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How to stop your change program from stalling

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 24, 2015
Filed in Business storytelling, Culture, Strategy

Every large change program invariably starts with enthusiasm, good intentions and an energy spike, even if there are naysayers. But as time wears on, it’s easy for everyone to lose sight of the company’s higher purpose. When that happens, morale – and ultimately performance – slumps. And when a company slides into a dip, it often takes an even greater effort to pull it out of its malaise than it did to kickstart the program in the first place.

A few years ago Anecdote helped a global resources company with this very problem. They were implementing SAP globally, and a year into the program they realised that their global CFOs were unable to explain why the program was so vital to the success of the business, that people’s lives would benefit. Everyone had gotten lost in the detail of the project.

cyclists maintaining change momentum

CC image courtesy of Sum_of_Marc on Flickr

Reminding people of the overarching purpose of an effort has a significant impact on performance. Here’s one piece of research that demonstrates this.

Purpose boosts productivity

In 2008, Adam Grant, a Wharton business school professor, ran a fascinating experiment into the effect of reminding people of the purpose of their work. He recruited participants from a university call centre that asked for donations for student scholarships, and divided them into three groups. The first group was told stories that reminded them of the personal significance of their job – how well it paid, the good working hours, the new skills learned and so on. The second group heard stories about how their work made a difference to the scholarship recipients, how it positively affected these people’s lives. The third group was the control group and didn’t hear any stories.

What Grant discovered was amazing. Employees who heard stories about how their job benefited them performed just like the control group. That is, they performed almost exactly the same after the intervention as before it in terms of the amount of money raised and the number of donations pledged. Those who were reminded of how they were making a difference to other people’s lives, however, achieved more than twice the average number of weekly pledges (the number rose from 9 to 23) and more than twice the average amount of weekly donations (up from $1,288 to $3,130).

Strategy story, story skills, success stories

This is the approach that we took with that global resources company. Working with their CFOs in Singapore, Amsterdam and Dallas, we helped them to create their change story and to develop the skills needed to tell that story in their own words – without PowerPoint slides, and brought to life with their own anecdotes.

We believe there are three parts to story-driven change: the strategic story, story skills, and embedding positive stories. It’s the proverbial three-legged stool – without all three legs, it topples over.

I’ve talked about strategic stories and story skills elsewhere, so here, I’ll expand a little on what I mean by embedding positive stories.

Let’s say your change story is in place, and your leaders have the skills to tell it. Now you need a steady flow of stories from around the business that reinforce the change story. These need to be tellable, oral stories, not merely case studies. This flow of new illustrations keeps up the momentum of change. It also ensures that clarity grows as fresh perspectives on the strategy are revealed in the body of small stories. I’ve always been a fan of the power of small stories, and this is where they come into their own in a business setting.

So please don’t let your transformation programs slump. From the outset, aim to carefully craft your change story, build your story skills, and design the process to effectively and continuously embed your success stories.

Source: Grant, A. M. (2008). The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 108–24.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

One Response to “How to stop your change program from stalling”

  1. Mark Schenk Says:

    Hi Shawn,
    Your post reminded me that timing is also important regarding the process to continuously collect and embed success stories. Back in 2009, one of the big mining companies has a cost-cutting flurry. A large and incredibly successful change program had been built and implemented over the previous 5 years but it too was to be cut. The change project team realised they needed to collect and share the project’s successes. A flurry of activity ensured…but the program was cut. They’d left it too late to start.

    Its easy to delay implementing this leg of the stool until its needed. The problem with this is that by the time you realised its needed its probably already too late. So, supporting your comment, this must be done from the outset.

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