Category: Strategic Narrative

How CEOs can activate performance in a world of pessimism

We live in a reactive world. We’re thrown from naysay to doomsday with every news headline. Just as soon as we’d begun recovering from a global pandemic, we were told the war on talent would cripple us. When we looked above the parapet again, we found disrupted supply chains, spiralling labour costs, interest rate rises, a cost of living crisis and the grim reality of a recession. But there is a way forward. As a leader, you know that people thrive on finding solutions in adversity – as long as there is a compelling vision, driven by a purpose everyone can get behind.

Today’s CEO needs a story that will activate

You may well have your strategic response for your organisation in place already. But, in these turbulent times, a strategy isn’t enough. Today’s CEO needs a story that will activate: A clear, simple yet inspiring story of the journey your business will take over the next 12-18 months in order to survive the recession, and minimise the human impact of the downturn. The success of your organisation will depend on whether people, both internally and externally, believe your story. Start with your employees. Allow them to contribute to the journey the business is on; maximise their efficiency and productivity; empower them to take action; encourage them all to pull in the same direction. 

To activate your strategy, your people must be emotionally connected to it

Understanding strategy on a rational level – even if that strategy is compelling and well communicated – is not enough to change behaviours on its own. To make a difference, people need to understand their role in your journey, and the role the journey will play in their personal success. They need a personal, emotional connection that will influence their attitude and actions. They need to actively participate in building and owning their part in the story, continuously contributing ideas for best practice which will improve productivity.

Every day.


A purposeful, unified Story can activate your organisation 

People remember stories. Storytelling is the original and most effective way to communicate and learn. Compelling stories capture the heart and mind. They bring clarity and meaning to complex messages. Stories motivate, spark the imagination and inspire solutions. They provoke action and stimulate change. Stories help us make sense of what we do and why we do it. Stories create an emotional connection. 

By transforming your strategy, vision and values into a compelling business story brought to life in a human way which everyone can understand and relate to, you can activate extraordinary potential in the face of unprecedented pessimism.  Using a practical set of creative, flexible tools and methodologies, your leaders can be equipped to engage others in the story, inspire their teams and stimulate conversations that will lead to change and performance improvement. It is just as important to keep your journey alive by feeding it with success stories that illustrate progress and best practice, recognising the heroes of the organisation and sustaining engagement.

Harnessing the power of storytelling has worked for some of the greatest leaders and organisations in the world, some of which have faced unprecedented challenges in recent months. The result is commitment, energy and active involvement in the execution of strategic change by connecting the whole organisation to the journey the business is on. 

“…as senior leaders who have greater visibility of our strategy, it’s so easy to forget that our people don’t always have access to the same information. There is tremendous power in providing one cohesive story that shows the path to an exciting future.”

Jeff Phipps, Managing Director & General Manager, ADP UK & Ireland

Shifting the narrative to implement ESG

The role and responsibility of organisations within society is under scrutiny like never before. Being purpose-led is now a competitive advantage and the ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors are rapidly evolving the boardroom agenda.

Consumer trends have shifted rapidly towards purpose-driven brands, regulators are raising the bar, employees are more conscious of their company’s impact on the world and investors are increasingly scrutinising ESG risks and opportunities like never before.

Leaders worldwide are recognising the critical need to put ESG at the centre of their business strategy. Many have already used storytelling to help communicate their progress. Yet, at a time when organisations are regularly called out – and often very publicly – for ‘greenwashing,’ a story that simply promotes or over-exaggerates your ESG performance will not cut it.

Leaders need to be able to turn rhetoric into meaningful action – then prove it. This is possible with a unified strategic narrative that runs throughout the organisation to take everyone on this critical future-proofing journey for your business.

Our latest eBook explains how. Submit your details to download your free copy.

Storytelling: how to reset an organisation’s narrative to inspire change

In today’s VUCA world, where change is constant and where inspirational leadership has become a critical requirement for high-performing businesses, storytelling has become a recognised skill for leaders in organisations all over the world and in every industry sector.

Gone are the days of command-control leadership style. To attract and retain talent – and indeed customers – leaders need to be authentic, empowering, collaborative, involving, open to ideas and encouraging dialogue within their teams to solve complex problems and share best practice – be willing to change and go the extra mile to achieve key business objectives. 

