Strategy retold: towards a narrative view of strategic discourse david barry

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Published in Academy of Management Review (1997, V22, #2: 429-452).

The authors would like to thank the following people for their extensive comments, supporting materials, and encouragement: David Boje, Barbara Czarniawska-Joerges, Ulla Johanson, Mary Jo Hatch, Mary Ann Hazen, Juha Näsi, Emery Roe, Ralph Stablein and the three anonymous AMR reviewers. We would also like to thank Charles Hill and Susan Jackson for all their editorial assistance



Using narrative theory, this paper explores strategic management as a form of fiction. After introducing several key narrative concepts, it discusses the challenges strategists have faced in making strategic discourse both credible and novel and considers how strategic narratives may change within the “virtual” organization of the future. A number of narratively oriented research questions and methodological suggestions are provided.


Looking back, it appears the field of strategic management had an enchanted childhood. Two decades ago, “planning could do no wrong” (Mintzberg, 1994: 4). In the midst of studies demonstrating positive planning-performance relationships (Ansoff et al., 1977; Herold, 1972; Thune & House, 1970), it was common to see planning-as-panacea statements like, “the top management of any profit seeking organization is delinquent or grossly negligent if they do not engage in formal, integrated, long-range planning” (Karger & Malik, 1975: 64). Business school departments fought over who should and could use the term “strategy": management, marketing, finance, human resources, and operations faculty all eagerly appropriated the name.

Nowadays, it appears strategy’s “golden boy” image has receded a bit. Mirroring longstanding concerns with competition, forecasting, and fit, the field itself has become a highly contested and questioned site, one riddled with competing models, “whither now” conferences, and effectiveness disputes. In the wake of numerous problematizing studies (e.g., Boyd, 1991; Gimpl & Dakin, 1984; Grinyer & Norburn, 1975; Hurst, 1986; Mintzberg & Waters, 1982; Mintzberg, Brunet, & Waters, 1986; Quinn, 1980; Sarrazin, 1977; Wildavsky, 1973), several respected theorists have called for reconceptualizing the strategic enterprise (cf. Mintzberg, 1994: 91-214; Prahalad & Hamel, 1994).

Taking a Narrative Turn

We too think the field might benefit from some redefinition. As narrativist Wallace Martin puts it: “By changing the definition of what is being studied, we change what we see; and when different definitions are used to chart the same territory, the results will differ, as do topographical, political, and demographic maps, each revealing one aspect of reality by virtue of disregarding all others” (1986: 15). In particular, we are interested in examining strategy as a form of narrative. Our goal is not to replace current strategic thinking, but to provide theorists and practitioners with an additional interpretive lens. Though the “narrative turn” has become increasingly popular in other organizational arenas (e.g., Boje, 1995; Czarniawska-Joerges, 1996; Hatch, 1994; O’Connor, 1995; Roe, 1994; Rappaport, 1993), we believe it is particularly applicable to strategy. If “storytelling is the preferred sensemaking currency of human relationships among internal and external stakeholders” (Boje, 1991: 106), then surely strategy must rank as one of the most prominent, influential, and costly stories told in organizations. While some researchers have discussed ways in which strategic texts and authoring processes act as sequentializing sensemaking devices (e.g., Quinn, 1992; Weick, 1995), few have systematically described strategy using formal narrative concepts or models.

Among its various attractions as an approach for studying strategy, narrativity emphasizes the simultaneous presence of multiple, interlinked realities, and is thus well positioned for capturing the diversity and complexity present in strategic discourse. As Weick states: “Stories allow the clarity achieved in one small area to be extended to and imposed on an adjacent area that is less orderly (1995: 129).” Compared to other “artful” metaphors of strategy (e.g., Andrew’s 1971 “strategist-as-architect” or Mintzberg’s 1987 “strategy-as-craft” and “strategist-as-potter”), narrative highlights the discursive, social nature of the strategy project, linking it more to cultural and historical contexts (cf. Smircich & Stubbart, 1985): it asks why some strategic stories are more or less popular and how popularity might be linked to other narrative forms circulating in society. It also addresses how leaders are able to fashion stories that “concern issues of personal and group identity” (Gardner, 1995: 62) and that “transplant, suppress, complement or in some measure outweigh, the earlier stories, as well as contemporary, oppositional ‘counterstories’” (Gardner, 1995: 14) that hold social groups together.
Accordingly, a narrative approach can make the political economies of strategy more visible (cf. Boje, 1996): Who gets to write and read strategy? How are reading and writing linked to power? Who is marginalized in the writing/reading process? It can also call attention to strategy’s rhetorical side: how do rhetorical devices function to increase (or undermine) strategic credibility? How are rhetorical dynamics used to “authorize” strategy and mask its subjectivities?

