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The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

reflections on strategy and story

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We recently convened a breakfast event around Sean Lusk and Nick Birk’s book Rethinking Public Strategy (Palgrave, 2014).

The enquiry we invited participants to think about focused on the balance between fact and imagination, and the stories that both shape and carry forward a strategic view of a better future in the public and private settings.

This event is part of Sparknow’s ongoing thinking into #storiesinaction where we look at the application of narrative methods to shift thoughts into action in complex situations.

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photo | Victoria Ward

Five participants have reflected on what struck them about the conversation and we offer these reflections as a springboard to keep the enquiry in motion, amongst participants and within our collective networks. 

Nick Birks

What struck me about the conversation was the role of emotions in rational thinking, whose plausibility sent me scurrying for Martha Nussbaum’s book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions with its reference to the role of emotion in judgement and imagination, both of which we argue are essential to successful strategy.

Another notable provocation was the reminder of Drucker’s famous quip that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Our book recognises that it takes time and a sustained effort to bring about a culture that takes long term thinking seriously. But we don’t address Drucker’s implied challenge head on. A search suggests that although attributed to Drucker, he apparently said something slightly different:

‘Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.’

It was the president of the Ford Motor Company, Mark Field, who in 2006 attributed or misattributed the quote to Drucker, when Field was trying to change the culture to give his strategy a chance.

My subsequent thoughts were that strategy is making choices, and that involves decisions. Emotions that offer an evolutionary advantage play an important role in decision making. Our book discusses the role of imagination and judgement (together with some established techniques for breaking out of tramline thinking) but not specifically the role of emotion. That’s perhaps because the emphasis on evidence-based policy seems to rule out emotions (and knee-jerk responses when dealing with complex systems) and the risk that we don’t challenge our beliefs. Can emotions help direct us to the evidence or do we risk confirmation bias where we look only for the evidence that supports our emotional reaction?

This was one of several points I would have raised given more space. We relished the perceptive observations made by your audience. Each one would have deserved a 45 minute discussion on their own.

John Hovell

I thoroughly enjoyed the author conversation. Being a US citizen now living in the UK, it’s quite a privilege to meet people here and engage in rich conversation about challenging problems. The thing that struck me about the conversation was the connection I perceived to Dr Barry Johnson’s work in Polarity Mapping. The authors described the challenges of strategic thinking vs incremental steps. In my humble opinion, it’s not an either-or, it’s a both-and. The challenge is in knowing when to shift (and how quickly to shift) back and forth – and keeping people mentally open to multiple perspectives.

Fiona Hiscocks

What struck me about the conversation was how useful story can be in imagining a better world, which can then be tied to thinking through outcomes – the public sector equivalent of profit. There is often a dislocation between the strategic intent, the narrative and what people want. Citizens don’t think a strategy can have a big impact so the story is much more important in bringing purpose to life, emotions are a fundamental part of how we think. If you don’t bring people with you on the transformational journey then the transformation won’t become reality – it needs to be powerful, colourful and simple. As Nick reminded us, telling stories is as essential as eating, breathing and thinking.

Jane Bailey Bainsee below for a longer reflection by Jane who reported on the event for us

What struck me about the conversation was the dichotomy in public sector administration between the practice of incremental management (‘muddling through’ a series of situations) and the need for strategic thinking. Political leadership requires a sense of direction which is formulated as a strategy. In communicating this vision with the electorate, ‘the story is everything’.

Thus the Beveridge report (1942) communicated a powerful vision of community, which led to the foundation of the welfare state. More recently, the SNP has formulated a compelling story about what Scotland could be like. This narrative is effectively framed to appeal to both the left and right sides of the brain, combining key socio-economic indicators with romantic rhetoric.

Alicia Pickering

What struck me most about the conversation was the reminder of the over-reliance on output and under-appreciation of process. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said:

‘Plans are worthless but planning is everything.’

Strategy is similar – the written document itself may be of limited value, especially when it is placed in a drawer and left there for a period of years. The ideas within the strategy may be valuable, but if they are not shared and socialised in a compelling manner, they may as well be left unwritten. But the process of creating the strategy offers unparalleled opportunity to create a fertile environment to receive the strategy, one in which the strategy can be delivered.

