If the enterprise is a story, what is its backstory?

If the enterprise is a story, what is its backstory? Where does the enterprise come from? What are its deep drivers and experiences that form the foundation for its choices in the present?

This came up last night whilst watching a BBC interview [BBC iPlayer: UK only, until 20 May 2010] with the British character-actor Timothy Spall [Wikipedia, IMDb], talking about his work with the social-realist film-director Mike Leigh [Wikipedia, IMDb]. Leigh’s method for developing a script has some strong resemblances to running a business, in that, as the Wikipedia entry, describes, it’s a mixture of careful preparation for real-time improvisation:

Leigh uses lengthy improvisations developed over a period of weeks to build characters and storylines for his films. He starts with some sketch ideas of how he thinks things might develop, but does not reveal all his intentions with the cast who discover their fate and act out their responses as their destinies are gradually revealed. Initial preparation is in private with the director and then the actors are introduced to each other in the order that their characters would have met in their lives. Intimate moments are explored that will not even be referred to in the final film to build insight and understanding of history, character and inner motivation.

The critical scenes in the eventual story are performed and recorded in full-costumed, real-time improvisations where the actors encounter for the first time new characters, events or information which may dramatically affect their characters’ lives. Final filming is more traditional as definite sense of story, action and dialogue is then in place. The director reminds the cast of material from the improvisations that he hopes to capture on film.

Some of that does sound very close to what happens perhaps too often in business: “does not reveal all his intentions with the cast who discover their fate and act out their responses as their destinies are gradually revealed”. But the real point here, as Spall described in the interview, is that there’s a vast amount of work on backstory – the history behind the character. Leigh often recommends that an actor should pick almost anyone as the base for the character – Spall said that he based one of his key characters on a person he’d once met in real life for little more than half a minute – and then explore every possible facet of who that character might be, what makes them tick. As the actors do this, images come up, seemingly from nowhere, that form a ‘true history’ for each of the characters. The result is something much more ‘real’ than a predefined script.

So, following the same improvisational logic, the same would seem to apply to the collective ‘character’ that is each organisation and enterprise. The surface culture, the ‘espoused culture’ is visible to all, and probably much-paraded via PR and the like: yet what is the deeper culture, the backstory, that drives the real choices, especially under stress? That’s where things get interesting for enterprise-architects – especially if we’re concerned with the structure of the enterprise as a whole, rather than solely the enterprise-IT.

For screenwriters and other ‘story-creators’, the equivalent of the enterprise-architects’ Zachman framework is Dramatica and its story-structure chart [PDF, 44kb], which provides a kind of ‘architecture of story’:

The one unique concept that sets Dramatica apart from all other theories is the concept that every complete story is a model of the mind’s problem solving process. To fully explore any issue, an author has to examine all possible solutions to that issue and make an argument to prove to an audience that the author’s way is best.

If you leave out a part of that argument or diverge from the point, your story will have plot holes or inconsistencies. Once you have covered every angle in your argument, you’ve mapped all the ways an audience might look at that problem and, therefore, all the ways anyone might look at that problem. In short, you have created a map of the mind’s problem solving process.

Characters, Plot, and Theme are the thoughts of this Story Mind made tangible. An audience can see them and learn. When a story fully develops this model of the mind, we call it a Grand Argument Story because it addresses the problem from all sides.

Like Zachman, Dramatica is somewhat mechanical in its approach to the architectural concerns, and can sometimes leave us floundering in ‘excruciating detail’ (though Armando Saldaña-Mora’s excellent Dramatica for Screenwriters will certainly help as a practical guide through that forest of theory). Yet unlike Zachman, the Dramatica model does provide both a framework and a structured process to develop characters and story. Although aimed at creation of narrative-style stories, some parts of the process are also useful for exploring the backstory of an overall enterprise – and especially so to identify the drivers for enterprise response to change and innovation. The Dramatica process is based around twelve questions, ten of which are directly relevant to the ‘story’ underlying an enterprise and its architecture.

For enterprise-architecture, the equivalent of that ‘story mind’ is the single unifying vision that defines and circumscribes the enterprise. Four of the questions relate directly to that continuing story of the overall enterprise, with stakeholders as ‘characters’ within that shared story:

  • Overall Throughline: If you pull back and look at the enterprise-story from a bird’s eye view, which general area best describes the nature of the problems all the stakeholders are dealing with? Do the story’s conflicts stem from a Situation (external state), an Activity (external process), a Fixed Attitude (internal state) or Manipulations (internal process)?
  • Overall Concern: Which area of concern are all the stakeholders in the enterprise-story interested in or worried about regarding the overall enterprise vision or ‘goal’?
  • Overall Issue: What is the thematic issue that affects all of the stakeholders in your enterprise-story ?
  • Overall Problem: What is the source of the central problem that affects all the stakeholders in the enterprise-story?

Two of the questions focus more on the part (the Role) that the organisation chooses to play within the overall enterprise:

  • Story Driver: Is the overall enterprise-story driven by Actions first, leading to decisions (reactive response to something happening – e.g. an emergency-response team) or Decisions first, leading to actions (proactive choice – e.g. decision to develop a new product or service)?
  • Story Limit: Is the overall enterprise-story constrained more by Time (delivery-driven – e.g. logistics) or by Options (investigation-driven – e.g. innovation, legal enquiry)?

