Creating and communicating the strategic narrative (or company story) of a business is now a well established practice in employee engagement. In this blog, we share the three qualities we think distinguish the best stories from the rest.
Companies use strategic narratives to engage their people because they want to give everyone a common framework for understanding the company, the context in which it operates and the journey it is on. A well crafted company story allows leaders to impose a sense of order, simplicity and consistency on an organisation whose operations may actually be bafflingly chaotic or complex.
The meaning of a company story is created by the way it ties together the answers to a set of worldview questions to create a coherent story. Most often, these stories take the form of the hero’s journey: they start by introducing a hero, who then faces a challenge or calling, the hero develops or learns something to enable him to triumph, leaving him somewhere better than where he started.
In our view, the best company stories:
A great company story should answer all these questions to create a comprehensive and meaningful worldview that employees can buy into.
From a rational perspective, the elements of the strategic narrative must be self-referentially coherent. The answer to one worldview question can’t contradict another and the story must be capable of surviving interrogation and scepticism. It must also recognisably connect with reality — it can’t just be wishful thinking or rhetoric. Great compay stories also make clear choices and avoid vacuous statements. To echo the point made by Patrick Lencioni in his HBR article 'Make Your Values Mean Something', the best company stories focus on the elements that differentiate them from competitors.
However, a company story that makes sense, but which has no emotional appeal will leave employees understanding what the company wants them to do, but not moved sufficiently to do anything about it. A company story must therefore provide hope and vision, important substantial goals that people can strive towards and a vision of success that is worthwhile and not merely about financial returns. The best company stories focus people’s emotional energy and attention on the future by setting out the journey ahead and the emotional treasure waiting at the destination. This collective future orientation fosters a culture of optimism and a sense that challenges can be overcome.
Finally, a great company story must also be socially appealing. It must create a version of the hero that people want to be or to associate themselves with. Without this social connection employees can agree with the logic of the strategy, they can feel an emotional affinity with the desired destination, but they might still decide to join a rival company that’s making a similar journey but has a more appealing brand, culture and people.
A great company story should aspire to simplicity, because it is precisely this artificial imposition of clarity that makes it such a useful tool for employees trying to make sense of the world around them. The story really comes alive when individual employees connect it to their personal experiences and use the story to understand what those experiences mean.
When employees buy into a strategic narrative, they will try to reframe their personal experiences or interpret new events in a way that is consistent with the company story. The simplicity of the narrative gives different employees the scope to read themselves into the story even when their personal experiences might vary significantly. Different aspects of the company story will therefore have more resonance with particular employees than others. Indeed the company story will mean something slightly different to every employee depending on how they align it with their own experience; but provided there is genuine connection and a degree of commonality, the strategic narrative will remain a meaningful focal point for the different points of view across an organisation.
Finally, whereas the traditional style of communication in business is for leaders to focus on ‘what’ they want people to do and ‘how’ they want people to do it (what might be seen as only the middle of the story); a strategic narrative is grounded in a sense of change over time. Indeed, the weight of a good strategic narrative is actually on the beginning and the end of the story. This means that when, inevitably, the strategy isn’t executed or doesn’t quite work out as planned, employees stick with the overall journey of moving from x to y and are able to make their own adjustments to stay on course.
If you'd like to start to create your own story, download a copy of our Company Narrative Canvas.