Overturn perceptions that subvert a new strategy

What works and what doesn't when you have Doubting Thomases

Indranil Chakraborty

[Photograph by Nishir Rana under Creative Commons]

In my last piece I had spoken about the need to address anti-stories when trying to make a new strategy stick. For those who haven’t read that piece, anti-stories are pre-existing beliefs and perceptions people in organizations have about why a new strategy will not work. These views are deeply entrenched and often come from experiences or stories people have heard earlier.

We can never fight an anti-story with a fact. We need to replace it with another story. In all my experience of working with companies to get their strategy to stick, I have found that a few things don’t work when trying to tackle anti-stories.

Arguments don't work. The standard approach to changing people’s minds is to find and communicate an appropriate argument to convince them. If that doesn’t work, we look for an even more convincing argument. But most often that doesn’t work either. The term anti-story was chosen carefully. It reminds us that when people have a story in their heads, rational arguments generally don’t work.

Neither do assertions work. "The management team is here to support you" might sound good to the speaker; it might even be true. But if there is doubt in people’s minds about this, it’s almost certain they will dismiss the assertion as 'corporate speak'.

The worst approach is to deny or say "you’re wrong". Denial reduces a leader’s credibility and undermines the original message. And saying "you’re wrong" usually makes people believe the anti-story even more strongly.

So then, what works?

First is to openly and directly acknowledge the uncomfortable truth. Then follow it up with one or more of the following actions.

1. Mea Culpa: I made a mistake. No one is perfect. We all get things wrong from time to time. Admitting our faults and shortcomings is a powerful way of showing people that lessons have been learnt and things are going to change.

As I shared in the previous article, Steve Jobs used this approach successfully in the 2011 WorldWide Developer Conference while presenting iCloud. By just saying that MobileMe, an earlier attempt at online services, "wasn’t our finest hour…but we’ve learned a lot", he was able to effectively kill any anti-story that may have been there because of the MobileMe disaster.

2. Challenge generalizations: Anti-stories are often communicated as generalizations, such as:

  • "No one ever gets to go to those events; they always select someone from upstairs."
  • "This has never worked, anywhere, ever."
  • "We will never be able to hit those numbers."

These can be particularly frustrating because in many cases the generalizations simply aren’t true.

So how do you challenge them? One simple method is to find and tell a story about when the generalization has not been the case.

We recently worked with a company that runs a superannuation fund that was about to invest significantly in their new digital strategy. Opponents claimed that it was a waste of money as many of their fund members were elderly and "old people don't use the internet". To counter this anti-story, one participant described how he’d been at a family event on the weekend and one of the kids couldn’t get past a particular level of Angry Birds. He watched in amazement as his 82-year-old grandmother showed the child how to do it. He finished by saying, "Many people think old people don’t use technology, but my grandmother does, and recent data shows that 60% of new smartphone users are over 60." It’s a great example of how a single specific instance can stop an anti-story cold.

3. Change behaviour: 'Walk the walk' instead of 'talk the talk'. As leaders when we take actions that are worthy of remark (hence remarkable), we generate stories in the organization which can replace those anti-stories. One of my favourite examples is from a bank in Australia. As the new chief executive officer (CEO) was being taken through the building during his orientation he noticed that while almost all meeting rooms on every floor where always full, each floor had a room with a sign on the door limiting their use to general managers and higher. Once the new CEO noticed this, he went from level to level taking the signs off the reserved meeting rooms. Instead of talking about how hierarchical the organization was, staff started talking about how collaborative it was becoming.

A word of warning when planning how to trigger new stories in your organization: don’t make the behaviour change too elaborate or it will appear contrived and probably backfire. The key concept is to keep it simple and natural.

4. Build leaders’ capability: Some organizations do a great job of identifying anti-stories and producing ‘canned responses’ for people to use when they encounter the anti-story. This is a great first step, but it doesn’t provide leaders with the skills to deliver the counter-stories authentically and adapt them to the moment, their personality, their experience or to modify them appropriately for the audience.

We have all heard leaders delivering pre-packaged messages and sounding like they are just toeing the company line. It can have the opposite effect to that intended.

Tackling anti-stories isn’t about delivering pre-packaged ‘counter-stories’. Leaders need to have some basic skills to understand the nature of anti-stories and how to improvise their delivery in different circumstances. Most importantly, they need to be able to find and use their own experiences to build their credibility and authenticity.

So the antidote to kryptonite is one part story listening and one part storytelling—listening to stories people tell about why a strategy will not work and then acknowledging it and telling a story to replace the anti-story.

This antidote will give you a very powerful lever in your strategy execution.


About the author

Indranil Chakraborty
Indranil Chakraborty



Indranil believes Business Storytelling will be the number one leadership and communication skill of the next decade. Using storytelling in the right manner, business leaders can connect, engage and inspire their teams. We are 22 times more likely to remember a story than disconnected facts. This is how he believes we can harness the natural power of stories to communicate strategy, make them stick, bring values to live and develop the communication capabilities of leaders.