The seven steps of creating a compelling narrative

Here’s the thing. You want change. But the only way organisational change can be achieved is if you change what employees think and feel, what they believe and what they do. And yet businesses frequently struggle to create the story that helps make this change happen. So, what’s the secret?

My take, after decades of exploring the topic, is that there are seven key elements of a great narrative for change.

A narrative for change

First, articulate your burning platform. This is the context of your need to act, and it’s always about the future. The future creates risk (the probable future if you do nothing). It also creates opportunity (your preferred future).

Second, link the risk and opportunity to your core products and services. For Nissan, a possible global population of 9 billion by 2050 translates into 2.5bn vehicles by the same year. For IBM, the increased number of people on the planet means added demand for its products and services that help clients unclog traffic, explore a cure for cancer or predict and reduce crime.

Third, show how your organisation is uniquely positioned to help achieve this change. The IBM narrative says the company lives at the intersection of business and technology, and highlights how it is uniquely positioned due to its work with 40 of the top 50 retailers and 92 of the top 100 healthcare organisations.

Fourth, always align the change to your organisation’s core purpose….and I mean purpose not vision or mission. Your purpose is your company’s reason for being. This is important because people have an innate need for meaning. It’s hard-wired into our brains. For example, GSK’s purpose is to ‘enable people to do more, feel better, live longer’.

Fifth, be clear about the implications of the context for your transformational priorities. As a result of this context, ask what you are going to be focusing on in the next year, two years, three years? For example, PepsiCo responded to an increased societal focus on health and fitness by widening its portfolio of ‘Good For You’ products.

Sixth, link the narrative to what employees can do. This isn’t just about communications. It’s about action. What do they each need to do in the workplace? And what do they need to do socially, i.e. with others inside or outside the company?

It’s also essential to make it easy for employees to act. RBS, for example, asks its employees to answer a ‘yes check’ of five questions – if they can answer in the affirmative to each, it’s safe to assume they’re making a good decision.

The employee voice

Finally, use the language employees would use in their everyday lives. Companies still seem to thrive on communications that sound good but are what I describe as corporate tosh. Keep the language simple. In doing this, you’ll probably also be adding the secret additional ingredient – the true character of your organisation. Not your brand. But who you are at heart.

One other thought. The narrative can usually achieve all of this while being exceedingly short. On the other hand, don’t under-write it. A story is as long as it needs to be.

And there you have it. The recipe for a compelling narrative for change. Who needs Bake Off?

John Drummond
October 2016.