While a well-developed change story cannot guarantee the success of a change, a poorly developed one almost always ensures a less-than-optimum outcome if not outright failure.
We know the power of story; we create stories for ourselves all the time, and we often share them with others. There’s the story about that important conversation you’re going to have with a significant other, or your boss, or a co-worker, or a client later today. You’ve probably replayed it in your head a dozen times or more, and in the retelling you have felt more and more prepared, or more and more scared. There’s the story about what you’re going to do to relax this coming weekend, or on the next vacation. That one gets retold every time you feel over-worked or over-stressed; it lets you catch your breath and puts a smile on your face, at least for a moment. There is (or was) the story of “happily ever after,” the first draft appearing before the emotion of the first kiss wore off. Stories have power.
So what is a change story, why is it important, who writes it, when is it written, and how is it used?
What is a change story?
First of all, it is a story. It’s not a plan, or a PR statement, or a press release, or a long (or short) acronym- and terminology-laden description. It’s a story.
Like many stories, it has a “once upon a time.” The “once upon a time” is now, meaning the story is written from the future. “I’m really here.” “We did it.” “The finish line has been crossed!”
The change story is not just written from the head; it captures as many of the senses as possible. “I’m really here. Looking out I see… In the background I hear… My heart is filled with gratitude for…” You get the idea. And this is just as true if it is an organizational change story as one created for a personal change. “We’ve done it! We’ve ‘gone public.’ Today I am a stock owner in this company. Today every employee is a stock owner in this company. We are all invested in its future. And I couldn’t feel prouder in each and every one of us!”
The change story speaks from the future, and it speaks of the journey to get there. It focuses on some of the key milestones along the way. A colleague of mine and great change-story facilitator, Stephen Maye, uses as an example a family building a lake home. This is how he describes the milestones; you can begin to feel, to know, the experience even in this summary.
1.Three Months: Visit the site any time we want, and know exactly what the drive up from the main road is like.
2.Four Months: Experience the view from key areas of the property, and a sense of the view from your respective rooms. Can even camp overnight on the site.
3.Seven Months: A feel for walking through the place and being able to visualize the approach to the house. We can “camp” inside—entire weekends if we want!
4.Ten Months (Spring): A fully functioning house. Sleep in a bed, read in front of a fire, and have morning coffee on the back deck overlooking the lake. Not ready to entertain or boat.
5.Thirteen Months (Summer): Start boating. The dock and ramp are ready; enjoying the lake much like we imagined it.
6.Fourteen and Half Months (Mid-Summer): We will be entertaining. Parking for everyone, easy to enjoy the lake to its fullest (boathouse), a place to gather outdoors in the evening (fire-pit, etc.), and guests will be able to retire to a private apartment with a spectacular view.
7.Sixteen Months (End Summer): Final landscaping in; grass will be established. And there will be no sign of anything that says “construction site”. We will enjoy the lake house just as we imagined it. Everything will say “peace retreat,” (copyright Conner Partners, 2014, all rights reserved).
Note, it’s not: “1. Survey site, establish route for main driveway, mark and clear trees and underbrush.” The change story is about the experience!
Why is it important? How is it used?
Once the change story is written, it becomes the guide to preparing and planning for the journey. In the example above, we know that we need a contractor who will clear land, and we know when he or she is needed; the architect has a clear sense of our timeline, and a high-level understanding of what structures are (and are not) expected, how they will be sited, etc. We know what expectations to set for those who may be eager for an invitation to come visit us. In short, we know what to prepare for and when; we know what to plan for and when.
As the change unfolds, the story continues to provide guidance. When new change opportunities arise, they can quickly be assessed against the story. Would this new change contribute to taking this journey, and to achieving the desired end state? What resources will it take away from this change, if it is not contributing to it? Which is our priority?
It also provides motivation. Just like any other major change–whether personal or organizational–the journey to the successful occupation of this lake home will include both mistakes and surprises. “When the going gets tough” the story can reignite a sense of purpose and commitment that plans, and press releases, and terminology-laden pronouncements cannot.
Who writes it?
The change story is written by those who are accountable for its successful execution. If it is your personal change, that is you; your partner or spouse will also need to be engaged if he or she is going to be carrying significant responsibility for its success. The same is true at the organizational level. If the executive team is responsible for the success of the change, the executive team writes the change story. It has to be a story they own, and that they can tell…not from their heads but their hearts. You wouldn’t ask your children, or a co-worker or neighbor or friend, to write your story of a major personal change. Likewise, don’t ask your project manager, or consultant, or change practitioner to write your organizational change story; if you do, it will never be fully owned, embraced, internalized by those who need to own, embrace, and internalize it.
I have often written that each of us needs to own a change that affects us, even if we are not initiating the change; we should never elect to be victims of the change. With this in mind, I recommend that even in these cases, you write your own change story. When doing so, recognize that if it is to serve the purpose of a change story, it needs to fit within the parameters of the larger story, otherwise it is just a fantasy. Are you committed to staying with the organization through this transformation? If so, what will it be like for you when the organizational change is a success? What are you going to do to make that happen for you? If not, what are you going to do to successfully transition, and to what and/or where are you going to make that transition? When?
When is the change story written?
It may seem obvious. The change story is written at the outset. Once the decision to make the change has been made, the story-writing should begin. It takes concerted effort, and time. But don’t get ahead of yourself with making plans, committing to actions, until the story is written. The process of writing the story can bring forward some significant “Aha” moments, not all of which may be received positively. I have been engaged with clients (both individuals and organizations) who come to the realization when writing the story that they do not have the resources, or the commitment, to proceed with the actual change. Write the story first.
Then keep your eyes on the reality as the change unfolds. Be prepared to revise the story when needed. Perhaps the ground where the lake house is to be sited is less stable than needed, and pilings will need to be driven. If this is going to extend the construction time, reflect that in the story. It may no longer end “At the end of summer…” It may need to end “As the first snow falls.” Other elements of the story may need to change as well. If you keep saying “at the end of summer,” everybody is going to be whispering under their breath, “Yeah, right…dream on.”
I have posted a great deal more in the past both about the process of creating the change story, and about things to consider as you do so. These writings can be found on the “Create Your Change Story” section of the blog.
What are your experiences about creating a change story, and/or executing major change in the absence of a story? Comment below.