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Why We Can't Stay Here (A Case-For-Change Story)

This lesson is a part of an audio course 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Andrew Smith

A lot of what we think of as leadership is really managing change. After all, if nothing needed changing, we wouldn’t need so many smart leaders running companies.

But human beings are creatures of habit. And without a compelling human reason, people won’t adapt quickly or effectively to whatever change you’ve got planned. A case for changing the story gives them that reason why. And the best story to answer that question will be one about whoever stands to benefit most from the change.

So here’s an example. In February 2015, NPR aired a story about Joey, a 10-year-old boy in Gainesville, Florida, who suffered from a rare form of kidney cancer. Now when Joey was diagnosed in March 2013, cancer had already spread to his stomach and his chest, and his neck, and he went through two surgeries and five rounds of chemotherapy. None of which worked for more than a month or two.

Well, eventually, he’d exhausted all the treatments available. So, by the fall of 2014, with no remaining treatment options, the doctors told his mother, Kathy, to just take Joey home and enjoy their remaining time together. Kathy was desperate. She said we can’t just go home. For us, that means giving up.

Well, then in September, the FDA approved a new drug called Keytruda, made by Merck. So Kathy called doctors across the country to find one willing to use it on a 10-year-old boy. And she found one in Cincinnati. So Kathy, her husband, their three-year-old, and Joey all packed their things in Florida and moved to Cincinnati. Joey got that first injection of Keytruda on October 14, over a year and a half after being diagnosed.

Now the good news was that the tumors in his neck started to shrink immediately, and the ones in the rest of his body at least stabilized, but Joey was already weak when the treatment started, and cancer had an 18-month head start. Well, six weeks later, the day before Thanksgiving, Joey passed away. Kathy told the reporters, if Joey could’ve just gotten this drug last year, even just a couple of months earlier, maybe it would’ve been a different story.

Now when that story aired on NPR, one of the people who heard it worked at a company that had just retained me as their storytelling coach. And the industry they worked in also produced life-saving products, but that also took a notoriously long time to get to market, sometimes a decade or more. So like most of their competitors, one of the things they were working on was how to get products to market faster. But changing a complex, decades-long process is hard work. And trying to motivate the employees by telling them how much more money the company would make just wasn’t working. My job was to help them develop a case for a change story. And when the person in my workshop shared NPR’s story of Kathy and Joey, it immediately became the basis for their story, their case for change.

Now think about that. Keytruda wasn’t their product, and Joey wasn’t their customer, but it did become their story, or at least a fictionalized version of it because they knew the same thing was surely happening with the life-saving products that they were working on. And having a human reason to do all this hard work was a more effective motivator than higher profits and a growing stock price.

So to come up with your own case for a change story, start by asking yourself who stands to benefit from this change. Surely, it’s good for someone or it wouldn’t be a priority for the company, right?

Now once you know who that is, talk to them and ask these kinds of questions, what’s your life or work like today prior to making this change? What problems or frustrations do you have? Or how would your life or work be different once you implement the change? And what are the tangible ways you’ll know the change is working?

Now sure, not everyone will have a story as compelling as Kathy and Joey because not everyone’s job is curing cancer. But whatever it is that you and your company are trying to do with this change will surely benefit someone. Find them, and that will be your case for change.

Okay, in the next lesson, we’ll talk about a story to help you set a vision for the future.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith