What is the value of building a strategic narrative for your company? What’s in it for you as an entrepreneur?
My most straightforward answer to date: narrative power.
Since I started my newsletter in 2020, many entrepreneurs have asked me about the benefits of the strategic narrative process. Although I worked on crafting the best possible answer through writing many articles and a book, I’ve continued to look for a way to shorten my explanation. I wanted to find some handle, or label. And as of this week, I believe that the two words “narrative power” are my best candidates so far. They could bring more clarity more concisely. So, that would be an improvement I wanted to test with you, and I hope it’s helpful.
Let’s see if that works.
So, what is narrative power?
In the context of social justice, narrative power is the ability to dictate norms and values in society.
This definition seems widely accepted by narrative change practitioners looking to organize and build movements that co-create a more just future for minorities and communities with stories that have traditionally been silenced, misrepresented, or ignored. For example, read How to Build Narrative Power and Co-Create a Just Future by Szymanski, 2020. Although his definition of narrative power applies mainly to cultural narratives, it defines the same process I’ve observed and documented for business narratives.
In both cultural and business contexts, narrative power is described as a way to shift how people think and act. I go through several mini-case studies in my book, Strategic Narrative.
Therefore, in the context of business and entrepreneurship, I define narrative power as the ability to dictate organizational and market norms and values.
I recognize that the word “dictate” might be too strong, but I’m keeping it for the purpose of this article. I can think of other verbs such as “co-create”, “influence”, or “institutionalize”.
Why does narrative power matter in entrepreneurship?
In Narrative Power and Collective Action, Isabel Crabtree-Condor describes narratives as “a form of power that can mobilize and connect, as well as divide and isolate.” Narratives can be used for good, or evil. Narratives can only be judged as good or bad. She adds, “Social, public or dominant narratives help to legitimize existing power relationships, prop them up or make them seem natural.” And that’s a problem when dominant narratives turn into systems of oppression that perpetuate inequality. Then, it’s time to build new narratives that have the power to change norms, values, mindsets, habits, and rules in our society.
So, why care about narrative power after all?
Similarly, the strategic narrative power helps you align and mobilize people inside and outside your company. A strategic narrative also enables you to differentiate in your market, a form of isolation innovators highly value.
And when it comes time to transform your industry, your customer’s life, or your environment, building a strategic narrative will give you two powers:
- Normalizing power
- Transformative power.
1 – Normalizing power
Strategic narrative normalizing power: the ability to institutionalize organizational and market norms and values.
In general, a narrative tells us how to think about something. It seeks to create stability. It includes a set of guidelines and provides knowledge about what to do in many different circumstances. The more we enact a narrative, the more it becomes the norm. Our behaviors become so normal that repeating them over and over is easy. It’s like being on “auto-pilot mode” and that’s extremely important when we need to think fast.
Let’s do a quick thought exercise.
What’s the first thing you do before you start your car to drive it? I’ll give you a hint – It’s something you should always do…
Yes, fasten your seatbelt!
Why? Because that’s the norm. By now, most drivers (hopefully) align with this narrative. Why? Because it turns us into participants of our own safety.
But in the beginning, it required Volvo, the inventor of the 3-point seat belt, to invest in building narrative power about the idea that making seatbelt standard on all cars could save millions of lives. Believe it or not, they received much pushback about this narrative.
Now, let’s apply this to your business. A strategic narrative creates a set of guidelines in people’s minds. It tells us what to do; it acts as a heuristic when we have to think fast. It takes your company from confused and scattered to clear and focused.
Narrative power is an asset to norm many of your company’s essential practices, such as:
- The way you collaborate
- The way you make decisions
- The way you sell and engage with your clients
- The way you recruit and hire people
- The way you do things “around here” – aka your culture
- The way you design your products or services
- And so on.
2 – Transformative power
Strategic narrative transformative power: the ability to transform organizations and market norms and values.
Some people call this power “Disruption”.
This power is critical when you plan to disrupt a market, transform your customers’ lives, or positively impact society and the environment.
This power IS your value proposition to transform.
As a reminder: Innovation = Invention + Adoption. You can have the best product in the market. People won’t adopt it if it doesn’t align with the dominant narrative. You must seek to transform that narrative first. Material liberation from an old product requires mental liberation first.
When a narrative is harmful to the economy, the planet, or society, it needs to evolve. E.g., “Planetary resources are infinite”. Transformative narrative power lets you take care of transforming that narrative. It is the reinvention mode of narrative power. Later, when something in our context changes, we hear people talk about “the new normal”. They’re referring to a transformation of how we used to operate, whether because of something we can’t control (like nature) or whether it is by design (like technology).
When building your strategic narrative, you will face the decision to set how much transformation you want to introduce with your strategic narrative. How disruptive or transformative should your business be?
Let’s stick with our seatbelt example. As of now, the 3-point seatbelt invented by Volvo in 1959 saved millions of lives. This happened thanks to an evolution of the narrative about car safety. But that evolution didn’t happen overnight. When Volvo recommended that all car manufacturers use their free patent, with mountains of evidence to show how effective it was, they received fierce push-backs from the media and the industry. Evolving a narrative can be challenging but worth it.
What’s the value of transformative narrative power?
You should invest in narrative power for several reasons. I’d love to hear yours. But here are just a few of the motives I see all the time:
Innovation – as mentioned before, innovation = invention + adoption. You’ll need to mobilize people to try your new product to gain traction in the market.
Leadership – Reframing the present and identifying a future opportunity elevates your status closer to the level of moral authority in your field. => It elevates your leadership from reactive to visionary.
Differentiation – Transformative narrative power is a reason to disagree with your competitors. You must stand out when the market is crowded, and you seem to look and sound the same as every other business. A strategic narrative enrolls people in a new way of thinking. It creates loyalty at a deep level because it changes everybody’s beliefs.
Mobilization – A new strategic narrative is an open invitation for people to join your company as it was a movement. It turns everyone from a passive audience into active participants in a new endeavor. It helps you form a tribe of supporters faster. It attracts the right people – prospects, recruits, partners, investors, etc.
As always, please let me know how this helps!