If you’ve ever seen a Disney movie, you know what great storytelling looks like. The hero gets a call to action; turns it down, or fails, or runs away; finds meaning in what they were asked to do through a mentor; and finally, they come back and are successful.

Annelise de Meyer recently posted about using the Storytelling Canvas in a workshop. Here’s an excerpt from her post:

When teaching a Lean Change Management class, we usually let the attendees choose which of the proposed Lean Change Canvases they want to work on as a group, or several groups when the class is a bit bigger. I noticed the Story Telling Canvas was often left out, and when I asked the attendees why, they often mentioned things like: “It doesn’t seem to be as impactful as the others.”, or “It’s unclear to me how to work with this.”.

During the last class, we changed our way of working and specifically guided the attendees in using the different canvases and debrief on what the strength and weakness of each canvas was. The Story Telling Canvas turned out to be the only one who got featured on the training “AHA-Wall” as having brought an AHA-moment to someone.

Read the full post here.

Using Storytelling in Change Management

We underestimate the value of informality and storytelling in our organizations when it comes to change.  There are parallels between The Hero’s Journey in a movie and organizational change. While there are 3 phases and 17 stages, I’ll summarize the 3 phases and 1 key stage in each phase:

Phase In Classic Storytelling In Change Management How Change Management can change to accommodate storytelling What’s important here
Departure (5 stages) The beginning of the journey where the hero sets off into the unknown. Change initiatives generally start out as projects or programs and some type of readiness assessment.  Instead of change readiness assessments, work to reduce uncertainty by planning just enough to get started and by taking action sooner. Understanding, meaning, and purpose.
Departure: Refusal of the call The hero refuses the call out of fear, insecurity, personal meaning or more. This is the dreaded change resistance! Change managers label people as resisters. Change resistance is not a thing. It’s created by change agents. A better way to depart into the change is co-creation and inclusion into the journey itself. Empathy, understanding and meaningful dialogue
Initiation (6 Stages) Learning through trials. The hero tries and fails, oddly enough in groups of threes. This is the ‘transition’ stage many change models references. Oddly enough, the first couple of attempts don’t get the intended results but the 3rd and 4th time around more success is achieved. Instead of executing change activities, try small experiments, visualize change work on a big visible wall, and shorten your iterations.   Emphasis on learning, and diagnostics not binary outcomes (success/failure)
Initiation: The Ultimate Boon The hero achieves the goal. This is analogous to the Transforming Idea in the Satir change model. This is when people ‘get it’, this is not the achievement of ROI . Success doesn’t happen at the end of the project. It happens constantly, look for small “AHA!” moments regardless of the phase you’re in. Connecting innovators and early adopters with people who are perceived as resisters. 
The Return (6 Stages) The hero brings back the prize or learnings to the ‘old world’ Unfortunately, in traditional change management, especially agile transformations, the ‘hero’ leaves the organization because they realized they want something they can’t obtain in their current one. Give change agents the autonomy and freedom they seek to facilitate meaningful change. Allow them to visit other orgs, host meetups and more. Bridging the gap between the people who “get it” and those struggling with the change. It’s the difference of beliefs here that creates stress.
The Return: Freedom to Live The freeing feeling of living in the moment by not anticipating the future or living in the past. Unfortunately, this is usually the blame stage. The change managers don’t know why the change didn’t work so they’ll externalize the blame, usually by citing resistance, lack of leader support, not enough buy-in, or bad communication. This is where the organization has become adaptable. The problem doesn’t matter because the organization has learned how to be adaptable. Understanding that reducing uncertainty is much better than blindly embracing it.

Pitfalls to Avoid

An idea or tool is limited to the mindset of the person using it. Some interpret storytelling as a change management practise where the change manager crafts the story to tell people what it is. Either that or they craft a message for leaders who want a change, much like scriptwriters in a movie, for the sake of optics. This is not what storytelling is. Meaning and understanding are not developed by being talked at, the story must be co-developed and different perspectives need to be considered:

Organizational Perspective: Why the organization needs to change. How did things use to work? What’s changed internally and in the market? What needs to happen?

Leadership Perspective: What’s in it for the leaders? Expect cynicism as people think it’s to obtain bonuses. While that is probably true, very few leaders make the change about that. I’ve can’t remember working with any leader who didn’t care deeply about their employees. Sometimes they’re just as stuck like everybody else!

People Perspective: This is the WIIFM (What’s in it for Me?) statement. You cannot tell people what’s in it for them, they need to discover it on their own.

Developing the Story

The impact of taking a storytelling approach will be limited to your creativity!

Visualizing the Story on a Wall

Sarah Baca showed how to visualize the story of the change, and the progress being made on a wall:

Use Lego Serious Play

I frequently use Lego Serious Play to help people explore the story from 3 different perspectives. This organization wanted to figure out how to manage doubling in size, what they wanted to keep about their exsting culture, and what would need to change.

Building a shared understanding of the future.

Remember, the story needs to mean something to the people affected so it must be developed together! The job of the change agent is to facilitate the conversation!

Jason Little
Author, Lean Change Management at Leanintuit
I began my career as a web developer when Cold Fusion roamed the earth. Over the following years, I moved into management, Agile Coaching and consulting. The bumps and bruises I collected along the way helped me realize that helping organizations adopt Agile practices was less about the practices, and all about change.
In 2008 I attended an experiential learning conference (AYE) about how people experience change and since then, I’ve been writing, and speaking, all over the world about helping organizations discover more effective practices for managing organizational change.