Change stories — How to lead change: master message discipline

June 17, 2024
6 min read
Photo by Matt Foxx on Unsplash
"Change is inevitable. Growth is optional."
John Maxwell

Leaders lead change.

Change must come with a sense of urgency. The longer a transformation is in transition, the more likely it is to fail. So it’s essential leaders grasp two change stories: Story 1 and Story 2.

Story 2 is the destination. The vision. The 'where' and 'why' in "Where are we going and why?"

Story 1 is the journey. The path to get there. This is the 'how' and 'when' in "How do I do that, and by when?"

Both stories are equally important. Symbiotic.

Product people have figured it out.

Imagine you, as a consumer, have just bought a new widget for your home. And let's imagine that the widget has a service element to it. It could be a streaming box, or a doorbell cam, or a fitness tracker. The company that sold it to you has spent millions of dollars on product development, marketing, distribution... All to get that widget into your hands. That's change. It will revolutionize the way you watch TV, or answer your door, or the way you exercise.

But, you leave it in the box. The quick start guide is unread. The widget is never switched on. You paid a product fee but never activated the service.

This is a frustrating partial hit for the company that sold you the widget. When the cost of customer acquisition and the cost of goods sold are accounted for, you, as a customer, are a net loss.

The problem: you were sold on story 2— the destination; but story 1—the journey, never quite landed. This happens more often than you might think. Data isn’t readily available, but an educated guess might put up to ten percent of smart home devices left in the box. This unboxed widget isn’t just a product; in fact, this ‘servicification’ of products to create product-service systems is increasingly common.

Manufacturers work, therefore, on Story 1 and Story 2.

Compare Story 2 for two experiences: setting up cable TV a decade ago to activating a streaming box today. Before; a frustrating, time-consuming process, prone to user error. Today; a streamlined step-by-step and user-friendly experience.

Competition and commercial interest have led businesses to redesign today’s experience; where each missed activation costs money, designers have redesigned the service; where every customer call is expensive, engineers have leaned in; where every frustrated customer review damages the brand; managers have leaped into action.

Not so with change.

In a recent Bain study, only 12% of organizations have undergone transformations where the business outcome has met or exceeded expectations. More often—in three out of four cases—the business settles for mediocre results—and then embarks on another large-scale change within two or three years.

People have to see themselves in the picture.

Inevitably, leaders miss a central tenet of change—that people have to see themselves in the picture. This doesn’t happen, and there are a few reasons why.

In trying to set out the destination (Story 2), the vision is vague or unrealistic. There’s a lack of concreteness. The vision is more Motherhood and Apple Pie and less practical and actionable. Worse, the story is told in business lingo. Story 2 is dry and boring. High on jargon and acronyms; low on relevance and emotion. There’s no message discipline around Story 2, with mixed signals: on Monday, it’s all rah, rah, and strategy; by Friday, it’s back to business as usual.

Story 1, the journey, can miss the mark. When this happens, it’s the 1️⃣,2️⃣,3️⃣ that is missing. The roadmap is unclear, complex, or, worse, ambiguous. The steps are too big; too overwhelming. It ignores the personal challenges and obstacles that people feel—leaving them isolated and unsupported.

What we see most often: Story 2 is told without Story 1, or vice versa.

In the case where it’s all destination (Story 2), there is no movement. There is plenty of ‘why’ and ‘where’—it’s the ‘how’ and ‘when’ that is lacking. In the case where it’s all the journey (Story 1), there’s spin. It’s the classic, “Are we there yet?” A lot of activity, while old ways of doing things get jumbled in with the new, causing overload and burnout.

Fixing Story 2.

Story 2 is the answer to the question, “Where are we going, and why?” This appeals to the thinkers and visionaries in your organization, as well as the team players—those who are committed to doing the right thing.

Painting a rich and detailed picture of the destination—what it will look and feel like for individuals, teams, and the business—is essential. More essential still—is the reason. The rationale has to work at all levels, not just business ROI. Answer these questions:

For Individuals:

  1. How will this change impact my job and daily responsibilities?
  2. What will my day-to-day work look like once we get there?
  3. How will this help me grow and develop?

For teams:

  1. How will this lift the team and improve how we work?
  2. How will each team member’s role and contribution change?
  3. How can our team reinvent itself to thrive in this new direction?

For the business:

  1. How does this change fit with our mission and purpose?
  2. How does this change strengthen our company’s future?
  3. How will this change help us better serve our customers?

You can detail out these questions using the Motive Triangle. This is a tool we use to understand the secret wish of your audience in business storytelling. It is the triangulation of hope, fear, and reason.

Hope moves you further. Fear moves you faster. Reason gives you a story to tell yourself—and others—about why you made the choice you made.

Fixing Story 1.

Story 1 is often misunderstood. It’s not that people haven’t bought into the change—perhaps they have. Story 2 is clear. But people are still doing what they did yesterday.

You are trying to build an army of advocates and change stalls for two reasons; either people are bought into the change, they just don’t know how to do it, or they are exercising a pocket veto, thinking, “This too shall pass.” Both are fixed through Story 1, the journey.

Where Story 2 was ‘where’ and ‘why’ Story 1 is ‘how’ and ‘when.’

Give people clarity on how to get there. This is the equivalent of quick-start guides and step-by-step how-to's.

Establish clear objectives and key results to track progress and keep everyone aligned. These goals are crucial. They have to be translated into the work: setting OKRs, testing OKRs, and running to OKRs.

Most importantly, to clear pocket vetoes, clear the busy work. Remove from people’s ‘todo’ list old work and old ways of working—get rid of anything that isn’t covered by OKRs

Make things concrete. The abstract goal of ‘getting fitter’ (story 2) is not going to have the same impact as a step-by-step plan of dietary changes and exercise routines. It’s as important to say what to do (do this) as it is to say what not to do (not that) when it comes to changing the way we work.

All of this is embedded through rituals. Rituals build habits, and habits build skills. Daily stand-ups build a habit of regular communication, collaboration, and accountability. This has a knock-on effect on skill: improving team coordination, problem-solving, and time management.

To get clearer on Story 1, ask yourself these questions.

For Individuals:

  1. What specific steps do I need to take to adapt to this change?
  2. What should I start doing and stop doing to align with this change?
  3. What resources and support will be available to help me?

For teams:

  1. What are the immediate actions we need to take as a team?
  2. How can we set and achieve our OKRs to stay on track?
  3. What rituals can we establish to reinforce our new way of working?

For the business:

  1. What are the key milestones and deadlines we need to meet?
  2. What outcomes are we aiming for, and how will we track them?
  3. What are the potential risks, and how will we mitigate them?

Message Discipline.

Leaders must seamlessly weave Story 1 and Story 2 together.

Master message discipline. It is crucial in driving change. Story 1 should flow into Story 2, making the journey clear and the destination compelling. This requires consistent communication, reinforcing the narrative across all levels of the organization. Share stories of progress, celebrate small wins, and remind everyone of the ultimate goal.

By telling both stories effectively, leaders can inspire action, maintain momentum, and achieve lasting change.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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