The Power of Organizational Narratives
Here’s how the story goes.
Someone at AT&T had an idea. He suggested to an Apple executive that it might help if, uh… well, maybe Steve Jobs could wear a suit to the next meeting.
The response is priceless. “We’re Apple. We don’t wear suits. We don’t even own suits.”
Apple, of course, is a company with a powerful guiding narrative, and the executive’s response really has nothing to do with business attire. It is a statement about who Apple is, packed with meaning that goes far beyond suits and ties.
This is how company mythology can make the everyday choices of employees clear. When you know who you are and what story you are a part of, you know how to act within the narrative.
There’s a lot of buzz right now around organizational storytelling, which is all well and good. Stories are important communication tools that lead to a different level of employee understanding.
But we’re talking here about Story with a capital “S.” The company’s mythology or, as John Hagel puts it, its guiding narrative:
Narratives…are stories that do not end. They invite action by participants and they reach out to embrace as many participants as possible. They are continuously unfolding, being shaped and filled in by the participants. In this way, they amplify the dynamic component of stories, both in terms of time and scope of participation. Stories are about plots and action while narratives are about people and potential.
This is the second in a series of posts suggesting that corporate communicators are thinking too small.
It is my contention that one of our central—and too often overlooked—responsibilities is to help our organizations creative the narratives that unlock the potential of the people within them.
I know: Apple’s mythology wasn’t created by its PR department. It’s the product of a visionary leader with a clear and consistent purpose. But very few of us get to work for someone like Steve Jobs, so let’s help the leaders we have.
Start with the assumption that a meaningful narrative already exists*; it’s your job to uncover, distill and articulate it.
I want to suggest you consider with three simple steps to start:
1. Think Narratively. When you’re working with executives, on any kind of communication, ask the questions that get to narrative. Remember: compelling narratives are about:
- Theme (what are the big ideas and values at the heart of the communication)
- Setting and backstory (what’s going on around us? what developments and conditions brought us to where we are now?)
- Plot (where is the story going?)
- Tension (what do we have to overcome?)
- Character (who’s involved? what do you need them to do? why should they care?)
You’ll find that if you ask these kinds of questions consistently over time, your leaders will start thinking narratively, too.
2. Start Collecting Stories. Every great narrative is made up of smaller stories. What are the stories at the heart of your company mythology? Initiate an ongoing effort to gather them.
- Start by asking the employees who’ve been there longest: What’s the best story you can think of that illustrates who we are as a company?
- Collect your story assets—mission statements, annual reports, newsletters, blogs. Cut through the corporate speak and look for the heart of the story.
3. Institutionalize Storytelling. This one’s going to require leadership buy-in. Choose an element of the organizational narrative and make it a company practice to open every meeting with a story that illustrates the point.
We have a client that does this around safety. Every—and I mean every—meeting in the company begins with a story or tip about safety. Another does the same thing, but the focus is on adding value for customers. A healthcare client shares opens meetings with stories about extraordinary patient care.
These kinds of stories can reinforce and build up the organizational narrative over time.
You’re building toward a fuller articulation of the organizational narrative, one that you will ultimately share with leadership. Of course, the narrative can only go so far until you leaders have committed and support integration into the communication strategy. In the meantime, these three simple strategies can help shine a light where it’s needed.
Next up: The Ruthless Editor: Building Meaning by Killing Meaningless Language.
*Some companies actually just suck. I think they’re pretty few and far between, but if you work for one, I’m sorry. This advice isn’t going to make it any better.