War Stories and Killer Charts

How to make change happen?

Working as a strategy consultant in the last decade, one of the toughest question I had to answer when meeting friends and family was to explain to them ‘what do I really do?’. Without getting lost in the jargon, the best answer I could come up (and which I still believe today) is that a consultant is aiming to make change happen in the vector of an organization - either the direction of the vector or the velocity of the vector. He is an external change agent. However, we all know how hard it is to make any change, even when we want it badly, leave alone when somebody external is asking us to make it. So how do you come in from outside and make that change happen in the organization?

The best articulation on how to do this comes from a partner I extensively worked for in London. He was an ex US Navy pilot, who had fought in the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, before he moved in to strategy consulting. From time to time he would use these war metaphors to convey his message. If you want a client to listen and engage, you can not just show them insights and appeal to their intellect. You need to tell them war stories. You need to share with them the stories of the battles you have fought, the challenges you have faced and the wounds you have to show for them. You need to share the stories about your victories and the stories about your defeats. You need to tell them about the enemies you faced and what you have learned after facing them. In some sense, you are trying to show ethos and appeal to their pathos, rather than only their logos. You are building an empathetic connection with them, not only an intellectual connection. The best way to do that is through war stories.

Yet as young consultants, we were still very hung up on our data and slides. In one way, it was a very practical response from us, because we did not have the experiences of fighting on the frontline to share. The best we could use were case examples from other organizations or retell the stories that some experienced consultant would share with us. But even in the best of the cases, they would be very weak stories. Because we would have the facts to narrate the event, but not the personal emotions to tell a story. So, we would naturally return to working with data, facts and insights that we could draw from within the context of the current organization we were working with.

In the start, most of our insights would be very factual. The visualizations we would construct to tell them would be focussed on answering the basic questions - what is happening, who is involved, where is it happening and when did it happen. But those were mostly just the facts about the situation. They may help explain the current challenges or questions, but were never strong enough to make change happen. This is where the second war metaphor would come into play. The visualizations that would work best were what we would call killer charts. These charts would invariably be multi-variate in nature, and showcase cause and effect. They would be a synthesis of insight, aiming to explain the past and hinting at the possible course for future action. Killer charts were different because they would aim to answer the more interesting questions - the ‘why’ and the ‘so what’ questions. Those are the questions that best sow the seeds of change.

So the next time you think about making change happen, think about telling war stories and creating killer charts.

06 November 2014