Is Storytelling a Strategy or a Competency?

Several weeks ago a blog appeared on the Harvard Business Review site entitled “Good Companies are Storytellers. Great Companies Are Storydoers.” In it its author, Ty Montague, outlined the characteristics of a storydoing company:

1. They have a story

2. The story is about a larger ambition to make the world or people’s lives better

3. The story is understood and cared about by senior leadership outside of marketing

4. That story is being used to drive tangible action throughout the company: product development, HR policies, compensation, etc.

5. These actions add back up to a cohesive whole

6. Customers and partners are motivated to engage with the story and are actively using it to advance their own stories

He then went on to produce some statistical evidence to support his claim that storydoing companies are superior to their storytelling counterparts in many ways.

His sample was small and it was not possible to assess the validity of the evidence. I would like to believe that it is correct. From an ecological/systems perspective, narrative constitutes the centre of gravity, the identity of every organization. And identity is central to everything that humans do. Organizations (and humans) without a narrative have weak identities. I was concerned, however, about the implications of the findings (if valid) for managers. My concern was triggered by Ty Montague’s last sentence in his blog: We think that over time the data set itself can become a valuable public source of inspiration and evidence for agents of change to begin to apply the principles of storydoing inside their own companies.”

Engineering and Ecology

Whenever I see the words “apply principles” my fear is that an engineering approach is about to be applied to an ecological issue. Here was my comment on the blog:

“Suppose the data are valid and the conclusions correct; storytelling companies are good, while storydoing companies are great. What are the implications for other organizations trying to emulate them?

Are storytelling and storydoing competencies that are developed over time in ecological fashion, with each organization finding its own way? Or are they strategies that can be “implemented” by “applying” engineering, rule-based principles? I think that they are the former, especially storydoing; actions come first, words afterward.

From the article and a glance at your “tool” you seem to regard them as the latter. Representing competencies as strategies does not bode well for the future of this approach. One can create paint-by-number replicas of the great masters but they don’t fool anyone and they aren’t worth anything.

I would liken the situation to a beginner golfer who wants to become competent at the game. It’s fun to read about tips and tricks from Tiger Woods and the other stars of the hour but this has very little to do with becoming competent (other than perhaps sustaining motivation). Becoming competent takes commitment, persistence and thousands of hours of deliberate practice with focus and feedback from expert coaches. This is what it takes to acquire a competency. Representing these as strategies creates a very different set of expectations that are bound to be disappointed, followed by dismissal of storytelling as a fad.

This would be a pity. Narratives are critical but they are desirable outcomes of effective ecological processes which will be unique to every organization and its own situation…they cannot be applied effectively as generic strategies.”

To this Ty Montague replied:

“Hi David,

Thanks for the comment.  I would be the first to agree that the flowchart we refer to as a “tool” would be nearly useless if used in isolation. It was never meant to be used that way and perhaps we should do a better job of labeling it as more of “questions to ask” tool.  The tool was meant to really be a companion to our book, True Story, which contains case histories of companies that are embracing storydoing. I very much agree that becoming a storydoing company is not something that can happen by applying a template to your company.  First and foremost because the key to storydoing is having a “quest” that transcends profit.  This has to be a higher purpose that the top management of the company, including the CEO subscribe to.  A great example of a company that began as a storyteller in 1974 and began the journey of transformation to storydoing is Interface:  I think the way they think about it (as a journey) is particularly helpful.”

Here was my further response:

“Thanks Ty,

Perhaps the journey is a sequence of development from unconscious incompetence through conscious incompetence (storytelling), conscious competence (story doing) to unconscious competence (story being*), where the organization unconsciously embodies story through its mode of existence…”

Learning a Competency

What emerges, then, is that story competency within an organization can be improved, but that it is a developmental process like learning golf, not a top-down strategy that can be “implemented”. The difference between ecological competencies and engineering strategies clearly links up with my blog last week about the addiction of the American school system to “heroes”. Heroes use engineering strategies exclusively, often in complex situations (especially in education) that require ecological competencies. It is this mismatch between problem type and solution type that creates the unintended consequences that have plagued the reform of American schools and effective change in many other organizations.

*The notion of “story being” was suggested by Cynthia Kurtz in a separate conversation I had been having. She is writing what looks like a detailed guide to the role of story as sensemaking. You can read about it here.

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