Change: Interview of Steve Denning – Storytelling and Social Networks

Interviewed by Seth Kahan

I first met Steve at the World Bank in 1994. Two years later he became my boss, directing the team that introduced Knowledge Management (KM). Under his watch our 5-person group, with no budget, successfully implemented the large-scale change initiative, transforming an old-style bureaucracy of 15,000 professionals. In just two years KM went from an unfunded mandate to a formally recognized institutional strategy that received $60m in annual allocations. Steve’s primary tool for making the change: storytelling & social networks.

I met Steve in his living room where his pencil drawings decorate one entire wall and his little dog, Tache, kept us company.

Steve: A mechanistic organization or a command-and-control organization isn’t efficient or effective, at least in the medium term.

If you look closely at an autocratic organization like Home Depot that is currently being celebrated in Harvard Business Review and BusinessWeek as a best practice, you can already see the problems of staff morale that lead to poor customer service, that lead to a doomed business model.

The complaint about these approaches is not just that the folks at Home Depot are miserable – BusinessWeek confirms that they are. The real problem is that while this approach can make some apparent short-run gains, it just doesn’t work in the medium term.

Thus Home Depot’s stock price is below what it was in 2001, before the supposedly successful transformation. So Wall Street doesn’t buy the transformation story. The fact is that the autocratic approach might have worked once upon a time, but it doesn’t work in a sustainable way with the kinds of challenges faced by organizations and knowledge workers that we have in the early 21st Century.

So what’s the alternative? In my view, it’s a shift in the approach to leadership and management, a kind of change in the DNA of organizations, so that the default position of leaders in organizations is one of collaboration and interaction with all stakeholders, and so that command-and-control and mechanistic management is universally seen as an anomaly, an aberration, an exception to be used only in very unusual circumstances, if at all.

Seth: Command and control makes it difficult.

Steve: The problem is that command-and-control kills passion. In terms of a global movement, a network is much more powerful than an organization. An organization can be wiped out. But a network of believers is almost indestructible.

Seth: Will that network just be people inside the organization?

Steve: No. For example, I contributed to and became part of a global network of people who were interested in knowledge. The World Bank got swept up in that. What we want to do is change the DNA of organizations. Organizations now automatically shift into command-and-control. We want to change that DNA so that command-and-control is seen as an anomaly, not the norm. Collaboration should be the default. Command-and-control should be a rare technique that you use in times of crisis when all hell has broken loose and the ship is about to founder, but all other times you’re in a collaborative mode.

Seth: And you do that is through storytelling…

Steve: And networks. An organization can’t change the DNA. It’s through the networks that people collectively realize, ‘There is a better way. All our futures depend on making a shift.’ At the time it probably won’t even feel like a shift. It will just seem obvious. Who could have thought of anything else?

This will happen when people have effective tools to make collaboration work. The reason that the collaborative approach doesn’t get the recognition it deserves is that people don’t have usable tools.

You have to get down to a finer level of granularity, more specificity… what do you do Monday morning if you want collaboration? What does it look and feel like? How do you actually make it happen?

I’m starting to map the different ways of getting people’s attention. I’m looking at the different ways you stimulate people to want something different. That’s where story really comes to the fore. Story is almost the only way you can get people to really believe in a different kind of future and start wanting something different.

There are twelve different types of stories that work to build a collaborative approach, to create high-performance teams. I will be speaking about them at the Smithsonian this April. They can also be found in Chapter 7 of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling.

Steve Denning hosts The World’s Premier Organizational Storytelling Event

Smithsonian Storytelling Weekend April 21-22 2006 – Washington, DC

Visit to learn more & register

Books by Steve Denning:

  • The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations Butterworth Heinemann, 2000
  • Squirrel, Inc.: A Fable of Leadership Through Storytelling Jossey Bass, 2004
  • Storytelling in Organizations: How Narrative and Storytelling are Transforming 21st Century Management Butterworth Heinemann, 2004
  • The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling:Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative Jossey Bass, 2005

Steve on the web: