The Power of Storytelling

by | Feb 5, 2020

Harvard professor John Kotter makes the argument in his classic book Leading Change that under-communication is a chronic problem in large organization change efforts. Kotter goes so far as to suggest that most change efforts are under-communicated by a factor of 10 to 100 times. In my experience Kotter’s observation holds true, under-communication is, indeed, rampant. But there is another issue with communication in large-scale change efforts that goes beyond the quantity of communication, the quality of communication is typically poor as well. The message is not well thought out, it is not particularly memorable, it lacks an emotional tie to its audience—in a phrase, it is not a good story. 

What is a good story in the context of large-scale organization change? Let’s first take a look at the elements typically required in major change efforts: 

  • A senior leader who strongly supports the change (and is willing to bet his/her career on it) 
  • A well-articulated strategy and case for change 
  • A comprehensive vision of the future that describes what the organization seeks to become 
  • A demonstrated change in the behavior by leadership that supports the change 
  • An implementation plan that outlines the sequence of the change 
  • Early successes that help validate the change 
  • Increased employee engagement and support focused at supporting the change 

The glue that holds all these elements together (and that strengthens the resolve in the organization to take action) are the communications and accompanying stories that support the change. A leader who is willing to bet her career on a dramatic change in strategic direction will have little chance of success if no one knows the story of what she is trying to achieve. A comprehensive vision of a possible future is meaningless if it is only known by a handful of people who do not have the clout to get it implemented. An early success will have a trivial effect on creating momentum for the change if it is not widely shared across the organization. Story telling is fundamental to the success of change efforts. 

Vision as a Story 

The hallmark of my consulting work has been in creating a vivid description (a “vision”) of a possible future. I usually do this by spending time with the executive team understanding their strategy, their competitors and markets, their technology and processes, and their employees. I will conduct interviews getting a good sense of how the executives and key opinion leaders across the organization see the future and capture their best ideas in my notes. I will write a draft of a future vision, usually somewhere between 500-1200 words in length and share it, typically in 

a workshop format. At the session they will work together to edit and finalize the document in so that it fully becomes their work—their collective vision of the future they seek. 

There are three criteria I apply when working with my clients to create the vision: 1) the vision must describe a specific point in the future (in other words is needs to be bounded by an exact date usually 3-5 years in the future); 2) the vision must have a systems view (that is, it must describe a broad range of things in the desired future including processes, technologies, results and, with equal depth and detail, how customers are reacting, the behaviors leaders are demonstrating, and the impact on employees and work teams); and 3) the vision must describe the future as if it had already occurred—as if the author is in the future looking backwards at what has been achieved. (By employing this technique the vision becomes an affirmation of the future, a powerful story of what could be.) 

Once the vision of what the organization seeks to become has been defined, one can work backwards in developing implementation plans to achieve it. The future vision is the central story for the organization seeking change, everything else is built to support achieving it. But while it is the central story, it is far from the only story that is needed. 

The Types of Stories 

In my career I have applied this visioning technique across industries as diverse as high technology and aerospace, pharmaceuticals and wood products, automotive and education. In each instance there were multiple story opportunities that emerged that helped accept, accelerate and strengthen the change. From these experiences I developed a table that captures the common types of stories that help strengthen commitment to achieve the vision. In a large scale change effort each type of story is necessary to create a deeper understanding the of the change and how individuals can contribute to achieving it. 

Type of StoryDescriptionApplication
Change VisionDescribes the vision of what the organization wants to achieve and how the organization will operate differently at a specific point in the future, written as if the envisioned future has already occurred. The vision is a powerful story of what the future could look like.The centerpiece of the change—all other stories are developed to reinforce the successful implementation of the actions that will enable the vision to be achieved.
Case for ChangeAnswers three fundamental questions: Why change? What happens if we don’t change? How does the change benefit us? Most effectively delivered through a story that describes the realities facing the organization and how people will benefit.Needs to be developed and shared early in the change effort. People need to be able to recognize how the change helps the organization and them personally.
Change ImperativeEncompasses the singular purpose for the change. Examples: “Achieve sustained profitable growth”, “Lower cost;” “Become a market innovator”; the story helps clarify what the strategic imperative means and makes it relevant.Developed early in the change effort. Helps clarify, in a few words, what the change is all about. The accompanying story clarifies how the strategic imperative aligns to the vision.
Change InspirationProvides inspiration through stories articulating what others have achieved; helps embed the idea that change is possible and beneficial. The inspiration can come from those outside the organization who have had extraordinary experiences and achievements.Useful throughout the change effort; often in concert with leadership development efforts to inspire leaders to be more open to what is possible.
Change ExamplesHighlights (and makes positive examples of) those who are, through their actions, demonstrating the new behaviors the change effort requires. These individuals become the role models for the change.Early success is critical to gaining momentum for the change. Stories of individuals successfully demonstrating aspects of the change should come early in the effort and continue throughout.
Change ImpactDescribes the quantitative and qualitative effect of the change on the organization including the positive impact on people and key business measures.This is later in the change effort as the positive results accumulate. This story highlights both what was achieved and how it was achieved (to further reinforce the behaviors needed for success).

If your organization needs a significant change the question is not whether you need a story to convey it— you do. The real question is do you have the energy and capability to capture the emerging stories around you and tell them in a way that keeps the change momentum alive and fresh? For a large-scale change effort to be successful a lot of communication is required, but this communication must go beyond simple updates—it must have the good stories that reinforce the vision that you are trying to achieve.