What stories are you telling?

“Stories are the single most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit.” – Howard Gardner

This month we have been discussing ways of reinforcing the new normal after implementing a change. One important method is to focus on the stories you are telling about your organization, its values, and the new way of doing things.

According to Howard Gardner, when you tell a story, you are appealing to multiple intelligences to open up more parts of the brain, that allow people to better absorb information and retain it. You are also creating a pathway for people to connect emotionally with your organization and feel a part of the change. But if you’re not a natural storyteller, how do you get started?

  • First think about what you want to communicate.
  • Then, think about what you want your listeners to do as a result.
  • Then, work backward from that.

Sounds easy. Right?….. Wrong. Good storytelling is hard work, but can be a strategic activity for a leader and well worth the effort. It may help to begin collecting stories about what early successes have occurred with the change. Begin sharing those stories and highlight how the change has impacted students, employees, your institution, the larger society, and you.

grad manHere’s a story I’d like to share with you. I have worked in higher education for more than 28 years now and I stay in higher education, because I believe in its ability to transform lives. A couple of years ago, I met a student at one of our community colleges who was absolutely inspirational. He had attended his local college during his last two years of high school and was graduating from high school with his A.A. degree. At the ripe age of  18, he was able to enroll in a university as a junior, with two years of college completed and paid for. He told me how he enjoyed college, the campus environment and his professors who took time to mentor him. He shared how college had transformed his life, giving him options for his future. Yes, he was motivated, and an exemplary student, but without our community college in his rural area, he would have been marking time in his local high school. Providing post-secondary options for high school students is one of the ways my organization provides value to our students, our state, and our society.

People look for meaning in their work. Stories can inspire and engage people in the new way of doing things. And the sharing of stories can create collective meaning in an organization.

What stories are you telling?

Anita Rios

Rewarding the new normal

trophy free to use As we work toward a more collaborative culture within MnSCU, we’ll need people at all levels to take ownership of their part in the changes. If you’ve been following the Charting the Future implementation teams, you know that incentives and rewards are an important part of the strategy.

Leaders in public higher education sometimes think that our labor contracts and financial restrictions leave us few options for rewarding employees. But there are many non-financial ways to reward good work, and they can be even more effective than money. For example, engagement expert Beverley Kaye created this list of 26 ways to reward star employees. Check it out for some new ideas.

In addition to thinking about how to reward good work, leaders need to think about what to reward. Last year’s safety issues at General Motors sparked an interesting case study in a recent Harvard Business Review blog.  Titled Do Your Company’s Incentives Reward Bad Behavior? it proposed that while GM talked about the importance of safety, organizational behaviors indicated that cost control was more important. This mis-alignment probably discouraged people from bringing up safety concerns. Here are some tips from the article:

  1. Create an honest and reflective list of the behaviors you want and the behaviors you don’t want.
  2. Identify the behaviors that you are currently measuring. Think broadly about the kinds of feedback that you pay attention to and the activities you formally and informally track with colleagues and those who report to you.
  3. Compare the two lists. What behaviors do you care about, but are not currently measuring? This is what the article called your “danger list.”
  4. Assess your rewards and incentives to be sure they reflect the behaviors you want to see more of.

Identifying the feedback “danger list” is an important leadership strategy to support change. If a key behavior is not being measured, others are likely to think it isn’t very important. Further, even if people want to engage in that behavior they will lack feedback about what they are doing well and what needs to be improved.

The article suggested an easy way to assess your feedback strategies, rewards, and incentives: ask people what would happen if they did the behaviors on your “more of” and “less of” lists. Would they 1) be rewarded or approved, 2) be discouraged in some way, 3) receive no reaction, or 4) not know what to expect? The answers can help you pay attention to the right things.

Are the right things are being measured and rewarded in your area?

–Dee Anne Bonebright


Nobody’s perfect

mistakeWe have spent the past year highlighting the crucial role you, the leader, have in articulating the change vision, setting strategy, engaging your people, building commitment, developing capacity and finally, taking action! You have invested your time and your energy into the success of the change. Yet, now that it is finally being rolled out you may need to acknowledge that it may have gotten off-track.

Wait, before you revolt, notice I said, “off-track.” Not failed. Making small course corrections to the plan you developed can keep the change on-track. In fact, if you, the leader, recognize that not everything is going perfect and encourage course corrections you will build the culture that reinforces the change.

Making those course corrections are hard after you have poured your heart and soul into the change effort. I worked with a physician leader on a change effort designed to build a new patient-centered care model. Our team spent months gathering information and designing a sophisticated and detailed after-visit summary that would be given to every patient at the end of their appointment. We had to change multiple procedures, train staff on completing the form, post informational signs and update computer systems. After we started using the new process and form we discovered people weren’t finding it valuable! At first we were dismayed but we took a breath, stepped back and asked a few questions. We discovered patients found the form was too complicated. It had too much information on it. We made a small change to the form and patients loved the overall process. Their positive comments and stories reinforced the importance of the change and helped the full deployment of the new process.

Making small course corrections  helps build your new culture and reinforce the importance of the change itself.

Todd Thorsgaard


Culture comes last

Transformational change by its very nature requires culture change.  In fact, most of us have heard the phrase: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Right? In other words, we can have the most logical, well-thought-out change strategy, but unless the culture (i.e., underlying norms and values) shifts in an organization to support a new way of operating and working together, the change will fail.

