The tyranny of narrative

hamilton_smallI’ve become mildly obsessed by the Broadway musical, Hamilton. I don’t feel embarrassed about this, it’s a massive hit and is crushed under the weight of the awards it has won.
It follows the life story of the least well remembered American founding father, Alexander Hamilton. If you like writing it’s the musical for you. If you like musicals it’s the musical for you. If you have a pulse… you get the point.
Spurred with enthusiasm by the musical I’ve started to read more about the history around the founding of the republic. And it turns out, unsurprisingly, that certain scenes in the musical have been tweaked or condensed compared to history. They depict things that happened, but not in exactly the way depicted. Which is fine. Dramatic licence is wide and anyway you want a paying audience to actually enjoy their evening rather than get a dry history lecture. The confrontation that drives a wedge between Washington and Hamilton is more dramatic if it occurs over a duel fought with Charles Lee rather than over Hamilton being a bit late for the meeting (which the Washington biography I’m reading suggests was in fact the case).
The point of this is we like narrative.
And listen to Hamilton (you can’t watch it, you have no chance of getting a ticket).
But mostly: narrative, it’s important.
Narrative helps us to understand the world, to position ourselves in a story. But the story has to make sense. Some things serve the narrative, some don’t. We respond to the things that serve the narrative, we gloss over or ignore the things that serve the narrative.
This happens in organisations. We develop narratives about restructures, about cuts, about new ideas. Showdowns between managers are explained in terms of the narrative. We also develop narratives about customers, about partners, about consultants and about politicians.
This is not, intrinsically bad. It’s possibly even good. Trying to understand any organisation as a set of dry history lessons would drive most people mad.
But it shuts our mind to the actual, objective truth. Facts (we might call them data) that conflict with our narrative are dismissed, or changed to fit what we already know.
That’s bad and destructive.
Facts are dull. Narrative is fun.
Get swept up in the narrative sweep of award winning musicals. Not organisations.