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My most profound learning over the last decade and a half is that making the rational case for change is never sufficient. Like many insights, this is one that I came across early on, but it didn’t really sink in until much, much later.
We make decisions for many reasons beyond the rational, because we like something or someone, because we’re afraid of getting left behind, because we want to be a part of something, or because we’re somehow inspired.
In starting to think about the non-rational narratives that cause us to act, I started thinking about the stories we tell about our work. I started by looking at the stories we tell about our work and quickly realized that one of the profound weaknesses of this movement is how bad we are at telling compelling stories.
Below is a list of “good” and “bad” videos. Each aspires to tell a story. Why are the good good and the bad bad?
The good each tell a human story – in some instances it’s the story of an individual. There is voice, agency and power to the stories told. In some ways it’s very simple, we are taken on a journey.
The bad tell no human story, they talk in abstractions, about un-human systems. The voice of the individual is reduced to mouthing platitudes about complexity, collaboration and how important it all is. There is little power to the stories, they come across as disembodied, technical…there is no human vulnerability, there is no journey the viewer is called to join.
Being a part of some of the efforts listed in the “bad” section, I know that the issue isn’t the actual work – which in many cases is extraordinary. The question is how we are talking about extraordinary work…in too many cases, badly.
Social labs, social innovation, the design thinking movement, are all collective responses to collective action problems. The individual is a little lost in the collective. So the challenge is how to tell stories of a collective, of a community, to give viewers some sense of what it means to be part of that community? What is the power of the whole? What does it mean to be part of this community? What is this way of life?
As long as these questions remain unanswered, the stories we tell will not be compelling. That in turn means that this movement will remain a niche movement, interesting and “cute” but not serious.
Fortunately or unfortunately, this is a community with no center, no buildings, no clear artefacts…and so no clear story. If we are telling the story of this community, or of a community of people who are striving to address complex social challenges, then what is the story of this community? This is the story we want to tell…this is the story we want to invite people into.
And if this is a story of revolution – then what is the art of this particular revolution, what is the music of this revolution? We need to give this revolution a voice, a face, a soundtrack and an aesthetic.