The Big Shift cascades through all dimensions of our life. The Big Shift will also transform how we communicate with each other. We are moving from a world of deep analysis communicating explicit knowledge to a world of rich, personal narratives communicating tacit knowledge. Narratives powerfully help to shift perception from static objects to dynamic relationships (the focus of my previous posting).
20th century communication - research monographs rule
The 20th century was an era of research monographs, slicing into the complex reality we all confronted, seeking to simplify it and focus us on the elements that really mattered. We pursued research and explored many new frontiers but we did not rest until we had the knowledge stocks appropriately codified and reduced to writing in iron clad patents and copyrights. We knew that the real work and wealth creation did not start until we had protected stocks of explicit knowledge and reduced the knowledge to routine tasks that could be efficiently scaled.
Serious research required large data sets that could yield statistically significant results. It would be even better if the results could be reduced to a simple yet universal formula that could be reliably applied to yield predictable results across as many situations as possible. The more universal the results, the more scalable the activity could become.
Stories, on the other hand, were for kids. As early as possible in school, children were brought into the world of abstract concepts and scientific analysis. Stories at best were ghettoized into literature classes. Literature and arts were nice to have, budget permitting and as long as these programs did not conflict too much with the real work of bringing children to a level of “maturity” that would allow them to enter the workforce and become productive employees, able to handle the basics of explicit knowledge, literacy and numeracy.
This message was reinforced in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways. Virtually everyone in their academic careers has encountered the ultimate put-down: “The plural of anecdote is not data.” Get serious. Forget the stories, even if there are many of them, and focus on hard, raw data that can be massaged into real knowledge.
When we entered the workforce, this message was reinforced time and time again. “Don’t tell me stories, bring me data” could be emblazoned above the door of every conference room in the large corporations that drive our economy. Spreadsheets and PowerPoint charts ruled while memos summarized the findings and made the case for action. Stories could be read for entertainment and relaxation in our leisure time, but they had no respectable role in the workplace. Workers furtively gathered at the water cooler to tell stories, but quickly disbanded when their bosses showed up to check in on them.
The impact of the Big Shift
But here’s the thing. Knowledge stocks in general diminish in value as the changing world renders more and more of this knowledge obsolete. This increases the need to generate new knowledge. New knowledge inevitably has a higher proportion of tacit knowledge in its early development. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that is the most difficult to express, either because it is so new and so unfamiliar or because it is so deeply embedded in our practices that we are not even aware of it.
As tacit knowledge grows in value, we need different ways of communicating it. When we first encounter new and unexpected events or results, we often have a hard time even expressing what happened, much less reducing it to the abstract, conceptual language that explicit knowledge pulls us toward. We need different ways of communicating what we encountered. What do we tend to fall back on? Stories.
Pick any area that is just emerging. It could be some new technology frontier like cloud computing or a new set of practices like open source courseware. One key indicator of these emerging areas is a rapid growth in the number of conferences. What are people doing at these conferences? They are telling stories to each other, sharing experiences, seeking advice and input regarding those experiences and learning from each other.
The unique value of stories
Stories emerge as an increasingly central form of communication in times of rapid change because they so richly reflect the needs of the time. In particular, they help us to shift our perception from static objects to dynamic relationships.
Stories by their very nature are dynamic rather than static. Stories are ultimately about movement and development. They engage because they immerse listeners in changing circumstances and the challenges and opportunities created by change. Stories focus on sequences of events and highlighting the causal forces shaping these events. They are far more “true” than snapshots.
Stories are about relationships at multiple levels. Stories situate their protagonists in context – they help the listener to understand a complex set of relationships that shape the choices and movement of the protagonist. In a story everything is related. Stories integrate apparently disparate elements and make their relationships visible. They take people and things and focus on relationships rather than objects.
There’s another set of relationships developed by stories – the relationship between listeners and the protagonists as well as between the story-teller and listeners. Even more generally, as PJ Manney reminds us, stories help to cultivate empathy, encouraging listeners to understand the perceptions and motivations of others. This empathy extends far beyond the story at hand and helps listeners to be empathetic in all aspects of their lives. Thus, in many ways, stories help to build new relationships, rather than just describe existing relationships.
Stories powerfully illuminate tacit knowledge. By focusing attention on the motivations and practices of the protagonists they help us to gain insight into tacit knowledge that cannot be reduced to explicit knowledge. We indirectly access the tacit knowledge through a deeper understanding of context, choices and practices of specific individuals.
