The 3 types of story you need to drive organisational change

by Matt Grimshaw
November 17, 2016

1. A clear and compelling strategic narrative

If you want to transform your organisation, you need to be able to explain why. The best way to do this is with a strategic narrative that puts your plans into the context of your current challenges and your long term vision.

If your story is going to be effective, it needs to stack up. It has to be rationally coherent and it has to be grounded in the real challenges and opportunities facing your company. We’ve seen too many examples of ‘warm and fluffy’ strategic narratives. Stories riddled with vacuous language or which completely avoid difficult questions. Stories like these don’t help at all. From a rational perspective you need a strategic narrative that is bold, simple and sharp.

But it’s not enough just to create a strategic narrative that makes sense. You also need a story that’s emotionally compelling. It has to connect with the collective pride in the organisation. It has to resonate with the company’s sense of purpose. And it has to give people a reason to come to work in the mornings.

2. Aligned mediating narratives

The most common mistake we’ve seen in organisational change programmes is to treat the engagement plan as a one off ‘launch’ exercise.

In big companies, communicating your strategic narrative and then expecting people to just get on with it, simply doesn’t work. Such an approach ignores the complexity of the organisation and the reality of how work actually gets done. In big companies, people don’t get their day to day direction from the CEO, they get it from their local management team.

Each of these local teams (be they business units, functions or locations) has their own agenda and priorities. And these are rarely aligned!

Unless you make the effort to change the team stories (or mediating narratives) within your organisation, what you’ll find is that people carry on behaving in the same way as they’ve always done.

To successfully drive organisational change, you need a process for aligning all the key business units, geographies and functions. In doing so, you need to equip local leaders with a version of the strategic narrative that’s meaningful to their area of the business and which gives them a framework for an ongoing conversation with their team. This isn’t a complex task, but it necessitates working through the points of conflict, tension and challenge so you can be confident everyone is travelling in the same direction.

3. As many pioneer stories as you get your hands on

When an organisation undergoes significant change, employees have to weigh up the risks: is it safer to stick with what I’ve always done or should I try to change my behaviour to do what our leaders are now asking of us.

At first sight, it might seem obvious that employees ought to do what is asked of them by senior leaders, but in the real world it’s not that simple. On a personal level, employees might be reticent to abandon longstanding ways of working. They might be nervous of the unknown or lack the expertise or experience to really grasp what they need to do differently.

The attitude of local managers also has a huge influence. If they’re dismissive of the message from leaders or give off subtle signals of disengagement, then employees become much more conservative. We all know of examples of employees who thought they were trying to do the right thing, but who get chastised when things don’t work out.

If people suspect the change programme is just a flavour of the month initiative, then the safest thing to do is to keep quiet and let it blow over.

To combat this leaders, managers and communicators need to make a concerted and sustained effort to share success stories or pioneer stories. These are the stories of the people who are already doing it well and they highlight real examples that you would like to see more of.

Recognising and celebrating your pioneers helps to shift the risk profile within the organisation. The more pioneer stories you share, the more you create the impression that this is now ’the way we do things around here’. This drives a tipping point in the process of change as the majority of employees start to reevaluate the risk profile. Suddenly it seems more risky to be seen as a ‘laggard’ or someone who isn’t able to keep up with the pace of change and more attractive and more socially rewarding to start copying the behaviours of the pioneers.

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