Month: May 2013


Post Rationalized Narratives STINK. Build a better one.

Cross posted from CMSWire

Great brands have narratives. A narrative that explains their aspiration, their approach, and how they go in the world. Sugru is a kind of silicone putty/adhesive. It comes in colors. Its the kind of thing you might find as one of a thousand products on a shelf at Home Depot. But instead, Sugru has a narrative that makes this putty important. It makes you proud to be an owner of putty. IBM’s “Smarter Planet” narrative makes boring, complex technology important. [If it were even better it would make it both important and clear.]

Content marketing isn’t about content, it’s about being deeply valuable and meaningful. It is about standing for something that people care about. In fact, narrative is not a marketing tool. Its a business foundation. Marketing often leads the articulation of narrative, but its essential for the entire team – especially R&D and other people that determine what you sell and how you develop it and sell it. In Zappos’ case its narrative (Happiness) is essential for its core competency – customer service.  In addition to making you meaningful and important to your market, narrative is a framework for thinking about the problem – whatever problem that might be. The team is now thinking about how to make it ever more true.

There is extensive work out there on storytelling and narrative. A few years ago Simon Sinek nailed the importance, if not the method of it with “Start With Why”.  Simon was talking about the fact that people do not care what you do, but rather why you do it. If you’re the last person on the internet not to have seen his TED talk, do yourself an 18 minute favor. Narrative serves to engage your audience, ignite the imaginations of your staff, and act as a gut check on decisionmaking.

So – a story is great if you have one. [n.b. – yes, there’s a diff between story and narrative, but that’s the advanced class] But what to do if you don’t? You can build one. It is very hard and takes certain skills and acts of faith and business that are not everyday stuff. But, narrative, when done well, is the tale that can actually wag the dog. You know your narrative is working when it is easily adopted by your organization. When it is so good its obvious. When anyone can understand it to the point that it feels perfectly natural to tell it in their own words. Your narrative is doing its job when it becomes a core part of the conversation at work – when it becomes an identity. It infuses and defines your culture. It is helping to build the substance of your business. It is organic and viral. If this isn’t happening then you aren’t done yet. If this isn’t happening inside your company, its not going to happen outside with your customers. Great marketing is a side effect of great narrative. Don’t excuse yourself by saying that this is only for consumer goods, twenty-somethings or Apple. Get to work.

If you’re building a narrative, you will be in one of these situations:

1. New, brand new.

If you are starting up, then you are already in the deep soul-searching process of “why”.  Some startups have this fully formed because it was the discovery of their narrative that built the team and drives the founder.  Many have it, but its still vague. The challenge here is to find a mooring. Like Hemmingway, you need to search for the most true thing you can say about your organization, your work or yourselves and find a way to express that to the world. This type of deep truth is almost universally recognizable in the way great art is. Even the unsophisticated know it when they see it.

2. Established, but unarticulated.

You are doing business. You are growing. Perhaps you are doing something brilliant, but its really, really hard to explain. You have only 2 or 3 executives who can make the sale, because no one else can tell the story. And it takes them a face to face with every decision-maker. Its nearly impossible to show that you are different from your competition, even though the difference is vast. You are unarticulated. Your exercise is much like number 1, but you have a mooring – your work and your success. Ask your customers to help you. They probably can’t articulate it either, but they know.

Include them in your narrative attempts and spend time considering their input. Gut check your work with representatives of your entire ecosystem – Sales, Marketing, R&D, customers, analysts and experts, and anyone else who may have a stake. Take their feedback very seriously – but not necessarily literally. Steep in it.

3. The Big Fog

So – you’ve grown. Once you had a clear, but probably unarticulated mission. Now you are rudderless. Decision-making in your organization is painful and often temporary. Everyone is working hard, but little seems to come from it. You are in the fog. Now you have to do all of the above, plus.

You are not starting from scratch. There are things that can’t or shouldn’t be ignored. Which creates two challenges. First – you need to discern between the artifacts that need to go and the ones that need to stay. And second, you must at all costs avoid the temptation to post-rationalize

[There’s a fourth,”the pivot” …Pivot is a hard reexamination. Finding the pivot point, means figuring out what your real substance is and framing it properly. I could go on and on, but i’ve promised myself a short, readable post.]


No exceptions.

My daughter has a game with about a dozen dice with words on them instead of numbers. You roll them and  make a story out of the awkward set of words that fall. Too many organizations build narratives the same way. They have a series of existing concepts, constraints and phrases – maybe they’ve been in use for years. Maybe they are pets of executives, analysts or customers. The stories my daughter and I come up with are about as cohesive and useful as your post-rationalized narrative. They both stink, but at least my daughter and I get a laugh.

Your narrative has to tell a truth, and truth is not a negotiated list of words whose goal is to thread the needle of your various weird pursuits and constraints.

While you may have rationalized that story and convinced yourself its true, no one else will get it or believe it. You might hook them for a moment, but when you turn around – its gone. They bought your enthusiasm, but not your story. (@krcraft puts it – the pitch, the promise, but not the purpose) [This is often true with personality lead companies where only a few people can make the pitch – its a symptom of poorly or unarticulated narrative. When your customer turns to convince others why they should buy your stuff – turns out they have no words. (cough, cough, Palantir).]

Post-rationalized messaging feels complicated and strange. You know you have it when people have to refer to their notes to remember it. When you have strange sentences that look like they could almost be in English but must be painfully memorized.

The cure isn’t easy. You need to look for a big truth – a truth that is big enough to contain all those important artifacts you are trying to deal with.

You can’t string the old ideas together – you need to create a context in which they all (or not) naturally fit. You aren’t forcing random puzzle pieces together with glue – you are drawing the rest of the picture into which they naturally fit. You are writing a novel, in which (at least some of) your dice-words fit as part of a plot and texture. You need to force your thinking upward and out. For this golden moment at least, you are a poet, a philosopher, an inventor, a maker.

Of course truth-seeking is the endless pursuit that encompasses most of human history excepting war and business. But this is little-t truth, and it will be playing an ever more important role in “Social” Businesses.

Experience has shown me that truth (if not Truth) can be found intentionally rather than fortuitously. You need a framework to help you structure the anatomy of the narrative (I call mine the narrative hierarchy – but that’s another discussion). You must be willing to discard good ideas at a sometimes terrifying rate. You need some close brain-trust relationships. Narrative building is collaborative, but not a consensus process. (yet another discussion) In other words, building great narrative, like innovation, is a result of skill and effort, not luck.

The best is yet to come.


Enterprise 2.0 and the decisions we haven’t yet made


What will 21st Century organizations aspire to?

I know that my phone and my credit card are spying on me. I am certain that this is not a good thing, and yet I choose not to think about it as I continue to live my ordinary life, occasionally wondering if we’ll all eventually have to turn to the Amish in the post-apocalypse as the last remaining community of people who actually know how to do anything.

But as business and society, we really do need to examine the contents of our pockets and make some decisions. Our technology, if not our instincts, are enabling us to connect and monitor each other, ourselves and the world around us. Business needs are driving us to seek out new models for growth and efficiency, and our humanity is driving us to find more ways to ensure prosperity for individuals and communities – its an awesome thing.

But its going to be complicated. Perhaps I have read too much sci fi, too much 20th century Orwellian angst-lit. We know the next generation of organization (and society) is going to be super connected. We want this to be so. We want this to democratize and meritocritize, we want to leverage the true capabilities and aspirations of the work force. We want organizations to be more “unified’ – but what does kind of “unified” do we want? What will it look like? Is it all rainbows and unicorns?

Back in 2009 David Armano was trying to express his theory of social business, and among other things he had this notion of “Hive Mind”. It was clear that a) David was onto something – but even he was not really sure what, b) that he was a brilliant illustrator, and c) that “Hive Mind” creeped me out. My imagination drew an ugly Borg-like picture. A totalitarian construct. I’m sure that’s not what David meant. So what do we mean?

If we must now reject the “well-oiled machine” metaphor for business, it would be handy to have something to replace it with. Machines, no matter how well-oiled, are  incapable of the agility and complexity business needs to thrive. Further, people are not cogs in machines, and why would we want to be? So the mechanistic model fails both the business and the humanity test. We are individuals and communities of staggering complexity  – how will we use that to achieve what is currently beyond our grasp or imagination? What is the metaphor of the 21st century, humanistic, connected, buzzing (but not seething) organization?

We will choose – with intention or without. If we are building a world of possibilities, we want the better ones to prevail. We will have a hand in what dominantes, and so we have to recognize and prepare our choices. There will be ambiguity. This article on Disney’s idyllic, planned community – asks if its “Cool or Creepy?” This will be increasingly difficult to answer in many contexts.

Organizational design for Century 21 – more than one metaphor.

In the last couple hundred years, business and government have been dominated by hierarchical, command and control structures – though there have been some other models. Family models, some decentralized models (the ‘bad guys’ have taught us some things about decentralized control) – but hierarchies are so ingrained in our society as to be barely questioned.

Now we have “Valve” – a purely self-directed organization (that I still need to understand better). We had the “Occupy” movement and Crisis Commons, Wikipedia, and of course Arab spring – and perhaps one enduring organizational theme of the future will be purely emergent organizations. But other than Valve, none of these has an ongoing, durable organization designed to deliver value in a sustained way – a way that can bring economic prosperity to its members. I do not quite believe yet that the Valve model will dominate, though I hope that model will become better understood and more frequently used.  Leadership and vision will play an enduring role, and leadership that can activate the potential of other people will dominate organizations of the next epoch.

In all likelihood, we will have two or three enduring models, ranging from purely emergent to purely directed,  that will hopefully bring greater diversity to the types of problems we can solve, and the types of people who can make breakthrough contributions.

As new structures slowly emerge, we need to think about 5 things. We need to assign societal values to each and ultimately determine whether we are building Big Brother or a chance at universal self-actualization.

1. Free Will

A command and control hierarchy is ultimately about discipline and submission to authority. Free will is intentionally constrained. Do what you are supposed to do, and do it well (or else). The Borg epitomizes this same end, but through a networked and decentralized model rather than a hierarchical one. I’m thinking its not the direction most of us actually want to enable.

Zen translates to “direct understanding”. People have spent thousands of lifetimes understanding what that means, but at a novice level, it means un-intermediated learning. That there is a direct relationship between all things, and that you do not need the wisdom of others to guide you to see it. There is no official holy book of Zen. But there have always been those farther along the path, and they have often served as guides for others. This may be a new model of leadership. The wise guide still pursuing their path, willing to help others.

The new networked organizational collective, or “Connective”, in its ideal form, will give each person “direct understanding” of the ecosystem. In fact, as we discuss complexity, and emergence, it may be that “direct understanding” is really what all this design thinking and system thinking is really striving for.

But free will is limited. Often by our understanding of our own culture and paradigms. This recent, brilliant rant by James Altucher is hard to ignore. It describes the illusion of free will created by a society whose patterns leaves only an impression of choice. He’s not the only one to share this view. Some sound bitter and angry and, frankly, nuts. But others are increasingly difficult to ignore. Our society – for all its greatness – has ingrained patterns of behavior and decisionmaking and for better or for worse, its not easy to see beyond its assumptions. But things are happening and what worked before may not work forever, and we have some collective thinking to do.

Technology that democratizes expression, learning and even production can give more people more free will and opportunity to self-actualize than ever before. This appears to be our human aspiration and destiny. But this combined technological determinism and “solutionism” will take us places we haven’t imagined yet. Caveat emptor. We should not go blithely forward without at least attempting to understand what we want society to become. Somewhere between 1984 and The Matrix are some truths we need to explore.

