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What's Your Story?: How Narratives
Drive Outcomes

By Joe Caruso

© 2012 Nightingale-Conant Corporation

What Drives Success?

Individually and organizationally, we are the stories we tell ourselves we are. This, more than anything else, drives individual and organizational success. While ideas, innovation, and execution are important in business, they can only be as powerful and positive as the narrative that drives the thinking of the collective consciousness of a company’s workforce.

Here’s how this works.

A Culture unto Itself

Every individual and organization is a kind of culture unto itself. All cultures are driven by the myths they believe. These myths are stories, or narratives, that they tell themselves about themselves — whether they are consciously aware of it or not. The power of a myth in driving thoughts and behaviors is not dependent on whether the story is true. Myths don’t have to be true to be powerful drivers of understanding and behavior.

The narrative or story we use to define ourselves drives:

  • what is (or is not) considered
  • how it will be considered
  • what will be decided
  • what behaviors will subsequently take place

All information is perceived and considered in the context of the narrative. That makes narrative an incredibly powerful element of human thought and behavior. For this reason, leaders who want to create real change need to understand how narratives work. Leaders also need to know what is necessary to help people change their narrative.

Narrative is such a fundamental part of how we understand the world and ourselves because it is how the human mind processes information. When faced with factual information that is counter to our existing notions or beliefs, we have a natural tendency to want to deny, ignore, or disregard the facts and cling to our existing opinions. A series of studies conducted by The University of Michigan in 2005 and 2006 conclusively determined that when people are exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely change their minds. The study goes on to report that, in many cases, when people are shown statistical evidence contrary to their own opinions, they are likely to show an even deeper sense of conviction to what they already believe, in spite of the evidence.

Social psychologist Jonathon Haidt, who conducted extensive studies for his most recent book The Righteous Mind, says, “We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses, and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided.”

Countless studies verify that the mind prefers to justify what it believes, rather than reason itself to a new idea. The fact is, more often than not, we behave to what we believe to be true as opposed to what is actually (factually) true. We make decisions based on our beliefs. We take action based on our beliefs. We selectively accept facts as true if they fit our beliefs. The rest we manage to ignore or rationalize away. Ignoring facts or rationalizing them away creates what I call blind spots and denial. It’s like the line in an old Elvis Costello song, “You never see the lies you believe.”

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Business organizations have a collective mind with a collective, shared narrative. More often than not, organizations don’t see how some of their stories are preventing them from thinking smarter and creating better outcomes. Whether acknowledged or invisible, our narratives serve as powerful collective constraints and governors for ideas, considerations, and even communications.


Almost all of our outcomes are the result of our narratives. For this reason, leaders need to understand how narrative works in the collective mind of their organization in order for them to be able to lead people to creating different outcomes. If the leader(s) of an organization want(s) to change outcomes, he/she/they has/have to begin by figuring out which narratives are getting in the way, and which narratives would help produce better outcomes. Good leaders know that the right narrative is critical to fostering the kind of organizational development that will positively impact the bottom line.

The ‘Narrative to Outcome’ Sequence

Our Narrative drives what we consider and how we will consider it. Our Consideration drives what we will think about and how we will think about it. Our Thinking will drive our Decisions. Our Decisions will drive our Behavior. Our Behavior drives our Outcomes.

This is an unalterable, undeniable sequence of events because it’s the way the mind works. It is also the way the collective mind works. In my book The Power of Losing Control, I dedicate an entire chapter to the power of personal myth and how it affects the way we define ourselves and our circumstances. One statement from that chapter is, “Everyone needs a cage in which to feel free.” The cage is a metaphor for our contextual understanding of ourselves. In the collective mind of an organization, the cage of its narrative creates the barriers and governors that guide and inform how its people think, and what they think about.

Typical Organizational Response to Less Than Stellar Outcomes

When organizations aren’t happy with their outcomes, they will often focus on their processes or behaviors in order to determine what they might need to do differently to create better outcomes. They may have a pow-wow of some kind to brainstorm ideas. They may have a retreat. They may hire a niche consultant who specializes in their industry or in the particular kinds of problems they’ve identified. They may even decide they need to reorganize.

In each and every one of these scenarios, the organization is trying to solve its problems by focusing on the back-end of a sequence of chain reactions, rather than on where the problem actually originates. Unless the consultants they hire happen to understand the role of narrative in organization development, the leaders and consultants will be trying to change people’s behaviors without addressing what drove the thinking that created those behaviors. And we know that the mind doesn’t like to change what it thinks. In short, you can’t solve problems and create new outcomes with the same narrative that contributed to the problems in the first place. This is why many people will tell you that most retreats fail to create the intended change in behavior and outcome.

