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  • Writer's pictureChris Lundberg

The Story Changing Suite

The stories we tell ourselves matter. They allow us to make sense of the world and contextualize ourselves within it. As recent work in Communication and the Cognitive Sciences demonstrates, it is not data or even ideas that persuade us to change: it is the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. These determine what kind of arguments will connect with us, what kinds of data are persuasive to us, and what we will (or won’t) act upon. 

Organizational culture is also a result of the stories that people tell themselves about their place, roles, and goals in the context of the whole. Deep change requires more than modifications to practices, processes, or the “org chart:” it requires that members of an organization internalize and advocate for new stories.  


How does this relate to our work at Vocable?


Overcoming resistance by creating broad investment is the fundamental challenge for efforts in change and transformation (C & T). A core goal of C & T engagements is to effect wide and robust support for change in the culture of an organization. At Vocable we believe that it is not enough to simply envision an intended change or to even create a road-map for institutional restructuring. We contend that shared mindsets matter and that strategy is hollow if it leaves individuals behind. The truly transformative organizational imperative is to bring others along: to include them in the story. 


Often, the methods for creating the cultural momentum behind change are fundamentally passive. “Cascades” for change begin and end with materials for—what is in essence—internal marketing: glossy brochures, slick videos, and bullet points for discussions at corporate town halls. We can change how our clients and the industry think about C & T by supplementing existing cascade models with an emphasis on an active learning model that unleashes the transformative power of storytelling.


Framing a learning path around storytelling will lead participants to improve in two crucial drivers of organizational change: motive and communication competency. First, motive: The Story Changing Suite invites participants to become advocates for change. By leveraging the social incentives inherent to role-play and social learning processes, they become more open to changing their stories, more engaged with the process, and more motivated to master it—shifting them from passive recipients of a message to active advocates on its behalf.


Second, communication competency: evidence suggest that in this process participants will increase their capacity for communicating the needs and goals of organizational change; will become more proficient at managing, and engaging with, resistance; and will become more able to mediate conflicts around change. As a result, this learning pathway can become a tangible, measurable, and concrete way of changing organizational culture by inviting participants to shape a story of their own.


Resistance


Barriers to organizational change emerge when a planned transformation is inconsistent—or even at odds—with the stories we have internalized. Empirical data indicates that “lack of communication and participant involvement during change are … significant contributing factors to resistance.” (Canning & Found, 2015) There are three separate barriers that interfere with the process of organizational transformation.


First, efforts at building and messaging the case for change often backfire because of a sense that messages around the intended change are implemented top-down: without consideration of existing stories and without significant internal buy-in. Second, even when the initial business and/or strategic justifications for change are clear, there are often substantial difficulties in translating those justifications to a larger, internal audience. Finally, even if the message for change is clear and compelling, employees often feel that intended changes—and the stories animating them—are too inconsistent with their own stories to be actionable.


Fundamentally, the challenge is to devise a strategy for change that leverages the existing cultural practices and organizational values. To do so it must recreate the stories which animate an organization, and induce employees to internalize and advocate for change, regardless of where they sit within the organization.


Changing the Story: The Role of Active Learning


Attempts to foster change and transformation by simply informing an audience of employees of the reasons for transformation will fall short. As noted earlier, a passive methodology often engenders resistance and resentment. Therefore, we must follow an alternative model, a coaching-driven, active-learning and micro-learning-oriented path that uses sequenced role-playing exercises. This path will affect deeper and more enduring change and, as one commentator put it, is a crucial resource for “fostering the socio-cognitive routines necessary for organizational change.” (Muthusamy, 2019) This is true for three reasons. First, the pretext for engagement in this case is not directly about “convincing” employees to take up the case for change. Instead, the primary stated goal for training is professional development: employees are being trained to increase their communication capacity, which was named as one of the highest demanded areas for professional development in 2019. 


Second, the path for change here is active as opposed to passive—it requires that participants learn and internalize the case for change as part of a developmental/training process. Evidence indicates that this can “institutionalize” the lessons learned. In other words, composing and telling the new story in the context of an active learning path moves knowledge that is formerly foreign or threatening to individual employee’s stories to just being “the way that things are done.” Studies show that this is a uniquely powerful modality in the context of change and uncertainty. 


Finally, the process leverages active learning methods, which have been demonstrated to create more robust possibilities for changing stories or “narrative updating.” (Tuckett & Nikolic, 2017) Simulated role-playing has proven to be a particularly powerful means of achieving this outcome. It uses inbuilt social learning incentives and invites deeper knowledge of concepts by operationalizing them in a series of conversations that mirror real world conditions. In addition, simulated learning breaks the divide between conceptual commitments and stories by activating “affective learning.” In other words, it engages the whole person—emotions and personal predispositions included—to address motives for change in addition to the conceptual warrants for change. 


The Story Changing Suite understands both cultural change and leadership as a responsibility distributed democratically—throughout an organization, rooted in and facilitating an organic conversation around telling a new story. It is an approach (informed by the cutting-edge research) that sees leadership as a function operating at multiple levels, “influencing organizational outcomes both directly—by continuously shaping employee attitude throughout change—and indirectly—by regulating the antecedents and moderators of their predisposition to change.” And, as decisively demonstrated by the data, it responds to the fact that the “interaction of the organizational environment with these factors ultimately determines the organizational outcome resulting from the change initiatives.” (Appelbaum et al., 2015) As such, the Story Changing Suite creates an industry unique POV for implementing a participatory change cascade, as well as a powerful framework for both managing and driving change. In doing so it multiplies the effectiveness of already existing C & T interventions. 


Let’s Recap!


First:  True organizational change requires a change in stories. Facilitating meaningful transformation requires more than changing organizational charts, processes, or policies. While these interventions are crucial, deep change demands a transformation in culture. Taking up a new story and learning to advocate for it changes the mindsets, motivations, roles, practices, value-orientations, and relationships that make up an organization’s culture.


Second: True organizational change requires a change in storytellers. Leaders at the top of an organization can message and even model change effectively, but if others do not follow suit, change is impossible. While it is important to make the case for change and to message it well, it is equally important to devise a strategy which includes, and engages, all members of an organization.


Third: Deploying an individualized learning path organized around content and concepts in pre-work (such as practice in engaging in simulation, assessment, feedback, and reiteration) fosters not only meaningful engagement but, data indicates, openness to telling a new story.


The Story Changing Suite not only makes participants more open to change by incentivizing them to master and advocate for it, it also enables them to be “bearers of the change.”


How can we help you elevate your storytelling and communication? Email us at info@vocablecommunications.com to set up a meeting with our team to learn more.

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