A strategic initiative leader is a story teller. The story being told looks into the future; it is a prospective story about stakeholders receiving a stream of future benefits.
My audiences continue to tell me that they find the chief story teller role a new and compelling idea. I’ve provided a number of practical ideas in earlier articles (click on the “How to Improve Your Story Telling Chops” category on the right). In this article, I provide a tool for helping others to engage with the bigger picture.
Heroic Narratives and Romantic Narratives
There are two basic kinds of narrative*. In the heroic narrative, the central struggle is for discovery of a “new self.” The heroic narrative is most applicable for strategic situations where you are looking for growth: new business models, entrepreneurial opportunity. In this narrative, the hero heads off on a quest, often accompanied by a team of fellow travelers. They travel into the unknown and experience personal changes through the journey. For more, see my earlier article on the heroic quest and the call for action.
In the romantic narrative, the central struggle is for a rediscovery of the “purer self.” The basic structure is for the romantic narrative structure is resembles a religious awakening: Our organization was once pure and filled with wisdom, grace, energies, and fruits of our founders. Over time, we became alienated from those values and it is necessary to atone for falling away. Even more importantly, our task is to return to our original (presumably true and natural) selves.
Let’s stop and put that in more concrete and less mythic terms. Successful organizations, over time, necessarily get more complex as a result of growth. With complexity comes specialization, bureaucracy, entitlement, and impersonal relations. It’s not surprising, then, that “back to basics” is a frequent theme of strategic initiatives.
The romantic narrative is most appropriate for a situation involving a turnaround or reconfiguration of the existing organization. Here you invoke the legacy of the organization. Here are two examples:
- Domino’s has its first delivery vehicle (a Volkswagen Beetle) in the lobby of its HQ. It was an important icon of tradition in its Pizza Turnaround video. (For more discussion of this as a case study, see this article.)
- Louis Gerstner Jr wrote of his efforts in turning around IBM, “Our strategic moves had much to do with returning IBM to its roots as a research-driven builder of large systems and infrastructure.” (See his book, Even Elephants Can Learn to Dance, page 257)
As I explained in this article, it is useful to constructing a timeline that displays the major events in the organization. The strategic initiative is a turning point.
Anticipating Your Audience’s Three Needs
As you think about the narrative, you need to consider the audience’s response. Is there a need to clarify the vision and direction of the company, and the role of audience? I had a project with IBM during the 1990s where our work product was a training course to explain the process and new responsibilities of its new product development process. In this situation, we strove to use clear language and to show the expected transitions from the old process to the new process. This communication style is called a “plain narrative.”
The Domino’s Pizza Turnaround video was intended to stimulate interest in its new product. This is an example of a “tempered narrative,” although it also had telling elements of the grand narrative
Finally, a “grand narrative” is intended as more emotional and motivational message. Again, I’ll use IBM’s turnaround, which included an initiative to centralize all advertising and marketing. The first commercial in 1994 had the theme of “Solutions for a Small World” that featured an international cast that included Czech nuns and old Parisians speaking in their native language. Louis Gerstner explained that it served to signal that
“we were staying together as a world-class integrator” and it “signaled that we were a very different company – able to change and make bold decisions, just as we had done with the decision to consolidate; able to move quickly; able to take risks and do innovative things; and we were more accessible.” (See Even Giants Can Learn to Dance, page 92).
How have you used narrative ideas in your leadership?
* Acknowledgement: The ideas here originated in an academic paper by David Barry and Michael Elmes, Strategy Retold: Towards a Narrative View of Strategic Discourse.