The story secrets of organizational change

In the world of Storytelling and Organizational Consulting, similar mantras are drilled into us – different words, similar meaning:

1. Make the audience the hero

2. Meet the client where they are

Both of these mantras speak to empowering people and companies, to help them feel, think, do, and see things differently so that they are called to action to enact change.

What this boils down to is – I see you (the client, the character, the company), where you are, for what you are…and I believe in you.

What this requires of us (those who lead change efforts and write the words to inspire) is patience, and a bit of scaffolding.

The best example I’ve seen of living out both of these mantras was Columbia University Professor William Duggan. I write about him often, and, nope, I probably won’t stop.

He had important words say, to teach, and to share. He drew us in carefully and artfully, by speaking the audience’s language (read, mostly MBA students), and skillfully partnering with them to help students come to important realizations themselves. Three acts. Small steps. A slowly built narrative balanced with equal parts logic and emotion at just the right times, each chapter asking for a bit more of us as we went.

In awe of his art, I asked him how he crafted his semester-long class. What was his secret?

Make the audience the hero. Meet them where they are.

He was teaching a slightly unconventional topic and wanted his students to come along for the ride. How often have we too had a great idea, something we care deeply about sharing, and want others to join in on? Hands up, everyone! I see you.

His reminder – you can’t do that by forcing an idea. That’s all head, no heart. He metaphorically held the idea and the a-ha out for his students in his out-stretched arm. And carefully crafted a sequence of steps where they’d be encouraged and motivated to keep reaching. One class after the other.

It’s not too much of stretch to equate this art to leadership.

But how often does our desire to push and prod instead of join and co-create take over our best impulses – especially under stress and threat?

How often does our desire to be seen as the hero and to not quite understand or empathize with where the client could be force us to push too far and stop the story? I’m certainly guilty.

To meet the client, the student, the reader where they are and to help them see that they are the hero is to recognize that we aren’t writing the story by ourselves. It’s not our story. It’s theirs. It’s not my change effort. It’s ours. Or, in many cases… it’s just theirs. And that’s a happy ending.

Avoiding the quick fix

How many times have you said, or heard someone else say, “So-and-so is such a problem. If we can just change person “X”, our lives will be so much easier”.

Let’s just come clean, shall we? We’ve all thought this at one point or another. In an attempt to taper or avoid conflict, blaming the problems of a work team or family on “Person X” is one popular avoidance tactic.

And, because we don’t like conflict, and because we think “X” and only “X” is the problem, we zoom in on this person and their faults, or we hope the problem will go away with attrition.

Whether we’re part of a family or a work team, it’s easy and natural for many of us to pinpoint the problems of the group on one specific person or cause. Let’s admit it, blaming another person is a reflex, and sometimes that behavior is even reinforced or rewarded.

Often there is something else brewing.

When it comes to change (at the individual, group, or organization level), …the person that we think is the problem…? Well, they are sometimes (read: usually) merely a symptom of something larger.

We call that something larger “the system”.

Successful change interventions take into account a system-wide view. We know that changing one part of the system will often (and must) result in changing something else. It’s about pulling the right lever at the right time and understanding that a change in one person or lever, doesn’t happen in isolation.

If your work team is blaming one person as “the problem” and that person leaves, chances are another “problem” person will arise because the group needs that “problem person” in order to function. Sometimes it’s a scapegoat, sometimes it’s a different role. The group will re-create that conflict and dynamic until it no longer needs it.

The person and the environment work in conjunction, not in isolation. We all contribute to the culture, the dynamics, and the “problems” of a team.

What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine.

What Matters Now – Building Organizations for the Future

I have been spending a lot of time with Gary Hamel’s Management Innovation portal: On this site are videos, stories, ideas, and conversations about building organizations for the future.

Hamel argues we must work to reinvent management because the organizations of today are facing challenges that are truly unprecedented and unfortunately, our management models of the past are no longer relevant.

Organizations of today are burdened with accelerating change and hyper competition.

In order to thrive, companies MUST become more adaptable, creative and innovative – but perhaps most importantly, they must also create an organization where employees are willing to bring their gifts of innovation, creativity and passion to work every single day to help combat these challenges.

What can you do at your organization to help bring out the best in your employees? At DreamWorks I worked to create lasting culture change at my company by teaching employees new skills and a new framework for collaboration and communication.

I started small with a test group of employees, built up to a presentation where I invited the entire studio, spread my message through word of mouth and demonstrated these new principles in a non-threatening way. I succeeded on a measurable scale as someone who was not in a management role.

Seth Godin might talk about it like this :

As Hamel notes, we as human beings are already adaptable and resilient. So many of us already have the qualities that many of our organizations lack.

What can you do to create a more engaged and purposeful workplace, where employees feel empowered, motivated, and willing to use their gifts to help build a strong organization for the future?