We need opportunity-driven narratives


We need opportunity-driven narratives

What leaders can learn from Hollywood hero’s creators

Leaders have long been inspired by stories in which the heroes are wise and evil empires are defeated. But in an age of fragmented stakeholders and diminishing trust in institutions, is it time for the hero’s journey to be rewritten?

By Daniel Sunde-Hansen, Center for the Edge, Norway

The most productive organizations once built cultures that created and rewarded a centralized system of values and logic. Goals were rational and measurable. Behavior was consistent. Expectations were clear. We all believed the same stories, and the lessons they contained.

But what happens when cultures are torn by competing versions of the truth and audiences fragment? Sometimes, the traditional analytical and data-driven mindset can be more of a hindrance than a help.

Today, top executives find it ever more challenging to communicate with increasingly fragmented stakeholders. It's an issue that frequently arises in our Center for the Edge conversations. How can we agree on the future when we can't agree on the facts? One result is that a wide range of studies show that trust in institutions is declining worldwide.¹ This presents huge challenges for an analytical mind that is suddenly drowning in a sea of chaos.

The Chief of Confusion

One man who's been thinking about that problem a lot is John Seely Brown, a scientist with a wry sense of humor — he goes by the title Chief of Confusion. Brown was drawn to the order and precision of science and math from an early age. But while an undergrad at Brown University, he had a revelation.

He was watching his professor try to solve a complicated mathematical problem. The professor’s work was far from the orderly, logical process he expected from an accomplished mathematician. The professor tried various approaches, going back and forth in a seemingly random and sometimes messy manner. In contrast to the pure form of mathematical structure he had been taught, Brown witnessed something chaotic — yet incredibly imaginative. Chaos led to understanding. It was a life-changing insight for Brown.

This shifted his curiosity towards studying both how people learn and how they come up with fresh and useful ideas. Brown became the chief scientist at Xerox and director of its legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), conducting groundbreaking research in the fields of radical innovation, organizational learning, and complex adaptive systems.

The call to Skywalker Ranch

One day the legendary film director George Lucas called Brown and invited him to Skywalker Ranch, the sprawling farm-like complex north of San Francisco where Lucas based his cinematic empire.²

Lucas wanted to discuss the crisis in public education. Tech-driven change had transformed much of the world, but many schools hadn’t kept up. They remained fundamentally the same as they were during the Cold War, 50 years earlier. Some schools had made some incremental advances in the use of technology, but their potential to use tech to transform the learning process was largely untapped.

Unlike Brown, who loved education, Lucas never liked school. Growing up in the dusty California farm town of Modesto, Lucas was a daydreamer who enjoyed making up stories. He liked English and art, but in the science and math class his mind wandered. He was fascinated with auto racing, comic books and watching television— not exactly what teachers deemed to be the ingredients for success.

But here was Lucas, sitting across from Brown many years later, trying to improve a sclerotic educational system that once labeled him a misfit. What Lucas wanted to do was hugely ambitious: transform the school system by inspiring students with innovative project-based learning and the tech tools to enable that.

They discussed that vision for hours, drawing on Brown’s research into deep aspects of cognitive theory. When Lucas explained that people needed to become more aware of this research, Brown responded with disbelief. “George,” he exclaimed there's no way anybody is going to want to hear about this stuff! It’s way too complex and esoteric.” George paused and smiled. “Perhaps you don't know,” he told Brown, “but most people consider me a pretty good storyteller.”

The mentor of myths

Lucas’ understanding of the complex art of storytelling was inspired by Joseph Campbell's seminal book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. First published in 1949, Campbell’s work examined the shared archetypal structure that makes up many of the world’s great myths, which he called the monomyth.

Campbell noted that many great tales and parables share a common theme: the transformation of consciousness that occurs within ‘a hero’s journey.” These steps include challenge, departure, adventure, and return. Each stage comprises various sub-stages, 17 in total. Its narrative structure of the hero’s journey formed the basis for Star Wars.

Campbell’s work was a revelation for many professional communicators like Nancy Duarte, who mastered the art of public presentation, including the most effective sequencing and content of slides and messages. Like Lucas, Duarte was convinced that vibrant storytelling held the key to getting a big message across. That led her to Campbell's writings and from that point on she deployed ‘The hero's journey’ to help her clients shape their presentations. One of these clients was Al Gore, the former U.S. vice-president who came to her with a pile of dry facts and figures, and an alarming message about the worsening climate crisis.³

Duarte helped Gore develop one of the most impactful presentations ever created. It is undoubtedly the only slideshow to result in an Academy Award-winning movie (‘An Inconvenient Truth’) as well as contributing to Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize the following year.⁴

Duarte’s company also worked with the TED organization to invigorate the visual portion of its 18-minute presentation format, which was the basis for an uncountable number of effective (and sometimes dull) presentations. Through the sizzle of visual storytelling, many TED presenters became successful communicators, incorporating the timeless elements of fear, awe, and hope, with the blending of data to give their message weight.

Duarte and Lucas understand that storytelling is most effective when triggering emotion. Data give our messages heft, but well-told stories change what happens inside our minds — literally. When we are captivated by a great story, for example, we produce hormones like oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine.

