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Organizational Storytelling

Steve Denning is the world leader in organizational storytelling. He has written five books on the subject. The Financial Times chose his book, The Secret Language of Leadership, as one of the best business books of 2007, and wrote: "If leaders do not immediately implement the findings of this book, both they and their organizations are doomed."

April 16-18, 2009, the 8th annual Organizational Storytelling Workshop will take place in Washington, DC, and Steve will, of course, be there. I asked Steve today to tell me why storytelling is so important to leading change. Here is what he said:

Smart managers have been asking themselves: "Do we need people who can communicate compellingly and engagingly and inspire staff and clients to embrace change with enduring enthusiasm?" And the answer is: "Yes, as a matter of fact, we do."

Then the next question is: "How many of those people do we need?" And in many firms, particularly firms offering high-end professional services, the answer is: "Everyone! We need everyone in the whole organization to have that capability."

And there's a hard financial reason behind the answer: for firms, in a world of deep, rapid and pervasive change, it's tough to think of anything that could have a bigger, immediate impact on a firm's bottom line than a capacity to communicate difficult change messages compellingly to staff and to clients.

Then the discussion moves on to: "Well, if the capacity to communicate compellingly is so important to our bottom line, what are we doing about it? Why aren't we approaching this systematically? What would be involved in creating this capacity?"

So, I often see the following:

  • In some cases, firms start with the CEO and the senior leadership team and begin to establish a basic competence in leadership storytelling in this group, before working systematically down through the rest of the organization.
  • In other cases, the firm starts with the formal leadership program and introduces storytelling as a basic component for all the up-and-coming leaders.
  • Still other firms take the people involved in grappling with some intractable business challenge where the stakes are very high and train them on leadership storytelling.
  • And some firms are doing "all of the above." 
As a result, leadership storytelling has moved out of the shadows and into the mainstream of business management today, making a significant contribution to change leadership.


If you're interested in learning more about organizational storytelling, hearing from practitioners from a wide variety of organizations and Steve, plan to attend the Organizational Storytelling Workshop this spring. I'll see you there.

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  • Susan Luke

    Denning for President! At least he makes sense!

    Seriously, storytelling is truly a core competency for leaders at all levels of organizations across continents and cultures. By continuously tackling the challenge of values and other intangibles through their teams and organizations, leaders must understand the strategic value of using narrative in making this happen!

    What I am seeing in my work with organizational leaders is that those who are as good at shaping and using stories as they are at collecting and analyzing data, have a much easier time guiding the behaviors and decision making necessary for a healthy, forward-thinking organization.

    Susan Luke
    Corporate Mythologist

  • Stephen Denning

    Hi Seth,

    There's also a more recent development. In the companies I described above, the companies left it as optional as to whether and where storytelling should be deployed. As a result, the fast learners used it but someimtes others didn't. So the companies weren't getting the full value of their training efforts.

    So now the more astute companies are saying: why don't we get more systematic about this? Why don't we think through where storytelling can have most impact in our business processes, both in management-staff contacts and in firm-client encounters, and define the role that it should play, and give our people examples and tools and guidance on how to deploy it in that specific situation. In this mode, storytelling becomes a seamless part of the company environment. It ceases to be something staff have to ponder whether to use it. It becomes the normal and natural way of doing things within that organization.

    I expect we'll be seeing more companies in this mode over the coming year or two.

    Steve Denning

  • Thomas Clifford

    Hi Seth,

    Denning certainly nailed it.

    If companies need people to tell compelling and inspiring stories to inspire change and leadership, as a filmmaker I believe they also need to extend that type of thinking to the films they produce, especially for internal communications.

    All too often, video is treated as a commodity. It lacks meaning simply because it lacks a story that connects the audience with a higher purpose.

    The conference is on my calendar!