Culture is all about the story you tell

 In Change management, Digital Transformation

Organisations used to manage change through change programmes that adhered to set methodologies.  Managing change had a rhythm – a step by step process underpinned by a change plan.


When new management thinking emerged, another change programme would pop-up. Using pre-determined change methodologies change was done using colour-by-number techniques.  Employees got to recognise the change cycles, knowing that many would go nowhere. Change projects suffered a 70% fail rate – see this great McKinsey article for more on that.


Today a colour-by-numbers approach is impossible.  New entrants leap into markets with ease and agility and overnight change the game. There is no proven way of doing things anymore. Large organisations, with their love of structure, are grappling to work out how to keep up in a world with no time for 70% fail rates.


Organisations need to be creative and innovative. They must empower employees so they can deliver change in creative ways. To encourage new behaviours, organisations need to be applauding creativity and speed.


Social norms shape group behaviour and stories shape social norms. Employees tell collective stories about the organisation they work for. So a tip for culture change is look for the stories.


Each organisation has its stories, providing a collective handbook on how to behave.  The things employees whisper and the things they openly applaud. Which corresponds to which behaviour will be celebrated and which won’t. A valuable piece of data for culture change.



Many corporate cultures were set in the colour-by-numbers era. In a time of five-year strategies, leadership from above and annual performance- appraisals.  Which become recorded in the employee stories about ‘the way we do things around here’. But now those stories need to change as organisations need new stories. Look at this one example of how IDEO co-created its values.


Legacy organisations need to give permission to digital behaviours. They need to be telling stories that elicit new behaviours and create new social norms. So how to do this?


Telling your story

Think of stories as the mission statement. In a world that is value-based, employees are left cold by dry corporate messages. The great news is digital gives us a more human way of talking.  Whether it’s a vision statement or a story, the purpose stays the same – to communicate what the organisation stands for and the behaviours it values.
Here are four steps to create buy-in to change using the advantages of a digital age.
  1. Know what you stand for 
    Stories have missions, characters and an enemy (which btw can be the behaviours you don’t want). The cultural markers you use to convey these shouldn’t change – btw agile and it’s fluidity happens at the next level down. This level of storytelling is strategic. Conveying your reason for being and the values and behaviours that will get you there in a very human way that builds trust.
  2. Understand the scale of the change
    Find out about the current values and behaviours your employees have. Then see how different they are from your target behaviours. This gives you a heat map of the organisation so that you can target effort. What used to be your ‘As-is analysis’, ‘Gap Analysis’ and ‘Change Readiness Assessment’.
  3. Create a new story
    Work out a new story that communicates, in a human form, your business strategy and target culture. Stories make their way into long-term memory, in a way that annual reports and mission statements can’t. Take time to work out what behaviours you support. See my video story for an example how this can work. Oh, and stories will be richer if they are co-created with employees. You need to find out what story everyone can buy in to.
  4. Think of communications as a marketing campaign
    Have a comms grid and plan the sub-stories for each employee group. Your kit bag to connect is bigger now with video, social media, and many more new channels. Not least of which is your internal influencer or super-connectors network. The people who have the likeability factor to bring people together. Work out an engagement plan to create two-way conversations. The more employees input to the conversation the more bought in they will be. Foster communities and networks to encourage the behaviours you want.




Sandie Bakowski helps organisations do change in ways that suit a digital age. She translates dry business strategies into approaches that engage employees.  Join her mailing list for more articles on Making Change Happen in a digital age.


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Photo Credits:

Photo 1- Gez Xavier Mansfield on Unsplash

Photo 2 – Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash




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