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THE IMPORTANCE OF A COMMON NARRATIVE

 

As a business attorney, I am typically involved in legal issues involving corporations and those who create and own them.    During my several years in practice, I have observed both successes and failures.   A question I have often though is “what is the formula that makes a group/business succeed where others have failed?”   Is there a secret ingredient that runs through individuals, groups, or businesses (large or small) that binds people to work together to achieve a successful end?

What makes some individuals, families, or groups of people effective, resilient, and happy?   Why are certain people or businesses able to overcome obstacles, challenges, and succeed when others have easily failed?  What are the proven counters to the forces that want to tear apart and how does one prevent entropy/apathy that often occurs? 

Researchers and business experts have been studying this question for over 25 years.   They have arrived at a few specific conclusions.  The research has universally arrived at the determination that the single most important element for a family, group, or business to counter the effects of the natural world may be the simplest action of all—the development of a narrative.

What is a narrative?   In basic terms, a narrative is a common history that a family/group shares.   The narrative describes who they are, where they came from, and what is important to them.   The narrative demonstrates what they are made of and highlights that one can navigate extremely difficult obstacles and survive (even succeed) because others before them have faced almost impossible obstacles and still could overcome.    Those with a common narrative are better able see beyond themselves and (because of their ability to do so) develop a core strength.

Researchers have demonstrated in multiple evaluations and interviews that people and groups who have a strong narrative fare better when challenges come because they have an “polar star” to guide them and an “anchor” when confronted by a serious problem or event.   A “polar star” is found in examples of a family or group’s shared history where individuals can see the successes of their predecessors and model their own lives by them.   An anchor is the ability, when difficult challenges arrive, which allows the individual or group to point to challenges that others have faced in the past as examples of how “this too shall pass.”   Therefore, these individuals and corporations are more positive and develop a resiliency to face problems head on.

Some of the early research in this area involved children and was later expanded to larger groups.   The observations made of the children demonstrated that the stronger the child‘s narrative and family history, that he or she had a stronger sense of control over their individual lives.    They develop a “strong inter-generational self” because they realize that they belonged to something larger than themselves.  As a result, they had higher self-esteem and believed that themselves and their family would be able to overcome the problems they faced.   The children became more resilient because they were part of something bigger than themselves.

When September 11th happened, the researchers returned to the children they had observed previously who lived in the area of the tragedy, who had witnessed the events, and many had family members affected by those events.   After this very traumatic incident, the researchers directly observed the ability of the children to cope was a direct result of those who had a narrative and those who did not.

The fundamental conclusion is this:  If you want to have a successful family, group, business environment, or corporation, there must be a clear telling and retelling of a narrative of both positive elements and the ability to bounce back from difficult ones.

How can concept apply in business?   When a group of individuals comes together for a common goal and purpose (such as working for a company), they are usually more effective in good times, adapt when changes occur and are resilient when negative.    A common goal is often described by utilizing a common narrative that everyone can understand and, in most circumstances, relate to.

The history of Harley-Davidson motorcycles is an excellent example of a corporate narrative.   The beginning of Harley-Davidson is a story of middle-America with William Harley and William Davidson developing and manufacturing their first motorcycles in a 10 x 15 wooden backyard shed.   It demonstrates the independent and inventive nature of the company, which most of its riders share.  It also helped in the development of a brand based on customer loyalty. 

The narrative is seen throughout the corporation.   The history is prevalent in their retail stores with displays concerning its founding, pictures of the shed, and classic motorcycles throughout the stores.  The black color, the logo, and font utilized in its early days continue be reflected throughout their products.   The look and style of their motorcycles also point to their past.   They are not just building and selling motorcycles to travel from point A to point B.    Instead they are building a brand that can be recognized and lore that is passed to future generations.

Through its various ownership changes, corporate restructuring, recessions, the Great Depression, and when times seemed bleak for the company, it often fell back on its narrative to keep in business.  In basic terms, the success of the company is based on the success of its narrative.

 I would suggest you take some time and think about your narrative.   What makes you and your business unique?   What can you point to that can become a foundation for success.   Developing a narrative will provide a north star for guidance in times of growth and success and an anchor for stability in times of difficulty.

© 2016 Matthew W. Harrison and Harrison Law, PLLC All Rights Reserved

This website and article have been prepared by Harrison Law, PLLC for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.