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Seven stories — How to lead your business through change.

June 29, 2023
11 min read
Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash
“Slowness to change usually means fear of the new.”
— Philip Crosby

Many years ago, I worked at Gartner.

It was a time of transformation. We were on the cusp of becoming a billion-dollar business. Technology was transitioning from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. An old CEO was stepping down, and a new one was stepping up.

Consultants were brought in.

If you’re thinking McKinsey, Bain, or BCG—you wouldn’t be far wrong. During this time, I learned the importance of other c’s that go with change: clarity, conviction, communication, and certainty (among others) and how much humans need them.

Week after week, the consultants sat in conference rooms.

Paper privacy screens hung on the windows, and a trail of people visited these rooms for interviews. I had my turn, telling of my corner of the business, where it was going, and how it could be improved.  Others trailed in after me. I returned for “follow-ups.”

The interviews ground on.

In place of any real communication, the rumor mill whirred. We were merging with another company. A radical reorganization was about to happen. Cuts were about to happen. Products would sunset, and new groups would spin up. Everyone—and no one—knew.

In this communication gap, I noticed three distinct reactions among my colleagues. 

No decisions will be made today.

That was the first reaction. “Why would we make a decision if everything would change in a matter of weeks? We’re paying consultants millions, and they know best. Pointless to make a decision today that will be reversed tomorrow. Let’s just defer that and hold off on this.”

The next reaction?

Keep your head below the cubicle.

In an age of open-plan offices and working from home, this second reaction seems quaint. But it’s a legitimate human reaction to uncertainty—fear. “Not only will I make no decisions, but I won’t rock any boats, make any false moves, or take any action at all. If heads may roll, I want to make sure mine isn’t one of them.”

I know what the strategy is.

This is the most dangerous reaction of all. Worse than delay or inaction is action in a hundred different directions. That’s what happens when people think they’re so smart they already know what the strategy is or should be, so they just act as if.

This is the camp I was in.

With change comes uncertainty.

With uncertainty, we need to tell stories to give people clarity. We need to have message discipline—to repeat those stories until they bed in and help people navigate through change. Consistency. And they need to be true stories, not fairy tales. Certainty.

This is a little like parenting. When you take your kids on a trip, they want to know why. They want to know, “Are we there yet?” They have questions.

A lot of questions.

Except employees are definitely not kids. And I wouldn’t recommend infantilization as a leadership strategy. But the messaging needs are similar. The answer lies in story.

Seven stories for seven questions.

These questions—and the stories that answer them, help people navigate. They help people understand their role. The answers give people confidence. They see their place in the world.

The questions are:

  1. Where are we going (and why)?
  2. Who are we?
  3. What do I do?
  4. How do we make money?
  5. How do we do things around here?
  6. How are we doing?
  7. How will this be used?

The "Where are we going (and why)?" story.

This story fronts your strategy.

People need to know where and why; otherwise, they won’t go with you. In the second world war, Patton answered that question with clarity and certainty. He famously said, 

"Berlin. I'm going to personally shoot that paper-hangin' sonofabitch." 

One of the best examples of a “where” was from JFK. For America and for NASA, it was the moon. The “why?” Because it is hard.

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The Where and Why define a vision and shared purpose, one that everyone can get behind. 

Do you have a where and why story?

The “Who are we?” story.

Who am I? isn’t just an existential question for a mid-life crisis.

Self-identity is as critical to organizations as the people in them. For individuals, that social connection identifies their tribe. Identity guides actions and decisions in times of change.  It aids clarity. Self-identity helps us work with others; it allows us to be autonomous, navigate tasks, and find our place in the world. The same applies to business.

Without a strong self-identity, businesses flounder and fail. 

Kodak could not shift its core identity. Despite inventing the digital camera in 1975, “digital” was not part of the company’s identity. Film was. Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer who invented the technology, couldn’t get anyone to identify with it. It wasn’t who they were.

“But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it.”

That was a Kodak moment for the company. 

As you tell the story of “who we are,” people have to see themselves in that picture.

The “What do I do?” story.

This story guides the work. It allows coordination and collaboration.

An old Superbowl commercial gave life to the expression, herding cats. In the spot, a grizzled cowboy faced the camera over a swelling western soundtrack. A herd of cats roaming a dusty plain, being wrangled by ‘catboys.’ The grizzled cowboy husked;

Anybody can herd cattle. Holding together 10,000 half-wild short-hairs, why that’s another thing altogether. 

There’s certainty and pride in knowing what you do well.

The story that answers the question, “What do I do?” reduces role ambiguity and lines everyday activity up against strategy and tactics. A clear understanding of “what do I do” deepens autonomy, allowing people to remove transactions and busywork.

The “How do we make money?” story.

This is a question of understanding the business.

In any business, there are organizations — engineering, product, and sales—that make and sell the stuff customers buy. And there are executive functions—HR, finance, and legal—that help the business. 

It’s the “how” that’s key.

Both are vital, and both need to understand how the business makes money. Telling these stories allows autonomy. It allows teams to focus on vital improvements that can improve revenue, increase margins and avoid waste.

An employee’s increased financial understanding builds on other stories: where we are going, why, the identity of the business, and my role. 

The “How do we make money?” story allows everyone — from the C-suite to the frontline — to make business-savvy decisions.

The "How do we do things around here?" story.

These cultural stories tell of how we work.

These cultural stories are more powerful than a manifesto. They resonate more deeply than a set of values inscribed on a wall. They shape how people behave. What is more effective? A poster with the word ‘teamwork’ on it or the story of how the team rallied together in a crunch to deliver for a client?

Simply put, culture is “how we do things around here.” Underneath that are the collective habits and unwritten rules that inform the way work gets done. Are people running from one meeting to the next with no time in between? That’s a habit. Do you say yes to the boss, even when it doesn't make sense? That’s an unwritten rule.

Neither of them is good.

Stories shape behavior. These collective habits and unwritten rules help groups do (or not do) things together. They must be shaped. The positive ones reinforced, and the negative ones weeded out.

The "How are we doing?" story.

This is the feedback loop. 

The story that emerges from this question tells the truth, or the lie, to all previous stories. It’s the story that tells people where they are. We’re moving the project forward. The transformation is underway. We’re doing something, declaring victory, and moving on.

This is the affirmation that we—the team, the project, the business—are moving forward.

The “How will this be used?” story.

This is a story from the future.

It’s a story that creates the future. It could be a product story or a story of change. It paints a vivid picture of a new product, solution, or business transformation. 

“How will this be used?” is a science fiction, a story of the near future. The story explains how your protagonist (customer/ user) and product (solution) come together to solve a problem. This is the story that helps product, engineering, and project teams build what they are building, and sales and marketing teams sell what they are selling.

This “How will this be used?” story is studded with rich detail that shows the value or benefits that you will provide. 

Are you telling a story of the future?

These are stories that you should be telling. Are you?

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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