This marriage of delivery and data is a powerful combination. Graphs and numbers are always impactful. For example, studies show that articles that contain numbers and mathematical symbols are perceived as more substantial and fact-based.⁵

This seems to be common knowledge for anyone involved in online marketing or publishing since so many articles use (and sometimes abuse) numbers. ‘5 reasons why managers… ‘, ‘The 7 rules to follow’ and so on. Odd numbers are more believable. We can be manipulated by content that takes the form of science.

The chemical power of stories

But the internal chemicals that great stories generate are equally powerful. Many stories are particularly adept at triggering adrenaline - the ‘fear hormone’. People are hardwired to pay more attention to information that triggers fear, and many leaders aim to create a strong sense of urgency. The ‘burning platform’ has become the only way to get their message across. But this has also created a numbing effect in the constant jostling for our attention.

Social media, in particular, has made these ‘fear stories’ ever more polarized. The mechanisms of luring users into reading the news create a vicious circle of stories becoming increasingly one-way, either-or, and anti-other, escalating fear and tension. While fear is immediately captivating, it is ultimately polarizing.

Storytelling is bigger than that. It is a powerful way of communicating knowledge. It can help us to reflect on and even solve the fundamental dilemmas in life.

Some executives may be dismissive of this. They conflate storytelling with fiction. Many top executives actively dislike science fiction. A common argument is that they prefer facts, historical descriptions and things that are real.

Yet a myth or a tale or a story is not solely about the exotic world it describes - whether that's a fantasy kingdom or outer space. Myths are allegories about people, the challenges we face and the choices we make. These messages could be described in plain, straightforward language but would that have the same impact? Myths and parables are an effective way of describing the human experience in relevant ways.

The reason why some stories have endured for so long may well be their ability to help us make sense of what would otherwise be perceived as random and confused. The moral of the story becomes a tool that helps our minds to create order from chaos.

The power of Star Wars

On the surface, Star Wars is a typical sci-fi story, an action-packed tale about the battle between good and evil. Yet it is also a timeless myth about the balance of chaos and order, where good and evil are not preset and absolute but nuanced and blurred, with characters gradually shifting from one to the other. Such sci-fi stories are typically set in exotic landscapes because they allow our imagination to roam more freely. In the past, these backdrops were formed by the unexplored regions of the world, where no one had ever ventured before, and where dragons and strange creatures roamed freely.

When the young Lucas started to think about the ‘new unknown’ in an age when the entire face of the planet had been discovered, explored and mapped out, the answer was clear. Space.⁶

The Star Wars saga adheres to Campbell’s “hero’s journey” structure. It begins with a young boy, Anakin. After suffering the tragic loss of his mother, he becomes obsessed with the idea of gaining control. Anakin believes that gaining power will prevent the loss of anyone else dear to him. This fear of loss drives him to commit terrible acts and ultimately become Darth Vader. More of a machine than a man, filled with anger rather than hope, Darth Vader is the physical representation of Anakin’s inner transformation.

In Star Wars, the Evil Empire does not perceive itself as evil, but as a guardian responsible for protecting order from chaos. Those who resist must be eliminated. By enforcing this order upon the universe, however, the empire merely provokes more resistance. Sound familiar? For large organizations, complexity has historically been classified as a risk. In an increasingly complex world, easy solutions and structures that promise order and clarity are seductive.

The Cartesian mindset still influences how we value knowledge. We cherish theories that are clear and easy. But to create beautiful mathematical models, we have to leave out what Brown calls ‘extra knowledge’. Unfortunately, this process of shedding context confines general solutions to the world of abstract ideas rather than real life.

We see stories as anecdotes — entertaining but of little value compared with hard science. It is as if we believe that the more abstract the knowledge, the more powerful it must be.

And so, when leaders act as if people in their organizations will behave in an entirely expected manner, problems arise. When they try to enforce order on a complex system, chaos emerges.

While most organizations seek order and aim to eradicate chaos, there is an exciting space between order and chaos: it’s called complex systems. Unlike chaotic systems, there is order – but this order is unstable and unpredictable. It fosters a dynamic from which radical innovations can emerge.

A tool for insight and innovation

Brown co-founded the Center for the Edge with John Hagel, researching how large companies and institutions should approach innovation. Time and time again, they found that leaders were applying the same hammer to every problem. As the world become increasingly interconnected, this reductionism no longer works. We need to develop a capacity to understand the links between multiple different systems and stories, including cultures.

While nearly every large company follows a digital transformation program, what you find when you look under the hood can be discouraging. The application of technology all too often suffers from a lack of imagination, usually chained to the goal of optimizing efficiency. Attempts to camouflage dated strategies with stories that create excitement may work in the short run, but it is not sustainable.

Instead, leaders of large organizations need to become situational. Setting the right context—and understanding that this context will constantly change—is essential. Real insight and true innovation often arise when diverse participants try out new ideas together, creating stories as they go along.

