Don’t Panic Series (Part 3): How can you change organizational culture through stories?

There are four different ways a story can be told: Top-Down, Bottom-Up, Inside-Out, or Outside-In. All of these story types play an essential role in cultural change.

Continuing with the Don’t Panic series, Dave Sharrock and Melissa Boggs will provide examples for each story type and how they can be used to change the organizational culture.

1. Top-Down

Melissa Boggs (MBO): The story we want to start with is Top-Down. One of the things we hear frequently, especially when it comes to agile transformation, is the following: if it is top-down, it is something being imposed on people. For instance, if I tell you that we will be doing this but I don’t change any of my behaviors as a leader, how would you feel? Most likely, you’re going to feel imposed on because nothing is changing for me yet I’m asking you to change everything.

I have an excellent story about a young executive who was struggling with a culture where the leadership team was expected to know everything. However, in this particular organization, they were trying to move towards a culture of transparency and authenticity. The executive team was telling people to be transparent and to tell the truth when things weren’t going right. So when this young executive came across a situation where she didn’t know the answer, she said to the team, “I don’t know.” What’s important about this story is that she went on to tell others about it. After she said that she didn’t know, her team came up with some amazing ideas. Just because she was an executive didn’t mean she had all the answers. The most rewarding part was the feeling of freedom in having the burden lifted off her shoulders and allowing other people to step in.

Dave Sharrock (DSH): One thing to highlight is that if the top-down stories are instructional, they don’t tend to work. But when the top-down stories are modelling the behaviors that people are looking to see, that tends to work very well. By creating a modelled intent of where to go, it’s a very powerful way to help people understand what that change is.

2. Bottom-Up

DSH: What about the Bottom-Up stories? We often see teams who don’t feel that they have the power or ability to change the organization. Our experiences have indicated otherwise. There are very real situations where you can only change an organization from the bottom-up. For those of you who are working in a team, recognize that there are a lot of bottom-up stories that can be filtered through.

Bottom-up stories start in very small parts of the organization and then they rise and grow throughout that organization. An example where bottom-up works way better than top-down is in engineering practices such as test automation. If I try to do a top-down modelling of test automation, unless I’m a CIO that’s still coding in a small organization, there is very little opportunity to do the modelling and provide a story that can be shared across the organization. Then what happens is that it becomes a directive: we need to do test automation. This is ineffective in getting the team to do test automation.

From my past experience, what I have done is I grab a seat with the developer and we figure out how to do test automation together – running the first test, then the second one, and soon enough we see the advantages such as rapid feedback. The developer that I worked with would begin telling his colleagues, and in a matter of days, three and four of the developers also began to do the same thing. Before you know it, two and three teams began practicing test automation.

This created the permission for development teams to start learning themselves and start working together in making those changes. The nice thing is that this was something driven by the teams themselves, so they own it.

MBO: I also have a funny story to share. One of my favorite teams to work with is high school students. So I work a lot with agile educators and high school teachers who use agile values in their classroom. An interesting story was that one of the high school teachers began applying Agile in his classroom. The first week or so, the kids were very silent. After a couple of weeks of staying silent, he started hearing murmur amongst the students. What he didn’t expect was to have other teachers come up to him and ask what was going on in his classroom. What happened was that the children were super excited and it began travelling from one classroom to another.

3. Inside-Out

MBO: On to Inside-Out stories, these are close to bottom-up but they are slightly different. Inside-out stories spread out from one team or department to other functional teams and departments across the organization. For instance, if you work in the IT team, these stories don’t spread to your peers on the same team but to other teams such as Marketing or Sales. One example is how a stakeholder of the software team, such as the marketing team, would observe how the software team was working and became inspired to apply Agile to their work.

DSH: Inside-out is that internal department-to-department communication; you are learning what is happening next door.

4. Outside-In

DSH: For Outside-In, this is probably one of the most underrated communication story channel that we see. Outside-in are from the customers coming in, who see from the outside. Often, these stories are distant so it is hard to find what they are.

One of the banks we worked with encouraged their teams to go out to the branches where they deployed the software they built. One of the team members described this as a very powerful experience. By working directly with the tellers at the branch, he was able to share the experiences back to the team and this changed the way his team built their product. In fact, the bank took one of the branches and located them to the ground floor of the office where the development team worked at. By bringing in customers and end users’ experiences, this changed the way people worked.

MBO: Similarly, I had an experience with a medical equipment company that provided motorized vehicle and wheelchairs. One of the wonderful things that the organization did was that they brought in customer stories. This included bringing in customers during their quarterly meetings or having people go out on what they called “ride-along” where they would go to a delivery and see the people receiving the equipment. The stories that came back after the ride-along started a movement. It inspired change. The employees started to take more risk and began to increase their transparency so that they can have better conversations with their customers. This was all because of the realization that they were making an impact for the people on the other side of the wall.

Special Notes:

1. Missed our previous blog posts? Click here:

2. Be on the lookout for the final blog post in this series: Don’t Panic Series (Part 4): What to look out for during your cultural transformation?

3. To listen to the full webinar, click on this link: