Strategic narrative is both a widely used and confusing term. Marketers and communications professionals, international relations scholars and business executives recognize that storytelling has a productive role in achieving strategic intentions.
I coined the phrase for my own use in the early 2000s. After the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States, I wanted to help the United States communicate better with the rest of the world, especially Islamic and Arab societies. (If this history interests you, you can dig up my congressional testimony on the need for a narrative approach to public diplomacy and later writing on the need to temper the ‘war on terror’ narrative itself).
In combination with strategic foresight, which helps organizations develop viable aspirational visions of the future, strategic narrative becomes a critical tool in helping people understand and become participants in making that aspirational vision a reality.
In the last few years, it has become clear to me that strategic foresight projects are almost always missing a critical element: building a strategic narrative that models new behaviors to help spread and scale your preferred future. Without a new story, people won’t behave in new ways, and they won’t rewrite conditions on the ground.
Much of the guidance offered to organizations about working with strategic narrative, or storytelling, suggests that cultivating a narrative about where an organization has been and where it intends to go will be enough to create a strong narrative foundation.
While this may once have been true, the value of this advice is waning as the digital era, and its complex expressions in every arena of our lives, transform the substructures that underpin organizational success. It is not easy to tell a story of how you will be successful in the future when the ground under your feet is shifting, putting your identity, and your understanding of what kinds of behaviors lead to success, in question. Yet that is precisely what is happening today: Disruptive change, or its potential, is the basic environment in which organizations today must function.
In light of these changing conditions, the recognition that our narratives drive our behavior becomes especially salient, because how we tell the story of change is a key determinant in how we respond to change. If we want to be proactive about the future, the first and most powerful change we should make is in the story we tell ourselves about what is happening and how we want to behave now and in the future. Ultimately, this behavior will influence conditions themselves. If we want to influence the future, we must first influence the story that we tell ourselves about it.
But how does it do that? Questions—and answers—below.
Strategic Narrative FAQ
What is a strategic narrative?
However, organizations often approach this narrative assuming that the future is stable and knowable. Few organizations intentionally create narratives demonstrating how they will survive periods of uncertainty and adapt and thrive in a different future.
Strong strategic narratives are the sinews that connect an organization’s past with its vision of the desired future. A solid strategic narrative serves as an element of resilience. It radiates enduring meaning to its participants and model of transformative change, demonstrating new behaviors and interactions that will help the organization thrive.
What is strategic about a strategic narrative? What does it have to do with planning?
All organizations have a story about where they come from, who they are and how they imagine the future. Part of that story is purposefully crafted (CEO speeches, the “our story” page on a corporate website). But much of it emerges organically—in the way people casually talk about the organization or create workarounds that end up embedded in the system. An organizational narrative’s conscious and unconscious elements are reinforced through people’s stories about their institutions and actions.
An organizational narrative becomes strategic when leaders focus on the unconsciously created part of the narrative and seek to align it with the organization’s intentions. This holistic approach will reveal whether cultural elements may be undermining the organization’s intended narrative. Creating the conditions for new behavior and a new story opens pathways to future resilience.
What is so narrative about strategic narrative? Is it a story?
The short answer is yes. Although strategic narratives might not sound exactly like a novel or children’s book, strategic narratives are stories.
Organizational psychologists confirm that the way we narrate our reality to ourselves plays an instrumental role in our behavior. Our stories become tools that guide our decision-making; people always seek to take steps that make sense based on what they did or what happened last. This behavior also shapes external reality. During the COVID pandemic, people choose whether to wear masks based on their narrative about reality; their behavior then shapes external reality.
The link between narrative and external conditions offers critical insight for organizational leaders. Stories are ideal for introducing potential environmental changes and modeling new behaviors required to succeed in changing circumstances.
How can we represent the diversity of our organization or community with integrity in one single narrative?
This question is urgently essential. The answer starts with being honest about the decisive role of power in determining whose version of a narrative gets told. All groups have uneven power relations. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In families, parents rightfully have more power than their young children. In corporations, greater power ideally means more responsibility and accountability.
The uneven distribution of power suffuses institutional narratives. Some narratives are elevated to official status. In contrast, others are suppressed or unspoken. Recognizing this power imbalance is an essential element in the health of an organization and its successful management. Incorporating more of the many stories that shape it is a critical strategic move, especially in a transparent, networked era in which many stakeholders drive organizational success.
Ultimately, this diversity is a form of strength, as companies that seek greater inclusivity recognize. To generate this strength, powerful strategic narratives must be elastic and inclusive enough to withstand negotiations over their meaning.
In a living organization, stakeholders—aka people— are the narrative itself; organizational narratives unfold daily through the decisions, communications, and actions of those who interact with it and with each other.
Can you provide an example of the process of developing a strategic narrative in a company?
First, we uncovered the existing organizational narrative. I audited public statements, their website and other documents to clarify their intentionally communicated narrative about the company’s future. I conducted executive interviews to uncover their unconsciously held ideas about the future. In these interviews, I could observe the language patterns used to talk about the company. I held a series of interviews with company executives. They evoked past examples where they felt the company had succeeded and displayed its best values.
Based on that work, I supplied them with a set of seven enduring values they could refer to as touchstones to showcase the evolutionary aspects of their change. We also provided them a new strategic narrative that began in the past, pointed toward their intended future and rested on the actions taken today to evolve toward that future state. It helped persuade those leading change that they had an exciting, enduring quest to relate, rather than an abrupt change in their business model that might frighten investors.
What is the outcome of trying to develop a strategic narrative? Are there tangible deliverables?
There are tangible and intangible deliverables. At the least, a project should produce an actual narrative: a story told in a style that is culturally aligned with the organization about:
- its enduring values
- how it began
- its future vision
- what it is doing today to achieve this vision.
If there is no compelling vision of the future in play, then I would also recommend that leaders use strategic foresight to create a viable aspirational vision.
Strategic narratives are also frameworks for strategic communication. I instruct participants on using the narrative in a ‘recipe’ to communicate new initiatives consistently and compellingly for different audiences.