- A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.
What separates companies that move quickly towards a common goal from those that struggle to find unity? Why is it that some teams can routinely find a second, third, or fourth gear of execution? How do people who start with divergent objectives find common ground? Perhaps most importantly, why are some leaders successfully plug-and-play no matter what technical problem, cultural issue, or market challenge they are tasked with addressing?
In my last post on “Hiring for Leaders”, I talked about how you can both screen for and cultivate leadership qualities as your company scales. These qualities include taking positions, creating environments where multiple perspectives are acknowledged, and being adaptable. In this post I’ll build on that framework to discuss narrative – a critically important concept that is talked about often but still remains confusing for many people in business.
Why Is Narrative So Important?
During my time at Facebook and Pinterest, I noticed one element that drove successful outcomes: the connection between people and company objectives. This connection can take different forms: intuitively understanding the why of what people were tasked with, linking personal goals with company goals, creating less friction with other teams, and being resilient in the face of obstacles. The differentiator in all of this was the construction and delivery of a narrative.
Narrative creates the ability to connect people to your company and your company mission and drive collective action. The corollary to this deceptively simple statement is that narrative is not one thing – it’s not just a story. Narrative binds individuals to a living set of company attributes.
The following tenets are core to creating a compelling narrative.
Establish Clear Mission and Vision Statements
You can think about the mission and vision as the why and the how. Both are critical to any organization, large or small, because they become the scaffolding for how teams construct their roadmaps and how leadership talks about them.
At Pinterest, the mission was to help people discover and do the things that they love. As our technology advanced and our customers engaged with it more fully, our vision of how Pinterest could change the world also changed. This taught me that while the vision of a future outcome may not stay the same, the mission – the why – should remain stable. It’s the foundation for how people and teams answer the “Why are we doing this?” questions that naturally arise. Changing the mission can create confusion about priorities.
Make sure every team creates a mission and vision statement for the work that they do. You may call it a scope doc, a PRD, MRD, or something else entirely. But if the mission doesn’t answer why people are working on something, and the vision doesn’t show how that work changes things for customers and the company, it’s difficult for people to understand why and how their work is helping the company achieve its objectives.
Develop Long-Term Roadmaps
A roadmap is a narrative about where you’re going and what happens along the way. Push your teams to create three-year roadmaps. Acknowledge that the value in the exercise is not the accuracy with which teams can predict the future, but rather the exercise itself.
Teams with a roadmap for the future end up moving faster because they have already envisioned a journey in the process of creating the roadmap. They’re not disoriented when the real road turns or twists, because they already foresaw and prepared for some of them – and anticipated that there might be a few surprises along the way. That in turn alleviates the level of oversight and explanation that leaders need to provide, because their teams are advancing within a larger, more longitudinal comfort zone.
In creating the roadmap, aim to resolve it to a vision statement. This should be a 1+1=3 exercise where individual functions intersect and combine to create an even more powerful outcome. The company vision should be a leading indicator of what teams should strive to accomplish.
A good way of thinking about this at the team level or even division level is to break out into thematic areas and assign varying levels of confidence in the work. Those confidence levels will decrease the further you get out into the future.
Even if the technology you envision doesn’t exist, writing down the roadmap is a helpful exercise to plotting out an initial path.
Everything is measurable, but not everything can be measured in the same way. Create space for teams to define their metrics so that their output can be measured in ways that are meaningful. These metrics naturally generate narratives about how to meet or exceed them. They become a source of ongoing conversation within teams and between teams: Do we have the right metrics for meeting company objectives? Should we adjust them for technology or customer behavior? Do our metrics mesh with our mission and vision?
When these conversations take place, people feel naturally connected to the company and its goals. This process is so powerful that it’s essential to make sure that all the team-level metrics ladder up to company-level objectives. You don’t want people embracing their metrics (and their roadmap) and then arriving someplace the company did not want them to go.
You also need to ensure that team roadmaps do not collide and create conflict. If they do, reflect on each team independently and try to assess how it moves the company forward towards its top-level goals. If one team comes out on top, talk to the other team in the conflict about how they could adjust their roadmap and still achieve their goals and the company’s goals.
Know that there will always be trade-offs to make, and that your job as a leader is to create the narrative that keeps teams informed, aligned, and excited.
Create Cross-Functional Narrative Forums
Often as companies grow quickly, the first thing to go out the window is inter-team communication on strategy and goals. This can lead to misalignments, political posturing regarding resources, and management attrition. A great way to prevent this is to create regular forums for your leadership team to sit together and explain to one another what they are doing and why. You’re not asking them to justify their existence or run their numbers. You’re asking them to tell everyone else a narrative about their mission, vision and roadmap, and how the journey is progressing.
Smart leaders will bring a narrative that is tightly aligned with what they hear from their teams. It also gives the narrative “legs” for traveling across the entire enterprise – something that is otherwise rare.
Getting team-level narratives elevated to the leadership level, across functions, accomplishes a number of positive outcomes. First, it creates empathy among and within the leadership team about other team members’ goals, challenges and objectives. During resourcing conflicts, you want leadership team members to be able to advocate just as empathically for another team as they would for their own.
Second, it forces understanding. Anytime you have to tell a good story, you have to understand that story far better than the people you are delivering it to. The requirement to share your team’s story with other leaders forces you to master that narrative. Detailed work has to be distilled down to essentials. Technical complexity has to become clarity. Acronyms disappear, replaced by meaningful, memorable terms. Just the process of preparing a narrative about your team can help you spot work that is not truly aligned with company objectives.
Third, delivering cross-function narratives establishes trust at the inter-team level. Putting leaders in a position to explain to their teams why other teams are doing what they are, or why a trade-off decision went against them, establishes an authentic authority.
The most successful teams have leaders that can weave a story using the foundations described above and connect it at various altitudes throughout the company. Driving board alignment around a strategic shift isn’t that different than getting your ops teams to the same place. It’s about creating shared understanding that drives people’s internal connection to the company’s goals.
Metrics, technologies and quantitative goals are important for any business to succeed. But without a narrative that makes people own them, they’re just components of a machine without a soul.
Jonathan Shottan is an Executive-in-Residence at TCV.