Any strategy or plan for future action is essentially a story. It describes the present and coming world, the dynamics of the past that invoked them both, and the actions that will propel an organization toward a desired future. While well-constructed strategies or plans use evidence to inform them, it’s invariably the story that galvanizes and inspires collective action. As historian Yuval Noah Harari asserts:
Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.
But often, the simpler story is a terrible tool for understanding the past and planning for the future. A simple story not only conflates or ignores core dynamics but also blinds us to them. Sociologist Charles Tilly called these simpler stories “standard stories,” and wrote quite a bit about their structure, their power, and their fundamental flaws.
To construct a “standard story,” Tilly advised:
…start with a limited number of interacting characters, individual or collective…. Treat your characters as independent, conscious, and self-motivated. Make all their significant actions occur as consequences of their own deliberations or impulses. Limit the time and space within which your characters interact…. Now supply your characters with specific motives, capacities, and resources. Furnish the time and place within which they’re interacting with objects you and they can construe as barriers, openings, threats, opportunities, and tools – as facilities and constraints bearing on their action. Set your characters in motion. From their starting point, make sure all their actions follow your rules of plausibility, and produce effects on others that likewise follow your rules of plausibility. Trace the accumulated effects of their actions to some interesting outcome. Better yet, work your way backward from some interesting outcome, following all the same rules.
That description, although drawn in cartoonish language, rather wonderfully describes the common and conventional approach to strategic planning.
The trouble is, Tilly states, most significant social processes cannot be captured by standard stories, “because at least some crucial causes within them are indirect, incremental, interactive, unintended, collective, and/or mediated by the nonhuman environment.” In the wise words of a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song:
If you saw a movie that was like real life
You’d be like, ‘What the hell was that movie about?
It was really all over the place.’
Life doesn’t make narrative sense.
So, how do you avoid the “standard story” when exploring, explaining, or planning for the world you work in? That’s a lifelong pursuit, but here are some first ideas:
- Read, watch, listen to, and make a wide array of creative work. Art-making can be, at its essence, a refusal of the standard story. Creating or experiencing a coherent and compelling creative work engages the whole human experience – thought, feeling, sense, emotion.
- Never rely on a single story. As author Chimamanda Ngoni Adichie advocates, “when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” Two or more narratives about a shared experience can be true, or true to life. Letting the louder or more familiar story win the day can lose the deeper reality.
- Dig deep into important stories, but hold them lightly. Surface-level stories of how things came to be, how things are, or how they could be offer only shallow slogans of a deeper narrative. If a shared narrative is important to a decision or collective action, it’s equally important to tell it well. And, after all that hard work, it’s also essential to hold it lightly – to acknowledge it is one of many stories that could be told.
- Emphasize coherence rather than truth. Stories are powerful because they capture and convey subjective experience. That subjectivity is both feature and flaw, because it carries power to move and motivate, but it also conveys a world with many subjective truths. The best we can manage, especially with action-oriented story telling, is coherence. Do the underlying assumptions of the story fit available evidence? Are they consistent with each other? Have they actually encouraged actions that led to positive change? Dave Snowden explores the question of coherence a lot, so read more here as a start.
- Remember that a story is not just a function of your conscious mind and your intended meaning. Our entire bodies have evolved to notice and make sense of hidden dynamics. Much of that work happens below your level of awareness, and not just in your brain. For that reason, “story” is a clumsy word for how we make sense of the world individually and together. Our biological systems aren’t following or writing a narrative. They’re recording and responding and reconfiguring in constant iteration. That doesn’t mean you should abandon stories as a way of making sense. But you should be suspect of their full engagement with the world.