On day two I entered a Hilton meeting room to listen to John Hagel‘s talk, Moving Story to Narrative. Mr. Hagel is Co-Chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, a practice that helps senior executives and brands better understand and benefit from emerging opportunities and new technologies. His distinguished career spans 30 years of experience as a consultant, author and founder of start-ups.
As mentioned in my first SXSW 2013 post, stories and storytelling were a consistent thread through lots of sessions. Mr. Hagel kind of turned it all upside down very quickly. His focus was on us, each of us as individuals who are living in the digital age, but specifically those of us who are also working in it daily.
What follows are my notes from his talk. I sprinkle my thoughts and observations inside of his, but the concepts belong to Mr. Hagel.
He got my attention right out of the gate when he rightly called out today’s “mounting performance pressure” environment. We are trying to do more and need to do it faster which causes us to re affix our gaze on the short term and think less about long term horizons. Corporate America is obsessed with the second to second stock price and very opportunistic based. The higher you are in the organization the shorter your time horizon tolerance is for measured improvement.
This is how I categorize senior executives thinking to help me understand their perspective.
- The Chairman is looking to make the day
- The President is looking to make the week
- The CMO is looking to make the month
- The Vice President is looking make the quarter
- The Director is left with everything else
Mr. Hagel points out that we still have a finite set of resources and prioritization processes that mean we have to play a zero sum game. If my project gets assigned resources and yours doesn’t we have a winner and a loser. This causes us to look at shorter time horizons as oftentimes firms won’t even consider projects that are a year or more in length. Lean practices and iterative development are pointed to as models for how we should bring things to market. Shorter time frames and benefits that are realized much sooner.
He calls this the Dark Side of Digital. It’s a long term shift and it will stress us out. It’ not a fad or in our imagination, it is very real and it’s her to stay. Preparing for this new normal is important, but how do we prepare? The times we live in today converge and disrupt so quickly that we cannot predict what will be impacted downstream and to what degree. This uncertainly adds to the stress. This will not lead to good things.
Moving from the simple story with a beginning, middle and end to a narrative which is more open ended is what Mr. Hagel seems to be suggesting. Stories are about other things and other people, while a narrative is closer to the core of who we are. The things we think and do when no one else is around. He suggests we ask ourselves three questions.
- Why are we here?
- What can we accomplish while we’re here?
- How do we connect with each other to accomplish something?
Put some real thought to these questions. The digital world allows us to discover, curate, connect and collaborate on a scale in an unprecedented manner. It’s the opposite of pressure; it’s opportunity. Answering these questions for yourself and your brand is critical for our digital and personal survival. It will cause us to contribute and participate in a process that unpacks knowledge over the course of time. He used Apple’s Think Different campaign to illustrate an important point. Think Different was in a way a slogan, and a slogan is not a narrative. But what it did do brilliantly, was to crystalize the narrative that Steve Jobs and Apple wanted to build for. The Think Different campaign did not show Apple products or talk about services. They showed icons that thought different. Don’t make it about your brand or leave it to your PR department to craft it.
Creating narratives in this way are very powerful ways to connect with consumers and draw them in. To allow them to, even if it is briefly, create their own narrative, which can nudge someone to trial or engagement. The Google search ads don’t talk about ad words or pay per click or SEO. They show how a father can record the un-reliveable moments of his daughter that can be shared at any time and reassures him that he will never lose those moments.
Small moves made smartly can set big things in motion — John Hagel
He talked about two kinds of narratives, opportunity-based narratives and threat-based narratives. Opportunity-based narratives allows us to magnify the reward side. What is it’s worth to us and our business? It breeds a positive mindset and is a magnet for collaboration. It’s much easier to take risks and invest in the long term. In contrast threat-based narratives makes us feel we are always under attack. Instead of coming together to create we do it for protection; to deal with that threat. We are trying to not lose something.
Narratives provide a form of stability. We have something to hold on to and they help us focus on what’s important. He encourages to make them explicit but explore many types of narratives and to be prepared to shift if necessary. Passion is also important. Be passionate. He stated that passionate workers tend to be twice as connected as those who are not passionate.
As he closed out his talk he mentioned zooming in and zooming out. Ideally we should think and act on two different narratives at the same time. Zooming in are the short term benefits and are probably more monetary based. Zooming out takes into account the longer time horizon and demonstrates how it can positively impact outcomes and people at scale.
A thoughtful, but perhaps cautionary talk.
Photo Credit: Jay Bryant of LiveWorld, Inc.