From a practitioner viewpoint, a narrativist stance can encourage exploration of strategic issues in more personally meaningful ways (Wilson, 1979: 4). Through referral to classic archetypal figures and motifs (e.g., the hero, martyr, or wanderer), it might provide a deeper sense of meaning and purpose than can be achieved through, for example, spreadsheet modeling. Inasmuch as questions of “voice” and “style” are raised, reflexivity can be increased.

Some Informing Narrative Voices

Among literary theorists, narrative has gradually become a key platform for locating and discussing storied accounts, whether those accounts be past or future oriented, written or spoken, fact or fantasy, short story or novel (cf. Chatman, 1978; Martin, 1986; Polkinghorne, 1988). As an interpretivist approach (cf. Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Hiley et. al., 1991), narrative theory “issues not in laws like Boyle’s, or forces like Volta’s, or mechanisms like Darwin’s, but in constructions like Burckhardt’s, Weber’s, or Freud’s: systematic unpackings of the conceptual world in which condottiere, Calvinists, or paranoids live” (Geertz, 1980: 167). It draws extensively from literary criticism, rhetorical theory, aesthetics, semiotics, and poetics; its writers are as concerned with artistry as they are with content and categorization.

Given that definitional work often constitutes a primary dynamic within literary circles, it is not surprising that there has been much debate over just what the term narrative means (e.g., do poems and screenplays count? Folktales? Individual sentences? cf. Genette, 1988: 13-20; Martin, 1986: 15-30; Rappaport, 1993). Some theorists adopt a “structuralist” view which stresses ordering and continuity. For example, Robert Scholes defines narrative as “the symbolic presentation of a sequence of events connected by subject matter and related by time. (Scholes, 1981: 205).” Others have shifted towards a “communication” perspective, where readership and interpretation are as important as structure or authorship (cf. Booth, 1983; Iser, 1989). Here, we follow this latter trend by using the terms narrative and story to refer to thematic, sequenced accounts which convey meaning from implied author to implied reader. Within this perspective, hermeneutic, parts-to-whole thinking constitutes a central focus, as Donald Polkinghorne explains:

Narrative is a form of “meaning making.” . . . Narrative recognizes the meaningfulness of individual experiences by noting how they function as parts of the whole. Its particular subject matter is human actions and events that affect human beings, which it configures into wholes according to the roles these actions and events play in bringing about a conclusion. . . . The narrative scheme serves as a lens through which the apparently independent and disconnected elements of existence are seen as related parts of a whole. (1988: 36)
More than many other approaches, narrative theory assumes that subjective, heterogeneous interpretations of texts are the norm; different readers are assumed to “get it” differently, depending on their history, values, or even which side of the bed they rise from. Accordingly, we consider our discussion of the strategy field simply one of many possible interpretations, one fashioned not as testable truth but rather provocative optique, a view that opens up new trains of thought.

Implied in the above discussion is that narrativity encompasses both the telling and the told; it can be applied both to strategizing and to strategies. Extant, formalized (and perhaps realized) strategies can be examined as artifacts: their rhetoric, tropes, metaphors, and sequencing can be identified, compared, and evaluated in various ways. Strategy can also be examined as a narrative process, one in which stories about directionality are variously appropriated, discounted, championed, and defended. This view asks “How do people make sense of and narrate their notions about directionality? When does a strategic story stay the same and when does it change? How does it survive “register” changes-alternating between the printed and the auditory, the formal and informal, or between intrafirm and industry levels?

