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Innovating for the future through Strategic Narrative

In order to emerge intact, healthy, and strong, organizations today need not only a shared vision of who they are, but also an animating understanding of who they can become in the face of future change.

Amy Zalman
27 April 2017
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St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba, 1901. Wikicommons/ PD in Canada. Some rights reserved.All collections of people have a story, whether it is a purposefully created narrative or an implicit, subterranean understanding that members share about where they have come from and who they are. 

Most groups, whether families, nations, or corporations, have both a consciously created and an unconscious narrative. This shared narrative is reinforced and extended not only through the stories people tell about their institutions but also through their actions, rituals, and processes, such as the American holiday of Thanksgiving, an annual (and idealized) commemoration of the first such harvest festival shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621.

But few organizations have generated narratives to demonstrate how the organization will survive future periods of uncertainty and how they might both endure and adapt in order to thrive.  Truth and reconciliation commissions, such as in South Africa following the end of Apartheid, and more recently in Canada’s commission on Indian Residential Schools’ survivors, are one kind of explicit effort to revisit the past in order to reconstruct a communal future. Yet today, an uncertain future, complexity, and an accelerating rate of change are prompting changed conditions. In order to emerge intact, healthy, and strong, organizations today need not only a shared vision of who they are, but also an animating understanding of who they can become in the face of future change. Without an understanding that our behavior in the world stems from the narratives we believe we are enacting, it is almost impossible to generate lasting change. 

To answer this need, organizations may want to consider developing a strategic narrative. A strategic narrative is an intentionally composed, compelling and inspiring story that explains the enduring values shared by members of an organization, their origins as a collective, what they want to achieve in the future ­– and how. For organizations facing potentially disruptive change, the sense-making logic of narrative is a powerful tool.

Storytelling helps leaders and stakeholders explore the nuances of change and can provide a way of imagining alternative visions of the future. For example, a 2016 Grantham Institute Briefing proposed that a collectively constructed strategic narrative may play a critical role in mobilizing diverse stakeholders to act on climate change. (if you want to link to this it is to be found here).

Strategic narratives are possible when organizations meet three conditions:

1. They must recognize a shared understanding of the past and the present.  Without a shared understanding of the past – what happened, how we came to be who we are – generating enough collaborative will to develop a shared vision of the future is difficult.

2. They must share a vision of a desirable future. Without knowledge of possible forces the future will unleash, it is difficult to take strategic steps to successfully overcome new challenges or take advantage of unfolding opportunities. 

3. They must have the courage and will to enact a bold new story in the face of accumulating evidence that the old one will no longer do. Without an understanding that our behavior in the world stems from the narratives we believe we are enacting, it is almost impossible to generate lasting change. 

* This is an excerpt taken from the ebook “Strategic Narrative, A Framework for Accelerating Innovation:  A Practical Guide for Leaders and Organizations.” You can download the entire ebook at StrategicNarrativeInstitute.com.

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