2. Connected Decisionmaking – power, sense and consensus

Decision making is increasingly complex as sense-making is increasingly complex. We have the opportunity to understand so much more now than we ever did, but our ability has yet to catch up. The challenges of big data (did any of you miss this classic chart of murder rate vs. internet explorer market share? Big Data gone goofy.) and collective organizations – where expertise, authority and awareness can be widely distributed – are holding us back. To some extent, this is addressed by our increasing ability to re-act rather than anticipate. This is learning, doing, failing fast – but still and all, action requires decisions. Some organizations will always need more explicit decision making than others (think governments and armies for instance) at least for some decisions.

Gordon Ross wrote a great piece on the nature of power in Networks. He warns that we will eventually need to move past our warm and fuzzy view of organizations and power as purely shared, and realize that while power is not strictly zero-sum, power and equality and egalitarianism are not easily and purely balanced. Some will be more powerful than others. THat means that we need to better understand the nature of power, and be thoughtful and more deliberate in how and when we allot, distribute give up and attain it.

3. We are Cyborg

Since humanity first picked up tools, we have been enhancing our biological capabilities with man-made constructs – eyeglasses for example (which I now need). Google glass is just another step in a long path here. My favorite, too-often quoted Gibson description of the internet – “our continually improving, communal, prosthetic memory” describes the internet, but also suggests that it will be a lot more intimate than it is now.

We are augmenting ourselves in biological, sensorial and cognitive ways- and its  a great thing. I have a couple extra parts in my knee that were not original equipment. My first job out of college was writing code to test an artificial ear (which is now in use, I’m proud to say). We will soon have visual analogs of cochlear implants that let the blind see.

Google Glass, even the iphone and this latest “personal environment monitor” are giving us constructed ESP and other capabilities. And I don’t think any of us will resist it. Why would we? We absolutely want our doctors to have Watson, as I want new eyeglasses to read with.

Two or three generations from now people will wonder how we made do without these things in the way we wonder how people managed without central heating and telephones. Our grandchildren will consider us medieval. They will create PBS reality shows of people trying to survive with bare eyes and no broadband in their human operated cars.

But ESP and complete connectivity lead us to another wickedly complex topic:

4. Privacy

Here’s my question. Need we begin to consider what life and fairness means in a post-private society? Will our connectedness and our rapidly increasing dependence on digital technology for all of lifes transactions inevitably lead to a society with no reasonable expectation of privacy? At last fall’s TEDxMidatlantic, Alessandro Aquisti gave a tidy demonstration  of the fact that our privacy is an illusion and that our identities and personal information are available to those who want them. Will this return us to small town values where everyone knows everyone else’s business? Would that be a good thing?  Will this be humanizing or dehumanizing? What of our “rights”? What of our security or independence?

What will that mean at work? Will our actions be perpetually scrutinized? We of the “knowledge worker” class may feel we are free from the nightmares of keystroke analysis and time scrutiny of “management”, but will our next decade increase everyone’s work-freedom or diminish our own? Will we spread enlightenment or contract it?

5. Choose. Now.

These questions may not seem like core “Enterprise 2.0” questions, but I assure you they are. We are building new business constructs and free will, privacy, decisionmaking and even a reexamined notion of what it means to be human will be profoundly affected and will profoundly affect those new businesses. We cannot know that Visa knows if we will divorce, possibly years before we do, and not decide whether or not that is ok. Will having fully quantified selves, customers and teams means that we rush past the humanity we were trying to unleash? We must face what we’ve put in our pockets.

We cannot predict the future, but we can choose its flavor by making fundamental declarations, and basing the rest of our decisions on those simple, powerful truths.

Do we believe that competent, well qualified people will do the right thing given the opportunity? Do we believe that we can help people see and pursue opportunity and capability where they haven’t in the past? Do we need to reframe the right to privacy debate? Do we believe that societies and organizations thrive based on cooperation or social darwinism? How do we skew toward one and not the other? Do we believe that control is the same thing as power? Do we believe that work people believe in is of value to both shareholders and society? Do we believe in ourselves?

We hold these truths to be self evident. In the United States we have found that it is the embrace and examination of the values set forth by our founding fathers that have endured our few short centuries. Will we and in what way will we need to reimagine the values – business and otherwise – of the next few centuries.

(The best is yet to come)