Monday, November 25, 2013

John Hagel on the Power of Narrative & Stories 2.0

Had the opportunity to speak briefly with John Hagel III who came to the Netherlands as part of the Singularity University European Tour, visiting a seminar in Budapest and the Carre Theatre in Amsterdam as part of the homeward journey. I've followed Hagel for some years after meeting him for the first time at a SuperNova event organised by Kevin Werbach. Hagel has been studying how modern companies organise themselves and stimulate innovation. He has gathered plenty of evidence that most of the innovation happens at the edge of organisations and this was emphasised again at the Amsterdam presentation. Hagel has also recently given talks (famously without ever needing Powerpoint slides) to show that the most engaging stories are actually powerful narratives, and they are not the same thing.
Deloitte, for whom Hagel has set up the Center for the Edge, has done some excellent analysis of modern storytelling, especially in startup companies like the ones I am working with. Well down into the Deloitte website, you'll find this page which explains why the difference is so important.
At the 2013 SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, storytelling was a main theme. Over 100 discussions focused on the topic. John Hagel, director in Deloitte Consulting LLP and co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, provided his own viewpoint, addressing an audience of nearly 600 participants in his session entitled, “Moving from story to narrative.” 

Stories are extremely powerful in terms of engaging emotion and creating memorable experiences, so I understand why stories are so intriguing and why there's so much focus on the power of story.  But I want to draw a distinction between stories…and narratives…  

One is that narratives are open-ended. They don't have resolution.  There is something that is in the process of unfolding. The end is yet to be determined.  And second, there's an invitation to all of us to participate in that narrative, to help determine what the outcome is going to be.  It's yet to be determined and it's up to you, not up to them, not up to me, up to you as to how this is going to unfold and resolve itself.

At the end of the day, if we get this right, the best way to think about the world is not seven billion mouths to feed, but seven billion minds to unleash.  That's a powerful, powerful opportunity.

