Squirrel, Inc. is a struggling company. Their current plan of work, to help squirrels bury nuts for the winter, has been failing them and their company profits are sinking every day. It is time for a change and a young squirrel executive, Diana, has just the idea to bring about a new era for the company: a shift from nut-burying to nut-storing. But not everyone is on board with the major overhaul that would need to happen to put this new idea into play. How can Diana convince her coworkers, and those in power above her, that nut storing could be the saving grace for Squirrel, Inc.?
In his novel, Squirrel, Inc.: A Fable of Leadership through Storytelling, (2004) Steven Denning illustrates for his readers just how powerful the art of storytelling can be. Denning tells his readers that he is not “talking about fairy tales or the traditional stories that are told to children,” but rather “stories that are told every day in organizations throughout the world by busy executives.” (xv) Through the saga of Squirrel, Inc., and its many employees, Denning’s readers come to know the various ways in which storytelling can effectively communicate specific messages to an audience to help share knowledge, impart new ideas, and even squash rumors. His readers learn the seven high-value forms of storytelling and how, depending upon the audience and the message they want to share, they can utilize various narrative styles to help them find and tell a story to achieve real-world objectives.
Denning’s text is invaluable for a strategic communications professional as it offers insight into the various types of narratives that can be harnessed to realize specific goals. In the world of strategic communications, crafting particular messages for specific and targeted audiences is the main goal. Denning offers an outline for seven ways to craft those particular messages depending upon what goal needs to be met. He discusses stories that spark action, stories that communicate who you are, stories that transmit values, stories to get people working together, stories that “tame the grapevine,” or nullify negative gossip, stories that share knowledge, and stories that lead people into the future.
When Diana, a young Squirrel, Inc. executive, develops a company-saving idea, she has a difficult time getting her voice heard within the company. Desperate for help, she turns to the bartender at a local Squirrel, Inc. hangout for advice. She explains her struggle in getting the board to acknowledge her idea to turn Squirrel, Inc. from a nut-burying organization into a nut-storing organization, and how she has exhausted ways to share the facts and the numbers to the higher ranks within the company. The bartender imparts on her a different way to present her information: the use of storytelling. He advises Diana to tell a story of where nut-storing actually happened, to impart a story based in reality so that it anchors the listener’s attention, “The initial incidence needs to be true… because it is the truth that snaps the listeners out of complacency,” (15) and then to extrapolate the story with how the change can impact Squirrel, Inc. and get the listeners to imagine a future with nut-storing as their main function.
In reading this book, I instantly saw how applicable Denning’s storytelling concept would be to my own organization. Like Squirrel, Inc., my organization recently underwent some significant changes in order to survive the difficult economic times. We ended up having to re-district regions and the workers in charge of those regions, which upset a lot of our volunteers who were accustomed to working with specific employees. Volunteers started voicing their concerns that the changes in the organization only lead to confusion and disconnect with communication. The change also caused some disturbances within the staff, as people were shuffled around to new teams and new departments, and support roles were cut due to finance issues. These internal issues caused a lack of cohesion and feeling of teamwork, which lead to a downward trend in employee morale. In Region 1, the region in which I work, a new Director was hired as well as several new employees were added onto the team. Since October we have been struggling to find the sense of “team,” as well as how to be positive about our work when so many changes have halted the support we require to get our jobs done.
Denning’s text offered insight into how my Director can use storytelling techniques with our staff to quell uneasiness and negativity, to share our organization’s vision for the future with recruiting more volunteers and girls, to help our team find a sense of unity and work better together, and to help ease tensions with current volunteers. The same insights can be beneficial for any persons within an organization who is undergoing change, or that may need to undergo change in order to survive.
The text is also useful as a resource for scholars as it truly demonstrates the power of storytelling by way of telling a story. Denning capitalizes on his own techniques by threading his “lessons,” and “facts,” into a story of his own, and in each chapter the reader discovers ways to pick and craft stories appropriate for their needs. For example, in order to communicate who they are as a person, the reader should use a true and moving story that reveals a strength or weakness from their past. In doing so, their audience will better understand who they are as a person and what characteristics they value. Denning lays out the “formula,” or forms for each of the seven types of storytelling, which can serve as a guideline for scholars to help them craft appropriate messages depending upon what needs to be communicated.
Through their journey with Squirrel, Inc., the readers come to realize how much more effective storytelling can be as a communication tool. Rather than simply providing people with boring facts or charts and graphs, storytelling creates a connection with the audience that makes them feel as if they are a part of the vision. Whether a leader’s objective is to unite a team, share knowledge, impart company values and beliefs, or lead people into the future, Denning aptly demonstrates how narrative storytelling can accomplish those objectives in a positive manner and how anyone can harness the power of storytelling to achieve their goals.
Check out the book for purchase at Barnes and Noble here.
Denning, Stephen. Squirrel Inc.: A fable of leadership through storytelling. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004. Print.