate like so many obedient computers. Hone our interpersonal mechanics and build skill inventories. Bring to our difficulties a fix-it attitude, as though our past errors can be easily corrected with straightforward explanations.
The cheerful optimism of this thinking sheds little light on why some organizations flourish and grow and are widely admired, and then suddenly collapse with the abruptness of a punctured balloon, or why some managements endure the most severe tribulations and difficulties, while others stumble at even a mild bump. The mechanistic analysis that we have applied to these problems has not always been of much help to us. It doesn't fit the complexity, the mess, the jumble, the clutter, the chaos, the confusion, the living core of modern organizations. And it rarely succeeds in persuading organizations to change.
This book is about understanding relationships through stories, from the point of view of a participant who is living, breathing, and acting in the world. It shows how storytelling is able to assist in mobilizing large numbers of managers and employees to understand complex and difficult changes. It tells how storytelling can enable a leap in understanding so that the audience intuitively grasps what the change involves and why it might be desirable, as well as pointing to how an organization or community might change.
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Thus, my intuition told me I had been given the wrong riddle. Information was yesterday's issue. Our real opportunity was in knowledge.
Knowledge offered a lot. If we could rapidly share good practice and make know-how widely accessible, then a more agile and broadly useful organization might emerge. The idea of sharing knowledge was not new, and in fact was spreading across many forward-looking organizations under the paradoxical labels of "knowledge management," "intellectual asset management," or "the learning organization."
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For the story to be effective in this sense, the critical issue is not so much, Is it true? or, Is it accurate? or, Did it happen exactly that way? so much as, Does the story ring true?
When we say that a story rings true, we are not so much saying that it is true in a scientific sense (i.e., is there evidence of generalizations that could be proved by experiment?) or in a legal sense (i.e., is it the best explanation of the admissible factual evidence?), but rather asking, does it possess narrative rationality? We are asking: is it a reasonable and believable account of the elements? Is it one that tends to make sense?
When a story rings true, it enables the listeners to generate a new gestalt in their minds, which embraces the main point of the change. For beyond the obvious transmittal of information, the immersion of the self in the events that constitute the story can have an impact. To follow a story as a listener is to give a kind of implicit consent, to exhibit a willingness to participate in a conceptual journey, leading to a mental destination that at the outset is unknown to the listener.
… An idea cannot easily enter into the listeners' basic perceptual framework as a fresh idea through which they view the world, unless they themselves co-create it. For this purpose, as story that rings true can be a useful tool.
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Thus, over an above the transmittal of linguistic signals, the audience's perspective on the rest of the world has the tendency, while it is following the story, to become altered. For the duration of the story, and sometimes beyond, the audience's participation in this imaginary world can change their perceived relation to all other things. The change has as much to do with the process of the storytelling as with the particular story being told.
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When we dream alone, it is only a dream. When we dream together, it is no longer a dream but the beginning or reality.
– Brazilian proverb
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When does someone as intelligent and well-informed as Kotter fall into the trap of treating people as things? If we unpeel his conceptual onion by one final layer, we find that lying at the center is fear. If people, whether employees in organizations or people having lunch under an apple tree, are treated as people, rather than as things, then there is a risk that they might not accept the idea that we have come to propose to them, namely, move to the apple tree—or accept knowledge management, or whatever. This risk creates fear. We become frightened that the people might decide that it is not a good idea. Or they might come up with a different and better idea, which will be their idea, not ours. Instead of relaxing, and learning to accept these possibilities as good potential outcomes to have at hand, and enjoying the fruits of the creativity of the group, fear of loss of control is prevalent, and so modes of behaving and talking evolve—and in Kotter's case are recommended—that are generally ineffective.
This is the typical thinking about organizational change at the end of the twentieth century, a world in which fear lies at the very center.
Out of fear, managers are relentlessly grinding along with their clockwork models, their vertical hierarchies, their treatment of people as things to be programmed and manipulated. The ineffectiveness of it all is exacerbated by the managers' subliminal awareness that the underlying assumptions are passé. Hence the wondering as to why they are unable to lead change, and why the innumerable books on leading change don't seem to help them.
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So what is it in the stories I have been telling about knowledge sharing that has helped generate an action-oriented response?
The key seems to be that we are dealing not with one story, but two. Birkerts has pointed to the coexistence of the two voices that can occur in storytelling when the story is less than all-absorbing: the listeners hear the storyteller's telling of the story, but also hear their own silent voices within, as their minds ponder a variety of quite different thoughts. Birkerts considered—and deplored—the possibility that these two voices might be in dissonant conversation: the listener isn't listening! For Birkerts, who is looking at stories as entertainment, anything less than one hundred percent concentration on the story itself is a failure of storytelling.
