Last week the Iraqi government launched a new version of its official history. As students return to school from the Ramadan holiday they found new history books waiting for them that include the major changes the nation has experienced in recent years and open up topics that were once censored.
This power to write history is sacred. As Oscar Wilde said, "Anybody can make history; only a great man can write it."
This power comes from the fact that the narratives we live in have a powerful, hidden hand in determining how we interpret our environment. This fact, long noted by Hindu and Buddhist traditions, is supported by an ever-growing body of scientific knowledge.
Innovators who significantly impact the world seem able to recognize when we are living a story with a dead ending. Then they abandon the current tale to enter a new one that empowers people to act when no one else will.
I’ve been researching narratives relating to business, and I’ve found three lessons that can help us better leverage the full power of storytelling.
1. Choose a new starting point
Like turning the rudder of a ship, you can change the future people anticipate by retelling the past. One key is to strategically pick the right starting point.
Let’s consider Hewlett-Packard as an example of this principle. Since 2006, HP has engineered a remarkable turnaround under the leadership of CEO Mark Hurd. But I believe the groundwork for this 180-degree change was laid years prior under his predecessor Carly Fiorina.
Core to her strategy was the idea of "resetting" the HP story by reaching back to HP’s original roots. The company’s internal and external messaging brought to life the story of the company’s founders, Hewlett and Packard, working in their garage, building their first products. In fact the HP "garage" was elevated into an icon that roots the company in a common starting point and grounds them in a history of invention.
2. Show the system is stuck
People are willing to change only when they grow discontented with where things are. In 2007, Michael Dell took back the reins of his company. Dell, the company that had revolutionized the computer industry by introducing a direct-to-consumer model, was in serious trouble as competitors began copying that model. With its stock sinking, the company turned to its founder for help.
In trying to craft a turnaround, Michael Dell has played on the story, as all narrative experts do. He repeatedly says that "this is a defining moment in our history and in our relationships with customers."
The first part of his message is a wake-up call: the future that Dell employees and partners are imagining is not the right one because the old direct model is no longer unique. He then paints a future of promise: "We know our competitors drive complexity and needless cost into consumers’ environments. We intend to break this cycle." In other words, he is arguing that the competition is stuck and this presents an opportunity for his company.
Embedding a new story requires far greater effort than you might think. Communicating your version of the past and future—your vision—demands repeatedly delivering it to your audience using creative methods to remind them and keep them convinced.
I’ve worked with several companies to embed new stories that alter behaviors and thereby build a competitive advantage. It usually requires carefully picking the stories that illustrate the turning points you want people to remember, then telling them over and over in meetings, by email, through visual displays, in continuing education classes and through textbooks, like the Iraqi government.
But the effort is worth it. Every leadership book underscores the importance of maintaining a long-term vision in the minds of your people. This vision is a product of the past, of the story people tell themselves about what has happened and therefore what to expect in the future. For your innovations to succeed you must revise, edit, and rewrite prevailing stories.
Ask yourself the questions below to see how you can rediscover your past and write a new success story.
1. Where did this idea come from?
2. How did the company find its current direction?
3. Is our mission clearly stated?
4. How can I remind my employees that they are working toward something bigger than themselves?
5. How can I use my company’s stories to engage and inspire my staff and my customers?