The Narrative of Narratives: Management Lessons that Stories Teach

Floating Models – Olaf Brugman (c) 2016 – aquarel on paper

How can we use narratives to make our business and our societies’ systems function better and be more viable-sustainable? There is a story, or narrative, for every woman and man, for every politician and for everything. Narratives provide arguments to accept or reject human activity as the major source of climate change, they create heroes or fire up political scandals, they visualise the positive or negative social or environmental impacts of businesses. This article discusses how narratives are important to accomplish collective tasks and challenges, regardless of whether they share fictitious stories or stories about real events.

Management lessons from fiction

What is the role of facts versus fiction in narratives about our organisations and institutions? To begin with, it does not really matter whether the stories refer to real life facts or events. For example, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is a vivid story of how managers with good intentions create a disastrous and uncontrollable system because the park managers and scientists had a too simplistic understanding of what it was that they thought they were managing. Jurassic Park has never existed, but anyone who knows the story from the book or the film can draw valuable practical and ethical lessons from them. Jurassic Park is a management lesson in the true sense of the word.

George Orwell’s 1984 is a story about the consequences of a totalitarian political system controlling even language and thoughts, manipulating dialogue and and limiting democratic control and verification of what leaders and our authorities wish to tell or do not tell us. But also a story about love and human emotions, authenticity and creativity that cannot be manipulated, not even by a totalitarian political systems. To date, 1984 helps us to see the risks of powerful world leaders who aim to ‘control by narrative’ influence by speech or tweet which news is fake and which is not.

Narratives and their characteristic language also play an important role in leading our organisations and institutions and influencing their stakeholders (cf. Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power in Organisations, 1981). They may present symbolic policies as effective policies. And they condense complex matters that affect businesses, institutions and their stakeholders to make better discussable in lobby practices, more understandable to voters, or to raise support for organisational strategies. Campaign activists of civil society organisations, political lobbyists, corporate affairs officers or issue managers all deal with the same stuff, and fulfil the same systemic role: they reduce complexity by condensing thought, purpose, objectives and knowledge into stories. And they manage the narratives and information to steer the development of complex social systems in our societies. Storytellers are agents of systems, either to keep them inert or to help them develop further.

Lessons from real events are endless

If we can learn valuable things in life from fiction, what valuable lessons could non-fiction, defined as describing ‘real events’, by the Collins Cobuild dictionary, teach us? Let us look at some examples of accounts of real events. John Elkington shared a story about the Titanic disaster in a recentblogpost. At first sight, there are three different narratives in his article. First, Elkington brings the story of the managing director of the White Star Line, owner of the Titanic, who is seen as the culpable of the disaster. Then Elkington writes the story of the 45th President of the United States of America who took the helm of the ship of state, headed for disaster to hit the iceberg of climate change. And the third story are the lessons for helmsmen such as directors, captains at sea, presidents, and other leaders. Elkington shows where managerial interventions went wrong in the past and warns for erroneous perceptions of risk that may transform into disastrous effects of current leadership. Kudos to Elkington for selecting and teaching these vivid lessons. Lessons that are a mix of descriptions of real events, of selections from and representations of those events, and that forecast of other real events.

Hidden in the stories of the Titanic disaster and the Jurassic Park there is a fourth narrative which coincides with the one told by managerial cybernetics as introduced by the British cyberneticists W. Ross Ashby and Stafford Beer: effective management requires a sufficiently adequate model of that what is to be managed. If there are blind spots in information needed or invalid assumptions that may be part of our knowledge, the system we aim to steer will go its own way. In the case of the last journey of theTitanic, as Elkington wrote it, there was lack of awareness of relevant events such as the blazing hot boiler, the position and size of the iceberg and without a doubt there were other factors as well. Some of the events contributing to disaster may arise by sheer coincidence. They may be unexpected but may also have devastating impacts when they actually happen (cf. the Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb). If our knowledge models hold erroneous assumptions on the probability that certain events may occur, and on how to improvise and act when unexpected events occur, we lose control. Part of it, or all of it.

And, fifth, intertwined in the stories mentioned above, there is the story of how the one to blame was found and punished which is a narrative of tension, disaster, human suffering, a climax, and then a purge. These mechanisms have been well described in René Girard’s Scapegoat (Le Bouc Emissaire in French). This last narrative seduces people to think that they solved a problem once someone has been maid responsible and made to pay the price. After the purge, newly elected politicians, a new coach of the national football association, or a new CEO may start from a clean sheet of paper. To repeatedly apply this kind of solution, as an act of ‘mimetic’ copying’ in Girard’s terms, this way to purge and solve becomes a management lesson by itself, to be copied by others. Narrative form over substance.

Narratives can be made more complex even by the endless options to give meaning to specific real or fictitious events and to interpret stories differently (cf. Umberto Eco states in his semiotics analyses of meaning in his A Theory of Semiotics and Lector in Fabula). Narratives may emphasise completely different aspects of those events, and the same events may be interpreted in completely different or een in contradictory way: one man’s narrative of a military coup may be the other man’s narrative of how the people were saved from communism. And the story of a business making its supply chain more sustainable may be the civil society organisation’s story of how business is pretending to greenwash its operations at the expense of workers and the environment.

Narratives: the stuff of an ecologically and socially sound collective mind

What conclusions are to be drawn from the deliberations above? From a perspective of designing better business and systems, narratives should be judged on what the real events they advocate to be realised, relative to a specific objective regarding better management, better business, better organisations etcetera. Second, stories and their design and management implications should be analysed, challenged, and refined to make them more effective in realising better business and systems. This is where dialogue enters the stage. Third, narratives are a powerful variety enhancer and facilitate the task of designing, building and operating viable businesses and systems: they condense and summarise rich thought, and can connect to other people’s minds. And because of their condensed nature, they can attenuate a system’s variety greatly since they are scalable fast at zero marginal costs, for example through social media channels. In fact, they can effectively create or enhance a collective mind, binding themselves to individual brains and thoughts and enabling dispersed and independent decision-making and action by others, either individually or collectively. Narratives show, inspire, challenge. These are all different words for ‘inform’. Narratives inform and therefore they educate and enable self-information and self-education. Narratives are the stuff of collective mind. Narratives summarise and express our knowledge and inform the dialogue that builds better knowledge for better systems. And fourth, we can equally find insightful knowledge for better management in both fiction and non-fiction narratives or literature.

Good Narratives for better business and systems that make a difference

And finally, we have the choice to seek and build stories that help business and the systems in our societies to function better: to reduce environmental and social impacts, to leave no one behind, to realise the energy transition, to complete the third industrial revolution based on renewable energy and digitalised infrastructures that enable to build any inclusive societal service in health, education, transport, services, etcetera. Examples of these collective and variety enhancing narratives are:

  • On planetary social viability: the Sustainable Development Goals;
  • On responsible finance: Green, Social and Climate Bonds;
  • On sustainable transitions strategies: the Third Industrial Revolution (Jeremy Rifkin) and Project Breakthrough (John Elkington);
  • On better management of organisations: management cybernetics (Stafford Beer, Fredmund Malik);
  • On better knowledge and solution design through large group dialogue: the Malik Super Syntegration method (Stafford Beer, Fredmund Malik)

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