In an era where making predictions is a guaranteed way to make yourself look foolish, I’m going to make one anyway: In the years to come, people will ask us: “What was the COVID-19 pandemic really like?”
In response, we will tell stories. It’s what we humans do. We tell stories about our work and family lives based on what we remember. But, if we are not careful, our stories quickly become vague, incomplete, and forgotten. In a business context, this would be a missed opportunity.
Many organisations achieved amazing things, through necessity, during the pandemic and are now concerned that they will quickly lose their new-found ability to change at speed. A structured approach to COVID-19 storytelling is one way to avoid this.
Organisations have their experiences of the pandemic imprinted on their psyche and the opportunity is to make these an integral part of their narrative. The learnings are important to capture and share if firms are to avoid reverting all to quickly back to type.
Stories are at the heart of business – just look at the number of business books published every year, the business schools using the case method, and how often consultants use case studies in their work. They might be called case studies, but in truth they are fact-based stories.
Yuval Harari comments in his book Sapiens: “Any large-scale cooperation…is rooted in common myths that exist in people’s collective imaginations.” He goes on to describe how companies “…revolved around telling stories, and convincing others to believe them.”
Every leader is a storyteller to some extent; sharing ways for teams to learn and improve. So, to sustain what has been achieved through necessity during COVID-19, leaders must tell the stories about what was achieved if those that follow are to have a benchmark of how the organisation can transform when it has to.
Right now, most of us can tell pretty accurate stories about the past year because events are so recent. The stories often reflect how firms achieved in weeks what previously took months, if not years. However, our ability to tell the story is going to rapidly degrade. It always does. When crises pass, people forget. Versions differ, become generic, and can easily be forgotten. As Harari says: “Telling effective stories is not easy.”
It’s interesting to observe for example how quickly some stories we hear are already talking about how firms were “much faster” or “more agile” or “took decisions more quickly” but don’t provide actionable specifics. Told in the wrong way stories will not help someone in the business three years from now. If they fail to provide the mental model and detail people require to improve their performance based on what was achieved during 2020, new-found agility will quickly dissipate.
Business stories need to be accurate, engaging and cover the five components of classic storytelling: Setting, plot, characters, conflict, and theme. They need to be detailed and specific to drive learning and improvement. Talking about speed generically doesn’t make anyone go faster. Providing a measure of best and current speeds does. Like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, we need to put a clock on things.
- Rather than speaking about speed generically tell the detailed story of, say, what it took in 2020 to release new products in five days, when previously it took five months
- Share stories that are relevant to different groups. If I’m in HR, tell me stories about what HR achieved for colleagues in 2020. If I’m a member of a call centre team, tell me the stories about what people in my job did during COVID-19. Don’t always make it about the organisation overall
- If we want people to be inspired by the high-speed decision-making of the pandemic, share the facts on what decisions were taken, who took them, at what speed, and with what ultimate impact. Show people how decision-making changed and given them a tangible benchmark to learn from
You can, of course, choose not to take a structured approach to stories from COVID-19. You can leave it to the business-book writers, business school professors, and management consultants, but I think that might be missing something important. Working on capturing and sharing your own stories is part of an organisational process to retain the mindsets and behaviours the stories describe.
With that in mind, here are four simple things I think every organisation can do:
- Ask colleagues to film themselves on their phone telling a short story of what they see as their and the firm’s major achievements during COVID-19. Encourage them to be as specific as possible
- Develop the stories that really stand out into engaging case studies, using different forms of media to bring it to life and capture wider perspectives including customers, suppliers, and stakeholders. Incorporate the metrics and specifics needed to make them useful to colleagues in the longer term
- Embed those stories in the firm’s onboarding, training, and communications programmes so that every colleague and new joiner knows specifically how the organisation was able to transform at speed when it had to
- Share those stories in boards, committees, and team meetings – exploring the learnings to help the organisation retain the speed, adaptability, and innovation it showed over the past 14 months
Stories don’t have to be perfect, but they must be recorded, and they should be specific, detailed and engaging to reinforce and embed the mindsets and behaviours they capture.
The last year has been a period of unprecedented period of challenge and difficulty for firms. It has been the hardest time for many in their history. But through it all many organisations have found themselves achieving unprecedented levels of change. If you want your organisation to retain some of that speed, agility, and innovation, perhaps a good place to start is to tell your own story.