The guide for awakened sustainability narrative warriors — part 1 (the roles)

A vision without a theory of change explaining how might we get there has little value. This is also true when it comes to awakened sustainability, the mode that will replace sustainability-as-usual, as suggested in my new book Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach. New narratives play a critical role in this shift and so are the people and companies that advance them, which I call narrative warriors. This article is the first part of a guide describing how to be an effective narrative warrior.

Credit: Ron Mader

Let’s focus on the “how”, not just the “what”

While it is difficult to stay indifferent to the latest IPCC report, one key question that remained unanswered is: What do we do about it? You won’t find the answer in the report itself, as its main role is to provide an assessment for policymakers, not a recipe for change. Still, even those that try to provide a better understanding of the changes we need to ensure we live in a just and safe space, like the IEA roadmap for 2050 or the 1.5°C Business Playbook, focus more on the “what” and less on the “how”. In other words, they tell you what needs to be done, not how do we do it.

The problem is that without the “how” the “what” has very little value.

What we need is not just a vision, but also a clear theory of change, i.e. a scheme that “explains how the activities undertaken by an intervention (such as a project, program or policy) contribute to a chain of results that lead to the intended or observed impacts.” A theory of change, as Reinholz and Andrews suggest, helps us “move beyond a simplistic input-output notion”, requiring changemakers to “explicitly state how they expected a program to work, thereby making their implicit assumptions explicit”.

In my new book, Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis: A Strategic Design Approach I lay out my recipe for change for corporate sustainability in terms of moving from the current state of sustainability-as-usual to a new state that I call awakened sustainability. You can see below the different elements of my framework, where I apply a multi-level approach to systems change, which, among other things, considers law, social norms, markets, and organizational design as interdependent system conditions that can operate and drive change together.

Source: Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach

One key insight informing this framework is the recognition that the necessary changes in the abovementioned four conditions should be supported by a shift in the mental model dominating corporate sustainability, from “shareholder capitalism 2.0” to “sustainability first, NOW.” But, how do you change a mental model? One way to do it, according to Kania et al., is to use the power of narratives. Defined by Dr. Katherine Knuth as “the stories people use to make sense of themselves, their connection to broader group, and to the world as a whole,” narratives are powerful tools for changemaking. As Economist Dr. Mariana Mirabile explains: “…stories shape our mental models which shape what we see, which in turn shape what we do and that’s the word we create”.

On the left side of the framework, you can see a step-by-step theory of change, showing how a narrative-based intervention could lead to a change in a mental model, which will then foster changes in the four system conditions (law, social norms, markets, and organizational design) that in turn will support the materialization of awakened sustainability. In a previous article, I discussed the importance of narratives and suggested a number of new narratives that could replace existing ones. As I mentioned there, fighting the narrative wars is a critical piece of any plan to change business, which is why I want to focus on the fighting itself (the “activities” step) and provide my point of view on how to fight the narrative wars.

The guide for the narrative warrior

The battles over meaning construction happen all the time, whether we are aware of them or not. As Prof. Hans Hansen writes in his book Narrative Change: “To enact a new vision, we must break free from the control of the old way of doing things”. The shift to a mental model of “sustainability first, NOW” cannot avoid these battles either.

Therefore, I refer to those actively participating in these battles as narrative warriors (or narrative fighters). I define narrative warriors as individuals, groups or organizations whose work help promote new narratives that diverge significantly from the current mental model of sustainability-as-usual (shareholder capitalism 2.0) and help set the stage for the rise of the mental model of awakened sustainability (sustainability first, NOW). This term is also an homage to the First Earth Battalion Operations Manual, where Jim Channon describes warrior monks, who are “guardians of the good, guardians of humanity, nature and the planet”. Channon describes the warrior monks as transformational players, who strive after the truth and get the job done, i.e. help move the world towards a desired future. This description can be a great fit for the narrative warriors as well.

The following guidance presents an applicable approach, which is customized for narrative warriors in a corporate environment, from CEOs leading companies to different stakeholders engaging with corporations (i.e. employees, shareholders, suppliers, community leaders in a community where the company operates, customers, and so on). The idea is to use a micro-environment (a company) with which you operate or engage to support a broader systemic change. This approach alludes to the possible connections between individual and collective actions (see Karen O’Brien and Linda Sygna’s Three Spheres of Transformation as well as my article). In addition, it reflects that companies are systems nested within broader systems (e.g., business ecosystem, societal environment, natural ecosystem) and the interactions that take place between the different levels of systems.

The narrative warriors should be very strategic and consider what they are expected to achieve. My theory of change focuses on producing initial gains (i.e., outputs — see figure above) in the form of making the forces opposing (transformational) change weaker. The emphasis on weakening the resistance to change echoes Kurt Lewin’s force field analysis (see figure below), which considers an existing behavior as a dynamic equilibrium between forces operating in opposite directions (i.e., driving and restraining forces). According to Lewin, a shift to a new state of equilibrium can be achieved by increasing the forces driving change and/or diminishing the forces resisting change. Lewin emphasized the need to focus on the latter, as “increasing driving forces often tends to be offset by increased resistance”.

To fight effectively narrative warriors will need to consider three key elements: 1) Roles 2) narrative strategy and 2) structures and conditions. In this article, I will focus on the first part — roles. Please note that while I present these components in a certain order, considering roles first, then narrative strategy, and finally structures and conditions, this isn’t necessarily the only way to approach it and it is certainly not a linear process.

Roles

Effective narrative war is a multi-dimensional one, where individuals take on themselves one or more possible roles, but so do companies. Therefore, narrative warriors need to consider not only what role/s best fit them, but also the company (or companies) they engage with and what role they see for the company as a narrative warrior. After all, the role companies play is also determined by people, not algorithms, and could be shaped by different stakeholders, not just CEOs or boardrooms. While it requires narrative warriors to invest time in considering the different options, taking a multi-dimensional approach, which utilizes the power of both individuals and companies, is critical for this fight.

First, I show the possible roles that companies can have as narrative warriors, and then I present the roles for individuals operating in a business ecosystem.

In her book “How Change Happens”, Leslie Crutchfield explores among other things the role of business in creating societal change. Based on her research, she offers four roles that companies could play to advance change: 1) Policy first-movers 2) Allies in advocacy and education 3) Product innovators (which I changed to innovation amplifiers) 4) Hyper-exposed targets. Let me give some examples for each role to clarify how they fit into a narrative war.

Policy first-movers — companies can help push forward new policies by role modeling them, helping normalize these policies and create a more favorable environment for policymakers working to advance this agenda on a national level. Consider for example companies raising the minimum wage of their employees to $15, or auto companies announcing ambitious goals to start manufacturing only zero-emission cars.

Allies in advocacy and education — companies can use their power and reach to advocate for important issues and help educate the public about them. We mainly hear about negative examples, especially when it comes to social media companies (e.g., Facebook, YouTube), but there are also positive examples like Netflix, which puts more effort into creating interesting stories on sustainability issues. The company reported that In 2020, “160 million households around the world chose to watch at least one film or show on Netflix.”

Innovation amplifiers — this role is a variation of Crutchfield’s role of “product innovators”, which refers to “ the things businesses manufacture and sell, the services delivered, and the practices employed can also contribute to how societal change happens”. While product innovation is important (see it under individual roles), I see a more critical role for companies that use their platforms innovatively to help change the mindset of one or more stakeholder groups. One example would be Salesforce requiring its suppliers to adopt a science-based target. Another is Intuit’s 50x by 30 initiative, aiming to use its products to “ help businesses, communities, and others develop strategies to implement climate solutions at scale.” Finally, Deloitte’s new climate learning program for all its employees worldwide may also be an example if it won’t be afraid to challenge Deloitte’s current dominant narratives.

Hyper-exposed targets — this is a more tricky role — after all, what company would like to make itself an “enemy” of change? While companies may not necessarily be interested in this role they may end up doing it anyway if, for example, they try to resist change in ways that help characterize them as “enemies”. Such behavior could actually help advance change as we can see in the case of ExxonMobil, whose behavior and strategies seem only to bolster the case against fossil fuel companies and the case for clean energy.

Individuals, just like companies, can play different roles as narrative warriors to drive change in companies, which in turn could drive companies to one or more of the aforementioned four roles, supporting eventually changes on a systemic level. It is worth mentioning that not all narrative warriors necessarily aim initially for a change on a systemic level and some may be more interested in promoting a change on a local level only (i.e. a company’s level). Nevertheless, these narrative wars have a life of their own, and what starts as a very local-focused battle could have eventually ripple effects on a national level. I suggest that individuals can play four roles: 1) Activists 2) Community organizers 3) Norm entrepreneurs 4) Innovators.

Activists — these are stakeholders who use activism to change a company’s mindset on sustainability issues. While some activists work in a more traditional setting (i.e. environmental organizations and movements), we also have examples of shareholders and employees exercising different forms of activism to change the climate narrative of their company. Engine One’s successful campaign to unseat ExxonMobil board members and Amazon employees’ efforts to change their company’s approach to climate change are just two of many examples.

Community organizers — the proverb “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” is also applicable to narrative warriors. It is very difficult to feel that you can make a difference if you are on your own, not to mention the support you need on every level to go through this fight and win it. There is a growing number of professional groups and communities that work together to figure out how they, as professionals, could advance new climate narratives in their field. One example is Purpose Disruptors, whose members want to reshape the advertising and marketing communications industry. Another one is Architects Climate Action Network.

Norm entrepreneurs — in his book How Change Happens, Cass Sunstein writes: There is an important role here for norm entrepreneurs, operating in the private or public sector, who oppose existing norms and try to change them. Norm entrepreneurs draw attention to what they see as the stupidity, unnaturalness, intrusiveness, or ugliness of current norms.” Indeed norm entrepreneurs play an important role in advancing new narratives for business, whether it is Ralph Thurm on ESG, Maxine Bedat on fashion, or Ed Gillespie on sustainability consulting.

Innovators — these are entrepreneurs (as well as intrapreneurs) who design products, services, business models, and ecosystems that tell new stories and allow us to experiment with initial versions of different elements of awakened sustainability. The innovators create manifestations of what Ernst Bloch describes as the “not yet,” representing evolving ideas about the possibilities for a desired future. Examples include Secteur 6 (fashion based on regenerative agriculture), Fairphone (modular design for phones), Trove (resale model), and Algramo (refill model with a strong social component).

That’s it for this time. In part 2 of the narrative warrior guide, I’ll discuss structures and conditions.

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School. He is the author of Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan, July 2021). You can find other articles highlighting topics explored in the book on my Medium page and are welcome to follow me on LinkedIn.

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My new book: Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach