Business Storytelling vs. Storydoing

In his recent HBR article, Ty Montague calls great companies ‘storydoing’ organizations. The premise: great companies are story doers, not just storytellers. Specifically, this means they take action on stories, and run efficiently and more profitably as a result. Montague has also written a book, True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business.

A Purposeful Company Story Aligns Resources

The model used in this article recognizes and tries to measure the fact that stories align and focus resources, and they drive performance. As a marketer and storyteller, I think the author is spot-on. A ‘story doing’ company uses stories to drive product development, develop rich experiences, and create world-class customer service. Too often, storytelling is seen as a marketing and communication issue. By contrast, storydoing companies create compelling actions and experiences that put the corporate narrative to the test in everything they do. I’ve written about this before: a core story is a strategic GPS and it guides a company’s actions – all of them. A story communicates the company’s DNA; and storydoing puts that DNA into action.

Corporate Storytelling Drives Performance

Researcher Adam Grant found that when teams were given stories about customers that related to the company mission and how it is fulfilling that mission by helping customers, those teams were 300% more productive over the same time period than counterparts who didn’t hear customer stories. That’s powerful.

Storydoing companies use narratives to drive better products and services and to catalyze loyal fans – loyalists – to evangelize. That means storydoing companies have their stories told primarily by others, not themselves: TOMS Shoes, IBM and Red Bull, for example. I agree with Montague; these are all companies I’ve written about – they are great examples of story and purpose driving performance.

Customer stories, then, don’t come out of nowhere; rather, they happen because companies are fulfilling their brand promises, their larger purposes, and are consistently acting on their own core story by backing it up with great products and service.

Storytelling Methods and Imperfect Methodology

The way Montague measures performance isn’t perfect and he readily and respectfully admits it. Many readers –inlcuding me – pointed out that some of the companies in the 42-company study are not fulfilling each of the criteria that he spells out (there are six in all). He and his team also examined a number of privately held companies for which public information is not available. That’s a complicating factor.

Stories Also Align Employees

Some of the most important storytelling has to be done internally. Stories have the power to align and inspire employees. As Grant’s research shows, when employees understand and buy into the company’s mission and core story – that there is a bigger mission of helping people – they are more productive. This is key. Certainly, while Montague’s criteria include using stories to drive HR policies, compensation, and product, he does not elaborate on the most important employee factor – employee alignment and storytelling. Employee word-of-mouth is critical because they are brand ambassadors and champions for the corporate cause.

Moreover, what’s also important and not mentioned in Montague’s methodology is the needed alignment between the story senior managers understand and care about and the story (ies) that employees understand, care about and act on – or tell! Any misalignment compromises performance.

Montague cites Target, for example, as an example of a storydoing company – and that example generated a lot of disagreement and discussion by me included. I would argue Target has not used stories cohesively to drive action internally, though it has articulated a great story outside the company.


Employees are Brand Champions and Keepers of the Company Story (Just as Executives are)

What’s missing from this model is the employee evangelism factor. Storydoing companies must have ‘galavanized’ employees who are among the most rabid fans, and who, as previously mentioned, buy into, understand, care about, and tell the most powerful stories. And those stories must be in alignment who the company says it is externally. That alignment is critical.

A Model to Quantify The Power of Stories

Despite its challenges, Montague is onto something with his methodology. While it will and should evolve to address the shortcomings, it is a step in the right direction because it recognizes the power of narrative to drive strategy and product, align resources, create compelling experiences, and catalyze the most important factor in word of mouth – people!

That’s my story!

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