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John Maloney

It is an uncomfortable feeling that these concepts are new to people.

From a personal perspective and for example narratives are an essential enterprise governance technique. They inhabit the corporate 'constitution.' It can take many forms. The specific purpose is share principles and to limit the scope of control.

The corporate narrative/constitution propels dignity and high achievement of people. Think Different is an excellent example. Here is another.

http://colabria.com/knowledge-based-organizations/

Helene

Hi John, thanks for this article, which comes quite timely and resonates with what I am currently working on. That's a very important and interesting distinction.

I particularly noted the comment from kdietz, with which I tend to agree, though I don't quite understand why he doesn't embrace the distinction. In particular these:

"the grand ‘narrative’ discussed here is made up of hundreds or thousands of stories that are always fluid and in motion. They work dynamically on people sometimes long after the telling."

And

"Narratives as movements are made up of a collection of stories, beliefs, and visions of the future that galvanize people. But folks do not relate to ‘narratives’ in this sense without having stories to connect to that are relevant to them personally."

This is perfectly true, but this does not eliminate the existence and the need for narrative, as something... the aggregator or the attractor... at a meta-level....

I personally would say that narrative is the underlying logic or the scaffold that relate the stories together and creates coherence from disparate elements. Whether it is emergent from a collection of stories, or whether the stories are an expression of this logic. It's probably a mix of both in a feedback loop. In a corporate context, narrative pertains to identity and brand as a factor of cohesiveness, a corporate paradigm so to speak, and the stories are its vehicle. That's why good brand strategists first look at the stories and draw elements of narrative from it that then serve to tell stories that will coalesce various action logics to reinforce the narrative and build all kinds of connivence with the brand... indeed as you say John, a driver for action! So the brand and the communication attached to it is not an artificially projected image, but the 'true' reflection of the corporation's identity in a dynamic perspective (including it's past achievements, current capabilities, and vision/potential).

I've been looking at how this applies to social change and federating efforts towards a thrivable world: http://www.slideshare.net/helenefinidori/imagine-thecommongoodconf2013. I think what I presented at that conference, which illustrates what I describe above, reflects what both you John and kdietz are talking about, and puts beliefs and worldviews in the mix too.

RalfLippold

Thanks a lot John, making the distinction between story and narrative.
Especially in the corporate world it seems that focus is more on the individual story, leaving out the bigger picture.

From my point of view Edgar Schein's "DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC" is a good example of a narrative, showing all the different currents during the rise, and fall of DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation).

What makes it challenging is the broadness of a narrative, that seems not to end and is going on and on. Pulling in the interest of curious readers/ listeners can be achieved by making explicit what is not yet connected by telling individual stories about specific parts of the corporation's life.

Explaining for example the success of the building o of BMW plant in Leipzig would not make sense as one leaves out the disaster that followed the bold move by BMW to buy Rover in the UK at the end of the 90's.

Great thoughtprovoking piece John!

David Hutchens

Response to Charles Thrasher: Thank you for your thought. I agree with you. Faith and belief are sadly missing from the landscape of many organizations and are powerful sources of engagement. My disagreement is with the author's assertion that a faith or belief is an example of a narrative. They are not. A narrative is something quite different.

Kdietz

Well, exceptionally trained professionals working with organizational story for several decades are having problems with the distinctions made here between story and narrative. I've been curating their blog posts and comments at www.scoop.it/t/just-story-it

Nadyne Edison

I am a story teller because I am a marketer. I can tell a great product story, a persuasive message for a corporation, I make up stories, embellish stories.....and have been successful for pushing product, changing opinions and attitudes, and creating an image...but I have never been able to get a message that defined the focus of my companies, brands, corporate entities had a narrative for the customer,......a slogan, a company story, an image building series of messages are not narratives and although, useful and important for the marketing of a product or company, they do not bring about a focus that looks out to the customer, their experience, their needs and even desires. We have few narratives. As a former General Motors executive, the customer was last on anyone's mind....we were car people....I started the customer experience strategy for GM and was basically an outcast.....what is GM's narrative....I certainly know their stories, which there were and are many....none involving the customer.....oh yes, "it's not your father's Oldsmobile, a brand slogan that goes in the annals of bad brand marketing and ultimately the destruction of a brand. But think, what if there was a narrative for Oldsmobile .....where may it be today...the story had a sad ending, the narrative may have kept the customer loyalty and confidence that was once there. I will always tell stories but not I realize the value and critical importance of a narrative....once again John you have put me on another path!

twitter.com/wmougayar

This was a very inspirational post, and very true throughout. I think it even applies to the world of startups, and I have riffed on that here:
http://startupmanagement.org/2013/10/10/the-power-of-pull-for-startups/

Charles Thrasher

David Hutchens refers to faith and belief as if emotions are a flaw in John's argument for the strength of narrative. In fact, anything less than faith and belief is insufficient to inspire imagination, engagement or fierce loyalty. The self-centered, emotionless, insipid narratives lived by most companies has led to the 70% disengagement among employees reported by Gallup this year.

