You were born with a sophisticated, critical understanding of story. Your brain is already wired for narrative thinking. Yet most of us bury it in nonsense. We trade narrative thinking for something else.
Ask any seven year-old to tell you a story and she will tell you a story. It will have a hero, a problem, an inciting incident, a journey, conflict, an ultimate battle or choice, and a dénouement — usually a happy ending. No one taught her how to do it. She can't help herself. She’s a human being!
Ask a forty-seven year old with an MBA and several years of senior management experience to do it in a presentation or a job interview and she will respond with abstract business jargon and passive, clubby language.
Story is a word we hear a lot in business today. But, like brand, it is a woefully misused word.
My former colleagues, journalists, aren’t the only people who say the word “story” when they mean something else. For grotesque fun, I like to click the My Story, Our Story or even better, Our Brand Story button on websites. It is nearly always a description of the organization’s product offering, what they do and perhaps where they do it. It’s just as bad on personal sites and LinkedIn. Leaders are keen on dates: when they graduated, when they started and finished jobs.
When I use the word story, I am not talking about a linear set of facts. I am not talking about a key message or a slogan. I am not talking about your mission, vision, and values statements that are more or less identical to everyone else’s mission, vision, and values statements. These black holes of meaning are nearly always a blend of nouns and phrases that are currently attractive: client-focused, customer-centred, sustainable, visionary, driven, collaborative, innovative.
Mission, vision, and values statements come out of traditional strategic planning. The phrase itself, strategic planning, will send a wave of mild nausea through certain readers of these words. We’ve all been through it: the environmental scan, the SWOT analysis, the scenario plan, the value proposition, the blue-sky, the deep-dive, the roadmap, the input review, the strategic matrix, the benchmarks and milestones, the big hairy audacious goal, the baseline enterprise architecture: put twelve or twenty or fifty people in the room to arrive at some agreement on this, with a sweaty facilitator, and we’re banishing ourselves from actual thinking. It’s no wonder almost every organization today, from salad bars to global industrial giants, have more-or-less the same mission, vision, and values statements.
You will find plenty of strategic planning processes for sale at your local management consultancy. Each one has a delightful metaphor to unravel and mix with the metaphor you used last time you went through strategic planning. It sounds and feels enormously complex. If you have a lot of money to spend, you can call London and go through the same process with someone who flies to town in a more expensive outfit and fancier eyeglasses than any facilitators where you live.
The trouble is, you’re probably not using your strategic plan. And you shouldn’t fret about this: strategic plans are usually impossible to use. If your mission is to be the greatest, and your vision is to bask in triumph, and your values are to be stakeholder-focused and team-driven and ethical, with integrity and a spirit of innovation, I can’t blame you for lacking focus and for feeling no feelings whatsoever about what you do every day. I can’t blame you for starting from zero every time you have to make a decision, or launch a new product, or write a job ad. I can’t blame you for all those random tactics.
Why don’t we think in story? Because it’s officially unserious. It’s more art than science. And there is no room for art in business strategy now, despite all the evidence to the contrary. You can study science! You can pass and fail science tests. It is measurable: graphs are possible, and market research firms will package and sell you “intelligence.”
Leadership and management are sciences now, too.
Henry Mintzberg, who teaches management at McGill University in my old city of Montreal, gave up teaching in MBA programs in the 1980s. He found the emphasis on the “science” of managing to be false. The programs were attracting the wrong students at the wrong time in their lives. They were seeking analysis and control in their early twenties, without much experience in the workplace. Rather than focus on the education of the individual leader, Mintzberg wants to see management education move into the practice of encouraging the success of others.
Most work that can be programmed in an organization need not concern its managers directly; specialists can be delegated to do it. That leaves the managers mostly with the messy stuff—the intractable problems, the complicated connections. And that is what makes the practice of management so fundamentally “soft” and why labels such as experience, intuition, judgment, and wisdom are so commonly used for it.[i]
The trouble with the routine strategic planning processes we use in business, in government, and in the not-for-profit sector is that its experts and salespeople package it as a science. Experience, intuition, judgment, and wisdom are irrelevant, even dangerous. These qualities don’t belong in a room full of twelve or twenty-four people who must find consensus. To find consensus, in a room full of many people who have pushed their instincts aside to reach for the pseudo-scientific, all you can really do is revert to the universal synonyms of corporate and public goodness in the twenty-first century: some combination of inoffensive jargon and clichés. You’re either sustainably innovative or innovatively sustainable. You’re people-focused and driven and, of course, your vision is to be the very best at all of this.
