Understand the stories you inhabit

Nick IngramStrategy0 Comments

We make sense of our lives by understanding them as narratives. We tell ourselves and our family and friends stories about what we did, what we have become, and why. Human beings seem wired to make sense of the world through story.

I suspect that one of the best ways we can think more clearly about ourselves, our organisations, and our country even, is by trying to get as precise as possible about the stories we are living in. We are all living in overlapping stories – it’s just that we are often not aware of what they are, and what influence they have on us.

In short, one of the secrets to clarity is to make your implicit stories explicit. And of course, that way you can act on them and change them.

Stories provide the answer to the fundamental question “What am I to do?”

“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”.

Alasdair MacIntyre wrote the above in his 1981 book After Virtue and in so doing turned the world of modern ethics upside down. If I am to understand what course of action is good, I need to understand the story I’m in. What has gone before, what’s the complication, what’s the goal I’m striving for (even if I have no certainty of my success and only a vague inkling of the goal itself).

Too often as individuals, organisations, and countries, we don’t know how to proceed because we are not clear enough on the story we are in, and how we want to keep writing it.

As MacIntyre goes on to say: “Deprive children [and all of us] of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.”

Discerning the story

So how do you discern the story you’re in? How do you think about it and start to write it more intentionally? I suspect a good way to get a “grip” on a story is to use the basic questions that any good story should try to answer:

  • Who are we?
  • Where are we?
  • What’s wrong?
  • What’s the solution?
  • What time is it?

These are theologian NT Wright’s “worldview questions”, and he applies them to the big questions of existence. (Refer to his 1992 book The New Testament and the people of God, chapter 5, for his discussion on this). But I think you can apply these questions to your life as a whole, or to aspects of your life. You can also apply them to your organization. And to your country.

Why do these “worldview questions” work to get a grip on stories? Because, as NT Wright himself argues, worldviews are only ever expressed as narrative. There is a deep connection between them.

On a less fundamental level, but still usefully, I would contend that organisational strategy is best expressed as a narrative also. It’s pretty clear, I think, that if you used the above “worldview questions” as “strategic questions” for your organisation, you would actually end up with a pretty decent strategy at the end of it.

Let’s have a go at trying to discern a narrative through using these questions.

The 2016 Presidential race

I spent a lot of my Saturday doing chores and listening to YouTube speeches from some of the Presidential hopefuls in this year’s race. I reckon it’s worth looking at the stories that some of the Presidential candidates inhabit, more or less explicitly. The table below shows my attempts to answer the five fundamental worldview questions for three of the more interesting candidates in this year’s race. The point of this exercise is to give a worked example about how you might apply these questions in your own organisational context. I guess I could have used a business setting, but that would have been less fun!

The three candidates are:

  • Bernie Sanders, the Democrat Senator from Vermont, giving Hillary Clinton a run (although less threatening now after his showing on Sunday in South Carolina). Sanders is a self proclaimed “democratic socialist” – by which he means he subscribes to the politics of some of the Scandanavian countries.
  • Ted Cruz, the Republican Senator from Texas. Cruz is a conservative evangelical, and was expected to benefit from the significant evangelical vote, until a surprisingly high portion shifted to Trump.
  • And, Donald Trump, businessman and reality TV star, seeking the Republican nomination.

Click on this table to expand it (it should open in a fresh tab):

pres table

I hope you can see the narratives that each candidate inhabits starting to take shape through the answers to the five worldview questions:

  • Sanders’ narrative would seem to be the pretty standard progressive story. However, there is more of a dose of populism in the message in his diagnosis of the problem.
  • Cruz is interesting – combining conservatism and libertarianism. I’m not sure if he has explicitly evoked puritan John Winthrop’s 1630 “city on a hill” sermon, but there would seem to be some echoes with Winthrop’s American exceptionalism.
  • Trump is fascinating. After listening to him a lot yesterday, I really think he sees the solution to America’s problems as himself. He will be the CEO of America. But it’s stronger than that. At some points he actually comes close to claiming to embody America: if he becomes President he will endow the nation with his own strengths and qualities, almost mystically.

Over to you

So, over to you. Have a think this week about what stories you inhabit personally. And what stories does your organisation inhabit? Do you think the five worldview questions can stretch to cover an organisation’s strategy – and so help to craft a new strategy for it?

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