Sadly, the audio on the video of the talk he gave in Austin is a struggle to listen to. But fortunately, Hagel's own blog goes into much more detail in an entry he posted last month. 
In the blogpost he is comparing narratives with passion. Here's an extended extract which I believe needs a much broader discussion in media circles: 
For me, narratives are related to, but different from, stories.  Stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Narratives on the other hand are open-ended – the outcome is unresolved, yet to be determined.  Stories are also about me, the story-teller, or other people; they’re not about you.  In contrast, the resolution of narratives depends on the choice you make and the actions you take – you will determine the outcome and you are therefore an integral part of the narrative.
Narratives are typically about a broad domain rather than narrow slices of experience.  Think about famous social narratives like the Christian narrative, the American narrative or the Silicon Valley narrative. I’ve talked about institutional narratives like the Apple narrative or the Nike narrative – the former is about the role of technology in re-shaping our identity in society while the latter is about our ability to move from passive observers of sports to active participants in achieving exciting new levels of physical performance. 
Whatever the level of the narrative, it maps out a broad domain. And, because it calls us to make choices and take action, it helps us to move beyond simple curiosity to a commitment to make a difference.
But it does more than that, especially if it’s an opportunity based narrative.  It identifies wonderful opportunities within that domain that are available to each and every one of us if we choose to pursue them. Narratives can help orient us towards a specific domain and encourage us to make a long-term commitment to that domain because of the exciting opportunity that awaits us there. But, it’s up to us. Will we make that commitment? Will we take the actions required to participate in that opportunity?
Nurturing a questing disposition
Now, let’s look at questing dispositions.  Opportunity based narratives are not just about opportunities – they also typically frame the challenges that we’ll encounter along the way. It’s not going to be easy. To participate in the long-term opportunity, you need to take on and overcome the challenges that await you. 
The dual focus on opportunity and challenges helps to draw out the questing disposition in us. Rather than trying to avoid challenges when they occur, narratives encourage us to seek out the challenges because we won’t be able to participate in the long-term opportunity until and unless we confront and overcome the challenges that stand between us and the opportunity.
Fostering a connecting disposition
And what about the connecting disposition?  Narratives tell us that the opportunity ahead is not just for one individual; it’s available to many if not all of us. We’re not alone in this. These are not zero sum opportunities where one winner crowds out all of the others.  We can all participate in the opportunity. That message encourages us to come together to help each other over the finish line.
The dissemination of the narrative itself helps to build up a community – or dare I say a movement? – of participantswho share a common excitement about overcoming the challenges that await on the way to a big and transformative opportunity. It cultivates a larger and larger gathering of people who are united by a shared commitment to a domain and an eagerness to confront and overcome the challenges ahead. As we see more and more people who share our excitement, we are much more likely to reach out and collaborate with others in overcoming the challenges ahead.
The virtuous cycle between narrative and passion
So, opportunity- based narratives can be very powerful in catalyzing and amplifying the passion of the explorer. But there’s also a virtuous cycle here.  As participants begin to acquire this passion of the explorer, they accomplish awesome things. The stories of their amazing accomplishments begin to spread and give additional credibility to the broader narrative – look at what others have accomplished, you can do the same or even better.  Will you join us? Will you make the choices and take the actions required to pursue this exciting opportunity? The narrative is enriched by the experiences of others, spreads more broadly as others see the tangible evidence of what can be accomplished and acquires far more credibility.
Narratives as beacons
Now, not all of us will be drawn equally to any particular narrative. But narratives can become bright beacons calling us to reflect on whether the opportunity being framed is one that is meaningful to us as individuals. They are powerful antidotes to the institutions and practices we have today that discourage and ultimately squash passion in their quest for predictability, standardization and tight specification of all the actions we must take. They call us to re-connect with the passion we all felt as children and to move from the passion of the player that most of us had as kids to the passion of the explorer, motivating us to make a long-term commitment to a specific domain.
The dark side of narratives
Let me hasten to add that there’s a dark side to narratives.  So far, I’ve been talking about opportunity based narratives. There’s another kind of narrative – threat based narratives. You know the kind – we’re increasingly surrounded by them.  These narratives focus on an imminent threat – we’re under attack and if we don’t band together now, we’re all going to die or at least all the things we hold precious are going to disappear. Threat-based narratives are deeply conservative or even reactionary – they want to preserve what we have rather than explore exciting new opportunities.
These kinds of narratives tend to ignite a different form of passion – the passion of the true believer. In this kind of passion, the destination is very clear and the path we all need to take to reach that destination is tightly mapped out. In contrast, the passion of the explorer has no idea what the ultimately destination will be much less the path that we will need to pursue to reach that destination – the key is simply to get started and to craft our own path with the help of others.
Threat-based narratives and the passion of the true believer have combined throughout history to create many of the social movements that have wreaked havoc in our world. Nevertheless, even here the tight connection of narrative and passion helps to explain the power that these movements have exhibited.
Bottom line
Why does all of this matter? As I’ve explored in the Big Shift,we live in a world of mounting performance pressure – it’s not going away.  In that kind of world, we need to find ways to draw out sustained extreme performance improvement.  We simply cannot do that without deep and widespread passion, as I’ve argued elsewhere. The problem is that, based on our recent research into passion levels within the workforce, only 11% of the US workforce has passion about the work they do. If I’m right, narratives can play a key role in drawing out passion, both within each of us and within our institutions.
If we can’t find ways to re-connect with our passion as individuals, we’ll continue to feel mounting stress, become more and more marginalized and ultimately burn out and drop out.  If we can’t find ways as institutions to tap into the passion of our participants, we’ll experience diminishing performance and ultimately topple out of existence.
It doesn’t have to be that way.  Narratives can create a very different world, one where pressure evolves from a source of stress to a source of excitement, calling us to achieve even more of our potential, both as individuals and collectively. By drawing out the passion that lies dormant within most of us, narratives can help us to accomplish things that we would have never believed possible.

Jonathan's conclusions
I realize from studying John's analysis that the most powerful presentations I've witnessed lately are not stories but narratives. They are open ended, engaging and there is a clear and passionate call to action. But the cause also has to be authentic - it's not a clever marketing trick to sell me a new product. At the moment, most of my clients will look aghast if I explain I'm a craftsman in the digital narrative. Digital story-telling will have to do for now. But in fact, I'm with John Hagel all the way.  And European startups have to build much stronger narratives if they are going to get heard. For the moment, that part of the message has not yet gotten through.

Update: I have been surprised and inspired by the readership to this posting. So the narrative continues. Read on
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