Does your corporate narrative have an antagonist?

Defining a strategy is easy. Transforming those slides and spreadsheets into action is the tricky part. Instead of presenting an endless barrage of charts, boxes, and figures, leaders should embrace storytelling as a tool to inspire and engage the organization. With that in mind, who is the villain of your corporate narrative?

Spreadsheets and powerpoints may serve a purpose for strategic planning or budgeting, but in order to take the strategy from the boardroom and to the whole of the organization, those key figures and objectives should be translated into a compelling story.

3M is one of the companies that has embraced storytelling as one of their recipes for success. Taking it as far as downright banning bullet points in corporate presentations, replacing it with strategic narratives. According to 3M, bullet lists encourage us to be intellectually lazy and offer a too generic approach to business objectives. Leaving out context, critical relationships as well as how goals tie together in the big picture. This is where strategic narratives as a leadership practice come in.

Just like most stories, it all starts with setting the stage. This is where the audience gains an understanding of the context of the story. Without a shared understanding of where you stand and where you are coming from, the following narrative is open for interpretation and will eventually lead to widespread confusion. Setting the stage also provides an opportunity to establish the rules of the world in which the story takes place. Just like Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite and Vampires are lethally allergic to sunlight, your business environment also has some unbreakable rules that should be interwoven into the story.  

After setting the stage, the next part is the call to action. Usually, this part is poorly translated with the mandatory kick-off at the beginning of each budgeting year, where employees are presented with lots of numbers (that is reminiscent of last year’s numbers as an extrapolation of past performance).

In order to tell a great story the call to action should include the main objective as well as expose the antagonist of the story. Frodo decided to leave his comfortable life in the Shire after realizing that he had to destroy the one ring to prevent it from falling into the hands of the malevolent Sauron. Not by being presented with a slide deck describing the number of steps needed to reach Mordor.

Not only was the objective and villain of the story clear as day, but the hero of the story was also established. This is a classic example of the departure in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, and while our corporate lives may differ from the hero’s journey, there are lessons to be learned when telling the story of your strategic ambitions.

orate context, a narrative should be about the customer, not the corporation. Building a successful narrative requires a deep understanding of your customers: How are their needs evolving? What are the big opportunities that would excite and inspire them? What are the challenges or obstacles they would confront in seeking to address those opportunities? What actions will they need to take in order to overcome those obstacles and achieve the opportunity? Are those actions something that the company could help them to pursue?

A strategy is worthless unless the ambition is to change your corporate behavior in some way. Either this is related to innovating your business model, accelerate growth, double down on profits, or making a positive impact on the world. All these directional shifts require everyone to work together toward a shared objective, sharing the same perils, and facing the same villain. Apple is perhaps the master of this art, best exemplified by their infamous ‘1982’ ad, reaching beyond their organization and involving their customers as part of their corporate narrative by framing rivaling companies as some kind of dystopian society.

Throughout history, the success of our species as described by Yuval Harari is the ability to create and believe shared myths, stories, and fiction.

This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money, and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, and no human rights—except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

Our corporations are in the same way fictions of our imagination that we as humans have over time institutionalized, but somewhere along the way, we forgot to continue the story when running these corporations. It is hard to order people to be more innovative because our brain does not work that way. Even following the rules is hard, as few bother to read the rulebook. After all, we are lazy beings.

Back to your strategic narrative. After setting the stage, as well as establishing the stakes through a call to action, the context, objective, and antagonist should be widely known throughout the organization. Craft your strategic story with common mythology, trials, pitfalls, and heroes along the way. These story elements should act as intangible cultural artifacts when integrating your story with the company culture.

A great story is entertaining, but your organization needs to be participants of the story rather than a passive audience. The heroes of the story are never the executive leadership, but the individuals of the organization. After all, who does not want to be the heroes of their own story?

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