If there’s one massive change in the 12 years since I founded Narrate, it’s the use of the word “narrative”. Back then, any mention of the word was met with at best a puzzled query as to its relevance and at worst a comment to the effect that I must have been smoking something strong…
Today, it’s everywhere. Politicians have narratives, organisations and brands have them, any foreign intervention needs to have one.
The truth is, however, that there are – and should be – multiple narratives to all of these things. Boiling it down to a single narrative, as is usually the case, incurs huge risks. So this post is intended to set out my thoughts on the different levels of narrative. Naturally, it’s going to entail the multiple repetition of the word – and risks further muddying the waters. Bear with me…
The grand narrative
The grand or strategic narrative is usually the overarching structure that shows where we’re headed for – the vision of the future. It matches some of the work I did early on in Narrate’s time with my ideas of the “vision arc” – a slightly more sophisticated version of the standard vision/mission statement approach, but still deeply flawed.
Often the grand narrative tries to describe two things – an ideal end-state and the path we envisage to getting to it. Unfortunately, both of these elements are flawed when we’re working in complex environments. Firstly, describing an ideal end-state is an old-fashioned mechanistic way of looking at the world – and only creates a rod for our own backs. By the time we reach the end-state, the world looks radically different, so we’ve either failed to imagine correctly or failed to implement the plan to get to the end-state – either way, we’ve failed. Secondly, the path or plan to get to the future is usually too detailed. Planning is a good exercise, but communicating a plan as though that’s what’s going to happen is risky – after all, “no plan survives contact with reality“, to paraphrase Clausewitz.
Healthier by far is to have the grand narrative set intention and constraints – “this is the direction we’re going in and these are the things that we will not be doing to get there.” There might be room for some examples of the kinds of issues anticipated, but not too specific – and take care to not restrict it to just the issues mentioned.
Like any good book, within the overall narrative – the strategic or grand narrative in this case – there should be room for multiple narratives for different actors and groups that are specific and relevant to them. The important factor is they must all be coherent with each other, but not the same – each will have its own particular spin on the overall narrative, depending on the issues and context they operate in. Giving them space for their perspective is an important reason for only setting intention at the higher level. Setting constraints also allows others to see where they should not go, but allows them to find the appropriate path for them.
Local narratives are best evolved in line with the strategic narrative’s intention and within its constraints and is made up of relevant micro-narratives.
Micro-narratives come from people – they’re the bits and pieces of story we tell each other each day. The stories of how things get done around here, the short-hand comments that carry lots of meaning, without ever explicitly saying what that meaning is – if you’re part of the gang, you’ll understand. Most of the recent narrative projects I’ve been running – in Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan, UK, Jordan, Lebanon, etc – are focused on collecting micro-narratives as the best way of understanding a culture.
Those same micro-narratives then lead us easily into making better sense of the world we’re in and designing projects/programs/interventions that take us forward from our current state in the direction set out by the strategic narrative.
Micro-narratives are what are required to understand a situation – a strategic narrative is not appropriate for analysis and research. If you’re presented with a single narrative as the result of research – go back and challenge it.
A grand narrative is usually top-down and as such has value in moving forwards – but only if it’s not too prescriptive.
In an ideal world, micro-narrative research precedes the development of a strategic narrative, but real world constraints often mean it happens the other way around. Just don’t allow the strategic narrative to describe the end-state and then prescribe the route to it.