November 2nd, 2018 - Alex Usher
Yesterday , I talked about how adaptation in universities is a much more a matter of cultural change rather than something that can be doing using traditional planning or managerial techniques. But this leads to the question: how do you change culture in a loosely-coupled, mostly horizontal organization?
The answer, I think, is pretty simple. It lies in storytelling, and more specifically, in Sagas.
Sagas were, a form of oral history for the Nordic people. There were King’s sagas, which told the tales of specific rulers and their exploits, Contemporary sagas, which were a way of compiling current events, and legendary sagas which told tales of the Gods and from which our own knowledge of Norse mythology largely stems. Because they were oral history, they could be embellished a bit on each telling – but not too much because everyone knew the basic story and so embellishments had to pass a kind of test of collective appreciation to be incorporated. They belonged to everyone. And for the Norse as a whole, it was a way of incorporating some of their deepest beliefs about who they were as a people.
Forty-five years ago, higher education scholar Burton Clark coined the term “ Organizational Saga ” to describe how institutions of higher education have their own stories which function in a similar way. He defined it as “a collective understanding of unique accomplishment in a formalized group”. In the higher education context, what that means is that every university or college has a story to which its members subscribe about how they came to be where they are”. Hopefully, it’s a good, powerful story which brings pride and solidarity: the story of “who we are”, “why we are different from everyone else” and “how we got to this good place, together”. 
Good sagas take decades to gel. These are not things you can slap together in a few days (though bad strategic planning sessions occasionally try). Ideally, it starts in a founding story, an inspirational starting point. AT UBC, for instance, it’s the  Great Trek , at Wisconsin it’s the  Wisconsin Idea . Not every university has that story – at UNB, for instance, one of the institution’s key founders  left the colony in disgust  at its small-mindedness and sparse economic opportunities before the institution actually opened (which is a bit of a downer and probably not a great theme to harp on these days) - but in those cases there are other starting points one could use (the arrival of a new President, or the aftermath of a big funding crisis).  It also contains a story of fulfilment – the details of how the institution rose to greatness/prominence. Was there sacrifice involved? Was it the heroic efforts of a few, or the many? What was the special sauce that made it rise?  The way that the members of the community interpret these events becomes part of the Saga.
But organizational Sagas are not just about the past, they are about the future. The Saga circumscribes the possibilities for future development: if someone comes up with a plan that is well outside the community’s own narrative for itself, it’s not going to be accepted. If allowed to atrophy, the Saga can hinder more than it helps (think about how many businesses went under because they kept doing the same things that made the company great…back in the 70s). But handled properly, a Saga can be an ongoing source of inspiration to meet new challenges and reach new heights.
For a university or college President to be any good at all, she or he has to be aware of the Organizational Saga and constantly be shaping it. Every time s/he speaks, s/he is shaping the saga by telling a story about the organization, where it has been and where it is heading. Obviously, this has to pass a collective believability test: if most people in the organization don’t believe the message, it isn’t going to be internalized as part of the  collective  Saga. But that’s what a good storyteller does: s/he brings people along, makes them believe in the story, anchoring it in reality while giving it just enough hope and wonder to make it a story worth listening to. It’s about interpreting the past in such a way that it provides hope and options for the future. The direction of institutional change has to be in tune with the Saga. If it’s not, you either have to re-think the change, or nudge the Saga so the dissonance disappears. 
This isn’t something a President can delegate, and it’s not something the President can just take up whenever s/he feels like it (and certainly not only when it’s time to come up with a strategic plan). Tending to the organizational saga, giving people a story about the past and future they can believe in, is Job One. In organizations with strong healthy Sagas, the task is to make sure the story continues to move forward, and that the story does not become one of self-satisfaction – that way lies stagnation. In organizations which have perhaps weaker cultures, or ones with a lot of infighting, the task is to write a new Saga, from which members of a community can draw common purpose and solidarity. Either way, the Saga conditions the ability and willingness of an institution to change its culture and hence, is central to the process of all change. In the end, much of what distinguishes good institutions from bad ones is the quality of their Saga.
In short, story-telling ability is a massively under-rated criterion for university or college Presidencies. It’s not just about telling cute stories for alumni at fundraising events; it’s central to the process of creating an institutional identity and – maybe most importantly – creating the possibility of real institutional change.   A President who can’t tell a story is a President who can’t change an institution.