Steve Denning on Operating Without Budget or Authority

The interview below is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out.

Steve Denning is the global thought leader on organizational storytelling. He has written five books on the subject, including two award-winning books: The Secret Language of Leadership and The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling. The Financial Times chose The Secret Language of Leadership as one of the best business books of 2007, writing, “If business leaders do not immediately grasp the vital insights offered by this book, both they and their organisations are doomed.”

Steve is the former programme director of knowledge management at the World Bank, where he spearheaded the organizational knowledge-sharing program. When I served on his team, I had the chance to work hand-in-hand with him leading a large-scale change initiative.

In November 2000, Denning was selected as one of the world’s ten Most Admired Knowledge Leaders by the Teleos Leadership Institute.

Seth: When I joined your team at the World Bank, we had no real authority to speak of. Clearly this did not stop you from pressing forward. What can you say about leading without formal authority?

Steve: Well, formal authority can be a real problem. We did get the support of the president, Jim Wolfensohn, and that was helpful. He furnished us with a clear message: “We will become the Knowledge Bank.” But it was just as important to our success that we did not have middle management breathing down our necks. What you want is someone outside the team giving clear priorities—”Here’s the goal,” “Here’s the vision”—and then a tear in the fabric of the universe. Space opens up that allows the team to self-organize into high performance.

Seth: What about budget? You started out with no money.

Steve: It was a blessing in disguise. When you’re given budget, you have to figure out what to do with it, and other people try and take it away from you. It creates a whole set of distractions that take your eyes off the real work, which is talking with people and discovering together what’s possible.

Of course, we needed resources. But they came as we needed them. When I needed more people, you and Lesley Shneier, a senior knowledge and learning specialist, were given to me on loan. When we needed to put on an event, like the Knowledge Fair, we made it enticing enough that people paid to be a part of it.

Seth: So the resources came as real value was generated. When there was something worth pursuing, people showed up and helped to fund it.

Steve: It was all based on real work. Most initiatives are based on someone’s idea of what should happen. They ask for money first, and then they have to figure out what to do with it. If they spend it on their idea and nothing happens, they look bad. We didn’t have to worry about that.

We created activities and events that people looked at and said, “I want to be involved in that. I’ll pay to have a table in the fair; I’ll let the group meet in my conference room; I’ll host that event.’”

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One Response to “Steve Denning on Operating Without Budget or Authority”

  1. […] really liked this mini-interview with Steve Denning about how to create dramatic change without budget or authority. The interview is part of Seth […]

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