I work in change narrative – what’s the story we are trying to build to engage stakeholders in our transformation project and turn their passive resistance into active, partnering, solutioning.
In the workshops I facilitate around this, I offer Perestroika as the prime example of failed narrative. Perestroika was the monumental project aimed at ‘restructuring’ the stuttering Soviet political and economic system of the late 1980’s and kickstart into something fit for the 1990’s and beyond. Notoriously, it did the opposite, and hastened the demise of the very thing it sought to protect. Why? Well I guess historians could fill many pages on the myriad root causes for the collapse of the planned communist economy, but for my purpose I focus on Perestroika itself, and the story that grew around it.
Firstly, the communication of the project goals – to restore the Soviet system. Which must have sounded great if you were embedded in the Soviet elite and enjoyed power within it, but probably left you unmoved at best if you were a lower placed minion down in the hierarchy being asked for discretionary effort to keep the idiots in power, in power.
Secondly, Perestroika was all about the end result and how wonderful life would be after the pain of transition. Nothing about the journey that was underway, and what we are learning right now, which, as we say in workshops, is where the story is.
And finally, fatally, the loss of credibility from day one, when the first failed targets ands set-backs were glossed over by the propaganda apparatchiks who couldn’t break the habit of a lifetime and presented the same as unmitigated triumphs, thus feeding the emerging and commonly held narrative that those in charge had lost touch with reality and were beholden to a project alien the real needs of the people.
Sound familiar? For any reader, maybe depressingly so.
Perestroika as an example of failed change narrative works well. The read-across to the Brexit process and a United Kingdom unsure of its next steps and where they will lead for me is strong. My new failed narrative case study.
Many years ago, I had a Russian girlfriend. Ukrainian actually, from Odesa. But she was raised in the Soviet system and thought of herself as Russian. We swapped stories of our contrasting 80’s youth and it turned out that whilst I was bopping in the Videotheque to ‘Two Tribes’ she would be at a Saturday meeting of the Young Communist League, learning to dismantle and re-assemble an AK47, in preparation for us coming over the Iron Curtain if we stopped dancing. I asked her about the fall of communism and how this was received by the ordinary people. Was there an apology from their former leaders for asking them to put their faith in a system that didn’t deserve it? No, she said, it wasn’t like that at all. No apology; instead a sneer from the top – This was always going to fail, and you were all fools for believing in it.
My daughters and I have a game of the moment where we bet how many news bulletins in a day will begin with the two words ‘Theresa’ and ‘May’. The nearer to 100% the more it reflects a convenient narrative that this is all her problem as she tries to square the circle, reconcile contradictory outcomes, and project herself as architect of a process that will deliver the Brexit we all want. Which presumably, at the highest level, politics aside, is a United Kingdom with a successfully restructured relationship with Europe, at peace with itself and sure of its place in the world. Perestroika, as I said, achieved the very opposite of its aims, and then the people were called out for ever believing in the possibility of anything different.
Brexit. Disengage with the European project to re- engage with our British way. The simple proposition we were sold. Now we’re being sold that the problem is still with the disengagement. And we’d all be fools for believing it.Back