Crafting, and demolishing, the organizational narrative

Odds are, someone close to you, a trusted mentor, at some point in your life advised you that there would be conversations in which you should steer clear of religion or politics — job interviews, a first dinner with prospective in-laws, and such. Business and private life rarely intersect, but these days, when it is broadly accepted that “corporations are people,” it’s worth reflecting on these sage words, because what’s true for you is likely to be equally true for your business.

The context for this reflection is a recurring discussion I’ve been having with colleagues and clients about corporate storytelling — and the recurring headlines about companies who have sabotaged their own carefully crafted narratives by making themselves poster children for their founders’ political causes.

Every business has a core story, and it’s a crucial starting point in evolving a content marketing strategy. As I’ve suggested in an earlier post

A business is a complex set of relationships between the producers and the consumers of a product or service. It’s a set of affiliations, and a complicated story. Content Marketing is the art of nurturing that story and making everyone in the value chain between the producer and the buyer a character with a role to play in it.

The traditional narrative arc

This Harvard Business Review blog post is only one of many eloquent treatments of business storytelling that I’ve been offering clients. I particularly like the handy little graphic it provides.

Take a moment to consider how this age-old model of the narrative arc applies to the business you’ve built. I work with a lot of tech companies, so let’s do a quick translation to what they do:

  • Exposition: Your identification of a unique, compelling and lucrative market opportunity.
  • Complication: Over tortuous cycles of development, you and your engineers define and create a powerful innovation to meet the market need. You bring it to a pioneer early adopter. Your success attracts angel capital and your solution is developed into a marketable product.
  • Climax: Your product enters broad distribution, attracts media attention, and is adopted. Grateful customers build entirely new business processes around your innovation. You secure new financing and reap the rewards of an entrepreneurial breakthrough. Your success, however, attracts competitive retaliation.
  • Reversal: Complications ensue; competitors succeed for a time in sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt in prospective adopters. How you overcome these doubts and break through to long-term success is the core of the narrative.
  • Denouement: Stable and profitable, your business draws a loyal, mainstream following. A broad community of adopters (who accept the parts they play in your story) appears, and you settle into nurturing a long and happy relationship with that community.

It’s a classic storyline, one that can apply as neatly to a successful organization as it does to the protagonist in a good, inspirational novel. It’s one of the greatest satisfactions for a marketer whose singular focus on this story has paid off — when the pieces of the narrative fall into place and customers bond with that story.

I can only guess at the pointless frustrations of the marketers whose organizational stories have gone off the rails because the plot has suddenly careened off into one about the entrepreneur’s crusade against same-sex marriage, or his attempt to impose his personal religious philosophy on the company and its employees, or management’s obstinacy about providing health insurance to its workers.

Corporate boards have to decide what’s best for their companies’ shareholders, employees, customers and the communities where they do business. Effective boards make these decisions in a pragmatic, non-ideological way, understanding that few decisions are easy and many will alienate at least one of the aforementioned constituencies.

But it’s clear to me that a lot of founders and boards are missing an essential point:

Pragmatism includes consideration of the impact of these decisions on the narrative that creates the bond between a company and its sustaining customers.

In the next few years, some organizations will find that they have compromised themselves to a degree they haven’t yet recognized, and may not recognize until it is too late.

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