Storytelling makes complex issues relatable and memorable. Everyday objects and events can be woven into stories that encapsulate larger organisational issues. These stories create a shared understanding and commitment to the change process. | www.jaconsulting.co.uk
Andy's Cat and Sally's Spider Plant: How Stories and Storytelling Make for Successful Change Management

Everyday objects and events can be woven into stories that encapsulate larger organisational issues.

Meet Alan: a master storyteller in change management

One of the clients I work with – let’s call him Alan – is a gifted storyteller. I don’t mean that he tells fibs, or that he frequently lapses into allegory – or that he is some kind of pub bore who takes your time with an ‘I remember when…’. I mean that at every stage of delivering change in his organisation, he talks (and writes) in ways that make people listen. He engages his colleagues by describing what has happened – or what is happening now, or what he wants to happen – by shaping it into a format that keys into the same pathways in our brain as what we were watching last night on Netflix.

As Kevin Morrell, Professor in transformational strategy at Cranfield School of Management, said recently, ‘Stories are the cultural software we run as a species.’

What Alan does is tap into that cultural software and brings to life the change challenges with a vignette of the issues in practice.

For example, the silos he’s identified in his company are not demonstrated with an organogram: instead, he might tell me about the two women whose conversation he overheard standing in the queue for lunch as they discovered that they had been working for 8 months on the same issue and had never met. A supply chain issue is not just about the graph that shows time and money wasted, it would be about the chap who came into the office holding a small metal machine part in the palm of his hand and told Alan just how many days it had taken for that essential part to reach where they were standing.

Give storytelling a status

The reality is that change is a chaotic combination of events. A gifted storyteller selects the most significant elements of what happened and threads them together into a recognised pattern. We were taught these patterns in childhood through picture books and cautionary tales; we’ve honed our recognition of them through watching television, cinema and other screen-stories, and we repeat them every time we sit down for a family dinner or meet a friend for coffee, as we repackage our experiences. We recognise instinctively, ‘Ah, this is David and Goliath! Or it’s Cinderella. Or the hero’s journey.’

Seven universal stories

At JA Consulting we are now working on storytelling throughout the processes of change management – in creating urgency, bonding your guiding coalition, communicating vision, sharing short-term wins, and explaining why things happened as they did. We have been helped by the analysis done by Christopher Booker and his idea that there are actually only seven stories in the world. Booker lists them as:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Rags to Riches
  • Confusion to Clarity (comedy)
  • Rebirth
  • Tragedy

Aspects of change can be packaged as almost any one of these seven stories – merging two departments could be told as Overcoming a Monster of inefficiency or it can be a Quest for the structure that releases new creativity. A project team trying out a new way of working could be described in a Voyage and Return journey, with spills and thrills along the way as they face unforeseen challenges, acquire new skills, then apply their newfound knowledge and experience. A Rags to Riches narrative for instance, can vividly illustrate the journey of a struggling department which turned things around to achieve much lauded success. And there are ways of telling a departmental merger by focusing on the new life that is allowed to emerge in a Rebirth story, as teams realise the error of their ways.

The power of intentional stories

Many leaders are instinctive storytellers, but having a knowledge of these stories so that we can be intentional as we choose our narratives definitely leads to more focused and more powerful storytelling. It gives storytelling a status – no longer a quirk in some individuals’ communication style. 

We are recognising it as something that needs to be part of the toolbox that all of us access for shaping and communicating the change we want to make happen.

Andy’s Cat: a tale of process improvement

Let me share some examples of how we’ve put storytelling into practice – even just in small ways. One woman I worked with described the delays in a finance department just by talking about Andy’s desk.

Apparently, sitting on this desk was an irritating solar-powered nodding cat, and also seven different piles of documents in process.

‘Getting it away from Andy’s cat’ became the management team’s shorthand for speeding up processes and cutting out unnecessary admin delays. Of course, every time the poor cat was invoked to communicate this vision, the coalition of leaders guiding change in this company were also bonded a little more by the in-joke.

Sally’s Spider Plant: a symbol of organisational change 

Or there was the situation on a recent change project when the client was celebrating some short-term wins and one of our consultants mentioned the pot plant of a senior manager called Sally. 

The company concerned has been struggling with people returning to the office post-Covid. Many of the best staff like Sally had been almost entirely Zoom-based since 2020 and the new structures we were helping the client to build required more face-to-face time than her team had seemed willing to give.

With Sally never in the office, ‘even the post-it notes around her monitor were starting to curl with age’ as our consultant described it. He went through the strategies that had been put in place to bring Sally’s team together in person, the ideas that had failed, the reason he believed face-to-face contact was needed at this stage in development.

‘And then yesterday,’ he told the meeting, ‘When I walked past her office, I saw a pot plant! She’s brought that in, she knows she’s going to need to water it regularly. I think we’ve now got Sally back in the office!’

Sally’s spider plant can join Andy’s cat as a metric of success, but also as part of a briefly glimpsed world that listeners to the stories share as a reference point.

Storytelling: a key tool in the change leader’s toolbox

Storytelling makes complex issues relatable and memorable, in the same way that Alan uses stories to illustrate organisational challenges, making them tangible. Storytelling should be part of every change leader’s toolbox: using universal narratives, leaders can communicate change effectively. Everyday objects and events can be woven into stories that encapsulate larger organisational issues. These stories create a shared understanding and commitment to the change process. And that’s what makes storytelling a powerful tool for change management.

If you’d like us to help you shape your change management story and help to bring your change journey to life then get in touch.

You may find the following resources interesting:

Is successful change a fairy tale? Morrell, K., Cranfield Executive Development, https://blog.som.cranfield.ac.uk/knowledge/is-successful-change-a-fairy-tale

The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. Booker, C., 2006, Continuum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Basic_Plots

Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. Haven, K., 2007, Libraries Unlimited. https://www.kendallhaven.com/works.htm

Storytelling That Drives Bold Change; How to craft a narrative that matters. Frei, F.X., Morriss, A.. Harvard Business Review Nov0Dec 2023. https://hbr.org/2023/11/storytelling-that-drives-bold-change

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Caroline Gowing

Email: carolinegowing@jaconsulting.co.uk

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/carolinegowinggreenslade

About Caroline Gowing – Caroline is an expert sustainability and change management consultant delivering successful change across Defence, wider corporate business, and the charity sector for the past twenty years. 

A highly competent strategy and change management facilitator Caroline is able to work with an individual or group to draw out their understanding of a problem and solution and then take this forward in a way that can be easily understood, persuasively communicated and attractively presented.

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And a final thought

At JA Consulting we help drive sustainable change; to work with you to take theory and put it into practice. With the right support and guidance, change can become a seamless and straightforward process that yields long-term results.

Want to make change happen for you? Our team is waiting and ready to help.