Tuesday, November 3, 2015

5 Ways to Mess Up Organizational Change #3: Stats not Stories

Let’s play billionaires. 
No, I’m not suggesting we go out and personalize a concert hall or fund a super-PAC.  This billionaire game is about being a nice, unselfish rich person, one who wants to give generously to make the world a better place. 
Sitting comfortably?  Then let’s begin. 
Below are two needy causes, Project A and Project B.  You have $1 million in loose change to disburse.  Read the descriptions and decide how much you give to each project.
  •     Project A will make an estimated sixteen percent improvement in the median living conditions of juveniles living at or below the fifth income percentile in one of the poorer countries in the western hemisphere. Based on a meta-analysis of seventeen research studies, the project addresses the three most significant barriers to social mobility: lack of K-12 education, lack of primary health care including immunizations and other preventative medicine, and lack of access to career paths and entrepreneurial opportunities.  Evidence from other research studies suggests that this project will make a statistically significant difference to what we estimate to be some of the neediest children in the world.  Give today and make a real impact on child poverty worldwide.

  •     Project B will transform Linda’s life. Linda grew up in the slums of Rio, just miles from supermodel Gisele’s million-dollar apartment and the new Olympic stadium.  Linda doesn’t know her birthday, or remember ever having a mom or dad.  She must be about ten, but she is the size of an average American five year old.  Linda can’t remember a time when she wasn’t hungry, and scared, and alone.  Her arms and legs are covered in scars.  Her teeth are broken.  But there’s a light that shines from Linda’s eyes that makes you forget all the sorrow in her past.  Give today and ensure Linda gets the care that will help her build the stable future she deserves.

So, Mr./Ms. Billionaire, who gets the fatter check? 
If you’re like most people, even most billionaires, you will be tempted to hand out twice as much to Project B as Project A even though, as careful readers may have guessed, they are Exactly The Same Project

Stories, you see, beat stats every time. 

In 2007 there was a famous study where participants were given letters asking for support for Save the Children along with a budget of $5 to donate, or not, to the project highlighted in the letter.  Letter A gave detailed statistics about the problems facing hungry children in some of the poorest countries in the world.  Letter B focused on one little girl in Mali.  People who received Letter A and its statistics gave an average of $2.38; those who received Letter B and its story gave an average of $1.14 and those who received both A and B gave an average of $1.43. 
That’s right – not only were the stats less effective than the stories, but when stats were given in addition to the stories,  they almost halved the stories’ power to persuade people to take action.
Why Linda matters to organizational change
But how is this relevant to organizational change?  Change programs are business, not charity.  They’re about continuous progress, not a one-off impulse.  And their success does not depend – we hope – on how deeply employees reach into their pockets.
All this is true, but so is something else:

Success in change is not about what people think so much as how they feel.

There’s nothing special about change in this respect.  In most life situations, emotions trump logic every time.  We have known for years that homo economicus never existed outside the pages of freshman textbooks, but only recently has a reliable body of knowledge emerged about exactly how reason and feelings interact to make choices, how they are triggered and developed, how they influence or cancel out each other.
Stories are great examples of how reason and emotion work together.  Great stories trigger our thinking and our feeling in ways that make words – such as the described future-state of an organizational change program – viscerally real.  Great stories change people’s lives, and even a good-enough story can inspire and engage the kind of deliberate, ongoing effort and collaboration that makes all the difference when it comes to successful change.
Stories that work
Of course, not all stories are good-enough.   But you don’t have to be Dostoyevsky to get the basics right.  Here are three rules that get great results:

1.      Keep your story simple and clear

Every good story has a beginning, middle and an end, uses simple language and is delivered in a way that makes emotional sense.  By emotional sense I mean that the main character has to be someone whom readers or listeners can relate to, that he or she has to face genuinely challenging trials, and that there has to be resolution – though not necessarily outright success – at the end of the story.
Keeping your story simple is not as difficult as it sounds.  We spend about 65% of our talk time in telling stories – whether we call them gossip or anecdotes or examples.  When we tell these stories, we naturally simplify them.  We use short, specific words.  We leave out extraneous details, we combine anecdotes, we smooth out time lines and provide clear links between cause and effect.  We don’t get hung up on the numbers, on the detail and accuracy of what we are saying.  Instead, we focus on what will appeal to our audience, and we practice our delivery until we get the effects we aim for. 

2.      Get physical

One of the most impactful business stories I have read recently was a LinkedIn post by Meg Whitman, written just over a year after she was hired as the turnaround CEO of Hewlett-Packard.  In it she talked about discovering a “commando fence” – a large barbed-wire topped fence surrounding the executive parking lot – and how one of her first actions as CEO was to tear it down and move all top executives out of walled offices and into cubicles so that “we now walk in the same door as the rest of our employees”.
Whitman was talking about addressing the disconnect between employees and management, but notice how visceral her language is.  This wasn’t just a fence, it was a threatening, warlike barrier.  She didn’t just get rid of it, she tore it down.  The result was not analysis, or accounts of changed attitudes or evolved thinking, but the simple action of “walking”.  Managers are always being told to “walk the talk” at times of change.  To Whitman’s credit, she dispensed with the chat and went straight to the action.
Using such physical images in stories works because of the way our brains react to language.  When we hear stories as opposed to information, not only do the technical-processing parts of our brains light up, but so do the parts we would use when we are actually experiencing  the things the story is telling us.  When we read about Meg Whitman tearing down the fence, our motor cortex got engaged.  When we read about the barbed wire, our sensory cortex activated.  The more our brain engages, the more we feel part of the story.  The more we feel part of the story, the more likely we are to turn its messages into action and engage ourselves in organizational change.

3.      Make it personal

As I talked about in my last post, the most important thing for each of us in organizational change is WIIFM - What’s In It For Me.   Unsurprisingly, therefore, we respond better to stories that we can relate to our own experiences.  
These “own experiences” include both things that actually happen to us and things we are interested in.  Recent research into the impact of popular stories by New York Times columnists found reader response shot up when stories featured familiar details (e.g. my mention of supermodel Gisele and the Rio Olympics in the Project B story) and, especially, when the setting of the story was in or close to reader’ own backyard.  Most importantly, it also found that the more readers could relate personally to the stories, the more likely they were to take follow-up action – exactly what you need when it comes to organizational change

Replacing stats with stories

So, how can we make practical use of stories when it comes to business transformation?  I have found stories useful at all stages of the process, but two scenarios stand out: when change is first announced, and when things go wrong.
Stories make a big impact when change is first announced because they are simply the most effective way to get people engaged with the vision of what the change will entail.  Think about including them in your initial announcements, and structuring your supporting resources around simple, physically resonant, relevant stories.
Stories can also make a difference when things get tough.  When progress is slower than expected, when setbacks emerge, when goals shift and deadlines are missed, people need stories to make them believe that there still is a path to success, and that they are making progress along it.
There is a lot more to say about how stories can help during organizational change, enough – excuse the pun – to fill a book.  But as I said above even replacing just a few statistics with just a few good-enough stories can make a big difference.

Also, I am conscious that there are at least two other major ways in which too many companies wreck their chances of successful organizational change.  Next up: the perils of Pollyanna Planning.