Inventing The Future Through Story

By Andrew Grant and Gaia Grant

As today’s excellence becomes tomorrow’s norm and information becomes a commodity, companies will have to know how to ‘invent the future’ in creative new ways. Understanding the importance of creating a vision for the organization will be the first step to corporate innovation.

No longer are the facts and figures enough… no longer can we rely on the cold hard data. The new qualities that will drive us forward personally and professionally, as individuals and as organizations, will be the ‘soft’ values, and the narratives that are woven around them.

As unpredictable as the future may seem to be, it is possible to prepare for it and shape it in many ways. It is vital that individuals within the organization take a clear proactive rather than reactive stance, and the best way to do this is by forming a solid vision and mission for where to go and how to get there.

Rather than getting bogged down with the limitations of the past and the realities of the present, the visioning process allows for dreaming about potentials and possibilities. It is a modern form of storytelling that allows for poetic license within the organization, for permission to dare to be different.

The story of the organization to date provides the framework and inspiration for this visioning process, and story, in turn, can be the tool for growing and sharing this vision. Here is how you can utilize the power of story in the organization through the process of visioning and ‘inventing the future’:

a) Share the power of story

The most popular business books today rely heavily on it, the most in touch leaders communicate through it, and the most successful organizations capitalize on it at all levels – both internally and externally – but not many recognize its power and utilize it to its full potential. The ancient art that is no longer the exclusive domain of poets and bards, storytelling, is being revived in a significant new trend.

Through the industrial age and into the computer age, as we have strived to create more efficient systems through automation and now computerization, the power of emotion and the stories that are built up around the interaction of emotions have been relegated to lower levels of importance. And yet we are just now again realizing, ironically, that emotive stories are in fact the soul of the organization. Leave these out, and there is no integrity, passion, innovation or real motivation to achieve excellence.

b) Create a sense of ownership

The story of a company must come from everyone. Interestingly enough, the power of owning and telling the story no longer belongs with the spin doctors – it has become the domain of the people. So, in order to invent the future, it will be important to create a shared sense of ownership.

Unless there is a clear awareness of the underlying values and the way they drive daily choices and decisions, it is not possible to achieve maximum potential. Everyone needs to be able to embody the values and live the values in order for the organization to function in the way it should, as a dynamic living organism.

c) Construct an organizational narrative

Just as individuals need to have a sense of personal history, present experience, and future possibilities, organizations also need to learn to articulate their own personal narrative. The organization of the future will have a powerful story to tell that inspires and motivates people.

Through the process of creating this narrative – individuals are given the opportunity to reflect on their own place within the organization, the link between performance and achievement is enhanced, and the power of teams is maximized. A common identity and purpose is shaped, which is turn builds a stronger and more positive organizational culture.

d) Brand the story

Scott Bedbury, who helped build the companies Nike and Starbucks, believes that, “A great brand is a story that’s never completely told. A brand is a metaphorical story that connects with something very deep – a fundamental appreciation of mythology. Stories create the emotional context people need to locate themselves in a larger experience.” The rise of the information age doesn’t mean we stop producing or selling.

We still need products and services. But it does mean that the business and marketing strategies that made sellers’ brands powerful yesterday won’t necessarily keep them powerful tomorrow. In order for the story to translate to organizational needs internally and externally, the story should be encapsulated in a simple concept that can be easily shared.

e) Blog the story

The story now needs to become a dynamic independent entity that is authentic. Search engines like Google have now put users at the centre of the experience, and the direction of Google and now blogging / podcasting will have profound effects on how the story is understood and shared in the future. The story is out, it’s everywhere! That means less control… For many years the “story” of the company – what was out there, the perception of the company – could to a large degree be controlled by those that had the power.

Respondents in a current research said they trust blogs because they are written by real people and based on actual experiences. Some 77% of respondents believe blogs are more likely to tell the truth about gadgets and consumer goods because they’re not subject to the same marketing pressures as corporate or commercial websites. So concerned are some multinationals that they are allowing podcasting on their own, feeling it’s better to join them rather than try to beat them’. This smart move puts them in touch with the consumer, allowing them to drive their business from the consumers’ stories. After all, the product is made for the consumer isn’t it? Then why not listen to them? The problem now is that any company that tries to hold on to the old “spin” method will soon find themselves high and dry wondering what happened.

f) Build the story, not just the products

In ‘Good to Great’ Jim Collins says that the most successful companies know at the very core what they stand for and why they exist. They consciously concentrate on building the company (story) not simply developing great products. The company is not a vehicle for products, but the products are seen as a vehicle for the company. These companies exist as great companies that produce ‘xyz’ and not the other way round. The end product or brand should come from the bigger picture the ‘story’, more than the ‘story’ try to fit the brand. This way it’s authentic and more likely to last.

Preparing for the future is no longer simply about having the right information. It’s now about building that information into a motivating package and sharing it with all. It’s about knowing and telling values and emotions. And that will be the greatest challenge!

“We are in the twilight of a society based on data. As information and intelligence become the domain of computers, society will place more value on the one human ability that cannot be automated: emotion. Imagination, myth, ritual – the language of emotion – will affect everything from our purchasing decisions to how we work with others. Companies will thrive on the basis of their stories and myths. Companies will need to understand that their products are less important than their stories. Every person in the company is responsible for knowing and sharing that story.” Rolf Jensen, Copenhagen Institute For Future Studies.

©2005 Andrew and Gaia Grant


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