Best practises and frameworks work like tropes and character archetypes; they form the deep foundations of a narrative that is both tailored to uniqueness yet solidly founded in effectiveness. Understand the basis of narrative and your transformation will be sound and accepted into the organisation’s culture.

Recently, it’s become common practise to refer to the human species as Homo Narrans — the storytelling man — rather than Homo Sapiens – the wise man. This reflects that we make sense of the world through narrative — constructed stories — rather than through rational thought. If the narrative resonates with us, we adopt the idea, irrespective of its actual value in cold logical terms.

This is undeniably true, having seen mythmaking in action in all kinds of context, from self-taught creation myths of organisations that I’ve been part of from the start, to national history narratives, to my children’s own developing memories and their recollections of recent and distant events.

Check your own memories – you really do not remember events after a while; you remember your telling of events. You remember your memories, and lay them down afresh with each telling.

It’s even been said that America is a continent of philosophical principles, while Europe is a continent of history (which is always narratively led). No wonder American political conflict always leads to interpretation what was meant founding documents, while European conflict is a scaled version of What she said to our Arthur at mum’s birthday party 37 years ago. Both are narrative processes, interpreted through standard forms.

We reflect this too in the concept of User Stories. How best to convey an intangible idea? Through stories that we can examine and talk about until we reach a shared understanding of what that idea means, and can define boundaries that thoroughly objective computers can execute and test against.

So why do we insist that organisational culture — an entity even more open to human social mechanisms — be changed through rational means?

Each organisation wears its own culture, and its own stories that it tells itself about its culture and how it came to be. If we want to weave glittering change into that garment, we have to find stories that make sense to that organisation. And every story is unique, changing on the teller and the audience, and the moment of telling.

But this doesn’t mean that the story is entirely unique in every part. I can tell the same story time and time again, different every time. But like Trigger’s Broom: I’ve changed the handle; I’ve changed the brush. It’s the same broom throughout.

Likewise, I can tell an entirely different story to you. But it’ll still be familiar to you. It’ll use familiar characters, even though they have different names. It’ll use familiar structures, even in a different setting. Because that’s how human narrative makes sense. We base our stories on archetypes of people and story arc because they work; they’ve evolved over thousands of years, millions of tellings. And yet they end up unique, tailored to the moment of telling.

So when I hear people decrying the use of Best Practises, or Frameworks, or Methods, on the grounds of environmental fit, I get very confused. What are Best Practises but the tropes and archetypes of narrative? Sample code if you like. If you deeply understand the tropes – the theory and principles – then you can tell your version of the change narrative to your audience and have it weave into the organisation’s culture, and be worn as an integral part of it. If not, you’re left like the singer of the Hedgehog Song:

Well you know all the words
And you sung all the notes
But you never quite learned the song.

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Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
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