If You Want to Generate Strategies for Future Success, Start with Narratives and Metaphors

Terms like metaphor, myth, story  and narrative are not necessarily the first that come to mind when considering how to develop a future-facing national strategy.  But they should be.  This point was made in brilliant ways by the participants at the Atlantic Council’s second annual Global Strategy Forum in Washington DC earlier this week.

Metaphors Shape how We Understand Reality

Our collective understanding of reality is shaped in profound ways by metaphors. A metaphor is a statement suggesting that something with which we are unfamiliar is like something with which we are familiar.  New technologies often produce new metaphors for how we understand society writ large. The idea of the “networked organization,” for example, grows out of a comparison with computer networks. Being able to generate metaphors about the future can help strategists pave the way to creating the systems or processes that will be required for success in it.

I had the honor of sharing the opening session stage with DARPA Director Dr. Arathi Prabhakar and Rhodes College political scientist Jennifer Sciubba and our moderator Toffler Associates CEO Deborah Westphal to discuss Strategic Foresight.

Arathi talked about DARPA’s investments in artificial intelligence, Jennifer explored some of our myths about global demography,  and I addressed our need for anticipatory metaphors (beginning at 44:21).

When Conditions Change, so Must Our Strategic Narratives

Despite our 3 different topics, we all stressed that changes in our global condition means that we must think in new ways about how to be successful.  As the conditions of the industrial age fade away, so will our ability to define success in the terms of that era.

When global trends portend dramatic change, as ours do now, we must assess how we think about success, and rewrite the stories and myths that guide us in our quest to compete successfully.  A hundred years ago, technological conditions privileged size—big tanks, and sizable armies could take territory and resources. Our guiding principle for success became: lets get big and control large spaces.

The rise of computer networks changed our social metaphors. We think in terms of networks now: social networks, networking, and everything from human bodies to neighborhoods as networks.  We didn’t simply discover that all of these phenomena are arranged as networks, we applied a guiding metaphor to discover ways in which they are like networks.

My question is: what’s next? What will be the guiding metaphor of 25 years from now? The organization that can begin to frame an anticipatory metaphor–the future of our own imaginations– is preparing itself conceptually for the future. After that, structures, processes and systems will follow.

And while our conversation at the Atlantic Council was about the American role in the world, the basic takeaways for how to generate strong strategy apply to organizations everywhere.

To see the entire day’s sessions, go: here.


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Creating an Innovative Workforce in a Large Bureaucracy: Lessons from the U.S. Air Force

Strategic Narratives for innovation

In 1963, Air Force pilots were awarded NASA’s Project Mercury astronauts the Collier Trophy by President Kennedy for their pioneering work in spaceflight. Today, the Air Force seeks to innovate anew

The idea that bureaucracy inhibits innovation is far from new: Political scientists in the early 1960s were already making the charge that, “There is a growing feeling that modern organizations and particularly the large, bureaucratic business and government organizations, need to increase their capacity to innovate” (Victor Thompson, Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1965).

Fifty years later, this ‘feeling’ continues to grow, often in bureaucracies that have also grown in the interim. The US Air Force is one such institution. Yet, there are creative ways to advance, as my opportunity to spend a day earlier this month with the Air Force Chief of Staff and an advisory group of my peers made abundantly clear. A diverse group of us were gathered–technology entrepreneurs, corporate CEOs, government executives, futurists and Air Force officials—to share ideas and offer our recommendations.

Although we talked extensively about practical fixes that could begin to create new pockets of innovation across the Air Force, we all agreed that ultimately the United States government as a whole will need a new way of thinking about innovation and failure. This new strategic narrative will tell a story about the US government as innovative, respectful of necessary failures, and open to true diversity of thought.

The Challenges to Innovation Facing Large Bureaucracies are Formidable
The challenges opposing innovation are formidable.