In short, a business’s differentiator comes down to people: how they personify the brand through their actions and behaviours, how this builds corporate trust, customer acquisition and loyalty. 

And for leaders to win over their people – to bring them with them on a journey of uncertainty and change – they need to win hearts and minds; create meaning and purpose in the workplace. It’s not enough to connect people rationally to change. Leaders need to create an emotional connection in order to stimulate the energy and collective spirit needed to power their teams through challenging times, where change is embraced rather than seen as a threat. And yet winning hearts and minds is without doubt one of the hardest parts of change to achieve.

The Storytellers have worked with over 180 major organisations in a quest to find the most effective way of creating this emotional connection. Without doubt, storytelling has a major role to play here. But what exactly is it that makes storytelling so effective in persuading and energising individuals? What draws us to a story, and how exactly does it influence how we think, feel and act?

There are five key traits of a memorable and inspiring story, each of which can be applied to the world of business. Explore them in full by completing the form on this page.

Your story: a framework for progress and action

Over the last few months, our team has been working hard to support Executive teams all over the world. These leaders are facing the momentous challenge of adapting to the immediate and ever-evolving situation. As this adaptation happens and organisations move from short-term crisis management to longer term planning, they are starting to consider how they must now transform to be ready to play their part in the “new normal”.

It’s very clear that Covid-19 will have profound and lasting economic, social and cultural impacts. We’re living in a moment in which businesses need to react quickly, act with empathy and fulfil their purpose in a way that helps society navigate a deeply troubling time. Doing so will also prepare organisations for re-emerging into a very different landscape.

The new stories of change

We’ve certainly heard an abundance of stories from our virtual interactions – acts of compassion, moments of innovation, the sudden removal of barriers and cultural walls. We’ve heard from leaders, amazed at how their people have united to achieve things that would have taken months or even years, in a matter of weeks.

For our clients who are in the process of co-creating a narrative to navigate through these changes, there are some significant realisations. There is now an increasing understanding that this situation is catalysing trends and drivers of change. Many of these trends were already significant drivers of change before Covid-19. The convergence of these trends means businesses will face the task of transformation, evolution, even redefinition, on a quite remarkable scale.

Seizing the opportunity

These transformations will, as ever, tend to focus on certain key areas of challenge or opportunity. Those that are truly meaningful will reconsider the very business model and nature of the business that has been successful to date. What will that business model look like in the face of this level of change?

Those leaders who are now starting to be proactive in preparing their people and organisations for profound, continuous change will emerge ready to tackle the enormous challenges ahead and then seize the opportunities that present themselves.

Leading a movement of change

One of the true tests of leadership in the coming months will be: who are the leaders who can successfully create a movement of change? Who are the leaders who will inspire people to look beyond current limits and define new opportunities? Who are the leaders who will generate unity and collective action in the face of challenge? Momentous change is on its way. These leaders won’t design the organisations of the future – but the teams of people who they inspire to believe and take action absolutely will. Focus on the story your organisation needs to write over the coming months and then turn it into a framework for progress and action.

The case for connectivity

It is 1979. The ‘Walkman’ has just been introduced to the Japanese market. Within three months, its entire stock of 30,000 units has sold out. For a decade after its launch, Sony’s Walkman retained 50% of market share in the U.S. (The Atlantic). Sony had cutting edge tech, bold vision, and the rights to the world’s best-selling musicians. But today we aren’t listening to our music on a Walkman. Instead, it was Apple – a technology brand with no relevant pedigree – that joined the dots to our musical future. Why?

In the early 2000s, Sony fell victim to the consequences of a disconnected business. Following a spate of successes from the 1950s through to the 1990s, Sony was focused on investing, selling and innovating hardware. It had various business divisions creating MP3 players, but they weren’t talking to each other. They weren’t in a rush. They stalled their product launch through fears that people would acquire their music for free; these were the days of LimeWire, Napster and rampant music piracy. So while Sony could see that the transition from hardware to software was happening – and even participate at the front lines of that innovation – it couldn’t join the dots. It was blind to the fundamental nature of the shift. 

With the iPod’s self-contained eco-system, slick interface and intuitive design Apple realised the power of that shift and transformed the industry overnight. 

