Five lessons I’ve learned about using a storytelling approach within change communications

Having a storytelling mindset in business can pay off.

Research shows that organizations that consistently integrate storytelling into internal change communications see benefits – from building buy-in for change initiatives to strengthening team trust to connecting employees.

Yet, some leaders remain reluctant to consider a deliberate storytelling approach; possibly unsure exactly how to build it into a change communications plan. Others haven’t tried it and need coaching and practice.

That gap – between the benefits revealed by the research and the lack of interest by some companies – formed the research question of my Capstone at Northwestern University last year. I am grateful to the incredible business leaders who agreed to be interviewed for this project. And, after listening to their perspectives, I believe organizations should at least pilot a storytelling approach to bolster change communications.

If I was implementing strategic storytelling at a company, here are a few tactics that I would consider:

  1. Avoid using the word “storytelling.” To some leaders, the term is played out. Others immediately assume they must give a TED Talk every time they get in front of an audience. Others consider it too theoretical in a business context. Can another term or description be used to fit the change communication strategy? Maybe frame it as speaking or writing from the heart, inspiring others to action or connecting authentically. After all, good storytelling can help accomplish all of those outcomes. What term most resonates in your company’s culture?
  2. Not all communications consultants are created equal. Some organizations take a dim view of storytelling because of a past negative experience with communications consultants. That makes due diligence all the more important. Ask references about outcomes. How has the consultant’s previous work sparked sustainable organizational change? How did it align with business results? How does the consultant define storytelling and apply it in a verbal, written and/or image form? (Defining story and storytelling is not as easy as it seems, but the nuance is important).
  3. Storytelling takes training and practice. Then it takes more training and practice. Delivering a story that connects with the right audience in the right moment can take serious practice — and the ability to persevere through trial and error. The storyteller must be OK with feeling vulnerable during practice and during public delivery. The storyteller should determine the desired outcome of using story. The communication consultant should work with the client to develop personalized training.
  4. Make the business case with a storytelling training approach. A storytelling training program should focus on helping participants solve actual business problems. Centering a workshop around a pain point that participants are actually grappling with should help buy-in.
  5. Strategic storytelling is only part of the story. As one change communications expert told me: What does it matter if someone can tell a great story that inspires change if he or she isn’t modeling the behavior? Good point. A storytelling approach works best as part of a larger change communications strategy.

Guiding principles

change-management-change-communications-job.jpg

What is your change professional point of view? What experience and research informs your opinion? What is the insight from peers? How do you know what you’re coming to know?

These are key questions posed throughout the MSLOC program, especially when asked to write our 10 guiding principles around change management.

Here are mine (originally part of a paper, hence the inclusion of references):

  1. Remember the “human” part of human capital: Pulling organizational levers during change initiatives impacts real people in profound ways. I was part of the wrenching change in the media industry during the past decade and it impacted plenty of careers. While there might be no avoiding negative impacts of change, the consultant and client should work to minimize negative impact – at every stage.
  2. Deliver change communications authentically and strategically: Communicating effectively about the impact of a change strategy at every level of an organization can make the difference in an effort succeeding or failing. That seems like common sense, but how many times have change communications efforts fallen short in your company? I have experienced situations where employees informally learned about a coming reorganization and started rumors, filling the vacuum left by a lack of communication. That quickly torpedoed morale before the change even began. Messaging should also be tailored to the audience receiving it (Barrett, 2002). That includes making sure that leaders’ actions and words match strategy, that the communications team is looped into decision making, that communications strategy is added to business goals and that it is constantly evaluated (Barrett, 2002).
  3. Communication is not just a push: Incorporating regular, multi-level stakeholder feedback at every phase of a change project is critical – both within formal and informal networks (Kitchen & Daly, 2002). Including employee views on such topics as participation, involvement, morale, leadership and rewards (Kitchen & Daly, 2002) can help them “see themselves as involved and participating in the initiative” and “they are more likely to be supportive” of the effort (Cawsey, Deszca & Ingols, 2016, pg. 221-222).
  4. Consultants must collaborate: The change practitioner as an external consultant doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have all the answers, especially when starting to work with a client. Trying to force a template into a solution can make the client feel ignored. More so, the change manager should approach the job knowing that his or her actions can have an inadvertent negative impact. There can be good reasons why employees resist change and the change practitioner must factor that feedback into the process (Ford, Ford & D’Amelio, 2008). The consultant can actually contribute to breakdowns by having poor communication, not following through on promises or blaming resistors for problems (Ford, Ford & D’Amelio, 2008). We shouldn’t necessarily assume that “change agents are doing the right and proper things while change recipients throw up unreasonable obstacles or barriers intent on ‘doing in’ or ‘screwing up’ the change” (Ford, Ford & D’Amelio, 2008, pg. 362).
  5. Breathe and be present: I have been taking a mindfulness and meditation course meant to focus breathing and, in turn, concentration. This will help me stay in the moment and truly engage with a client – both in listening to what is being said and not being said. That action will help me be an organizational detective and uncover real reasons behind a change request and provide clues to resistance and influence, for example.
  6. Be of service: The MSLOC program has stressed the value of considering my impact on the world as a change practitioner. For me, three words sum it up: Be of service. As I consider consulting roles and career progress, I will continually ask myself: How am I truly helping others?
  7. Playing politics is good: In the past, I thought employees should avoid corporate politics at all costs, but it’s a necessary part of using power to build a better organization (Cawsey, Deszca & Ingols, 2016). Understanding power dynamics can also help the change practitioner determine who he or she needs to influence in terms of organizational resources, processes or meaning power (Cawsey, Deszca & Ingols, 2016).
  8. Use data – when it makes sense: Data was critical to building my last team, from developing workflow process to focusing on specific topics for digital content to marketing to audiences using social media. Data provided benchmarks on team member performance, helped secure additional department resources and set strategic direction. With current clients, I work to define how a marketing campaign will be measured and what goalposts will be set. That said, we’re entering a time of overwhelming data. The change practitioner and client must determine what metrics are worth measuring when implementing change.
  9. Change that isn’t sustainable isn’t really change: There’s a reason why an estimated 70 percent of change efforts fail (Nohria & Beer, 2000). Will the change “stick” once the consultant has left the project? How is that goal being weaved into the discovery and implementation phases?
  10. Admit when I can’t help a client: It’s critical to determine how a client really defines success and what steps they’ll specifically take to reach goals. Based on that feedback and my area of expertise, I may not be the right person to help. Admitting that quickly and avoiding empty promises can save time and money.

References

Barrett, D. J. (2002). Change communication: using strategic employee communication to facilitate major change. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 7(4), 219–231. https://doi.org/10.1108/13563280210449804

Beer, Michael, and Nitin Nohria. “Cracking the Code of Change.” Harvard Business Review 78, no. 3 (May–June 2000): 133–141.

Bryan, L. (2008). Enduring Ideas: The 7-S Framework. McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/enduring-ideas-the-7-s-framework

Cawsey, T. F., Deszca, G., & Ingols, C. (2016). Organizational change: an action-oriented toolkit (Third edition). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Ford, J. D., Ford, L.W., & Amelio, A. (2008). Resistance to change: The rest of the story. Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 362-377.

HBR’s 10 must reads on change management. (2011). Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Review Press.

Kitchen, P. J., & Daly, F. (2002). Internal communication during change management. Corporate Communication, 7(1) 46-53.