To Truly Change the World, You First Must Change the Narrative

Main narrative and time scales

Over the weekend, I wrote a short article about Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore. Their theme is the communal act of making. Their message is wrapped into delicious offerings. Their combined enthusiasm is demonstrating the power of building networks of meaning. This creates culture.

I started the Italian Style publication and complementary Flipboard magazine more than two years ago. About eight years into a study of a captivating culture I used to take for granted. I've been exploring the landscape for clues on how to create lasting impact.

I'm particularly curious about how impact is all about the present. Yet, as humans, we cannot help but constantly focus on the future. Positive outcomes later depend on “the now” of decisions, tradeoffs, and action.

Because longevity counts on you or your company being around.


How do we get better at now?

In 1929, Irish scientist Desmond Bernal presented a far-reaching vision of the future. Encompassing space research and colonization, material sciences, genetic engineering, and the technological hive mind, Bernal's future was limitless.

Yet, we're facing serious limits now.


He wrote, “There are two sets of futures: the future of desire and the future of fate, and man's reason has never learned to separate them.” But you can tell them apart. Desire is highly predictable, fate rarely is. Predictions limit us in scope and vision. 

The short article on Futurismo collected by Stewart Brand in The Clock of the Long Now is an exploration of the difference. Storytellers do a better job than forecasters. Yet, they're still constrained by their need to be plausible.

According to Freeman Dyson, both forecasters and storytellers miss the most important developments of the future. “Economic forecasting misses the future because it has too short a range; fiction misses the future because it has too little imagination.” 

The value of true futurists is in their surprises, says Brand.


“The surprises come from

their ruthless curiosity about the world

and what is truly going on in it, not from their politics.”


But surprises are a shock to the system. They are, by definition, unexpected. The bearers of different perspectives are often labeled controversial.

Without present, there is no future. The best way to thrive in the present is to become better at foresight, planning, and finding luck. This is the work of serious strategists and futurists.

Our collective job is to pay attention and implement. Which means getting better at the kind of story we embrace.


How can we form practices around unity?

Mike Wagner says that's a question he's hearing more often. Mike does foundational work with leaders. They learn by doing. His work evolved from brand strategy and storytelling. Just like mine. Companies used branding as a proxy for unity. But it's an artificial form of cohesion.

Now needs the real thing. It's like adult culture vs. adolescence. You need discipline, and the dynamics of responsibility. Combat leaders, coaches, they take care of their people. And they focus on making them successful.


But in the end, their people

are the ones who go into the field.


In business, you're 'controversial' when you blindside someone. But that's only part of the story. Because the limits on growth many companies are bumping up against demand innovation. By definition, this requires stepping outside your comfort zone.

Foresight is a critical ingredient. With a dash of humility. According to Brand, the most skilled futurist of the twentieth doesn't consider himself such. Peter Drucker's books are about the future. Many of these books are still in print. You can buy them because they're relevant.

Three stand out:

The New Society (1950) is an analysis of large business enterprises, governments, labor unions, and the place of the individual within the social context of these institutions. In it, Drucker applies insights from economics, political science, industrial psychology, and industrial sociology to shed light on the issues of the modern enterprise.

Landmarks of Tomorrow (1959) forecasts changes in three major areas of human life and experience. After outlining a new mechanical worldview of pattern, purpose, and process, Drucker discusses the the power to organize knowledge and high skill people for joint effort and performance as a key component of this change. He then addresses physical and spiritual context.

The Age of Discontinuity (1969) is manifest in four trends. Technology, the growth of multinational corporations, the shift in the political matrix of social and economic life, and knowledge are converging. The disruptions of previous trends and influences is the common theme.

What happened to a pluribus unum? This context collapse has been coming for a while. Everything is fragmented more and more. Niche. Specialized. Compartmentalized. Pieces.

Lack of unity is creating a crisis of meaning.


What does the current “now” lack?

Prof. Julian Birkinshaw from the London Business School, says we have witnessed how “the sources of competitive advantage are changing, from the industrial era to the knowledge era to the post-knowledge era.” [h/t Virginie Glaenzer]

Birkinshaw describes the stages in this transformation as the Hand, the Head, and the Heart.

During the industrial revolution, manual labor was a priority and managers just needed bodies to get the work done. This Hand phase saw managers leading with an iron fist, forcing their workers to do the work. Micromanagement was commonplace.

The information revolution, known as the Head phase, was the data-and-knowledge phase. During this time, the more knowledge a person had, the more valuable they became. Companies wanted intelligence because information was capital.

Today, the business world is moving towards the Heart phase, where leaders must be emotionally intelligent to adapt and navigate complex situations. The shift from command-and-control to empowering and caring is already here.

Those who have heeded the call to heart are inspiring loyalty beyond titles and jobs. These change agents, leaders, and innovators know that the root cause of dis-unity is pain. Belinda Noakes says pain is invisible.

