The narrative necessity

We are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …
However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives.  

One thread of commentary about the recently concluded G20 Summit Meeting has been a loss of coherent narrative flowing from the leaders at the event.  There is a deep seated need in humans for explanatory narratives, and ‘sense-making’ in terms of crafting and articulating such narratives is a critical role for leadership.  We seem to need a narrative flow to give a sense of momentum and coherence to our lives, as we transition from moment to moment; without that sense of temporal structure we just have a collection of moments.

In data-driven world of today, discerning and creating narratives to make sense of the myriad data points is more essential than ever.  We are surrounded by more and more dots and the effort of joining them can be exhausting and at times overwhelming. While ‘being in the moment’ is great counsel and a source of comfort in the face of life’s pressures, the narrative ‘engine’ is the key to joining the dots, establishing direction and getting stuff done.

But here’s the thing – people just want a narrative that helps make sense, preferably one that helps simplify and streamline their world.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be true, but it needs to be believable and consistent with the facts on the ground as we perceive them.  And in a circular twist, our preferred narrative then guides our perception and selection of ‘facts’.

This is the stuff of cognitive biases, about which we are becoming more and more aware of through studies such as behavioural economics. A recent blog in the Economist reported an interesting reflection on the persistent of beliefs in the face of contrary facts, especially noting  “motivated reasoning, [which] is a cognitive bias to which better-educated people are especially prone.”


Being smart is no get of jail free card!

If we are not careful, we can simply (or very cleverly) project what we want to see onto the essentially blank world of noisy and jumbled data.  This human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data has been termed ‘apophenia’.  In the world of data, for example, this manifests itself in ‘overfitting’, where a statistical model emerges to fit noise rather than signal and/or ‘confirmation bias’, where information is sought or interpreted in ways that seek to prove ideas rather than test them.

That’s the down side and I think we are currently seeing the dark side of the narrative necessity being played out in politics and social media – never mind the experts, just give me the real story with facts I can conveniently believe in …





However, there is an abiding, important and useful role for positive narratives in our lives.  This was beautifully enunciated by Viktor Frankel in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946. An Austrian psychiatrist before (and after) WW2, he drew on his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate to document how, in even the most extreme circumstances, the human urge to seek and create meaning is crucial.

He shows that we have amazing powers of endurance, so long as it somehow makes sense to us to go on living: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”.  On this broad basis he worked out what he called ‘logotherapy’, a technique oriented to enable men and women to see meaning in their suffering, aiming to set them free from despair and find new courage to face circumstances which seem beyond them.

20170709_084329Frankel suggests “that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.”  That tension is narrative tension as we work on the story arc of our lives, and Frankel observed in the extreme circumstances of his heinous captivity that “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future [lost that narrative tension] was doomed.”

Beyond the personal, sensible evidence-backed policy is more important than ever and policy makers need to acknowledge and resist various cognitive bases in their decision making. Those in leadership positions have a necessity and obligation to help people to develop and sustain unifying and sustaining stories about what they are doing and why.

Authentic narrative is essential to meaningful existence.  I attended the NSW U3A Network 2017 annual conference a couple of weeks ago, and one of the sessions was about Big History – unsurprisingly, space here does not permit a full exposition of the history of the entire universe.  However the speaker, Prof David Christian of Macquarie Uni, did a fine job which is replicated in his TED talk on the subject: “The history of our world in 18 minutes” – can I strongly suggest taking a look?

Suffice it to say that his narrative arc from the big bang to the present ‘anthropocene’ provides a very interesting story and perspective – if anyone has the ear of a G20 attendee they might send them the link!

What is risk worth: does assuming greater risk equal greater productivity?

This blog suggests that establishing transparency about who bears what risk must be an integral, non-financial part of evaluating and making policy, as exhausting and inconvenient as that may be!

Well, that was exhausting! Applying for Seniors thingies and squaring away MyGov and the ATO involved phone calls, secret questions, password and mobile number resets, multiple emails, text message codes … but all in a good cause, protecting the security of my information, managing the risk of hacking and data breaches.  What’s not to like, especially as we witness major cyber-attacks such as the WannaCry ransomware exploit and the more recent Petya attack?