Connectivity drives performance

The rapid pace of change left Sony Walkman behind. But its message is as true today and more urgent than it ever was. Businesses need to be connected. They need to be agile systems, not lonely units. Today’s complex organisations are not unlike huge orchestras, with an ever-expanding pool of new players, instruments and frantic harmonies. No surprise then that the musicians are playing different tunes. When organisations don’t talk to each other information and opportunity are lost. 

Every orchestra needs to be led by a good conductor. Steve Jobs was no perfect leader, but he was a peerless conductor. He had a vision he could bring the world into, creating a higher purpose for Apple and creating a site of unmatched innovation.

Connect with a narrative 

Elite teams demonstrate the power of a clear goal and common purpose, whether on the field or in the workplace. 

What tool creates connection? Narrative. We’re storytelling animals. We know that the human brain needs context to process information, and people need to feel before they take action. An effective change narration creates the emotional and rational conditions of change by connecting employees to the journey ahead. 

The effects can be monumental. We worked with a large pharmaceutical company looking to boost performance in the midst of a major transformation. Working with the Executive committee, we crafted a narrative that called on the organisation’s people to ‘change the world again’. Coupled with an integrated programme, this narrative set out the foundation of the ‘ownership’ culture where each member of the team could play an essential role. 

But it takes personal connection to bring any narrative to life; and it takes authentic role-modelling to make any leader worth following. That’s why, to launch the narrative, the business’s founder began by telling his own personal story: a powerful story about the power of story. As a young doctor, he had helped a patient through cancer and realised he could change things on a bigger scale by finding cures, not administering them. 

The power of purpose

A year later, during the trial of a drug for a rare disease in Mexico, the research and development team received a call from a desperate mother with a sick child. Living thousands of miles from the trial in Mexico City, it would have taken six months for the drug to get to the child due to legislation. But the team were so moved by the mother’s plea for help, they decided to find a new way to bring help to her. By working together across the business, they delivered the drug to the child. The child’s life was saved. The team were truly inspired by the story, and the purpose it instilled in them moved them to achieve beyond expectations. 

Connect with head and heart 

“No man or woman is an island, entire of itself,” said the poet John Donne in 1624. These words ring true today – everything and everybody are connected, and no organisation or individual acts on their own. Over the previous three decades, we have become a hyper-connected world. Information flows constantly – we need new ways to make constant connections. A company-wide narrative provides a common purpose and a shared foundation to build from; but it is the connection – between collective narrative and personal storytelling, between geographies and expertise, between head and heart – which makes a story-driven approach the key to powerfully connected, high performing teams. 

Why purpose-led mission and narrative hold the key to transformation

A new report has recognised purpose-led mission as the driving force behind the world’s most successful business transformations. Narrative is the fastest and most sustainable way to harness its value.   

In these times of urgent global challenge and acute social awakening, it’s no secret that the world’s most influential and successful businesses have a distinctive mission at their heart. From Google’s quest ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ to Monzo’s wish to ‘make money work for everyone’, a defined objective of clear social value is the key to sustained collective effort and inspiration.

So accepted has this wisdom now become that the Business Roundtable – the influential US business lobby group – last month released a statement signed by 181 CEOs stating that “serving shareholders can no longer be the main purpose of a corporation; rather, it needs to be about serving society, through innovation, commitment to a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all.” 

But purpose-led mission lends itself more naturally to some industries than others. It’s easy to spin an inspiring story when a business has been built from the ground up to deliver a specific social calling. Far harder for the world’s most established organisations, operating in industries of increasingly dubious or tarnished repute, to boldly stake a claim on a mission that matters. Many leaders – paralysed by the fear of hypocrisy and the enhanced scrutiny such pivots entail – remain stuck in the quagmire of debate long past the point of timely action. 

One burning issue no board will dispute is the need for continuous change or wholesale transformation in this era of rapid reinvention. Given their hefty (but disputed) failure rate, transformations that truly transform garner huge interest – and now a fascinating new report has recognised purpose-led mission as the driving force behind the world’s most successful business transformations.

As its authors noted in Harvard Business Review this month, ‘that strategic impulse—to identify a higher-purpose mission that galvanises the organisation—is a common thread among the Transformation 20, a new study by Innosight of the world’s most transformative companies’. Furthermore, they argue, ‘it’s the decision to infuse a higher purpose into the culture, one that guides strategic decisions and gives clarity to everyday tasks, that has propelled these companies to success’ – over and above the new growth strategies the top-ranking businesses have pursued.

