Storytelling as a method in change management
Stories have always played a big role in people’s lives. Stories have been used as a means of entertainment, education and development, to define social and cultural constructions and to instill moral values throughout human history. Crucial elements in stories and in storytelling are the plot, the characters and the narrator’s perspective.
New results often require new ways of thinking and doing. Thus, we need to change both in relation to ourselves in a constant learning and in relation to the outside world with the help of adaptation, development and innovation. Changes in an organization take time, not at least because it is to some extent based on changes in the behavior of the people in the organization. We must both think in new directions and act in new ways. Communication therefore plays an important role in the change management. With the story as a format, we can communicate both about concrete changes that are taking place, but also communicate about new behaviors that lead to the desired changes that moves us towards the vision.
The communicative challenges in change include:
- Recurring create engaging communication
- Link individual communicative activities with the larger perspective
- Bring the vision and values to life (from words to action)
- Communicate individual results along with desirable behavioral changes
- Conduct effective communication work
Storytelling – a possible way forward
With a defined model for storytelling, we can in our communication capture both the concrete event but also the ability to take action, through new behaviors, that leads to the event and map it with the change that the organization wants to achieve in a larger perspective.
With the help of the story, based on the classic dramaturgical model, we not only win the audience interest and commitment, we also create an effective and creative process where we can quickly go from detached ideas from the sender to a concrete communication – which is both informative and normative.
When we add Kotter’s eight step process to lead change with the narrative model, we see how the story with its informative and normative part works excellently not only as communication but as change communication.
This text contains both the theory behind “The story as a method in change” and how you can practically go ahead with a proposal for a layout for a workshop that takes you through the process of creating a compelling story.
- The story
- Change management
- Generate and communicate success early and often (Informative)
- Highlight new behaviors (Normative)
- Vision and values
- What are we?
- What do we want to be?
Mix together into an engaging success story. But let’s start from the beginning.
Through stories, we interpret and manipulate the world. With the help of stories, we pass on values and ideals. In the story, we highlight certain actions as honorable and others as less desirable. In our stories, we construct heroes and villains. At the same time as we describe reality with the help of stories, we create and recreate this reality – we change our mental models by formulating and consuming stories.
Stories have a descriptive function and also a normative one, which makes stories an excellent model for change communication about which ideals are to be highlighted as desirable.
This applies not least in connection with change communication and strategic use of stories within the organization – internally (in change leadership) and externally (in marketing). Storytelling is to exercise influence, ie potentially a very effective lever in the work of change.
From User storys to Star Wars
By wrapping abstract information in the form of stories, we make it easier to understand, communicate and remember the information. In development contexts, we use the model “User story” which is a very simple narrative form that in a given template captures three important components:
“As a <role>, I want <goal/desire> so that <benefit>”
The predefined form of the story “user story” therefore becomes both effective for the sender to use and understandable for the recipient to consume and interact with.
Just as the User story is based on a defined model, so do other narrative forms. A majority of all Western theater and film follows more or less the “classical dramaturgical model” with predefined steps. It has its origins in ancient Greek drama and describes how a drama can be built. Movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter, any James Bond movie and more are all more or less based on this model.
Much of what we take for granted and consider to be objective reality is in fact social constructions and can thus change when, for example, an organization is to change. A culture is basically made up of the common basic assumptions that prevail in the organization and that are described by the majority and or those in power.
If we want to change the rules of the game and the culture, we need not least to identify and create a dialogue about the assumptions that form the basis of the social constructions.
Stories can create new mental models
Mental models are collective and individual assumptions and beliefs about the world. To tell is to sow seeds for new mental models in the organization. Stories thus become a lever for change. To tell is to exercise influence – “the pen is sharper than the sword”!
Thus, we need more stories – more success stories, in change.
Johansson et al., (2014) define communicative leadership as: “A communicative leader is one who engages employees in dialogue, actively shares and seeks feedback, practices participative decision making, and is perceived as open and involved.” Communication thus needs to develop from a linear process to something meaningful; “From transmission to sense-making”.
From a leadership perspective, change communication thus needs to both invite dialogue in a circular process and be engaging. There, storytelling can do the job.
Lead the change
In change management, we can use, among other things, John P. Kotter’s theories about the change process described in his book Leading Change. Kotter’s change process is based on eight steps, where step 6 encourages generate and communicating “short-term wins”, for example through small and concrete success stories from reality. The last step encourages consolidating the new successful behaviors in the organization, creating new mental models and thus change the culture.
- Create a sense of urgency
- Build a guiding coalition
- Form a strategic vision and initiatives
- Enlist a volunteer army
- Enable action by removing barriers
- Generate short-term wins
- Wins are the molecules of results. They must be recognized, collected and communicated – early and often – to track progress and energize volunteers to persist.
