Strategic narratives are present at all levels of an organisation, from overarching stories shared by executives to align around a common purpose and goals, to teams fighting to gain traction for project deliverables, or individuals positioning themselves as a valued asset during the latest reorganisation. They recognise that storytelling is inherent to how humans communicate and make sense of the world.
// See also: the Strategic Narratives Masterclass //
Since the terms “story” and “narrative” are often used interchangeably we’ll revert to the following definitions from Herman (2009):
FIGURE 1: Defining “story” and “narrative”
In this model, a single narrative can contain one or more stories (and if we wanted to expand our scope we could include story worlds, and universes, although they are less relevant for this article).
Back to basics
There are a lot of meaty ideas to wrap our heads around, so let’s start with a granular example that highlights the role of storytelling and narrative in how we make sense of information. Read this short text, adapted from Haven (2007):
FIGURE 2: A short “story” example
Your cognitive processes that occurred in the reading likely included:
- assessing whether this is a viable short story and it is worth paying attention to,
- projecting associations between “she”, “Susie” and “John”,
- seeking intent for the each of the characters,
- assumptions around cause and effect sequencing,
- framing the “story” through our own unique lived experiences,
- our search for a “struggle” to be overcome, based on why we think the story is being shared, and,
- adding details and filling in gaps to meet our desire for closure.
Humans are primed to use stories to understand the world. Evidence of the first documented stories can be found in the earliest markings on cave walls 36,000 years ago and continue with a wide range of cultural artefacts that have survived, even thrived over millennia. The importance of stories and narratives today can be found in the enduring presence of storytelling palaces such as theatres, the prevalence of “story” features in many social media applications, and the high status in society afforded to selected storytelling professionals such as actors, musicians, or game designers.
As something affected by events, culture and technologies the narrative landscape is in constant flux.
An accelerating trend since the beginning of this century is the proliferation of platforms to enable first person storytelling and the fracturing of norms within each of those platforms that has led to remediation—when “our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation” (Bolter and Grunion, 1999). Today, we all have access to tools to drive our own narrative, but are also at the mercy of algorithms to surface and amplify them to our intended audiences. Generative and other AIs combined with advances in computational processing are rapidly expanding scope for remediation, creating threats and opportunities to current assumptions of best practice.
FIGURE 3: The remediation landscape
To paraphrase what I wrote last month, to navigate the changes in this narrative landscape we need:
- a deep understanding of the fundamentals of storytelling and narratives,
- acknowledging why current practices and processes evolved into their current state, and,
- a set of principles to guide decision making for the new reality.
Principles provide a lens through which to assess new contexts to decide what to systematically adopt, prudently adapt or judiciously ignore. A set of principles nudges us towards mindful adoption, prior to new ways of thinking and working becoming calcified.
Lets now turn our attention to storytelling and narratives in the organsation.
Storytelling in the organisation
Over the last two years I’ve been researching my next book on human and organisational sensemaking. Aside from the depth of themes covered—from the origins of speech systems and writing, to theories that seek to explain organisational decision making—I’ve taken a meta-view that looks at narrative formats. The analysis probed what drives engagement in the workplace, why certain ideas gain widespread traction, and which (sometimes excellent) ideas fall by the wayside. These themes keep circling back to organisational purpose: its mission, vision and core values—that manages to bridge its history with its idealised future—and which is communicated through a strategically positioned narrative.
FIGURE 4: The organisational strategic narrative
Since “culture” can be widely interpreted, I’ve settled on the definition by Atkin (2019)—organisational culture “the social soup of shared assumptions that an organisation has about how its members should behave, relate and decide things together. ”
FIGURE 5: Organisational culture
Why we should broaden our scope
Although this definition of “strategic narratives” has had its moment in the business literature, it is too narrow to describe how communication occurs across all strata of an organisation. Remediation—the first-person retelling and fracturing of formats that are omnipresent today—allow us to broaden our scope of where narratives can occur and be strategically positioned—into what I term narrative layers from the individual to meta-narratives (such as Christian or Hindu religious creation narratives) that are used to explain our origins and idealised behavioural norms. Each layer is conducive to a particular narrative format and has its own aims, norms and desired outcomes, and each can have strategic intent.
FIGURE 6: Narrative layers
The under-realised opportunity comes from understanding each narrative layer and how they relate to and affect one another. There are many practical applications of this understanding including:
- positioning oneself in a job interview or to obtain a promotion,
- developing a communications strategy for project deliverables to either take advantage of prevailing organisational narratives or alternatively (with higher risk/reward) to take a position as a critical alternative to the status quo,
- galvanising a department or team into action, and cementing its position in the organisation,
- creating or refining an organisational narrative,
- positioning the organisation within an industry or society. This is particularly pertinent for multinational companies and organisations whose products are used globally, in that they are affected by societal and meta-narrative layers that draw on belief systems that are very different from their own.
If you’re interest in strategic narratives is piqued, I’ve developed a course that takes attendees step by step from the building blocks of storytelling through to understanding the narrative forces that drive organisational decision making today. To ensure practical application it includes hands-on exercises to better understand and develop individual, project and organisational narratives. For those already steeped in narratology, it also provides tools to reframe the changes occurring through remediation and emerging technologies such as Generative and other AIs.
I hope you can join us—sessions will run in May and early bird tickets are available now. Details and how to obtain tickets are in the full mastrerclass description.
- Herman, D. (2009). Narrative ways of worldmaking. In: Heinan, S., and Sommer, R., eds. Narratology in the age of cross-disciplinary narrative research. Berlin, DE: Walter De Gruyter, 71–87.
- Bolter, D. & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
- Haven, Kendall (2007). Story proof: the science behind the startling power of story. Libraries Unlimited.
- Atkin, Doug (2019). How Airbnb found its purpose and why its a good one. Medium.
A extensive reading list is supplied in the masterclass handouts.