Engagement is the holy grail for organizations these days. Customers, employees, shareholders, funders. Everyone needs to engage everyone else. For many organizations, the challenge focuses on strategy. How do we get employees to engage with our strategy?
There are a couple of simple ways. Most obvious is to make sure they know what your strategy is. Stunningly, most employers miss this step. They think they’ve “communicated” it through memos and formal plans. But pushing bullet points at people doesn’t mean that they understand it – or how it relates to them.
Framing your strategy as a future story – a shared quest to achieve something – complete with heroes, pitfalls, dragons and villains – helps everyone to understand where they’re trying to go and how you’ll all get there. You also need to help every single employee unpack that strategic quest and figure out what it means to her.
What will her individual future story be? What will her team’s story be? What new challenges does she face in her job because of the strategy? What new obstacles will she have to overcome to continue creating value for her organization? In some jobs, this is straightforward. For many, not so much.
For example, if your employee’s job is to load 10 boxes onto a truck every day, and she succeeds at doing that every day, then she could say that she creates value for your organization by moving boxes. However, if she learns that her group has a new strategic goal to move 20% more boxes, and she keeps moving 10 boxes daily, then the value she’s generating decreases because she’s not advancing her group’s new strategic goal. Now, if she devises a way to move 20% more boxes, her value goes back up because she’s not only doing her job, but she’s also meeting a higher level goal. Finally, if she figures out how to move 20% more boxes – and cut the cost of moving boxes by 20% – she’s done something extraordinary. Now she has a great value story to tell, about how she overcame not one, but two (or more) obstacles to create extraordinary value for her organization.
One of the things we do in story school is practice designing these success or value stories – about things we’ve done well. We work with the Story Canvas™ and focus on a couple of key things: figuring out what you were trying to do – and why the problem you were trying to solve mattered. What made that situation or challenge extraordinary? What makes the way in which you solved it unusual, valuable?
As we do this work, I’m continually surprised at how difficult it is for folks to articulate the value of their work. Telling specific stories about what you do helps to make it tangible. Academics and researchers in particular often struggle with this. When applying for funding, they not only have to identify what they’re going to do, but they need to know why their work matters – how it will benefit Canadians or other research end users. Saying that you research how trees grow is one thing. Telling us that you’re figuring out which trees will grow best as climate changes to help the forestry industry plan for the future demonstrates the value of your work clearly.
Using value stories to engage employees requires employers to invest in developing and sharing their strategy stories – as well as helping employees learn to identify and share their own stories about how they create value. The great thing is that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime investment. Once employees start sharing their value stories, and employers start to recognize them, you get a self-perpetuating cycle of engagement that’s win-win for everyone. Organizations get engaged employees who know why their work matters. And employees start to build up their own story “databases” of success stories they can use for future performance evaluations, job interviews, presentations and leadership challenges.