Change is a messy business. Organizations embarking on a planned change initiative often find their efforts hampered by change fatigue. It can prove challenging for leaders to rise above the noise of daily work and communicate an exciting vision — and for employees to see a direct benefit to undergoing that change. This is where storytelling comes in.
Great stories help organizations bring closure to past change efforts, help leaders frame an idea for change, and help participants see themselves in the change.
Stories are one of the most powerful tools for emotional release. When members of an organization undergo a failed attempt at change, they’re left needing closure. A compelling story, scoped broadly enough, helps people make sense of past change efforts and bring closure. It’s an important step in preparing the organization for the next cycle of change.
The level of change your organization is undertaking will shape the content of your story. If you want to make a revolutionary change to the core mission or purpose of your business, bring closure to past change efforts and craft a hero’s journey that takes employees through the journey of change toward the desired future state in your vision. The story ends with the organization in a new and improved steady state.
A great story can help employees see themselves in the change, creating greater buy-in.
If you want to make an evolutionary change — improving your way of working without altering the fundamental nature of the organization — then use storytelling to define your organizational culture as continuously changing. Share examples of groups that are always evolving and are more successful for it.
Leaders can develop and communicate a compelling vision for change through storytelling. A tightly crafted story can cut through the din of deadlines and corporate politics, uniting employees around a vision of a brighter future.
Great stories should also create urgency. In his 1995 article for Harvard Business Review, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” John P. Kotter says the first error leaders make is “not establishing a great enough sense of urgency.” Leaders must “make the status quo seem more dangerous than launching into the unknown.” Storytelling highlights what’s at stake, framing the importance of action.
What’s more, a great story can help employees see themselves in the change, creating greater buy-in on the change effort for the leader and organization. To do this effectively, a leader should cast employees as the heroes of the story. The hero’s journey serves as a mental model to help them make sense of the chaos and discomfort that change often brings, reducing the inherent stress of the experience.
In order to improve the chances of success for your change management effort, use these strategies:
- When crafting your change story, scope your story timeline broadly and include the organization’s past to contextualize change efforts and build on the history of the organization.
- Assess the type of change you’re making and tailor the story accordingly. For a revolutionary change, tell the story of the change. For an evolutionary change, ingrain change into the culture by telling stories about your organization succeeding due to continuous change.
- Cast the members of the organization (not the executives) as the protagonists of the story so all employees can feel a sense of pride and ownership that motivates them to embrace the change effort.
- Build your story corps. Any well-conceived change effort will identify key influencers (sophisticated ones use social network analysis) within the organization who can help spark momentum for the change. Enlist these influencers in improving the story framing and encourage them to share it widely.
This is the second installment in Cooper Professional Education’s series on organizational change by Holly Thorsen. You can read the first piece in the series here.