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The Role of Narrative in Change

August 11, 2011

In my role as change manager, people in a company inevitably talk to me about what is not working in the organization and their frustration at the perception that obvious fixes are not recognized or implemented. External consultants often have their biggest value simply in not being part of the organization. My job is to see connections which, though clear for an outsider, are counterintuitive to people locked into the goal-setting system as managers or technical experts, and to use them as a frame for strategic initiatives which will help the organization move forward.

Change managers have all learned the Kotter model of change, with its 8-step vision realization process. This is a systems approach, which presupposes the ability to know where the organization needs to go and which, though logical, is seldom realized in its pure form. Listening to the stories told in the organization helps to engender one's sense of what the issues that need to be dealt with on an ongoing basis are, so that the best laid plans often show themselves to be defunct long before the vision has been realized.

Some companies stick to the plan and suffer in the process of achieving an imperfect goal, some stop the change process and reevaluate, never achieving any particular result. I have seen both go well and both go wrong.

But what I have seldom experienced is that a company shifts completely from a plan-orientation to a narrative-orientation in striving for change, trusting that the stories people tell will provide sufficient orientation for strategy. Using narrative for strategy will be part of the big shift coming in business (something I need not tell cognitive edge readers). The challenge, as change managers, is in finding ways to help decision-makers to understand the potential of the new approach.

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