The importance of storytelling for business change

With continual change becoming the new norm for modern business, the chances are, no matter what industry or sector you work in, that you’ve experienced work-based change first-hand at least once during your career.

Most of us are able to recount our experiences of being involved in change to varying degrees, and we most certainly have our opinions on whether we feel we really understood the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’.
Let’s be honest, business case language can be fairly dry and statistics can be pretty dull on their own – they aren’t compelling to the majority of the workforce and certainly don’t convey a meaningful story. But, all too often, we hear of organisations who haven’t adequately considered their change story, what it means to the organisation outside of the boardroom, and how they are going to ensure that all areas of their workforce really understand it and get behind it. I’m sure that most of you reading this have experienced business change where you were left thinking ‘why are we doing this, and what does this mean for me?’

So what’s the importance of the change story?

We know that people are much more likely to get on-board with organisational change if they feel they understand the ‘why?’ This includes the reason for change, and for changing right now, what the change looks like, and most importantly – what it means for them.
This means taking the business case as a starting point and turning it into a meaningful, honest narrative which speaks to everyone.

As change and communication experts, we know that you won’t find the whole story in the boardroom. You need to build up a rounded picture, and this could involve desk research (engagement surveys, for example), benchmarking surveys, focus groups and one-to-one interviews with people from the affected teams.

There are a number of ways to extract the narrative and co-create the story with people, building on the business case

  • Find out how things work at the moment – how does ‘stuff’ get done and do people think it generally works well? If there’s a consensus that it doesn’t– why is that?
  • Explain why things are changing and ask how and why the old ways of working can be improved.
  • Explain what will happen if the business doesn’t change.
  • Ask how people think they can go about changing – what do they need to commit to, where will they need support and are there any ‘quick wins’ which can help to get things moving forward.

Read our blog post on Storytelling techniques

Weaving the story into communications and engagement

After the story is uncovered there are a range of options to bring information, like statistics, the business case and details of technology-change to life.

The one-pager

The communications framework is your one-page summary of the story. It will contain facts but also the key messages, the language, and learnings from the engagement and discovery work. Once you have this narrative recorded, your subsequent communications can carry the story and bring it to life.

Smart visual identity

a key part of telling the story is how it looks. A consistent visual identity will complement your core messaging and bring the story to life. This is your opportunity to create something visually compelling which provokes interest and curiosity and helps to bind your communications.

Characters

These give depth to a story and if you use names, department and showcase actual roles, people identify with them and trust the story more.

Using visuals

Infographics are helpful in visually showing statistics in a way that tell a story which involves data, in clear, simple terms.

Build the story as you go along

Building upon the story throughout the change ensures that it stays relevant and helps to keep people connected to it. A great example of this is helping people to create videos of their experiences – it means they get involved in telling the story and owning it. We’ve seen some great outputs from people working on the front line whether on rigs, on the rail or at local offices, and the result works well to unite people working in different places with similar experiences.

 

I Hope you found this useful.  Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss any of the tactics listed here, or share your ideas.

 

We frequently post our thoughts, ideas and tips on: change management, learning and communications, PMO/CMO, employee engagement and culture.

Subscribe here to start receiving a monthly roundup email from our Insights blog.

Afiniti Profile: Nick Smith, Business Change Director

With over 30 years’ consulting and industry experience under his belt, there’s much to learn from Nick Smith, Business Change Director at Afiniti, so we sat down for a chat and I asked Nick some questions about his career to date.

How did you get into consulting?

“I got into consulting in 1985 – a very long time ago! Before consulting I worked for a major IT supplier in a pretty focused role. I felt I wanted a role which would stretch me in areas that I really enjoyed, such as problem solving and solution building, and consultancy gave me the opportunity to do just that.

“I’ve worked in a range of different consulting settings over the years, from the ‘Big Four’ to smaller niche firms, and I’ve been a Business Change Director with Afiniti for five years now. I’ve also had breaks from consulting where I’ve gone back to industry, as I believe that part of being a good consultant comes from experience of working on the other side – spending time experiencing first-hand the operational and strategic challenges and opportunities that our clients face.”

Which project most stands out to you and why?

