Why narrative

pciture of narrative notesI often get asked why I believe narrative is such an important part of addressing issues around organisational culture and change. Here is a brief explanation:

There is a common discussion thread amongst people involved in organisations: the business environment is becoming more complex than ever before. In days gone by we could get a grasp on organisational issues with ease as we linked the problem with its cause and resultant effect. Today however, the business landscape is more complex. The tried and tested means of identifying, analyzing and resolving issues seems to be less effective.

It is in this context of discontinuous change that I believe narrative and storytelling have an important role to play as we develop and improve our organisations and their ability to navigate the unpredictable business landscape.

If the nature of problems is changing as well, we need a way of understanding problems that adapts to this complexity. I believe such understanding can be achieved through the use of narrative and stories in organisations. If there is one form of communication than can handle complexity, and even embody it, it is narrative. Stories are by their very nature complex and simple at the same time.

Stories told by employees, and the stories of the organisation’s history, capture and communicate a wider degree of knowledge about the organisation and its culture than linguistic statements do. Capturing stories is for us a preferred way of understanding your organisation, its depth, soul and goings on.

One needs to be intentionally mindful that our organizations are human in nature, and that it is the human side of our business that will be the competitive advantage in this ever-changing world. Change and its effects are not restricted to the structural processes and divisions with which we typically analyse business. The way in which people view themselves, how they add value to the organization, how they behave and what they hold dear are paramount in a culture that handles change. Never before has collective identity and culture been so important to the success of an organization.

There are two basic challenges as leaders navigate this landscape: integrating individuals into an effective whole, and adapting effectively to the external environment in order to survive. As groups find solutions to these problems over time, they engage in a kind of collective learning that creates the set of shared assumptions and beliefs we call "culture."

Thinking about and engaging with organizational culture is a leadership imperative. Edgar Schein writes, "The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them." I argue that the consciousness Schein describes is best achieved through the use of narrative.

Because culture is so embedded within the history and shared experience of the organization, the stories told by employeess and the stories of the organisation capture the organisational memory and culture in a more robust and useful manner than do best practice cultural audits.

Narrative is also profoundly useful in establishing a shared, integrated organisational culture. Schein (1993) argues that dialogue, rooted in narrative and experiences, enables groups to create a shared set of meanings and a common thinking process. Culture surrounds us all, and we need to understand how it is created, embedded, developed, manipulated, managed, and changed. To understand the culture is to understand your organization.



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