It is important, crucial, to define and narrow your strategy. The trouble is, traditional strategic planning takes you in the opposite direction, into generalizations and superlatives. Designing a plan of action, based on generalizations and superlatives, is dangerous for salad bars and for global industrial giants. These processes that seem absolutely necessary are actually quite new, arriving after the Second World War. The irony is that it leaked out of the military.
Western military strategy in the 1940s demanded the soft art of genuine leadership. It was based in all of that experience, intuition, judgment, and wisdom stuff. To engage soldiers and populations, leaders used precise language and powerful thinking. General Patton didn’t speak in clichés.
If the General of PR had squeezed Winston Churchill’s words through a modern strategic planning session, and some media training with a contemporary marketing and communications department, he would have said:
The enemy will be defeated by our innovative, soldier-focused, best-in-practice strategies on integrated geographic platforms of military leadership driven by local synergies.
We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender.
Of course, at the end of the Second World War, smart and influential people were using nonsense language — the business, government, and academic jargon of its day. In his marvelous essay Politics and the English Language, which I try to read every year to remind myself of its truths, George Orwell excerpts some of the abominable prose he was seeing and hearing in England. It’s funny and sad, what he writes about bad writing and bad speaking. But his point, in the essay, is not that abominable language is funny or sad or abominable. At the end of the Second World War, England was rebuilding after a nightmarish war. Its citizens needed strength and clarity from their leaders, emotional honesty, personality, genuine inspiration. Instead, leaders were serving them dying metaphors, ready-made phrases, and pretentious diction.
…modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy.[ii]
If this were simply an aesthetic consideration, his essay would circulate among writers who might publicly laugh and privately worry about all the errors they had made that very morning. But Orwell’s point is deeper: there is a direct link between our decisions, between what we decide to do and make, and the language we use.
We say what we think. If the words we use are weak and meaningless, our thinking is weak and meaningless and our actions can only be weak and meaningless. Therefore, England in the latter half of the twentieth century shall be weak and meaningless.
The more time you spend in government, in the corporate world, the more you see Orwell’s predictions coming true. In our work with corporations and governments, we are never surprised to find leaders who are strong in all the “soft” categories working with healthy and profitable and meaningful organizations. Unfortunately, these leaders and these organizations are black rhinos, critically endangered.
It’s a cultural problem that goes much deeper than strategic planning. Today, universities are designed to prepare us for a job. In the past, universities prepared us to be citizens. Jobs came later. The science and technology buildings, the engineering and business faculties are robust and thriving today because it appears they contribute directly to the market. Liberal arts: not so much. Reading literature and philosophy, thinking about language and its power, its hold over our brains and our hearts, is frivolous, old fashioned, a waste of time and money. Serious teenagers graduate into real disciplines. This is why leadership and management have become sciences. If you do not make your area of study into a science, it will wither. Philanthropists, governments, and parents will ignore you. This is why so many of our clients are uncomfortable, even frightened, by talking and thinking about narrative. They haven’t “thought in story” since they were children.
But there is a fundamental difference between people who speak and think clearly, in narrative, and those who do not. Martha Stewart, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Simmons, and Richard Branson solve very different but ultimately simple and important problems with consistency and discipline. We know their stories because they tell them (or told them) in the way they speak, the way they act, the way they lead.
Most business and political leaders today have learned to think in clichés, in words, phrases, and therefore tactics that are abstract and empty. They delight in their own complexity. We pay to hear them speak and, afterward, we struggle to remember a word they said. If you make one important decision today, will it be an innovative decision? Probably, or not. Without a master story to reinforce, with all our decisions, we’re really just guessing.
A story is not a linear presentation of facts. It is not a mess of long, popular nouns, written in the passive voice, and ugly new verbs that have been created from nouns. A story is simpler yet also much more difficult than either of the above. For as long as human beings have communicated, sought to influence each other, sought to build something that will endure — a career, a business, a place —narrative has been the most powerful way to do it. We remember the artists, the religious leaders, the kings and queens and politicians and industrialists who have understood this. We forget nearly everyone else.
[i] Mintzberg, Henry. “Managers, not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development.” Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005. San Francisco.
[ii] Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.”