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  • Gilbert Kruidenier

7 basic change story plots

I often find myself having the same four change-related conversations with different people. It’s either solving a problem to do with change, fixing a relationship touched by change, convincing a client to actually change or helping people find the courage to make a change.

I do my very best to be creative, mix things up and give the most profound advice I can offer, but I keep telling the same stories and sharing the same examples over and over. The people I ‘help’ seem satisfied and genuinely believe they’ve gained insights, but I keep wondering how what I am saying is still news to some.

Convinced that I am not the first to have this conversational ‘Groundhog Day’, I started looking for the theory and mechanics behind the stories we tell others and ourselves. It’s pretty cool to consider that the whole industry of books, workshops and guru speaker events, is based on just 7 basic plots.

No wonder I keep having that déjà vu, there are only 7 different change stories and you know what the best part is? Because of how our mind and sense of self works, we get to be the hero in every single one! #winning! Okay, enough with the psychology lesson, how does this work for change management?

Well exactly the same as for any other profession, but of course ours are totally unique and sooo much cooler than those other boring stories. But they’re not... They’re exactly the same. If only we allowed ourselves a few deep breaths, we’d see soon enough that most of us generally just charge ahead, too busy to slay the next beasty or vanquish the next evil-doer and then post pictures of ourselves in victorious poses to LinkedIn, Twitter, Insta, etc. to make sure the world knows that we’re keeping the darkness at bay one change impact analysis at a time. Yep, being a change hero is not for the fainthearted.

When was the last time you heard a really, really, REALLY good change success story? Yeah, neither have I, but I can go on LinkedIn right now and find 100’s of people having ‘moments’, often accompanied by lots of hashtags, exclamation marks and emojis, just so you know it’s really fun and exciting. But is it really? Are we really doing such a good job? Well, of course, we know YOU are, but what about everyone else? How many of these seven stories do they tell themselves and what is the real story behind it?

Overcoming the Monster

How the story goes:

The heroine* sets out to defeat an evil force which threatens them and/or their homeland. (think Wonder Woman, Star Wars, Odysseus). In a Change setting this often translates to ‘the resisters’ of change in ACME organisation. Note: the resistance are NEVER the good guys and girls here! They need to be overcome, re-educated, outsmarted, stamped out, mitigated and/or managed. And of course, the Change manager is just the hero to do what no one else has accomplished before. She succeeds, the resisters give up in the face of so much sorcery and they all live happily ever after, be it more organised and efficient.

*70% of the profession is female, seems legit to speak of ‘her’, but feel free to insert your gender of choice

What happens in real life:

Our heroine quickly figures out that her toolbox has nowhere near enough pixie dust and magic wands to transformfantastify all these resisters and soon finds herself beating a hasty (be it graceful) retreat to the safer ground of schedules, training and impact assessments. Faced with incomprehensible arcane words and gestures, the monster feels misunderstood and dismissed, so it returns to its cave sad and miserable to wait amongst the mushrooms for the next brave heroine to come by. The (completely unsatisfying) End.

Rags to Riches

How the story goes:

The poor hero(ine) acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result. (That would be Jane Eyre, Apple and Do Wan Chong). So a determined and smart change manager joins an organisation that clearly needs her help. She soon realises that there is a lot of work to be done, but stays the course, even if the waves are getting choppy and is that and actual iceberg out there?! The SS Change Initiative runs aground soon after, everyone onboard gets maroon on The Island Stuck In Time and her fellow change enthusiast tragically go down with the ship, never to be seen again. Our heroine survives 2 mutinies, scurvy (from lack of new ideas) and never loses hope. Instead she carries on and slowly gains the respect of the natives, crew and even the wildlife. They build a raft of the remains (sustainably of course) and navigate back to safety where she get a statue for her efforts and gets elected the new Lead of Everything Change Ever to the applause of her adoring colleagues.

What happens in real life:

The plan fails, the ships sinks, everyone gets eaten by sharks/natives/feral bunnies and in true Croatoan style, we never find out what did happen to that Change Expedition. Another add goes up on SEEK for the next attempt at greatness.

The Quest

How the story goes:

At the latest townhall meeting the (stern-faced) CEO announces that things need to change and she has found the perfect tour guide for this journey that we’ll all embark on together. We’ll have to get ready, organised and build our resilience, but she’s confident we can do it, as long as we work together through the many challenges, obstacles and temptations (to quit) .(A bit like in The Lord Of The Rings, any Marvel movie or Red Dead Redemption).

