Discovering Your Current Story

It’s imprudent to write a completely new story for your organization without first discovering what your current story is.

“Wait,” you say. “My organization already has a story?”

Yes, O dear reader! Everyone in your organization, whether it’s two people or twenty thousand, is telling a story about it.

I’m not going to get into methodology. You could survey the members of your organization, you could bring them in and ask them, you could start a discussion thread. You might ask your clients or customers, or you might keep it within your business. But the questions you will need to answer are generally the same.

  1. What do people believe are the most important values of my organization? (Not just the words in our on-boarding materials, but the values they are expected to play out on a daily basis in every interaction.)
  2. What does my org value that distinguishes it from any similar organization? Why does it hold that value as important?
  3. Do my org’s people know why and how they are expected to embody those values? Can they tell the story of a hero or champion of my org’s values?
  4. Where do my org’s people expect the company to be in five or ten years? How does that image reflect the distinguishing values of my org?
  5. What role do they see themselves playing in the evolution of the org?
  6. Where do my people expect to be in five to ten years? What does that say about their individual values?
  7. What role do they see the org playing in their personal evolution?

At its core, these questions seek to get to the “why” of your organization and identify the story your people are telling themselves about it.

Once you have answered these questions, start to piece together the puzzle:

  • Where do my people believe my organization is coming from? In other words, what is the relevant historical context?
  • What values are calling my organization toward a different future? How are those values shaping the organization as it is today? (Remember values don’t always have positive effects–cost-efficiency may result in fear and territorialism, while innovativeness may result in inefficiency. What are the benefits and the costs, not just to the organization as a whole but to my people?)
  • Who is the champion of these values, the example my people think of when they are trying to decide how to execute the values of the organization?
  • What kind of future is this leading us into? Is the path leading upward, downward, or on the same level? What specifics can I glean about the future my people are working toward?

With these elements in place, you will have the most basic outline of your founding myth. The next step will be to reforge that myth into something better.

What Is Story Good For?

In my post “How To Gather Your Community” I discussed the importance of your organization’s story. When I say “organization,” I don’t just mean your company as a whole. Each department, branch, or working team in a larger organization has a story as well. Nor do I just mean businesses. Unions, churches, nations, tribes–every human organization of any kind has its own kind of mythology that defines its identity.

Yet even though we have a story for every organization in our lives, the function of story seems to be poorly understood. An organization will often try to tell “stories” instead of its own story. These can be useful–for example, user stories help to clarify the experience of using a product. But they are no substitute for a clear understanding of your organization’s own narrative.

Your organization’s story is more powerful and more important than any strategy or mission statement. An organization will play out the story its people believe.

Everyone in your organization already believes a particular story about it. Take a look at The Office–either the British or the American version will do. The boss has constructed a narrative that the company is on the up-and-up and the employees are rallying to the banner. The employees believe their story is one of a company in decline and a boss in denial. Which of these stories is the company playing out?

For the company in The Office (Wernham Hogg/Dunder Mifflin) to turn around, the very first thing it needs is to look at its facts and find a reasonable, value-driven, forward-looking narrative–a founding mythology with a bright future.

Once the organization has a narrative, it needs to act out that narrative. The larger an organization gets, the greater the tendency to try something small and new without radically changing anything. But unless you act upon your new story, you’re just writing fiction. People will believe the narrative that’s playing out, not the narrative you’re telling.

Nor is it enough for the leadership alone to act out a new narrative. Each employee needs a place within the narrative that she is energized to act out.

I’ll be exploring each of these steps this week.

How to Gather Your Community

I’ve heard people ask how they can create community, cooperation, collaboration.

The secret is that you can’t.

Community is something that grows between a group of people who have a common interest. By “interest,” I mean they are all invested in an outcome. The outcome might be a temporary goal, such as a community theater production, or it might be something abstract and ongoing, like a group of friends who have a particular picture of what they’d like their lives to be.

Another way of saying this is that people in a community see themselves as part of the same story.

In ancient times, people-groups wrote epic poems and creation myths that imbued their cultures with a common identity. There is perhaps no better example than Virgil’s Aeneid, which turned the famed losers from Homer’s Iliad into the victorious founders of the future Rome. This is one of the most impressive turnaround stories in history: the Trojans were an utterly defeated, homeless people, and yet they founded the greatest empire on the earth. This story gave the Roman people a common origin, a set of values that included loyalty to the emperor, and a vision of a bright and glorious destiny–even those who didn’t believe every word.

If you are a leader, no matter your position in an organization, it’s because you’re telling a story that others want to join. If it’s your job to lead, you have to be deliberate with the story you’re telling. Where did your organization come from? Where is it going? And what part does each individual have to play in that common identity and common success?

This is far from the last post you’ll see about story, but for now, consider: Everyone you work with, from your employees to your investors, from your customers to your suppliers, is building a story with every interaction. Is it a story you’re building together?

(This post is part four of a series.)