It’s fitting that we reach this third installment of my “What Is To Be Done?” series on Martin Luther King day. He’s an icon of the power of narrative and its role in building movements that can fundamentally change how we live and work. Narratives are a third key component in our quest to move beyond the dark side of technology. So far, I’ve highlighted the importance of both passion and institutional innovation in this quest, but these alone are unlikely to be sufficient in moving us to where we need to be.
What will motivate and sustain us as we connect more effectively to our passion and connect with each other to take on the task of institutional innovation? One of the most powerful forces that will give us strength to pursue this path will be the opportunity-based narratives that have the potential to emerge as we begin to see the opportunity that lies ahead.
The power of narratives
I’ve written elsewhere about the distinction between stories and narratives. Narratives are far more powerful than stories because they actively call for participation – they are open-ended, with the resolution hinging on the choices and actions that each of us will take in the days and years ahead. The outcome depends on us. What will we choose to do?
Why are opportunity- based narratives so powerful? There are many reasons.
- They excite the imagination – the future they paint is not fully formed, it’s only suggestive, leaving much to the imagination of the participants.
- They call for action – it’s not sufficient to simply sit back and listen to the narrative – the outcome depends on us getting off our butts and joining the struggle despite significant challenges. We begin to act upon our imagination, experimenting and exploring new approaches to achieving the opportunity framed by the narrative.
- They pull us out of our short-term thinking and expose us to a much more energizing long-term opportunity. We begin to make short-term sacrifices in order to participate in accomplishing something much more important.
- They bring us together into collective action – we begin to see others who have embraced the narrative and share our desire to shape its outcome and we start to come together. We realize we’re not alone – there are others who are facing the same challenges. We can learn together how to overcome these challenges as well as draw comfort and reassurance from each other when we stumble along the way. Before we know it, we’ve come together in a movement.
Every successful movement throughout human history – whether political, religious or social – has been shaped and driven by a powerful narrative, one that invites participation by many and makes it clear that the outcome hinges on that participation. Stories can be used to reinforce narratives by showing us in very tangible form how individuals and groups successfully confronted challenges and enjoyed the rewards that came from taking initiative and being persistent. But the over-arching narrative is ultimately what sustains and amplifies the impact of movements.
The American Narrative and the Civil Rights Narrative
One example of a successful narrative is the American Narrative – suggesting that there is a country where anyone, regardless of origins or wealth, can achieve great success. But this isn’t pre-destined – it requires each of us to make the choice to come to this land from wherever we are today and to make the effort required to achieve that success. Countless stories of individual success fed that narrative, but it was the narrative that motivated (and continues to motivate) a growing number from around the world to make the journey against great odds and build a new life for themselves.
Martin Luther King was a key contributor to framing a powerful narrative that built on the American Narrative but focused on the opportunity to include those who had been excluded by prejudice and segregation. Here’s an excerpt from his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech:
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." . . .
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. . . .
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Tying it back to passion and institutional innovation
So, how do narratives and movements connect back to the elements of passion and institutional innovation that I explored in my “What Is To Be Done” series? Well, I’ve explored the role of narratives in catalyzing and amplifying the passion of the explorer in a previous posting. Three elements come together to define the passion of the explorer.
- First, there’s a long term commitment to a domain. Narratives help to cultivate this by focusing our attention on a long-term opportunity.
- Second, there’s a questing disposition – an orientation towards seeking out new challenges as an opportunity to get to that next level of performance and impact. Narratives foster this by inviting participation of each of us in overcoming the challenges that stand between us and the long-term opportunity that we can realize.
- Finally, there’s a connecting disposition – an orientation towards finding and connecting with others who either share our passion or have relevant capability to help us address the challenges ahead. Narratives encourage this by making it clear that the opportunity is a broad-based one, addressable by many and urging us to join forces to increase the likelihood of success.
And how do narratives and movements connect with the element of institutional innovation? As I discussed in my previous post, institutional innovation for large, established institutions is very challenging – powerful antibodies will resist any effort at large scale organizational change. In this context, scaling edges is a promising approach that can dampen the effect of those antibodies.