But pain is value. You can manufacture a problem, or the perception of it. But not pain. Pain is real. What is the root cause of the lack of unity pain? Who is experiencing it? Why? Could we address this root cause?

To do this, we need to design differently, test and measure for value differently.


Appreciating the power of narrative

Spencer Pitman says enterprise leaders have an emotional resistance to change. Operationally, they may be there with you. But leadership immersion with change models is rare. Digital transformation fails because of it.

His experience spans projects at FCB Global, The Ready, Made in Space, Apellix Drones, and the Department of Defense. Uncertainty is tightening the need for control. With a corollary desire for acceptance. When the opposite is useful: creating space for others to contribute.

It's all too easy to categorize some people as a problem. But not useful. Human beings take to stories like moths to light. And when stories are repeated so often, they're hard to ignore. Stories of the hero-leader, the best practice company, how the economy works.

These are all versions of the get-rich-quick story. Because reality is less smooth. But people take to it with passion. Nobel laureate economist Robert Schiller chronicled this phenomenon of how stories like those go viral in Narrative Economics. These narratives change over time, and affect economic outcomes.

A narrative is an explanatory account of a period. It gives it justification. The “efficient” free market is a narrative of the twentieth century. Ronald Reagan, a charming actor turned President, was the catalyst. His championing a free-market revolution made the narrative contagious. 

Economists have been particularly resistant to understanding the power of narrative. Creative strategists and sense-makers have long known that the human mind is capricious. We jump from narrative to narrative. Social interactions contribute both to influencing and spreading stories.

There are several narratives right now. Barry Ritholtz says they're driving pretty much everything in the market today. There's one that seems to have crossed cultural boundaries:

Worker Shortage: Generous unemployment benefits are keeping lazy, ungrateful scoundrels from going back to work! Counter-narrative: Many schools are still operating remotely and childcare is hard to find. Plus, a large number of new business formations and a record number of people quitting their jobs shows workers are not lazy, just avoiding inflexible, low-paying jobs.

The Italian version of it is hitting many sectors, not just hospitality. And the Italian media has been indulging this narrative. 34 year old woman with two children goes to work at a shop whose owner was complaining he couldn't find staff. She discovers he had not looked at one of the dozen resumes he had received.

When a small hotel in Rimini makes the news for paying staff a fair wage with a flexible schedule and time off, we know something is up with the mainstream narrative.


Weaving a new narrative

Plotline's virality is the reason why we're stuck in narratives that don't serve us anymore. Emotional resistance to change prevents good investments—in digital, in people, in new ways, in the future.

You keep looking for the keys under the light, but you lost them somewhere else. To find the root cause of pain, you need to look in the right places. Start with questions, rather than answers. Research and analyze to align with reality—rather than viral story.

There are parallel narratives that never took off. Two glaring examples in economics and business:

  • “Use-value” in addition to “exchange value” (Aristotle 4th Century BC)
  • Economy of scope (older) in addition to economy of scale

Economics is a social science that studies: how individuals, businesses, governments, and nations make choices about how to allocate resources. Its main values are: self-interest, costs and benefits, tradeoffs, with scarcity being the basic problem. Scarcity and disequilibrium is all over its principles.

In a recent conversation on Holochain, Virginie Glaenzer noted that perhaps this is not the study of scarcity but its creation. Then there's the first story about money. As the story goes, barter was first, then the coin, then debt. Except for that's not how it went.

Anthropologist David Graeber found that debt preceded money. In fact, debt was recorded in the Sumer civilization around 3,500 BC. The credit system was used as a means of accounting before coins appeared in 600 BC. Barter was used, but for limited exchange between people who had infrequent contact. Graeber is another 'controversial.' You'll recall Bernal was labeled as such.

In fact, the earliest forms of writing are ledgers. The letter of credit was the genius move by Giovanni di Bicci, Cosimo de Medici's father. Getting around the narrative around usury, it made the Medici's rich and financed the Renaissance.

Companies used to take care of people. Some still do.

Massimo Bottura and Lara Gilmore kept all staff on when they decided to close their restaurants. They're heart people: their work is an act of love. They also understand how to combine tradition with modernity. Thus, their influence has extended well beyond a Michelin-starred restaurant.

But that form of social contract is broken, kaputt. Trust, respect, and loyalty were part of it. Scarcity, turning everything into money, even things of higher value, and wealth by accumulation are part of the industrial age narrative.

Small peer networks are weaving new narratives that:

  1. respect the importance of relationships
  2. appreciate the intrinsic value of people, nature, and relationships
  3. honor the spiritual value of the land

Quality of life is a valid measure of value. We also have triple bottom line accounting. And gross national happiness. There's plenty of data floating around to tell you the current narrative has run out of juice. A new narrative is emerging. Just like ideas, it is fragile and small to start.

But it has plenty of potential. For well being and well doing.


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