Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.
The Future Narrative Flywheel.
Dec 5, 2022
As the year comes to an end, we are entering the wormhole of 2023 predictions about… well… anything. A worthwhile exercise is to look at your favorite 2022 predictions and check if they came to fruition. If not – why not? A good retrospective on your predictions acts as a powerful calibration tool for your next round of looking into the crystal ball.
Read to the end for a delightful dip into our past.
Decode. Disrupt. Transform.
When Jim Collins introduced the idea of a flywheel effect in business twenty years ago via his massively influential book Good to Great (2001), he hit upon a brilliant metaphor to capture the things that organizational leaders did to build, link, and sustain drivers of momentum that could power the business through transformation into a preferred future. Not only brilliant, but the flywheel metaphor was also highly adaptable.
The flywheel itself was first put to revolutionary use in the deep history of pottery making. Still, Collins’s formulation of a flywheel effect could describe any process or set of interlinked processes that might involve great initial effort and/or a very slow start but, once going, became ever easier to sustain and ever more powerful to leverage due to the built-up momentum. After Collins, the concept became wildly popular in tech and startup conversations about data-driven AI flywheels that might power the growth and future of a business. The famous example was Amazon (as detailed by the journalist Brad Stone), where every part of the business contributed data streams to power an AI flywheel that would return insights and value that would, in turn, drive the spectacular growth of the business into the future.
I’ve long been interested in another type of flywheel effect – one built around the power of future narratives. Narratives are, of course, rich stores of shared knowledge and a sort of momentum or energy. Carefully constructed, cultivated, and shared, a purpose-aligned narrative about the organizational future (and the future that an organization is working to create) can absolutely build and sustain a flywheel effect in the mold Collins describes. A future narrative can be quite slow to spin up initially and to spread, but that same narrative – especially if it’s designed to be participatory (i.e., invites the audience to actually contribute) – can build a powerful momentum to drive performance, growth, and transformation.
At its core, the future narrative creates and shares meaning. It allows stakeholders to act with a unity of purpose and to understand their own roles and actions in the context of a larger organizational journey. This is a defining function of stories in general.
Leveraging that shared understanding and purpose, the future narrative can be a hugely useful tool for engaging talent (particularly high-potential and high-performing talent that has other choices in the market), a function that is likely to only increase in value with demographic change in the labor force.
A compelling future narrative attracts capital and raises funds. This is a story about what the organization will do, how it will create and seize a unique opportunity, and why it will matter years down the line. The recent value collapse of so many “story stocks” in the market reminds us that while stories can’t stand with nothing behind them, they remain incredibly powerful tools for generating and harnessing enthusiasm and investment.
Finally, an effective future narrative can renew a license to operate. This is part of why the narrative is so essential to transformation efforts or to a new leader taking the helm of a long-established incumbent or a family office operated for generations. And this function of the future narrative significantly links back to the other ideas of creating shared meaning and engaging talent, and perhaps attracting capital as well. Just as Collins describes, the flywheel effect here is such that each function benefits from the strength of the narrative while also working to strengthen the narrative itself.
In a subsequent Briefing, we’ll discuss in more detail how organizational leaders can construct and sustain these future narrative flywheels. For now, we’ll close with a question: What is the story your organization is telling about the future, and how are your stakeholders able to leverage and contribute to the power of that narrative? (via Jeffrey)
What We Are Reading
🏷️ It’s the End of Trending Spotify Wrapped memes, Twitter hashtags, YouTube’s best-of list. Do social media trends still have anything vital to say? Jane ⇢ Read
💼 New Research Offers The Best Argument Yet For A Four-Day Work Week 4-day work weeks aren’t just hyped. Several pilots’ results indicate higher sales (8% on average), reduced burnout, and fewer sick days! Mafe ⇢ Read
🌐 The Button That Could Have Changed the Internet Revisiting a web visionary’s 25-year-old design idea offers us a chance to imagine an alternative internet that never was and to consider the design choices and incentives that shape our online experience (and our society) today. Jeffrey ⇢ Read
🎨 Affordance: The Indicator of Good Design Sometimes concepts make perfect sense. And affordances are such a concept. It’s a powerful tool for considering possible use cases and behaviors. Julian ⇢ Read
🪆 From the Archives: Mikhail Gorbachev on Putin’s Russia and the Wife He Loved and Lost In this 2013 interview, Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, spoke about his legacy, Putin’s (first) presidency and what it meant for Russia and the world (it seems that it was an accurate prophecy), and love. It’s a real gem. Pedro ⇢ Read
🪑 Hacker Stations I love to geek out on cool office furniture and gadgets — Hacker Stations offers a curated look at other people’s desks for inspiration and a little envy. Pascal ⇢ Read
🧨 Disrupt Disruption: In our latest episode, we chat with Barak Berkowitz, former Director Operations and Strategy Director at MIT Media Lab (and a long, storied career in Silicon Valley). It is a fascinating conversation about all things innovation and disruption. Listen here.
Radically yours, take good care, friend!
— Pascal, Mafe, Pedro, Vivian, and the three Js (Jane, Jeffrey, and Julian)
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