We use stories in many ways: to share our thinking, to shape new thinking, to build consensus, to explore new ideas, to establish commonality of value and purpose. Stories written within our communities, products of debate and discussion, co-created stories that are more than the sum of their parts. I’ve been exploring the 3 Levels of Narrative over the last week or so: a framework for using stories in organisations to lead, to learn, to drive change.
The model recognises three levels of narrative: personal, co-created and organisational. Personal stories are our narrative of learning and change over time: they are iterative and evolutionary, but form the foundation of much true learning. Co-created stories, which we will explore further today, are the ones we write in our communities: they are built out of our personal narratives, combined and filtered through the community. Organisational narrative should be a meta narrative, build upon the personal and co-created elements.
The purpose of the co-created narrative is not to drive consensus: rather it’s a record of difference and dissent. It’s a news story written by the community, or by looking into and listening to the community, which reflects what is considered important at this time.
In common with all co-created and community moderated narratives (such as Wikipedia), it’s only valid in the moment: it’s not a definitive story that will last for ever, but rather todays version of an evolutionary story. One that will continue to evolve as the different co-creators learn and change. Much as the news is renewed every day, reflecting our current interests and priorities. Co-created stories are not facts: they are interpretations of reality written anew everytime. The trick is to realise that organisational stories are not fact either, even if they pass themselves off as such.
There are many ways to capture the co-created narrative of the community: we can ask them to write it, we can ask other communities to write it, we can capture it for them, or facilitate someone else to do so. We can change the stance, the language, the location, the tone of voice and the perspective of the story. These are the tools and approaches at our disposal, each one resulting in a different type of story, a different kind of narrative, but all with one thing in common.
Co-created narratives are owned by the community themselves: in Social Learning terms, the organisation has permission to be in the conversation, but it cannot own the story. This has all sorts of implications: for how we set the conversations up, to where we have them, to what happens with the story once it’s written. The rule of thumb is this: if it’s a co-created story, you’re only half in control. You can frame it, but you can’t own it. The benefit? You get to hear the voices you couldn’t hear before, speaking with an honest truth. The downside? You might not like everything they say.
I was talking to someone yesterday about a co-creative approach to training customer service: in their model, they have a process for dealing with awkward conversations, and the thrust of the training is to train you in and accredit you on that process. Success is in repetition and mastery.
In an approach using co-created stores, we would still follow the formal approach, but talk about the implementation, share other ideas, prototype and rehearse new behaviours and write our shared story about what to do. And that story may differ between groups. It will still be framed by what the organisation wants, but it will include what the community says. So you end up with variety in behaviours, in thinking and in action, but within a set of parameters that keep it safe, or safe enough.
The person i was speaking to liked the idea, but was worried that people may not ultimately follow the process: and they are dead right. They may not. The trick is to realise that they don’t follow it now anyway. Because process never gave excellence, and just because we can’t hear what they are doing, doesn’t mean they are doing what we want. In essence, people are already deviating, we just don’’t have the benefit of hearing how and why. That’s why, under a Social approach, using co-created narrative, we win: we get to hear the stories that go unheard, the wisdom on the community. We may still not like it, but we do at least have a foundation.
We can either rewrite the organisational story to reflect the truth on the ground, or we can work with the group to rehearse, prototype and adopt new behaviours, but crucially we do it together. So no one side gets to own the whole story.