But to ‘infuse a higher purpose into a culture’, mission must become engrained as a cultural narrative that meaningfully connects everyone to their work, their leaders, and their colleagues. It must be brought to life by leaders who walk the talk. And it must provide a framework for change that everyone, whatever their role, can make their own. This is no easy feat, and requires a focused, holistic, and visibly leader-led effort to sustain it. Yet as the authors note, ‘in an era of relentless change’, it is this capacity for narrative – an organisation’s ‘ability to reposition itself to create a new future, and to leverage a purpose-driven mission to that end’ – which, more than anything else, determines success in today’s dynamic world.

When this is achieved, the results are truly transformational.

Consider wind energy business Ørsted, whose decision to divest its oil and natural gas businesses and begin phasing out coal necessitated a profound shift towards wind power, only to find the cost of off-shore wind untenable. Galvanised by the challenge and the opportunity, it succeeded in mission ‘impossible’: cutting the cost of off-shore wind by more than 60% while scaling into the world’s largest off-shore wind company and upping net profit by $3bn.

Yoghurt behemoth Danone achieved a similar feat when, under CEO Emmanuelle Faber, it set out on another ‘impossible’ task to improve biodiversity by halving its dependence on GMO products. Infused with clear-cut purpose, the business achieved the shift in two years while growing its US marketshare by 10%.

Ecolab – now one of the world’s leading water-efficiency businesses – evolved from its core business of industrial cleansers and food safety services in response to its clients’ growing concerns about water-scarcity. As HBR notes, this mission is made real by measurement: ‘A primary metric driving the organisation is how much water is saved by its clients annually, which now stands at 188 billion gallons, against a 2030 target of 300 billion gallons.’ Ecolab’s market value has now surpassed $55 billion, making it one of America’s top 100 most valuable firms. But as CEO Douglas Baker recognises, these shifts are not the guaranteed outcome of evident market opportunity. They’re rare examples of what is truly possible when people, fuelled by purpose, unite with one mind to make change happen. “We broadened our vision and our purpose changed,” CEO Douglas Baker says. “As our teams widened their awareness of global issues, our pride has been enhanced.”

The Value of Senior Team Alignment

One of the quickest ways to watch a strategy and vision unravel after its inception is to start with an Executive team that’s not aligned.

Because it’s one of the pre-requisites of the successful launch of a strategic or change narrative into a business, the question ‘is your senior team aligned?’ is one we always ask our clients at the outset. I can’t remember a time when I’ve talked to a new client at the start of an engagement who’s sagely nodded and said ‘yes, our Executive is aligned’, at least not without a wry smile. By alignment, we are not talking about ‘broad agreement’ with a strategy. We are talking about complete and utter unity, where the Executive team is speaking as one, and there is no room for dissent. ‘Slightly aligned’ doesn’t exist. It’s like being slightly pregnant. You either are, or you’re not.

Of course, every individual will look at the strategy through a different lens. It’s normal for those responsible for different aspects of the operation to have different perspectives. After all, the richness and diversity that Executive teams bring to the table is a huge asset to any business. And in the shaping a strategy or strategic narrative there will of course be arguments, different points of view and many an ‘energetic’ conversation around the Board table.

But when that narrative is signed off, to be disseminated through every layer of the organisation, the senior team must be speaking as one: ‘One Story, One Team, One Voice’. With every departure from the party line, with every ‘tweak’ to the Story “because it’s not relevant to us”, or “I’ve cut that bit out because it’s the bit that I didn’t agree with”, the story becomes a massive Chinese whisper. By the time it’s reached the grass roots of the organisation, it bears no resemblance to the story being told in other parts of the business. And that story, in turn, might just as well come from another organisation for its similarity to the one being told down the road. The end result will be confusion, lack of clarity, inefficiency, disorientation, lack of teamwork, poor behaviour and a disfunctional culture: an organisation that’s pulling in every direction but the one you want, with a discredited Executive team looking on helplessly, wondering what the hell happened.

There are a few courses of action to take to avoid such entropy:

    1. 1. Allow every member of the Executive team to have a voice when shaping the story. In this way everyone will take ownership of the story and will champion it as a team

2. Don’t assume everyone is aligned just because the CEO gave final sign-off. Take time as a team to come together to iron out the wrinkles and clarify the nuances of the story. Listen to and respect each others’ views before it’s finalised. Two, three or more times if necessary.

