Politely trash thought leadership and you get a big reaction of support. You will also discover a lot of similar frustration. However, these responses highlight how closely the message skirts the line of being merely entertaining thought leadership (a TEDX talk awaits me somewhere). If we are to stay true to the message of that post, we move beyond thought leadership when we share stories of the benefits of the real practice of change to inspire others. This is critically important in the domain of my work, helping organizations change the way they work.
Selling New Work Practices
Much of the advocacy for new work practices is awful. This advocacy for future of work practices comes in three main forms today:
- Theory: There’s a theoretically better way to work
- Criticism: The way you are working now is awful: Stop and change
- Threat: The end of the world is coming and you need to change your work
I recognize these three arguments because I have used variations of them at length in the blog. Much of this advocacy has been ineffective in arguing for new approaches to collaboration, learning, innovation, and leadership.
David Wilkinson has written an elegant argument on the value of storytelling to help people understand the value of Evidence-Based Practice in Healthcare. The simple message of his post is that when we want to create change in practices we need to engage people with the challenges that matter to them, share stories of success and engage them to consider experiencing a change. Storytelling captures the human imagination and can make abstract change conversations credible, tangible and clear.
Let’s reconsider the three usual rationales in the light of David’s post:
- Theory: The average busy worker responds to theory with a quick dismissal. The theory seems remote from their daily challenges. Their current work practices work well enough and who has time for the risk or the conscious incompetence of a new way.
- Criticism: Nobody responds well to criticism, express or implied. That’s, even more, the case when the criticism is based on an approach or view of the world that is not shared. If working entirely in email is all I know, all my peers do and my boss expects, how can it be wrong.
- Threat: Abstract threats don’t change behaviour. I don’t believe my way of working can save the company. I’m more concerned with the very real and immediate threat my boss will pose if I stand out and try to be different.
Tell A Real Story Instead
Instead of threatening, demeaning and bamboozling others, it is time for the advocates of change to take on more effective work of change. We need to build the practical stories of better ways of working and spread those widely to inspire new action in others.
Why does WOLWeek work? It is a time to share stories of working out loud. I’m not half as credible an advocate as the team at Bosch when they share their experience of working out loud.
How can we learn from David Wilkinson in advocating for new work practices:
Do the work of change: A great idea is not a story until it has been put into action. Be rightly sceptical of the stage and the usual suspects. Start with the work. Build case studies. Run experiments. Gather heroes and heroines of your future stories. Measure the real benefits. This is the work that turns theory into story.
Recruit your cast: Stories have real people in them. Find communities that are doing the work. Get to know these people and work with them to spread the word.
Focus on outcomes, not the practice: The focus of your advocacy and the story needs to be the business and personal outcomes. Go on and on about a new practice and people will see you as a salesperson. Focus instead on what others need or want. Focus on the biggest end of the funnel. Business people are trained to care about outcomes.
Describe the experience: We don’t need 3 easy steps. To agree to change we need to hear a description of the detail of the experience from beginning to end. It has to make credible what work needs to be done, how hard it will be and most importantly what outcomes we can expect. Keep it real. Most importantly, don’t promise a rocket to the moon, if your story is really about a long hard slog through dark woods.
Set up the conflict: Include all the challenges and the opposition in your story. Listeners will recognise these difficulties. More importantly the conflict is what attracts human attention. Your story of a new experience will be better for the challenges.
Connect the story to today’s work: A great story depends on a ‘willing suspension of disbelief”. That relies on your story connecting in some way to something tangible about work today or more boldly the human condition. If the actors in your story, sound like they are superheroes or that they live in a sci-fi organization you aren’t changing anyone.