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September 12, 2017

Executive Storytelling, a Component of Large Scale Transformation

3 mins read

I frequently work with executives on their Agile Transformation efforts and one thing is certain, they really do want change to happen. While there are many things executives can do to make these changes a reality, one of the most critical ones is telling stories.

Storytelling is a real art in business communications, and this isn’t because one needs to be good at spinning verbal webs that inspire people. Instead, the difficulty is that your actions must match the story being told. When these are incongruent, the story, which is the one of change, becomes unbelievable.

So, we need our messages and our signals to match. Let’s use the example of encouraging people to take risks and finding ways to reward that behavior. If someone took a large risk that could have set the company back, we should not give them a bonus even if they are successful. They endangered the organization, so we need to send a signal that indicates the size of that risk was inappropriate. Likewise, if someone tried something new that failed, but the risk was contained to, say, an iteration of work (the team had a failed sprint), we should probably at least give them a verbal appreciation in public for trying.

Moving from this tactical level of storytelling to a more strategic one, as we think through encouraging larger scale change, we would like to help people know that we are on a journey. The exact path is unknown and so is the exact destination. We will need an anchor though, so we want to help the organization find a story of how agility fits into the mission of the organization so that people know the ‘why.’

As William Bridges talks about in his book Managing Transitions, executives should help people understand how they need to leave the land where they are, transition through a period of discovery, and then settle into their new land. He likens it to the story of Moses. We must escape the life of Egypt, walk through the wilderness, and then build a new country where we find it most appropriate.

For Agile transformations, we may not really have anything broken with the organization. In fact, saying and signaling that the organization has been doing everything all wrong and will fail if it continues on its current path usually doesn’t help people transition, it motivates them to leave. Instead, help people understand that the environment the organization is in may be more demanding and change needs to occur. This will give them the reason change is needed. Once they move toward leaving the current state, then we need stories and signals that aid in discovery as we transition. As some things become clear in how the new modus operandi will run, we need to tell stories that encourage people to stop here and live. We may go through this cycle several times.

I’ll close with a storytelling technique Jason Ashock articulated at his closing InnovateVA keynote. He mentioned that we want to use a classic story arc that helps us understand what is happening cohesively, and people’s minds will fill in what may be missing.

ONCE upon a time… (every story has a beginning)

(our story continued happily), BUT then (something changed).

(we struggled to understand this change), UNTIL (we made these steps towards our transformation).

AT LAST (we can talk of the outcomes we are achieving and/or will continue to achieve by making this change).

Using effective storytelling, through actions as well as words, will align people on a common path and inspire them to move the organization forward towards its destiny.

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