Narrative > Consideration > Thinking > Decisions > Behavior > Outcomes

Organizations tend to treat symptoms along this sequence, rather than addressing the source, or Narrative. Narrative is what actually determines outcome.

So how are narratives created? The mind can’t consider an idea in a vacuum. Meaning only occurs when there is a connection. The mind needs to attach a new idea or thought to something it is familiar with in order to create meaning. This attachment then creates other attachments and very quickly forms a narrative — a story that makes sense of the original idea and how it relates to other known thoughts, notions, or ideas. While we are fully capable of doing things that don’t make sense to others, we must have our own reasons for why we think and behave in certain ways. (Even if the reasons are made up and don’t stand up to reasonable examination.) Remember, narratives — like myths — don’t have to be true to be believed and drive thought and behaviors.

The first thing I do when a company calls me to help them with a goal or a problem is to uncover the thematic narratives of the organization. Every single time, it has proven to be essential to helping solve the core problem. Twenty-five years and hundreds and hundreds of companies later, it still is — every single time.

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Case Studies

From ‘Mom and Pop’ to National Supplier

One of my long-time clients initially came to me as they struggled to compete with their local specialty retail competitor. After I worked extensively with the owners, they began to understand that undercutting the competition with lower prices could never be a winning strategy. Yet, they were convinced it was the only way they could win customers. Once I was able to help them stop seeing themselves only in the context of their competition, they were able to clearly examine their strengths and opportunities in another context.

It became clear to them that their resources and reputation would allow them to focus on selling quality over price, and that this strategy could lead to expanding their business beyond their hometown. This shift in narrative allowed them to create dramatically different strategies. The new narrative no longer limited how they thought of themselves and their market. It drove their thinking and focused their efforts on new goals. Instead of placing the competition at the core of their narrative, the competition soon became irrelevant to their thoughts. Within one year, they not only dominated their local market, they began to expand to other cities. Today — 15 years later — they are one of the biggest suppliers in their industry, with more retail stores of their kind than anyone else in the country.

The Times of Our Lives — A Narrative at Odds with Itself

Let’s consider what became of a household name in photography — Kodak. Founded in 1889, the company soon dominated the photo development market. It even invented the digital camera. Today it is a company struggling to stay in business. What happened? While many forensic business analysts examine the corporate corpse looking for clues, I contend that this is a company that couldn’t get past its legacy thinking. In other words, it couldn’t adapt its narrative about itself to the current times, and because of this, nothing else the company tried could prevent its demise. Stated simply, Kodak couldn’t optimize its invention of the digital camera if it meant that doing so would lessen the importance of film development — a foundational and fundamental part of its sense of identity.

It’s not as if the company lacked the resources to change. As late as 1976, Kodak had 90 percent of the film business and 85 percent of all camera sales in the US. It’s not as if it wasn’t trying to change. The company has had four different CEOs in the last 19 years. On Thursday, January 19, the same day that Apple announced that it would change the textbook industry forever, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. If it can’t successfully emerge, the company that helped America make memories will soon become one. (The irony here is that Apple is a company that was able to successfully change its narrative from We will beat Microsoft, to We create technology so disruptive that it redefines entire industries.)

The fundamental reason why all the changes Kodak tried to make failed to save it comes down to one thing — a narrative that didn’t serve the company. The fundamental way people there saw themselves became fatally flawed once they invented the digital camera. True to their narrative as inventors, they once again led the field in photographic invention with the breakthrough digital camera. However, the other critical part of Kodak’s narrative centered on the importance of film. The nearly monopolistic masters of film processing couldn’t process how to embrace the new while they still clung to the old — an impossibility for any individual or organization. In the meantime, the marketplace spoke. The marketplace does not wait for companies to change.

Practice Creating and Maintaining an Edifying Narrative

We are the stories we tell ourselves we are. Sometimes our stories serve us. Sometimes they hurt us. Sometimes they help us. Sometimes they get in our way. Great leaders need to understand the narrative of their organization and make sure it’s always edifying, because their markets will continue to shift and change at an increasingly rapid pace. If we learn a lesson from Kodak, we understand that once the marketplace focuses in on what it wants, it doesn’t like to have to wait around to see how everything develops. Just look at the millions of avid digital photographers out there.

The role of narrative in our personal lives and in business and professional development is undeniable. The more you can uncover your personal narrative and figure out how it might be holding you back, the sooner you can start to shift your thinking and create the outcomes you seek. And for you leaders — the sooner you can uncover and understand the narrative of your organization, the sooner you can shed light on the areas of denial and the blind spots that are preventing your organization from optimizing its opportunities.

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