The Center for the Edge approach to opportunity-driven narratives⁷ is not about telling stories per se, but rather taking action once the story has created the right emotion to address the problem.

New stories for a new age

Leaders have moved on from using data and facts to win agreement and support. Today it’s all about emotions and storytelling, albeit in a very limited way. After all, these are simply the means to the same end: getting the same old messages across.

Too many companies seem to be investing a great deal of energy and resources weaving storytelling into their existing strategies. But the best way to meet the pressures of a constantly shifting market is not simply to find new ways of justifying old behaviors. Instead, it is to tap into people's emotional needs and explore new and better ways of meeting those needs. Instead of labeling incremental initiatives as transformation, the real opportunity for these companies lies in rethinking their entire strategies.

The reason why CEOs are not achieving the desired results is not down to the excess use of facts or a failure to deploy storytelling. In fact, the problem faced by most large organizations is not the way they communicate at all. It’s the lack of innovation. The adventure is not missing from the stories they tell, but from the actions they take.

Perhaps a part of the solution could be found in education, learning the art of storytelling from an early age. Not as a separate subject taught in separate classes but integrated into the broader curriculum.

One of the possibilities that Lucas and Brown discussed at Skywalker Ranch was that of schools teaching communication, putting storytelling at the heart while playing around with technology. As they see it, the creative force awakens in the fusion of technology and people.

Freeing up this untapped potential in schools is dependent on connecting with our deep, human needs. It starts with synthesizing information in contexts that help people understand, then translating these contexts into compelling stories. And it requires engaged teachers to listen, coach, and mentor their students throughout.

A new hope

In many ways, Star Wars has become a great modern myth. For many parents, it provides a framework for discussing serious topics such as good, evil, fear, and hope. Duarte uses Star Wars to bring that insight to life. The audience is Luke, the hero. The presenter is Yoda, the mentor.

Relinquishing control is difficult, especially for leaders. We have all been shaped by stories in which the heroes are leaders. While much has changed on the surface, our expectations are still based on the same assumption, with leaders as the powerful heroes who bring us the answers.

Is it time the hero’s journey came to an end and flip the script of Star Wars? Perhaps in the future we won’t see a hero victoriously emerge with the answer to everything.

When we are afraid, we cling to what we have. We resist change and seek comfort in the familiar. While it is natural to be wary of unknown obstacles, it is uncommon for leaders to show their fear. More leaders should share their fears – and also their willingness to explore new ground. This could inspire others.

In a world that often feels chaotic, the solution may not be to impose a new order - nor resurrect the old one. What if there's a new balance? If organizations can overcome the temptation of leading through fear, they can shape new narratives of hope.

Beyond mastering the worlds of data and stories, we need to gain a new understanding of their meaning and their interplay. We need to inspire hope from imaginative actions that create new narratives. In other words, we need both order and … a little bit of chaos.

This requires leaders who dare to acknowledge the complexity of their organizations and their environments and explore new ways to lead. It means letting go of the ambition to control, which often has quite the opposite effect. Detailed frameworks with tightly specified processes do not offer the best way to drive innovation and transformation within a complex system. Our world is changing rapidly and problems are increasingly entangled. Trust is now the key competitive advantage.

In any organization, front-line workers are closest to the real-world context of the problems their company is trying to solve. Right now we need leaders who trust their employees with the freedom to explore new ways to meet customer needs. But to accomplish this mission, they also need new metrics that release them from the never-ending demands of day-to-day tasks. To create unexpected connections and imagine new solutions, people need space.

Although this narrative is open-ended, it's also ongoing. It's not taking place in a galaxy far, far away but in the world of today. We don't know how the journey will unfold, but we're excited about shaping and sharing it.

Let’s connect

What will your narrative be? Where will your journey lead? And who will join your quest?

We would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions on this subject, and invite you to connect with Daniel Sunde-Hansen on LinkedIn or e-mail.

1. Edelman. 2022. Edelman Trust Barometer. https://www.edelman.com/trust/2022-trust-barometer.

2. Brown, John Seely, Stephen Denning, Katalina Groh, and Laurence Prusak. Storytelling in organizations: Why storytelling is transforming 21st century organizations and management. Routledge, 2005.

3. Duarte, Nancy. 2013. Resonate: Present visual stories that transform audiences. John Wiley & Sons.

4. History.com, Editors. "Al Gore wins Nobel Prize in the wake of "An Inconvenient Truth"." A&E Television Networks. Last Modified October 9, 2020. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/al-gore-wins-nobel-prize-in-the-wake-of-an-inconvenient-truth.

5. Eriksson, K. (2012). The nonsense math effect. Judgment and decision making, 7(6), 746.

6. Edutopia. 2005. "George Lucas on Teaching Visual Literacy and Communications. Interview by James Daly.". Accessed 03.21.2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwDXlA_6usI&ab_channel=Edutopia.

7. Deloitte. 2021. "The Journey Beyond Fear: Are we leading companies driven by fear?". Deloitte Center for the Edge. https://www2.deloitte.com/nl/nl/pages/innovatie/artikelen/the-journey-beyond-fear-are-we-leading-companies-driven-by-fear.html.

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