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Audio blog: Using story to move from strategy to action
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication, Corporate Storytelling, Strategy
Hi, this is Paul here, coming to you from Seattle with an audio blog. And I’ve got a question for those of you that are going through major transformations or helping leaders to communicate a strategy. And the question is: does your strategy or change story actually inspire action? Actually inspire people to do things differently and to follow the strategy or adopt the strategy?
Now I know when crafting strategic or change communications, we often hear or, certainly at Anecdote, we refer to the need to create urgency for the change. So I want to share with you, in this audio blog, the different levels of creating urgency for change, and in my experience, how they can make a big difference between whether a change is simply understood or actually acted upon.
Now, the first basic level of creating urgency for change is when a leader simply explains what the organisation must do differently, with little context of why this new action is necessary, what brought it about, or why it’s important. Now, I’m sure no one listening to this blog would ever do that, because it’s highly unlikely to lead to action. Unless, of course, you are highly hierarchical or trying to coerce your people to act.
But better communicators know that we need to develop at least a clear, rational message that explains why the change is necessary for the organisation, and explains the urgency which may come from events or challenges that are on the horizon or new opportunities happening in the market. It might be positive too, or indeed inside the organisation. And for those familiar with Anecdote’s clarity story pattern, this occurs in the ‘Then something happened…’ section of the story structure. And it’s really critical to explain the why if people in your organisation are to understand the need for the change. But it’s probably not enough to compel them to take action. As we all know, an intellectual understanding alone is just not enough. Otherwise we’d all be at the gym or reading books more often.
So I guess the next level we can aspire to is to amplify the urgency for change by really highlighting what’s at stake if people don’t change. So the aim here is to move or jolt the audience out of their current state or inertia by showing either the costs of inaction or the benefits of taking hold of an opportunity in running with it. And this is very much, this raising stakes, is very much at the heart of propelling a story forward and getting the audience to ask, ‘Okay, what needs to be done next?’ But in my experience, even this level, which is a lot more effective than the first two, while it’s necessary, on it’s own, alone, it’s not enough to compel most people to take action, or for the strategy or the change to really take hold in the organisation.
To me, the level that really makes a difference, that inspires action, is when we build urgency for change at the individual or the human level. So, ‘Sure the organisation needs to diversify our product portfolio if we’re going to compete. But what does that mean for me sitting in middle management?’ And as communicators, we can’t just stay at the macro or organisational level and describe the market challenges or the events that the organisation faces. We need to show how these events will affect individuals and create urgency for them to personally change. And this will inevitably be about behavior change for the individual—things that they need to do differently or mindsets that will need to shift.
Let me take an example just to make this point a little bit clearer. So recently we worked for an energy company in Asia. I won’t mention the name, but let’s call it Fusion Energy. And in May 2020, Martina, their Head of Strategy, she explained to me that they’d undergone a recent revolution in their industry. They’d moved from a complete reliance on coal to generate energy, to more of the renewable energy, such as wind and solar.
And she had delivered a number of presentations to middle management about the need to now help, for Fusion Energy, to now help the government define the national energy plan using renewable generators. And they called it, ‘We need to help guide the grid’—that was their strategic objective or pillar. While the presentation was well received, Martina explained that over the next few months, behaviours didn’t really change—these mid-managers and their teams—and people simply reverted to past habits of being reactive and not guiding the developments in the industry, but taking a bit more of a backseat. And Martina wanted to know what the issue was or what she could do about it.
So I ended up watching a Zoom recording of one of her presentations, where she explained things like, ‘The country needs a coordinated plan to connect renewable energy generators into our national grid system. Otherwise, we’ll be inefficient in our energy production.’ So here, with lines like this, she’s making the rational case for change. But then, to her credit, she then went a level deeper and built urgency by explaining the stakes, what was at stake, and all the challenges the government and industry faced if there wasn’t a coordinated plan. And that included dire price rises and real problems with supply of energy, which would ultimately fall onto Fusion and also to the government if no one took on the role to plan and forecast the energy grid in a coordinated way. And it was a very professional, well-delivered presentation. But people didn’t act on it. And the problem here from my experience is, like I mentioned earlier, she only built the urgency for change by describing the macro level or market reasons for the change and the stakes for the organisation.
There’s nothing personally urgent for the average individual that makes the story relevant for these managers, that shakes them up to take different action themselves, what’s at stake for them. So what we started doing was to make Martina’s story very real and very personal about why there was urgency for individuals to guide the grid.
And we ended up working with a much loved character in the organisation that Martina identified, let’s call him Tim. And we used his story to make the urgency relatable at a human level. Tim had actually been with Fusion Energy for 20 years or more. And he was a leader in the Network Operations Group, really good at connecting coal generators to the grid, and he had a lot of respect in the organisation. He stayed below the radar typically and responded to the national energy demands in the most efficient way possible.
But last year, when a large new solar generator sought to join the grid, Tim realises—the leader of this group in that region—that it’s location and the connection plans that the customer had were actually quite simplistic and somewhat naive. And they weren’t accounting for the volatile energy needs of the region. But Tim, being well-trained not to get involved with generators or the customers and their strategy, he’d always reacted and hooked them up to the grid as they instructed. And that approach would work for 20 years. And besides, if he was to stick his neck out, it would’ve required him to get out of his comfort zone, to host industry meetings, to speak extensively with government policy makers, and perhaps to offend the customer directly by not doing exactly what they were requesting. He would also have to share, vulnerably, some of the internal modelling and forecasting, which was normally kept very private.
So in that case, Tim chose to stay silent. And he just connected, based on the crest of the generator, the renewable generator. And when this generator went live on the grid, a few months later, it actually was a disaster. There were grave inefficiencies, the location was so wrong that it raised costs for everyone in the region. It led to unstable price rises. And this time, the government and the regulators were actually knocking on Tim’s door, asking why he didn’t, or why Fusion Energy didn’t, do more to predict this and to do better planning. In meetings, they were berating him. And there were even articles in the local press that were highlighting Fusion Energy’s role and the better plan for this renewable generator was not suggested.
So through this, Tim realised that expectations had changed and he would continue to get these calls in the future, and his Network Operations teammates would get these calls in the future, unless they started guiding the grid, taking on a leadership role. Things certainly changed and there was no longer the luxury to be reactive.
So Martina invited Tim to share this experience with his colleagues at a town hall and he courageously did. So it’s not easy to admit your mistakes, but he did so because he saw the urgency was very real. He knew he had a leadership role and an obligation to share the story. And when he did get up and share it, the Network Operations team really took it to heart. They got the urgency, not at the organisational level, but a very individual, emotional level of what it would mean for their Network Operations Group. So on the back of that, they were ready to act.
And of course, Tim’s story might not create as much individual urgency for someone who’s sitting in say finance or HR. We can’t as communicators, help people to explain the change for every person in very specific terms, or the strategy. But we should give our team some credit. And perhaps if we can just share examples, examples like Tim’s, find one in HR, find one in finance… They can then connect the dots and work out the rest of how it applies to them. So our next step with Martina was to work together, to find other tangible stories of the urgent need for personal change, individual change, across different functions and regions and levels that people could relate to.
So just to summarize, and I know, this has been a long blog. But a change story’s impact really hinges on the urgency you can create for action. And to do that, we can think about the levels of urgency you’re creating. The first one is providing a rational understanding of the factors causing the change. The why at an organisational level. But we want to do more than that. We also want to emphasise what’s at stake, both good and bad for the organisation if these factors are not acted upon. And then the final level, which is really important, is to make the change and the stakes urgent at the individual or the personal level.
I know, as communicators, if we do this and we go through these different levels, we have a chance to stick our heads above the radar, just like Tim did, and to demand that change communications actually create personal urgency when our leaders get up there and present and communicate. And I feel strongly about this because if we don’t do it, at best, our careers as communicators will really just be about providing understanding at best, providing some clarity, and not about inspiring people and inspiring action. And I don’t know about you, but as a communicator, that’s really where the fulfillment comes from.
About Paul Ichilcik
Paul Ichilcik is a Principal at Anecdote. He is an expert facilitator and story consultant, having worked with C-level leaders across the globe to bring strategy and transformation efforts to life. Paul is a former management consultant and, prior to Anecdote, he worked in the US, in executive communications roles for Amazon, Microsoft and a San Francisco brand agency.