Yet as Martin (1986) and other recent theorists have argued, texts and authoring processes are inextricably intertwined-how strategic stories are constructed shapes their form. And the availability of various textual forms affects the process of strategic authoring. Thus, in the sections that follow we meld considerations of strategies and strategizing. First we identify strategy as a particular kind of narrative. Then, using an analytic scheme derived from the Russian Formalists (a literary theory group), we examine some of the twists and turns strategic discourse has taken over the years. Finally, indulging in a bit of predictive fin-de-siècle thinking, we consider some future narrative possibilities in light of emerging postindustrial organizational thought.

Traditional conceptualizations of strategy have tended towards notions of fit (“How might we fit into this or that environment”), prediction (“What is ahead? Where will we be then?”) and competition (“How might we ‘rule the roost,’ survive within the ‘pecking order,’ or gracefully ‘chicken out’?”). In contrast, a narrative view of strategy stresses how language is used to construct meaning; consequently, it explores ways in which organizational stakeholders create a discourse of direction (whether about becoming, being, or having been) to understand and influence one anothers’ actions. Whereas traditional strategy frameworks virtually ignore the role of language in strategic decision making, a narrative approach assumes that tellings of strategy fundamentally influence strategic choice and action, often in unconscious ways.

As a narrative form, strategy seems to stand somewhere between theatrical drama, the historical novel, futurist fantasy, and autobiography. Inasmuch as it prescribes “parts” for different characters, it leans toward the dramatic. Its traditional emphasis on forecasting aligns it with visionary novels having a prospective, forward looking focus. And when emergent, retrospectively focused strategies are considered (e.g., Mintzberg 1994: 24-27; Quinn 1980; Weick, 1979), a sense of historical narrative is invoked.

Regardless of the particular narrative camp a strategy lies in, however, it can be considered a form of fiction. By fiction, we mean that which is created, made up, rather than something which is false. As Bubna-Litic (1995) has argued, strategy is fictional no matter which of Mintzberg’s “Five P’s” is considered (strategy as plan, ploy, pattern, position, or perspective; cf. Mintzberg, 1987); it is always something that is constructed to persuade others towards certain understandings and actions. While this is probably obvious for prospective, forward-based strategy, even emergent strategy can be considered fictional: to identify an emergent strategy requires labelling specific organizational actions as “strategic” (not just financial or operational), highlighting, juxtaposing, and linking them in certain ways, convincing others that this is the way things have happened, and that this account should be the template from which new actions should be considered. In other words, strategists working from an emergent perspective enact fictional futures from creative interpretations of the past (cf. Smircich & Stubbart, 1985; Weick, 1995: 30-38).
As authors of fiction, strategists are subject to the same basic challenge facing other fictionalist writers: how to develop an engaging, compelling account, one that readers can willingly buy into and implement. Any story the strategist tells is but one of many competing alternatives woven from a vast array of possible characterizations, plot lines, and themes. If we accept the notion that map reading is as important as map making (Huff, 1990; Weick, 1990), then the strategist’s problem is as much one of creating an inviting cartographic text as it is highlighting the right path. Gardner (1995) makes this point in his study of 20th century leaders, when he says:

The formidable challenge confronting the visionary leader is to offer a story, and an embodiment, that builds on the most credible of past syntheses, revisits them in light of present concerns, leaves open a space for future events, and allows individual contributions by the persons in the group. (p. 56)

From a narrative perspective, the successful strategic story may depend less on tools like comprehensive scanning, objective planning, or meticulous control/feedback systems and more on whether it stands out from other organizational stories, is persuasive, and invokes retelling. What the story revolves around, how it is put together, and the way it is told all determine whether it becomes one worth listening to, remembering, and acting upon. Thus, strategic effectiveness from a narrative perspective is intimately tied to acceptance, approval, and adoption. Further, this approach problematizes unitarist notions of strategic success—it asks us contextualize success, to view success as a social construction that is tied to specific cultural beliefs and practices (e.g., is success in the Ben & Jerry’s story the same thing as success in the Microsoft story? Did competitive success mean something different prior to Porter’s 1980 work?).
In studying how authors create effective stories, narrative theorists have developed a number of explanatory frameworks (cf. Martin, 1986). Here, we have chosen to work with a model first put forth by Victor Shklovsky (whose ideas were further developed by other members of the Russian Formalist circle-cf. Bann & Bowlt, 1973; Lemon & Reis, 1965; Matejka & Pomorska, 1971). His deceptively simple approach tends to underpin several other narrative frameworks, thus providing a possible foundation for future work. It can also be applied to many kinds of narrative, an important point given that strategic discourse tends to adopt a variety of forms.

