Author: Marcus Hayes

Discretionary distraction: The barrier to reaching your transformation ROI

Some reports say that over $2 trillion is currently being spent on transformation initiatives around the world. Whilst 10 years ago companies were undertaking this kind of initiative every 5-10 years, they are now doing it every two. It is undoubtedly a revolution of industrial scale. It’s also a lot of money to waste.

Back in the 90’s John Kotter announced that around 70% of major change initiatives failed to reach their intended goals. Nearly three decades later, research by Oxford University and EY shows that 67% of senior leaders have experienced at least one underperforming transformation in the last five years. It’s a damming statistic, but does it keep your average Chief Transformation Officer up at night? Probably not! No one believes their programme will be the one to fail, and anyway, if underperforming means not realising your long-term goals, then the cynic will point out that by that time the organisation will be onto the next wave of change.

But there is a more immediate challenge to overcome. Most transformation initiatives are designed to increase productivity in some way. But to get there, people need to learn to do things differently, which is unproductive. So, the key is to make this process, from the old to the new, as fast as possible, which in turn requires large amounts of discretionary effort. Engage people in the right way and you unlock this effort. Fail to engage people in the right way, and you create ‘discretionary distraction’ – where people spend time and effort worrying about and discussing the future. This slows the process down and increases the risk that KPIs are not met and the return on investment is delayed.

Discretionary distraction arises when people don’t have a clear story about why they are being asked to change, what way this change will benefit themselves and their customers, and how they can play their part and make a difference. And, as the research from the 90’s and 20’s consistently shows, this story and the process of change activation has to be done at an emotional level.

Storytelling is a proven way to engage the hearts and minds of people – master this, what we like to call the heart of transformation, and you will activate your people and accelerate your transformation KPIs.

How ready are you to accelerate your strategy?

Take the Activation Healthcheck

Organisations that are thriving today know how to activate their people – to unlock their ability to accelerate change, transform performance and respond to the rapidly changing world they operate in. This need to galvanise people to act and change becomes even more critical when an organisation is undertaking a transformation.

When this is done successfully we’ve seen how businesses have:

  • Accelerated the implementation of their change programme leading to a quicker realisation of business benefits
  • Improved employee retention and lowered absenteeism during the change
  • Maintained and even improved operational performance during the change
  • Substantially improved engagement scores, especially around understanding and accepting change, and improved confidence in the leadership

We’ve spent 20 years researching and practising how to activate organisations effectively. We know people are more likely to act and change if they have the mindset and motivation to do so, they believe they have the means to take action and make a difference and they see momentum building behind their own efforts. From these principles we have identified nine key drivers of successful activation. The things that drive people to get involved, make a difference and create extraordinary achievements. 

But change is hard. So just how ready are you and your business to do this successfully? Contact us using the form on this page to enquire about receiving a personalised report that will give you an insight into where you are and what you need to focus on.


How the stories of climate change can inspire business transformation

Climate change as a social movement has transformed in recent years, compelling increasing numbers of individuals, communities, nations and governments to take action. Key to this success has been the creation and communication of stories that have won hearts and minds to drive change.

Stories – used in the right way – have the power to transform cultures. Within large businesses, a clear, compelling narrative helps your people to become more understanding and responsive to even the most complex of challenges.

As the early stories of climate change have demonstrated, business leaders shouldn’t assume that by just focusing solely on the facts, it will be enough to bring people on your change journey. So what key lessons can we take away from the biggest stories at the heart of the climate crisis?

Evoking emotions has a long-lasting impact

If the story of your organisation connects people on an emotional level to your purpose, values and goals, it has the power to unite everyone behind your mission and motivate them to work in new ways.

In 2017, the second BBC ‘Blue Planet’ series continued to educate us on the wonders of the world’s oceans. However, it was the penultimate episode which focused on pollution that would go on to establish its legacy. In 50 minutes, narrator David Attenborough – a master professional when it comes to the art of storytelling – dramatically changed the mindset of the millions who tuned in, by showing in graphic detail the impact that microplastics are having on the lives of the marine life.

It led us to rethink our reliance on single-use plastic and compelled governments to take action by introducing a plastic bag tax in many countries. Even today, for those who watched that episode, the guilt wrought every time we pay for a new plastic bag demonstrates the long-lasting impact an emotive story can have on us.

Don’t dwell on the ‘doom and gloom.’ You need to complete the narrative

When there is too much focus on the challenge, people will remain reluctant to act without clarity on how it can be overcome. As we have previously experienced with climate change, when the narrative becomes too upsetting to follow, or the problem appears too great to solve, over time people will still disengage – regardless of its urgency or importance. 

The groundbreaking TV documentary series ‘Years of living dangerously,’ first aired in 2014, provided poignant first-hand reports on those affected by climate change – from the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy to the upheaval caused by drought in the Middle East. Series One was emotive; it educated millions and even won an EMMY, but it didn’t open our eyes to the growing number of climate change solutions in development. The show’s Executive producers also realised this, and to keep people engaged throughout the second series, they shifted the narrative from ‘this is happening’ to focus on ‘this must happen next’. 

In his latest book ‘A Life on our Planet’, Attenborough also shows us the impact of a complete narrative. It begins with his amazing backstory as a pioneer in television and natural history film-making, while witnessing first-hand the destruction of the natural world. It then explores the hard reality of what is likely to happen if we don’t make radical changes. But crucially, in the final section, the narrative moves to a new ‘vision,’ as he outlines the journey we can all go on to save the planet and improve our lives. This rollercoaster structure of contrasting emotions not only makes the book a gripping read, but more importantly, it provides hope and invites people to play their part in collectively influencing the future.

Within a large organisation, establishing a complete narrative will motivate your people to pursue the best course of action to achieve your goals. In turn, sharing stories of successful outcomes then helps to build the belief that ‘change is happening’.

The powerful are not always in positions of power

Having influencers or change champions who are prepared to ‘spread the word’ is essential to any cause. Working not from traditional positions of leadership, they have the ability to unite people because as they have already gained the trust of their followers or peers.

Those campaigning for action against climate change are predominantly not those in traditional positions of power. Accessible across a variety of platforms, social media, blogs or podcasts, these individuals convey a notion of real possibility to their audience. For example, whether or not you agree with the tactics and actions of Extinction Rebellion, its proponents are such a broad cross-section of society, they’ve proved highly effective in passing on their message.

Leaders have to role model change

Unlike David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg doesn’t have decades of professional broadcasting experience, but what she does have is an instinctive understanding of how she and her actions can create a story that is arguably more impactful than any words. 

As Thunberg shifted from the role of influencer to a leader in the global fight against climate change, she’s been able to influence people – not through the stories she told, but the stories she has inspired others to create. From being the teenage influencer sitting outside the House of Parliament in Stockholm with her homemade banner to the trips she made back and forth across the Atlantic by sailing boat in order to speak to world leaders without having to leave a carbon footprint, her public life is a story. Yet her story has become a metaphor for how older generations are destroying the future for the young.

As a business leader, if you too are role modelling critical behaviours within your organisation, you will create stories that inspire others to follow your example. Storytelling will always be a fundamental trait of human behaviour. Use it to your advantage and it will help to navigate your organisation through even the greatest of change journeys.

StoryLive: discover the power of a story-driven virtual event

StoryLive is our live virtual event solution. Using innovations in virtual conferences, CGI, and interactive technology, we create an unrivalled level of emotional connection and immersion through our business storytelling programmes. Developed with organisations as a part of story-driven business transformation, the only limit to what can be achieved is imagination.

Humans are social animals. Interacting as a group or a ‘tribe’ is a fundamental need we have for our sense of well-being, and to enable us to make sense of the world and what is going on around us. Virtual events create the opportunity to bring people together across locations, regions and time zones in ways that may not be feasible or practical in person, building a sense of community and a space for leaders to open themselves up to those around them and hear their colleagues’ voices. 

At The Storytellers, we inspire and engage people on an emotional level through storytelling and narrative in virtual and blended gatherings and experiences for our clients. Through our work with over 200 major organisations around the globe, we have discovered what makes a powerful and memorable virtual event. 

StoryLive brings together our knowledge of putting on quality events with the endless possibilities of the virtual world.

There are three key components which make up any inspiring and memorable story-driven event. Discover more by downloading our ebook in full by completing the form on this page, and reach out to us if you need guidance and support in connecting your organisation through a virtual event. To arrange a demo with us, scroll to the bottom of this page and fill out the form and we will get in touch.

Webinar: ‘Facing The Crisis’ with Andy Briggs – CEO, Phoenix Group

Catch-up on the recording from our ‘Stories from the C-Suite’ episode with Andy Briggs, CEO of Phoenix Group. Andy came to Phoenix Group, the UK’s largest long-term savings and retirement business, as a new CEO at the start of 2020. In a year of explosive change with unprecedented challenges coming from customers, the pandemic itself, digital disruption and a changing competitor landscape, Andy managed to keep the business strong and resilient. We wanted to know how, as a new CEO, he was able to navigate his company through the toughest of times. 

