February 20, 2020

Narrative Strategy

Thoughts on an emerging indie consulting style

It’s no surprise that a single narrative can shape a company’s fate.

But it’s just as obvious, though perhaps less talked about, that narrative can also dominate an individuals career path, or a project’s fate.

In fact one of the slippery concepts around “narrative” is that it it’s not just confined to “inside the company” or “outside the company” but that these narratives combine and mingle the internal and external realities of companies.

I work as an independent consultant and spend a lot of time embedded inside organizations - often co-creating strategy roadmaps with my clients.

But clients are people too - and they have narratives, narratives about who they are, narratives about how their markets function and narratives around the strategies they’re creating.

And sometimes - as an indie consultant - my work crosses from “consulting” to something that looks more like coaching or advising. For example with a client I’ve been working with for 2 years embedded in their office, we might reach a point where the consulting engagement ends but the executive hiring me keeps me on for “a phone call a week”.

And that’s where things get interesting. What is this work?

I’m certainly not a qualified executive coach. And during these calls I retain my usual feisty opinionated perspective on my client’s business. But then again - having spent significant time embedded inside the client’s organization I have a ton of context that a traditional advisor wouldn’t understand. I can talk confidently about levels of work, teams and people and strategies with varying levels of abstraction - all the way down the to details.

What I’ve come to believe about this “advisory” work is that done well it’s about helping the client shape narratives. What I call: narrative strategy

Narrative Strategy

We know strategy is an unfolding network of associations:

The evidence from the case suggests that the concept of strategy can be reappraised. From strategy as a static set of choices made at a specific point in time to strategy as an unfolding network of people, shared experiences and artefacts that is constantly being remade.

And we know that only 30% of employees can articulate a company’s strategy.

And I believe in the hyper-connected age we live in both of these things are becoming more true - that strategy is increasingly “in motion” and that most organizations are realizing their OODA loops are too slow for the modern world.

This causes the articulation of strategy to stall and get left behind - how do you articulate something in motion? It’s easier to write strategy down when it doesn’t change right?

As a result - there’s a widening gap between the perspective on strategy that the executive team has and the received ideas of the company’s direction that teams and employees have.

And this is where narrative strategy comes in. It turns out that serialized writing is the perfect medium for ensuring that strategy “in motion” is articulated, circulated and understood by a greater number of people within the company.

Of course - this narrative strategy isn’t confined within the company, much of it can and should bleed out externally.

The work of narrative strategy might look like:

  • Creating new language inside an organization
  • Naming a project well
  • Internal blog posts / memos
  • Creating a cadence of week notes (internal or external)
  • Blog posts and sharing thinking externally
  • Crafting conference presentations
  • Creating compelling job postings
  • Drafting memos on the state of the industry (again internal or external)

And more…

The Power of Voice

While thought leadership and shaping the narrative has always been important - in today’s digital landscape we’re seeing an increased focus on audience-first brands and founders who can attract outsized communities to their brands. Web Smith calls this the Law of Linear Commerce:

Law of Linear Commerce: for the brands that are most suited to the modern retail economy, media and commerce operations combine to optimize for audience and conversion. This is the efficient path for sustained growth, retention, and profitability.

from: 2pm No. 314: On Linear Commerce

It’s increasingly clear to me that a consultant that can help shape the narrative of an organization can have real impact on everything from the brand’s position in culture to the way product teams prioritize and ship features.

In this age of audience first brands, smart leaders are realizing the power of writing and the power of creating an ongoing dialogue with the market.

And so much of this simply comes down to being able to articulate a position clearly. To write well.

Writing, Editorial Coaching & Consulting

There’s a few (very few!) indie consultants that I know who mix editorial work with narrative strategy. This work is often explicitly supporting executives build, refine and test narrative strategies through writing and publishing.

This work is often pitched and sold with some actual writing from the consultant - helping to produce either external thinking and blogging or internal memos and articulation. In one light this is a writing coach / ghostwriter. But through the lens of narrative strategy this work becomes crucial to defining and framing strategy.

Toby Shorin writes of his work:

Sometimes I felt like I was doing many different types work, but writing this down, I realized that there’s a common denominator. They largely involved communicating some emerging reality in order to drive specific audience behaviors.

