Purpose and Narrative

A brief deviation from growth and similar approaches to consider purpose and narrative.

Purpose and narrative

Behind all of growth, performance, agility and resilience lies the heart of the business – frequently these days described in its purpose (and often following a big exercise to determine, articulate and communicate what that is). It has become increasingly fashionable to talk about a ‘massive transformational purpose’ (MTP) or ‘big, hairy audacious goal’ (BHAG). And if you are a startup or recent organisation it is inevitably easier to create that kind of purpose which is both coherent (after all you have designed the company around it) and resonates with your current organisation. Both of those are significantly harder if you have years of legacy, a brand or brands position and global infrastructures operating in multiple cultures.

To add to the confusion, in my experience, very few organisations of that established nature have any widely understood clarity (let alone articulation) of what it is that lies at their heart – what it is that has consistently driven their success. For me, understanding that is crucial to asking the question ‘is there more or less opportunity for that (whatever it is) in the future VUCA world?’ and the related question, ‘how do I then link that to my role / purpose in a meaningful way?’ So there is a strong link to growth and resilience here.

To me the start point for the answer to both lies in one of my long term favourite bloggers and authors – John Hagel, talking about narrative. But narrative, whilst a perfectly normal word is not necessarily familiar in organisational terms. To my mind, it’s important to understand the distinction between narrative and story telling which John Hagel makes clear here (he has much to say on narrative and all of it valuable!). Story telling has become increasingly popular in corporate communications and can be hugely valuable – but the gulf between a message communicated via a story, and an open ended narrative that underpins the role of the organisation looking forward, whilst recognising the value of the past, is huge. And reading on corporate narrative he makes it very clear that the perspective of the narrative is the audience – not the organisation.

Looked at from this perspective, narrative is both broader than purpose but integral to it – in effect setting the broader context for it. Purpose all too often gets reduced to a soundbite – narrative offers a much wider canvas. One aspect of that wider canvas is the ability to reference the value of legacy and heritage – to leverage the heartbeat that has driven success to date. Listening to organisations that get closest to what feels like a genuine heartbeat often suggests it’s a capability or skillset (the start point for the conversation is so often ‘our people’). So the big oil majors tend to reference their engineering skills and the mindset that those characteristics bring.

Heartbeat need not be related to capability but thinking about it in that way does clearly distinguish heartbeat from mission or purpose. And it is frequently a valuable root when thinking about narratives looking forward – how can those capabilities be applied to provide the value audiences seek in an authentic way. That’s not to suggest that the heartbeat will not need to change (after all heartbeat by definition is a purely internal concept, and the narrative is defined from the external) but the continuity needed to provide credibility in narrative offers a change to turn the disadvantage of the established organisation (a big legacy and reputation) into a positive attribute. Incidentally that capability or expertise need not be applied to the new narrative in the same way as in the past – think of Philip Morris talking about their future without cigarettes earlier this year.

And writers are beginning to recognise the complexity of today’s world, and to distinguish the northstar or compass represented by narratives from the narrowly defined purpose and associated targets that has tended to arise thus far. The latter is perhaps not surprising if the start point,as it most often has been, is to define purpose as an increment to the business and then seek to demonstrate how that purpose can be met in numbers, akin to other targets of the business. That’s very different from a business following and developing its own narrative around specific audience needs or desires underpinned by the expertise and value demonstrated from history.

It’s worth thinking here about complex systems briefly and another of my favourite authors – Dave Snowden who first raised the concept in my mind of metrics for organisations as vectors not absolutes. The value then of a northstar or narrative vs a specific goal is immense – the issue then becomes whether the organisation (or its various constituent elements) is moving in the right direction (towards making the narrative real, and at the right speed). Given sufficient clarity on the narrative, there should be progress towards it across the organisation if it is understood. This then raises the question of tight / loose frameworks – only if the vectors are transgressing the tight boundaries is tough intervention needed – within those the vectors can be used to demonstrate tolerance for different angles of progress and alternative speeds. Small nudges – reinforcing the narrative perhaps through story telling, might be sufficient to speed up, slow down or change the direction more positively.

I find talking about purpose hugely frustrating – I absolutely get the value of an MTP or BHAG for multiple stakeholders. But the time and energy spent coming up with something is frequently at odds with the impact. I’ve seen it become something which feels distant (is our priority purpose or profit?), constraining (how can we be innovative if we have to meet that?) or both to the wider organisation. That’s why for me narratives, open ended (and hence agile), audience driven (and therefore innately relevant but flexible) and yet authentic (building off and celebrating the best of the past) seem to be much more valuable. All we need now are the examples!

What’s there when the lights go out


Just been creating another short ‘card’ on the website – called Into the dark.  It extends the thinking on tolerance of ambiguity, triggered by a conversation with my friends at AbyI and Tim Stanyon in particular around just how far tolerance of ambiguity needs to stretch.

It is easy to recognise (not necessarily easy to put in practice) the need to become more conversant with complexity and to understand how complicated situations vary from complex. It is much less simple to follow the thinking through and conclude that if we are in a VUCA world, if change is the new normal then maybe the idea of all those targets and budgets and plans is not such a good one. All those milestones and beacons might just be taking us down the wrong path. But without them what have we got? What does happen when the lights go out?

Two current commentators have very similar views on this. Dave Snowden in his Cynefin framework suggests that Probe-Sense-Respond is the appropriate journey in the complex domain. And in Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations, several of his case study organisations have no budgets, no targets. Instead they use their evolutionary purpose to drive direction and their staff to do the right thing.

For those used to the discipline of project management, strategic planning and management reporting this really will feel like the lights going out – and yet, these companies find the way to grow and prosper, even in times of financial stress.

What cannot be underestimated however is the radical nature of the thinking here – this is not something that allows for a half way house. And removing the planning tools and targets cannot be achieved on its own. Above all, it is critical to know (not just as leaders but across the organisation) which is the right direction. Whether driven by evolutionary purpose or some more tactical objective, creating an initial action and seeing whether it progresses before iterating further cannot be undertaken as an isolated action – it has to be part of a wider context.

The issue then is how many companies are ready for this shift in thinking – and how many will require the leverage of an external event – perhaps disruption in their market? More on John Hegel’s latest paper next time