- Sustain acceleration
- Institute change
- Articulate the connections between the new behaviors and organizational success, making sure they continue until they become strong enough to replace old habits.
Storytelling with success stories can thus be used as a method in change to create engagement (step 6) and highlight new desirable behaviors (step 8). The description function of the story is in line with Kotter’s step 6 where we describe the success and the normative function of the story with step 8 where we highlight the new normative behavior.
The success story – a challenge and a resolution
A simplification of the classic dramaturgical model is the “success story” which is based on five defined parts. It is an easy and predictable model for communicating change in the organization. The model has both a descriptive function and a normative function.
- Synopsis – summary of the story
- Orientation – background to the challenge
- Complication – a problem / challenge arises
- Solution – the problem / challenge is solved
- Conclusion – conclusion that may contain values, desirable behavior, achieved results – preferably in connection with the vision
Just as a large part of all stories are based on the same dramaturgical model with the same outline, most stories contain the same set of roles (actors). Algirdas Julien Greimas has described the “actant model” which contains six actors / roles in a story.
- Hero – the one who strives to achieve something, get something or solve a problem
- Object – the object of the hero’s quest
- Sender – the one who gives the hero a mission
- Receiver – the one who benefits from the hero’s actions; the one for whose benefit the heroic deed is performed
- Helper – the one who helps the hero
- Opponent – the one who hinders the hero
Ability to take action
A typical heroic attribute is action. An effective success story linked to change management where we want to highlight “small and quick gains” (Kotter’s step 6) and new behaviors (Kotter’s step 8) benefit from highlighting taking action as an important attribute of the hero (those who want to see change happen). Both as a means – “action by doing different” but also as a goal in “action that describes new desirable behaviors”.
- Change is often initiated because the organization wants to achieve new results
- Successful change management then means, among other things, changing behaviors to achieve new desired results
- New results thus seem to require new or different behaviors
- Action by “doing” therefore becomes important, it is not enough to just think.
Highlight the hero
We place the hero with advantage as the first participant in the sentence. Note the differences in the examples below.
- An API was coded by a developer and saved 150 hours of administrative work
- The solution -> The hero (the ability to take action) -> the result
- Developer coded an API that saved 150 hours of administrative work
- The hero (the ability to take action) -> the solution -> the result
- Developer saved 150 hours of administrative work by coding an API
- The hero (the ability to take action) -> the result -> the solution
“In any art form, action is required.”Taiichi Ohno
In the last example, the hero and the ability to take action get the most focus as they begin the sentence. Feel free to combine with lifting the result early. This is not to say that the solution is not important. The point is not to go for the solution too fast in the text but to focus on the hero (the ability to take action) and the result.
Interpret the vision
A vision, a value statement or change communication is often relatively abstract. The task will be to try to interpret it to identify concrete behaviors and desired results. We then want to identify and reinforce them in our success stories. For example, if it says in the vision that we should be modern, then what does modern mean? How could it be expressed? What behaviors should we look for in the organization that reflect that we are modern? Can we identify that a new outcome is the result of a new or different behavior that can be traced to us “being modern”?
Here, as communicators and communicative leaders, we need to become investigative journalists. Out and observe, interpret and ask curious questions. And look for action. The ability to take action is the hero of the story’s characteristics. Is there anyone in the organization who “gets up and does something different” who “tests other solutions” who “dare to do”? Look for the ability to take action, there is often the story. Acting through action often becomes both the (news)story and the good normative example.
The story is out there
We often know what and where we are (current state) and what we want to be (new state). What happens in between is highly unclear and the road is far from straight. Both the goal will change and our solutions along the way. And there is a lot of stories in the space in between. Use the story to inform about successes and lessons learned and to communicate ability to take action in change.
- Ability to take action (through people)
- Achieved results
- Behaviors that led to the new results
- Examples that can be traced back to the vision (what we want to be / do)
Before, during, after – measurement
It may even be the case that the story is often the description of the result hen we develop in the VUCA-world. Where measurement focus shifts before, during and after. Before we often define (measurable) goals, during exploration and developing and after we can summarize the result in a story, not in concrete metrics. Not least because in reality in VUCA it is extremely difficult to measure the result of development in the complex context as the measuring instruments are loaded with too many variables. “Cold data” thus needs to be supplemented with “warm data”. To our help we have the story.
|Challenges:||OBVIOUS||COMPLICATED & COMPLEX (VUCA)|
|Approach:||Act||Observe, Interpret, Ask curious questions|
|Metrics:||Cold data||Warm data|
”Communication in leadership processes is perceived as a circular and dynamic interaction where both leaders and employees actively participate”.Kramer and Crespy
The concept from the communicator’s perspective
As a communicator and change leader, it is often a matter of interpreting what the client wants to say in relation to the event itself, and at the same time add what the organization needs to say in the larger perspective. If the sender, for example, wants to say that “we have sold 10% more of something”, there is often more to be gained from the story from a broader perspective in relation to the change process itself. What made us sell more and how does it relate to the vision of what we want to be?
