The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.
(Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

Our modern, enlightened world no longer has a place for myths – they have been displaced by facts. Myths are generally ostracised as »false consciousness« and an adversary of reason. Reason is focused on reality and its rational processing; myths distort the facts and build fantastic contraptions out of and around them. We may tolerate such a thing in our children’s world as fairy tales. However, we fail to see the value of myths in the normality of daily life.

Accordingly, logic and calculation are always preferential in organizations, too. The world of organizations functions on the basis of facts and data that can be processed conclusively with reason and calculation. A »good feeling«, a »sense« of danger or a »hunch« for an opportunity will not convince any management. Anyone who makes an intuitive statement in business conversation will immediately be forced to prove their instinct at hand of an elaborate business case and valid numbers. Organizations are not only managed by numbers, they are also growing more data-bound. Software-based management cockpits make it possible to perform detailed KPI checks. Performance-related pay depends on logically deduced goals cascades and performance evaluations, which measure achievements or the degree of goals achievement and convert them into bonus payments. Project successes have to be demonstrated even in advance with exact goal definitions and index tables …

Organizations profit from the circumstance that the logical evaluation of our world generates more and more data, including on the markets and in the consumer sectors. Web technology makes people ever more transparent: their consumer profiles, their searches and reading interests, their health, their friends, their travel preferences, etc. The correlation of these data at the same time make the behaviour of profile groups more and more predictable. In consequence, the editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson, announced the »end of theory« in 2008: We no longer have a use for theory, as the amounts of data we have at our fingertips are so great that we can simply calculate statistically the answers to questions and simulate prognoses for the future by computer technology. There will no longer be a need for hypotheses, as data can be evaluated straight away. »Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.«

However: The global data volume doubles every two years, growing ever more into Big Data, to use a fashionable phrase to describe one of the business world’s central challenges. A new industry is now working on offering software and technologies to businesses that will endeavour to give them an edge with the evaluation of data sets that are constantly growing and changing and are ever more complex. Logical algorithms attempt to tame the flood of data.

Yet, even in the face of great technological advances, more information does not necessarily spell more knowledge. The increasing calculation of the business world does not necessarily translate into a greater sense of security for its inhabitants. A sense of security and well-being cannot be tied to pure numbers alone. Numbers may be able to illuminate a »what?«, but not the meaningful »why?«, as Microsoft Research’s leading scientist Dannah Boyd has repeatedly stated. Therefore, philosopher Byung Chul Han wrote that »dataism is nihilism«, while »meaning, on the other hand, rests on narration«, on a good story. »Counting is not the same as Recounting. (…) It is recounting, not counting, that results in finding and recognizing the self.« Chaos researcher and psychologist Andreas Huber agrees: he has averred that the increased complexity of our world of VUCA can only be described and understood by thinking in metaphors. From this point of view, Chris Anderson’s praise of data measurement and his discharge of theory constitutes the abolition of meaningful (as in: full, of meaning) work.

This is where the logic of facts and numbers reaches its limits. It cannot recount. It cannot think metaphorically. It cannot ask for meaning. Myths can do these things. I would like to advance the hypothesis that organizations in VUCA situations are in greater need of what Hans Blumenberg called »work on myths« in order to deal with the confusing »absolutism of reality«. I do not want to replace reason with myths. I am simply advocating the notion that deep-seated orientation can be provided to employees not only with the great range of meaningfully used data, measurement and analysis tools but also with a narrative structure. This is also and particularly the case when there is no concrete goal in sight and/or the exact path lies in the dark. I believe that managers can attain guiding clarity by focussing on a narration within their organization that is intuitively graspable for the employees and at the same time allows them the necessary freedom to act.