(Two other Dramatica questions in that set – ‘Story Outcome’ and ‘Main Character Judgement’ – are more related to the closure of a narrative-story, and don’t really apply to an ongoing story such as that of the enterprise.)

And the final four questions focus more on the organisation itself, as if it were the ‘Main Character’ in an ongoing story.

  • Organisation Resolve: Does your organisation Change its way of dealing with the problem at the heart of the enterprise-story or remain Steadfast in its convictions?
  • Organisation Growth (in terms of character, not size): Does your organisation grow by adopting new useful traits (Start) or by outgrowing old inappropriate ones (Stop)?
  • Organisation Approach: Is your organisation a Be-er that mentally adapts to the changing environment or a Do-er who physically changes the environment?
  • Organisation Problem Solving Style: Does your organisation emphasise a Logical problem-solving style (formal analysis, ‘scientific’) or an Intuitive problem-solving style (relational, holistic, ‘design-thinking’)?

Another way of looking at this is to imagine the organisation as a single character within the story of a novel or a play, where the enterprise consists of all of the characters within that shared story. Using those questions above, we then explore how the previous choices and backstory of our character (the organisation) guide its choices in how it interacts with the other characters in that story:

  • In general, how does the organisation behave in relation to others in the story? Is it assertive, aggressive, bullying, accommodating, engaging, respectful, childlike, surly? What else?
  • Why is this so? What aspects of the organisation’s history or choices drive these collective behaviours?
  • What happens under stress from others? Which is the organisation’s reflex choice amongst the four classic stress-responses: fight (aggressive competition), flight (withdraw), freeze (‘analysis-paralysis’) or fornicate (attempt to merge or take-over)?
  • What happens under stress from changes in the overall ecosystem, when there is no single ‘target’ to respond to? What are its fallback behaviours? What hopes or fears or past experiences drive these behaviours?

Probably the best way to identify what’s going here is through narrative enquiry – see, for example, the post ‘Storytelling for non-storytellers‘ by the Australian consultancy Anecdote. We can often learn a lot even from a single anecdote or story from anywhere in the enterprise – whether within or outside the organisation – but it’s even more valuable to collect and cross-reference a range of stories to identify common themes or trends. It’s especially important to gather stories from outside the organisation – others’ views of the organisation – as this will tell us much that the organisation does not at present know about itself.

In effect, the stories describe the architecture of the organisation’s culture. As enterprise-architects, this then provides us with choices: about what to emphasise or de-emphasise, what cultural behaviours are valuable or potentially-harmful in the organisation’s relationships within itself and in relation with the broader enterprise.

It’s essential, though, to remember that we’re unlikely to achieve successful change if we offer any direct challenge to any of these deeply-ingrained behaviours. Whether functional or dysfunctional, these habits will seem to be ‘defining characteristics’, the ‘what I am’ of the organisation’ rather than merely ‘what I do’ – hence any challenge is literally a threat to the definition (and existence) of the organisation’s collective self. Instead, we change the culture not by trying to change how people think, but by providing different conditions that make it easier for people to change what they do – see, for example, John Shook on ‘How to Change a Culture‘, based on his decades of experience at GM/Toyota USA.

The enterprise is a story; the organisation is a player within that story. Understanding the history of that enterprise-story, and the organisation’s own backstory, provides enterprise-architects with some of their most powerful options for organisational change. Not easy, perhaps, but well worth the effort!

4 Comments on “If the enterprise is a story, what is its backstory?

  1. I would take this one step further…the players in the organization. The executive committee sets the tone for the functional or dysfunctional boundaries that affect the vision and strategy…written or undercover (the drive for quarterly profits over long-term vision)…where the actions of the players don’t align with the public (displayed) persona. Grass roots within the organization can change the direction of the company before it changes the strategy. The reasons for the grass-root effort can be the back-story from inside that eventually affects the organization and the enterprise.

    Using the screenplay as an example is excellent. Thanks for the correlation.

  2. Many thanks, Pat – strongly agree with all of what you say there.

    What I’ve described above is really only a starting-point: there’s a lot more that could be done with this, such as a crosslink to Stafford Beer’s ‘POSIWID’, for example.

    What I was aiming for above was to show that there’s another valuable set of conceptual tools and frameworks from the ‘storytelling’ space that might well be useful in the enterprise-architect’s toolkit. Where we go with all of this, I don’t really know: but it seems an avenue worthy of further exploration, perhaps?

  3. Pat makes an important point (as ever). Checkland and Holwell (of SSM fame) distinguish the “hard systems approach” – with a dominant paradigm of a rational system for making rational decisions, which is a typical IT conceptualisation of the organisation – with the “soft systems” or interpretive approach in which there is a ‘dramatis personae’ – with relationships, public and private personae, motivations and cultures – and a long, long “backstory”. Probably a more realistic conceptualisation of “the organisation”.

    Hopefully another useful “crosslink”.


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