Essentially, Shklovsky argued that all effective narrativists manage to achieve two fundamental outcomes: credibility (or believability) and defamiliarization (or novelty). To be successful, authors must 1) convince readers/listeners a narrative is plausible within a given orienting context, and 2) bring about a different way of viewing things, one which renews our perception of the world. Of the two, credibility has received the most attention, especially from rhetoricians (cf. Chatman, 1978: 48-52 on verisimilitude and Martin, 1986: 57 on realism). Defamiliarization, though historically ignored in some narrative circles, has recently garnered more attention (cf. Martin, 1986: 47-56). Together, these arenas form a kind of dialectic: extremely credible narratives tend towards the mundanely familiar, while highly defamiliarizing narratives often lack credibility (at least when first introduced). Thus, Shklovsky maintained that authors must continually reconsider and rework each area in light of the other if an effective narrative is to arise. We consider each of these in more depth.


Because strategies cost so much to create and implement, their credibility is of paramount importance to organizational stakeholders-consequently, strategists find themselves having to disguise the inherent fictionality of their stories. After all, who (aside from Disney or Spielberg perhaps) wants to think they are merely playing out a clever tale, especially when great sums may be at stake? In the scene where the strategist tries to convince skeptical and impatient rein-holders (whether boards of directors, tribal elders, union leaders, or local lynch mobs) to accept the plan, rarely does s/he get away with saying “Trust me . . . it’s true, it’ll happen.” Instead, a myriad of tactics are drawn upon to invoke a sense of strategic realism and facticity. Like Barley’s (1983) funeral directors, who artfully use makeup and posing to convince mourners the corpse is only sleeping, skilled strategic authors employ (often nonconsciously) various narrative devices to make strategic bodies appear as something other than made up. Materiality, voice, perspective, ordering, setting, and readership targeting are among some of the key devices used. We suggest that the more unusual and far-reaching the strategy, the more these devices will be adopted. Conversely, they will be used less when the strategy is a familiar one.


Narrative materiality refers to a story’s physicality, either literally (e.g., long accounts take up more space than shorter accounts) or figuratively (e.g., narratives that focus on touchable phenomena instead of abstract concepts). We suggest that many strategies find their way into print (normally as strategic plans) not only because this makes them clearer or more accessible, but also because printed strategies have more concreteness, and thus seem more real than oral accounts (cf. Martin, 1986: 38). Computerized accounts are more enduring than spoken ones, and voluminous, printed, and attractively bound strategies more concrete still. Once printed, a strategy assumes an undeniable corporeality.

Today’s strategic authors go even further with this than their predecessors: by coupling written accounts with computerized, screen-based ones that allow cinematic imitation (e.g., dissolving slides, words scuttling across the screen, colorful backgrounding, etc.) strategists are able to associate their stories with film and television, media that possess high currency and credibility in our society. Projected onto the screen, strategic titles and directions assume a larger-than-life presence, becoming unavoidably fixed in our gaze. The strategy receives the same privileged viewing status accorded films: the lights go down, we adopt comfortable viewing positions, take in the show, and if the presentation is aesthetically satisfying, soften or forget any objections to content. Ironically though, if a strategy is presented too cinematically, its fictive, theatrical nature may show through; thus, convincing strategy presentations stop well short of full cinematic emulation.

Though much strategic work ends up as some form of print, what is overlooked is that most significant organizational discourse is communicated verbally (Boje, 1992; Mintzberg, 1980). What works for written narrative tends not to work for spoken accounts (as anyone who has tried to read articles aloud can attest-cf. Scholes and Kellogg, 1966). To be effective, verbal narrators need to consider meter and rhythm. Repetitive motifs which would be considered redundant in written works are often used in spoken accounts to group action patterns, facilitate recall, and create emphasis e.g., in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the motifs “I have a dream that one day...” and “Let freedom ring...” are used throughout to emphasize a number of themes). Such motifs allow the story to be told in various ways without compromising its essential character. Good verbal narratives are easily telescoped; that is, they can be expanded or shortened into “terse tellings” (Boje, 1991) and still retain their essential character. Verbal narrators also rely on facial expression and body movements to convey meaning, something which is seldom, if ever, accounted for in written strategies.

