Narrative is a powerful concept with enormous potential. But it’s also fraught with misunderstanding because of the many different meanings attached to the term. By unpacking those different meanings, leaders of institutions and movements can begin to better understand the power of narratives.
Recently, I’ve tried to establish a distinction between story and narrative here and here. For most people, story and narrative are used interchangeably. But others, particularly in the academic world, have a very specific meaning they attach to narrative, although they usually refer to it as “Grand Narrative” or “meta-narrative.” It may help to explore why I don’t regard these as narratives.
The concept of "Grand Narrative"
First, let’s explore what this version of narrative is meant to describe. The term “Grand Narrative” was coined by Jean Francois Lyotard in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition but it has subsequently been embraced by many in the post-modernist movement. Lyotard was referring to the efforts by ruling elites to explain how the status quo had evolved and, in the process, to rationalize why the status quo was destined to emerge and needed to be embraced.
An example of this kind of Grand Narrative would be the view widely held in the 18th and 19th centuries, and even well into the 20th century, that Western society was driven by a civilizing mission as it expanded into other parts of the world – “primitive” societies needed the West to occupy and transform them so that they too could savor the benefits of Western culture.
Russia’s leaders, following the Bolshevik revolution, developed a very different kind of Grand Narrative. It explained that Russia had emerged as a staging ground for a global communist revolution and that its draconian domestic policies were needed to mobilize the resources required to spread the revolution far and wide.
"Grand Narratives" are really stories
These Grand Narratives are much more like stories than like narratives as I have described them. They are descriptive and explanatory – they establish causal connections across a series of events to show how certain outcomes came to be and, indeed, were inevitable. They often contain quite a bit of drama in the sense of people encountering and overcoming challenges to get to where they are today but the resolution is pre-determined.
These Grand Narratives are about the people who got us to where we are today – they’re not about you, the audience. If you have any role to play, it’s simply to fit into the pre-ordained order of things and play the assigned role that has already been scripted. More often than not, your role is simply to accept the inevitability of the status quo. These Grand Narratives become a powerful way to indoctrinate and suppress independent thinking in favor of conformity and passivity.
These Grand Narratives thus have the attributes of stories as I’ve defined them: they have a resolution that is pre-ordained (even if it hasn’t fully played out yet) and they’re about others, they’re not about you. They’re stories masquerading as narratives.
OK, is this just a semantic distinction that doesn't really matter? Let me make the case that it makes a big difference that matters alot.
The power of opportunity based narratives
Narratives as I’ve defined them are quite different. They’re open-ended – the resolution is yet to be determined and the resolution hinges on choices and actions that you make. It’s ultimately about you. It highlights possibility rather than certainty. It’s future oriented rather than looking backward and trying to explain what has already happened.
Narratives are designed to intrigue, excite and motivate people to act, especially if they’re opportunity based narratives.
These narratives intrigue and excite by only partially revealing an opportunity ahead. They don’t pretend to have a comprehensive view of the opportunity – instead, it’s very clear that the full dimensions of the opportunity are yet to be determined. But the opportunity as partially revealed is an awesome one with great potential to make us better human beings and give us a much more satisfying life. It invites participants to use their imagination to explore what that opportunity might look like. A recent article on brain science suggests that this appeal to the imagination can be a powerful vehicle to motivate us to delay gratification, take more risks and go on a quest that will take time and effort to pursue.
But narratives do more than excite the imagination. It’s not just about imagining an opportunity – it’s about making choices and taking action to achieve that opportunity. Opportunity based narratives move us from passive acceptance to action. They help us to re-discover our agency - our capacity to act and make a difference in the world.
The search for stability
In a time of accelerating change and growing uncertainty, we all have a natural human desire to seek stability. “Grand Narratives” can be very reassuring because they help us to make sense of an increasingly confusing and complex world. But at the same time, they cultivate complacency, making us think that we have things figured out, when in fact we are increasingly likely to be blindsided by some black swan coming at us out of nowhere.
Opportunity based narratives take a different approach to stability. Rather than providing the stability of an answer, they provide the stability of an exciting question for us to pursue. They help us to focus in a time of great distraction. They reassure us that, if we stay focused on the core question posed by the narrative, we’ll acquire new insight and tap into potential that we didn’t even know existed. They in fact help us to resist the urge to explain with the knowledge we have today and instead highlight the opportunity and need to develop new knowledge.
In fact, at some basic level, opportunity based narratives are profoundly hostile to “Grand Narratives.” “Grand Narratives” seek to reassure us that we have all the relevant answers and that the only challenge is to understand and accept the explanations embedded in the narrative. They carve out a comfort zone and invite us to relax in it. Opportunity based narratives disrupt the status quo with questions that have not yet been answered and emerging opportunities that have not yet been achieved. They call us to leave our comfort zone and embark on a quest that will surely be challenging but also very rewarding.
So, why does this distinction matter to people in business? It can all sound pretty abstract and theoretical, far removed from the day to day practicality of running a business.
In fact, this distinction is central to how we run our business. In a world of scalable efficiency, we feel an urgency for answers, for ways to understand the world around us so that we can more effectively predict what will happen next. That’s why, when executives begin to pursue the power of narratives, they have a tendency to embrace “Grand Narratives.” You know the kind – “let me explain who we are, how we came to be and why we are an inevitable product of the world around us.”
As the Big Shift drives us into a world of scalable learning, opportunity based narratives can help us mobilize a much broader group of participants on a set of questions and opportunities so that we can all learn faster by working together. This kind of narrative is rarely used in business today. Those who master this form of narrative have the potential to create significant advantage by accelerating learning while at the same time differentiating themselves from companies still mired in self-important “Grand Narratives.”
This is just the beginning. In a forthcoming post, I’ll pursue the question of why opportunity based narratives are becoming central to business success. In the meantime, let me know what you think. Does this distinction make sense? Does it matter?