Psychologists call us humans, among other things, “meaning-making machines.” We’re always looking for the reason why, the cause for the effect, the coherent narrative that pulls it all together and ties it up neatly. So far so good, but of course we can get carried away.
Consider the phenomenon of “cancer clusters.” They can generate intense public and legislative attention, featuring sympathetic victims and seemingly odds-defying concentrations of disease: “There must be something in the air or water or soil that’s causing this!” And anyone with a heart has to feel sorry for those stricken with disease. Powerful stories!
But how real are they? That is to say, invoking a recently unfashionable but time-honored tool, “Does the science support their existence?”
Fortunately, the NIH thoroughly looked into this and a few years ago published “Cancer clusters in the USA: What do the last twenty years of state and federal investigations tell us?” (Critical Reviews in Toxicology, July 2012). They reviewed the publicly available cancer cluster investigations since 1990, covering all 50 states, constituting 428 investigations of 567 cancers of concern. In 87% of cases they could not even confirm an increase in incidence. Of the 13% that passed this threshold (72 in total), three were linked, with variable confidence, to hypothesized environmental exposure and only one revealed a clear cause. Final score: Stories 427, Science 1. Or as they put it in their understated conclusion, “It is fair to state that extensive efforts to find causes of community cancer clusters have not been successful.”
As always, methodological challenges can be (and were in this case) issued, but that is irrelevant to our message; we’re not here to sponsor a dialectical exhumation of this NIH meta-study: The point is unmistakable: Stories have tremendous power, particularly where they purport to explain the inexplicable.
In our own lives, if we repeat the constructed narratives of our lives to ourselves often enough, they become scripts or patterns that can unconsciously govern our behavior. In other words, we forget they’re stories that we made up ourselves and treat them and act on them as immutable truths, the way the world is.
This may suggest stories operate primarily at the personal, individual level: They can, and if you find yourself trapped in or wondering whether a narrative you’ve constructed for yourself is still optimally adaptive, may we suggest an executive coach or a therapist. But as you would expect in the pages of Adam Smith, Esq., I want to focus primarily on the organizational level and the power of stories to influence behavior.
Especially in the realm of changing organizational behavior, stories can make or break you. A first logical step might be simply to identify the leading stories “in circulation” at your firm: Expose them to the light of day, as it were. Then you can at least start to understand how they arose, how relevant or obsolete they are today, and who at the firm is particularly invested in maintaining their hold on people.
What exactly might these stories look like?
Many firms surely subscribe to a version of the alpha male personality mystique: Through sheer force of will individuals can overcome any challenge, slice through the Gordian Knot of any client problem, work until their bodies scream for a break, and all the rest of it. I’ve lived this story myself at times, and worn it proudly. And what’s wrong with that!?, you’re asking.
Where to begin? If I’m remotely representative, the alpha-you story leads to:
- A growing and ultimately frantic need to recharge intellectually: To read, reflect, take a walk and turn things over in your mind untethered to the grid;
- Impatience and near-dismissal of colleagues who want to collaborate, who need to unburden themselves or seek advice;
- Loss of focus, efficiency, productivity, and even compromised quality of what you’re putting out;
- And the striking and undeniable shock of recognizing that in a business where one’s value revolves around the ability to think, there’s mailing-it-in reflex “thinking” and there’s profound, recursive, probing, analytic testing of your first, second, third, and Nth hypotheses.
Maybe the Alpha Story shouldn’t be the scriptural verse you assumed it to be?
But when it comes to change, or (word that makes me want to flee the room lately) “innovation,” stories are specially potent.
They can frame and condense an entire array of challenges for your firm, and how you plan to respond. They give everyone who will listen an intuitive grasp of where their personal internal gyroscope should be guiding them.
That’s the message of a current McKinsey feature, Telling a good innovation story (McKinsey Quarterly July 2018), which presents the authors’ experience and suggestions from judging over 1,000 nominations for an innovation award at the London Business School (26 of the 1,000+ actually earned a prize).
They condense their experience into three lessons to ponder in forming your story:
Use fresh language and don’t mimic: Be distinctive. The authors cite the example of ditching “fast follower” to describe a contestant’s strategy and substituting “Best beats first.” The first is denatured, abstract, and fundamentally unlikable: “We won by imitating.” The second implies outfoxing the first-to-market, seeing something they missed, making a customer connection they were too obtuse to see.
Similarly, if your firm needs to cannibalize an old business to invest in a new one, don’t say “cannibalize.”
Master reinventors bear in mind that people want to hear about the emergence of the butterfly rather than the demise of the caterpillar. Acknowledge your declining products and the external changes causing you to reevaluate, by all means, but don’t linger on the internal struggles you have gone through to kill them. Instead, focus on the forward-looking reinvention story with its new array of potential successes.
Seize on serendipity. Serendipity is the antithesis of luck. To be sure, it starts with seeing something unusual, which you can assume is itself accidental, but its essential ingredient is having the perspective to connect it to real-world problems and imagine how you could reconfigure or capitalize on it to address clients’ issues in a new way. It requires a prerequisite from you: That you have immersed yourself in thinking about what kinds of problems clients bring to your firm, how you and other firms address them, and what clients are really trying to achieve. “Because we’ve always done it this way” has zero weight when you’re extrapolating from serendipity.
Finally, read the winds of change. What are the macro trends affecting your clients? Globalization or its reversal? Increasing bank regulatory scrutiny and the rise of non-bank banks? The digitization of everything? Millennials’ anytime/anywhere work proclivities?
Don’t underestimate the power of positioning yourself in front of trends that are converging.
Just don’t say you were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. That’s not a story-line anyone wants to subscribe to.
It is beyond question that humans develop narratives, also that narratives can have powerful effects on thinking and behavior. The issue is how to make productive use out of a narrative, and how to detect when a narrative is being used to direct our thinking and behavior in ways that we haven’t recognized. I would imagine that everyone reading ASE is familiar with Taleb’s The Black Swan and with Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow, and so with the issues around the “narrative fallacy.” Especially when we assemble sequential information, we are prone (it may be hard-wired) to assume that there are patterns that develop as a consequence of causation, and we start to weave the information into a narrative that will make sense of what has happened. Sometimes we do this in an exploratory mode, but sometimes there are personal or professional reasons for preferring one alternative to others, and then we find ourselves in the realm of confirmation bias and the recasting of the patterns. When we operate in the mode (whatever our field might be) that for science Thomas Kuhn called “ordinary science,” we do not expect to see new information, and our narrative hiccups mildly as we “explain” the anomaly, while preserving the narrative.
This is not a reason to eschew narratives – if that even were possible – but, rather, to cause us to take care that we do not jump too fast to a narrative, and that we learn what it would mean to apply quality assurance to the narratives we work with and develop in our fields. In matters where risk (that is both an adverse consequence and the probability of that consequence) is high, that QA function may rise to the level of need for a “Vice President in Charge of Revolution,” pretty much in the manner Murray Danforth Lincoln developed the idea and implemented it long ago.