It is not uncommon that the person that want to communicate sees his/hers field as the most important. Maybe the person already has a half-finished text, either long and scattered or short and vague. To capture and sort out what is the core and place the communication in a larger perspective, the narrative model of the success story becomes an effective model for converting abstract thoughts and scattered reasoning into something clear and cohesive. The model creates order among the ideas but not at the expense of the sender’s commitment and willingness to communicate. With the help of the directions in the model, it is easy to ensure that all perspectives are represented and that both the informative and the normative are captured.
The narrative model of the success story makes the process of developing communication efficient and the communication itself easy to absorb and interact with.
An example of a story using the concept
This is an example of a (fictional) story using the concept. For guidance the model and actors along with other conceptual parts is shown in brackets.
Part of the (fictional) company’s value statement: “We are regarded both internally and externally as a modern and attractive employer in the tech community where we encourage employees to experiment and never stop being curious.” (Curiosity and willingness to experiment seems to be behaviors that are appreciated.)
Developer saved 150 hours of administrative work
(SYNOPSIS) Developer saved 150 hours of administrative work by coding an API.
(The hero (the ability to take action) -> the result -> the solution)
(COMPLICATION) When Kim Johnson (the hero) onboarded as a junior developer a couple of month ago she noticed that the process for getting a access card involved a lot of paper work and delays in the process (the opponent).
– “As a new employee I was supposed to fill in a paper form with data that the company already had about me and I was supposed go to a special department for taking my photo only opened 9-11 Tuesday and Thursday (the opponent). There must be a smoother way (the object) of doing this was my first thought”, says Kim when we meet over a cup of coffee a couple of weeks later.
(SOLUTION) Kim started developing (the ability to take action) an API that replaced the paper form and used the smartphones camera, replacing the need to go to the special photo department. (Descriptive, Kotter step 6)
– “The API save about 2 hours in the onboarding process and with around 75 people onboarded a year there is a lot of time saved (result) for the company (the receiver) ”, says Kim.
(CONCLUSION) Kim (the hero – first participant in the sentence) and the company (the receiver) could not get a better start together (result). Kim’s curiosity (behavior) and willing to experiment (behavior) paid of right away (result). (Normative, Kotter step 8) (connection with the values)
– “We are looking forward to more initiatives (behavior) from Kim (the hero) and all the other co-workers – both existing and they yet to be (upcoming receivers of the new digital process)”, says Ashley Carter engineering manager. (Normative, Kotter step 8) (connection with the values)
Workshop – how to do it
- Describe the narrative model of the success story for the participants. Remember:
- Orientation (optional)
- The informative and normative aspect
- The actors
- The ability to take action (the hero)
- Present Kotter’s change process. Emphasize that it is not a linear process, rather see it as inspiration for activities in a iterative process.
- Map step 6 with the informative part of the story and step 8 with the normative part of the story
- Identify the current state
- Break down the vision, the values or the change communication that is available that describes the new state
- Find out if you can implicitly and explicitly identify:
- What do we want to be?
- How is it expressed?
- What do we want to be?
- Is it possible to see if something is more important than something else?
- Is there something concrete we should develop?
- Is it possible to identify desirable behaviors?
- Is there any hint of action?
- Find out if you can implicitly and explicitly identify:
- Write a first iteration of a success story according to the narrative model. It should contain a news item that is informative, but also a normative part that connects to the vision/values. Remember:
- The ability to take action (the hero)
- Descriptive part – informs about the event / result itself
- Normative part – behavior we want to consolidate that gave rise to the result and with connection to the vision
- Present to each other and give feedback
- Iterate based on feedback
- Publish 🙂
In change, we need to communicate early and often. One risk with this is that communication is not perceived as value-creating and that the process of communicating becomes too costly. The basic meaning of communication – to “do something together” – reminds us that it is an interaction between two or more parties. The communication needed to be sold needs to be engaging where the recipient is the one who determines the value of the communication. The communication thus needs to be engaging where the recipient is the one who determines the value of the communication.
Communicating with the help of stories makes the communication process efficient and the content engaging where we in the story can capture both the informative and the normative in the event.
“If we want to communicate the importance of an issue, we need to allocate time to it. If an issue is the first item discussed at every staff meeting, the organisation decodes it as being important.”Don Reinertsen – The Principles of Product Development Flow