A good story is a powerful thing.
It can move us, persuade us, makes us relate to another’s plight. Good narratives follow a structure that has been passed down from one generation to the next, making the most frightening things clear and somehow reassuring. Even surprise turns of events are expected and accepted.
Change management, on the other hand, is the polar opposite. Information is lacking, communication breaks down, and structure is often lacking or is indiscernible.
Intuitively people perceive the events around them as stories, and change management initiatives are too often partial stories, filled with cracks and uncertainty. The mind being a powerful storytelling tool, it will naturally fill those cracks and, being geared for survival, it will fill them with dreadful things.
Using storytelling as a means to communicate change, make people empathize with it, and fill the blanks with something a bit more positive than dread.
How can you do that?
Every story needs a frame, a context, and yours is no different. Change projects aren’t born of thin air, and people need that context to be able to ground the reasons for the change in their minds.
We often neglect to add context to avoid admitting failure or a lack of control on an external situation. We might believe it will protect us, or the employees, but people aren’t fools. Their mind fill cracks in stories with dreadful things, remember? They will expect reality to be far worse than it actually is.
Transparency can go a long way to properly frame your narrative and make people understand the purpose and the stakes. People can smell a phony, so being genuine is the best strategy here. Understanding is how you get them on board. It makes them realize that the planned change is necessary.
Think protagonists and antagonists
Stories usually follow a simple framework: a protagonist lives in a status quo, then comes an antagonist (human, thing, event) as the bringer of change, which disrupts that status quo prompting the protagonist to take action in a way that will make him change and grow.
Your story also needs protagonists and antagonists. In organizational changes, the protagonists are easy to identify: it’s your organization and the employees. The main antagonists are what forces the changes: could be a market change, could be a competitor. Protagonists and antagonist are not inherently good guys or bad guys.
In the movie The Karate Kid (I’m showing my age, I know), Daniel-san is clearly the protagonist. Johnny, the bad kid who beat Daniel early on, is the original antagonist who prompts Daniel to learn to fight. However, it’s Mr. Miyagi, a good guy, who the main antagonist of the story. The changes he brings in Daniel-san are much deeper: he teach him to fight, but he also teaches him to live. Teachers can be great positive antagonists.
As a change management consultant, I often end up in the role of an antagonist. A market shift can be your main villain, but as an agent of change, I’m also an antagonist, albeit one who works for their best interests.
Understand the role you need to play. Use context to ease the role of the antagonists.
Mind the rhythm
The three acts structure so ubiquitous in novels, plays, and movies is one of the most recognizable narrative tools. It helps structure the story and crate a parallel in how people masters new situations or new skills.
Act 1 is all about setting the table. The purpose and stakes for the change must be apparent in this act. It is also the moment to get quick wins, and both increase people’s confidence and support the initiative.
Act 2 is when things become difficult. The quick wins have passed. The real opposition begins. In change management, it is usually the moment the organization’s immune system kicks in. Those who have bought into the need for change will have to face the resistance of others. Progress is made inch by inch if there’s any noticeable progress at all. Fatigue sets in.
The Pit of Despair is the trickiest part of any change initiative. Tired people lose confidence, and it may seem that it would be better to stop now rather than sink further.
Again, the power of storytelling can come to your rescue. Everyone who have read a book or seen a movie understand that there’s that middle part where everything seems lost. The protagonists need to rally, find back their center and push through. People all have that understanding deep inside their minds, what we have to do is to wake that understanding.
Get rid of the noise, make the focus clear. Show them all that they have accomplished. Make them understand that the larger the challenge, the greater the growth. Natural leaders tend to emerge in the darkest hours. We need to help them do so.
Act 3 starts when the result of previous efforts start paying off. As people realize the benefits of what they went through, confidence comes back. It doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing from there, but all the major hurdles should have passed.
Your story is interactive
Stories printed on dead trees or committed to film are static. Since yours is dynamic, it is bound to change and evolve as your change projet moves forward. This is a good thing.
A living story can be reframed as needed. Its context might evolve. The characters have a mind of their own. Use that.
Keep your planning dynamic, able to change as needed. A relatively stable frame is important, but let the details emerge. Enlist those who have bought into the purpose and stakes and made them their own’s to help you shape the next step in the developing story. Make sure the natural leaders who will emerge to guide your team out of the Pit of Despair become part of the storytellers.
Celebrate the happy ending
A story is a journey. You know where it starts, you will get surprises along the way, and at some point, it needs to end. Stories that never ends lose their meaning over time.
When that ending comes, be sure to take some time to celebrate successes with those who participated, and mourn those lost along the way. Celebrates those who stood up in the darkest hour and became leaders.
Protagonists are meant to grow from a story for it to be significant. Be sure to reflect on what happened, as a group, and learn from it. Acknowledge the leaders who emerged to help others climb out of the Pit of Despair.
This story might have ended, but the next one is just further down the road.