In recent years, it’s become fashionable for enterprises large and small to create vision, mission, and value statements. So many of these are dull, often clichéd sets of words, undifferentiated – you can’t tell whether the business is finance, engineering, consumer goods, oil, or whatever – and unexciting when communicated to the workforce.
So similar are most of these words that I fantasize that there is a retail outlet called ‘The Mission Shop’ at most major airports. Here, a busy CEO can drop in between flights and buy one off the shelf: ‘To Be Number One’, ‘To Be The Best’ and ‘To Be The Preferred Supplier Or Partner’ are some of the most popular lines.
Stories, on the other hand, are the most timeless way of communicating ideas and beliefs. While the scientific stories of two thousand ago appear strange now, philosophical and religious stories from that time are still used to convey basic truths about life.
Also, stories produce change better than dry abstractions. If you were told a company value was to ‘be kind to others’, would it have as much of an impact on you as the Biblical tale of the kind Samaritan who crosses the road to help an ailing person? In the latter case you can see in your mind’s eye the act of crossing the street.
Stories appeal immediately to the part of our brain that is ‘hard-wired ‘ to receive their message, an insight that hasn’t escaped an inspirational leader like Anita Roddick when she says, “We can’t be bothered with strategy – we just tell stories.”
The Brand As A Story
All the ingredients of a story are present in the development of a brand: a quest, heroes and heroines, trolls and temptations, magic and success, and devious enemies.
“A brand is a metaphorical story that is evolving all the time. This connects with something very deep – a fundamental human appreciation of mythology.”
Scott Bedbury, Senior Director, Marketing for Starbucks
The perception of the brand in the marketplace is likewise a collection of stories: consumers, the press, and the internet are a giant story-telling machine. If the sum total of these stories is positive, you create an enviable legend. If negative, it’s a horror story.
Managing these perceptions is more than ‘spin-doctoring’. It depends on discussing which particular corporate story you want to live. Here’s how to find out. . .
Writing The Future . . .
While there are many consultants using the idea of storytelling to create pictures of the past and present, I think few are using them to write or invent a more successful future. This is the biggest re-think with story-telling: that you can use it to create a more vibrant picture of the future than the statements you can buy at the Mission Shop.
Typically, I take a top team – or number of teams – on a retreat. This can be a business strategy session because the stories created can be used as a substitute for the unexciting old process, or as a means of bringing the existing strategy alive. Alive both for leaders and those who need to act on the story.
Naturally, it’s necessary to get people into developing the right frame of mind, what I call the mindset of a ‘re-thinker’. This means the reflex of responding ‘why not?’ and ‘what if?’ to a new idea, rather than killing it with a critical ‘yes, but’.
The main technique is to write a story – often as a day in the life – set about one year in the future. The narrative weaves around all the changes that can be created. Invariably, people respond positively to the process, creativity and humour begin to flow, and many a true word is said in this open climate.
The truth then is to work backwards from this alternative vision of the future. What are the step-by-step actions to make this picture a reality and not a mere seminar dream?
Living The Story
I’ve used this approach in industries as diverse as transport, engineering, pharmaceuticals, and financial services, as well as with individuals. The initial flush of success at having ‘seen’ the future in a realizable form is inevitably followed by the question, ‘It’s all very well to write the story – what about living it?’
The best answer to this is to use the elements of great stories as a powerful metaphor that aids understanding of your own journey.
• Hero/heroine –>
• Quest/purpose –>
• Obstacles/enemies –>
• Helpers/Magic –>
The kind of creative questions that are prompted by this metaphor are:
• How clear is my quest/ set of goals?
• What will it take to be more of a hero or heroine?
• What’s your magic to make it all happen? (Try self-belief and helpful advisers – mentors and wise people.)
What helps is to create 360° stories – for example, from the perspective of customers, stakeholders, and partners. The essence of your vision, the future you can see played out in your mind, your values, and belief should all be embodied in your story.
The challenge is to be a re-thinker. This means you always go for the ‘why not?’, ‘what if?’ option rather than yes-butting new possibilities. And, if you’re feeling really bold, create your personal story, ideally one with your partner. Remember the old definition of an entrepreneur – a dreamer who does! Above all, what’ your story and who is writing the script? You choose.