Some notes on NOTES

What is a narrative-oriented approach to enterprise-transformation? Why use it, and where, and how? And where did all this NOTES stuff come from, anyway?

NOTES is, I admit, a somewhat-forced acronym for a way to look at business-change: Narrative-Oriented Transformation of Enterprise (and) Services. Which, to put it in its simplest form, is about an explicit recognition that changing the enterprise also changes the enterprise-story – and vice-versa, too.

We’ll go into specific aspects of this in more detail in subsequent posts: but to set the stage – so to speak – here are some assorted notes from my notebook that should perhaps give a bit more background.

In a conventional view of business and business-change, we might talk about people, process and technology. In a more narrative-oriented view, we would describe the same things in terms of how to link service, structure and story. It’s still the same overall ideas and concerns and practices, just looked at in a somewhat different way.

As for why we might use this approach? – perhaps simplest to say, in stereotypic Hollywood style, that it’s “where marketing meets enterprise-architecture“, and process-management, and social-business, and, and, and… Narrative and story are where all of those disparate themes come together – and make sense together, too.

In a narrative-oriented approach to enterprise-architecture and the like, think of narrative not so much as a single beginning-to-end story, but more cyclic, more layered, a story-world, such as in a soap-opera, a ‘telenovela‘ – it contains smaller stories, which themselves contain even smaller stories, but in itself it continues onward, indefinitely. (Or, decide which type of story you’re in: it can be a self-contained one-shot story if you want, but if so, be aware of the consequences of that choice – about what happens, or ceases to happen, when that story ends.)

A viable narrative needs a strong theme, a driving statement – otherwise known as its vision.

A viable narrative needs clear success-metrics,  identifiers for ‘success’ or ‘failure’ – otherwise known as its values.

A meaningful narrative in this sense is layered, nuanced, story-within-story – “there’s always a larger story” (and always a smaller, often more-personal story, too).

A narrative is typically framed within the implicit ‘rules’ of a genre, a kind of ‘story of stories’, or container for similarly-themed stories – otherwise known, in the business-context, as a market. (Note, though, the impact and importance of ‘cross-genre’ stories, that bridge between genres – or markets.)

A useful narrative has some form of structure – a frame within which things can ‘make sense’. For example, a frame recommended by Shawn Callahan at strategy-consultancy Anecdote: one or more people; a time; a place; a sequence of events (“something happened; and then something else happened”); and, usually, some kind of ‘punch-line’, a meaning or lesson-learned. Or there’s the frame that’s popular for ‘user-stories’ in Agile-style software-development: ”as a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>“. Structure makes it easier to ‘connect the dots’ across the enterprise-story.

A viable story is always about people – as actors, audience or whatever. (Even if the narrative is nominally about machines or suchlike, it’s useful to anthropomorphise them, as if people. More on that in subsequent posts.) The players are also the stakeholders in the story: when you describe them, make them real, as people – because cardboard-stereotypes (‘the user’, ‘the consumer’ and so on) not only aren’t much fun for a story, they don’t hold much meaning either.

A meaningful story describes not just action – “something happens; then something else happens” – but action-with-purpose. At the larger scale, we would describe this as the plot of the story; at a smaller scale, this would be a story-beat – otherwise known as a process.

A viable story has no plot-holes – otherwise known as process-gaps. We shouldn’t expect anyone following the story to have fill in the gaps on their own, or force them to ‘suspend belief’ in normal sense, to compensate for our own carelessness with the overall enterprise-story.

A meaningful story takes place in a setting, or on a stage – otherwise known as the structure or infrastructure of its context. The infrastructure also in part determines the capabilities of the story – the actions that are or are not possible within the context of the story. In most cases this setting forms a literal background for the story – not foreground, a central theme of the story itself – often to the point of becoming almost invisible at times. Yet however visible or not it may be, this stage for the story is extremely important to the creation of the story, the frame for the story, and for many of the details of the story.

A meaningful story has sequence, itself dependent on pace and timing - the way in which the players and the processes weave together in time. Each story, and type of story, has its own distinct patterns of pace and timing – and criticality of that timing, too, for success or failure. For example, as BBC film-critic Mark Kermode put it, “comedy is the hardest mode to pull off, the timing is absolutely critical – and you know if you’ve succeeded or failed, if people are laughing [or not]“: it’s not often that success-metrics in enterprise-stories are as clear-cut as that, yet they’re still there in much the same way.

Note that in many contexts, the effective meaning of the story is determined by the audience – not the actors. (Nice example: see Mark Kermode’s telling lack of response to the movie ‘Hangover III’…) In an enterprise-context, the ‘audience’ is the investors and the other supposedly-’passive’ stakeholders on the further fringes of the shared-enterprise – community, non-clients, anticlients and the like:

This means that we need to pay every bit as much attention to these ‘passive’-stakeholders as we do to the active players in the market and the organisation’s direct value-web – because ultimately they’re the ones who most hold us accountable to the underlying vision or promise of ‘the story behind the story’.

And finally, remember that in a narrative view of the enterprise, you are not the ‘hero’ of the story – the audience is. It’s very common for the organisation to view itself as ‘the hero’, ‘the centre of the world’ – but that’s not how the enterprise-story works. Instead, the role of the organisation is an enabler, helping all of the players reach towards their shared story-goal – in other words, more akin to the role of the Mentor or the Sidekick than the often-overblown notion of ‘the Hero’. Like many of these themes, it’s perhaps a subtle point at times, yet an extremely important one if we want our enterprise-story to work…

Anyway, will stop there for now. The next post will explore in more depth the NOTES view of the actors in the enterprise-story; in the meantime, any comments on what you’ve seen so far?

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Posted in Business, Complexity / Structure, Enterprise architecture, Knowledge, Power and responsibility
2 comments on “Some notes on NOTES
  1. Peter Bakker says:

    “A meaningful story takes place in a setting, or on a stage – otherwise known as the structure or infrastructure of its context. The infrastructure also in part determines the capabilities of the story – the actions that are or are not possible within the context of the story”

    This is exactly the reason why I think that simple shared (mental) maps are so important :-)

  2. Hi Tom, Looking forward to catching up on Friday. Just a quick note to say my guide to spotting stories has four parts and says nothing about a moral to a story or punch line. It’s simply 1) time marker (or place marker), 2) events, 3) characters and 4) something unanticipated happens. For example, a coincidence story often lacks a punchline or moral yet is still clearly a story (and one we love to tell).

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