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Is successful change a fairy tale?

By Professor Kevin Morrell
Uncomfortable as it may be, transformational change will be unavoidable across every industry in coming years.



Disruptive technologies like artificial Intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, and Internet of Things are changing rules, markets, and value propositions. This is true for multinationals, public services, and SMEs alike. Covid-19 accelerated some changes, notably how we coordinate remotely, but there are massive challenges coming because of the climate emergency.

It is sometimes said change is the only constant, but this cliché is wrong. There is one other constant. Some organisations cope with change successfully, others don’t. How can we explain this?


I want to suggest that the key is a successful story.

Although new technologies are revolutionising every sector, stories have always been human beings’ go-to sensemaking tool. Early epic poems were relayed through oral tradition before the invention of writing. Stories told by Australian First Nations can pinpoint islands submerged over 10,000 years ago.

This is not only about the cultural “software” we run as a species, it is true on a biological, “hardware” level. Research last year in the life-sciences journal Cell Reports showed that when two people listen to the same story at different times their heartbeats synchronise. Astonishingly, this was true whether they were listening to fiction from the master storyteller Jules Verne or to factual, educational videos in physics from YouTube.

As our ancestors did, we use stories to transmit culture, to remember important factual information and principles, and to steer through socially complex environments. Stories are our common reference point – allowing different stakeholders to describe a current state, to imagine a future and to navigate the journey between the two. This is as true in today’s boardrooms as it was for Australian First Nations and the ancient Greeks.

Indeed, over the last 15 years I’ve used storytelling to understand large-scale changes across private and public sectors in multiple scenarios:

  • Change initiatives like restructuring and relocation;
  • Integration of service provision;
  • Tax settlement negotiations;
  • Even how “scientific evidence” is used.


How childhood learning impacts adult behaviours

Linking all these projects are ideas developed from the analysis of a particular genre of stories: fairy tales. What my work shows is that the recipes we use to learn about the world as children still structure our choices as adults.

Fairy tales offer a connection across different cultures with their familiar narratives, featuring journeys, bizarre characters, magical objects, moral lessons, fabulous creatures and of course struggles between hero and villain. It has been known for centuries, if not thousands of years, that there are common elements to fairy stories across the world – a universality.

But there was a puzzle to this universality. Despite there being so many tales with so much in common, scholars argued about how to categorise them. The Miller index (the simplest framework) showed three kinds of tales, either involving:

  1. fantasy,
  2. everyday life,
  3. or animals.

These categories were based on the content of a tale, but then the categories also overlapped. Some fantasy tales heavily featured animals for instance. The same problem was true of more complicated frameworks that used 15 categories.


Enter (in 1928) the hero of this story: Vladimir Propp

Vladimir Propp followed an intellectual tradition known as Russian formalism. Formalists were not primarily interested in the content of stories (or works of fiction and non-fiction). Instead, they looked at structure - how a story was put together.

Propp focused on the different characters in these tales and the work they did – their “functions”. He would not just have noticed how sharp the wolf’s teeth in Little Red Riding Hood were for instance. He would have studied how the wolf was introduced in the story, how he interacted with Little Red Riding Hood, then with her unfortunate Grandmother, and finally the huntsman.

When Propp applied this formalist approach to fairy tales he had extraordinary results. He solved the problems with the frameworks that had puzzled generations of scholars. He showed that across the fairy tales he analysed there were 31 common functions. Once tales were arranged in chronological order these functions happened one after the other in an unbreakable sequence.

  • At the beginning of each tale the main character is left alone and given a command: don't go into the forest, don't talk to strangers, look after your brother.
  • What happens next…? That's right - like a law of physics - the character breaks the command.
  • In every tale the hero also undergoes a journey - flying through the air, or following bloody footprints, or being carried by a giant bird, or a person with no hands might carry someone with no legs and so on.


With this explanation and method set out, it may seem obvious that each of these different, fantastical journeys performs the same function. But Propp’s innovative approach – of focusing on how a story was put together rather than the content of the story itself - was radically different and surprising. Written almost a century ago, it is still extraordinarily impressive.

Propp’s tale is itself tragic. In Stalinist Russia, the ability to break down and unpick stories could not have been more out of favour. His work sank without trace only to be rediscovered decades later when it revolutionised literary criticism.


The principles of storytelling

Formalism teaches us several things that transfer well to strategy. It doesn’t give a scientific formula as to how to craft a firm’s winning story, but it does suggest important principles.

Fairy tales were relayed through oral traditions. They were memorable for the same reasons that the West’s first epic poems and the stories of Australia’s First Nations were. Refined and polished over many generations, through an evolutionary process, the most effective techniques and structures are the ones that survived.

Effective stories help with communicating at speed and scale because the best stories (and the best storytellers) “pre-package” experience. In other words, they fit complex, even chaotic events into a format that is understandable and relatable to others.

All successful stories use narrative arcs for instance: the beginning, middle, end format which anchors us to something solid. They map out processes of conflict and resolution in clear, predictable stages. They outline all the steps needed to succeed in a journey of transformation.

The strategy story makes things seem plausible and definite, providing certainty in a risky, ambiguous world. It provides clarity when the context is turbulent, just as fairy tales needed to set down clear principles for children to live by or to begin to understand that we are all mortal.

We can even think about the characters in a strategy story: competitors of course but also employees, customers, and other stakeholders; perhaps even that “magical” new technology or way of working. These characters need to be given very clear roles and they need to interact with other characters in sharply definable ways that are as law-like as the breaking of a “don’t go into the forest” command.

Transition points need to be salient and communicate urgency at the same time as seeming inevitable: we know what rules must be followed and the consequences if they are breached. We know customers will be delighted, employees engaged, competitors defeated, but exactly how and by whom? Can we make these transitions seem law-like?

Ultimately, we have to work to be interesting. A storyteller needs to be credible and they have to be heard: with attention-grabbing details that are unfamiliar and compelling - to warn how sharp the wolf's teeth are or to sell the dream of flying to the future.



An earlier version of this article appeared in Management Today - https://www.managementtoday.co.uk/successful-change-fairy-tale/long-reads/article/1791495


Professor Kevin Morrell holds the Rowlands Chair in Transformational Strategy at Cranfield School of Management

Tags: strategy, article

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