Opportunity based narratives help us in scaling edges because they focus us on opportunities. They help us to resist the temptation to focus on threats and directly confront the core of our institutions, something that will quickly mobilize the antibodies. These narratives, by providing a compelling view of opportunities that can be shared by many, also can help to pull people from the core of the institutions out to the edges we are seeking to scale. They also help us to identify and connect with people in other institutions who are driven by the same narrative. As a result, we can leverage our own efforts by going outside the institution rather than depending only on the resources within the institution. As we come together in a broader movement shaped by a compelling narrative, we’ll find support and encouragement from like-minded individuals as we face the inevitable frustrations and even near-term defeats in our quest to transform massive institutions.
What’s needed now
What we need now is a new narrative, one that isn’t confined to a specific country, race or religion, but one that highlights the incredible opportunity created by digital technology infrastructures on a global scale that are continuing to evolve at an exponential rate. One that focuses on the ability of each of us to achieve far more of our potential than we ever would have imagined possible and the opportunity to achieve even more when we come together on a global scale to learn faster than we ever could on our own. One that is clear about the challenges we’ll face as we seek to address this opportunity, but one that is also compelling about the abundance that will result as we overcome these challenges. One that helps us to find each other as we begin to gather on the edges of existing institutions and gain support from each other across multiple edges in different institutions and different parts of the world as we embark on this amazing quest.
Such a narrative can’t be written up and published. Like any great narrative, it must be crafted. “Craft” is an evocative term because it suggests that narratives are not just created on paper, but built through the actions that we begin to take as we start to see the opportunity ahead. Narratives emerge through action and interaction as we collectively begin to sense an opportunity and learn through action what it will take to achieve that opportunity.
Yes, there are those who will begin to give voice to the narrative and articulate the forces shaping the opportunity as well the forces that will seek to prevent us from achieving the opportunity. This is something that Martin Luther King did so powerfully in the Civil Rights movement. It wasn’t an accident that he was a Baptist minister who was intimately familiar with the Christian narrative and the power it had to move people over millennia.
But no great narrative has had a single author or emerged overnight. In addition to Martin Luther King, a host of talented leaders like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and WEB DuBois emerged to drive the Civil Rights movement to success by helping to craft a collective narrative that spoke to a larger and larger portion of the population. They didn’t always agree with each other on tactics, but they were firmly united by a shared narrative that emerged from collective action and, in particular, from acts of enormous bravery by people like Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks and James Meredith.
Narratives take time to take shape and acquire the texture that will make them compelling to potential participants. But, as they emerge and evolve, they can motivate us to do amazing things. Many people (including Martin Luther King himself) gave up their lives to participate in the Civil Rights Narrative - the ultimate sacrifice that shows the incredible power of narratives.
At this point in time, we lack a shared narrative that can amplify our efforts to change the world. A broad range of movements are in various stages of development – just think of such efforts as the maker movement, the open government movement, the unschooling movement, the singularity movement, the social entrepreneuring movement, the quantified-self movement and countless others. And then layer in a broad set of emergent efforts to mobilize change agents – for example, the Corporate Rebels United movement, the REX movement, the Stoos movement, and the thrivable movement, just to name a few. All of these efforts have lots of promise and potential, but they’re fragmented and have not yet found a way to come together around a shared view of the opportunity to accomplish something awesome.
So, what will it take to escape the dark side of the digital technology that's enveloping the world? Three things need to come together – individual passion, institutional innovation and opportunity-based narratives. Without them, we’ll sink deeper and deeper into the dysfunctional world that can, and already is, being shaped by this technology.
We have an extraordinary opportunity to turn stress into abundance. But that opportunity is not inevitable. Far from it. There are growing forces on a global scale that are fearful of these new technologies and will do anything they can to bring the development and deployment of these technologies to a halt, all in the name of preserving what we have today.
The path we take from here will depend on each and every one of us. Will you fall prey to the dark side or will you help to do what’s necessary to truly harness the awesome potential of the technologies that we have brought into the world? The last thing we should do is become complacent, to take these benefits for granted. We need to renew our efforts to frame the opportunity ahead and to help all of us re-connect with the passion that we all had at an earlier point in our lives, but that most of us lost as we succumbed to the institutional imperative from our schools and our companies to fit in and get along.
The good news is that, if we choose to act, small moves, smartly made, can indeed set very big things in motion.