Stephen Denning: Guru of Management Narrative?

In writing the literature review for Enterprising Fables, one name that demands serious attention is Stephen Denning, who has written several practitioner-oriented books about how managers can enhance their persuasiveness through the strategic use of simple stories.

Denning’s own story is a compelling one. Initial success as a lawyer – winning a case for an undeserving client – as well as the tragic death of his older brother in a traffic accident led him to reexamine his goals in life. He left his native Australia to make a difference by working in third world development at the World Bank.

After twenty-five years and advancing to senior management, an internal power struggle led to his being sidelined – given the apparently meaningless assignment of “looking into information.” This diversion came in 1996, a propitious time because of the growth of the Internet. Denning redefined himself as the Bank’s knowledge management champion, and his cause quickly was embraced by President (and fellow Aussie) James Wolfensohn.

Denning found that the most effective element of his pitch for KM was an anecdote about a World Bank consultant in remote Zambia accessing the Center for Disease Control’s website to provide his clients with immediate and valuable information about malaria. Denning then played a key role leading a successful (and well-regarded) KM initiative in the World Bank. His use of the Zambia story led him to take the narrative turn, leaving the World Bank in 2001 to become a speaker, writer, and consultant about management narrative.

Since then he has written several books, including The Springboard (2000), an account of his experiences in the World Bank, and two how-to books, The Leader’s Guide to Story-Telling (2005) and The Secret Language of Leadership (2007). I will focus on the latter two, as they were written to stake out his ground as the guru of management narrative.

The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling is organized around eight specific uses of narrative: to ignite action and implement change (what he did at the World Bank), to tell your (personal) story, to build your company’s brand by telling its story, to instill an organization’s values to its employees, to encourage employees to work together as teams, to share knowledge, to respond to gossip and rumors, and to create a shared vision.

The Secret Language of Leadership is somewhat broader in its focus, situating the use of narrative within management communications. It focuses on the use of narrative in driving change (the first of the eight uses of narrative discussed in Leader’s Guide), in particular by showing how stories can be used to getting colleagues’ attention, stimulate their desire for change, and show them the benefits of change.

Denning’s definition of narrative is very loose. He uses narrative and story as synonyms and defines both as “an account of a set of events that are causally related.” So, for him, any time a manager is referring to events, whether personal or organizational, s(he) is storytelling. Denning is more specific about context, envisioning that managers will almost always be telling their stories orally at meetings or in speeches. The most literary form of narrative he imagines is Powerpoint slides. For Denning storytelling is a “performance art.”

The type of story that Denning generally prefers is what he calls minimalist, an unembellished set of events, with one protagonist at most, and a simple plot, usually one that ends with success. Denning isn’t particularly interested in managers developing or using more complicated narratives that would be realized in formats such as film, novels, or traditional oral story-telling. This preference is functional rather than aesthetic, in that Denning believes that minimalist stories enable the managerial storyteller’s target audience to “write” themselves into the story by imagining themselves as the protagonist.

Reading quickly through the text and footnotes of both of Denning’s books, there were several things I liked and things I didn’t. I thought Denning was most authentic when he talked about his lived experience, particularly at the World Bank, and what he learned from his use of narrative as well as from his observations of corporate politics as played there. His recommendations for the use of narrative were based on his own experience and, it would appear, the experience of managers for whom he consulted. He developed comprehensive how-to lists in both books, and the components of the lists seemed plausible. Furthermore, he was humble enough to say that these lists are based on his judgment and are not confirmed by quantitative research.

Denning, like many management gurus, uses the secondary literature – quoting other guurs – rather than undertaking his own original research (which is understandable for someone working on his own and without the benefit of the research grants that support professors). When his case studies are detailed and comprehensive, for example his analysis of ten communication mistakes Al Gore made in the 2000 election campaign (Secret Language of Leadership, pp. 3-20), they were very persuasive.

On more than a few occasions, however, Denning seemed to be taking the business literature and putting little more than a narrative gloss on it. Thus his discussion of storytelling to establish a company’s brand (The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, pp. 102-120) came straight from the marketing literature. That book concludes with an extended contrast (pp. 280-304) between what he calls Napoleonic command-and-control oriented managers and Tolstoyan interactive leaders than sounds to me like the Theory X/Theory Y and manager/leader dichotomies dressed up in new language.

Another example of superficial secondary analysis is his discussion of Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” speech (Leader’s Guide, pp. 231-232), which makes the point – intended to support his notion of minimalist narrative – that, while Churchill used magnificent rhetoric, he was deliberately imprecise about the British government’s strategy for pursuing the Second World War. A deeper investigation of that speech would have told a much more interesting story, focusing attention on both the lengthy recounting of the British Army’s failure in Europe and evacuation from Dunkirk that proceeded the peroration, and the political context, in which a powerful faction in the National Unity Government still embraced the notion of a negotiated settlement with the Nazis. (See chapter 4 of Governing Fables for that story, and several others, all around the theme of appeasement.)

Most recently, Denning has taken a turn away from narrative. His latest book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, advises on how managers can create “people-centred organizations” that “routinely delight and enchant their customers” and “automatically draw on the full talents and creativity” of the people doing the work (quotes from his website stevedenning.com).

In the blog on his website, he traces three stages in leadership storytelling: 1.0 is the simple telling and retelling of stories and 2.0 is the use of storytelling as a management technique, as discussed in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling and The Secret Language of Leadership. Denning feels that as a result of stage 2.0, the use of narrative has become firmly established within the broader field of management communication. In his stage 3.0 storytelling becomes a means to an end, namely an indicator of whether organizations are delighting their customers or drawing on the full talents and creativity of their workers.

I should say that I have not yet read The Leader’s Guide to Radical management, but it seems suspiciously similar to the panaceas that many other business gurus peddle. While the gathering of stories is undoubtedly one way of assessing how well an organization is performing, it is not the only way, and can very easily fall prey to sampling error, in that the stories gathered are not representative of the organization’s overall performance. (As an example of this, I wrote about how in the October 2011 Ontario election, the incumbent Liberal Party argued that they had improved the health system by presenting statistics showing decreased waiting times, while the Opposition New Democrats used horror stories about emergency wards to argue that the health system was declining. Which of the conflicting stories – and storytelling methodologies – do you believe?)

To conclude, I think that Denning has done important work hypothesizing and demonstrating how narrative can effectively be used by managers. He could have carried the work on to do more to demonstrate, and perhaps even begin to test his hypotheses. But a guru has to do what a guru has to do and go to where the market seems to be going, and so Denning is off to promote radical management. Whether he is telling a new story remains to be seen.

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