Developing an Organizational Narrative
Developing an organizational narrative is useful in several ways. The process of developing a narrative is useful because it can serve as a forcing mechanism to address all the variables of the organization’s strategy. It is an alternative way to get the organization to think about itself and make sure that the “deeds” of the organization are matching up with the “words” of the organization. The end result, an actual written narrative, can also be useful because it can serve as the foundation with which all your future communication activities are nested with.
I’ve worked on a number of organizational narratives and while each one was unique, there are some lessons learned that can be applied to almost any narrative development.
Make sure that all who will work on the narrative development understand what the purpose of the document is. Ask questions such as
- Will this narrative be communicated externally?
- Will this narrative remain as an internal document much like an organizational mission statement?
- Is the process of developing this narrative, or gaining insight and common understanding across the staff, more important than the actual end result?
Questions like these will ultimately be asked during narrative development anyway, so you might as well define your terms and answer these questions up front so that you can better focus on content.
Who is the audience for this document once it’s complete? If you don’t define the intended audience(s) up front, the development of the narrative will eventually stall out. You may be working on a singular narrative for all your organizational audience(s) – one narrative to rule them all – or a specific narrative intended for a more narrow group of people. Since a narrative is how you want other people to think or talk about your organization, make sure you define who those people are.
Limit the document to a specific length before you start the development process. In most cases, a concise narrative is better because it forces you to rid your text of anything that isn’t essential. The decision on length should be made after you know the purpose and who the audience(s) are. As an example, if the purpose is to produce a narrative to be communicated towards a specific external audience, then the length should probably be short. If the primary purpose of the narrative development is to utilize it as a thinking catalyst for the staff, then it may be acceptable to make it a little longer. As an example, I worked on a 10-page narrative that was not intended to be communicated externally. The intent was to get the staff to think about itself and the mission. While the 10-page document was useful as a reference, it obviously was not something that was to be communicated with an audience in hopes that they would echo that same narrative.
One thing I found consistent in each organizational narrative was the presence of strategic, enduring themes. Strategic themes serve as the major sections of the narrative and should encompass every aspect of the organization. If there is something the organization does or is trying to do, that does not fit under one of the strategic themes, then there is either a gap in the narrative or the organization should not be doing it. The themes also need to be short and concise, not complete sentences. My rule of thumb when developing themes is to use one to three words to describe them. I was working on an organizational narrative and we didn’t have time to go through a staff-wide planning process in order to reach the agreed-upon narrative text. In this case, we identified what the major strategic themes of our organizational narrative were. I utilized a slide such as the one below to explain how the strategic themes should be evident in the narrative and explained that it was possible to jump ahead in the strategic communication planning process by identifying what the strategic themes were even without the specific text of a narrative.
Remember that a narrative is either a) how other people talk or think about your organization or b) how you want other people to talk or think about your organization, and what you’ve developed is the idealized version of how you want other people to talk or think about your organization. The implementation of the narrative is how you try and get your identified audience(s) to move from (a) to (b). As you begin to flush out your communication strategy, all your messages, talking points, communication products, and organizational actions should be subordinate to one of your strategic themes. If both your words and your deeds are nested under one of these strategic themes, then you will continually reinforce your narrative in your day-to-day actions and communication products and increase your chances of seeing your narrative echoed by the intended audiences.