If You Don't Like Your Future, Rewrite Your Past

If you don't like how things are going, tell a different story.

Sometimes strategic change just means taking something from the periphery — an anomaly, a demonstration, a small innovation — and redefining it as central. Put the past in perspective, not as a set of constraints or excuses, but as a springboard to new actions. Motivate change by creating a new narrative showing how success will be achieved and why the elements are in place to get there.

Leaders who create the future can start by rewriting history. Consider the following examples, which illustrate what I call "kaleidoscope thinking," a mental process of shaking up the pieces and reassembling them to form a new pattern, the way a kaleidoscope creates endless patterns. This metaphor suggests that reality is not necessarily fixed. The stories we tell ourselves — our cultural assumptions — are the limiting factor. For instance:

  • IBM rewrote the narrative a few decades ago by shifting the focus from its products to the solutions its products made possible. This different story about the computer industry softened resistance to cutting back on hardware (and eventually selling the PC business) and provided the underpinnings for a shift to services, data analytics, and the smarter planet brand campaign. IBM's revised narrative (which I heard personally as a consultant) focused attention of millions of employees, suppliers, and customers, and helped the company flourish as the only survivor among major U.S. hardware manufacturers by opening up a new set of opportunities.

  • Milwaukee civic leaders are changing the city's story from manufacturing decline to growth as a global water hub. A new narrative connected and publicized previously isolated pieces: In the mid 2000s, private sector leaders redefined pipe and valve manufacturers as in the water industry, not plumbing supply. This reshaped Milwaukeeans views of their own history and became the foundation for a Water Council. The Council put Milwaukee on the global stage (as one of three UN Global Compact water hubs), helped build America's first Graduate School of Freshwater Sciences, and supported urban agriculture and aquaculture. Now entrepreneurs use the latest technologies for energy and water conservation and produce local fish and vegetables in abandoned factories.

  • Individuals can also change the public narrative. A journalist in Brazil told a new story about cultural potential to residents of a dilapidated urban neighborhood. Within a few years, murals painted on alley walls were one visible manifestation of a renaissance that made this a desirable rising area of Sao Paulo.

    My former student, Kathy Korman Frey, is revising the narrative about mothers as entrepreneurs through her Hot Mommas Project, which also helps women tell their stories to benefit others. As all mothers, hot and otherwise, know, stories shape the culture. For instance, what if folk tales were tweaked to emphasize different values? I'd like to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves rewritten to make the question "mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" to make "fair" mean social justice in addition to beauty.

Narratives should be rewritten when they inhibit rather than inspire. Individuals and institutions can get bogged down by narratives that suggest inevitability — "it has always been this way, it was meant to be this way, and it couldn't possibly change." Troubled people mired in despair often tell themselves stories that suggest everything is stacked against them, and so they just give up.

Even in companies doing well, narratives prevent change if the stories are ones of destiny, and eventually entitlement — a sure sign of over-confidence that breeds complacency and blinds people to disruptive forces lurking at their doorstep. Mainstream media, especially television broadcasters, have been notoriously slow to adapt to the digital era, in part because of narratives that place them in a starring role in terms of knowing how to reach mass audiences. The new CEO of a media company is telling a story of how complacency breeds decline and that the company's entrepreneurial roots can be tapped to produce new business models.

Narratives are powerful leadership tools. People remember stories more readily than they remember numbers, and stories motivate action. Recent research showed that levels of charitable donations rise when donors are given statistical evidence of a problem, such as children living in poverty, but levels of giving rise even higher when donors read a story about one poor child.

But leaders should tread carefully. Stories should be evidence-based, meeting a plausibility test. They should be principle-based, with enduring truths embedded in them that won't shift on a whim. They should permit action that is open-ended, creating not-yet-imagined possibilities. After all, the stories of business life, and life, are ongoing. That's why we should learn to revise the unproductive ones.

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