Transformational story writing

Through harnessing the power of storytelling chief executives have turned their vision and strategic plans into compelling narratives to inspire staff to bring about major changes.

What was the challenge?

Few would dispute that NHS leaders need to help staff find a sense of direction and motivation if an organisation is to perform at its best. But it is not always easy or clear how to achieve that, and chief executives often underestimate the power of their own role in directly engaging colleagues.  Chief executives participating in Delivering through Improvement asked for support in setting out and communicating their vision, strategy and plans in a way that would engage all staff in the transformation.  We felt that this required us to go beyond conventional approaches to writing strategy documents and typical methods of communicating with staff and adopt a fresh approach. 

Why transformation stories?

The NHS Institute, with support from McKinsey management consultants, worked with the chief executives on crafting and sharing a uniquely engaging type of 'transformation story'. This differs from conventional corporate communications as it is written from a very personal perspective, using language and examples that are recognisably the chief execuctive’s own. It sets out a compelling vision for the future, making it real by painting the future vividly and setting out clear themes for action.  It creates clarity on what to expect, including honesty about uncertainties or difficulties ahead, and builds understanding of how each listener needs to contribute. It conveys confidence that the organisation will succeed, and sets out practical steps on the journey. [It answers the implicit questions on people’s minds – even if one of the answers is an honest ‘we don’t know yet, but this is how we will figure it out’.]  And because of the personal style of the story, it encourages deep reflection by the chief executive on what they are trying to achieve and what it is that is important to them.

Storytelling's potential as a tool for leaders began to emerge in the US in the 1990s. Stephen Denning, a former director of knowledge management at the World Bank, has related in the Harvard Business Review how he came to realise that although analysis could excite the minds of business leaders, to motivate people you had 'to go to the heart'. While analysis cuts through myth, gossip and speculation to get to the facts, storytelling can translate the dry and abstract into 'compelling pictures of a leader's goals'. Sometimes it can succeed where 'even the most logical arguments usually won't do the trick'.

The chief executives said that the process is quite personal and demanding and calls for skills not automatically found in every chief executive's repertoire. One chief executive admitted: 'It felt quite scary and odd but gets us further than writing a large tome. I was struggling with how we make our strategy seem real to people'.

What did the process involve?

McKinsey facilitated a workshop to teach the principles of putting together a 'strategic narrative'.  They cited examples of how the technique had worked outside healthcare and convinced participants of its potential. Then came individual tuition in compiling the stories. The content flowed from the answers to a series of structured questions: what are your goals, where do you want to get to, what is required to get the organization there?  Each then shared their story in a facilitate workshop with a group of their senior leaders so that the chief executive received feedback about what was 'most compelling' about the story, and also what 'needed to be made more compelling'.  The result was a series of open conversations between the chief executive and staff, an improved vision and strategy for transformation and greater alignment on direction amongst the leadership.  After the feedback and several iterations, the story is gradually cascaded throughout the organisation. 

What was the result?

Despite an inevitable sense of trepidation, the chief executives who have delivered their stories report overwhelmingly positive responses.  Sceptics have been won over, and the network has a high degree of commitment to the concept. ;I went in as a sceptic and came out a total convert, one confessed. 'These are tools and techniques I can actually apply.'  The chief executives commented on the power of this approach in the NHS context where many people are ‘change fatigued’ and where people want to understand the linkage between what they do and ultimate patient outcomes.  The stories have had a much greater impact on staff than a mission statement or PowerPoint presentation. Staff always want to know what transformational change will mean for them. Strategic narratives of this sort can provide very concrete information about what they will have to do differently. Staff have said that as a result of hearing their chief executive’s story, they have a greater understanding of the organization’s future, are more committed and more motivated and willing to engage in the transformation work.

The chief executives have used their stories in many different settings – using it as a backbone for annual reports, FT applications, tailoring it for sharing with staff groups, with the Board, and with external stakeholders. 

What did difference did it make for the chief executives?

Three of the chief executives were interviewed about their experiences of writing and delivering their transformation story.  

Helen Walley, Chief Executive, Mayday NSH Trust

Stephen Ramsden, Chief Executive, Luton and Dunstable NHS Foundation Trust

Dr Jane Collins, Chief Executive, Great Ormond Street NHS Trust