To John Hagel: please don’t take story out of corporate narrative

Posted by Shawn Callahan - October 9, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling, Strategy

John Hagel is a highly influential business thought leader. He heads up a think tank for Deloitte Touche in the USA and has written some terrific books such as the Power of Pull. Senior leaders listen to John and he’s in the privileged position to introduce new ideas, such as corporate narrative, to boardrooms around the world.

Over the last couple of years John has hit on the idea that companies should have a corporate narrative, but in his version he makes it clear that a narrative is definitely not a story. His latest blog post describes his thinking. Personally, I feel he is making a false distinction and is jeopardising how companies might appreciate narrative-based techniques to strategy, change and leadership.

John’s idea of helping companies develop a clear, open-ended narrative is a good one. A strong narrative inspires people within and outside your firm, helping them to understand what you’re about and where you’re heading. Like John, I use the term ‘narrative’ to refer to the big, ever-unfolding story.

What’s wrong with his idea is that he is trying to re-craft the word ‘narrative’ such that its very power is taken away. He is attempting to turn a narrative into a mere description. He is adamant that a narrative is not a story.

But for a narrative to be a narrative, it simply must have a narrative structure.

As John himself notes, many people are talking about stories and narratives at the moment, but sadly some are doing so without actually telling any stories. Unfortunately, John is at risk of perpetuating this problem with his misunderstanding of narrative.

As a simple starting point, take a look at the Wikipedia description of ‘narrative‘ and you’ll see the end result of hundreds, if not thousands, of edits on the term – people care about this idea and think deeply about it. You’ll also notice that a narrative has two basic features:

  • it’s an account of something that has happened, is happening or might happen; and
  • it’s a set of connected events.

It’s no coincidence that these are the same elements that make up a story. That’s because a narrative is a type of story. And for a narrative to work as a narrative, for it to work at all, it must have a story structure.

The International Society for the Study of Narrative at Washington’s Georgetown University also defines a narrative as a story:

“Narrative is the telling of a story or communication of a chain of events, fictive or real. Aspects of narrative include how the story is told, the context in which it is presented, and the construction of the story.”

Now, I understand it can be useful to redefine terms as a way to create new thinking. But in this case taking story out of corporate narrative will only make these narrative weak and ineffective. People respond to stories.

I wrote about the problems inherent in trying to define a narrative as something other than a story back in 2011, when John first floated this idea. Come to think of it, I made a comment on his post, but it seems to have gone missing.

Putting that aside, let’s take a look at one of John’s examples of corporate narrative. He translates Apple’s ‘Think different’ slogan into the following:

“There’s a new generation of technology that for the first time in history has the potential to free us from the constraints and pressures to fit into mass society and that makes it possible for us to express our unique individuality and achieve more of our potential. But this is not a given – it depends on one thing: you have to think different. Are you willing to do that?”

The first half of the opening sentence has the sense of an event, but the rest of the text is just an opinion, a directive, not a narrative.

Compare this with the following narrative often heard from China, told to me by my friend Shane Fairlie who is doing a PhD on foreign policy narratives:

“Our civilisation has developed over thousands of years and over that time we’ve slowly and peacefully improved our society for the betterment of our people. And even when we come under pressure from Western forces to dismantle what we’ve got, we’ve resisted and taken the long view to maintain peace and be a good global citizen.”

This has all the features John wants in a narrative: it’s about the listener and the actions they take, and it’s open-ended. But it also has a story structure, that of a series of connected events.

It’s helpful to think of an organisation’s narrative as a river system, its waters made up of a continuous flow of stories.

Now some of these narratives are like river deltas, with different, sometimes competing, channels flowing through different parts of the organisation. In these cases, it’s unclear where the organisation is going and what it stand for. Everyone is working on shifting sands.

At the other extreme there are Grand Canyon-shaped narratives that have cut themselves deep into an organisation. This is great while the narrative works, but what happens when change is needed?

An effective narrative lies in-between these, a smoothly flowing river guided by firm banks that erode over time, allowing new directions to be taken, new narratives to take shape – constantly shaped by stories.

It’s hard to change someone’s mind, but my hope is that John and the people who are greatly influenced by him come to realise that taking the story out of narrative does everyone a disservice. The idea that corporate narratives are important makes sense. The idea that the narrative should invite, perhaps propel, us into a future is what inspiration is all about. But divorcing story from narrative extinguishes the spark that brings narratives to life.

About Shawn Callahan
Shawn is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

2 Responses to “To John Hagel: please don’t take story out of corporate narrative”

  1. John Hagel Says:

    Shawn – I have attempted to respond to the criticism you shared above regarding my recent blog on corporate narratives in a new blog posting here: http://bit.ly/1geF4Qx In particular, I believe your concern that I am somehow taking the story out of the narrative is based on a misunderstanding of my position. I hope I have been able to clarify this in my new posting. Perhaps we agree far more than you suspect.

    And, by the way, I never saw a comment from you on my earlier posting. I can assure you that I do not delete comments unless they are trying to sell Viagra or something else completely unrelated to my posting. There are many critical comments on my blog post – I encourage all perspectives.

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Thanks John. I look forward to having a read tonight.