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You were King; you controlled the narrative; if you said so that’s the way it was.

August 11, 2010

Certain human frailties are eternal, the most obvious being self-aggrandizement and detachment.  The other is a self-serving sense of honesty capable of explaining away the unexplainable. This past weekend we saw the King Tut exhibit in NYC, amazed at the artisanship in ancient objects, each celebrating some part of the King’s life or afterlife.  Must have been nice to have an entire society believing your strategic narrative that you were a God on Earth and where you could still have your story told your way, 34 centuries later.

Fast forward 3400 years.  Mark Hurd was ousted from HP for violating their ethics policies, in the usual dumb way of getting somehow embroiled with an attractive female ‘PR consultant’ of no real PR distinction. It just looked so bad when he got himself basically blackmailed into making a personal shut-up payment you would think he must have known he was on thin ice from the get-go.   In today’s business climate and, even the CEO can’t control the narrative for 34 days, let alone 34 centuries. He said it was honest, but his expense report said something else and the company’s narrative of being innovative but boring came into conflict and the narrative won. Yes, the stock tanked, but this is for the good – employees now know everyone is held to the same ethics standard, the internal narrative is based on facts and this will fuel productivity and motivation, ie, the stock will recover.  Whoever controls the narrative controls the outcome.

Then Apple confirmed this past weekend the departure of the executive taking the blame for the antennagate debacle, who it so happens, had only been with the company 15 months.   Besides taking the antenna issue on the chin, Mark Papermaster had cultural issues – he came from IBM which is a tops-down, delegate and manage through the chain of command kind of place, perfect for blaming underlings in an “I’m shockedshocked to find that gambling is going on in here” manipulate the facts behind the narrative kind of a way.  Apple runs tighter than a drum, everyone is hands-on and it’s hard to pull an “I dunno” at the executive levels.

Sunday’s NY Times Week in Review section had an interesting front page, top of the fold (for us old folk, a way of saying “pay attention, this is important”) discussing super athletes and how they are self-removed from reality.  Per the article, the definition of a super-athlete is not just an over achiever, but someone about whom we have yet to dig up the dirt.  We’re amazed to see their performance, but also waiting for the other shoe to drop, have the real facts emerge which will re-write the narrative so well crafted by their Agents, teams and handlers.  These are cynical times.

These are also times of transition where the 20-something’s are entering the workforce and feedback from their managers has not been overwhelming great.  Poor work ethic, sense of entitlement, needing continuous affirmation from their work-parent (the job we used to call ‘supervisor’) and  talking before doing thoughtful research are reoccurring themes we’re hearing. They also seem to have a different view of honesty than the previous generation of worker, particularly around who owns ideas, which we call Intellectual Property and is a big factor in company valuation. Having had to steer a company through a disputed IP ownership issue affecting a key patent, I can say this is a big and expensive issue.

Recent articles have talked about how cut and paste without attribution from internet sources into college and grad school papers is seen as benign, not plagiarism.  Getting the diploma is as good as, and easier, than learning something to get the diploma. With everyone saying we must innovate to rebuild the economy, idea flow and ownership will remain a big issue for years out and had better be included in your internal narrative.

What they are experts at, however, is demanding a total employee and consumer experience over typical ‘new and improved!’ feature-function bloat.  This is probably just the result of their having seen so much and therefore taking what we still find amazing as the usual path of evolution.  I love the iPad and what it represents, while they think of it as “and so what did you expect would happen next, chalk?”

Now that they are about to become a major factor in the economy and workforce, how do we motivate 20-something’s to work hard and spend harder?  By presenting them with both an in-company and customer based strategic narrative, your ‘story’, i.e. context. And these narratives better align because they are also very good at skewering inconsistencies and finding buried emails. And because 20-something’s live and work in a world of context and comparison within their social networks, these strategic narratives have to align with that of society, be it being green, work-life balance, etc. With a solid narrative, you’re a prime employer and premium brand. Without one, you’re just a place to work and a commodity.

Living in a world of intersecting narratives will transcend business at every level.  Many larger firms (and some mid-sized as well) implemented SAP or other ERPs, which demand strict adherence to a set of fixed transactions, privilege levels and information flows. It’s a perfect tops-down, isolated individual seeing only their data, command and control system which these horizontal team players will see as conflicting with the typical “we love our employees and teamwork” internal narrative palp.  How many companies talk about wanting their employees to interact in creative way to solve problems or present new ideas and then shut off access to the Internet?

Same for how we market our products. Recent research by various Universities, including Harvard and the University of Virginia, shows a general and broad based move away from the norm of competitive consumption to the new norm of personal happiness, which is based on experience and how your product contributes to it, i.e. your customer narrative.  How long will it take many companies to understand the new norm does not give a hoot about changing a package and announcing ‘new and improved’?   Product and brand aggregation strategies will soon be turned on their heads. For example, Container Store goes to great length in training their retail personnel. Their external narrative – we have everything you need for storage solutions and we can help you choose what you need. Counter that with other stores where the sales clerk selling storage boxes sells just that – storage boxes at the cheapest price while hoping Costco doesn’t carry the same item.

The good news – creating a strategic narrative is iterative and does not require much investment. The bad news – some of the facts unearthed along the way may be inconvenient and have to be cleaned before reaching sunlight and you better be prepared to live the narrative, even when inconvenient as HP’s Board did. In either case, the time to start was yesterday.

Rich Eichen is the Founder of, and, a Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, who’s website is http://www.growroe.com and is one of their senior turnaround leaders/CROs, Program and Interim Executives with over 25 years’ experience reshaping companies, Operations, IT and key initiatives. He can be reached at richard.eichen@growroe.com

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