Article: Taming the change monster: One story at a time


Taming the change monster: One story at a time

Why is managing change so difficult? What are the biggest causes for derailment of change exercises? Can telling stories tame the change monster in organizations?
Taming the change monster: One story at a time

Three managers walk out of a conference room and as they approach the coffee machine in the corner of the hallway, one of them says “I just don’t understand what the fuss is all about; we are doing just fine. Why do we need to overhaul the process that was put in place less than 3 years ago?” The other manager replies “And this too will go the same way as Project Phoenix went last year. Whenever external consultants are brought in, things just become more complicated and stop working”.

Do these conversations sound familiar? Have you heard them in your organization? If not, yours must be a very unique organization. The McKinsey paper “The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management” reported that studies from 1995 to 2008 have shown that about 70 percent of all business transformations fail. Last year, Forbes magazine put the failure rate of technology-based transformation at 84 percent. 

So why is managing change so difficult?

A common thread across studies is that a lack of communication clarity is one of the key issues that drive down chances of success of managing change. And this has two distinct parts – failure to explain the need for change, and the failure to tackle anti-stories.

Most change communication glosses over the ‘why’ of the need for change and it’s almost a taboo to talk about broken processes. While a majority of the communication is focused on the ‘what’ — what are we going to do, who will be responsible and by when will it be delivered. 

The second issue is the failure to address anti-stories. After any internal messaging about ‘change’, the corridor conversations are full of “this won’t work in this company/industry/ country etc.” It’s not cynics who say this and it’s not always malicious. Very often, such observations are based on historic evidence. This is what we call anti-stories. Stories that employees have in their heads as to why what is being proposed will not work.  Anti-stories are the biggest cause for derailment of change exercises.

So how do you address these issues? You do it one story at a time.

The narrative technique that can be used to manage change has three parts:

  • Articulating the change as a story  and tackling anti-stories within it
  • Building leadership team’s ability to influence and inspire 
  • Reinforcing change behaviors and demonstrating success

Articulating the ‘change message’ as a story 

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

How can you make the change message stick? For sure, visually rich PowerPoint presentations with bullet points and charts are not the answer. To explore what the answer may be, we first need to try and understand why current methods of presentations, roadshows and cascades don’t seem to work. The answer lies in a phenomenon called the curse of knowledge, as illustrated brilliantly in an experiment by a Stanford University graduate student named Elizabeth Newton in 1990. Elizabeth took 240 students and divided them into two groups. One group played the role of tappers and the other group listeners. Each tapper was given a well-known English song such as Jingle Bells, and their job was to tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song. They were set into pairs and the experiment began.

At the end of the experiment, the tappers were asked to predict the probability that their listening partner guessed correctly. The average prediction was 50 percent. The reality was that the listeners guessed correctly only 2.5 percent of the time. Why did this happen? The curse of knowledge! When the tune is playing in the tapper’s head, the tapping seems to be a perfect match, but for the listener who does not have the tune in her head, it sounds like noise. But the tappers are usually shocked about how difficult it was for the listeners to get it right.

The challenge is that once we know something—like the tune of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has cursed us.

Just like tappers and listeners, in the business world, the provider of the change message (you) and the receivers (your employees) are perhaps in a situation of information asymmetry. The tune (understanding of the change and the new behaviors required) in your head is difficult to understand through the tapping (bullet points) on a PowerPoint slide.

This is where narratives can come to the rescue. We call it a clarity story. 

The narrative begins with setting context. What is it that you were doing in the past and the results you were having? Most of this is usually positive. After all, we have been a successful company. But then something changed. The change could be internal or external. This part of the narrative includes both the factors that are forcing us to change and the elements that are enabling us to change. We then talk about the change itself and the new behaviors it requires us to have. Finally, the narrative ends by painting a picture of the future, of what success will look like to people within the company and all the stakeholders without. 

Talking about the past and the turning points gives the context to the change message and this is often missing. The section about the future gives the listeners the ‘what’s in it for me’.

There are several advantages to this process. Everyone uses the same narrative structure or skeleton when talking about the change. Sharing the change message is no longer subject to the interpretation of various senior members of the team. Whether the chief executive is addressing the annual conference today or your chief technology officer is having a regional IT heads meet or your chief marketing officer is addressing the internal communications team, they are using the same narrative structure and, hence, there is consistency.

Consistency, a critical element in getting messages to stick, is the first advantage. 

The second advantage is what we have been after—the ability of listeners to relate to a story.

Because stories allow us to visualize, imagine and relate, because stories make the abstract concrete, stories connect and stories stick.

The third advantage to me is the most powerful—stories can be retold. No matter how clear your message is, and how simple it is to understand, there are only a limited number of occasions, be it one-to-one or one-to-many, for you (or your team) to personally narrate the change story to your employees. However, a story well told is easy to retell and can be retold by people who you tell the story to. In turn, they can tell it to others. Finally, we have a cascade that works. And your change message sticks.

We also need to address anti-stories when trying to make a new change story stick. Anti-stories are pre-existing beliefs people have about why a proposed change will not work. These views are deeply entrenched and often come from experiences or stories people have heard earlier.

We can never fight an anti-story with a fact or an assertion. We need to replace it with another story. We build this into the overall narrative.

Learning Story Skills

We now need to build the leadership team’s ability to influence and inspire. 

The change 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 connection between ‘how’ and ‘why’ stories in business communication is established, the transition towards becoming a natural storyteller is 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 organizations 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.

Reinforce the change behaviors and demonstrate success

To make the change message really stick, we need lots of stories for people that illustrate the new way or new behavior in action. I call these success stories. Creating a systematic process of finding and broadcasting positive stories across the organization 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 behaviors that 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 actions or behaviors we are looking for and hence we will need to select from among the collected stories the ones that correctly demonstrate the change that we want. 

The next step is to get the leaders who have been taught story skills to share these stories across the organization 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 organization using the Intranet or the WhatsApp groups that today pervade all organizations.

It is through listening to these stories that employees keep building a better understanding of what action and behavior is expected of them. The sharing of stories has the added advantages of recognizing 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.

It is through this process of creating and sharing an inspiring purpose using stories, story structures and through sharing of stories about the change successfully happening that we can hope to be part of the small percentage of change initiatives that actually succeed. 

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Topics: C-Suite, Leadership

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