Most people find the subject of risk management rather dry and boring (not to mention exhausting), but as my example shows, managing risk is something close to home, and we usually feel good if we are in control.

However, as my example also shows, this comes at a cost, in this case time and effort, and sometimes in money, like buying insurance.  One way of reducing those costs is to wear the risk: to assume a higher risk profile.

The point I have been pondering is whether this is a genuine productivity gain i.e. efficiency that gets more for less, or is it a re-arrangement of the deckchairs which loads the costs forward into the impact if the risk event occurs?  I also wonder about the translation of this question into public policy where governments essentially assume risk on behalf of citizens.

To unpack that thinking a little.

The thread I am pulling has a slightly obscure origin – it is called Baumol’s cost disease (or the Baumol effect), described by economists Williams Baumol and Bowen in the 1960s.  William Baumol died very recently aged 95 and still working …

The basic idea is that services like health care, education and government public administration activities are heavily labor-intensive where there is little growth in productivity over time because productivity gains come essentially from a better capital technology.

To quote Wikipedia, “… the same number of musicians is needed to play a Beethoven string quartet today as was needed in the 19th century; the productivity of classical music performance has not increased. On the other hand, the real wages of musicians (like in all other professions) have increased greatly since the 19th century.”

The bottom line is you either get less symphony, or much more expensive symphony. This seems to be holding true even as computers and information technology have marched in to these sectors.  A current conceit is that digital transformation and even artificial intelligence (AI) will deliver the longed-for productivity increase. I think the jury is probably still out on that one.

But to come back on point, notwithstanding the obscure observations of Messrs Baumol & Bowen, governments have diligently assumed a productivity dividend in their public services, either implicitly or explicitly and demanding that agencies deliver the same (or more service) with less resources.

From a taxpayer perspective what’s not to like: less wasteful public servants, lower taxes even perhaps? However, I suspect what we frequently get is actually less public service rather than more efficient public service.  Sometimes that is OK, particularly depending on how much government you are inclined to think is a good thing.  Deregulation can be a beautiful thing.

But what if some of that enthusiastic deregulation is not so much about reducing costs or producing efficiency and productivity, but rather about assuming a higher risk profile: shifting the deckchairs, crossing your fingers and praying there is no ice-berg ahead?

This was the stuff of the GFC back in 2008 – punters were assured the financial engineering had made dubious investment products safer. But instead the ‘reforms’ had stored risk in all sorts of imaginative places, from whence it emerged with a vengeance.  In another poignant example, while it is still relatively early days in the aftermath, it seems likely that with the London tower fire there is a regulatory, compliance or enforcement failure somewhere in there.  The ongoing program of tower inspections seems to indicate this is a systemic issue. Costs were saved, but these ‘benefits’ were generated not by efficiencies but rather by the imposition of now obviously unacceptable risks on people who were not only not able to control them, but who were simply unaware of them.

One of the great things about money (apart from the fact that it is very handy to let you get the stuff you want) is that it allows you to compare things that are otherwise incomparable – apples with pears, airports with motorways, pensions with superannuation.  Hence the term ‘bottom line’ – money lets you sum it all up and make a call – a blessing for policy decision-makers. But I suggest that risk is another common denominator which can and must be used to inform decisions, and critically, it cannot itself be reduced to money.  Indeed as the GFC demonstrated, there can be risks to money itself. Figuring out how to compare risk profiles and establishing transparency about who bears what risk must be an integral, non-financial part of evaluating and making policy, as exhausting and inconvenient as that may be!

A note on the featured image:

After arriving in Sydney I lived in a bed-sit in Surrey Hills, then a far socio-economic cry from the current hipster paradise. One day on a walk in the rain a poster caught my attention, torn in half by the partial collapsed of the wall on which it had been pasted.  The rain had saturated the paper and the diffuse light lent the scene a soft intensity, amounting to a compelling and slightly disturbing image.  Hot-footing it back to the bed-sit I  grabbed the Polaroid camera I was experimenting with at the time and persuaded a neighbor to come along and hold an umbrella over me while I captured the shots.  Many years later I painted the image as shown as an element in a larger multi-media piece.