Perhaps I'm misinterpreting David's objection but I strongly believe that emotion isn't a weakness in the argument for narrative, it's a necessity.

David Hutchens

I'm struggling. I think it is very telling that not one but two of your commenters above have re-interpreted your presentation of "narrative" by replacing it with the words "faith" and "belief."

Wittingly or not, your commenters have diagnosed the disconnect I was feeling in your text. Your application of the word "narrative" does in fact sound a lot like collectively held mental models.

When I read your examples of Apple and Nike, I see vivid descriptions of mental models, beliefs. But the examples do not present a connected set of related events. (Although you are correct that each marketing slogan creates an engaging context in which narratives and stories can emerge. But your examples fall a step short of actually rendering examples of those narratives.)

Everything about your blog is right on -- except for the terminology! I appreciate the comment from Kdietz, which helpfully articulates the fluid natures of both story and narrative, and appropriately reestablishes the link between the two.

Agreed: there is a lot of unhelpful mania around "story," but let's not toss the term out quite yet. Story is active, and co-created, and is in fact the dynamic building block for the meta structures that you describe so well.

Kdietz

John, while I have enjoyed your writings in the past and appreciate your thinking on stories, I get what you are trying to do here I think. Yet at the same time, I question whether the distinction between stories and narrative really add up. I welcome a further discussion. Here are my thoughts after decades of working with organizational stories:

If we consider stories as only being about a beginning-middle-end structure, then they are self-contained. However, structure is only a small part of stories. In fact, stories are dynamic events, not discrete objects. Treating stories as objects leads to this kind of odd distinction being made between stories and narratives. In truth, the grand ‘narrative’ discussed here is made up of hundreds or thousands of stories that are always fluid and in motion. They work dynamically on people sometimes long after the telling. As performances, as events, story’s beginnings and ends are ephemeral as folklorists and anthropologists have recognized for decades.

Stories when told orally are co-created experiences and not passively consumed – and all great storytellers know that. They also know that stories are always about the other person, not themselves or other people – regardless if a personal story is being shared. That is the biggest lesson businesses need to learn.

Stories hold different problem solving structures within them. Once hearing a story, the choices people make about actions to take are always up to them. This is the craft of storytelling versus messaging – another lesson businesses need to learn. Stories are guides – actions are up to the listener. So the distinction here between stories and narratives is again problematic. I would rather the discussion focus on getting businesses to understand the powerful dynamics of storytelling rather than on distinctions that may create more confusion.

Narratives as movements are made up of a collection of stories, beliefs, and visions of the future that galvanize people. But folks do not relate to ‘narratives’ in this sense without having stories to connect to that are relevant to them personally. People will live and die for their stories. The aggregate of stories you are naming as a narrative are more aptly called ‘movements’ as you wrote. This is because they move people to action based on what is being said that they can connect their own person stories to, and the vision that is present. Again, calling these movements ‘narratives’ is kind of limiting and I’m not sure really expands our understanding of the dynamics going on.

I don’t think that narratives overcome cognitive biases any better than stories do. In my decades of org story experience and all the research I’ve read, stories are the ultimate and best vehicle for overcoming cognitive biases. But again, this is all based on stories being understood as dynamic events and not as objects.

Authenticity, trust, engagement all happen through story sharing that over time eventually generates what is being called here a grand ‘narrative’. There is nothing inherently good in narratives just because one focuses on them. There are plenty of dysfunctional and debilitating ‘narratives’/cultures floating around out there. Grand narratives/cultures are not cooked up in some executive meeting – cultures emerge through time as people share stories, walk the talk, and live their beliefs. That culture – hopefully one that is positive and enlivens people -- is what companies can be known for. And that is the real work story professionals and businesses need to get done together.

Charles Thrasher

The power of narrative derives from shared faith in some greater potential, a faith that sparks imagination and ignites action. I can't think of many corporate narratives that do either. Maybe that's a worthwhile goal itself - to gather compelling narratives, to understand their power.

Jeremysewell

Great article. I've been thinking about some aspects of this lately in relation to my own business and I think narratives come from beliefs an organization holds.

Apple believes in "thinking differently."Nike believes in "Just Do it." Everything they do is driven by this belief.

And others who already believe (or aspire to believe) in the same thing are drawn to the narrative and willing to become a part of the community.

Recently, we saw the Barilla debacle serve the other side of this. The organization's belief became their narrative and you saw those that did not share the beliefs distance themselves.

In my option, narratives can't just be created like stories. Narratives have to come from something deeper, more intrinsic to an organization's top leadership and the core reason the organization exists.


James Strock

Excellent insights, John. Perhaps the foundational one is your observation about some (most?) organizational narratives being about the organization and its needs, rather than about serving others. As in so much else, if one works from the outside-in, from a perspective of service, everything else can come into clarity. Simple... but not easy... :-)

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