Like other large bureaucracies, the Air Force has:

  • A globally distributed workforce–in this case it is over 300,000
  • Mission critical areas in which failure is not an option
  • Decision-making that lies beyond its ability to control: Congress and the White House have a strong say in how the Air Force allocates its resources and defines incentives for performance
  • A deeply embedded structure for performance and advancement
  • A budget that is static and set by others

The lack of control over much of their own destiny, coupled with a stringently defined mission, makes it difficult to incentivize innovation. As the Air Force officials explained to us, the Service can best reward new problem solving approaches only at the tactical level, over which it has authority. Strategic innovation is more complicated.

Yet, doing nothing is not an option, in the view of the Air Force. The need to innovate is pressing. While the United States Air Force once had a clear advantage among other nations, global power shifts and the democratization of technology have made it much simpler for states and non-state actors to advance. Like other elements of the United States government, there is palpable concern these days that without establishing the conditions for innovation, the United States will fall behind, with consequences that have not yet been contemplated by national leaders.

When Mission Failure is Not an Option, Incentivizing Failure as Part of Innovation is also Difficult

One of the key recommendations for organizations seeking to innovate is to permit, even encourage failure. At the Pentagon, we discussed corporate leaders in the technology sphere who encourage failure, knowing that it is a necessary part of successful innovation.

Yet unlike a private corporation, the Air Force must explain itself to Congress, which does not look kindly on resources or programs are anything but highly successful. Neither the mindset nor the way in which budgets and programs are evaluated currently support useful failure. Other government agency or corporate managers seeking to drive innovation from below may recognize this problem as well.

How to Introduce a Culture of Innovation

The ideas that my colleagues and I came up with over the course of an afternoon, although designed to serve the Air Fove, may hold value for the leaders of similarly large, bureaucratic or networked organizations.

  • Public private collaborations are essential to accelerate innovation. Opportunities to work on a project with colleagues from other institutions could be a reward for innovation as well
  • Develop an expectation that a certain amount of failure is not only tolerable, but productive. Identifying a threshold of expected failure (20%, for example) can be a useful metric to show that innovative ideas are being developed and tried. This kind of mindset can be introduced to those who hold the purse strings, like Congress.
  • Create rewards and incentives that are not financial when the budget is fixed. Millennials (and even non-millennials!) may appreciate a shorter workweek or the opportunity to work on projects of their choosing more than money.
  • Ensure better teamwork by “translating” different fields to one another. In order to accelerate productive collaborative work, interdisciplinary team members need to understand the values, norms and vocabularies of their colleagues. This kind of understanding can be encouraged organically by embedding team members with their counterparts, so they can absorb how others talk and work. It can also be productive to surface this need and hold workshops or other guided discussions in which teammates explicitly translate their work to others.
  • Develop teams in which diversity of thought is encouraged and nurtured. In many cases, external signs of diversity (race, ethnicity, gender) are markers of diversity of thought because different people experience the world differently, but sometimes there are no external markers. Seek people who think and create differently from one another, and encourage the conditions in which those differences are valued.

These are practical steps by which a large bureaucracy can begin to establish a collective narrative of innovation that resonates throughout the organization.

If you would like to discuss developing an innovation narrative in your organization, I’d be pleased to hear from you at info@strategic-narrative.net.

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Craft Your Past in Order to Shape your Future: the Power of Legacy Stories in Strategic Communications

History belongs to the victors, it is said. But victors also arise because they have asserted interpretive control over their own history. Unlike most inheritances, the narrative that we inherit about who we are and what we are like is one that we have the ability to shape.

Powerful communicators understand that they have a meaningful degree of control over the way they interpret their legacy.

Legacy narratives are the stories that we have inherited that tell us who we are and our place in the world. No one is born without one — we are all born into something, a context, a country, into wealth or poverty, into a family that feels it once was great and has now fallen, or one that feels it is on the ascendent.