The strategic power of your brand

This blog tells the Charles Six Dot Zero ‘brand story’, and suggests that an emotional ‘brand’ connection can be a key device to achieve strategic alignment, focus strategic energy and direct strategic attention within a group or organisation.

First a story: Once as a young man living in Christchurch (NZ) I was visiting my parents in Auckland.  I was unhappy, directionless and quite possibly depressed for a variety of reasons, including a wallowing Master’s thesis and my father’s poor health – he had recently lost a leg to smokers’ artery disease.  I headed out for a walk one bleak afternoon.

Drifting through the suburban landscape I wandered into a derelict house which lay wide-open close to the footpath.  A ruinous scene seemed to echo my juvenile angst – nothing of interest.  However, as I turned to leave, my attention was caught by a flash of white on a shelf high in the desolate kitchen.

It was the edge of a dirty old tile which, when pulled down and brushed off, revealed a wonderful ceramic depiction of a lotus flower.  It was as if the universe had reached out to offer exactly the reassurance that was sorely needed at that time.  My mood lifted, I walked back to a freshly purposeful engagement with my thesis and a more supportive attitude to my Dad.  And re-invention started to produce the person who would move to Australia in a year or two. I have treasured that tile for over 40 years and the design made an interesting study as I learnt to paint some 20 of those years ago.

Casting around for an image to populate the icon space on the WordPress template for my Charles Six Dot Zero blog, that painting was an immediate candidate. A little bit of graphic design magic and the focussed image featured for this post emerged.

For me it captures the deep emotional resonance of personal reinvention.  It reinforces the power of narrative in defining purpose and it encapsulates and expresses my key values – to be calm, centred, creative and connected.  In short it sums up the ‘brand’ charles6dot0, what I want to be and do in this sixth iteration, and provides an ideal visual representation for it.

In my previous blog What does ‘strategy’ mean today? I noted that achieving intellectual agreement with strategic intent is easier said than done, and that forging the necessary emotional engagement often neglected.

The whole point of developing and articulating a strategy is to create a common direction for a group of people – something that might be termed ‘strategic alignment’, and it is essential if the strategy is to be anything more than ‘shelf-ware’. Obviously this is easiest when constructing a strategy for a group of one!

But strategy itself will probably be insufficient to engage people in groups larger than one of two.  It will need to draw on a deeper narrative about why the group exists, what the group is seeking to achieve and what it values – what you might think of as the ‘reason for being’.

Too easy.  Surely it’s obvious to members why they are there, even for quite large organisations. The temptation is to solve this query quickly; but it can actually be very difficult, because it does pose fundamental questions.

Usually it is indeed obvious to any given individual why they are part of a group and what the group is trying to achieve. It’s just that, surprisingly often, different answers are equally obvious to others in the group. Put different obvious answers in the same room and ensuing conversations are not always easy, because the obvious is, well, obvious … and people are usually emotionally attached as well intellectually invested in their views.  Social science tells us discussion is as likely to drive them deeper into their position as to persuade them otherwise.

One useful, but sometimes neglected entry point to discover this deeper narrative is the group’s brand statement – for an established organization this might be clearly and explicitly detailed; for other groups, like community organisations, it may be undocumented and less explicit, more akin to folk-lore.

Brand is much bigger than the visual identity that is the usual public face of a brand. An important element and summation point for brand development is capturing the essence of the organisation into a single and unifying statement—a Single Organising Idea or SOI.

The SOI should describe what the group wants to stand for in people’s lives.  An SOI should in a single phrase or short sentence, distilled from the promise, beliefs, values and the core focus of the group, state the unique and distinct purpose of the group, and therefore the brand

Critically this statement should communicate and connect at an emotional level.  It is not necessarily stated in terms suitable for public exposure (that can come later when developing a brand ‘tag –line’) but it must resonate with at least the majority of members.

One caution however is to avoid design by committee, something that can sandpaper away the distinctive edge of your brand thinking into blandness.  Leadership is essential in framing, conducting and concluding the necessary conversation. When it’s done, it’s done, and someone has to call it – this is not necessarily the task of the formal office-bearers of the group, who may well contribute best by encouraging and empowering ‘situational leadership’ – probably the topic for another blog.

The behaviour of individuals associated with the group is a critical manifestation of the brand. So the brand should be developed and used to set the behavioural cue for everybody in the organisation.  It can and should be a catalyst for thinking, planning and action, thus becoming a strategic organising device to focus energy, alignment and attention within the organisation on its mission, intent and vision.

In one way or another, a brand for the group will exist, and to succeed any strategy must be consistent with this ‘reason for being’.  It is essential for strategy to link with a group identity and to resonate emotionally as well as intellectually with its promise to the community, what the people behind it believe and aspire to, the values it represents, and its core focus of action.

Alignment with these brand attributes will help communicate a strategy with consistency, integrity and longevity and assist to deliver the outcomes or capabilities it requires. Perhaps think of this as a positive form of ‘group-think’!

Strategic thinking today

This blog suggests that strategic thinking should be applied sparsely and is best conceived of in terms of capabilities to be built and sustained, rather than predetermined outcomes to be achieved.

There’s an old saying that if you think you are mad, there is a good chance you’re not.  My suggestion is that there is an echo of this in much of what passes for strategic thinking – if you think you are being strategic …

This blog suggests that strategic thinking should be applied sparsely and is best conceived of in terms of capabilities to be built and sustained, rather than predetermined outcomes to be achieved.

For one thing, there is far too much of it. I know that’s a weird thing to say when we are urged at all sides to be more strategic in our thinking, and failing to do so is a frequent point of criticism. But bear with me.

A little bit of excellent strategic insight and direction, embedded and pursued relentlessly, is far more effective than endless strategic review. Strategy is like seasoning in cooking, it can define the dish and mark great from good – but it is not the primary ingredient and must not be overdone.  I won’t pursue the culinary metaphor today, but it might prove interesting for another day.

One important distinction, often lost, is between strategy and tactics.  Tactics do require frequent attention, being closer to operational execution This is actually getting stuff done, which should occupy most of your time and energy.  Much of what is thought of as ‘strategic’ is more or less sophisticated tactics and indeed deserves appropriate recognition – nothing is merely tactical.

The distinction relates to scale and scope – croquet is often called a strategic game, but even the most advanced forms really only require appropriate selection of tactics – the strategic envelope is determined by the game itself and there is a widely agreed optimal approach to winning. A croquet player might however adopt a strategic approach to what tournaments they play in to develop their skills and advance their ranking.

Which edges us closer to what ‘strategic’ means – it is about the longer term, the broader view and provides the context to guide tactical choices and operational decision-making. A crucial question must always be; “Is what I am about to do consistent with our strategic direction?”

So while constant strategic awareness is a critical skill, less so endless strategic questioning and review.

‘Ah ha’ you say, but surely the world is changing so fast these days we have to keep our strategy under constant review. It is indeed clear that the disruption exemplified in the digital industries has, and continues to, spread into the ‘real world’ of cars, accommodation and can be observed in politics and culture.  Indeed, I recall the salutary experience of sitting on an ICT industry group committee which had duly crafted a 10 year strategic plan, but was undertaking a review after 6 months, because circumstance had changed – who knew!

Constant review and ‘catch-up’ analysis will indeed seem essential if you have conceived your strategy as a kind of meta-tactic, built in terms of predetermined outcomes to be achieved.  Which will very likely consume time and energy best spent on getting stuff done!

So what to do?

In my view the answer lies in strategic scenario planning. Using various techniques you can generate a range of scenarios which are more or less likely to emerge in your particular landscape.  From these scenarios identify essential capabilities needed to operate successfully.  Look to see which capabilities occur across the largest number and highest likelihood scenarios.  Conduct a gap-analysis to see which ones need most attention.

You can use this analysis to frame the intent to develop and sustain the capabilities which are most likely to be needed across the widest range of likely challenges on your strategic journey.  This thinking is something that can apply on many scales – you will see something of it in the Charles Six Dot Zero architecture for instance.

The next trick will be to involve everyone concerned with that strategic intent – achieving intellectual agreement is easier said than done, and forging the necessary emotional engagement often neglected.  In another post I will explore the power of ‘brand’ to assist in that alignment task.