The need to connect people with Purpose and Strategy is becoming more pressing as the pace of technology change, globalization and the disruption of markets increases.
CEOs and their leadership teams want people aligned and engaged in a way that educates and motivates them so that they can take the initiative to respond as needed without waiting for directions. To do that requires equipping people with an understanding of competitive challenges, what customers want and expect and a clear view of the business priorities. It also requires doing this in a way that energises people to respond in appropriate ways. People not only need to be able to work out what needs doing but should also feel inspired, empowered and motivated to act accordingly.
Gallup, a company that has led on research establishing correlations between employee engagement and performance, has demonstrated that engaging employees can make a difference1. Jim Harter, Chief Scientist of Workplace Management and Well-Being at Gallup highlights the importance of making connections between purpose and people:
“Engaged workers have bought into what the organization is about and are trying to make a difference. This is why they’re usually the most productive workers.”
But the importance of connecting people with purpose and strategy is not just driven by the commercial need to stay competitive in fast moving times. Employees increasingly want to know what their company stands for and why they should care about its success and growth. A recent survey of recruitment and retention issues (again from Gallup) highlighted how the importance of purpose has risen versus more traditional factors such as reward2.
Stakeholders too want organisations to be authentic – so that the experience of dealing with the organisation matches the promises it makes through its marketing and other communications. Stengel’s recent work on top performing brands demonstrated the importance of a shared higher purpose that sustains brands by delivering consistency between promise and delivery3.
The importance of “narrative”
The importance of an organizational narrative to help in this process has been recognized by people such as David MacLeod and Nita Clark in their “Engaging for Success” report for the UK Government4. They described a narrative as one of the important drivers of employee engagement:
The narrative is a clearly expressed story about what the purpose of an organisation is, why it has the broad vision it has, and how an individual contributes to that purpose.
According to CEB5 a narrative typically covers key purpose, values, vision, and strategy; and, to support these aims, the brand, desired customer experience and culture. It can also include the external factors that drive the need for change and the history of the company that represents an important legacy for many employees.
Approaches to sharing the narrative
There are many different approaches to how to “socialize” the narrative – that is, how to bring it to life for people so that they get it and understand what they need to do to support its delivery. Organizations use different platforms as the basis for sharing their narratives. Central to all these platforms is the intention of encouraging conversations to link the bigger narrative to what that means for individuals and teams. The table below summarises some of the more frequently used approaches, what they involve, their relative strengths and critical things to think about if using the approach:But as MacLeod and Clarke suggest what is important is the link or “line of sight” between what an organisation is trying to achieve and its interpretation and internalization at an individual level, which makes the way the narrative is shared critical to its value.
|Platform||What it can involve||Strengths||Critical things to think about|
|Big Picture; Big Conversation||A large visual metaphor (a road, bridge, football stadium, islands, etc.) that outlines key elements of the narrative (vision, values, market forces, etc.).
Numerous conversations using the Picture as the prompt to discuss what this means for local teams
|Use of visual makes translation easy; so conversations take place in local languages discussing local issues but using one global metaphor
A big picture links complex themes (strategies, values, initiatives)
Impact and efficiency – the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than the time it takes to decode text
|Maintaining focus on creating empowering conversations; focus on getting the “right” picture distracts from equipping people to lead conversations well
Equipping managers and/or facilitators to lead conversations
Getting the leadership team behind the initial drafts is important to build ownership from the top
Establishing the right visual tone for the audience to avoid patronising people
|Storytelling||Can involve the development of a core narrative for an organization and/or the development of storytelling skills for leaders and managers.||Stories are memorable, understandable, can operate at an emotional and rational level, and are less prescriptive inviting the listener to interpret the story to make meaning for them at a more personal level
As a result stories can be more persuasive as people reach their own insights and make their own meaning
|Selection of a bank of core stories that will resonate
Development of the skills of leaders and managers to create their own stories
|Brand||Articulation of the brand essence: a promise that represents what we offer customers (and employees)
Use of this to drive conversations and workshops that help people understand the value of the brand and their role in supporting it
|Links strategic conversations strongly to customer and other stakeholder benefits
Supports the alignment of customer experience to brand promise
Helps strengthen corporate reputation by increasing understanding of delivery roles
|Can be more difficult to apply in B2C and product brand situations where brand essence is based on less tangible differentiators
Requires acceptance of brand as a key competitive advantage which is more difficult to establish in public, third and some professional sectors
|Values||Similar to brand as a platform but based on enduring organizational values
Identification of enduring tenets to capture “what we stand for”
Summarises underlying assumptions about what it means to work here
|Appeals at a more meaningful level to a deeper purpose: why people work here and why it is worth working here
Highly flexible to enable people to adapt values to their own situations, teams and experiences
Naturally leads to questions and discussions about how we deliver the value
|Challenge of engaging people: how to align personal and organizational values
Can feel like a leadership construct imposed on others after executive away days
Are there worthwhile values that underpin how the business works?
|Large group interventions||A completely different approach that is far more emergent inviting people to contribute to the definition of what we are here to do and what our future should look like. LGIs represent a distinct discipline in organisation development and encompass such approaches as Open Space, Future Search, Search Conference, etc. These real time change methodologies can be used to engage groups in developing their narratives||Emergent and more real, engaging and empowering
Bottom up rather than top down
Generates higher levels of ownership and commitment
Aligns individual stories and values with organisational story and values
Fast and operate in real time; rather than relying on project teams or sub-groups decisions are taken within group conversations
|This approach requires sufficient leadership confidence to be ready to adopt the proposals and ideas that come from anywhere in the organisation
Getting the right people in the room
Lack of certainty can be challenging for leaders and participants who typically take time to understand that the outcomes are not pre-determined nor constrained in the way more top down approaches are
|Customer experience||This focuses on how the customer experiences interactions with the organisation and the impact this has on the customer. The use of a customer journey tool encourages people to put themselves in the customers’ shoes and see the world through their eyes. Key “moments of truth” and other opportunities to improve the customer experience support action planning or further work with other parts of the business||Encourages people to analyse how different parts of their organisation interact to create the customer experience
Breaks down silos and builds cross-departmental co-operation
Puts emphasis on external perspective rather than an internal and introspective analysis
Fosters a growth and service mindset
|Understanding the customers’ perspective both in terms of how they encounter the business and how they feel about those encounters
Creating opportunities for people to work laterally to influence change following participation in these conversations
Encouraging an openness and climate for people to be self-critical and constructive
|Gamification||Creating business games and scenarios that simulate challenges that the business faces
Using these to engage people in conversations that increase their awareness and understanding of the dilemmas involved in growing the organisation
Using these conversations to inform local planning and prioritisation
|Encourages the development of organisation awareness to reduce silo thinking and encourage cross-fertilisation and co-operation
Provides insights into executive decision-making
Promotes deeper awareness of the trade-offs and compromises that are sometimes necessary
Engages people in meaningful value discussions
|Creating scenarios that are engaging, realistic and challenging
Positioning the game as a learning experience and translating that learning to the real work
Game design that provides realism, fun and competition
This is not an exhaustive list. Other platforms include Lego SeriousPlay and drama based approaches. Nor is the list above mutually exclusive. Big pictures support storytelling and vice versa; brand workshops can encompass customer experience analysis and planning; gamification frequently highlights ethical dilemmas at the heart of values based planning.
1. Gallup; How Employee Engagement drives Growth; June 2013
2. Gallup; How Millennials Want to Work and Live; 2016
3. Jim Stengel; Grow; 2011;
4. David MacLeod and Nita Clarke; Engaging for Success; 2009
5. CEB; How Firms Build their Corporate Narratives; September 2016