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Storytelling In The News: #140

John Kotter endorses storytelling as a change tool

May 5, 2004

John Kotter has been seen as the leading authority on instigating change. He has reflected the traditional viewpoint that you persuade people through the mind. Now there are signs that Kotter is giving more attention to the heart, and the use of story.

Kotter's books

His best selling book from 1996, Leading Change, laid out the basics, including the suggestion that the way to persuade people to change was giving them a reason. For a full critique of his treatment, see chapter 5 of my book, The Springboard (Butterworth Heinemann, 2000). The fact that giving people a reason is known to be generally ineffective when it comes to fundamental change did not prevent the apparent success of the book.

In his follow-up book in 2002, The Heart of Change, Kotter updated his message with the suggestoin that the way to persuade people to change was to give them better reasons. In the section on communicating for buy-in (pages 83-101) he essentially argues for giving better information, through better Q&A sessions and more informative portals. The fact that better information is unlikely to be sufficient to spark fundamental change never seems to occur to Kotter. Again, this hasn't stopped the book from being another business best-seller.

Kotter's interview in Leader to Leader

It is therefore interesting to read in an interview given by Kotter to Leader to Leader in December 2003, (it has only just come to my attention), that Kotter is inching towards the light.

When asked why change is so difficult, Kotter says:

"All through our lives we have been taught to over-rely on what you might call the memo approach -- the 19 logical reasons to change -- and we've under-relied on what Dan Cohen and I found is much more effective, which is presenting something that is emotionally compelling. People change their behavior when they are motivated to do so, and that happens when you speak to their feelings. Nineteen logical reasons don't necessarily do it. You need something, often visual, that helps produce the emotions that motivate people to move more than one inch to the left or one inch to the right. Great leaders are brilliant at this. They tell the kind of stories that create pictures in your mind and have emotional impact. Imagine, someone once told me, if Martin Luther King Jr. had stood up there in front of the Lincoln Memorial and said, "I have a business strategy." King didn't do that. He said, "I have a dream," and he showed us what his dream was, his picture of the future. You get people to change less by giving them an analysis that changes their thinking than by showing them something that affects their feelings.

"Intellectually, then, people may realize the need for change, but still not do anything differently, because they don't have the passion to break out of their habits. It's tough to break habits. Ask smokers. The momentum from history -- from how we've always done things -- can end up making our future look like our history. Overcoming complacency is crucial at the start of any change process, and it often requires a little bit of surprise, something that grabs attention at more than an intellectual level. You need to surprise people with something that disturbs their view that everything is perfect...

"Change leaders make their points in ways that are as emotionally engaging and compelling as possible. They rely on vivid stories that are told and retold. You don't have to spend a million dollars and six months to prepare for a change effort. You do have to make sure that you touch people emotionally...

Learning to move people through story

However when we get to the crucial question about how to tell stories that might spark change, Kotter is disappointingly vague. When asked whether the ability to move people emotionally a special gift, he replied:

"I don't think the ability to speak to people's feelings is something many of us are born with. You learn it. In The Heart of Change, we found all sorts of people who had learned it. Some certainly didn't look like leaders. But somewhere along the way, they stumbled across or they learned or they got lucky in figuring out this kind of method. If they can do it, I'm sure that most of us can learn to get a lot better at it. That is why we packed the book full of these stories."

And yet what The Heart of Change is singularly lacking in, are examples of the use of story to communicate change. The examples are all about giving better information and better reasons for change. Story as a communication tool is noticeable by its absence from his book.

Bottom line

Even if Kotter's heart is not yet in story, it's reassuring that he gives intellectual assent to its importance as an instrument of change.

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