The Value and Practicality of the Narrative

Practical Application of the Narrative

Operational Tacit

My cousin is medical student studying in one of the worlds best medical schools. The time-tested and effective best practice in medicine is to teach students by way of books, labs, peer-to-peer, mentoring, coaching and discovery. Consider that educators are not limited by these mechanisms but these are common tools they leverage. The discovery aspect of the education becomes most important as the students enter their medical residency. The student’s experience and awareness of the realities in medical practice become real at this moment. It is the point in their journey where reality sets in and they are actively gaining a tacit understanding of their world.

As part of this experience, my cousin was sent to an emergency trauma center for a few weeks. The hours were long and erratic. One of her first experiences in the center happened not long after her arrival. As she stood in the hallway with one of her student partners, the doors flung open and medical staff were running down the hallway pushing two gurneys. The staff all the while working as a high performance team yelling to each other and coordinating activities as they ran down the hall. My cousin looked over to her friend and said regarding the two gurneys together “I wonder if that is one person or two”

Beyond those words there lives a rush of adrenaline, fear, hope, wonder and an internal experience that can only be described in such a way that it scrapes at our tacit understanding. We understand the idea of jumping out of an airplane or being in a war like situation but through discovery and our own experience we gain the knowledge that informs our hearts along with our minds.

The Story in the End and the Beginning.

The narrative is the connection of events. The connection of events as spoken or written tells a story but not THE story. The power of the narrative is the contextual explanation of the relationship between things. We understand things as stories and this is how we rationalize our world. The narrative as words spoken or written is an important part of our humanity and our effectiveness in communication.

The Common Threshold

The narrative can be practical, effective and for purpose. Every job role has purpose and this purpose is aligned with a greater vision, objective and scope of activities. The narrative in use can be the starting point for these activities.

Practical Use

For every role or activity the narrative can be the starting point. The starting point is the key to understanding the who, what, when, where and potential for how (over time) at a given period of time.

Narrative Activity

The basis of a high level summary that identifies who, what and why. These are given based on a period of time and understanding of a situation.


George is part of the cable group, the cable group pulls cable for the cable company. The cable is used to support internal and external customers of the organization (Organization x). Organization x is a media company that is focused on the distribution of video and audio services and channels for millions of customers across region x and around the globe.

Understanding where George fits creates a sense of clear purpose for George but also allows for a value mapping of his role to the greater purpose of the organization.

The cable group is part of the infrastructure team. The infrastructure team manages physical assets based on new cable requirements and operational maintenance considerations.

The cable group enables Organization x to grow and serve new markets by creating the physical channels and conduits of connectivity. The cable group allows Organization x to maintain operational excellence by maintaining the infrastructure and supporting current physical network topologies.

The story of George in scope.

George represents every person in context of their role. This person is a performer and actor, he has value and this value needs to be understood. The role and context of the role is the list of things that George may do.

1)Maintain tools

2)Project Planning

3)Repair, create and install cable and cable channels.

The narrative can help clarify and express with more definition the stories within the activities in the list. The time it takes to capture the story is an investment in the future relative to business and knowledge continuity. The job description is only the list but George is the person and his work is much more than a list or process. It is a composition of these patterns interwoven by relationships to form the story.

At the end of a story we learn through reflection.   Our daily lives are filled with short stories that we don’t have the time or take the time to reflect on under most normal conditions.   Although, there are times that we do but we may not write these down or share them any further.  “Honey, how was your day?”  The end of the day can cap a chapter or maybe it is just a pause.

The point is that people choose to reflect on narratives most often when there is a perception that the story is over.   From a business perspective, we can ask to reflect at any time in the story to understand what is happening and participate as an action agent or actor ourselves.  In a lot of ways there isn’t a need to say everything out loud all the time but if we never ask, we never know.

The proper care and feeding of an organization.

George is set to retire. Over the past 36 years, he worked as a tradesman in Organization x as a “Cable Master” he could have written the book on cable but over the 36 years he never had time. He never had time and most folks didn’t know anything about what George actually did. Human resources had George classified as Senior Lineman Cable Technician. They looked at their records and realized that he was set to retire last year at 35 years of service but due to economic conditions he never put a retirement package in.

George was good an employee, he was effective and impactful in his work. Due to one condition or another, George must retire.

In 3 hours you are to capture 36 years of his work..

Consider the framework of many companies today in terms of employee engagement and understanding.    If Organization x is an average company leadership may have actually engaged with George concerning his performance, activities, role and responsibilities 35 times.     We could say that they had 35 opportunities to capture the narrative or reshape the story.   On most occasions over my career,  I have seen managers / leaders try to find ways to just get the performance assessment over with.  Even in the case where assessments were 360 degrees or converted to an ongoing activity, they are always something to avoid.

Now over the 35 opportunities of the annual assessment process which we could recognize of the story of this year past,  the narrative is left and the story stays with George.  It is interesting to consider that companies always tell stories of their foundation and history but they never attend to that history as it lives.  It is only upon reflection of the leadership of the company.   If these same organizations leveraged the time they have to engage their staff, capture the narratives and share the purpose, imagine how much more rich the organization could be.  Also, if we knew more from George over the past 35+ years, we would know much more about his contribution as a person of value and of what we need to know and do moving ahead to maintain and grow.

 Practical Behavior

We are here for a very short period of time.   That is true of every person everywhere.    Our history and heritage is important and understanding how we connect and relate in a given period of time offers understanding that will help prevent mistakes or benefit us in the future.   We have an opportunity to trade a little time on a daily, monthly, weekly, yearly basis to close chapters and reflect on many stories / narratives in our world.

The explicit capture and collection could lead to codification or an organized understanding of who, what, when, where, why and how an organization functions.   The benefits are endless.

Take a look here a good place to start!


2 thoughts on “The Value and Practicality of the Narrative

  1. Interesting Howie, I like to focus on the action verbs of the narrative that you used to see how they fit with processes in general or mission threads as you remember. The “to” is to amplify the purpose of change; the “as” is making a choice to change; the “by” is what pushes the change; the “with” is plan for change; and “through” is what provokes change. All these can be put in the context of “internal” and “external”. When we speak of employee engagement there are two distinct aspects to consider; the engagement within the company (the narrative within) and also the narrative outside with the employee’s relationship with the customers. Most employees that come in contact with the customer have a unique opportunity to discover if the change or vision fits within the context of the lives of the customers and there is much to gain from this factor and this factor changes as the culture and aspects of customers’ requirements also change. Capturing the why might be better than the how. The why drives the change and the how is the execution of it. Hopefully just adding to your thoughts Howie.


    1. Mr. Batdorf,

      The “why” is a critical enabler and extremely important. I believe what Mr. Cohen was expressing based on the reading is that subject matter expertise leaves organizations with “how” and organizations must deal with the consequences.

      Seth R


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