November 27, 2015

Do the stories, you tell your business, inspire?

By Paul Laughlin

Ten years ago, in 2005, a group of people working in the field of knowledge management across UK & USA, coined the phrase ‘narrative leadership‘.

So was born what might appear another fad in the field of leadership. Plenty of books were written & conferences attended.

But, once the dust had settled, and HBR et al were talking about other topics, positive progress had been made. More CEOs made use of stories to communicate compelling visions. More innovative businesses brought together multidisciplinary teams to share knowledge through storytelling. One of the leading lights of this movement was a consultant called Stephen Denning.

Now a decade on, amidst the buzz about big data, decision science, content marketing & disruption – you don’t hear many people talk about narrative leadership. But a focus on storytelling is reawakening. In the early 2000s I had the pleasure of experiencing a leadership training course that included material from Stephen & was captivated. The concept that humans are innately receptive to the telling of stories as a means of effective communication was self-evident around the world & in so many different cultures. It was also captivating to imagine how the dull world of working in Financial Services could be enlivened by this more holistic style of leadership.

The book I recommend you read on this topic is The Leaders Guide to Storytelling by Stephen Denning. It’s sub-title gives a clue as to the style of this tome: “Mastering the art and discipline of business narrative”. Whilst not always an easy read, partly due to the depth of what is shared & partly to the polymath nature of the author, it is a treasury of practical advice on this challenge. Its one of those books I’ve returned to several times over the years to refine my skills & pass on storytelling tips to customer insight analysts & leaders alike.

It is structured in 3 primary sections. Part one explains the role of story within organisations. Part two unpacks eight narrative patterns (story templates) that help with different leadership challenges. Part three covers what Stephen calls ‘putting it all together’ or the challenge of how to apply this approach.

After the encouragement of the first two chapters, to be sure you are telling the right story (true, relevant & helpful) and telling the story right (the performance piece), the treasure chest of this book is the 8 chapters that form Part Two. Using a mixture of evocative analogies and real world examples (including surprisingly short & simple stories), Stephen shares templates for stories and approaches to creating them for eight different common leadership challenges:

  1. Motivating others to Action: A positive ‘springboard’ story;
  2. Building trust in You: A turning point story;
  3. Building trust in your Company: A brand promise in action story;
  4. Transmitting your Values: A minimalist parable;
  5. Getting others Working Together: A moving account of shared experience;
  6. Sharing Knowledge: Problem solving stories with context;
  7. Taming the Grapevine: Satirising the rumour mill;
  8. Creating & sharing your Vision: A future story.

In each of these chapters, Stephen digs beneath the surface of the challenge to help leaders understand which approaches work & which do not, plus the reasons for such behaviour. He compliments this with real life examples, practitioner tips & a template for taking the storytelling approach recommended. In that sense this is much more than a book about storytelling, it is just as much a leadership textbook. However, true to its raison d’être, it delivers bite sized leadership advice through the medium of stories & examples.

Although it might sound like the most relevant chapter for Customer Insight leaders is number 6 above, Sharing Knowledge, in fact all the leadership challenges above appear at different times for insight leaders & their teams. That knowledge sharing chapter is also more focused on how to convey in a more interesting way rather dry technical expert knowledge learned through experience. The most relevant of all the stories to insight leaders and the one Stephen suggests leaders master first, is in fact the first one. Communicating insights in a positive way that motivates action in the business is perhaps their greatest challenge and one where a well crafted story can really help.

Communicating insights in a way that motivates #action is perhaps a #CustomerInsight #leaders greatest challenge. Click To Tweet

Which brings us to the closing part of this book. Across two chapters, one focussed on the challenge of how established businesses can innovate & the other on a ‘different kind of leader‘, Stephen passes on a great deal of leadership wisdom. The final chapter on being a different kind of leader is particularly inspirational and draws together numerous strands from throughout this book (our story). He advocates an interactive leadership model, one where the leader participates, connects & communicates with different types people as peers; open to fresh ideas. If you exclude the manipulative models of leadership (from corrupt bureaucrats to spin doctors), he suggests to authentic models of leadership. The first is the traditional command & control, or Napoleonic model of leadership. The second is an interactive model using narrative & genuine conversations or Tolstoyan leadership.

Despite being 10 years old, this book is a real gem. In today’s business world, with the challenges of content marketing, customer conversations, colleague motivation & continual innovation – Stephen’s advice sounds more relevant than ever. I heartily recommend this treasure chest as a book for the Christmas list of every Customer Insight leader.

It will help you more than Black Friday, but there will also be stories to come out of what your customer experience today…