By Stuart Maister, Chief Storyteller, Strategic Narrative and Chair of the Human Capital Forum MENA, Dubai, May 2-3
A recent major report to the UK government about productivity and performance said this:
“A strong narrative that provides a clear, shared vision for the organisation is at the heart of employee engagement.”
It makes sense. If we all share the same story, then we all point in the same direction. There is real clarity about why I should care, how we will achieve our objectives – and what we all need to do.
How do you develop that? It’s not by having more charts, more graphs and even more detailed plans. These are all important of course because they provide details of what we’re going to do. We’re going to increase sales here, we’re going to decrease costs here, we’re going to push into that market there, we’re going to cut back here – whatever.
However, that won’t provide clarity to the people who work for you, the investors who back you or the customers who buy from you. Nor will it create consistency, which is one of the key components of success.
But it’s complex! We’re doing so many different things in so many different areas. That defines the hardest thing: how to simplify complexity. This is the critical task because it means everyone understands, is aligned and there is true leadership at the top of the organisation.
Furthermore, given the pace of change, this task is a fundamental component of innovation and transformation. A sustainable business is one in which the leadership knows where it is going – and so does everyone else.
If everyone understands the narrative of the future before it even starts, there’s a much higher chance that this story will come true. If there isn’t an agreed story, then everyone will go off in different directions.
I have a simple philosophy: reality is a story brought to life. If you don’t write the story, or if multiple stories emerge, then there will be many different, disconnected realities.
How to develop the Narrative
So, defining and articulating the strategic narrative is a key task of leadership. It can then be communicated, lived and drive the actions that are taken. Here are some tips on how to do this.
Firstly: what will make the next 3 years (say) distinctive, special or great? Can you name one thing? Can you name two things? And what’s the third?
For example, is this a contextual issue – eg the changing role of women in Saudi Arabia; or is it a structural one – our reorganisation to focus more on customers?
Secondly: are there a few big themes which will be the train tracks along which your train will run? I call these the Narrative Themes – the big ideas which everyone understands. These are what the firm stands for in the market (or the government department focuses on in its strategy) and which provide the foundation for all marketing communications and sales conversations.
Thirdly – how do you do what you do? Is this something that can be reinforced or maybe fine tuned? This is about culture, methodology, approach, service mix – the things which make your business distinctive, special and great, not another firm in the same marketplace.
Finally, the big one – the why question. Why should I care about any of this if I am an employee or customer? Part of this process is defining clearly who are our employees and customers, so that we can be sure we understand their motivations and objectives. Our narrative has to pass the test that it really makes a difference to them and helps them achieve those objectives.
The answers to these questions become inputs into the formation of a Strategic Narrative. This can combine the vision and purpose of the business with a stated definition of its value proposition and some sense of how it will ensure it is different, special and leading in its marketplace.
If the organisation is a public body, then the same process defines a narrative that ensures everyone is clear, aligned and focused.
Sustainability in a fast moving environment requires clarity above everything else. You want to be sure that your people are liberated enough to be great, to innovate and to be motivated – but that they know they are doing this in a co-ordinated way as part of a shared vision.
We will be seeking to develop a shared vision of the future at the Human Capital Forum in May. As the chair, I’ll aim to pull together all of the many different, great ideas into a structured narrative of the big ideas about what to do and how to do it in this exciting, fast changing region.
About Strategic Narrative
Many companies have a core story that is outdated, confused or simply misunderstood. This affects their ability to differentiate themselves in their marketplace, sell everything they do, align their staff behind a shared vision and engage in a greater way with their key customers.
Strategic Narrative works with leaders to solve this challenge. A key part of this is to develop a shared view of that story, so that the whole team buys into a narrative about ‘what we stand for, who are our best customers and why they should buy from us’. Or a shared view of the story behind that change programme which is mission critical – but which right now everyone describes differently.
We also work with individual leaders on their own story, coaching them to be clear about the narrative they want to build, and how they’ll communicate it.
This provides real strategic clarity, aligns everyone behind an agreed narrative, and identifies what leadership looks like personally or in the market.
We do this through through consulting, coaching, leading workshops and writing the content and speeches that will work.