Human beings are triggered by change, and instinctively, we avoid change and attempt to insulate ourselves from it. Change is an emotional experience based on logic. However, it requires some external triggers at an emotional or cognitive level to create paradigm shifts in human mindsets. The human mind is hardwired to respond to stories as they internalise change. Stories are evocative, and bring home possibilities and help us to reimagine our futures. Through the story we create about Change, we make an intellectual and emotional connect with the sensory inputs. We identify with the protagonists and share a journey with them, and at times, the journey serves to remind us of our foibles.
Storytelling is a useful tool for key organisational change initiatives. When used carefully, they can achieve change in a big way. Applying storytelling is helpful to the organisation in various ways. It offers benefits in terms of connecting with individuals in a highly personalised manner while maintaining a distance, and also in creating engagement and reinforcement of the messaging. As stories linger in our memories more vividly than mere numbers and statistics, they captivate, inspire, and persuade. By narrating stories of the innovations resulting from organisational change efforts, organisations can:
Engage internal stakeholders in cultural transformation
Inform customers and external stakeholders about the organisational vision and the changes in effect
Create a general awareness and interest in your expertise and experience
Obtain feedback on the organisational transformation that can help your team revise and tweak your efforts into the future
For effective implementation of storytelling, organisations need to follow certain mechanisms to ensure that it happens so:
Discuss the context of storytelling as today's audiences are grappling with attention-deficit from multiple sources of sensory overload
Apply empathy mapping techniques to re-interpret an existing or proposed change narrative from a variety of diverse perspectives. The concept of narrative persona (identity or image) becomes critical at this stage
Experiment with creative tools to re-imagine the change narrative as multi layered, collaborative, and inclusive
Pilot the approach, receive feedback from colleagues, and develop a plan for the next steps
While writing a change narrative, it is important to have a general idea of your change story. In order to fill in the details, answer the following questions:
What is the situation?
Who (or what) is your protagonist?
What is your protagonist's condition at the beginning of the story?
What does the protagonist want?
Who is the opponent/who or what stands in the way?
How is the conflict resolved?
In a traditional narrative, this is far easier to do. However, it is a lot more difficult when it comes to organisational transformation. A protagonist can be an individual, but also an organisation, department, or a process. A "villain" can be a person, but also an inanimate concept like resistance, turnover, disorganisation, or "the way we've always done things around here!"
Within the context of organisational change, stories can typically be classified into four broad categories, depending on the theme of the narrative:
The challenge story: Used to inspire teams or leaders to tackle difficult situations
The how-to story: Used to train or operationalise certain agendas
The big idea story: Used for creative disruption, ideas, and big momentum changes
The impact story: Used to sell a change or transition to stakeholders
Creating an intrinsic motivation
Personal stories are also important for learning and change in organisations. Personal stories create intrinsic motivation and push the change agenda. Change and learning are- by definition- HARD to achieve. Change often involves sacrifices and trade-offs, and a belief in the promise of a new future. Impact stories help in selling that belief, as there is a larger good at the end. The world at large, or the people you care for, will gain something in the long-term through a short-term sacrifice. Storytelling provides people with an avenue to discover their personal beliefs, and find their internal anchors. It propels them on an inward journey to reflect and discover their own meaningful stories. This will hopefully connect their personal values and goals to what they are doing at work.
Occasionally, organisations create room for collaborative storytelling, time for making sense about the vision and strategy, as it relates to everyday work. The more specialised and highly educated people are, wider the scope provided for doing so. Sometimes, hierarchies within the organisation interfere in this collaborative space, as people with more power often impose their beliefs and their versions of the story. Some would say that this freedom is earned by the responsibilities that come with filling important roles in the bigger picture. During times of economic uncertainty or turbulence, the co-creation of the story becomes somewhat problematic as the truth of YOUR story is tied closely with 'survival'.
Storytelling for a Change agenda can be implemented using the following steps:
Step 1. Reflect and build the narrative.
Step 2. Identify the key audience, also check if further segmentation is required (i.e. the general public, social innovators, thought leaders, stakeholders)
Step 3. Select the core message - it needs to be simple and sticky.
Step 4. Choose your story type (i.e. challenge story, big idea, how-to, impact).
Step 5. Create your call to action (what do you want your audience to do?).
Step 6. Select the medium of the story. Multiple media are also effective (i.e. written, video, audio, spoken).
Step 7. Create an authentic and concrete story with all possible emotions.
Step 8. Optimise channels or mediums through which the story is distilled throughout the organisation.
If stories are allowed to be honest renditions of personal experiences in an organisation- without filters or blinders- then they will resonate with the true DNA of the change effort. However, there could be a rift between "on-stage" and "off-stage" behaviour, and the different "clouds of meaning" in the different mini-worlds are allowed to be bridged, even by a little bit.
A tale of hope and belief can be fabricated in terms of :-
What the organisation is hoping to accomplish and contribute?
How it is hoping to do it?
Who in the world is it hoping to serve without denying the- existing but challenging - transitions that are waiting in the future in order to make this a reality?
Truth is stranger than fiction
Like any other Change management tool, storytelling is fraught with perils. Real change and real learning are complicated and uncertain. A lot of failed experiments also turn sour if they are not dealt with in the right manner. Dysfunctional change, rotten mini-worlds, and corrupting or untruthful stories that break an organisation down- slowly but surely - are just as much a part of the reality in organisations as their uplifting counterparts that are capable of improving the organisation and ensure its growth.
A large pharmaceutical company once heralded an organisation change process with the screening of the movie "Sea Biscuit." Likewise, there is another how-to story of a market research firm that contextualised its Knowledge Management agenda with the launch of a spaceship. A leading conglomerate created a narrative around their chatbot persona to make it relatable and human for its employees.
Stories can heal, but they also wield an enormous power that can corrupt. The role of the storyteller is hard and laced with dangers and moral implications. When storytellers in the organisation act like truth seekers, researchers, and journalists, they CAN unearth the seeds for growth and change in both the failed and successful experiments, and tell their own stories. Storytellers in the organisation - when equipped with the right amount of freedom and responsibility - have the POTENTIAL to help the best stories spread and grow and become truer. They make organisations to be more aligned with the values and vision of its employees, and more in service of bringing an honest contribution to its customers and the world at large. If we can make this happen, then we hold a powerful agent to change for the better.
There is a twist in every tale… but if it ends well, it is all the more worthwhile.
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