Developing a strategic narrative: 10 tips

A strategic narrative is central to employee engagement according to David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, and the Engage for Success movement they shaped. It provides a clear vision to help create common purpose, and a clear direction aids decision-making and prioritizing. The narrative should also explain why you have your vision – a theme emphasised by Dan Pink, the author of Drive, who highlights the importance of creating a sense of meaning for people.

However, developing a clear strategic narrative is difficult – perhaps the most difficult of the four enablers of engagement according to a straw poll conducted at a recent Engage for Success event.*

Here are 10 tips that may be helpful if developing a narrative for your business.

  1. Answer the question of why you exist as an organisation; your “reason for being.” This provides a sense of meaning for people. It is rarely about money. Leadership should be wary, if they want to create an engaging climate, of framing their reason for being as purely financial. Involve a wider group in addressing this question asking how people think and feel about working for the business. Appreciative inquiry can be helpful as an approach exploring people’s high points at work, their wishes for the future and generating conversations about what motivates and inspires them about the business. Ask too how they think the business is different from others and what that means for them
  2. Map the history and key milestones: the story so far; successes and challenges you have overcome. Within the history of the business are thousands of stories and moments that matter to the people who helped to make them happen, or who got through the tough times during which important relationships were formed. Old brand names, products and locations will still resonate and establish links with these to the current business. Avoid the temptation to write the past out of the story
  3. Look at challenges and issues today that are outside your control. These could be technological, global, social, competitive or regulatory changes. Identify key forces that shape the environment within which the business operates and to which it needs to respond to survive and grow, or that create opportunities for new areas of growth
  4. Do the same for internal forces for change whether they are positive or negative. The narrative can include both internal strengths (e.g. teamwork, pride, customer focus) and weaknesses (e.g. unchecked inter-departmental rivalry, resistance to change, fear of the unknown)
  5. Rumfelt describes good strategy as the application of strength to promising opportunity. Di Fiore says it requires focusing on what to offer and what not to offer and being clear about your difference. Boil strategy down to ideas and phrases that are easy to understand, that build on strengths and that illustrate growth potential
  6. Describe the key things that need to happen in the short-term. For example: how you will meet customer needs, what innovations you will launch or develop, what will have changed in a year? What the short-term future looks like (the things you need to do to execute your strategy)
  7. What the longer-term future looks like (your vision; where you are headed and what that means for employees, customers and others). This is one of the toughest sets of questions to answer. Nevertheless it is worth pushing for answers and it helps to make the questions as tangible as possible. For example: how will a day in the life of a typical employee be different, how will customer meetings look different, what issues will the Board be discussing, who will be leading the company, what sort of people will have left and what sort of people will be working for the business now. Where will they work from, what will they spend their time doing, etc? In today’s disruptive times it is often impossible to be clear on answers to questions like these. Paradoxically, being specific on questions like this help leadership and others realise these questions cannot be answered with any certainty. While this creates anxiety it also helps all recognize that the future will emerge as a result of conversations internally and with customers and suppliers; and of course as a result of competitive or other external activities. The narrative now may contain alternative future possibilities and the process of debating these possibilities helps leadership define an umbrella vision that can cover all of them, some important “what if” questions to build into the story and some milestones that help people see the longer journey
  8. Think about the consequences of not changing or not going down this journey and build this into the narrative. It becomes another reason why you need to change
  9. Everyone in the organisaiton should be able to see themselves in the narrative, whether front line customer facing people, back office support, managers or leaders. This is an important test and if the narrative does not cover everyone new insertions may need to be made or “chapters” revised
  10. Remember the narrative is a start point not an end. Use the narrative as a platform for engagement giving employees the chance to join conversations about their futures and to help shape it.

The narrative is there to develop “a clearly expressed story about what the purpose of the organisation is, why it has the broad vision it has and how an individual contributes to that purpose.” (Engaging for Success; MacLeod and Clarke; page 75).

View your organisation as a social construct and see the narrative as a tool to help people explore. The narrative can help this process prompting the kinds of questions that lead people to debate what needs changing and why, and it becomes a tool to help deliver that future.

*Engagement through a Neuroscience Lens; April 29, 2015; Telegraph Media Group


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