Popular wisdom often focuses on shifting culture first in an organization, but according to change guru and author John Kotter, “In a change effort, culture comes last, not first.”  He says that culture truly changes only when a new way of operating has been shown to succeed over time.

sysyphusTrying to shift the norms and values before creating the new way of operating does not work. In fact, it will result in useless efforts and unending frustration. It can often feel like Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, who was sentenced to endlessly roll an enormous boulder up a steep hill only to watch it roll back down again.

So how can leaders avoid unending frustration and implement strategies that reinforce the new way of operating over time? Here are a few concrete ideas that Kotter shares from his book, The Heart of Change:

  • Use new employee orientation to show what the organization really cares about (values)
  • Promote people who act according to the new norms into influential and visible positions
  • Tell vivid stories over and over about the new organization, what it does and why it succeeds

Kotter adds that “you can create new behaviors that reflect a desired culture. But those behaviors will not become norms, will not take hold, until the very end of the process.”

For me, understanding this fundamental aspect of organizational change that culture comes last, not first, is rather freeing. It helps me focus on what is doable to sustain change, rather than feeling immobilized by thinking that I have to implement culture change first. What do you think?

Anita Rios




Watering the change garden

In his book Leading Change, John P. Kotter tells a compelling story about a failed change effort. The organization had done all the early steps right and was seeing benefits from the change. Everything was going well.  But then the leaders made a fatal mistake – they forgot to reinforce the new normal. As Kotter described it:

watering3 free to useLittle effort was made to help the new practices grow deep roots, ones that sank down into the core culture or were strong enough to replace it. Shallow roots require constant watering. As long as change agents were there daily with the garden hose, all was well. Without that attention, the practices dried up, withered, and died. Other greenery that had been cut back, but that had deeper roots, took over.

When we’re leading change, we need to think like gardeners. What kind of food and water does the new normal need to grow strong and healthy? Who is watering the change now, and what happens when they are done? What old greenery has the potential to grow back like a weed?

Kotter suggests some steps leaders can take to help reinforce the new normal and discourage the old patterns from reappearing.

  1. Talk frequently about the evidence showing that the new practices are linked to desired outcomes.
  2. Talk frequently about why the old culture existed, why it was needed, and how it is no longer helpful.
  3. Make sure the people in leadership positions are willing and able to support the new culture.
  4. Make sure that new hires are not being informally screened according to the old norms and values.

watering1 free to useCultural issues are often hidden and difficult to change. Just as tending a garden takes time and effort, reinforcing change is an ongoing process. What suggestions do you have for tending the change garden?

–Dee Anne Bonebright

Follow the leader

follow-the-leaderDo you remember playing the children’s game where you had to watch closely and follow every move and action the leader took? One misstep and you were out! Reinforcing the new normal in a change effort works the same way.

William Bridges, in his classic book Managing Transitions describes it like this – “you have one reliable point of leverage…… the example of your own behavior.” As the leader, you are being watched closely by your people and they will follow your moves more than your words. At MnSCU, as a part of our Charting the Future strategy, we are working to become a more collaborative higher education system across our 31 colleges and universities. The real-life examples of leaders working collaboratively on the eight implementation teams demonstrates what collaboration looks like and reinforces collaboration as the new normal in the day-to-day work of staff and faculty at each college or university.

Alternatively, when leaders go “off-course” and don’t consistently reinforce the new normal it is human nature for everyone else to follow them, even if they know better. I was a course marshal at the Twin Cities Marathon this past weekend and saw an example of that. During the 10 mile run the lead car missed a turn and all the elite runners followed the car off-course. They knew the correct route, yet in the stress of the moment they just “followed the leader.”  Lucky for them they were able to get back on course after just two blocks! Where are you leading your people?

Taking the time to purposely and consistently demonstrate the behaviors and actions you want to see in your people will help them gain confidence and comfort in the new normal.

Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it’s the only thing. – Albert Schweitzer, French Philosopher and Physician

Todd Thorsgaard


Combat exhaustion

exhaustion“Deep into a transformation, even if urgency remains high, even if people want to take on the big problems, and even if they succeed in generating waves of change, they can still fail because of exhaustion.” – John Kotter, The Heart of Change

Do you find yourself nodding in agreement with Kotter’s statement? I know I do. Transformational change often requires multi-year efforts from numerous employees and stakeholders in an organization. It requires new work that is typically added on top of all of the old work to keep an organization running. Continuing to pile on new work to existing work can lead to burnout for you and your people. So what can leaders do to reinforce the change and combat exhaustion for themselves and their teams?

Kotter says the answer is very simple: “When you have too much work, jettison some.”

It sounds simple, but in fact it can be tough to decide what no longer gets done in an organization. It can help if you and your team examine day-to-day activities and ask:

  1. Does this really add value?
  2. Is this task relevant?
  3. Do I (we) absolutely need to do this?
  4. What can be delegated?
  5. What can be done differently to streamline the task?

Kotter suggests that leaders aggressively rid themselves of work that wears you down and tasks that were relevant in the past, but are no longer useful. One task that I used to complete at the end of each year was a comprehensive, 30-plus page year-end report for distribution to all our stakeholders to demonstrate the value my unit brought to our organization. It was beautifully bound, in color, and took hours to compile. A couple of years ago, as we were going through multiple change efforts, my team and I determined that an extensive year-end report was no longer relevant. We skinnied it down to a 4-page, informal report that is shared with our stakeholders and nobody missed the long report.

As you continue to lead your change, what can you stop doing?

Anita Rios