3. Keep the story reasonably high-level. The devil is in the detail, and you risk alienating large swathes of the organisation if you try and include the minutiae that sits behind the story, which will vary from region to region, division to division, team to team.

4. Commit to the story and to each other. Role model constantly. Agree the ground rules before the stable door is opened. Maintain visible unity in public and keep any disagreements for the privacy of the Boardroom

5. Keep the story at the forefront of every conversation that takes place in the business. In this way you will maintain alignment around key messages, whilst having the freedom of interpretation according to your local environment or team

6. Allow leaders to personalise the story so they too can take ownership of it. This means bringing it to life with personal anecdotes and data from their own part of the business

7. Be honest and authentic when telling the story. Don’t try and whitewash it with good news if there’s an uncomfortable truth or challenge to be resolved

8. Hire an external consultant(s) to shape the story with you. It’s sometimes easier to talk honestly and openly to a third party and/or peer and it’s certainly valuable to have an experienced, objective Executive facilitator at the table

9. Regroup regularly to reaffirm commitment to the story and progress being made

10. Remove hard-core terrorists from the team if they are simply unwilling to tow the party line. It sounds drastic, but will save you millions in the long run and will avoid putting the strategy at risk

Our strategic narrative: practising what we preach

There’s a saying that you can tell a cobbler by his shoes, implying that he is so busy he has little time to address his own footwear. In the same vein, ‘doctors make the worst patients’ might also apply (and if you happen to be the child of two doctors, as am I, you’ll know that you certainly don’t get the same sympathy as you’d hope their actual patients get).

So when we embarked on creating our own strategic narrative at The Storytellers – an exercise we’ve now done for over 170 major organisations across the world – we weren’t entirely sure how it was going to pan out or, more importantly, how we could possibly stay friends during the process. Roger, one of our best-loved and most talented storywriters, was tasked with drafting it, based on interviews with each of the senior leadership team, and aligning us behind the draft narrative that emerged.

It took time, not least because we were so busy with our clients that it kept getting put on the back-burner. But we eventually reached final alignment, and ‘Our Journey to Soar’ was born.

I have to admit, the black-and-white, words-only version was good: beautifully written by Roger as we’d expected. Of course. But it wasn’t until one of our designers, Sana, brought it to life with a stunning, colourful Da Vinci-esque creative treatment that captured the concept of the art and science of storytelling so well, that it really came into its own. I have to say I actually felt quite emotional when I saw it transformed into a stupendous piece of art. Our creative expertise really did do the trick.

Two years later we are embarking on ‘the next episode’…an updated story that will show progress and weave in the next set of challenges and opportunities that underpin our journey of growth. But what’s been so gratifying is how we’ve used our Story at every opportunity to remind the team of where we’re going, why we make the decisions we make, how we need to act and behave, and what our priorities need to be.

Every week it makes an appearance as we relate stories of the previous week, linking them back to the narrative. It has been a reminder of the approach we need to take with our clients, and other priorities, which has influenced the shape of our business plan. It has provided clarity and direction for our decision-making. It has proved a useful tool for positive team conversations, and occasionally to take the heat out of a ‘difficult conversation’. It has reinforced our new brand and provided us with a wonderful creative campaign. We use it for conversations with potential candidates and induction for new recruits. It has aligned us as a leadership team and has helped us to explain the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. It is a brilliant strategic engagement tool. And clients love the fact that we’re actually walking the talk ourselves (after all, it’s what we preach to them….!). It’s no coincidence that we’ve enjoyed one of our best-ever years from a performance point-of-view.

So next time I pop into our local shoe-repair shop I’ll check out the state of the owner’s shoes. If they’re shiny and clean, it won’t necessarily mean he’s not diligent and too busy dealing with his own customers’ shoes. It could be that he simply appreciates the benefits of looking after his own footwear. Walking the talk, so to speak. Literally.


Alison Esse
Co-founder and Director

Narrative and resilience in the age of acceleration

When Mayor de Blasio issued a cap to licenced drivers in New York city in August 2018, his language was definitive. Uber and Lyft, and any other ride hailing app that could appear in the future, are congesting our streets and hurting our taxi-cab drivers.  Every month, for six months, a taxi-cab driver had taken their own life; reportedly driven to the edge by the plummeting value of their trade in a brave new world of algorithmic transport. These symbols of Silicon success – so lauded for the ‘gig economy’ they unleashed and the job creation they spared cash-strapped governments – were, in fact, destructive. Their free market momentum – on which this heartland, in this nation, had been built – was in need of a leash.

