Last week, I posted a blog exploring the power of corporate narratives while challenging what most people view as a corporate narrative. This was only the latest installment in my continuing exploration of narratives that began with an earlier blog posting and a talk that I gave earlier this year at SXSW.
At its core, I'm trying to draw a distinction between “stories” and “narratives” as I define them. From my perspective, stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Narratives on the other hand are open-ended – the outcome is unresolved, yet to be determined. Stories are also about me, the story-teller, or other people; they are not about you. In contrast, the resolution of narratives depends on the choice you make and the actions you take – you will determine the outcome and you are therefore an integral part of the narrative.
This latest blog posting has triggered a lot of response – most of it very positive but also some strong criticism. I thank all those who have embraced my perspective, but I’d like to take a moment to address some of the key elements of the criticism I’ve received, because it reflects some serious misunderstandings and responding may help to clarify my message.
Stories versus narratives?
First, the most common criticism is that I am somehow recommending abandoning stories or “taking stories out of narratives.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm a strong proponent of stories and their ability to engage and deepen understanding. I simply believe that narratives, as I've defined them, have even greater power to engage, deepen understanding and, most importantly, motivate action.
But this is not an either/or proposition. Stories play a key role in helping to make narratives more tangible, believable and relevant in very diverse contexts. Narratives, on the other hand, can help to draw connections across stories and link them to a much broader series of events. Narratives also make clearer to the listeners what they can and need to do in order to achieve the potential outlined by the narrative. I strongly believe that stories and narratives not only can and should co-exist, but they in fact amplify and reinforce each other in powerful ways.
Narratives as a connected set of related events
At least some of this misunderstanding stems from my somewhat abbreviated summary (this is a blog after all, not an essay or book) of the corporate narratives communicated by Apple and Nike. A number of people have commented that my rendition of these narratives seemed more like a set of beliefs or a mental model rather than a “connected set of related events.” Both of these narratives in fact capture an important connected set of related events and it was my fault for not rendering this more explicitly.
Let me try to illustrate with an enhanced rendition of the Apple narrative as I understand it. Here it is:
The earliest generation of computers came into society [Event 1] and transformed the way we run our institutions. [Event 2] But, in the process, they also reinforced the grip of mass society on all of us as individuals, converting us into numbers to be processed by mainframes so that we can be more easily manipulated by those who run the computers [Event 3]. Now, we have a new generation of computers and related technology [Event 4] that provides us for the first time with tools that we can individually use to free ourselves from the constraints and pressures to fit into mass society and that allow us to express our unique individuality and achieve more of our potential [Event 5]. But, this outcome is not a given; it requires each of us to “think different” – will you “think different”? [Possible Event 6 to infinity]. Now, I may be wrong, but to me this is a connected set of relevant events that speaks to all of us.
Yes, there are beliefs and perhaps even a mental model buried in this narrative but I suspect there are beliefs and mental models buried in all engaging stories or narratives. I don’t think the presence of beliefs or mental models diminishes a narrative.
A key point about this narrative that I tried to underscore in my earlier posting is that it's not about Apple - it's about us and the challenges and opportunities created by new generations of technology. Of course, Apple has a role to play in the unfolding of the narrative, but the narrative is about what new generations of technology mean for us and the choices we increasingly will need to make to harness the potential of this technology. Even some of the folks who have supported my view of narratives tend to fall back to old ways when giving examples of corporate narratives - the narratives are much more about the company, rather than about us.
Narratives and slogans
Someone also made the claim that narratives can’t be condensed into slogans. I beg to differ – “think different” admirably captures the much richer narrative of Apple. Of course, it can never replace the narrative, but slogans can be a great way to get to the essence of a narrative, especially the call to action.
The goodness of narratives
One critic commented that there's nothing intrinsically good about narratives – that there are many dysfunctional and debilitating narratives. Point well taken but, again, I don’t think I ever made the case that all narratives are good. I simply am trying to make the case that narratives are a powerful tool to inspire action and participation. Like any powerful tool, narratives can be used for good or evil.
What is a story anyway?
Others have challenged my effort to characterize stories as self-contained with a beginning, middle and an end and as being about a story-teller or other people, not about you. The push back appears to be that these are not really stories, that really well-crafted stories are open-ended and about you. Well, if they’re not stories, what are they? I have to say that virtually all the stories I’ve heard have these two characteristics. To simply say these are not “true” stories seems a bit disingenuous.
I still believe there’s a powerful distinction to be made between stories and narratives as I’ve defined them and that we diminish our impact by just focusing on stories. At the end of the day, we can disagree on semantics and what to call the two entities that I’m describing – perhaps there are better terms, but I’ve not yet heard anyone suggest viable alternatives. Call them "bloop" and "bleep" for all I care. My key point is that, whatever we call them, we need to pay attention to the distinction. As an optimist, I’d like to be believe that many of my “critics” would embrace my perspective if I can further clarify misunderstandings that give the impression of disagreement.
I’ll be exploring the power of narratives more fully in postings ahead and I look to all of you to challenge me and encourage me to elaborate where I may not be clear. Together, we can do amazing things.