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Big Data is the Driver of Change, Storytelling is the Vehicle

Big Data Storytelling for Change Leadership and Data-Driven ChangeWhite Paper

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Big Data and Stubborn Minds

Numbers don’t change minds. If they did, then I would never drink from another plastic bottle again after hearing how many disposed water bottles could wrap around the Earth each year. Except, I can’t remember the exact number, because it didn’t stick in my mind. Also, the imagery wasn’t sufficiently scary enough to make me modify my habits. Data didn’t do the trick.

Yet, leaders falsely believe it will. Too many times, they present the logical case and expect everyone to fall into line. And every time, they’re surprised when their great idea, backed by data, boosted by leadership’s enthusiasm, and grounded in sound business sense, doesn’t live up to expectations.

Data-Driven Change Leadership

Leaders who are awash in data that will optimize their business in unprecedented ways will only be successful if they effectively communicate the data-driven solution. Once the big data strategy is set, it’s time to turn to big data storytelling.

The data-driven change you seek must be wrapped in a story that compels people to believe and act. Last year a suburban hospital analyzed their data to determine the three factors that would most increase their operating room utilization and turnover time, thus decreasing costs and ensuring maximized revenue. Roberta, the head of OR operations, digested the data, and together with Toni, the head nursing operations, set the numbers aside and devised a communications strategy for leading the change initiative.

Smartly, they took the step of assembling the likely anti-stories that would arise from staff. These are the stories that people tell themselves that run counter to the story you are trying to tell. This is an important step in change leadership, and all to often, it is skipped. In this case, Toni and Roberta uncovered sentiments that included: “we’ve always done it this way” and “this sounds like more work for the same amount of pay”.

In the process of crafting their own story, they systematically addressed each anti-story. This is essential because the only way to combat an anti-story is with a better story. Data alone will never take the place of the story people hold in their hearts. No matter how perfect your data is and how flawed their stories are, you must be ready with a better story.

Storytelling for Data Strategy

To help data-driven change leaders prepare to win the hearts of those they lead, this new white paper offers a series of workplace-ready communications strategies that will take your big data strategy from testing environment to the real world.

Data speak won’t help you, but storytelling techniques will. Download the white paper now.



When Managing Change, Don’t Just Defer to Data

photo by MissyH / CC BY

Surprise With a Story
Long-serving employees of the European division of a global tech company were getting restless. They felt career opportunities were lacking and that outside hires were taking the best open positions. The career discontentment was leading to disengagement. Management wanted to reverse the trend.

The first response of the head of human resources was to inundate employees with facts. Lena directed her team to collect factoids like the percentage of openings that were filled with current employees versus outside hires, as well as a list of industry awards that recognized the employer as a top workplace.

Establishing that management was in the right was a smart step, but it wasn’t enough to change employees’ opinions.

The fuel for overhauling the perception came from the stories we collected. There was Carlos who was able to stay with the company when his wife’s promotion required the family to relocate from Spain to Portugal; Gabby, who made a lateral move into a different division to take on a new challenge; and Ella who stepped into a management role after her third promotion in two years. Sharing stories like these of co-workers and colleagues highlighted the opportunities available to all employees and shifted opinions.

The reason the campaign worked is that facts don’t change minds as well as stories.

Stories serve to open minds to new ideas. When people hear facts, they dig in their heels. Their resolve becomes stronger and their grip on their version of the situation grows firmer. This is the famous confirmation bias. It’s also the reason no one has over “won” an argument on Facebook or the comments section of a website.

To loosen a person’s grip on their current worldview, you have to catch them off guard. You have to surprise them.

Stories Soften the Heart
An unexpected fact – perhaps a shockingly high figure like the number of times plastic water bottles used last year would wrap around the earth – might get the audiences’ attention, but will it change their beliefs and behaviors? I defer to science, which says: no.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains a set of experiments that showed how psychology students learned new concepts. When students were told a surprising statistical fact, they might find it remarkable and memorable enough to share the fact with a friend, but this wasn’t the same as changing the way they looked at the world.

The test of true learning is whether your understanding of the world and the way you interact with it has been altered, not whether you can repeat a factoid. Kahneman summarizes the study results stating that even overwhelmingly compelling data points are incapable of changing long-held personal beliefs. “On the other hand, surprising individual cases have a powerful impact and are a more effective tool for teaching [new ideas] because the incongruity must be resolved and embedded in a causal story.”

People hold stories in their hearts. The reason they clasp too long to the old way of processing orders or replenishing inventory is because they have developed an emotional attachment to those methods that is explained by a story they tell themselves.

If you are going to take away someone’s old story, you have to give them a new one. Reason, even when it’s backed by infallible facts, doesn’t hold a place in the heart.

The Role of Facts
Logical, data-driven decision makers aren’t going to be comfortable with this idea. However, the serious-minded can rest assured that facts play an important role, even when a story is the vehicle for your communication.