In our ‘Stories from the C-Suite’ series, we talk to CEOs who we believe are expert storytellers about the challenges of leading through change and what the next stage in the journey is for them.

The insightful conversation between The Storytellers and Andy explored topics such as: 

  • Maintaining a trajectory of growth and resilience during a major crisis 
  • The role of businesses such as Phoenix Group in creating a more sustainable future 
  • What effective leadership looks like in an age of constant change

The challenges created by the pandemic are showing no sign of slowing down. As it becomes clear that this crisis is changing how people live, work and spend their free time, successful business leaders will adjust to these seismic societal shifts by staying nimble, flexible and creatively future-proofing their organisations. This was a highly relevant conversation packed with insights – watch it now by entering your details.  

Diagnostic: navigating to the new normal, are you ready?

Businesses now, more than ever, require a collective resilience and clear strategy to navigate through one of the most unprecedented times of crisis in history since World War II. As is often the case, times of extreme challenge define businesses’ future success. 

So how ready are your leaders for the journey the business needs to go on through and beyond this pandemic?

The Storytellers’ health-check profile is intended to be a thought-provoking tool for business leaders during our current global pandemic. We are constantly talking to executives across different industries as they shape the story they are using to engage and connect their people. We’ve pulled together insights from their agenda, together with research from other organisations, to identify what leaders need to be focusing on now to enable their organisations to both survive the next 12 months and thrive beyond it.

Our health-check profile provides a succinct and clear insight into some of the common pitfalls of organisations which fail through adversity as well as defining what great can look like, and what organisations ‘getting it right’ stand to gain. The results are simply an indication for potential risk and opportunity areas to consider; they shouldn’t be used to inform organisational decisions without additional data points and consultation.

Welcome to the next episode…

The new year has already brought a spate of major events that have signalled what is to come in the third decade of this millennium. Climate change, Big Tech, Brexit and the upcoming US election are all big issues that are likely to dominate our headlines in 2020 and beyond. At The Storytellers, we not only work with narrative structure, but we think in it. And as we launch into the next decade, we have a distinct feeling that we are moving into the third episode of a story. 

We know that all great stories have underlying structural similarities. Since humans started telling stories at the dawn of time, motifs in fiction have reoccurred time and time again. As John Yorke has written, ‘all stories are forged from the same template’. The three-act structure, or the trilogy, can be traced through epic stories ranging from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, to George Lucas’s film franchise Star Wars. Such works are defined by their episodic style and diversity of self-contained journeys. Indeed, episodic storytelling is the art of telling the story of an epic journey via fractural, smaller-scale episodes that are interconnected and link thematically. This tripartite narrative structure is often referred to as having three acts: the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution. 

So, how did this epic story start? In narrative fiction, the first act sets up the world in which the characters live, and our story starts with a party. The first decade was welcomed with a swell of optimism and positivity; we all remember the worldwide celebrations that brought in the millennium. 

However, this ‘ordinary world’ is then disrupted by an inciting incident that confronts the protagonist and challenges their way of life. The legacy of the 2000s has been defined by two major, inciting shocks to the world: 9/11 and the 2008 financial crash. It would not be exaggerating to argue that these two events changed the world. They revealed the dangers of technology, incited widespread outrage and long-lasting pain. 

The way global leaders responded to these events has defined our present. After 9/11, in the U.S., Bush launched the War in Afghanistan and a new narrative of foreign policy for the West was instigated. The costs of the attack have been estimated at $2.126 trillion including the immediate physical damages of the attack, the long-term increased defence spending and the general war costs (Amadeo, The Balance). 9/11 can be seen as part of a chain of events that led to the U.S. debt crisis and exasperated the 2008 crash. The implications of the austerity and inequality that followed arguably drove voters to populist politics – resulting in the presidency of Donald Trump and the ascendancy of right-wing ideology. 

These global shocks took us out of our ordinary world and threw us into the second episode. In this act we find the ‘rising action’ as the protagonist attempts to resolve the problem initiated in Act One, but often finds themselves in even murkier waters. Consider the second novel in Tolkien’s trilogy, The Two Towers; the book sets up multiple conflicts and creates even more questions for the reader. As the journalist John Lanchester states in a seminal article about the 2008 crash, ‘the crisis exacerbated fault lines running through contemporary societies, fault lines of city and country, old and young, cosmopolitan and nationalist’ (The Times, 2018). For the UK, these fault lines culminated in a final battle: Brexit. Ultimately, the 2010s were a bit of a slog, an episode of hardship during which protagonists were unable to resolve their problems. Since 2010, the UK has been dominated by austerity measures that have cut nearly £30 billion to welfare payments, housing subsidies and social services (Mueller, NY Times). In addition, businesses have been hurt and their confidence rocked. This period of stagnation is dramatized in the final imagery of The Two Towers. As Frodo lies paralysed and comatose at the end of the book, he is a far cry from his heroic self. 

