Managing change, a story at a time

Using stories to align employees to new strategies

Indranil Chakraborty

[Photograph by Harless Todd under Creative Commons]

As I write this, throws up 28,775 search results for “books on change management” in the Business, Strategy and Management section alone.

This is clearly an area of struggle and concern for most leaders. I remember reading a Dilbert comic strip once where the pointy haired boss informs everyone in a meeting: “We’re hiring a director of change management to help employees embrace strategic changes.” To this Dilbert says, “Or we could come up with strategies that make sense. Then employees would embrace change.” The point haired boss replies “That sounds harder.”

Moving from comic to reality, John Kotter, the guru of organisational change, published a paper in 1995 on the eight largest errors that can doom a change exercise. After studying over a 100 companies that had attempted transformation, the eight major challenges he identified are: generating a sense of urgency, establishing a powerful guiding coalition, developing a vision, communicating the vision clearly and often, removing obstacles, planning for and creating short-term wins, avoiding premature declaration of victory and embedding change in the corporate culture.

My last three years of work with stories have proven that in at least four of the eight challenges using stories or story structures can be enormously powerful.

Change is most acceptable when one understands both what the change is all about and the reason for the change. It could be your corporate strategy, your culture transformation programme, your merger strategy or even one of your business line strategies—anything that involves major change.

We believe that change is energised by:

  • an inspiring purpose (for this we use a clarity story and tackling anti-stories)
  • the leadership team’s ability to engage, influence and inspire people (this is where story skills come in)
  • a process to regularly share stories on how to do it right (here we use success stories).

All three parts are needed to succeed. The clarity story sets the direction and inspires action. Finding and acknowledging the anti-stories quells the nay-sayers. Story skills provide the communication capability that helps leaders explain what needs to happen and why it matters. Success stories are the fuel to keep the system going. Each new success provides evidence of progress and a jolt of motivation.

Let me explain each of these story structures.

Clarity Story

Studies across the world have shown that in most companies less than 5% of employees can answer the question, ‘what’s your company strategy?’ or ‘what’s your company’s mission/vision?’ or ‘what is the essence of Change 2020 that the CEO recently launched?’

Employees can only display new behaviour if they really know what is expected of them. They need to have it in their heads. Unfortunately this is often not the case.

After spending a lot of time and sometimes a lot of money to come up with a new strategy/vision/mission/transformation agenda, no senior leadership would say that these were only for the consumption of senior management. In fact, I am yet to meet a CEO who hasn’t said that the success of such messaging is dependent on whether the last person in sales and the last person in the factory truly gets it. Yet, most companies follow the usual routine of annual conferences, cascades and town halls followed by posters and screen savers only to be confronted with the frustration that most people in the organisation don’t get it. The message hardly sticks.

There are two main reasons why this happens: abstract words in the strategy/mission/vision and the ‘curse of knowledge’. Most strategy/mission/vision statements are full of words like ‘deep collaboration and connection’, ‘win through disproportionate share of digitization and innovation’ or ‘embracing technology and inclusive innovation’. These phrases may be crystal clear to the people who put them together but for the average employee it’s nothing but gobbledygook. The second is the cognitive bias that occurs when individuals are unable to ignore the knowledge they have in their heads when creating communication for others that don’t. A bias that is called the ‘curse of knowledge’ based on a seminal paper published in 1990 by a Stanford University graduate student, Elizabeth Newton.

One of the ways to get around all this and make the message stick is by converting the strategy/vision/mission into a clarity story. The message is written in the form of a narrative. When people are told the strategy as a narrative we are able to harness three powers of stories: stories are easy to understand, stories are easy to remember and stories are easy to retell.

We all get stories. No matter what our level in the organisation, no matter what our education levels are and how deep our industry understanding is, we all get stories.

The second and the third powers—easy to remember and retell—is when the multiplier effect kicks in. There are only so many times and only so many people that the senior leadership can explain the strategy to. But when people hear the strategy as a story, they can continue to spread it and repeat it even without a PowerPoint deck. The other beauty of a clarity story is that, like any other story, you can use the long version or the short depending on what the situation demands.