The message was clear. We can no longer afford to be laissez-faire about the pace of change. It’s time to take a hammer to progress; to buy back some time; and hope that, in the interim, we can recalibrate – as governments, businesses, and individuals – to a world now reinventing itself at an exponential rate.

For Thomas L. Friedman, whose Pulitzer-prize winning ‘Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations‘ offers a masterclass in our new global rules of play, none of this will be surprising. “So many people today,” he wrote in 2016, “seem to be looking for someone to be put on the brakes… or just give them a simple answer to make their anxiety go away”.

Today, in 2018, Moore’s Law shows no sign of slowing. The compounding forces of exponential technology, globalisation and climate change continue to accelerate change in almost every facet of society, for every nation on earth. The collision continues to feel, as Friedman observed in 2016, like the gut-wrench we experience in an accelerating car: the dislocation as we hurtle through one set of natural laws into another.

Because while humans are adaptive, we adapt slowly. On a societal level, our ‘social technologies’ – the ways that we structure ourselves to ‘capture the benefits of co-operation’ – are now so far behind the pace of change in our physical technologies that they’re increasingly obsolete. It takes roughly 15 years for society to play catch up. But our technology platforms are transforming every five to seven. This is producing fundamental ruptures in everything from ‘nuclear proliferation, bio-terrorism, cybercrime’, to the quiet but stark inequalities produced in societies no longer able to catch or equally share the benefits of advancement. Add to this the deep damage done globally to our social technologies by the years of recession and cuts, and that rupture becomes even greater.

We’re racing to catch up even as we’re begging to slow down.

This is also profoundly true on an individual level. Not too long ago, it didn’t take much to be middle class in the western world. We lived in world of defined benefits. Today, the collision of globalisation and technology has dramatically raised the stakes for all of us. The hustle is now a world of defined contributions. The fixed point of the American Dream – a job for life, the security of home, a clear path to tread – is now, Friedman observes, more like a never-ending climb up a downward-moving escalator. ‘You need to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, make sure you’re engaged in lifelong learning and by play by the rules – while also reinventing some of them. Then you can be middle class.’

And this pressure cooker has barely warmed up. Human skills continue to evolve at breakneck speed. Many are hurtling towards complete obsolescence; the most recent modelling suggests around 800 million jobs are at risk[1]. Simultaneously, we are confronting a global talent pool expanding at precisely the rate of digital connection. The ‘digital divide’ that has for so long limited ‘what you could learn, where you could do business and with whom you could collaborate’ will largely disappear within the decade. And this new talent pool is hungrier, more motivated, more adept at self-education; tapping in, for the first time, to the global flows of knowledge that leapfrog outdated educational systems.

This is an extraordinary shift. And in it lies, for all of us, nothing less than our future prosperity. Because when the digital divide disappears, there will only be one thing left: the motivational divide. ‘The future’, Friedman notes, ‘will belong to those who have the self-motivation to take advantage of all the free and cheap tools and flows coming out of the supernova’ – to those, in other words, who can embrace a state of continuous adaptation that optimises the right skills for our future world.

Because in the face of automation that will replace both repetitive and cognitive tasks, resilience lies in distinctly human capital: in communication, creativity, and collaboration; in the ability not simply to compute, but to empathise, to connect, to influence and persuade. These, Friedman argues, are ‘the massive, undervalued human assets to unlock – and our educational institutions and labour markets need to adapt to that’. They’re also assets that emphasise, more than ever, the power and necessity of narrative and storytelling as a primary skill and tool for every leader – regardless of seniority, industry or community – in a world that can no longer rely on old forms of power, or certainty, or security.

This is not an easy or natural transition. The chasms opened up by these accelerating forces continue to leave millions of people ‘desperate for navigational help and sense-making’ as they try to construct a new narrative that will help them recalibrate in this moment of great change.

And when this phenomenon occurs on a mass scale, a few big things happen. At a national level, democracies – dependent on the decision-making of an informed populace – cease to function. Populism rises as voters seek out the reassurance of simplistic world views and clear solutions. At an industry-wide level, organisations must contend with great swathes of apathy, disengagement and low productivity as people grapple to find their place in the new reality.

