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Stories that transform businesses

Disruptive changes across industries are now so common in business that companies can no longer respond with individual, one-off business transformations. Instead, they need to implement ongoing, interdependent transformations across its business units and functions. Business leaders must prepare companies to thrive in a permanent state of change.

Now what would that have to do with story telling. Truth be told, we know that rigorous story-telling across the organization has to happen for the enterprise to shift its course from a current-state to a future-state. Typically, the transformation program office ensures execution excellence, stakeholder alignment, governance and people engagement. Yes, a lot will change during the course of the transformation - organizational structure, processes, infrastructure, systems, accountability, decision rights, etc. But in reality, processes and systems do not change by themselves; it is the people who have to change towards the future-state of the enterprise. And it is the rigor with which the people engagement happens that will define the success or failure of the transformation.

This rigor with people engagement during the transformation is typically driven by an organizational change management work-stream that ensures leadership alignment, stakeholder engagement, organizational redesign, governance, workforce transition, people risk management, learning and capability transfer. The most important part of this work-stream that drives the organizational change is communication and mobilization. This has to start right from the top. Typically, the CEO has to articulate the transformation story in a simple, but clear manner to the whole organization, conveying the necessary sense of urgency. The CEO will retell this story to his direct reports with additional details, so that they can customize the transformation story for their specific functions and divisions. The messages in the story is cascaded down the levels of the organization to the staff, who need to embrace the new ways of doing their work towards the future-state. This mobilization typically includes cultural shifts in the organization that takes on several additional steps to identify cultural aspirations, intervention programs, role modeling, behavioral changes, etc. that have to address both the formal and informal levers of the organization. Instrumental to execution of the change management work-stream are the change agents who are strategically placed across the organization. They are the ones who will articulate the transformation story of the business in different contexts across the divisions, functions and departments.

All this might sound straightforward, but transformations are usually not straightforward. Obstacles are plenty. They might all land up on the change agents plate to deal with. They include staff anxiety, complacency, bureaucracy, power mongering, know-how with-holding, fear, etc. The change agents are empowered to handle these obstacles while taking into consideration the goals, the motivation (internal and external), conflicts, tensions, resolutions, shifts in trajectory, etc. Does that sound familiar? Yes it does. This is very similar to how the story-teller crafts the protagonist's transformation journey through the plot of the story to the end. Except the protagonist in a business transformation exercise is the business enterprise and the characters are not fictional, but real people who work there. These business transformation journeys can go through many emotional highs and lows that can be challenging and detrimental to performance. However, they can be well managed with high-performing change teams taking on the execution.

Researching major business transformations can be excellent source material for good story tellers. And the change agents can learn a lot that can be applied to business transformation by studying the craft of story-telling.

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