Organizational History: A Creative Act
Writing history is a creative enterprise. Historians must choose when to begin and end the story, what details to include or exclude, and whose perspectives to highlight—all of which profoundly shapes the final interpretation. Though good history is deeply rooted in facts and evidence, much depends on the story the writer wants to tell. The same is true for how organizations tell their stories: It’s a creative act, and their choices about what to create should be strategic. That doesn’t mean whitewashing past mistakes, a choice that is usually driven by fear anyway. Facing up to and learning from those mistakes is almost always best for an organization -- not just in the long term but also, for the sake of preserving an organization's reputation, in the short term. But it does mean giving careful thought to which narratives best serve which audiences or objectives.
For example, a senior partner at one leading professional services firm is candid about the choices he makes. For internal audiences, he omits aspects of the firm’s past experience when they run counter to the vision and values that he, as a leader of that firm, is trying to build. Yet when communicating with external audiences, he knows that he needs to tell the whole story, because an act of omission would be seen as contrary to the emphasis the firm places on integrity. Finding the right balance is critical.
In short, before organizations tell their story, they need to ask themselves similar questions: Who is the audience: internal or external? And what is the goal: to reinforce culture, authenticate a brand, drive strategy, manage reputation, or something else entirely? Only by recognizing the creative choices to be made, and what they mean for the future, can organizations fully harness the power of their own stories.