The key to successful transformation? Share the true story behind it

I remember the first time I saw the film beginning. From the first scene with a man washing up on a beach I was hooked. The visuals, the music, the themes, the underlying question of whether Cobb was awake or dreaming at the end… it was all captivating. A complex story told on multiple levels, which at its core is about the ability to accept the truth of what must happen for a stuck person to move on with their lives.

Just as convincing, but for different reasons, was the Hangover. Funny, irreverent, and full of quotable lines (most from the incomparable Zack Galifianakis), I still laugh when I think of Mike Tyson playing air drums in a Vegas suite. But what always shines through is the story of a group of friends guiding someone through a major life change while also welcoming the addition of an unlikely new member.

Two very different stories – each told with skill and each in a memorable way. So… what do they have to do with HR? More than you might think.

Too often, as companies approach transformation, they first focus on the what and how and only later on the why. Even when the why is identified, the delivery of the message often does not get through to those affected by the transformation, contributing to the high failure rate of organizational transformation. An executive at a well-known sports brand summarized her reaction to a first draft of her HR function’s transformation story as follows. “When I go to a Michelin restaurant, I don’t ask the chef to go through every step of her preparation. I don’t ask how the carrots were cut, what diameter, whether they were sautéed in butter or oil, and how long the platter took to prepare. Instead, I rely on a culinary experience. That’s what I want to learn from our HR transformation.”

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Transformation IS storytelling. While data and business cases are important to gain board approval, the story behind that data and what it can unlock going forward makes the case compelling. Behavioral research suggests that both data and emotion are necessary to effect change, and that a personalized approach can make the listener feel both heard and seen. Let us give you an example we shared during our pre-conference presentation on Transformation 101 at the recent HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas.

One of IA’s customers is a fast-growing, diversified company with just over 7,000 employees. With major sponsorship for the transformation across the C-suite, the CFO was particularly keen to ensure his payroll function had truly matured its processes and policies as a key outcome of the journey. He couldn’t understand why they worked weekends and holidays all the time, and why the overtime alone cost an appalling amount of money and sheer human effort. So IA mapped the current state and found that the off-cycle billing process alone consisted of over 1,400 individual steps. Right, one thousand four hundred steps for every single off-cycle process. When we printed this shocking image onto plotter paper, we revealed this process in the CFO’s office, the height of which was well over the head of our project manager. The CFO took one look, leaned back heavily in his chair, and burst into tears. “I thought I created a trustworthy environment. I thought my people knew they could come to me for help. I failed her. Every single one of them.” Suffice it to say that he has been a vocal advocate and has shared this story across the company and we are pleased to report that they are on the other side of this emotional journey. But it was this data visualization, combined with the knowledge of his heartfelt and truly human commitment, that made this an impressive story for his board of directors.

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The power of storytelling to force change was also prominent in one of the panels at the Women in HR Technology Summit, where the discussion focused on how to design a total reward proposition that matters to women, and indeed all employees. Panelists shared incredibly personal stories about how their organizations’ approach to care has impacted their lives — whether it was IVF treatments or helping care for aging parents. It’s one thing to read about how the need for long-term care has increased in the United States; it’s quite another to hear someone about the impact it’s had on their family. The panel audience responded to the open dialogue, which focused not only on data – which was freely shared – but also on what that data was saw as for the millions of people who live it. As one panelist shared, “Childcare is literally a second mortgage payment” for her and her husband, a stark fact that led to another panel finding: “Single women with no children earn more than single men with no children, which just goes to show the children.” can ruin your life” (amid roaring laughter). Personally. effective. Unforgettable.

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We all need to remember that change is personal. The more stories we can convey, the more likely someone is to feel included in the actions and outcomes of others. Though I’ve never implanted false memories through a multi-layered dream state or woken up to a live tiger in my hotel room, these images are vividly present whenever I hear a passing reference to either film. No matter what the goals of your transformation may be, the key to success is sharing the narrative—not a statement of intent, not an OKR, not a board goal, but that story behind. Make it convincing. Make it unforgettable. let it stick