The emotional impulse, for all of us, is to simply stop; to dig our heels into our fear. And increasingly, we may see more and more governments constructing, as in New York, these moments of artificial relief. But the pace of change will not slow down. We must now accept that there are no more placid lakes. There are only rapids. And in the rapids, ‘every time you rudder or drag your paddle to steer you lose momentum – and that makes you more vulnerable to flipping over’. For businesses, for individuals as economic contributors, for problem solvers of any kind, the only solution is to throw ourselves into the currents: ‘to move as fast or faster’ and achieve a state of dynamic stability: a state of agility that no longer expects change to end at point B.

This is the challenge of our time: to build systems of true resilience into our communities. To win, we must reimagine the social contract between workers and employees, students and educational establishments, governments and citizens. It’s a tall order, and one that few of our leaders – of government and industry – have the stomach for in these post-recession days.

And yet there are shining examples of success littered throughout Friedman’s book. All of them share the pre-requisites for long-term behaviour change: a clear mechanism to motivate people, the provision of means in skills and tools, and the momentum to sustain the virtuous cycle. The most effective harness narrative as the mechanism to underpin, connect and amplify all three components.

In AT&T, the world’s telecoms giant, the advent of the iPhone and its role as network provider triggered an overnight transformation. To keep pace with the most innovative business on the planet, it would need to become a data business. To become a data business, it would need to rapidly reskill its 300,000 (mostly blue collar) workers. In doing so, it created a solution that today AT&T’s leaders call the ‘intelligent assistance approach’: a process which, at every stage, provides the blueprint for a mass-agile organisation of the future by ‘providing the scaffolding and incentives that make a new learning journey for so many people sustainable’.

The leadership team begin with a narrative that creates clarity and motivation. Every September, the leaders lay out a high-level narrative of journey the business will take in the next five to ten years, underpinned by the specific objectives of the next 12 to 14 months. ‘The idea’, says AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, ‘is to be totally transparent about where the business is heading and what the challenges will be.’ This is filtered consistently through the organisation so that, ‘by July, everyone has the message.’ By offering people an ever-evolving narrative to help them navigate shifting sands and re-connect to the purpose of change, Stephenson notes, ‘people say I get, I want to be part of it.’ The next question is ‘how can I be part of it? Those who decide they’re not up for the ride can leave’. This clarity of messaging means they lose 10% of their work force every year – but the space is filled by those who are willing to play a part and feel connected to clear sense of purpose.

Once they’ve created the motivation, Stephenson continues, it’s about ‘giving people the opportunity to pivot’: providing the means to upgrade their skills in an accessible, personalised format. Every employee is connected to an internal LinkedIn equivalent, where they can promote their growing range of skills and pitch for new roles. They’re provided with a personal learning budget, bespoke world-class courses designed with world-leading establishments – increasingly also designed to harness the cognitive impact of narrative and storytelling as a learning tool – and a suite of cutting-edge digital learning platforms. They’re given the freedom to pursue new skills and request new courses. In this way, each employee is empowered to play their part in the bigger story of change. ‘If you want to learn,’ according to Stephenson, ‘we’re all in because it leads to more engaged employees; that equals better customer service, more loyal customers, higher shareholder value.’ But the emphasis on self-motivation and autonomy is key.  ‘You can pick a different future and how to get there. But you have to optin.’

And embracing this continuous learning is designed to build a clear sense of momentum. Every person’s commitment is tracked through big data; those who learn more and better are put forward internally for promotions faster. As these stories of success are shared around the business, the desire to upskill increases. Stephenson is absolute in this intention: ‘people need to know that if I am clearly motivated to learn, I am going to get rewarded.’

The new social contract, in a company like AT&T, is this: ‘you can be a lifelong employee if you are ready to be a lifelong learner’.

The benefits are undoubtedly two-way. AT&T’s leaders are certain that this social contract is raising both the company’s average skill level and its morale. ‘We’ve taken our best and made it our average.’ Absenteeism down 30%, ideas are actioned faster and scaled through the company from any origin. ‘People feel more empowered, more connected, more engaged’. And it’s in these three words – if we can get the transition right – that we find the true promise of this accelerated age.

[1]McKinsey, 2017