The Change Narrative – How To Get The Story Right

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Change Sign

The cliché that ‘change is the new constant’ suggests that we live in a permanent situation of chaos, uncertainty and revolution. That cannot be true as, if it were, no one would be able to function.

However, of course there is the pressing need to develop and, sometimes, transform. The challenge is that, to avoid chaos, many of your people cling to old certainties and ways of doing things, because this represents order while change appears to be a cloud of confusion.

The answer to this can be summed up in one word: clarity. If there is a clear story of change then its chance of being understood, embraced and adopted is much higher. However, my experience is that often this change narrative does not exist or, if it does, it is so bland it doesn’t mean anything.

The result of this can be that the leadership all have a different version of what this change means for them and their part of the business and, when pressed, express divergent views of the story. You can see where this goes: there is no single change but a series of adjustments across the business that are unaligned and therefore ineffective, or there is a big change and no-one really understands why or how.

I have a simple philosophy: reality is a story brought to life. If you don’t write the story, or if multiple stories emerge, then there will be many different, disconnected realities.

It makes sense. If we all share the same story, then we all point in the same direction. There is real clarity about why I should care, how we will achieve our objectives – and what we all need to do.

How to achieve clarity

What we want is for everyone to be on the same page.

The key is to write the page! Here is my method for doing so:

Start with who. Who exactly are we making the change for and who needs to understand our story?

For example, we may be transforming an aspect of our business so that a key segment of our marketplace is better served. Let’s define exactly who those people are and why they are critical to our success, plus exactly who needs to change to meet this new need.

Or we may be making a change that affects the whole organisation – say the introduction of a new social workplace across the business. Then we are impacting everyone, and it is worth again defining who that is – the mix of people, levels of impact etc.

The second question is about ‘their’ why. What matters to these groups of people? What is their agenda? What do they need to achieve to be successful?

Knowing this is critical to ensure we develop a story which gains traction.

Equally, we need to identify ‘our’ why. Why are we making this change? If we can show how this connects to the ‘why’s’ of the people we need to reach, then that works. For example, if their ‘why’ is to earn more money, then we need to show that this new tech will enable them to do so, by freeing time that is otherwise spent in writing up sales reports.

Critically, we want to connect this with the ‘big company’ why – ie the vision, mission and strategy of the business. We should show how this change is a key part of the bigger story. If this doesn’t exist, then this is the more immediate task and we should have a different conversation!

Thirdly, how. How will we make this change?  This is critical. The how is as important as the what. This is about culture, methodology, approach, mix of actions – and again, this should be part of a bigger narrative about the culture of the firm.

Finally, of course, what. What exactly is going to change? What impact will this have? What are we doing to make this happen?

Now we can write the story

The answers to these questions are inputs into the Strategic Narrative of the change programme.  We know who, why, how and what. How should we turn these into a compelling story?

Stuart Maister
Stuart Maister

In my workshops I like to quote The Sun as a model of great storytelling. A sharp headline that grabs your attention; 150 words on the front page that tells you what you need to know, but which tempts you to turn to pages 5 and 6 to find out what you want to know. It leads with a big idea that piques the interest of its audience – and boy, it knows its audience.

The same approach works for corporate storytelling. What is the big idea that captures the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ – expressed as a headline? If we had to summarise the programme in 3 or 4 short sentences, what would they be?

I then suggest identifying 2 or 3 Narrative Themes – the ideas or issues which amplify the story of change. These become the foundation for future communication.

For example, one may be about a major change in the marketplace that underpins our change. As a Theme, we invest in conversations and communication around this issue, specifically linking it to the change programme in a way that reinforces the ‘why’ of the programme.

We need to get to this level of sharpness so that everyone ‘gets’ the change in exactly the same way and sees it as a natural part of the company’s development, responding to the market and reflecting the needs of its stakeholders.

The seminal government report into employee engagement, ‘Engaging for Success’, said this:

A strong narrative that provides a clear, shared vision for the organisation is at the heart of employee engagement.

This is always true, but particularly at a time of change.

Stuart Maister, Chief Storyteller, Strategic Narrative will run a workshop on Strategic Narrative at smileexpo on May 21st