So we arrive into the 2020s armed with new knowledge and new questions. We may be exhausted, but we are ready to fight again. We now know that as a nation we will live outside the EU, we hope to come out of austerity and find new ways of working with technology. The government has pledged to reinstate the 20,000 police officers lost during austerity and deliver 50,000 more nurses. The Australian bush fires have demonstrated the true scale of climate change, and we know that we must work fast to halt further global warming. Businesses will move towards sustainability and act to reduce their carbon footprint more than ever. We have seen the impact of technology and recognise the need for positive innovation. Already, social movements such as ‘tech for good’ are helping businesses deliver sustainable development goals and social value through technology. 

The third act is one of resolution and the tying up of loose ends. Of course, no final film or book ever goes without its major battles or dramatic events – we expect lots of these in the next decade. However, we are now at a point where we are looking for solutions, rather than inciting drama. Y.B. Yeats said that “Life is a spiral staircase… the journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward”. Indeed, just like every chapter, every decade has its own arc – a repetition that is mirrored throughout our own lives. And while sometimes it feels like we are stuck in a rut – like the unwitting hero Frodo Baggins during The Two Towers who is wracked with doubt and loathing. In reality, we are always learning, moving forward and progressing. In this new decade we might just see the hero resolve the journey, and the ongoing battles finally subside.

The previous two decades have reiterated that change is an inevitable, posing a continual challenge to both organisations and wider society. This ongoing sense of turbulence and change has developed the notion of ‘VUCA’, the concept that we live in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times. Leaders have to keep pace with the world around them and need new approaches to do so. We’ve found that narrative is an essential component for businesses to embark on a successful change journey. In this world of episodic stories, businesses can anchor themselves with a strong narrative that connects them to reality and the everyday stories that surround us. If the epic journey is made clear, then the path forward into the highly unpredictable next decade will be less foreboding. Rather, we can see the future as an exciting challenge for us all. 

Happy 2020!

What can we learn from the Yellow Jackets?

We Brits are not the only ones facing a political crisis. Whilst we endlessly debate our exit from Europe, the good folk of France have been taking to the streets to vent their feelings about their government. ‘Who are France’s ‘Yellow Jacket’ protesters and what do they want?’ headlined NBC News. The question was prompted by the lack of political leadership behind the protests. This is no legitimate government opposition; it’s a real movement of change.

Putting aside the politics, and the antics of the protesters, what interests us at The Storytellers is the identity this movement has adopted. We know that creating a strong and emotive identity can help to motivate and mobilise people behind change efforts. And this is a great example.

They’ve taken the neon vests French drivers are obliged to carry in their vehicles in the case of roadside emergencies and use them to create a visual symbol of solidarity: the ‘Yellow Jacket’ activists. By donning their ‘high vis jackets,’ this disparate group of people, whose only physical connection is through social media, now feel like a united force. The jacket says, ‘“I belong.”

The identity is both practical (most French people own one) and symbolic. This is something you are supposed to keep in your car. It’s decreed by government. Unleashing it from its usual role feels like an act of rebellion which is just what the protesters want to create. And the ‘Yellow Jackets’ have now become a short hand for the media to use, communicating to others and raising awareness of the cause.

In a recent talk, Michael Bierut, the designer of Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, talked about physical symbols being the ‘new logos’. Reference the women in America who donned their ‘PussyHats’ when displaying their displeasure of President Trump’s behaviour. Of course, physical motifs are not new; just think of the power of the Poppy. Maybe the shift is how these identities are developed. After all, if you want to create activists, why not give them an active part in its creation?

Creating your own cultural revolution

‘Marks and Spencer needs a cultural revolution’ said the Sunday Times. In an interview with Chairman Archie Norman, he remarked that many ‘competent people, smart people… the glitterati of the British business establishment’ had come and gone from M&S’s board in recent years with very little impact. ‘There’s a reason for that’ he said. ‘The organisation and culture has made it very hard to change.’

It’s hardly surprising. When you’re running a business that’s 134 years old, and operating with nearly 85,000 employees, the Board must sometimes feel like they’re steering a great big supertanker, when what is needed in today’s retail environment is an agile speedboat. And good old M&S is not alone. Over the last couple of years, we’ve worked with large businesses in over 20 different industries. They are all having to respond to seismic changes, and creating that speedboat culture is a consistent challenge for their Executive teams.