While creating the clarity story we need to also address the one thing that almost derails a transformation exercise—anti-stories. Anti-stories are stories the employees will be sharing, very vociferously, about why the change being proposed will never work. This is not because they are cynical. It is usually because they have had experiences where similar change initiatives started by similar people did not work. Not acknowledging anti-stories does not make them go away. Neither does assertions about how this time it will work make the situation of disbelief any different. Stories can never be replaced with either data or assertion. They can only be replaced with another powerful story. Understanding what the anti-stories are and addressing them within the clarity story is the way we can handle the naysayers spreading disbelief around the water dispenser.

By using a clarity story we get an energised workforce who will know why the company has chosen to change. And who can share specific examples of how the new way of doing things is coming to life in their part of the business.

In the words of the futurist Alvin Toffler, “You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

I have written in more details about clarity stories and anti-stories in the following pieces on Founding Fuel:

Learning Story Skills

The clarity story that has been put together is most powerfully delivered orally. Putting it back in a PowerPoint deck obviously kills most of the impact. In order to do this we need to teach the leaders story skills.

They need to learn specific story patterns to use in explaining why change is happening, to change people’s minds, to overcome objections, and to illustrate success. They need to learn how to deliver a powerful story in a business setting.

I have often been told that this must be very difficult. On the contrary it is quite easy. We humans are all wired for stories and we are all great storytellers. It is just that we have decided that it has no place in business. Once the connect of how and why stories can be very powerful in business communication is made, the transition to becoming a natural storyteller is very easy.

The trick is to keep in mind the following premises. Firstly, one should learn business storytelling from business people. People who have worked extensively in organisations and understand the business context completely. Second is focus on making it a habit and this is done by deliberate practice. And third is to find ways to be exposed to multiple examples of successful use of stories in business. It is that simple.

Success Stories

To make the change message really stick, we need lots of stories for people that illustrate the new way or new behaviour in action.

Creating a systematic process of finding and broadcasting positive stories across the organisation is a powerful method to achieve this.

One way to approach this is to first choose a few themes from the change that has been proposed in the new strategy. The themes could be specific actions people need to take or specific behaviours the employees need to display for the change to be successful. One then runs Anecdote Circles to collect positive stories. Anecdote Circles are facilitated group discussions designed to elicit stories. Not all stories will be the correct representation of the action or behaviour we are looking for and hence we need to select from among the collected stories the ones that correctly demonstrate the change we are looking for.

The next step is to get the leaders who have been taught story skills to share these stories across the organisation in both one-to-one and one-to-many situations.

This is where we can bring in the power of the digital medium. Since oral storytelling is the most powerful way to share this message, videos of leaders telling these stories work almost as well as having a live session. These videos can easily be shared across the organisation using the intranet and the WhatsApp groups that today pervade all organisations.

It is through listening to these stories that employees keep building a better and better understanding of what action and behaviour is expected of them. The sharing of stories has the added advantages of recognising the people who are living this change and creating peer pressure for others to follow. Finally, these stories also give the senior leadership an often required jolt of motivation to keep at it.

The next step in the Success Stories journey is to create a process by which employees can continue to get inspired and tell their own stories.

Every day, in every Apple retail store across the world, all the employees gather to talk about the net promoter scores collected the day before. If someone gets a high NPS, the manager calls it out: “Hey everyone, Jenny got a great NPS yesterday.” The staff members clap. The manager then wants everyone to know how this was achieved: “Jenny, can you share with us what happened with that guy who came in with the iPad mini?” So Jenny tells the story of the great service this guy received.

Because Apple’s employees are regaled every day with stories of great customer service, they all know what it looks like. They’re not forced to remember so-called inspirational posters with corny customer service acronyms. Instead, they get praise from their managers—and they get the chance to tell their colleagues the concrete details of what happened.

It is through this process of creating and sharing an inspiring purpose using stories and story structures and through sharing of stories about the change successfully happening that we can hope to achieve what Dilbert had said. “Come up with strategies that make sense. Then employees would embrace change.”

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About the author

Indranil Chakraborty
Indranil Chakraborty



Indranil believes Business Storytelling will be the number one leadership and communication skill of the next decade. Using storytelling in the right manner, business leaders can connect, engage and inspire their teams. We are 22 times more likely to remember a story than disconnected facts. This is how he believes we can harness the natural power of stories to communicate strategy, make them stick, bring values to live and develop the communication capabilities of leaders.

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