In my last post, I talked about the importance of creating a plausible promise for system change. To briefly recap, a plausible promise must be (1) inspiring enough to attract others to participate and (2) stand a believable shot of happening given all other constraints.
But what happens when a change agent needs more than the elevator pitch? How does one move from a plausible promise to a compelling change narrative? The answer is crafting a compelling story for systems change.
Storytelling is for more than just screenwriters and teenagers past curfew. Stories are how we articulate the world, our place in it, and the ability to change. “We’re all-in on the cloud” and “We’re an agile shop” are both story excerpts companies retell to shorthand how their technical work should be done.
Stories, particularly those repeated within organizations:
- Appeal to our emotions, moving us to act in a way that dry, dispassionate analysis fails to (“I empathize with your pain.”)
- Simplify the complexity of the unknown unknows into a logical, repeatable set of causal relationships (“I now have words for what was just a gut feeling.”)
- Make abstract phenomenon tangible and thus changeable (“I can get my arms around it.”)
Change begins when one of the existing stories begins to fail. This faltering could be due to scaling challenges, a strategic pivot, or marketplace disruption. Whatever the reason, the old narratives no longer work or seem incomplete given increased business complexity. When this happens, it is time to tell new stories.
Parts of a Motivating Story
Ask five aspiring authors what makes a good story, and you’ll get six answers, two podcast recommendations, and the odd existential crisis. When it comes to systems change, however, the components are well known. To inspire change, a story must have the following elements:
- A Clear Articulation of the Current State
- An Attractive Future
- A New Identity For Participants
- A Path Connecting It All Together
A Clear Articulation of the Current State
Context frames and gives meaning to the change that must take place.
A story of transition will highlight how the past way of doing things is unsustainable, how it has lead to the current crisis, which requires new ideas (your ideas!) to overcome. It is important that that articulation explains why the change should happen now.
An Attractive Future
“When people are holding on tightly to the past, it’s because there is something they value and they have no idea of what might be valuable in the future.” - Esther Derby
During disruption, past data is a poor predictor of a future state. Faced with uncertainty, people often take what they know about the past, combine it with their assumptions and emotional state, and project it on to the future, largely unconsciously. Deconstructing a group’s assumptions and projections about the future requires careful analysis. If we can identify which beliefs are steadfast and which are loosely held, we can navigate this potential minefield.
A story must emphasize that the future is not a fixed, predetermined point but something that can be changed. We can’t predict the future, but we can try to invent one with more desirable outcomes. If instituting a change is worth doing, we have to have a coherent story about the new possibilities.
A New Identity For Participants
System change requires working in new configurations, often with new (to you) people. Stepping beyond the comfort zone of our friends and colleagues means engaging with strangers and opponents who may not have a shared understanding. A story should enable people to recognize their shared interdependence in the system, thus creating a shared identity. It must show how the sub-optimal future cannot be solved by individual stakeholders alone and how a new network with new relationships can.
Keep in mind, creating change may not require everyone. It does, however, need to connect the people that need connecting.
A Path Connecting It Together
Above all, a story must point people in the direction of needed change. Part of this includes articulation of what progress along the path looks and feels like.
A vital aspect of a story is how it links current actions to the desired future destination. Connecting these things increases the understanding of our responsibility and agency within a system.
The path storytelling should emphasize more positive than negative. Change spurred by intrinsic motivation is more sustainable, or those internalized stories rooted in people’s strengths, aspirations, and ability to overcome.
A Remote Work Example
Let’s take what we’ve learned above and apply it to an area many businesses are currently wrestling with: remote work. Let’s assume that you’ve stumbled through the past eighteen months, but you’re looking for more.
Articulate the current state:
Remote work has been around for some time. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of individuals were thrust into remote work situations not by choice but by necessity. Some companies were able to cope better than others. More than a year and with multiple variants continuing to spread, leaders are challenged to go from merely surviving to thriving. Talented individuals have come to expect remote options. Companies that insist on co-location at some unknown point in the future limit themselves to whatever expertise happens to be within a geographical area.
Craft the attractive future:
We need to move beyond thinking about remote work as a temporary band-aid. Moving office ritual and routine to a Zoom meeting is not enough (“virtual happy hours”, for example). Instead, we need to truly digitize the work, not just work digitally. Learning to do this effectively taps our organization into the best, brightest, and most diverse talent wherever they are in the world. It also positions our org for a future where adaptation and iteration will be the norm.
Define a new identity:
Getting there will require new management techniques. Communication is always a vital skill. But we must learn how to go beyond lowest-common denominator transactional interactions encouraged by digital tools to relational ones. Our managers and leaders need to be able to check-in with our employees, building trust and psychological safety, not just checking-up on WIP. If our managers can demonstrate the more significant empathic requirements of remote management, our people will deliver greater value while enjoying increased flexibility.
A Path To Connect It All Together
We need to revise our operating procedures, training focus, and performance review characteristics to get to that future. There is precedent: Gitlab, a company with a $6 billion valuation, has no physical headquarters and employees in nearly 70 countries. Automattic, makers of WordPress and operators of Tumblr, employs almost 1700 remote employees. By learning from their examples to prioritize the appropriate digital investments, we will embrace the sort of change that is more perpetual, pervasive, and exponential.
That’s just a generic example. If you were to do this for your organization, this remote story would need to be customized to speak to the unique needs, incentives, and fears that exist. Begin sharing a version of your account with those you trust to give you constructive criticism. Then iterate.
“A plausible narrative has immense power. Much more than mere evidence or data.” - Bob Marshall
Stories are critical for creating systems change and can be told by anyone. If we better understand the elements that go into a story, our messages will find more traction faster. Moving beyond a plausible promise to a full-blown change narrative takes work. However, if your idea is a good one, the results are worth it.