Why you need, and how to use, narrative as a road map for the future of your organisation by Dr. Paul Gentle and Louise Clifton.
Reading time: 6 minutes.
Our world is changing rapidly. Where once the future meant planning for a year, five years, or 10 years in advance (think hover cars and the Jetsons), now it’s knocking on our door and walking through.
Technology is at the forefront of many of these changes; it’s enabled us to work faster, smarter, more flexibly. But it’s also changed the way we work, how we communicate, and how we connect with one another: the essentially human elements of our work.
These human elements – our connections with each other and our stakeholders – are critical for our businesses to thrive. Where we care for these and communication and connection flow well, it emanates outwards, and where we leave these in the long grass, trust is eroded. Either way, at some point our customers and clients will feel the effects.
Narrative is one fundamental way to connect the heart and soul of an organisation with its people. It is the raison d’être; the thing that gives purpose and direction to organisational strategy. It helps individuals and teams find their place in the wider story, as well as helping people understand what the future looks like – the vision that they are working toward creating together.
Everyone will be affected by changes in the way we work, and in response, everyone will need to pull in the same direction towards common, well-articulated and understood goals.
With the future on our doorstep we need to figure out what this means for our organisations and our people, and to find the narrative that inspires, connects and structures the world around us.
Why is narrative important now?
L&D professionals face the big questions when planning for the future. How will digital tools and AI affect people’s jobs? How quickly will people need to be upskilled, and how do you do this well? Or should we be recruiting fresher talent? Will experience be eclipsed by adaptability?
There will be an even greater need to work across organisational silos. Everyone will be affected by changes in the way we work, and in response, everyone will need to pull in the same direction towards common, well-articulated and understood goals.
How we answer these challenges will be critical for how effectively our organisations adapt in increasingly competitive, fast-paced, markets. And L&D has a significant role to play here. Organisations that capitalise on the talents and possibilities that their people bring will have the ultimate advantage. But to create organisational communities and to motivate and inspire them, a strong narrative is needed.
A spotlight on education
The education sector has a particularly interesting challenge working with younger generations who are often at the forefront – if not increasingly leaders of – technological and social changes. This means the sector can’t just keep up, but has to innovate.
Last year, Imperial College London delivered the world’s first lecture by hologram, bringing US speakers directly into the room with UK students in real time. In 2016, Georgia Tech launched Jill Watson, the first AI teaching assistant. Students were unaware that Jill wasn’t real until the suspiciously quick responses she gave revealed her AI origins.
Student expectations are one of the main drivers behind these innovations. Yet as quickly as new ways to deliver lectures, updating systems or upskilling staff, can be completed, a new zeitgeist or change to the way to work is on the horizon.
This rapid and constant hamster wheel of change, whilst energising, risks leaving people behind who don’t integrate with the outcomes or who struggle to find their place in the evolving picture of where the organisation is going. Learning and Development teams are at the forefront of this challenge.
Regardless of sector, the organisations that bring their whole community with them through change, using a shared narrative and vision for its future, will be the organisations that thrive. To do this, we need to nurture curiosity and encourage people to be part of the story.
Narrative as a road map
A strong human story evokes both what we have in common and what differentiates us. It channels emotions, and it gives permission to celebrate our imagination; an asset we often overlook in business.
Using narrative isn’t only about making people feel more emotionally authentic when they’re at work; a powerful narrative paves the way towards creating a shared future. Organisations can tell if people understand their sense of direction and purpose through the stories that wind their way around the grapevine.
When senior managers ask, ‘What’s the word on the street?’, they want to know how the narrative – whether this is about strategy, culture change, redundancies or car parking – has landed at grass roots level.
L&D professionals can be highly influential promulgators of organisational narrative. Here’s how:
- Find the narrative at every opportunity. Ensure that every session you facilitate includes opportunities for people to articulate, develop and refine the narrative. Introduce workshops by asking people to write down, spontaneously and in private, what working in the organisation means to them.
Explain that this is an approach using automatic writing, drawing on E M Forster’s question ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’. After five minutes of continuous writing, ask everyone to distil the essential content of what they’ve written into a single sentence of exactly 12 words.
Then read them out. What emerges will lead to a fascinating discussion; yet it should also trigger some profound insights into the values and intentions to which people hold most powerfully. You will literally hear your organisation’s narrative begin to reveal itself.
- Show people where you are coming from. Plan for your own narrative of training and development so that people taking part, and those reading your evaluations, get that you stand for facilitating storytelling about what the organisation is and where it’s going.
Be careful to link the initial ideas which participants generate to any action planning to which they commit before they leave your session. Then follow up on this: ask how the narrative is progressing, and keep on asking at regular intervals.
- Communicating the narrative to others. Craft regular reports for your HR Director and senior executive team on what you’re picking up about the narrative in different parts of the organisation. While your reports will reflect multiple perspectives from diverse voices, focus on identifying the core, singular narrative for how the organisation will look in future.
Reflect hard, and creatively, on how this changes overtime. The word ‘craft’ is important. If you tell a good story in what you write, you won’t be churning out a standard bureaucratic report; you’ll be thinking of how to connect what you need to say to your reader with empathy and compassion.
You’ll be seeking the same impact on senior executives as you want them to make on those they lead.
When we work in a world that is relentlessly changing and we need to evolve with it, a narrative builds a community of people who can draw on a common vision to find the right path that will help us achieve our organisational aspirations.
But it’s essential that we pay attention and prioritise the people in this, and bring them along on the journey. If we listen and incorporate their voices, we can build authentic communities that reflect people’s values, harness their ideas and open the door to innovation.
So when we’re faced with questions like, ‘should we upskill and/or look for new talent? how we will use new technologies?, we can draw on our narrative to find the answers, using this as a road map to create the future of our organisations.
About the authors
Dr Paul Gentle is academic director and Louise Clifton is director of marketing, communications and operations of Invisible Grail