“My first major consulting project, around 30 years ago was with an IT vendor looking to transform their sales and marketing approach from being product-based to a more consultative way of working.

“The Marketing lead chose not to target his spend on promotion, but recognised the importance of investing in the people aspect of change. As such, we planned and delivered three-day change workshops to over 300 marketing and sales professionals. Now this was a really innovative way of thinking back then, and it taught me a really important lesson: to truly embed change and make it stick, you need to take people on the change journey – to merely change the systems and processes really isn’t enough.

“Another important lesson I learned from this project was around collaboration and client centricity. The client engaged not just my organisation, but another two consultancies also. I found that the ability to collaborate and keep the client at the heart varied widely among the firms. What stood out for me as we collaborated was that being generous-spirited and open to working in different and / or new ways always yielded the best outcome not only for the client, but the consultancies too.”

What other important lessons have you learned over the years?

“I’m also persuaded that a client who stretches you in terms of your capability and who wants to learn with you, rather than looking to be dependent on you or constantly finding fault, is going to get a better outcome. And, on the flip side, any consultant who feels they need their client to be less smart than they are, or to completely depend on them is going to find themselves in trouble – you’re not going to innovate, grow together and form a true partnership that way.”

What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities for business in the coming years, and why is change management so important to these?

“For those of us working in business change and change management, culture becomes very important and equipping people to be ‘able’ to change and adapt becomes vital too.”

“I’d highlight a couple of factors in play at the moment which could impact across industries and sectors. First we’ve got Brexit creating great uncertainty, and second we’ve got a lot of people retiring and exiting the workforce with millennials coming in to take their place. Millennials have different expectations of the workplace, and the implicit contract between them and their employers will be much more fluid.

“If you put these together, then it’s really important to understand that what matters for organisations isn’t necessarily ‘what’ people are doing but ‘how’ they are able to do it. So a workforce that is able to reskill rapidly, displaying versatility and flexibility in order to respond to new situations seems to me to be more important than being good at any one thing. So, equipping people for change is absolutely fundamental. For those of us working in business change and change management, culture becomes very important and equipping people to be ‘able’ to change and adapt becomes vital too.”

What do you most enjoy about what you do?

“It’s certainly the client work that I enjoy most – seeing the client execute and deliver, and realise their business outcomes, knowing that we made a significant contribution to doing that – that’s what I find most exciting.”

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick delve into Nick’s career, if you’d like to learn more about Nick’s, and indeed Afiniti’s approach and experience of business change, then do get in touch!

 

We frequently post ideas and tips on: change management, learning and communications, PMO/CMO, employee engagement and culture.

Subscribe here to start receiving a monthly roundup email from our blog and our Quarterly Business Change Digest, written by the change experts at Afiniti.

 

Compelling communications – the key to successful business change

Compelling communications are vital if your change programme is to be a success. Even if your business change involves a dry technology update, there will always be a people side of the story to tell.

Once you start thinking about this, you will find opportunities to create a real buzz about the changes ahead. Try injecting your next communication with our winning formula below.

Give your campaign a heart

Your campaign needs creative messaging that engages the people at the heart of the change. To achieve this, you should identify those impacted early on and involve them from the start.

We’ve had great feedback from our stakeholder workshops, which bring together representatives from different groups to discuss how the change will impact each of them. This is a good opportunity to find out what inspires your audience, what makes them proud to be part of your organisation and how they really feel about the planned change.

Armed with this information, you can begin to build an engaging campaign that targets everyone effectively.

Tell a good story

When presenting a business change, it’s natural to start talking about facts, numbers and financial benefits. Although important, this is unlikely to make your audience really care about your project or feel inspired to change their behaviour.

For more impact, you should aim to tell a story that makes the change relevant to your stakeholders’ day-to-day work. Opening with a personal experience that is relatable and clearly demonstrates the reason for change will grab their attention from the start. Visual language will also draw people in by encouraging them to picture the scenario in their head as you speak.

Once your audience understands the need for change, you can then set out your vision of the future by giving realistic examples of how things will be different. You should help people to imagine a positive new way of working that benefits them and the customers they care about. This is a far more effective way to inspire behavioural change than presenting cold facts.

