I was pleased to see that someone of the stature and influence of Rosabeth Moss Kanter in the Harvard Business Review blog is advocating for business to create or recreate their company’s story.
Reading Rosabeth’s post it might sound like an easy thing to do. Just get the executive team around a table and knock out the new story and then simply tell it to everyone in the company.
Our experience in helping companies do exactly what Rosabeth is advocating has taught us there are at least three things to consider and address when creating a new strategic story.
1. Business leaders don’t really know what stories look and feel like in a business setting. Business people have gotten so used to speaking in opinions and viewpoints that telling a story is mostly alien to them. The first task, therefore, is to get them used to what they naturally do in informal settings and transpose these natural storytelling instincts into a business context. We’ve created a website to help you learn about what makes a story. Without being able to spot stories and tell the difference between a story and an opinion, it’s impossible to make effective use of narrative methods.
Just based on Rosabeth’s post I get the sense that she might not have a strong sense of what a narrative is (see my take here) because in the examples she provides none of the business stories are actually told. A narrative is a story and therefore must have a story structure. For example IBM’s narrative in the late ’90s might have been something like this:
From the day we began the company we focused our efforts on building, selling and servicing business machines (it’s in our name), computers large and small. And we got damn good at it. But by the 1990s our customer needs had changed. PCs reined supreme and we missed that boat on the hardware front. In fact it nearly put us out of business. But the proliferation of PCs, globalisation and a myriad of other factors resulted in our clients having incredibly complicated computing infrastructures and they now need help in tying everything together to provide real business value. This is our new opportunity and so we are moving our focus to services and software to meet this need so that in the future we will be an indispensable partner who is helping make a significant difference to our customers.
Stories have events (growth in hardware, near death experience, increased infrastructure complexity), characters (IBM, clients), times (in the beginning, 1990s) and most importantly something unanticipated happens (the move to software and services). The story should illustrate why the new direction is being adopted.
2. Organisations have incredibly strong immune systems and therefore it’s important to take the company on the journey of creating the new strategic story together. People own what they create and our objective is for people to relish telling the story rather than merely being able to tell it. This means involving a wider group in developing the story and then having a way for everyone in the company to engage with it and add their own personal flavour. We follow a three phase approach: create the strategic story; connect leaders to the story; involve everyone in the story.
And keep in mind that for every official story told by the organisation there are the anti-stories that can counter it. In the world of story work it’s the best story that wins. Here is a paper we wrote on how to combat anti-stories.
3. The whole executive team must believe in the importance of a strategic story. Let me share a failure to illustrate. We were engaged with one of Australia’s largest logistics company to help create a strategic story for a merger that was happening. Our client was the branding executive and the person responsible for employee engagement. I outlined the approach and was told that the CEO was too busy to be involved but we needed to get started pronto. With more than a little trepidation we started and when the sponsors were happy with the story we gathered the executive, including the CEO, to share the progress. As we got started the CEO piped up and said, “I have to be frank, in my view stories are lies.” all the goodwill developed with the executives evaporated and the meeting was a failure. The next day the project was cancelled.
Contrast that with all the other projects where the CEO was on board and driving the process. You can see why We now insist on their commitment and enthusiastic support for the project.
I applaud Rosabeth’s support for strategic stories and her advice on creating plausible and authentic narratives is spot on. I’m hoping when companies begin this journey that they avoid a superficial approach and recognise that new company stories mark the beginning of a change that must be thought through carefully. These stories are not merely an advertising or branding exercise, they are a new way to energise and direct your business.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one 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:
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