Three narratives to explain change

Events in the UK around BREXIT have reminded me of the idea that there are three common narratives around change.

My friend Tony Quinlan first explained it to me and I’ve often used it to help decision-makers think long and hard about how they wish to communicate. But it’s a concept that challenges your fundamental rationale for change and reinforces the role of the communicator as more than wordsmith.


Narrative #1 – We’re victims; we have no choice but to change

I wonder if there’s a manager anywhere that has never used this line with their team.  It’s so easy to say:

We’ve been let down by the bosses, what choice do we have…?”


“I know it’s a bad idea, but that’s what the board in its wisdom wants so let’s get on with it…”

There’s a corporate version of the victim narrative as well.  It goes something like:

 “We’re trapped by the market/government decisions/the referendum vote…we just have to make the best of it…”

The temptation to use the victim narrative can be very powerful.  It doesn’t challenge our audience too much and plays up to a cynical world view.  When people are angry or frustrated, a story of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming force is easy to sell.

And it can get results; well at least in the short term.

It doesn’t ask for masses of long-term effort; all it requires is a drive to get through the immediate pressure.

But longer-term who wants to work for a self-pitying organisation.  Used often enough the victim narrative provokes staff attrition.

And it can’t be good for things like customer service or overall business performance.  After all, who cares if you’re making an extra effort?

 Narrative #2 – Let’s smash the competition!

Overcoming a foe of some kind appeals to many leaders.  As a communication strategy it encourages some of the worst sporting cliché’s or references to military leadership.

But it is very powerful.  People like to be winners or to feel that they are engaged in a struggle with someone they can picture.

It’s a narrative that isn’t just available to commercial organisations; charities often talk about winning a bigger share of donation government organisations might secretly campaign for a larger slice of the budget.

Of course it can have some drawbacks.

Obsessing about a single objective can lead to other challenges being ignored.  Sales at all costs might result in lower margins, falling quality or worrying slips in safety.  Some people are just not motivated by the idea of competition and so might struggle to rise to the challenge of being the best selling or might feel uncomfortable pretending to ignore the virtues of the other team.

 Narrative #3 – We’re going to save the world

Perhaps the most powerful storyline is the idea that we’re all striving to change the world for the better.  And best of all it is actually available to virtually every organisation.

I learned the truth of this years ago when I was running focus group for a gang of welders on a factory that built construction equipment.  When I asked a general question about what made it special to work there I didn’t get the answers I expected about the modern facilities, the better than average pay or the family feel of the place.

The welders either said

“I build JCB equipment – ‘JCB’ is in the English Dictionary because we’re the people who invented the backhoe loader…”


“Whenever I see a disaster in the world, I see one of our yellow diggers in the background helping out; it could be a digger that I made…”

People seem to have a natural desire to find the deeper purpose in their work.  And you don’t have to be a pharmaceutical company finding a cure for cancer to have the right to talk about changing the world.

Starbucks talks about changing the world “one cup at a time” and banks talk about helping people build their lives.

As long as your ambition is honestly felt it’s a credible message.

Naturally if your core business is selling carcinogenic products or producing ever more chemicals than will pollute rivers you have to be careful how far you take the idea that you are a force for good in the world.

And I accept that this might be an Anglo-Saxon perspective.  I was recently met with puzzled faces in France when I suggested a messaging strategy for a company around the concept of being “in business for good”.

But make it real

But when contemplating change, my experience is that more can be achieved by looking for the underlying benefit rather than bemoaning the hopelessness of your situation.  However, I have learnt one crucial lesson.

If the narrative is purely an invention of the communications department and has no foundation in leadership thinking and company policy then it is doomed to failure.  When rhetoric is out of step with the real intention of the organisation people will quickly see a “save the world” strategy for the cynical attempt at manipulation that it really is.

Yet perhaps this is a brilliant opportunity for communications professionals to show that we’re not just spin doctors, but have a real contribution to make to defining the fundamental direction and purpose of change in our organisations.

Originally posted on LinkedIn on July 4 2016.