Develop a distinct identity

A creative identity that can be applied across all communication materials will help your project stand out from the other programmes. To ensure this is engaging, you should work closely with your stakeholders to design something that visually represents what the change means for them.

We’ve seen particular success by creating illustrated characters which can bring the journey to life for different roles within the business. This ‘family’ of characters can be used to target key messages and benefits for different impacted roles. You can use them to build a story of how each role will transition through the change and how they will need to behave differently.

Attract attention with video

Video is a great way of getting across your key messages consistently and passionately to a global audience. We’ve seen successful engagement through videos that give senior leaders the opportunity to share their vision and address key concerns.

User-generated content is another effective way to tell the story from an employee’s perspective, which can feel more genuine to the audience. However, a clear brief is vital to set out the objectives and provide filming guidelines to ensure high-quality footage.

Take a look at our vBlog on user-generated content

If your change involves a new process, bringing it to life through animation can also really help people visualise how it will work. This can make your message far more engaging than more traditional process maps or wordy procedures, and can also be an opportunity to sell the benefits.

Afiniti has worked with many global organisations to develop compelling communications that make change stick. If you are interested in learning more, please get in touch.

How does change management fit with project management?

There is, understandably, some confusion about how change management activities sit alongside project management.

After all, project management provides for comms and learning, so what’s the need for additional change management?
Looking at the success rate of projects, we can see there is great additional need for a structured approach to managing the people aspect of change.

Working at portfolio level – transformational change

This looks at projects from a portfolio, organisational perspective. If your organisation is faced with complex transformation, involving multiple projects, typical project management activities around comms and learning will not be enough to steer the organisation’s people towards a desired future state – efforts at the project level will simply be too fragmented. Change management allows for a portfolio top-down view of the way in which a business’s people will move from the present state to a future desired state.

Designing change with people in mind

At the beginning, project management includes a focus on initial stakeholder analysis, mapping and communications planning. However, change management goes further to plot the impact of the change/s on the organisation and teams.

This is the important part, without the buy-in and engagement of the organisation’s people, the project is likely to encounter negativity and push-back, with project managers spending precious time fighting fires and rescuing relationships.

The change management team will get to grips with the culture and beliefs of the different teams involved, understanding that potentially, each of these groups have their own unique attributes and preferences.  Feedback will be gathered directly from people on how the proposed changes could affect them, and how their day-to-day working may be impacted.

Building this initial picture and understanding of the organisation’s teams is the first step in a structured approach to the people aspect of change. Next the change management team will carry out impact analysis, change readiness assessment, and initial stakeholder research in order to outline a strategy to manage resistance and fulfil communication and engagement roles.

Factoring people in at the beginning means that barriers to adoption can be clearly identified and proactively dealt with.

Adding depth to the delivery of change to people

Articulating the reasons for the change, from a people and business perspective, comes directly from having the above people-focused approach to planning and strategy. A clearer vision comes from conveying the wider context of change and what that will mean for people. The story of why the change is happening is given a broader strategic level context.

From that it is easier to produce the blueprint for a visual identity, and a set of messages that create impact for teams and individuals. Inspiring people with a story, the context for the change and what it will mean for them are all made possible by the more structured people-focused planning and strategy which is afforded by change management.

Further, change management activities create a network of local support during the project delivery. Change champions are equipped to communicate and endorse the change. Special attention is given to line managers, sponsors and this change network to enable them to fulfil the goal of not just pushing messages out, but receiving input and monitoring how the change is being received and adopted by people.

An IT manager may deliver change focusing on communicating the benefits and training people to use new technology or process. However, change management process takes this further. Feedback and response mechanisms are formalised and structured.  It provides coaching for senior leaders and sponsors on how to identify the root causes of resistance and how to engage and manage resistance when it happens.

Read our article on managing resistance to change.

Training becomes another opportunity to engage with people and obtain their buy-in and genuine participation. Change management activities relating to training focus on how it can be made more interactive, designed for feedback, and feature the organisation’s people in the delivery – all with the core messaging throughout.

Post implementation we find that change management’s people focus means that people are rewarded and acknowledged for their adoption of the new, reinforcing the change after ‘go-live’. Feedback from people improves process and ensures the changes adapt to meet their original goals.