But 85,000 employees is nothing compared to the size of the wider society we live in. And here we seem to be going through a purple patch of cultural revolutions. Mindsets and assumptions are being challenged and changed on a daily basis, leading to real changes in behaviour. Look at the changing views about immigration that influenced the Brexit vote. Or the ‘Me Too’ movement that is challenging sexual behaviour at work. Or our view about the environmental effects of plastic and how it’s affecting the way we shop.

What can we learn from these movements of change? Looking across all three examples we can see a number of consistent factors that are, unsurprisingly, also at play in businesses that are successfully creating their own revolutions. Here we’ve identified eight…

1. At the heart of each movement there is an emotionally compelling narrative that challenges previous assumptions and creates a rallying cry for change. As with all good stories, these narratives come with an inciting event that engages us and motivates us to rethink. For the environmental effects of plastic we have to thank the wonderful BBC series Blue Planet. Week after week it led us into the incredible world of our oceans, and enabled us to befriend its creatures. Then at the end it dropped its bombshell, as the consequences of our disposable plastic lives was laid out for all to see (and sea). ‘Me Too’ didn’t start with Harvey Weinstein, but the revelations of what he got up to propelled this movement into the wider consciousness. And the same could be said for the news coverage generated by the displacement and migration of refugees from Syria, North Africa in recent years.

2. A charismatic leader steps up to say ‘follow me’, and provide a figurehead for the revolution. Who didn’t feel motivated when a 92-year old David Attenborough called us from the side of a precarious bobbing boat? You may not have felt the same about Nigel Farage, but many did. And if you’ve not heard Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes, then do… and makes notes. It is highly compelling.

3. Each movement also takes on an identity; like ‘Me Too’. These identities not only help to build awareness of the movement, but they also give us something to be part of; a community or tribe we can belong to. They play an influential role in how we behave. The violence at football grounds in the 70’s and 80’s demonstrated that we are motivated to act in ways that protect our identities. And studies in political voting have shown that we often ask ourselves, when making decisions, what would people like us do.

4. Meanwhile, these narratives are reinforced by a drip feed of illustrative stories, cleverly curated by supportive news editors. At the hight of the migration crisis, hardly a week went by without the Daily Mail sharing another horror story about what UK immigrants were getting up to. These stories have a clever effect in allowing us to discover for ourselves how the narrative is developing. Our own ideas and views are, of course, the ones we cherish most and tend to act on

5. Which leads us to the critical factor that all cultural movements, in business or society need – an invitation to people that they can make a difference. Climate change has had its narratives, its stories and its leaders over the years. But, certainly in the past, most people, however motivated, have felt powerless to do anything about it – at least without radically undermining their lifestyles. When Attenborough called to us from that bobbing boat, there was already in place a way of taking action – reusable shopping bags. Now we can all be ‘cultural activists’. Farage gave his movement a party to vote for, and through it a route to a referendum. The ‘Me Too’ movement offers a range of activities, from marches and social media to rethinking office etiquette.

6. But shifting established behaviours is not easy. We are, after all, creatures of habit. So sometimes movements need a little help. Nudging behaviours has become a hot topic in Government and a great example is the 5p tax on plastic bags. The tax is a consistent reminder that every time you use a disposable bag, you and the environment are paying for it.

7. Now the activists need to the support of other leaders: people in positions of power and influence that can make change happen. In these examples they respond in a number of different ways. The UK Government forces companies to publish measures on sexual equality. Supermarket chiefs publish goals for reducing single-use plastics. And the Conservative party instigates a referendum on Europe and implements controversial policies on immigration. Hollywood studio bosses drop ‘A listers’ with allegations hanging over them, and reshoot films to edit them out of existence.

8. So a new set of illustrative stories start to emerge; stories that illustrate symbols of change; stories that show the effect that activists are having; stories that reinforce the belief that they are not alone, that others are thinking and acting like them: stories that create cultural ‘heroes’. Women wear black at award ceremonies. Political parties change their policies. Major food brands pledged to eradicate unnecessary single-use plastic, radically change their packaging as a result. Britain votes to leave the EU.

Back to business. Large companies, like M&S, are masters at systemising the way they do things. They know it produces faster results at greater scale. Yet this thinking is often not applied to driving culture change. Many of these factors are in play. They are part of human nature. But they are not co-ordinated in way that maximises their pace and effectiveness. The cultural revolutions that are taking place outside business, are indicative of the pace of change that is being embraced by the customers and consumers that businesses rely on. To survive, businesses have to match this pace. If companies want to be as proud of their future as they are of their past, they need to work on their own cultural revolutions.