At a time when we’ve all become obsessed with the power of story-telling, I’ve become increasingly focused on the missed opportunity to harness the much greater power of narratives, especially for institutions.
John Hagel is a highly influential business thought leader. Yet his latest blog post on where he distinguishes between stories and narratives is problematic I think. I just commented on his blog and here is my take on the article (exerpts are in quotes with my thoughts below):
“To recap, here are the distinctions. First, stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Narratives on the other hand are open-ended – the outcome is unresolved, yet to be determined.”
What you are describing is a culture or a thought system that is made up of a collection of stories, beliefs, attitudes, ways of doing, actions, symbols, language, etc. Reducing culture down to the term ‘narrative’ narrows our thinking about organizational life, community, and humanity in my opinion.
If we consider stories as only being about a beginning-middle-end structure, then they are self-contained. However, structure is only a small part of stories. In fact, stories are dynamic events, not discrete objects. Treating stories as objects leads to this kind of odd distinction being made between stories and narratives. In truth, the grand ‘narrative’ discussed here is made up of hundreds or thousands of stories that are always fluid and in motion. They work dynamically on people sometimes long after the telling. As performances, as events, story’s beginnings and ends are ephemeral as folklorists and anthropologists have recognized for decades.
“Second, stories are about me, the story-teller, or other people; they are not about you. In contrast, the resolution of narratives depends on the choice you make and the actions you take – you will determine the outcome.”
Stories when told orally are co-created experiences and not passively consumed – and all great storytellers know that. They also know that stories are always about the other person, not themselves or other people – regardless if a personal story is being shared. That is the biggest lesson businesses need to learn. Stories hold different problem solving structures within them. Once hearing a story, the choices people make about actions to take are always up to them. This is the craft of storytelling versus messaging – another lesson businesses need to learn. Stories are guides – actions are up to the listener. So the distinction here between stories and narratives is again problematic. I would rather the discussion focus on getting businesses to understand the powerful dynamics of storytelling rather than on distinctions that may create more confusion.
“But to understand the much greater power of narrative, I point out that throughout history, millions of people have given their lives for narratives. Every successful social movement in history has been driven at its core by a narrative that drove people to do amazing things, whether it’s the Christian narrative, the American narrative or the Marxist narrative. Narratives have an extraordinary power of pull.”
Narratives as movements are made up of a collection of stories, beliefs, and visions of the future that galvanize people. But folks do not relate to ‘narratives’ in this sense without having stories to connect to that are relevant to them personally. People will live and die for their stories. The aggregate of stories you are naming as a narrative are more aptly called ‘movements’ as you wrote. This is because they move people to action based on what is being said that they can connect their own person stories to, and the vision that is present. Again, calling these movements ‘narratives’ is kind of limiting and I’m not sure really expands our understanding of the dynamics going on.
“While completely understandable and natural, these cognitive biases can lead to increasingly dysfunctional behavior. I've written about this aspect of narratives in an earlier blog posting, but the cognitive biases that narratives can overcome are: risk aversion, shortening time horizons, zero-sum views of the world and erosion of trust.”
I don’t think that narratives overcome cognitive biases any better than stories do. In my decades of org story experience and all the research I’ve read, stories are the ultimate and best vehicle for overcoming cognitive biases. But again, this is all based on stories being understood as dynamic events and not as objects.
“If executives want to build institutions that can grow stronger in turbulent times, rather than weaker, they have to find ways to overcome these cognitive biases among their employees as well as among those they are trying to serve and collaborate with outside. Narratives can play an important role in accomplishing this.”
Authenticity, trust, engagement all happen through story sharing that over time eventually generates what is being called here a grand ‘narrative’. There is nothing inherently good in narratives just because one focuses on them. There are plenty of dysfunctional and debilitating ‘narratives’/cultures floating around out there. Grand narratives/cultures are not cooked up in some executive meeting – cultures emerge through time as people share stories, walk the talk, and live their beliefs. That culture – hopefully one that is positive and enlivens people -- is what companies can be known for. And that is the real work story professionals and businesses need to get done together.
What do you think? Any comments/reactions? Post here and on Hagel's blog!
This review was written by Karen Dietz for her curated content on business storytelling at www.scoop.it/t/just-story-it