Your story must be grounded in fact to be effective. In the early years of eBay, many people heard the anecdote that the founder, Pierre Omidyar, had started the site to help his fiancé add to her Pez dispenser collection. It was later revealed that this account was fabricated by the public relations department to generate buzz for the new company.

Storytelling is not permission to abandon facts. Instead, it’s a better method for delivering facts.

Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman, authors of The Elements of Persuasion state, “Stories are facts wrapped in context and delivered with emotion.”

Facts alone don’t possess emotion. Facts just are facts. The emotion from facts comes from whatever feeling we assign to them – perhaps outrage or disgust.

However, as the experiments described in Thinking, Fast and Slow prove, those emotions that arise from facts are fleeting and therefore are not powerful enough to shift anyone’s worldview, nor are they capable of inspiring action.

Stories, on the other hand, are the total package of fact and emotion rolled into one. Stories are also memorable. They won’t be retold just once like a surprising fact; they will be shared and take on a life of their own.

How to Surprise with a Story
Instead of deferring to data when you need to change a mind, try surprising with a story. An anecdote or colorful example opens minds to your facts and helps to ease the way for the change you’re suggesting.

Five methods for using stories to introduce surprise into your change management initiatives are:

  • Tackle the anti-story
    For whatever change you’re trying to make, there will be counter arguments and competing stories. Identify and acknowledge them; don’t hide from them.If the prevailing story you’re trying to rebut is that your organization is bureaucratic, then recognize the slow responses and convoluted processes of the past. Ignoring the negative and only focusing on the positive will sink your initiative. However, startling the skeptics by making their argument before they have a chance will give you a substantial advantage.
  • Hit them with the one-two combo
    Demonstrating the the negative impact of failing to act is an obvious choice for communicating the need for change. When advising an executive who was reluctant to use storytelling in his communications, telling him about a time that one of his non-story communications wasn’t effective might get his attention, but it was not enough to change his mind. When I followed the failure story with a success story, the combination of the negative and positive examples was surprising enough to work – he started using stories.
  • Tell a story with a twist
    The story itself can contain a surprise. Tell a story that ends in an unexpected way and it will be memorable and emotional enough to stick with the audience and carry your point.
  • Make a connection
    We’re naturally skeptical of the messenger. Overcome this barrier by letting your audience know through a story that you are like them.The young new COO who arrived at a company in desperate need of a turnaround had an intimidating reputation of working for top-performing companies. The employees assumed his successes had been easy, but when he shared that in fact the companies he had worked for started off worse than theirs, the employees suddenly felt reassured that he understood what it took to transform an under-performing company. No longer were they working with an unapproachable superstar; now they had someone on their team who been where they were and could help them improve.
  • Trigger a story
    Doing something remarkable gets other people talking. Use this phenomenon to your advantage by signaling change without saying a word. A leader who wants to overhaul a lax corporate culture where meetings never start on time will trigger stories – and a change in behaviors – if she strictly abides by start times and bars late arrivals from entering the conference room.

Pull, Don’t Push
Stories are a pull strategy – they pull at the heart strings. Meanwhile, facts just push against the established belief system and don’t make a dent.

Anyone leading change needs an awareness of the best and worst of human nature. Because storytelling is deeply rooted in our DNA, embrace this truth rather than deny it. Incorporate story techniques into your change projects and your new ideas and processes will spread faster.

What stories have helped you pull change initiatives to completion?


Storytelling is an effective change management tool that can be taught to leaders. Fall workshops are being held in New York, Boston and DC; in-house training for teams or one-on-one executive coaching in leadership communications techniques are also available.

For more storytelling resources, download the free 30-minute audio training, Making the Business Case for Storytelling.

Workshop details:

The Dotted Line 2014 Predictions: Big Data=Big Change

47a50092452b1a0f8e02096e_306x204The December 2013 issue of The Dotted Line features news + resources for communicating and managing change that is spurred by big data. A full version is available online. Subscribe to receive future issues in your inbox.

Big Data = Big Change
Looking into the new year, we see that most every organization plans to leverage their data to improve their business. (It doesn’t take a fortune teller to know this.)

Whether the project uses predictive analytics or regression models, or whether it’s being undertaken by your fastest growing business unit or the logistics department, the results are merely crunched numbers unless the information is acted upon. As a communicator and a leader,  think ahead to the implementation phase, where effective change management will be the difference between a wasted effort and realizing the potential of your data. 

These  10 case studies demonstrate how the $16.1 billion big data market is changing everything – from predicting hit movies, to preventing infections in Haiti.

Just because the data reveals a better path, the organization needs to ask: is it even worth it? MIT Sloan School of Management examined the connection between big data projects and the change management required to implement them.  And yes, sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits.

Data-driven Jargon
“Big data” might just be the most overused word of 2013.

Instead of throwing around the jargon or feeling that “big” is the only way to go, realize that for many organizations, small data is just fine.

Targeting Big Decisions
Target famously has used big data to understand consumer purchasing decisions. But to do so, they had to  change the way their employees made decisions.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Wishing you peace, love, and that all your change management dreams come true.

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