Significance of Storytelling in Business Transformation


When a company takes on an enterprise-wide business transformation, a strong business case will have to be put together. That would include not only a cost-benefit analysis, and the cost of doing nothing, but also a compelling narrative that sets the tone and articulates the sense of urgency for the transformation. Typically, this is crafted and delivered from the highest levels of the organization, with a strong palpable commitment from the CEO. This compelling story becomes the spine of the component stories that have to be articulated and cascaded down to every business unit and function in the organization reaching every employee. This becomes the foundation for the communication and mobilization work-stream within the organizational change management activity that takes place along the transformation journey. During any business transformation, along with the processes and systems, ultimately it is the people who have to change their behavior – which may have implications for the culture of the business. For the culture of a business to shift the compelling narrative of the change will have to emotionally connect with each level and every employee. That is where storytelling becomes very useful during business transformation.

Cultural shift

Often neglected, with out a culture shift, typically the business transformation will not sustain. Culture of a business is defined as the self-sustaining patterns of behaving, feeling, thinking, and believing – that determines how the business does things around their organization. At its best, culture of any organization is a potential ‘asset’ that enables, energizes, and enhances human behavior – and when wisely utilized, it can accelerate and sustain business results. At its worst, culture can be a drag on productivity and emotional commitment. It can lead to under-performance and undermine long-term success. In either case, an organization’s culture can be consciously steered and influenced to either enhance the impact it has on performance or reduce the resistance it can have on behavioral change.

Tony Hsieh, Founder and CEO of Zappos.com, once said, “if you have the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.” Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM once said, “fixing the culture is the most critical – and most difficult – part of a corporate transformation.” More often than never, the culture of the organization may have to shift to achieve a sustainable business transformation. Storytelling is a powerful tool for propagating the right culture across the organization. A conscious effort to disseminate success stories from around the world will have to undertaken. Success stories become part of the culture and successful people become heroes in the eyes of their peers and managers.

Cultural shift can happen by focusing on changing behaviors first, not mindsets. The enterprise culture resides in three levels that can be grouped as the visible elements and invisible elements. Among the visible elements of culture are the symbols, and much of the behavior. Rest of the behavior and mindsets, thoughts, feelings and beliefs form the invisible elements. When attempting a cultural shift, start with changing the behaviors first and then the mindsets will follow.

Storytelling that emotionally connects with hearts and minds

While visible elements like, symbols such as easily identifiable markers and externally facing cues to capture the attention of customers, and behavior role-modeling, might help shift some of the culture, the hearts and minds of the people going through change will have to be reached to make sustainable shift in the invisible elements. Reaching the hearts and minds of people is what when storytelling is done right gets us by emotionally connecting with them to change their behaviors, mindsets, feelings, and beliefs. Think of your business culture as a source of strength, when utilized correctly.

Culture of an organization resides in their stories that employees and customers share. The employee may narrate stories about why he/she works for the business or how they all work as a team. The customer may narrate the story about how the brand connects with him/her. The CEO may narrate the story about where the company is going. By identifying the archetype of the company the cultural aspirations can be fine-tuned and thereby the communication and mobilization for the transformation can be enhanced significantly. As stories are crafted, typical storytelling ideas can be incorporated to enhance the emotional connection with the audience.

Storytelling can be used to communicate your cohesive identity as a business. It can be used to declare the new set of values for the business. It can be used to lead people to a new vision for the business with the sense of urgency it necessitates. It can be used to launch a compelling transformation initiative with a push towards action. It can be used as a call to foster collaboration across the business units. It can be used to convey the initial success-stories from the transformation towards gathering momentum for the changes. It can be used to convey the enhanced value-proposition to the targeted customers. It can be used to educate the staff about the entire business model. As much as empathy and storytelling can be useful in many aspects of the business, like, innovation, marketing, brand perception, culture shifts, and transformation, our focus here is on the last two aspects.

So what exactly would make an effective story in the context of a business transformation? This story would be a vehicle that puts facts into an emotional context. The information in the story doesn’t just sit there as in a list or data dump. Instead, it’s built to create suspense and engage the audience in its specific call to action. Facts and figures are memorable to computers, not to people. Research shows that all the critical information, like that around the transformation journey, are more effectively emotionalized and metabolized by the listener in a business when they are embedded within a compelling story – making them significantly more actionable and gaining emotional commitment from the listeners. This has shown demonstrable success in sustaining the business transformation.

Good leaders use stories on almost a daily basis. They tell stories that “cast” them and their organizations as change leader or agents, rather than defenders of the status-quo. As a leader, you cannot eliminate fear, abolish uncertainty or avoid the prospect of change for your company. But you can leverage these emotional navigational stakes to your greatest advantage by telling a compelling story with specific objectives, common approach, and meaningful purpose. It is the emotional commitment of the people working in the company that result in them becoming a high performing organization.

Storytelling tips for leaders of business transformation

Change leaders and agents of business transformation, must be clear on why the story is being told, when designing and telling the stories. What are the design principles you want use and what are the key themes you want convey? Analyze carefully what the outcome of that narrative could be and check that the story’s subtext is the sort of message you want to convey into your organization. Make them streamlined, effective and compelling. Make the storytelling vivid and continues to inspire others by using more than one medium if possible, and in the process, ensure that the story meets its objectives and is effective.

Another tip is for leaders to monitor how a story is received. Stories are moments in which the listener is engaged in creating knowledge. So it’s wise to check and gauge how this knowledge is being constructed. And, if it becomes an organizational story, it’s important to track how it is passed on person-to-person in the organization. Quick survey can be run to capture such data for analysis. In this way, you can back up positive responses and respond to unforeseen negative ones.

Finally, leaders must hone into their own story-listening skills. Though pressures abound, stories from organizational colleagues give deep clues about tacit fears and implicit assumptions. Listening ‘below the surface’ of the complaints, challenges, successes and general anecdotes of others can reveal guiding principles and vital clues to leadership about employee attitudes and feelings. Sharpening ones story-listening skills can translate into a more accurate map of the collective understandings and commitments of organizational players.

Business transformation obstacles

First of all, when employees are asked to change too many things at one, they slip into what is now commonly known as “change fatigue.” This can result in inaction to adopt the necessary changes. Secondly, the company may not have adequate experience and skills with driving organizational change management to execute within a transformation initiative. This would result in the change leaders’ and agents’ losing the trust that they must have with the employees. Thirdly, when the change leaders and agents do not include any input or feedback from the lower-level employees, they would feel that the changes are being thrust down upon them. This results in indifference, lack of understanding, and buy-in necessary for change. Any push-back or uncertainty deep down in the organization can keep the change initiative to gain momentum. Fortunately, all three obstacles can be overcome with effective storytelling.

Storytelling can be an effective tool to garner the emotional commitment of the people in the organization that is undertaking a business transformation.

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