Institutions function the same way. The individuals who make them up enter them or lead them learn those narratives when they arrive on the scene.  In fact, one of the ways that we become attached to institutions is by absorbing and championing their legacy identities. Companies, schools and universities, and national governments work hard to instill a sense of their legacy in their stakeholders.

When the conditions for success change, the legacy story may no longer be effective

Library of Congress Family

You can interpret your legacy–the story into which you were born–in ways that productively guide your future story.

Legacy stories serve as a touchpoint that helps us explain our current conditions and why we are successful (or failures).

When conditions change, however, the story may suddenly lose its explanatory power, pushing other institutional practices out of alignment.

Case Study: Structural Changes can displace a strong sense of legacy

In in the mid-2000s, I began work at a Fortune 500 company that had just gone from employee-owned to publicly owned. The shift from an employee owned company was a topic of big discussion. Some people had gotten wealthy in the shift, others not so much, but the more salient story was about the disappearance of a shared identity when employee ownership disappeared. People’s sense of who they were had disappeared.

The narrative that people had shared for many years about the firm was that it was a place where independent ideas and attitudes were valued, and where great ideas could find a home. This identity was wrapped up in employee ownership.  And when that disappeared so did many people’s sense of loyalty and identification with the firm. In the ensuing years, while I was there, the transition was rocky. We went through several CEOs and multiple internal organization changes.

With greater attention to the symbolic narrative around employee ownership, the firm’s leadership could probably have smoothed that transition considerably. They could have communicated more effectively to employees how important values like independence of thought among employees would continue to be valued.

Case Study: Strong legacies can inhibit necessary changes

A strong sense of legacy can make it very difficult to initiate necessary changes. I saw this firsthand as the CEO of a global membership organization. It was fifty years old, was bleeding members and badly needed to change its ways and modernize. But it had a very powerful legacy story about ‘how things were done’ and ‘who we are’ that was maintained both internally by employees and externally through many of its members.  They had helped to build the organization.

This legacy became a barrier, and it became my job to stitch the organization’s existing story to its potential future in a new way. I was fortunate  to have advisors around me who helped me to communicate with those who were most afraid of change with more grace than I might have otherwise, and with respect for the important legacy of the organization.

Take Control of Your Legacy Story

The distinct quality of legacy stories is that they can seem static and unchangeable. You know that a legacy story is in operation when someone tells you “that is just the way we are” or that “this is how we have always done things.” The value of the legacy seems to grow as time goes on.

Legacy stories are like magnets that attract and repel— eventually everything that happens can seem to be either because of the central story or in spite of it. They get heavier. They get harder to move. They get harder to change. The story itself takes on the power of immovable fact.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Legacies are rewritten successfully when organizations or members of them start telling the story differently. This may be a grassroots effort or a conscious decision on the part of leaders.

A Quick Note about Ethics

One small but important note about ethics and integrity. Making up pasts out of whole cloth or lying about the past is not the route to lasting power and not what I am talking about here. Ethics and strength go hand-in-hand. People know when legacy stories are being stretched or when they are being told without integrity or respect for their basic facts. Within that ethical band, though, we have room to create from the ingredients of our inherited stories, those that will guide our intentions and communicate our values going forward.

What is Your Legacy Story? Is it Hurting or Helping your Ambitions?
Do you have a legacy story that is holding you or your organization back? Here are a few questions to ask to help clarify:

  • What are our legacy stories?
  • How do we use our legacy story? Do we use it to perpetuate the status quo or to mobilize change?
  • What are the forgotten parts of our legacy? Are any of those usefully revived in order for us to reinvent ourselves?
  • Are there values or activities that we are interested in pursuing in the future? How can we link our legacy to new initiatives in ways that fortify and support our new directions, and that help explain to outsiders what we are doing?
  • What are the key moments or events that seem to illuminate the theme of the legacy story? Are there other moments, or events or even representative figures who should be brought in in order to begin shifting the story?
  • Legacy stories are often told in legacy syntax, using habitual turns of phrase. What happens if you retell the story in a different way and what does it illuminate?

