Storytelling and Change Management: How Amtrak Creates Positive Action

At GDS International’s HR Summit in Denver recently, I attended a workshop titled, “Managing Change to Minimize Organizational Risk and Improve Outcomes” from Dave Roberts, SVP of Total Rewards for Amtrak.

hr summit logoThe talk itself was interesting, establishing a very clear case for the importance and leverage of rewards. But what really impressed me was Roberts’ use of data and imagery to present his story. Maybe I get a little too excited by spreadsheets and graphs, but what stood out was the style in which Roberts used that data to create change.

Roberts wove raw numbers — such as the percentage of Amtrak employees at or nearing retirement age, and graphs depicting expected incomes vs. expenditures – with his own personal story to create a unified story arc. By starting with the conflict, moving toward a resolution (with a few twists along the way), and finally an epilogue in which he spoke about the remaining issues to address, Roberts’ speech was an excellent example of classic storytelling structure.

The real story that Roberts so skillfully told was how to actually create and control change within your organization.

We often don’t have control over the larger changes taking place in our organizations (especially those forced by massive market fluctuations). But we often have control over smaller actions that can offset or help direct the changes so that better outcomes take place.

Some of the numbers that Roberts shared with the group were very frightening in terms of their potential impact. But rather than simply hoping fear would be enough to spur people to action, he followed up initial dire forecasts with a comprehensive (20+ years) plan to mitigate the risk and actually increase the potential for Amtrak to grow and prosper.

I remember being surprised the first few times I would present inescapable conclusions using data, only to find that basically nothing happened – no action, no change.  I’m sure anyone who works regularly with data has had similar experiences.

Roberts’ strategy makes that discouraging scenario much less likely. Even though he had compelling numbers to show the dire consequences of not changing some policies at Amtrak, it still required a countrywide tour of town hall meetings to express the impact it would have on people, and what that future would look like if things didn’t change. The presentation that he gave at HR Summit was very similar to those he gave at those town hall meetings. From listening, I could easily see how people’s hearts and minds would be affected by the powerful storytelling style Roberts used.

Like Cisco’s and GATR’s examples of storytelling contained in Brandon Hall Group’s research library, this is another example of why strong numbers and data must be approached with a human interest angle. When people’s emotions become involved is when lasting change can occur, and nobody gets emotionally engaged by spreadsheets. OK, a few of us, but not many.

Cliff Stevenson
Principal Analyst, Workforce Management,
 Brandon Hall Group

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