posted 25 Aug 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 1
Book review: Squirrel Inc. – A Fable of Leadership through Storytelling
Jan Wyllie reviews Squirrel Inc. – A Fable of Leadership through Storytelling by Stephen Denning
The received wisdom in business storytelling today is that stories must be removed from their personal context to allow people to suspend their disbelief. By adopting this approach, workers are likely to believe in stories and ultimately do what their leaders want them to. Squirrel Inc. advocates leadership that employs a blank agenda when first meeting non-leader groups. According to Squirrel Inc., true leadership is about understanding and satisfying non-leaders’ wants and needs.
Squirrel Inc. is a tale of a company of fluffy squirrels who behave and talk exactly like humans. The company, which specialises in burying acorns, is going down the pan because too many acorns are being lost and destroyed by human activity. Diana, the heroine, has come up with a new idea: acorns should be stored, not buried – an initiative guaranteed to return the company to profit and growth, as well as keeping the squirrels from going hungry.
However, there is a flaw in the plan: the storage idea is too radical and risky for senior managers. The book opens with Diana entering a tavern “high up in the old oak tree on 44th Street” where most of the action takes place. She is angry and frustrated by her inability to persuade Squirrel Inc. to take the decision that she knows will save it from ruin, despite the conclusive evidence she has collected.
As luck would have it, the tavern owner happens to be a storytelling expert, taught by the great squirrel Dio. He teaches Diana how to tell the right springboard story to get the corporate-transformation ball rolling. Other squirrels with ifferent storytelling skills then use various narratives to enable the change to be implemented. The plan is to usher in a new era at Squirrel Inc. at a gala knees-up at the tavern. Bureaucratic infighting delays the future, and after some unexpected twists and turns, the new era eventually emerges.
Central to Squirrel Inc. is the notion that there are seven “high-value forms of organisational storytelling”, each with different characteristics and purposes. The seven story types are applied to the problems at Squirrel Inc., starting with Diana’s springboard story that both communicates a complex and unfamiliar idea and moves people to act, enabling the audience to imagine the story in their own context. This type of story needs to be true, short and positive. The springboard genre is the subject of Stephen Denning’s previous offering, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organisations.
In Squirrel Inc., he introduces six more guiding principles for leaders looking to change organisations:
- Leaders need to express who they are: use a true story revealing personal vulnerability;
- They need to transmit values: convey how leaders deal with adversity, ensuring actions are consistent with the story;
- They need to facilitate collaboration: start with an open agenda, be moving and promote ‘that reminds me’ personal storytelling;
- They need to “tame the grapevine” of negative gossip: use humour, flag incongruities;
- They need to share information: employ repeated structure and reflect multiple perspectives and disciplines;
- Finally, stories are needed to “lead people into the future”.
‘Leading’ stories are referred to in the concluding ‘Guidelines’ section, where the lessons of each chapter are summarised. As Denning puts it, “The underlying reason for the affinity between leadership and storytelling is simple: narrative – unlike abstraction and analysis – is inherently collaborative. Storytelling helps leaders work with individuals as co-participants, not merely as objects or underlings.”
Leaders, managers and even those employees involved in serious organisational change would benefit from reading Squirrel Inc. It clearly and concisely encapsulates both the why and how of seven types of organisational storytelling, using narrative as the carrying medium. There is no doubt that this story approach helps illustrate the points in the book, making them easier to understand and assimilate.
The Squirrel Inc.’s seven organisational storytelling types, which are of obvious high value for leaders, do not preclude the possibility of other story types emerging. Denning implies that having a powerful story means having a good idea to communicate in the first place. The book suggests a marriage of narrative and analysis, with analysis shedding light on costs, benefits, risks, scheduling, competencies, competition and so on; and narrative communicating the idea once it has been evaluated.
As for the animal fable idea, personally I would have preferred human characters with whom I could have identified. The behaviour of the squirrels in the book has very little to do with their nature. I believe that the magic of animal fables is that the characters and attributes of the animals are at the heart of the story, rather than animals simply being used as masks of human types. Unfortunately, Squirrel Inc. loses some of the magic because of this. Nevertheless, it is a useful and effective introduction to both the art and practice of business storytelling.
Title: Squirrel Inc. – A Fable of Leadership through Storytelling
Author: Stephen Denning
Publishers: Jossey Bass, 2004
Jan Wyllie, managing editor, Trend Monitor, firstname.lastname@example.org