I posted six AIKIDO principles on this blog. These help people and organizations to more effectively address VUCA. Myths are compatible with the first three basic stances Agility, Clarity and Intuition. Myths have always played a role in defining culture by providing a narrative that has placed the world and existence into a meaningful context. Without providing logical proof, they concentrate on the truth behind the facts. They provide associations in images and symbols and speak of the content as music in words (Kerenyi) in an intuitively graspable and emphatically liveable language. Myths provide a simple basic text that can be continuously altered in its concrete manifestation. »Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but in the story which it tells«, wrote Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the most renowned researchers of myth. That means: every person can essentially create a myth, tell it in their own personal manner. The content of a myth delivers a meaningful model that provides sense and answers the »why?« question. At the same time, myths help to filter contents, centre employees and focus them on what is relevant. Therein lies its fundamental clarifying force. Simultaneously, myths always provide space for flexible action and thus conform to the third AIKIDO principle: Agility. Myths can only make a statement within the concrete, image-bound event of the narrative; yet they always occur as showcases and permit interpretation. A myth never provides a process description or a rule book, but provides example images of principles that humans themselves have to translate into rules of behaviour in concrete situations.

In VUCA situations, managers can enable the power of myths for intuitively effective, clarifying narratives. I would like to suggest the following storyline as a minimal structure for a management narrative. It has proved its worth in consultancy work in the past:

  • Description of the Situation: What is our current challenge?
  • Purpose Statement: What is the meaning we create together?
  • Value Statement: Which basic values serve as guiding lights for our actions?
  • Leadership Statement: How do I lead you onto the path, what are you able to trust in with me?

Note that the management narrative about volatility and uncertainty of the future is not »tangible«. It does not pose concrete questions: What are our goals? Which rules will we apply? What are my expectations? It is deliberately fuzzy when it describes the future with regard to goals, but it does provide behavioural guidance for the given moment.

A good management narrative finds short, incisive answers for questions and its core can be told in no more than a minute. The brevity of the narrative helps sharpen the content and makes it plausible. I have had positive experiences with asking managers to tell each other their management narratives and afterwards give feedback in order to test the effect of their narrative structures.

Management narratives ideally use metaphors to enrich their content. A good narrative opens and ends on an association, a symbol, a motto, a mission statement … The statements on purpose, value and leadership cannot and should not be told only via words as a story, but be illustrated with images, emotionalized with associations, symbolised with objects, made emphatically graspable with experiences.

Myths are never told just once. They live off being told again and again, the same content in ever different ways. Successful communication lives off redundancy, repetition, doubling. Narrative is not the same as holding a power point presentation and providing hand-outs. Or printing a glossy brochure for distribution. Narrative needs oral transmission. In order to be effective, managers have to be able to enter spontaneous conversations with their narrative, inspire meetings, enliven lunchtime chatter, positively seize the office grapevine … While the content will always remain the same, the manner of telling will be spontaneously adapted to each situation. The core of a narrative can proliferate in so many ways wherever tales can be told.

Social Media provide an additional attractive platform of communication for managers. Even given all manners of reservations and aversion to them, they are places where narratives can be successfully placed in order to give narrative guidance to employees. Facebook and Co show the attraction of recounting over counting. Statistics, diagrams, columns of numbers hardly exist on these social media. The social media are dominated by film extracts, images, adages, gossip, short information. Users of social networks type their messages into the computer, but the platforms act according to the laws of the spoken word. In contrast to hierarchical, status-oriented bureaucracies, the communication structure of community-based networks functions with viral effect: The structural similarity of all participants means that the message with the most attractive content is the one that will spread fastest.

This is the precise place where the management narrative can develop its advantage. To use social media in order to continuously post those film clips, adequate quotations, telling images, paradigmatic experiences, discussion-inviting links that conform with the Purpose, Value and Leadership Statement means that managers are able to keep returning to a guiding narrative core again and again, always in a different guise. With this in mind, good managers will require a new skills set in the digital workspace. The interior management team will need not only the logical thinker but also the eloquent men and women of letters, the aesthetic artists and the creative tinkerers.

These thoughts are not meant to advocate stupefying bedazzlement or unethical manipulation of employees! Quite the opposite: I want to oblige the manager. It is important to keep renewing promises of meaning, values and management through narrative leadership. The managers will allow themselves to be measured by these promises in practice. I am convinced that this will make narrative a valuable management tool, which can help to better lead employees in organizations through Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, using the intuitive clarity of myths.

Johannes Ries