And in storytelling for entertainment, something less than full absorption in the story can constitute a problem: the storyteller is rambling on about Zambia, while the listener is thinking about her rapidly filling inbox. Birkerts's wish as a lover of fictional narrative is to immerse himself fully in the magical world of the explicit narrative, and so leave behind his own drab reality. Any lack of attention to the storyteller's voice is seen by Birkerts as a regrettable shortcoming in the storyteller's art or the reader's willingness and ability to listen. Birkerts wants—even yearns—to have the more articulated, the more present language of the storyteller push his own subthreshold murmuring totally into the background, so that he, the reader, may be famously entertained.
And yet for the springboard storyteller, the storyteller whose purposes are not so much entertainment as to generate an action-oriented response in the listener, there is another interesting possibility, namely that the two voices of the listener and the storyteller can continue in parallel, but this time in consonant conversation. The storyteller might deliberately tell the story in such a way as to allow some mental space for the listeners to forge their own thoughts, with the explicit objective of having the listeners invent analogous stories of their own, in parallel to the storyteller's explicit story.
Here, the world of the explicit story is merely a springboard, a mere point of departure for new stories that the listeners will generate in their own minds, form their own environments, from their special contexts, from their own experience of problems. What is memorable for the listeners on such a journey will not be the moment of embarkation when they set out by way of the explicit story, but rather the virtual journey they make of their accord to a destination that they themselves generate.
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Misdescription is built into the very nature of mapmaking. No single map can ever be completely accurate. In making the selection, the map is necessarily a misrepresentation.
Any single map is but one of an indefinitely large number of maps that might be produced for the same situation or from the same data. Any situation might be the subject of different maps, all of which are inaccurate in different ways. Understanding the specific inaccuracies of a map is a key to understanding its value as a map. It's a matter of choosing—and being willing to live with—the inaccuracies for the purposes you had in mind.
An understanding of the nature of maps can help to overcome our sense of surprise and disbelief when we first learn that narratives turn out to be more apt than analysis for the communication of very complex ideas. The reason is simple. Narratives are a better fit not only with the way our brains are made, but also with the underlying reality of the subject matter being discussed.
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Knowledge management might be seen as comprising multiple dimensions, including knowledge strategy, communities of practice, help desks, knowledge bases, knowledge capture, knowledge storage, knowledge dissemination, knowledge taxonomies, quality assurance, authentication procedures, budget, incentives, and knowledge measures.
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The springboard story is a means to an end. The end is to join with the audience and co-create the future. The springboard story is a conceptual springboard, a launching device aimed at enabling a whole group of people to leap—mentally—higher than they overwise might, to get beyond mere common sense. If they succeed in leaping higher, it is a success. If they don't, and stay stubbornly grounded in yesterday's reality, in yesterday's assumptions, then it is a failure. The springboard story is stillborn if it doesn't lead to the co-creation of the future—no matter how much it entertains the crowd, no matter how much it makes them laugh or cry, no matter ho much it generates a whole lot of debate.
Nevertheless, when the springboard story is successful, the teller becomes one with the audience and shares a mutual communication space so that storytelling becomes a truly joint venture in common mental terrain. The speaker effectively becomes the listener as the audience creates its own message.
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The observer looks at the change idea as being "out there," as being a fixed and unchanging entity. When the change idea is looked at externally and objectively as a voyeur, every step to implement it is an effort, because the goal is complex, external, distant, foreign.
By contrast, from within a story…, the listeners can get inside the idea, sensing the implications of it so intensely that the idea can become absorbed into their own identity. The idea is infused into their own spirit, so that they can withstand more ambiguity than normal. Living the story can help break the habit of seeing reality as static, rather than dynamic. It is a process of which they are part, not an entity in opposition to them. Following a story enables the listeners to understand the relation of things that results in underlying harmony. Their predilection for consonance is not an imposition on reality, but a response to it and an extension of it.
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A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and ears to their real surroundings, running the tongue in the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one's felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are.
– David Adams, The Spell of the Sensuous
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Storytelling was used to champion freedom, interaction, and organic growth in a multitude of directions, and in so doing, advantage was taken of tools that operate beyond the scope of linear logic. By being as interested in the unknown as the known, we have learned much.
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