I would reflect that much effort is often invested into creating the output at the expense of investing in the process which can pave the way for a successful outcome. The discussion of strategy as a verb as well as a noun highlighted this particular point.

Making ‘strategy’ a verb (putting aside, for a moment, grammatical scruples) shifts the focus from a destination, a fixed point, to a journey towards a destination. And the journey is where the engagement with others, the discussion and dissent and co-creation of the strategy can take place. It is also the place where the narrative of the strategy will emerge. As Sean and Nick say in their book:

‘A good strategy … doesn’t deserve to be called a strategy without a compelling narrative.’

And, as we discussed, the narrative is key to shifting from the output of a good strategy to the outcome of a good strategy, which will be acted upon.

To continue the conversation, you can join #storiesinaction or keep in touch with each other directly or via us if we can help make connections.

We also include a reflection on the whole event, by Jane Bailey Bain.

Sparknow Breakfast

‘How did you find this place?’ It’s always a good sign when attendees are already plotting a return event. No amount of coffee could account for the buzz at Sparknow’s recent breakfast meeting to launch Sean and Nick’s new book. A fast-beat presentation by Sean stimulated some wide-ranging contributions to the ensuing discussion on ‘Strategy and Story’. 

Some of the issues which caught my imagination…

The dichotomy in public sector administration between the practice of incremental management (‘muddling through’ a series of situations) and the need for strategic thinking. Political leadership requires a sense of direction which is formulated as a strategy. In communicating this vision with the electorate, ‘the story is everything’.

Thus the Beveridge report (1942) communicated a powerful vision of community which led to the foundation of the welfare state. More recently, the SNP has formulated a compelling story about what Scotland could be like. This narrative is effectively framed to appeal to both the left and right sides of the brain, combining key socio-economic indicators with romantic rhetoric.

Of course, it’s not just about selling people a story: political storytellers have to convey a sense of participation. One of the problems faced by public sector strategists is defining appropriate objectives. In the private sector, the goal is clear: maximizing profit. For managers in the public domain, what is the profit equivalent? A complicating issue is that the state often has a pseudo-parenting role: success may consist of achieving self-redundancy. 

A good story is one which makes a strong emotional connection between the people trying to drive a policy, and those whom they are accountable to. This is at the very heart of trust. Constituents are not passive recipients of political narrative. People will string together isolated points of fact to construct a narrative which is a meaningful reflection of their personal experience. One of the challenges in a multicultural society is negotiating consensus between different perspectives on history. It’s important for leaders to recognize the difference between what ‘actually’ took place, and the collectively agreed ‘story’ of what happened. 

Of course, emotions aren’t just a missing ingredient which can be added to the mix. They are a fundamental part of how people actually think. With reference to the NHS, it was remarked that:

‘The public as created its own story. People put their fingers in their ears and stick to it, without thinking it through in terms of budgets and resources.’

This has created a dislocation between strategic intent and what people actually want. The last 15–20 years have seen a massive increase in social media, which has vastly increased the impact of public opinion on political thinking. If ‘a strategy is an anxiety containing device for senior management,’ we surely need a good story to reassure the electorate too. 

Stories for public sector strategy need to be convincing, purposeful and actionable. They have to be intellectually compelling and emotionally engaging. The political agenda must be backed up with hard statistical facts. Ultimately it’s all about context: the conte (that’s French for story) plus the –ext (a mathematical functor or variable). Public sector strategists are mediating between the short cycles of political change and the slow cycles of cultural institutions: bridging that gap, they are curators of the long history. And that all comes back to storytelling.

Jane Bailey Bain is an author, speaker and executive coach. She was born in the United States and grew up in Geneva. She studied Psychology at Oxford University and Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Jane trained as a business consultant with IBM and worked for several years on development projects in Africa and Asia. During this time she became interested in stories and how we use them in everyday life. Jane currently runs courses on Story Structure, Writing and Presentation Skills in London. Her latest book, StoryWorks (May 2015), is a practical handbook for leaders, writers and speakers.

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