The sense of an ending

The business world loves a launch. Every freshly appointed CEO wants to get started by starting something. And many leaders have a sophisticated understanding of how to begin their reign with a crafted, credible, down-to-earth organisational narrative that draws employees into their business strategy and empowers them to be part of the living story of the organisation.

But too many businesses give people a ‘living’ story without thinking about what comes next. Because everything that lives must die. And, as humans, we love an ending. Especially because, like many novels which begin in the shadow of death (Great Expectations starts in a graveyard; White Teeth with a failed suicide attempt), the sense of an ending is often the cue for the beginning of something new.

The great literary critic Frank Kermode highlighted this tendency in his book The Sense of an Ending. He charts how we all – individually and collectively – find ourselves constantly in the middle of a story, and we yearn for endings as milestones that help us to think about who we are, what we are doing – and guide us to pivot towards something new, the next thing.

Behavioural economics underlines this need for finality; as Robert Cialdini points out in his recent book Pre-suasion, we have a demonstrable ‘craving for cognitive closure’. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect (after the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik) and it means our attention is strongly channelled towards unfinished tasks we’re committed to, leading to improved recall compared to completed tasks. Zeigarnik studied a Berlin waiter with a perfect memory for orders before he had distributed the beer and bratwurst, but who couldn’t recall a single detail the moment after he had served his customers.

What does all this mean for organisational storytelling? We find that while businesses are often strong at launching a strategy story (the beginning), and maintaining the drumbeat through progress updates and milestones (the middle), it is the ending that is often neglected. This is for a variety of sensible reasons: strategies come to an end because of failure, or a change in leadership, or a change in market conditions – all of which usually necessitate a new strategy.

But, when launching that new strategy, it is vital you bring the old one to a close, in order to help shift attention and emotional focus away from the old and on to the new. We’ve all experienced shock and surprise that an employee is still clinging onto a strategy slogan months or years after it has become obsolete; however, there is a good and totally human reason for that – the story hasn’t finished for that individual. They are waiting for the next chapter; they are waiting for the sense of an ending, so they can begin anew.


Posted on 6th December 2016 in Culture&Leadership
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