Claire Aston on why you need strong storytelling in any change process
Everyone loves a good story. The art of telling one is ancient; long before the days of audiobooks and podcasts, communities gathered around the fire to pass on wisdom, transporting each other to a place of imagination and intrigue. Mixing fact with inspiration.
Evidence shows, however, that this ancient art of story-telling is equally essential in the very modern context of organisational change. Articles across business literature consistently report that those organisations who communicate effectively throughout a change process emerge from that change process stronger.
Organisations change constantly. They must, in order to survive. Sometimes the change needs to be drastic; driven by any number of financial, strategic or practical factors, an organisation may need to re-group, re-design, re-trench. Cut back, in order to grow, like the harsh pruning of a hedgerow to allow blossoming in the spring.
Such transformation is hard. Valued colleagues will lose their jobs. Those who stay will need to understand what the new world looks like, and what their place in it will be. This is not easy.
Indeed, a tool often used in change management - The Change Curve - is based on a model originally developed in the 1960s by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to explain the grieving process. It acknowledges that morale and competence will dip before they rise, that colleagues will move through a process of shock, denial, maybe even depression over time, before reaching states of experimentation, a decision to accept the new world, and integration into it.
So how can storytelling begin to help in managing such complex change? It can help an organisation to articulate why it is changing. And do so in a way that brings employees on the journey towards understanding and acceptance. Because when we tell stories, we don’t just use convincing facts. We frame them in a vision that can fire the imagination.
This gets more engagement and response - because we are speaking to the whole brain; the factual and the sensory. Allowing the listener to process their response.
As Simon Sinek states in his ever popular Start With Why, how great leaders inspire everyone to take action book and TED talk:
‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.’
With his idea of a ‘golden circle’ - with What at the outside, How on the inside, and Why at the core - he challenges leaders to be clear about why their organisation exists.
‘If you don’t know why you do what you do, then how will you ever get people... to be loyal?’, he asks?
He refers to this focus on why an organisation exists as ‘communicating from the inside out’.
‘When we communicate from the inside out, we are talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behaviour, then we allow people to rationalise it with the tangible things we say and do.’
The challenge for leaders in a change process then, is to clearly articulate their vision - the reason for the change, not just the facts about what is happening. And to mirror this vision in their behaviour, so that the words and the deeds both tell the same story.
It is also to listen. Because successful storytelling responds to the context of its listeners.
Those ancient communities gathered around the fire - the storyteller knew their lives, their daily challenges, and made sure the story spoke into those experiences.
Likewise, the story of a new organisational vision will be heard more clearly if the listener feels that their current reality is acknowledged, if problems are authentically admitted. It is less unsettling for staff going through a change process if they know their leaders are being honest with them.
The ancient art of storytelling, then, has a very key role to play in the change management of today. With a clear focus on why change is happening, and an ability to articulate this honestly and regularly throughout a change process, leaders can help bring their teams with them to a point where the new vision becomes a reality.