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Changing Cultures using the Power of Story


© Marie M.   |   Corporate Culture  |   Comments
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Stories are not an optional extra in organisations. They are being told and re-told at the water cooler, on the phone and via e-mail - both internally and externally. They are affecting your bottom line, right now. Are the stories being told in your organisation leading it towards where you want it to be or are they sabotaging your success?

Living in a hi-tech world we sometimes forget the power of our oldest form of communication - story. Some of the largest organisations in the world are beginning to understand and harness the power of story in their organisations. IBM, Xerox, The World Bank, Shell, BP, BT are using the power of story to create culture change. These and other successful organisations are sharing knowledge and exploring new ways to be more effective. They are using the art of story in practical, no nonsense ways to help people, teams and organisations to change the way that they think so that they can survive and thrive for the future. Story communication is becoming a key ingredient in Leadership and Communications training around the world.


Our brains think in story form

We are all natural story tellers. It's how people connect and create an affinity with each other. That's how we create meaning. We tell stories all the time.

Share a fact and I will learn. Share a truth and I might believe.
Tell me a story and it will live in my memory forever.

Our brains are constantly searching for meaning. Stories create meaning. If you give someone facts, they only activate certain parts of the brain. Stories activate lots of different parts of the brain - that's why we remember them. They connect with the logic part, the emotions and the action part. Effective stories move people (emotionally) to greater understanding and action. Facts, figures and bullet points may be forgotten but stories get re-told.


What are the stories being told, created and shared in your organisation?

Stories are not an optional extra - they already exist as part of what defines your organisation, team or department. What kind of stories are being shared in your organisation? Are they stories of success; how well the team is doing; how Customer focused you are and what great direction and leadership comes from the top? Or are they about the stupid mistakes people are making; how badly the systems work, the lack of direction and a sense of helplessness to make any difference? Are they stories of how bright the future is looking or are people stuck in the past, in the good old days? How are the stories being told in your organisation now, going to affect its future?

Listen to the stories. Can they help to explain what's going right in the organisation or what's going wrong. Can they help to explain the figures? Stories contain vital messages for the Board and Senior Management of every organisation. Are you listening to them and harnessing their power?

"You need peripheral hearing." Donald Kreough, former President Coca-Cola.


Culture Change

The power of story has been used for centuries by the elders of tribes to help their people to deal with and understand the need for change and to create buy-in when they need to move to a new place.

When we're trying to get commitment and buy-in from people, we need to connect with them at all levels. PowerPoint presentations and Bullet Points just won't work. They don't connect with people's emotions. They don't tell the whole story.

Stories will help you to go through the mind to the heart. If people are arguing with you inside their heads - you've only connected with them on an intellectual level. Stories help you to connect at an emotional level and whether you're wanting to get commitment or to sell something to someone, connecting with their emotions is what makes them act.

People change for one of two reasons: inspiration or desperation. Emotions. They will either be inspired to move from where they are by someone telling them stories and painting pictures about how good the future could be or they'll be feeling desperate with the situation as it is and want to move to something else. That's why it's important that any stories you use, paint both the upside and the downside.

When organisations go through a Merger or Acquisition, they often face a "clash of cultures". One of the fastest ways to move people forward and get them out of Post-Merger Drift and into thinking about how they can create the best future possible for everyone, as quickly as possible, is to get groups of senior people together and ask "If you continue to work and behave in the way that you are now, what will the end of the story be"? Get them to work on that. If they're happy with how the story will turn out, great! You've got them to clarify the story and their working plot. If not, they need to look at their preferred end to the story and then look at what changes need to be made to make that happen.

"The ability to influence people's thoughts and feelings, to generate their buy-in, has emerged as the paramount leadership skill." Mark Walton, Generating Buy-In.

I'm not talking about making stories up to manipulate people. I'm talking about telling the truth, using integrity in your storytelling for a particular purpose.

Stories can be used in a variety of ways. I have recently worked with Chief Executives who created stories to deal with issues as diverse as

creating insight into a recent decision, rather than just passing the decision on
overcoming resistance to a new project
giving a message a real world meaning
engaging people, getting them motivated and involved in a new project
increasing buy-in to a new technology project
providing a warning about the market in a particular industry
explaining the need for a future Merger and creating excitement about it
re-allocating resources without conflict


Collect the Stories

Use the grapevine in a positive way. Collect and spread positive stories in organisations. Stories about what's going right, successful implementations of projects or new technology, milestones achieved, new innovations because of increased co-operation and the like. It is also important to listen for the negative stories, the ones that are leading the organisation away from where it wants to be. Pay attention to those stories and use them to change what's going wrong, to ensure systems, processes and procedures are helping the organisation rather than hindering it.

People WANT to work for successful organisations. In my experience, given the opportunity, people will create success stories. All they need is a little commitment from the top.


"The ultimate hallmark of world-class champion leaders - is the ability to weave vibrant stories that lead their organisations into the future." Noel Tichy, The Leadership Engine.

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