Okay, I admit it: I’m obsessed with the big picture.
All joking aside, though, I do believe that grand organizational narratives are not only an egregiously overlooked issue but also are a critical ingredient of success for many, if not most, organizations
Why are grand narratives so important? Possessing a sound narrative is a lot like possessing a solid grounding in history. My 11th grade history teacher summed it up well: He used to say the lack of this solid grounding is a lot like driving down an unusually busy interstate highway without a rearview mirror. You can’t move forward unless you know what’s behind you.
But grand organizational narratives are important for another reason.
Let me illustrate with a recent current event — the U.S. Tea party movement. Mind you, I neither come to praise this movement nor to bury it — only to analyze it and to account for its success.
I believe the movement is successful largely because of its grand narrative. To put it another way, it’s succeeded because it has inspired and, most important, motivated its membership with a message that is perceived as being both deeply rooted in the past and relevant to the needs of the present day.
Call it what you will — patriotism or lunacy —the Tea Party narrative not only has inspired but, even more significant, also has motivated tens of millions of citizens, some of whom up to now have been entirely apolitical, to participate in the American political process, largely through turnouts at rallies and other public functions. But of course, the Tea Party is only the most recent example of how effective grand narratives have inspired Americans throughout history. The Civil Rights Movements and Vietnam Antiwar movement are two especially noteworthy examples.
The Cooperative Extension movement in America is desperately in need of its own narrative. And what a foundation on which to build! In terms of its history, Cooperative Extension figuratively is sitting on a veritable treasure trove, though the vast majority of Extension educators are scarcely aware of this fact.
Roughly a century ago, we helped integrate a technologically challenged farming landscape into an vibrant and integral part of the U.S. economy and, in the process, transform U.S. farming into one of the most successful enterprises in human history.
Of course, this only scratches the surface of the century-old Extension narrative.
To be fair, though, within the last century Extension has done a lousy job equipping its employees and clients with an adequate understanding of and appreciation for this narrative and its value to our mission and future success. It’s high time we corrected this.
Be advised, though, that narratives and history aren’t synonymous. Narratives must also help underscore how this history has uniquely equipped an organization to rise to the demands of the present day. The most effective grand narratives have one foot firmly planted in the past, the other similarly positioned in the present.
Narratives must not only extol the past but also underscore how past experiences have equipped organizations especially well for the future. Without this balance, narratives don’t account for much.
On the other hand, well-conceived, balanced narratives can inspire and motivate our employees to better serve their clients even as they provide clients not only with a compelling story about our past but also a deeper appreciation for our continued organizational relevance.