Features 26.09.2016The Power of Narrative

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Want to build an unstoppable company? Get a hold of your narrative.

What separates high impact companies from the rest? Is it people? Technology or products? Strategy? What?

Put another way, if Apple sold off its personal computer division would it still be high impact? If Google lost half of its management team, would it?

To my mind, the answer to both is yes. But how? The answer lies in narrative.

Narrative is what gives companies their power, their allure.

It offers guiding principles that influence mindset, behaviour and discipline to those inside. Like religion or national pride, narrative is organic, grounded in a mix of history, values and emotion. It establishes a set of ideals and holds people to those ideals, giving rise to culture and an approach to life and work.

Narratives are not stories. While they share some characteristics, stories are easily created and just as easily forgotten. Narratives run much deeper. They can’t be ‘made up’. Rather, they are observed, shared and built upon.

Powerful narratives inspire men and women to perform beyond their natural ability.

Look at athletes in the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Consider young men and women who join ISIS. Gross though the comparison may be, in both cases participants are drawn in by narrative – victory and excellence for one, a sense of injustice, rage and belonging for the other. Both sets of narratives compel individuals to go beyond what they would normally do, beyond what they believe is possible for them, often with extreme results.

What has always struck me about those who have enjoyed outstanding success is how fleeting the period of heightened achievement has been. It generally lasts no longer than their duration in 1 team or 1 company. Through discussions with such individuals, it is clear that such achievement has generally occurred within organisations or teams with such narratives. They report a sense of freedom and perform as the very best version of themselves whilst there. They enjoy a strong sense of connection to their colleagues and develop an equally strong sense of commitment to one another. Environments are fun, protective and tribal.

In these organisations, amazing things happen.

Milestones are achieved, technological breakthroughs occur and commercial targets are smashed. Objectives are clear and communication is constant. Laughter is frequent and environments are playful. New recruits clamour to join. Myths develop about legendary characters in the business and stories are told, again and again, each time drawing more people in, re-enforcing the bonds that initially attracted and now bind them together. These are special places.

These environments help explain why mediocre performers in one business go on to become outstanding in another. It also explains why stars in one company or team can disappoint later on. Each environment, each group of people, brings out different qualities and talents within us.  It is for this reason that I don’t believe in ‘rock stars’.

In the right environments, we can all be star performers. In the wrong environments, we can all be crap.

Compelling narratives are one of the most powerful tools for unleashing creativity, inspiration and hard work. What’s more, they can be developed, although it’s not done over a weekend or a strategy away day. While these take time, the beginning of the journey starts with some fundamental questions and observations.

– “Why does this company exist?”
– “What contribution is the company making to its people, market, industry and community?”
– “How do people act inside and outside of the company?”

Answers to these aren’t easy because they don’t come from imagination. They come from observing the alignment of an organisation’s commitments, actions and results.

For compelling narratives to develop, they also require charming, open leadership figures. No single person owns the narrative. Instead, they require a group of individuals to care for it, cultivate it and share it. Each new person brings something to the narrative, and their actions & results contribute to its development. But leaders set the tone.

Those with an interest in creating high impact companies must prove they can do more than just solve problems.

They must be able to create something greater than the sum of the assets, talents and capabilities working under one roof. Those who want to create high impact companies must be able to create an unstoppable force.

The key lies in narrative.

Chris Reichhelm is the founder of the Peloton Leadership Network, a management consulting group that helps young technology businesses maximise their talents, capabilities and opportunities. Through executive data analytics, coaching & education and executive search services, we help transform high potential businesses into high impact companies.