In Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant dystopian novel The Road, a man and a boy wander through a post-apocalyptic world, alone, desperate, without any notion of their destination and best on all sides with danger.
Now I can’t imagine for one second that this is any fun at all, and yet thousands, probably millions of people across the UK and wider world do something akin to this every day when they go to work.
Their day is pointless, without purpose, and they are beset by distractions and, although very few are shot at with bows and arrows, they probably find it annoying, unnerving, and downright disengaging.
What they lack is an idea of what they are doing and why they are doing it – they want a purpose, a reason for being at work and completing the tasks they have been allotted. They need, in short, a strategic narrative.
Every business should have a strategy – a reason to exist. At its most basic, that reason will be “sell stuff to people”; however, they also have to identify the stuff they sell, and the people who will buy it. So you have to go a bit deeper, and define yourself a bit more clearly, say: “we will make grommets for 5p and sell them to people requiring grommets for 10p”.
That gives you a clearer sense of purpose, but that’s more of a business plan, really.
What you need is something a bit catchier. “We will be the first choice of grommet suppliers to the chandler and ironmongers of North West England”.
That’s more like it – there’s a bit of ambition in there, a sense of a journey, and giving clarity about what they want to be.
Now, when the dignitary visits Grommetco and sees a chap wielding a broom with a sense of purpose and engagement, and said dignitary asks the broom-wielder “what, my fine chap, are you doing here today?” the broom-wielding one will reply, in a trice, “why, sir or madam, I am helping Grommetco become the first choice of grommet suppliers to the chandlers and ironmongers of North West England.”
Because our broom-wielding hero has had the strategic vision explained to them in a meaningful and inspiring way, and therefore understands how his broom-wielding activities fit into that compelling strategic narrative.
This example, of course, is based on President Kennedy’s visit to Nasa, where the late President confronted just such a chap, happily brushing a corridor or somesuch and asked him what he was doing.
“Helping put a man on the moon, Mr President,” came the answer. There was an organisation with a clear strategic narrative, set, of course, by President Kennnedy himself when he committed to out a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And they made it.
What the strategic narrative gave our broom-wielding fellows was a sense of purpose beyond where the dust needs to go, or where he left the keys to the broom cupboard. With the best will in the world, sweeping up is going to have limited job satisfaction even for the most autotelic personality. Look it up, I’m not going to give you everything on a plate.
However, putting a man on the moon, or even becoming the number one grommet supplier to various merchants across the North West of England gives a deeper, more profound sense of purpose to the most menial of tasks.
I was working with a client recently where there was a disconnect between the day job and the big picture. Most people really enjoyed their jobs, which were largely technical and what you would call vocational – they had studied long and hard at university to qualify themselves to do this job, and were very proud to do it. They enjoyed their work and were highly engaged with it – they had role engagement, as we engagement gurus have it.
What was missing, however, was a mental link to the wider purpose of the organisation. This had been made clear, it was summarised in four points. As mission statements go, it was a pretty good one. Clear, concise, unambiguous.
But people couldn’t make the link between what they did, and those four points. OK, they would say. I’m doing this immensely clever and technical job to the best of my considerable ability, but I cannot see how this delivers A, B C or D.
Leaders had not done the narrative bit, you see. They had not told the story of how roles deliver the purpose.
In an ideal world, and in successful organisations that do this well, senior leaders set the general direction, they give the purpose and vision. They tell a story about why the organisation is there, what it does, how it does it. Around this are the values they want to promote in the organisation, the non-negotiable core emotional commitments to how things are done there.
Throughout the organisation divisions, departments, teams and ultimately individuals translate this strategic narrative into their own language, replicating that sense of purpose, that reason for being in a way that is meaningful at each iteration, yet stays true to the original vision.
It’s not easy. But it is possible. I’ve seen it done, well, and to so well. One things that can help is an overall image or metaphor, such as climbing a mountain, building a village, a long car journey or even planting a forest. For me, the mountain is the least successful, by the way; it tends to put off those who question the sanity of climbers, and begs the question “what do we do when we reach the top?”
But here are some simple guidelines, which may help

  • Keep it simple. A single strapline, with a few key sentences of explanation
  • Keep it clear and unambiguous. Do not give wiggle room, or space for too much interpretation
  • Use an image – preferably one that can be easily adapted 
  • Use stories, have a narrative, people relate to stories
  • Link your purpose to your brand
  • Have very clear organisational values in place, and stay true to them

This last point brings us to another enabler of engagement, organisational integrity, more of which in a future blog.
Any road up, do this, and people will use the narrative to link their day job to the purpose of the organisation, and they will engage with the organisation, as well as their role. Simples.