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.