Stories inspire the imagination, rather than simply communicating existing knowledge. By pulling us into a new and often unfamiliar context and helping us to see this context through the eyes of someone else, stories help us to break out of our existing frames of reference and inspire us to see things in very different ways. As a result, stories can generate sparks of new insight that, properly nurtured, can lead to fundamentally new knowledge about complex and rapidly evolving situations. In the end, stories are not just powerful ways to communicate existing tacit knowledge; they help to catalyze the creation of new knowledge.
Stories are catalysts. One story often pulls out other stories from other people. Stories can begin to build upon each other and draw other people in. They spark broader conversations and begin to establish a common ground for shared understanding, helping to build trust based relationships.
Stories provide powerful filters that help us to orient ourselves in complex and rapidly changing worlds. On a daily basis, we are bombarded by an ever expanding array of stimuli that spread our attention ever more thinly and risk disorienting us in terms of a sense of what matters and what is simply noise. Stories help to focus our attention. The task of the story teller is to reduce a complex situation to its essence, making difficult decisions about what matters and what is simply extraneous while still preserving the relationships and textures that drive forward movement. The result can be very helpful to listeners in terms of communicating what is really important in a world that distracts and diminishes our ability to focus. At the same time, stories also encourage listeners to use their own imagination to enrich the context of the story – they pull listeners in and invite them to co-create the world at hand.
Stories focus on agency. Stories highlight the role of individuals and groups in acting upon challenges and opportunities. They give listeners a sense of the possibility and importance of action, rather than simply passively absorbing what is going on around them. They motivate listeners to make choices and act. They also show the potential to reflect on and to learn from action, as the listeners are encouraged to do when they hear stories about others.
Stories help develop a questing disposition and passion. Stories are often about protagonists who are curious and seeking something that is difficult to attain. By helping us to put ourselves in the situations of these protagonists and experiencing the questing disposition in a very personal way, they inspire us to pursue similar quests. Passion is about pursuit and stories can similarly ignite passion as we experience in a deeply personal way the satisfaction and rewards of pursuits. The potential for passion is enhanced by the passion that successful story-tellers bring to their craft. The stories that engage the most are the ones where the story-tellers communicate their own passion as well as the passion of their protagonists.
For all of these reasons, stories will become an increasingly central form of communication in the Big Shift. Stories help us to make sense and to make progress in complex and rapidly changing times in ways that more conventional forms of communication simply cannot.
So, what does this mean for corporate executives? Executives have generally viewed stories as somewhat suspect distractions from the focus and data required to run the business. As we move from a world where scalable efficiency is the source of wealth creation and capture to a world where scalable peer learning becomes a much more powerful source, stories assume a much more central role in the communication arsenal of executives.
The ultimate task of leaders is to help the people around them make sense and to make progress. In a world where performance pressures are mounting and the old assumptions no longer have as much validity, stories can be a powerful means for leaders to accomplish their mission. Stories become critical to build shared understanding among employees, but they also become increasingly powerful in helping to orient and engage third parties and customers.
Leadership is about pulling people out of their current situation and helping them to see the potential and opportunities that exist around them. Leadership is ultimately about helping people to pull out of themselves their potential, helping them to see and achieve the potential that lies latent within all of us. By pulling people into a different context and building connections with other people, stories can help leaders to be more effective.
For those who are intrigued by the increasing importance of stories, Steve Denning represents one of the most thoughtful proponents of narrative as a way to strengthen leadership. In particular, his book, “Squirrel, Inc.” explores a broad array of story-telling genres and analyzes their importance for leaders.
On a personal level, stories help to integrate our own experiences into an overall personal narrative. Personal narratives help to provide us with context and orientation in our own lives. Daniel Siegel in his important new book Mindsight makes the case that integrated personal narratives are an important marker of psychological health.
Stories matter. Analysis and explicit knowledge still have a major role to play. But stories and the tacit knowledge they convey are essential if we want to venture out to the edge, build a deep understanding of what is happing out there and help to communicate that understanding back to our colleagues in the core.
We have a choice. We can stay closeted in the core, hiding behind patents, research monographs and charts of compelling data, and staying well in the comfort zone of the forms of communication that have contributed to our success to date. But the complacency that breeds can be very dangerous in the Big Shift. Far better to venture beyond our comfort zone and master new forms of communication that will help us to make sense and to make progress in an increasingly complex and challenging world.
And, yes, I am aware of the profound irony that I wrote this entire blog posting without telling a single story. I am a prisoner of my 20th century education and still struggling to master the art of story telling.