How to develop a new way of seeing? And how to communicate this to stakeholders—users, investors, readers? ​These are not just “marketing” or “brand problems.” In the former cases the primary audience for this work was not the public but internal stakeholders within the client company.

This is also true of the 1-on-1 thought partnership work. Here the goal was to translate macro level thinking, or personal experience, into actionable insights for the client’s audience.

Themes, narratives, metaphors, abstractions. They are tools for understanding. They can be deployed internally to set a vision for the company; they can drive product vision and roadmap; they can be used in sales decks; they can even be used in product interfaces.

For example, it can be powerful to develop different metaphors for explaining your business.[…]

One challenge of our era, if not the defining challenge, is to reach a coherent, actionable understanding of what is happening in our culture. This is always what I have tried to accomplish with my writing, and increasingly this is what I find myself doing in work. Little today is clear. There are still questions to be answered on how to orient to our present situation. This is cultural strategy. There are still questions to be answered on how to forge a compelling, actionable vision of the future. This is narrative strategy.

source: Toby Shorin

Patrick Tanguay is another exceptional individual who can mix editorial output with narrative strategy - what Patrick calls being a “thought partner” with clients:

Speaking with friends who also do “editorial adjacent” work, I came to realize that when working with small and medium organizations most of us have a direct relationship with the CEO (or perhaps a VP), and we produce largely longer form content usually not seen as marketing. In the process of researching, thinking through, and writing, we end up bringing ideas within the company and influencing its thinking. In some cases this is even done on purpose, not just as a side benefit of writing. Many of us become a kind of “Editor-in-chief of ideas circulating in the organization.”

What I realized is that playing an editorial role for a company and influencing multiple projects and discussions are not two separate things. It’s not “writing things” and “giving opinions because you know about stuff.” A Thought Partner is someone who, through a practice of researching, reading, learning, asking questions, and writing, helps partners in developing their ideas , knowledge, and thinking.

source: Thinking About Thought Partnerships – Sentiers Media

Connecting the dots between Toby and Patrick it’s interesting to note how powerful it can be to have an actual writer crafting narrative strategy. I am a hamfisted blogger compared to the eloquence of Toby and Patrick and can only imagine how powerful it would be to hire them for narrative strategy.

Articulation is the first product

This form of narrative strategy is especially powerful for early stage companies - and those looking to raise seed / series A money. These companies operate in a grey area where metrics and data aren’t always available. So they rely on narrative to carry them through - narrative with clients and communities and narrative with investors and employees.

My friend Brian Dell says it well:

Articulation is the first product. You’ll always need to find better ways to communicate to move your business forward. First, it’ll be to get someone to work with you, then it will be to get someone to help you, then it will be to get someone to use you, then it will be to get someone to invest in you. Understanding that how you articulate your business and needs is as crucial as how you build your business is the first breakthrough we try to make with our founders.

I’ve seen indie consultants roll up their sleeves with early stage founders and get involved at everything from corporate comms, brand marketing, blog posts, internal memos and investor pitch decks. The consistent thread through all these activities? Narrative Strategy.

So What?

To be honest I’m just getting started with this idea of narrative strategy - it’s an emerging form of consulting that looks and feels very different from what I’ve seen before. It combines the talents of a consultant that can excel at writing, editorial and strategy with a market trend that values narrative brands and narrative individuals.

Let’s leave with some questions:

  • How do you sell this kind of work as an indie consultant? Often it’s pitched and sold around the writing component - but it can be hard to charge well enough for this work to see returns.. Can a more formal advisor role be sold effectively here?
  • Venkatesh Rao talks about “sparring” with clients - is this narrative strategy the training and beginning of true sparring consulting work?
  • I hear reference to Amazon’s 6-page memo culture every day but have yet to meet a client who actually operates around well-crafted memos. There’s (still!) a large opportunity for executives and leaders inside organizations to capture outsized influence through smart memo writing.
  • Thought leadership has a mixed reputation - but showing your thinking remains a highly effective marketing strategy. Your most passionate fans/clients/community/recruits will respond well. But too much of this thought leadership ends up trapped in Medium or LinkedIn. What new models can emerge to support thought leadership?

Hmm. More to come on this idea…

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: