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The Myth of Business and the Business of Myth

Despite the role that effective storytelling plays in the success of a business, too many people still think of storytelling as just a form of entertainment without widespread commercial application. On one critical level, business is just another social institution like religion, government, and education, subject to the forces of culture like any other institution. Business even has its own “pop culture,” generally expressed in acronyms like CRM, ERP, SCM, and ABC. We like to call the idea that commercial activity operates somewhere outside the boundaries of history, traditional culture, and society, and that it’s somehow largely immune to psychosocial forces or anthropological truth, the “Myth of Business.”

We’re not sure where the idea first caught on that business is somehow a unique human activity subject only to its own rules and driven by the whims of the economic marketplace, modified only by the vagaries of domestic and global politics and regulation. That idea is dangerous. Tap into popular culture or link your business story to stories that already resonate with your target audience, and you’re well on your way to success.

Of course, you have to be very careful about how you tell the story. Before a story can be commercially successful, a significant number of people need to be able not only to “find themselves” in it, but also to find themselves in the audience.

Consider the traditional American “health food” store. Its story was simple—eat commercial food, and poison yourself and your family. Eat “natural” and “organic” foods, and expand your consciousness and extend your life. Over the years, rightly or wrongly, the mass market seemed to associate the early health food pioneers with faddists, nudists, cultists, and other fringe figures.

Now consider Whole Foods—the fastest-growing, and by some accounts the most profitable, food retailer in the United States. Its “story” is the same but with a subtle twist. Natural and organic foods are “better” for you. Not only that, they taste better, and you don’t have to be a food fascist or organic chemist to shop for them. Not only that, but Whole Foods offers an opportunity to join a community not of food fanatics, poultry paranoids, or culinary conspiracy theorists but of normal, affluent people—folks just like you—who are rightly concerned with the quality of their life and health. Same plot line, but the profits are in the nuances of how the story is told.

Just as there is a Myth of Business, there is also the “Business of Myth,” which is to remind us why the notion that business stands outside culture often translates into fatally flawed judgment. We view business as nothing more, and certainly nothing less, than another cultural institution or artifact. We see organized business in the same light as organized religion, organized government, or organized education. As a result, we believe that myth can have the same level of importance and offer the same value to business that it does to any other cultural institution.

By the time the twentieth century ended, the business community found itself rushing toward Y2K, what corporate urban legend held was sure to be a technologically driven Armageddon. It was a time when the blanket woven from the strands of mechanistic industrial metrics—reliance on process and systems over content and imagination, and Alfred P. Sloan’s almost feudal conception of the corporation, the template for General Motors—was starting to irrevocably unravel.

Absent the industrial anchor that had defined business for almost three centuries, commercial thinkers and corporate leaders struggled to reposition what it was they did and even how they described their efforts. Some proclaimed themselves engineers of the Information Age, while those on the bleeding-edge of strategic thinking boldly declared the Information Age over and rattled on about the prospects and perils of life in the Post-Information Age. Soon a great deal of business thinking began to suffer from an acute loss of context.

Think of context as a kind of referential frame that not only acts as a border for a picture, but in the process of providing that border actually becomes an integral element in what the viewer sees. Great frames can be works of art themselves, but the best frames accentuate rather than compete with the art they hold. Sometimes frames become so much a part of the piece they surround that, if they were to be suddenly taken away, our perception of the work would be totally changed. In the most extreme cases, we’d no longer be able to distinguish the work from all the other elements in the room that housed it.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, many businesses had effectively lost their context. As a result, the picture they thought they were displaying made sense only when they were looking at it from the inside. To the outside viewer, the customer, the supply chain partner, the competitor, or the analyst, what had once been a clear, representational work was reduced to an image from Jackson Pollock’s worst nightmare.

At the very heart of this book lies an idea at once modest, revolutionary, and, for more than some (we suspect), counterintuitive: that mythology, the aggregate collection of ancient stories from cultures around the world, can and should play a critical role in helping resolve many of the complexities and crises associated with the world of twenty-first-century business and society. This is especially true for what we call the Abolition of Context—a phenomenon that negatively impacts every aspect of corporate life, from human resources to product development and from marketing to corporate governance. Modest, because, at its heart, a myth is nothing more or less than a simple story created to convey an even simpler truth or principle.

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