Strategic narratives

In this occasional series on ‘How to be more strategic’, Nick Glover, Senior Communications Officer at the Crown Commercial Service shares why having a strategic narrative is so important.

A strategic narrative is a story

There’s a famous story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges called The Library of Babel.

It imagines an infinite library which stores every piece of text that has ever been written or could be written. Many books are full of gibberish, some are recognisable stories with unrecognisable elements – a detective story with no murder, or a travelogue that transforms halfway through into a scientific textbook.

The Library of Babel demonstrates that it’s impossible to represent total knowledge. In life, as in work, we need to create stories to help us navigate the ocean of content.

Every organisation tells stories about itself; stories about where we are now, where we want to be, and how we will get there.

A strategic narrative is a story. It creates a single, compelling story from different elements of information from across complex organisations.

Strategic narratives are not ‘group think’ or ‘group speak’. They shouldn’t seek to turn people into automatons. Like me, you may find people asking for ‘our line’ on a particular issue, and worrying about going ‘off script’. Narratives should guide and explain, not force staff to conform. They aren’t scripts – they are a path through the often baffling highways and byways of an organisation.

We use them to define what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what we hope the result will be. If we know our narrative and lean on it when working in internal communications, it should make sense and be applicable to everybody in the organisation.

Every organisation already has a strategic narrative, even if it’s not written down. It’s stored in the heads of your senior leaders, your customer-facing teams and your communications experts. The problem is, if it’s not written down, everyone has a slightly different version. And they will clash and colour each other to the detriment of the whole.

If you don’t have it agreed and written down somewhere for your colleagues to see, they will be confused about your organisation’s identity. And they will probably be pulling in different directions, trying to deliver different things. In turn your customers will be confused by the conflicting impressions your colleagues give about your organisation.

As a communicator, it’s your job to explain the importance of a strategic narrative to your senior leaders and to the rest of your colleagues. If the organisation doesn’t already have one, it’ll probably be you who writes it, based on the views of the organisation as a whole, and particularly of those who are setting the final destination for your journey.

Once you’ve written it, you’ll need to explain its importance to the rest of the organisation, and how you’re all going to use it.

There were a lot of librarians in the Library of Babel. Probably an infinite number of them. Eventually the story supposes everyone in the world must have been a librarian at some point; each responsible for collecting and arranging information into a story.

But there was a sole author of the library, only one person who wrote the narrative which explained how the library worked. If there hadn’t been, it would have been too confusing to be useable.

Every member of your organisation holds information. It’s up to you to bring it together into a single, coherent story – the story of your organisation.