Developing a narrative for your organization requires a deep understanding of your surroundings. It requires you to be a student of culture and systems. Not just as they currently are, but also as they have played out historically.
By wrestling with the past and present perspectives, you can better understand the deep structures that influence the systems you are working within. This gives you a better idea of what is broken, why, and how to imaginatively and appropriately respond to the problems you are solving.
You’ve gotta know where you’ve been, so you can know where you are, so you can know where you are going.
We can start understanding our surroundings by asking three core questions:
- Where have we been?
- Where are we now?
- Where are we going?
These three core questions use a collective “we” to demonstrate that the nature of the questions and their answers are bigger than you or your perspective, the work of your organization, or any single individual.
1. Where Have We Been?
As a leader in your organization or author of a narrative, you have an incredible responsibility to understand your industry’s history. And not just the history of your singular focus, but all of the surrounding circumstances that make the problem’s your organization is working to solve even harder to tackle.
Understanding where you are positioned at this moment in time related to a longer historical timeline gives you the needed context to script your narrative. And makes you smarter as you better understand the types of reforms needed to bring about transformation.
- Historically, what happened to cause the problem my organization is solving?
- What orbiting circumstances directly or indirectly make the problem more difficult to solve?
2. Where Are We Now?
Only when we understand our current situation in the context of history can we appropriately respond to the needs around us. We need to explore the current thinking, trends, and narratives that surround our work.
For example, if you are working in areas of poverty within the United States, what is the cultural narrative around poverty? How does that narrative shape your audience’s view of poverty?
With that understanding, you can evaluate the ramifications — both good and bad — of the existing and dominant narrative. Then you can use your organization to either reinforce that cultural narrative or to form your own counter-narrative.
- What narrative drives your particular industry or defines the problem you are solving?
- What themes and trends are you seeing in the culture that influences your work?
3. Where Are We Going?
Author and design strategist Dan Hill makes the point that you cannot “design culture, but it should be possible to shape the conditions in which society and culture unfold.” Said another way, if you are thoughtful about the undercurrents of culture (the history, the current setting, the systems and processes that make up the culture), you should be able to design a better future.
Only when you understand the history and the current context can you properly plot a path forward. When you ask, “Where are we going?” you are not only predicting where culture will go but also where you want it to go. You are plotting a path forward that works to influence culture by bending it in a particular direction.
- What should my industry look like?
- What attitudes and behaviors should there be surrounding my work?
There’s no doubt that these are big questions that will have nuanced or incomplete responses. Even if you aren’t totally resolved in your response, understanding how these perspectives fit together and inform one another is important for a stronger organization, smarter solutions, better partnerships, and a more complete and compelling narrative.
This is an excerpt from the book CULTURE BENDING NARRATIVES: Moving Beyond Story to Create Meaningful Brands.
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