The 3 qualities of a great strategic narrative

by Matt Grimshaw
April 28, 2016

Creating and communicating the strategic narrative (or company story) of a business is now a well established practice in employee engagement. In this blog, we share the three qualities we think distinguish the best strategic narratives from the rest.

If you want to explore the topic of organisational storytelling and employee engagement further, you can read our white paper on ‘storytelling and the engaged organisation‘.

1) A great strategic narrative should provide a comprehensive and meaningful worldview

Companies use strategic narratives to engage their people because they want to give everyone a common framework for understanding the company, the context in which it operates and the journey it is on. A well crafted strategic narrative allows leaders to impose a sense of order, simplicity and consistency on an organisation whose operations may actually be bafflingly chaotic or complex.

The meaning of a strategic narrative is created by the way it ties together the answers to a set of worldview questions to create a coherent story. Most often, these stories take the form of the hero’s journey: they start by introducing a hero, who then faces a challenge or calling, the hero develops or learns something to enable him to triumph, leaving him somewhere better than where he started.

In our view, the best strategic narratives:

  • Start by defining the hero. Who are we? What type of company are we? What do we do? Where do we operate? Why are we in business? Which aspects of our history and heritage do we take most pride in and want to stick with? What are our defining characteristics, strengths and achievements?
  • Go on to provide a clear view of how the company construes the world in which it operates. Where are we now? What are the external pressures on the organisation? How do we match up to our competitors? What do our customers think of us? Where are the developing threats? What are the internal challenges? Where do we see opportunities to grow and develop?
  • Give a clear pivot point or a call to action. Where does the company want to go?
  • This creates the context (the beginning and a foresight of the end of the story) that allows leaders to share the middle of the story: what we need to do and how we need to behave. What’s our strategy? What are our key goals and priorities? Who needs to do what? What are our guiding values? What type of culture do we need to be successful?
  • Finally, the narrative must end with a vision of success that reinvigorates the best qualities of the hero. What will our future look and feel like? What will be different in the short and long term? How will we measure our success?  Why is this something that’s important and meaningful for us to work towards?

 A great strategic narrative should answer all these questions to create a comprehensive and meaningful worldview that employees can buy into.

2) A company story must be rationally, emotionally and socially appealing

From a rational perspective, the elements of the strategic narrative must be self-referentially coherent. The answer to one worldview question can’t contradict another and the story must be capable of surviving interrogation and scepticism. It must also recognisably connect with reality — it can’t just be wishful thinking or rhetoric. Great strategic narratives also make clear choices and avoid vacuous statements. To echo the point made by Patrick Lencioni in his HBR article ‘Make Your Values Mean Something’, the best strategic narratives focus on the elements that differentiate them from competitors.

However, a strategic narrative that makes sense, but which has no emotional appeal will leave employees understanding what the company wants them to do, but not moved sufficiently to do anything about it. A strategic narrative must therefore provide hope and vision, important substantial goals that people can strive towards and a vision of success that is worthwhile and not merely about financial returns. The best strategic narratives focus people’s emotional energy and attention on the future by setting out the journey ahead and the emotional treasure waiting at the destination. This collective future orientation fosters a culture of optimism and a sense that challenges can be overcome.

Finally, a great strategic narrative must also be socially appealing. It must create a version of the hero that people want to be or to associate themselves with. Without this social connection employees can agree with the logic of the strategy, they can feel an emotional affinity with the desired destination, but they might still decide to join a rival company that’s making a similar journey but has a more appealing brand, culture and people.

3) A company story must accommodate complexity, different points of view and change over time

A great strategic narrative should aspire to simplicity, because it is precisely this artificial imposition of clarity that makes it such a useful tool for employees trying to make sense of the world around them. The story really comes alive when individual employees connect it to their personal experiences and use the story to understand what those experiences mean.

When employees buy into a strategic narrative, they will try to reframe their personal experiences or interpret new events in a way that is consistent with the company story. The simplicity of the narrative gives different employees the scope to read themselves into the story even when their personal experiences might vary significantly. Different aspects of the strategic narrative will therefore have more resonance with particular employees than others. Indeed the company story will mean something slightly different to every employee depending on how they align it with their own experience; but provided there is genuine connection and a degree of commonality, the strategic narrative will remain a meaningful focal point for the different points of view across an organisation.

Finally, whereas the traditional style of communication in business is for leaders to focus on ‘what’ they want people to do and ‘how’ they want people to do it (what might be seen as only the middle of the story); a strategic narrative is grounded in a sense of change over time. Indeed, the weight of a good strategic narrative is actually on the beginning and the end of the story. This means that when,inevitably, the strategy isn’t executed or doesn’t quite work out as planned, employees stick with the overall journey of moving from x to y and are able to make their own adjustments to stay on course.

 

If you’d like to find out more about using storytelling to create an engaged organisation, you can read our white paper on the topic here.