Change management and fairy tales

The most effective way to reach the right audience with the correct message in change management

Why ‘once upon a time’ is still relevant to organisations today

So what is the most effective way to reach the right audience with the correct message that actually effects tangible change, difference and progress? After all, we all know communication underpins organisational change and day-to-day progress. Without the majority of team members buying into an objective it’s unlikely to be fulfilled, any time soon.

Well, to answer the opening question just turn back the clock and revisit some early memories.

  • How did you learn about the world without actually stepping out of your safety zone?
  • How did you learn to empathise with different types of characters?
  • How did you learn to evaluate both effective and ineffective behaviours?
  • How did you learn to assess problems, bargains, promises and solutions?

We are almost hardwired to respond to the phrase ‘Once upon a time’

It was most likely through stories. We learned so many lessons from the storytelling episodes we experienced as children. Inevitably, we are almost hardwired to respond to the phrase ‘Once upon a time’ and many of us are still prepared to suspend our disbelief at the utterance of those four words. After all, the brothers Grimm is the most translated collection after the Quran and the Bible. Translated into 160 languages it hints at the power of stories and their ability to prompt attention and fascination.

Stories can be less threatening when dealing with change management

If there are objectives, messages, timescales, cuts in resources or change to be communicated, an effective method of communicating the information can obviously transform outcomes. Freud’s concept of the uncanny — “the way reality is transfigured into weirdness” can assist in cutting through long held culture and experience. Simultaneously it may well offer up another more clearly defined perspective that is less immediately threatening as it is happening ‘over there’.

Align comms. Strategies and be driven by comms. Why not?

Now you might have been schooled in the philosophy that comms. strategies are organisationally centred instead of comms. driven. However, I believe the two need to be very much aligned. Effective communication and the resulting much anticipated ‘buy in’ can assist core objectives to be achieved more fluently.

Borders are invisible to fairy tales so why not change management?

Ok, we are not proposing a series of fairy tale management bulletins but using the characteristics of these ancient stories can allow ideas to “migrate on soft feet, (as) borders are invisible to them,” Marina Warner. Even if cynicism has killed an adult belief in fairies, we probably still crave the “heroic optimism” of the genre. Their peculiar weirdness and quirky irrationality informs us things are happening in a world elsewhere and allows us to make an educational and entertaining journey without reservation. After all, their primary purpose is amusement and as a vehicle for the communication of cultural information that ultimately often does influence behaviour they work well.

If the raison d’etre of comms. is to assist strategic targeting in a consistent manner then by creating a comprehensive case that incorporates every key message, while also emphasising the varying elements for different subsets, communication will be effected. What better conduit to use than stories and story-telling?

We know impact is maximised by using 3 key points that are always repeated.

  1. human interest,
  2. powerful imagery
  3. a powerful hook and narrative

If these are employed who can resist? It’s a painless, entertaining and non-threatening way to explore situational variables for example.

  • What stories deal with the notion of situational variables for example?
  • What about Cinderella and the concept of urgency and stakes involved?
  • How did the story of Rapunzel elucidate the clarity of a desired future state?
  • How did Beauty overcome the Beast’s anticipated resistance?
  • How did the Elves manage the change data to implement a dramatic transformation to the Shoemaker’s fortune?
  • What impact did the Emperor’s trust in the tailors’ change management have on his reputation as he walked on the street in his ‘new clothes?’

If you are encouraged to explore this further in your organisation think how fairy tales actually elucidate Jungian Archetypes. Ideas such as the collective subconscious or dreams, shared experiences and deepest desires, fear etc. can all be explored in relation to your organisation through stories..

In Freudian psychoanalysis the superego, ego and id are always at odds with one another and this happens in organisations too. How do we explore the conflict between primal needs and our consciences and what impact does that have in an organisation?

Stories examine aspects of feminist/ gender theory that attempt to get to grips with inequality, power relations, sexuality, stereotyping and discrimination.

Morphology allows the analysis of a character’s function; most tales compose 31 elements and just 8 character types. Borrow a book of Russian fairy tales to see this equation in action.

Tales can actually be used to preserve history, to preserve or question legend and perceived outlook and also customs that appear fixed but are preventing progress.

Finally, a good tale is effective at delivering moral lessons. They can be as subtle or as obvious as you please but they are useful for this alone.

So next time you are faced with an urgent requirement for change consider just how you might communicate that and your organisation may well learn to live happily ever after – at least until the dragon gets his breath back.

Further Reading:

Hayes, J The Theory & Practice of Change Management Palgrave 4th Ed 2014

Transforming Company Culture Through Storytelling March 2014

Storytelling as a cornerstone of change management October 2015

A Millennial’s Reading Guide to Change Management October 2015

Vivienne Neale is a digital marketing consultant and a creative writing MA graduate with an interest in change management and narrative.

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