Taken together, these points may be an unrecognized reason why strategic narratives sometimes fail: they have been unwittingly tailored in the wrong cloth. They have been crafted for paper and reading when instead, given that strategic discourse is often a verbal affair, they should have been fashioned more for speaking and listening. This suggests that strategists and strategy researchers might attend more to differences between verbal and written strategy formulation.

With respect to narrative content, credibility can be obtained through reference to material, here-and-now phenomena. Thus, authors who concoct unusual stories often take pains to create characters who embody familiar values, outlooks, and mannerisms (for instance, science fiction characters encased in chitin and living in far off galaxies often have personalities remarkably like our own). The Body Shop provides a strategic example of this-when first introduced, the Body Shop’s eco-based strategy was quite unusual (cf. Roddick, 1991). Consequently, the texts which conveyed it incorporated many descriptions and pictures of local production sites and organizational stakeholders. Further, the company’s founder, Anita Roddick, continues to provide highly personalized accounts of her dealings through instore and Internet publications which enable readers to identify more closely with the company, to see its actions as extensions of normal human beingness. Similarly, Lee Iacocca managed to secure strategic credibility by becoming a personal, living embodiment of Chrysler during its time of crisis (cf. Abodaher, 1982). Through some skillful maneuvering and impassioned, highly personalized stories, Chrysler became reified into an entity having a sense of personal loss, pride, and hope. As a faceless corporation, it had little chance of securing a government bailout. But as a hurt, living being, its plight seemed more cogent, and its rescue more acceptable.

Voice & Perspective

Working from the narrative analytic scheme developed by Genette (1980), Mary Jo Hatch (1994) suggests applying two credibility dimensions to organizational discourse: perspective and voice, or “Who sees” (i.e., is an internal or an external perspective used?) and “Who says” (i.e., is the narrator a character in the story or not?). Often, traditional strategy narrative is told from an singular external perspective, with the author(s) excluding themselves from the story line (as with this sentence). Univocal, third person telling creates a sense of objective neutrality: the reader thinks (or is meant to think) “This is clearly an unbiased, rational point of view.” The “implied author” (the one ostensibly narrating the story) appears distantly all-knowing, the narrative a statement of truth (Burke, 1969; Elmes & Costello, 1992). Like the omniscient camera angle used in classic cinema, such texts tend to lure readers into forgetting that strategic information has been culled from many sources, and that the view adopted is but one of many possibilities.

In a related vein, written strategic narratives are frequently “plain” (Cicero’s category for speech designed to enhance clarity-for more information on Cicero’s scheme, see Burke, 1950) as opposed to tempered (speech designed to stimulate interest) or grand (designed to provoke emotion and move an audience to a new position). To enhance perceptions of objectivity, strategic plans tend to erase individual, peopled identities (cf. Gilbert, 1992). Sarah, Sean, and Sally become “Finance,” a known customer becomes part of last year’s “33% increase.” People connected with the company are fashioned into faceless entities discussed in aseptic, “businesslike” language. Strategies “cloaked in the drab garments of business plans” (March, 1995: 436) tend to result in seemingly safe narratives.
Bakhtin (1981: 409) contends this style first developed within the Greek romances as a way of coping with the “heteroglossia” (diverse languages and customs) present in their society. It was developed further during medieval times (e.g., within the chivalric romance), again as a response to conqueror-induced heteroglossia. Perhaps it is little wonder the style continues to be used in the planning work of large diverse corporations, ones where heteroglossic differences among functions, divisions, and various internal and external stakeholders prevail. A plain, depersonalized style keeps a strategy from seeming to be allied with any particular group or person; it seemingly arises from nowhere and, in its presumption of commonality, appears directed everywhere. Yet distant, impersonal strategic narrative can also lower reader involvement. As Martin argues: “When they have no clues about the author’s opinion of what he presents, readers and critics are often at a loss to know what the story means or how to evaluate it” (1992: 22).

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