The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work


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Sparknow attended the 2014 Melcrum Summit, Smarter Internal Communications, at Excel in London from 14-16 October. We delivered a pre-summit workshop and then Sabine and Fiona took it in turns to each attend one of the two days of the full summit. Here are a few of our observations, through our lens on story and narrative to find different ways into change and make things shift.


Image: from the Newsweaver stand.

Our workshop – Using narrative methods to drive change and shape the big story 

We focused on story collecting: personal experience at times of change, if captured and woven into the bigger story of purpose and direction, can allow a wider range of people to see themselves in the change. Participants at the workshop brought a very wide range of industries, experiences and involvement in change and most importantly, questions around how to translate the raw element of collected stories into more cooked assets that can travel and have impact.

We tried out two methods we use a lot: narrative for a change and anecdote circles and introduced mass collection methods such as SenseMaker™. We also looked at two examples from our practice: the role of stories to surface issues during the merger of Customs and Excise with the Inland Revenue to create the UK’s Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and Quality Stories with a global pharmaceutical company.

The summit – what struck us

Find the hairdresser

Paul Dolan’s opening keynote ‘Lessons from Mindspace: changing behavior without changing minds’ raised much we can learn from behavioral science.

First off, an example: when HIV and safe sex awareness messages are communicated to women in Africa through hairdressers. Not health professional or NGO representatives, but people like me, people I trust, people I encounter in my day to day on my terms. What is important is the messenger not the message. We saw this peer to peer theme appear in many presentations and methods throughout the summit including Leanne Carmody’s talk about employee advocacy at Heineken. There is a shift from the crafted word to the power of conversation to create connections and meaning.

Finding and engaging the hairdresser – equivalents of any change programme becomes the challenge. What stood out for us was not only the need for human connections to shift views but also Paul Dolan’s view on how we can’t understand irrational drivers of our decisions through rational, conscious questioning. Finding out what will keep a society safe from disease is not about telling or indeed asking questions that don’t go deep into unconscious drivers of the reptile brain that drives our first response to anything, in all of us.

Nine out of ten dinghies

Again, from Paul Dolan and of interest to our thinking on innovation and learning. Companies often launch one supertanker idea or product into the world and when it goes off course, they throw even more money at readjusting its path. This need to go big up front was contrasted to the test and learn approach: send out ten small dinghies, of which nine will sink but one will go somewhere. Then, invest in growing that one, by learning from why the other nine failed. We see a big role for narrative research and story in surfacing this learning and also making it safe, which is often why it is not explored in the first place.  Everyone wants to be the person behind the one workable dinghy in today’s winning culture. However, making it a proud experience to be one of the other nine is a journey that still has a long road ahead.

More on the twins of innovation and learning

It was striking to hear the ever growing complexity of the environments within which people are operating. It’s another take on these two themes: the growing pressure to innovate and the ability to make mistakes.  We believe they are inextricably linked. You can’t come up with new ideas without making a few mistakes along the way. Organisations often pay lip service to learning. But however many after action reviews are carried out, if the lessons aren’t streamed back into the organisation and actually applied then they are pointless exercises. We often see organisations spout the importance of a learning culture and yet their environment doesn’t support this – a great example in the UK’s National Health Service. It takes leadership, space, and applying narrative techniques to cultivate the right supportive environment for sharing.

Moments of truth

A panel discussion on the future of smarter communication followed a presentation by Simon Watson at Royal Bank of Scotland on changing the structure and priorities of communications to be primarily focused on business challenges. While this sounds obvious, this shift from technical expert to business advisor is one that many organisations are working through in light of the increasingly complex demands to create engagement over broadcasting a message. We particularly liked the mention of moments of truth being something that communicators can be custodians of surfacing. Employee moments of truth over a rational set of messages that work through the change curve, for example.

The kill zone

If you are undecided whether your business priority is operational effectiveness, innovation or service, and are stuck in the middle, this is the kill zone. This point was made by Simon Watson of RBS and we particularly liked the image of stuckness. What is the role of stories in pulling out of the kill zone by surfacing which direction to take and find the momentum to stick to it?  

The lift to the 22nd floor

ITV’s Nicole Dempster outlined how employees reflect the brand voice and how much work was done to create these connections. We liked her regular references to the lifts in the ITV building on the South Bank in London. This is the space where she could conduct a regular sensecheck on how their comms were evolving positively through informal temperature taking in a place where many people spend a lot of time. Formal measurement is key, but the story of change often also lies in finding the democratised spaces where shifts are visible in small signs of behavior.

From rhetoric to reality

Many organisations, such as Ericcson, shared how they use storytelling to help leaders communicate change goals and organsational values but few seem to know how to take the next step to helping their teams understand how to align their daily working practices. This is really where a deeper connection is needed. With our experience of using narrative to open up new conversations and allow people to translate abstract concepts into concrete and meaningful action, we liked how the RSA put it: “from rhetoric to reality”. We were also interested to hear the RSA’s presentation on having a wider purpose. Change is easier to bring to fruition when all individuals can make meaningful the world around them and feel a sense of a greater purpose in what they do. This is compounded by a deep desire by individuals to be part of something as well as greater expectations of what they can control. Giving people a sense that they can make a difference to the wider organization can be very powerful.

So then, in summary: 

  • Find the hairdresser
  • Don’t launch tankers, send out dinghies
  • Mean it, don’t pay lip service to learning
  • Move from messages to moments of truth
  • Use stories to get out of the kill zone
  • Take the temperature wherever you happen to be
  • Use stories to take change from rhetoric to reality
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