Particularly in times of radical change, as brought about by the digital transformation, storytelling is experiencing a renaissance. After all, people are natural »storytellers« and enjoy listening to stories, especially those that convey meaning and make the world comprehensible. However, storytelling is a concept that can be understood in many different ways.

What is business storytelling?

  • For some people, storytelling refers to a style of delivering a lecture, such as that of a speaker who adds anecdotes and stories to his or her presentation to make it more lively.
  • For others, storytelling refers to the way in which marketing presents its products to emotionally engage customers.
  • For others, storytelling is a method of seeing abstract concepts in software development through the eyes of the customer.
  • For the next, storytelling is primarily what happens in Hollywood
  • And certainly storytelling can also be understood as the change story, which serves the purpose of describing positive change in a transformation process.

Storytelling is rooted in human DNA

Storytelling is as old as language itself. The human brain is wired for anecdotes. Ever since the first human beings exchanged stories around campfires or while hunting, the brain has specialized in telling and deciphering stories. Some see in the telling of a story the cause of the development of language itself: „What happened in the other valley?“ In order to convey this, I must have a language that goes beyond simple pointing or even painting symbols. I must be able to relate different actors. I need to be able to convey their actions and above all their motives.

Storytelling combines facts and emotions

Storytelling is more than just conveying facts. Rather, storytelling is about putting facts and actors in relation to each other. With storytelling I always address the emotions. Storytelling enables the listeners to find meaning. In this way, abstract concepts are not only linked meaningfully, but also sensually.

Marketing specialists know about the fundamental importance of stories. They manage to give even boring and brittle products an emotional appeal.

In agile software development, so-called »user stories« are applied. These stories always work according to the same simple principle: „I as a [user type] want to [do something special] to enable me to do the following: [specific use].“ A user story is always an invitation to dialogue. It formulates a wish or a need consistently from the perspective of the user. In addition to the purely cognitive change of perspective, it is primarily about the emotional understanding of the underlying need of the later user of the product.

The change story as a special kind of storytelling

The change story is not an arbitrary narrative, but serves a specific purpose in transformation processes. The change story can be told in two different ways. On the one hand, you can highlight the »sense of urgency« in the change story. Here, the dangers that can arise from non-acting are emphasized. Examples:

  • „If we don’t act now, the competition will swallow us up.“
  • „If we oversleep the current situation, we will miss the connection to the top.“
  • „If we do not implement a cost-cutting program now, we will soon have no more liquidity.“

Alternatively or in addition, the positive aspect of change can be emphasized: the »sense of opportunity«. Examples of this:

  • „If we move forward now, we can take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital transformation.“
  • „If we are the first in the market now, we can make the biggest profits in India.“
  • „If we make this transition now, we will become the market leader in this field.“

It is essential that the change story is credible. This means that the managers and, above all, senior management must tell the change story credibly. Furthermore, a change story may not be told in a different way every year, of course. Ideally, all change measures should be told in the context of the change story – in other words, they should be derived from it. All measures must be compatible with the change story, at the very least. Managers are in trouble explaining and face a credibility problem if the change story alters. Because then, from the employees’ point of view, it is just like »chasing the next pig through the village« (as a German proverb says).

The change story paints a positive picture of the future

A change story should always paint a positive picture of the future – compared to what is currently expected. This by no means implies that everything is viewed only through »rose-tinted glasses«. Rather, the change story should provide a motive for the desire to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. This is achieved by telling of a promising future in the change story. The change story must – metaphorically speaking – create an incentive to leave the shelter of the cozy mountain hut to trudge outside through wind, rain and cold – so that in the end, the targeted summit can be conquered.

In the best case, the change story also provides an answer to the »why« or purpose of an undertaking. At the very least, it should refer to it and be in alignment with it.

A good change story includes not only a promising picture of the future, but also the path towards that future. It answers the question: „How do we want to climb this summit? In what way, by what means?“ Often the term »mission« is used for this description (although this term, as well as similar terms – like vision, purpose, mission statement, … – is used in many different ways and has no universally accepted definition).

The digital transformation told as a successful change

The digital transformation tells the story of a metamorphosis. One can roughly distinguish three phases of this process: Loss, transition, new opportunities.

Transformation as loss

The loss can mean saying goodbye, for example to old habits, but also to loved colleagues. You lose familiarity. At the same time, you are compelled to reinvent yourself.

Management guru Peter Senge is credited with the sentence:

 “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.”

The relevant difference is therefore whether you want to change – or have to change. If you are driven out of paradise, your own home or your own comfort zone of familiar habits, you will evaluate this negatively. However, if you voluntarily set off on an adventure to find a treasure, you will evaluate the same change positively.

Your own »mindset« and your own self-concept – your »professional identity« – play an important role here. Do I see myself more as a preserver or an adventurer?

Transformation as transition

In the transition phase, people are encouraged to learn and adapt to new things. The time spent in the learning zone can be exhausting until new habits are established. After all, transformation does not happen overnight. New tasks, new ways of acting, new objectives must first be internalized. Only once a degree of automation has been achieved can we speak of a successful transformation.

Transformation as an opportunity

In the phase of opportunities, there is relief waiting – the promises of the future are now beginning to be experienced. The digital transformation opens up opportunities to become involved in the reorientation of the company. It also makes it possible to work more in a network. And it opens up opportunities for personal growth and individual development. From the very beginning of the transformation process, employees should be aware of what the change stands for and what benefits they derive from the transformation – this will help them reach their goals with greater motivation.

Change stories for the transformation of a company

Depending on the change process, different types of basic metaphorical patterns can be useful in a change story.

  • A story of battles and struggle is about an external enemy that you face through internal cohesion.
  • A story of cohesion – „We are all in the same boat!“ – encourages people to practice renunciation together.
  • A story of loss can be told, for example, through the metaphor of a dangerous expedition or the exploration of a new continent. The possible loss of one or the other fellow traveler along the way »is in the nature of things«.

A story of renewal and metamorphosis invites us to let the familiar »liquefy«, so to speak, in order to be »reborn« in a new form after a transitional phase. Similar to the caterpillar, which pupates and literally liquefies itself, only to subsequently rise into the air as a butterfly after successful liberation from the cocoon.

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