Everything I do is connected, even when the connections aren’t immediately apparent, even to me. Almost 15 years ago, I started writing about shaping strategies as a powerful way to unleash enormous value for companies – including here and here. Much more recently, I published The Journey Beyond Fear, a book that explored the role that narratives can play in helping to motivate people to achieve much greater impact that is meaningful to them. In that book, I discussed how institutional narratives can help organizations connect more deeply with their customers and third parties to create more value. Unfortunately, I have not yet made the connection between institutional narratives and shaping strategies explicit, even though they are deeply connected.
For those who haven’t read my writing, let me start by explaining what these two approaches are. Institutional narratives are not stories, even though most people view them as synonymous. For me, stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories are also about the story teller or some other people, real or imagined, but they’re not about you.
In contrast, narratives are open-ended. There’s some kind of big threat or opportunity out in the future and it’s not clear how the narrative will be resolved. The resolution of the narrative hinges on the listeners in the audience – it’s a call to action to them to determine how the narrative will be resolved.
In this context, institutional narratives are not about the institution. They are about some big, inspiring opportunity for the customers and stakeholders and the action they will need to take to address the opportunity. There are very few examples of this kind of institutional narrative, but a classic one was the narrative by Apple Computer in the 1990s that was condensed to the slogan “Think Different.”
Shaping strategies focus on opportunities to restructure entire markets or arenas in ways that create significant value for the shapers. Shaping strategies mobilize a large number of third parties to pursue the restructuring of the market or arena.
Shaping strategies rely on three elements. First, there’s a shaping view that focuses on what the new market or arena structure could look like and the benefits it could provide to the participants. Second, there’s a shaping platform that helps participants to come together and achieve greater impact with less effort. Third, there are shaping acts and assets which the shaper can use to demonstrate its commitment to pursuing the shaping opportunity.
Most organizations take the existing market or arena structure as a given and focus on how to thrive in the existing structure. In a world of accelerating change, the challenge is that existing structures are rapidly becoming obsolete. The missed opportunity is to imagine and pursue a new structure that could create far more value. Some of the most successful shapers in the business world have been Dee Hock (Visa), Malcolm McLean (containerized shipping), Victor Fung (Li & Fung), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Marc Benioff (Salesforce.com).
So, what’s the connection between institutional narratives and shaping strategies? The connection is through the shaping view. When I originally developed the perspective on shaping strategies, I saw shaping views as very business-like, focusing on risks and rewards. As I’ve shared before, Dee Hock, the founder of Visa opened up my eyes. In one of our conversations, he cautioned me that it was not about risk and reward, it was about fear and hope, because that was ultimately what motivated people to act. It was an “a-ha” moment for me that helped me shift my attention to the world of emotions, which became the focus of The Journey Beyond Fear.
Institutional narratives emerged in my thinking as a way for organizations to create much deeper emotional connections with their customers and stakeholders. By framing really inspiring opportunities for those outside the organization, institutional narratives communicate a much deeper understanding of what really motivates these participants and help move people from fear to excitement as they look into the future.
For this reason, institutional narratives can become the foundation for a powerful shaping view. Once leaders have framed the really inspiring opportunity that can excite and motivate participants to take action, they can take the institutional narrative to another level by focusing on defining a market or arena structure that can help participants to address the exciting opportunity out in the future. This could attract a growing number of participants to join in the effort to evolve this new market or arena structure.
Exploring an example
So, what would this look like in practice? Let’s look at the wellness arena. More and more people are becoming focused on strengthening their wellness and not just waiting until they get sick to get help and support. Today, the wellness business is highly fragmented with wellness coaches and a growing array of wellness service providers, ranging from gyms to nutrition experts.
I believe there’s a significant opportunity for wellness coaches to evolve into trusted advisors that orchestrate growing networks of specialized service providers to serve the needs of their clients. This could be a platform for significant growth by mobilizing more and more diverse expertise based on larger and larger networks of participants.
To address this opportunity, a small wellness coaching business today could begin by framing an institutional narrative that focuses on the growing ability of people to improve their wellness, driven by new technology and deeper understanding of what our bodies need to function at better and better levels. The narrative would emphasize that this opportunity requires action from people inspired by the opportunity to improve wellness to adopt new practices – it won’t just happen on its own.
This opportunity for improved wellness can then provide the context for framing an opportunity for a growing number of third parties to come together into a broader network that will be orchestrated by the wellness coaching business. Because these third parties will bring a very diverse set of skills and capabilities, the network will be a lot more effective in improving the wellness of its clients. These third parties can become excited by the potential to improve the wellness of clients much more than if they were just operating as isolated service providers.
This institutional narrative can thus become the foundation for a powerful shaping view. The institutional narrative focuses on cultivating emotions of excitement and passion among both clients and third parties that can help the clients. This will motivate them to act boldly to pursue the opportunity. A more detailed shaping view can then help to provide the third parties with a road map to guide them in the actions they can take to come together and address the opportunity. It will also help them to see how they can collaborate in ways that will create more value for clients as well as for themselves.
Institutional narratives can play many different roles in helping organizations to connect more deeply with their customers and stakeholders so that they all can achieve greater impact. One key role of institutional narratives is to motivate third parties to come together and act more boldly in ways that will restructure an entire market or arena. Based on my research, there are very few examples of organizations that have made the effort to develop a powerful institutional narrative, but there are even fewer examples of organizations that have pursued the potential of institutional narratives to support shaping strategies. This is an untapped potential that needs to be addressed.