If you have comments about legacy stories or questions, I’d welcome hearing from you. You can reach me at info@strategic-narrative.net or via the contact form here.

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7 Necessary Narratives for the New Digital Age

In the future, nearly everyone will be connected to the Internet and to each other, claim Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt in The New Digital Age.

Mass connectivity will transform our relationships, our governments, our work, our bodies and the objects around us.  But even these dramatic transformations will not change the fact that we are corporeal creatures, and that we will still live lives grounded in phnew digital agephysical circumstances, whether those are urban or rural, rich or poor, lucky or unlucky.

We will also come into the world with a set of inherited stories about who we are, what our lives mean, and what the future looks like.   These stories will have the same universal threads they always have: we will still have stories of love, stories of family, stories that try reconcile life’s fundamental unfairness.  But they will also fail in important ways to explain the transformations of our lives, and the new ways in which we will do old things.

We need new stories

We need new stories.  Creating them is of necessity not only a collective task, but a transnational one. As we grow even more connected, we also grow more capable of exporting our ideas about who we are and what is important on others, wherever they are. Yesterday, two Nigeria-descended men hacked a third to death on a London street, and then stayed on the scene to tell how they saw themselves in a world at war: “We must fight them as they fight us.”   As we grow more connected, and more willing to share our selves with others, maybe pernicious forms of shame—that universal emotion—will be knocked out, and we’ll be more healthy.

It all depends on how we decide to tell our future. Here are seven of the areas where we will need new stories in the new digital age, as described by Schmidt and Cohen.


7 Necessary Narratives for the New Digital Age

1. The Body

Both religion and science fiction have long dreamed of worlds in which humans transcend bodies, to become virtual souls. In the new digital world, however, we will shape our identities online but experience them in the physical world.  How will we understand health and illness, and mortality, if we have the capacity to monitor our daily rhythms in minute ways?

2. Personal Identity

Schmidt and Cohen tell us that identity will be each of our most valuable commodity in the future, and that our true personal identity will be the one that we shape online.

How will we choose to tell our life stories and in what ways will the autobiographical form change in a world in which there is essentially no privacy?  Where will we think our “real” self resides. Where will the associations with privacy as a space of intimacy, daydreaming, erasable exploration, unrecorded experimentation with who we are, in order to practice who we could be, relocate, when we have no privacy?

 3.  News

Our concepts of journalism and news reporting have already undergone dramatic changes; journalism has become in many ways a collective task that falls to professional reporters and citizens alike, and to groups and organizations that put out versions of the news that support particular causes or points of view.

As an increasing number of voices join in the journalistic task, the work of professional media will evolve.  The media might become a trusted validator of unsubstantiated accounts, or an integrator of news from different kinds of sources.  The value of objectivity may fade, while versions of what subjective news that maintains its integrity will emerge—this will be the new narrative of news.

 4.  Cybersecurity

Different forms of public security – whether they are in the arena of health, or counterterrorism, or child safety – operate according to different metaphors, storylines and images.  Those around cyber-security may coalesce around metaphors of health and hygiene: we are told to practice “cyber-hygiene.

Schmidt and Cohen introduce Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer, who has also recommended a “World Health Organization” for cyber-activity, and the practice of quarantining computers that have been infected with viruses.  As Adriane Lapointe, a National Security Agency official has observed, the public health metaphor may serve as the basis for a meaningful public narrative:

Like any good metaphor, it invites us to consider illuminating similarities between two overtly dissimilar things—malware on the internet and infectious disease in a community—similarities that can lead us to reframe a familiar topic. It also identifies a policy precedent, reminding us that we do, as a society, recognize the need to impose some restrictions on individuals who involuntarily pose a certain kind of threat to others, and that we have a mechanism to do this which might be relevant to cybersecurity matters. Whether we ultimately decide that this mechanism or approach is appropriate to the cyber challenge, the metaphor has certainly helped to broaden thinking about the subject.

 5. National Identity

The nation-state has been the bedrock of our civic identities for the last couple of centuries, and the idea that every nation deserves its own territorial state a driving narrative of the 20th century.  But new diasporas resulting from increased migration, coupled with digital connectivity, are decoupling the nation from the state, creating virtual, de-territorialized nations.

How will a de-territorialized nation narrate its future? How will cultural practices that have been grounded in place be translated into practices of other place? Will other forms of bonding, such as investment in the home country, become a standard part of an individual’s narrative of their national identity? Will the idea of a relationship to a particular land wither for some communities, and if so, to what effect?

 6. Dissident Leadership

There is much to protest in this world, and the low cost of entry to share dissident views will lead to a widening number of protestors seeking attention for their cause.  Many of these causes will be worthy and compelling, so it is no longer enough to offer the platitude the most persuasive stories will gain our attention. Rather, we—the public that dissidents must win over–may begin to change the meta-story, or standards, by which we evaluate leaders and causes.

Schmidt and Cohen offer that dissident leaders likely to become popular will be able to: “command a following and crowd-source their online support,” will know how to exploit digital marketing tools, and  will show their commitment by putting themselves at physical risk.

We can already guess that digital marketing skills are not the most important skills for someone seeking a leadership role in a dissident setting.  We can use this recognition starting now to inoculate ourselves against easily accepting simply the most digitally skilled. We can ask, instead, what are the qualities—what is the story—of a leader who is likely to be successful, who understands the institutions they want to change, and lead that change on the ground as well as in virtual space.

 7.  Justice

Cameras in our smallest devices make it easy to record the human capacity for barbarism in its many forms. Violence, sexual assault, cruelty to animals, hate speech all find their way into digital form on a regular basis, easily arousing our instinctual repugnance. As Schmidt and Cohen observe, these recordings can become the basis for “crowd sourced justice,” which may take the form of  mob retaliation, from harassment to violence.

But we could instead form new habits of collective responsibility—using our connectivity to make sure that those who commit bad acts are dealt with according to our legal precepts and best values, and to explore together how to deal with bad behavior at the community level.  Which narrative, and which set of practices that prevail, depend on how we decide to narrate our opportunity to ‘crowd source justice,’ which behaviors we highlight and celebrate, and how we talk about what we see online.

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Let’s Celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of “A National Strategic Narrative”

This has been a tough spring for national cohesion in the United States. Automatic federal spending cuts called sequestration kicked in after Congress failed to agree on how to manage the federal budget. The Senate voted down a bill that would expand background checks for gun purchasers, despite strong support around the country.  And bombings at the Boston Marathon committed by young men hovering between foreign identity and American citizenship confused any clear idea of American identity.

This makes it a good time to mark the two year anniversary of A National Strategic Narrative, published in April 2011 by aNational Strategic Narrativeuthors Captain Wayne Porter, USN and Col Mark Mykleby, USMC under the pseudonym Mr. Y.

The document grabbed the attention of politicians and pundits here in the United States, and foreign ministers in Europe and the Middle East. Perhaps most important, it garnered attention from everyday citizens for proposing a reinvigorated American identity and role in the world. Continue reading

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Post-Boston: A More Effective Battle of Ideas (Part II)

Boston MarathonReprinted from The Globalist,  April 24, 2013

 Instead of getting sucked into heat-of-the-moment reactions to Boston, let’s base our responses on a more stable paradigm of contemporary global terrorism. To fight a battle of ideas successfully, one must first show what one is going up against. Amy Zalman makes the case that there are three distinct trends in terrorism — Hybrid, Multi-motivational and Narrative Terrorism.

This paradigm is evolving, but several trends are coming into view and are likely to deepen in the future:

  •    Hybrid terrorism:

In traditional categorization of terrorists, there are “lone wolves” who are unconnected to any organized group and those who are members of organizations.

Today, a hybrid type appears to be evolving: someone who works without full organizational support or direction, but who is not working in total isolation from others. Continue reading

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Post-Boston: Keep Calm and Think Clearly (Part 1)

Boston Marathon

Reprinted from The Globalist, April 23, 2013

The Boston Marathon bombings provide an opportunity for the United States to consider how to combat extremist ideas more effectively than it did a decade ago. But this is not the time to let fear and uncertainty drive us into misguided and — as importantly — ineffective forms of countering violent extremism.

Warning: Prominent policy makers are already making demands to disinter the discredited concepts of the Global War on Terror. Options presented range from designating the bombers enemy combatants to calling for sweeping surveillance of majority Muslim communities.

The motivations that led Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev to set off lethal bombs at the Boston Marathon last week may not yet be clear. But the characteristics of that event already tell us a substantial amount about the direction of 21st century terrorism — and how we might combat it with increasing effectiveness. Continue reading

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Resilience Narratives Key to Resilient Systems

The 2013 World Economic Forum Conference that began today in Davos is dedicated this year to resilient dynamism. As Arianna Huffington noted earlier in the day, the key concept that gives rise to the need for resilience is our global interconnectedness. Quoting Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin, she cites five attributes that resilient systems characteristically share:

  •  Spare capacity
  • Flexibility — the ability to change, evolve, and adapt in the face of disaster.
  • Limited or “safe” failure, which prevents failures from rippling across systems.
  • Rapid rebound — the capacity to reestablish function and avoid long-term disruptions.
  • Constant learning, with robust feedback loops.

Huffington adds a sixth, “the will to want to be resilient.”

To that list, I feel we must add a seventh requirement for the present and future, Resilience Narratives: stories that will help disparate and potentially adversarial players see themselves as active participants in collaborative futures. Continue reading

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The Need for a New Story: Faizullah Jan Compares Narratives of the U.S. Drone War in Waziristan

The narratives told in Pakistan and by international organizations about the secret U.S. drone war in Waziristan are so confused that “the people who are caught in the crosshairs of the war have lost their voice and their story to tell.” In this guest blog, reprinted from Dawn.com, Jan explains the issues.

Reprinted from Dawn.com

January 5, 2013 by Faizullah Jan

THERE are competing narratives about the US’s drone war in the Waziristan area, a bastion of militants. These narratives have so far failed to gain traction in the public, inside Pakistan and elsewhere.

The Pakistani narrative goes like this: the drone attacks are a violation of our national sovereignty. They kill innocent people, including women and children, as collateral damage and hence incite suicide attacks across the country in a cycle of reprisal and retaliation, thus killing more Pakistanis, which again includes women and children.

In short, suicide attacks on public places like markets — and even mosques and shrines — are provoked by drone attacks. If there are no drone attacks, there will be no suicide attacks in cities and towns. Continue reading

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Narrative for Survival: My Grandmother’s Story

Stories can save lives. In One Thousand and One Nights, Sheherezade uses her storytelling talents to end King Shahrayr’s plot to punish his unfaithful wife by punishing all of the women of his kingdom.  Having put to death the unfaithful Queen herself, the King embarks on a plan to marry a virgin of the Kingdom each night, and to have each killed at dawn.  That is, until he marries Sheherezade, who spends her wedding night narrating to the King a most exciting and suspenseful tale. So exciting that the King puts off her death to hear how the story continues. And so their story continues for a thousand and one nights, after which the King abandons his goal to punish women, and marries Sheherezade.

My grandmother may not have had a thousand stories, but she had at least one, and telling it to an American Consul in 1939 saved her life and that of her husband and baby, when it permitted her to leave warring Europe on one of the last ships to cross the Atlantic. I had the opportunity to tell it at a local TedX event earlier this year, and was delighted when TEDx organizers chose it as one of their favorites.  I’d love to hear about other stories that have saved lives, if you have one you’d like to share.

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