Iraq’s Official New History Provides Insight On Crafting Company Narratives

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.

3. Repeat

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?

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2 Comments

  • Mark Levy

    Your excellent post about story reminds me of a story.

    A college student went to see the therapist, Dr. David Reynolds. The student said his life was a disaster, because he was always making mistakes.

    Reynolds asked for an example of what he meant.

    The student said he’d made a mistake that morning. He was in class, taking notes, had a question about the material, and raised his hand. By the time the teacher called on him, he had forgotten his question. The class laughed at him, and he felt like a moron.

    Reynolds asked what he did next. The student told him he went back to taking notes.

    “So this is a story of a success,” said Reynolds.

    “Success?” said the student, “Didn’t you hear what I said? I forgot the question and everyone laughed.”

    Reynolds said: “Yes, ending the story there makes it sound like a failure. But if you continue the story, it was a success. You made a mistake and didn’t let it stop you. You did what the situation called for by listening to the teacher and taking notes. You showed perseverance.”

    As you astutely point out, Kaihan, where you start a story is important. Where you finish it is important, too.

    Thanks, again, for the post.

  • Nadia Laurincikova

    People’s tendency to respond to and to be guided by stories told around them is consistent with our natural inclination to navigate the world by relying on our mental frame or cognitive filter. In social theory, a frame consists of a schema or interpretation—that is, a collection of anecdotes and stereotypes—that individuals rely on in everything they do to understand and to respond to events and external stimuli. Our frame is our lens through which we see the world, an output of countless actions and reactions that “worked”—made us happy, strong, or more successful, in the past.

    Our dependence on our mental frame and the stories and stereotypes associated with it is so strong that it takes no less than a conscious effort and a determined mind to step outside of the established norm and to imagine a new, an unorthodox, an untested path. It takes a true leader to question the general perception of the world and tell a new story, one that might face criticism and runs the risk of not being “understood” or accepted, at least not right away.

    Old stories, like old tricks, reduce uncertainty and respect the status quo. They have the power to comfort us that, based on history, what we do, what path our company is on right now, is the correct one, proven by those who did it before. But it’s only new stories that have the power to change the course of someone’s life, lead a company to a brighter future, or inspire the creation of something new, better, or surprisingly exciting.

    Albert Einstein once said: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”

    Imagination is the pre-requisite for innovation and is only possible if we are prepared to question the prevailing paradigm, step away from the generally accepted truth, and tell a story that is new and in the making.

    This is how Siddhartha Gautama once imagined that there must be a better way and lay the roots for Buddhism when everyone else preached an established path. This is how Steve Jobs once imagined that even though Apple started out as a computer company, it could one day dominate the music industry. This is how Jorma Ollila, former CEO of Nokia, once imagined that even though Nokia started out in the forestry business, it could one day dominate telecoms.

    Stories are powerful tools—not only do they tell us where we’ve been but also open up new horizons that weren’t visible before. They unlock our imagination and motivate others to join us on our visionary path.