What happens in real life:

The band of merry corporate travellers actually never leaves and the tour guide tries everything in her bag of tricks to get the show on the road, but she finds that planning a journey is much easier and better looking in a 25-slide PowerPoint for most than making the actual trip. And by the way, no one said there would be pirates, or actual honest-to-goodness change and what’s this ‘no email interruptions during the trip’ nonsense?! The Quest becomes a Question. A question of “Why we are doing this again?” The singing on the bus soon stops and every 2 minutes someone needs to pee. Good times! When do we leave?

Voyage and Return

How the story goes:

The Lone Change Manager travels to the strange and foreign land of Transformia to find the cure for the disease (culturia toxicosis) that is slowly killing her organisation. She overcomes many threats (paper cuts, post-it shortages, stalling software, resistant co-workers, clueless managers) and after overcoming all that hardship, she becomes an unstoppable force with all the answers, solutions and experience to solve any problem with confidence. (Students, Alice in Wonderland and Mad Max)

What happens in real life:

The traveller soon loses her way using the map she was given by people she thought she could trust. Her destination is not even on the map and did she miss that memo that mentioned the dark and scary forest, creepy noises and things that go bump in the night?! And where did her travelling companions dsappear to all of a sudden. Nevertheless, she decides to bravely walk on and give it a go because she’s not a quitter. And succeed she does, but at what price? She returns 3 months late, with half of the things she needed to get, covered in scratches and bite marks and reliving some very unpleasant memories. The people that cheered her on when she departed are now strangely absent and her reports and findings never seem to get a reply. She decides that once in a lifetime is enough for this sort of thing and quits.


How the story goes:

The rarest of all change stories, because it’s pretty much still not okay to share a success story, so it becomes some sort of humble brag. This is a light and humorous story, suitable for networking introductions, to show you’re one of the good ones who can take a on your own behalf. Again, the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. (Disney movies, Bridget Jones or Better Call Saul). It’s generally what we do in job interviews, where we share a genuine story about something that almost went wrong but we save the day through a combination of quick wit, resolve and self-reflection. People laugh, they see your true talents and hire you.

What happens in real life:

These stories are often only funny at someone else’s expense. Someone who doesn’t quite get it, who is sooo behind the times and clearly not ready for any of that 21st century Agilificationism. The audience sadly shakes its heads at so much backwardness and gleefully listens to the colourful anecdotes that always seem to end with the getting rid of these harmless creatures for the Greater Good. It’s very important to be clear who the villain is here, that role is strictly reserved for the dummies who ‘just don’t get the change’ and deserve to be marginalised and ridiculed as they are clearly beyond help and undeserving of basic human dignity. Disclaimer: sharing any of these stories might actually expose you as a very insecure and generally unpleasant human being, just saying.


How the story goes:

Everyone’s favourite! As long as they don’t have a starring role. The change heroine's character flaw or great mistake (impatience, lack of empathy, cluelessness, arrogance, stubbornness) becomes their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character. (Lizzie Borden, all Chinese and Korean war/action movies and Breaking Bad). Obviously this one is always about others, never about you. Just check your LinkedIn/Facebook/Twitter timeline. See, no tragedies there!

What happens in real life:

We all stuff up every now and then. And most of the time it’s harmless. You misread a situation, underestimate the impact of change, peak too soon, drag things out too long or unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings. However unpleasant and humiliating it can be, it’s really better to own it and move on if you can. Or you could blame others, hide the evidence and pretend it never happened, that seems to be the go-to option for a lot of CMs too. Judging by the comments I get on my writings, people love to learn from my tragic mistakes and appreciate when I share some of my most ginormous blunders.


How the story goes:

This one is similar to the Quest and Journey and Return, but in this one our heroine actually changes her ways and often even becomes a better person. (Jessica Jones, The Grinch and/or Beauty and the Beast). The heroic Change Manager has a number of deep and meaningful moments, often pictured in a ponderous pose, alone in a dark and empty meeting room with walls full of butcher’s paper and post-it notes (the left-over catering is still on the table too). She struggles throughout the project and has some of her lowest points in life. But when she really hits rock bottom, she gets this lighting strike insight into her deepest drivers and motivations (helping others, changing the world) and regains her state of ‘flow’, saves the project and is loved by everyone forever.

What happens in real life:

We try our best and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Society and social media have set some pretty unrealistic benchmarks for what success is supposed to look like. The complex reality, general busyness and high expectations of modern work places only allow for learning in hindsight. That’s scary stuff for most change practitioners, but a reality nonetheless. It’s often only when you’ve finished a project and have moved on to something else that 3 months down the track you find yourself connecting the dots on what would have been a brilliant solution for that issue then. Your reborn and smarter self is in luck, you can always choose to apply it the next time such a situation comes around. It always does.

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