Case study: How might employees drive sustainable change in their companies? (part 2)
What happens when employee activists consider how to craft an effective narrative calling for a change in their company’s business model? In the second part of this fictional case study, set at HarvestFusion, a global consumer packaged goods (CPG) company, the four main characters — Olivia, Ron, Shira, and Marcus — explore and grapple with this challenge while drawing upon lessons from political communication.
By Raz Godelnik and Lucia Jaramillo
The phone buzzed on the desk — once, twice, three times — distracting Olivia from what had been a very productive morning. Before she could reach the phone, three more texts came through. She knew who it would be: Her colleague, Shira, the Assistant to the Head of Procurement at HarvestFusion, one of the world’s largest consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies. Shira wrote: Another lawsuit was announced. We need to do something. It’s our time! Let’s meet to discuss. Text Marcus and Ron. Olivia sighed.
For weeks now Shira had been talking about engaging in employee activism. She grew frustrated with HarvestFusion’s growing waters business, which included multiple brands that sold bottled water worldwide, primarily in single-use plastic bottles. Shira saw this aspect of the company’s operations as contradictory to its ambitious sustainability vision, which also encompasses the development of a regenerative agriculture program. It didn’t make sense to her that a company aiming to lead the way as a regenerative business is also heavily involved in the degenerative business of selling water in single-use plastic bottles worldwide.
About three weeks ago Shira asked Olivia, and two other colleagues, Marcus and Ron, to join her in advocating for stronger sustainability action within the company. The goal was to have the company’s employees show their discontent with the company’s current direction, especially concerning its waters business. With external pressure mounting on HarvestFusion due to recent environmental lawsuits, Shira recognized an opportunity to amplify this pressure from within. Her intention was to leverage this momentum and encourage HarvestFusion to reevaluate its current approach to the waters business.
Shira wasn’t naive. She understood that even with Olivia, Ron, and Marcus on board, their collective voice alone wouldn’t be enough to capture the attention of the company’s leadership. Thus, her initial focus was on rallying more employees to join the campaign that, for now, only existed in her mind. She recognized that such an endeavor would require crafting a compelling narrative, and was hoping Olivia and Marcus, who worked in the marketing department, would have some ideas on how to do it. Sure, promoting employee activism is not exactly the same as selling milk or yogurt, but maybe it wasn’t that different after all. At the end of the day, it’s all about creating meaning, she thought to herself.
Crafting the narrative
Shira finally succeeded in getting Olivia, Marcus, and their friend Ron, who worked in the finance department, to join her one evening for what she described as a fun brainstorming session. She got them to join her in a bar near their workplace, promising to buy the first round of drinks.
After everyone got a drink, Shira said they needed to figure out how to bring more employees on board. She pointed out that their current group of four, even with everyone’s commitment, wouldn’t be sufficient to make a significant impact. “To be taken seriously,” she explained, “we need more employees to join us.” Shira continued by emphasizing the necessity of persuading their colleagues at the company, drawing attention to the discrepancy between selling water in single-use bottles and the company’s professed commitment to sustainability. “We want them to recognize that this inconsistency contradicts our core sustainability values,” she concluded.
“I’m with you,” Olivia responded, “but one thing we know is that persuasion is not just about facts. We need to articulate our message and, even more so, the story it tells. This is crucial — after all, narratives help us make sense and create meaning in the world.” Shira breathed a sigh of relief and thought to herself, “Thank God Olivia is here.”
Olivia took a napkin. “I want to share with you a framework I find helpful when I think about creating effective narratives around sustainability”, she told them. She quickly wrote down on the napkin and showed them. “Basically, there are two parts. First, there are four key elements that I find crucial to winning people over”, Olivia explained. “We need to create a narrative that is first and foremost meaningful and rewilding. It should also be empowering, centered around the well-being of the audience, and finally, it should offer clear impacts in the present, not just in the future.
Shira looked carefully at the napkin. “This is very interesting,” she said. “Everything makes sense to me, but what’s rewilding?” Olivia smiled. “The idea is that effective narratives should open the doors for new possibilities, rewilding people’s imaginations. To break away from the status quo we need to get better in imagining what is possible*. Effective narratives are the ones enabling us to do exactly that.
“So, is this some sort of a recipe for a narrative?” Ron asked. “Sort of,” Olivia replied. “But there’s more to it. These are just the elements or characteristics we should have in mind. There’s also the second part — how do we communicate this narrative, or in other words, how might we structure a clear and effective message around this narrative?”. Ron was curious. “What do you mean by structure?” he asked.
“Well,” Olivia was happy to see that her friends were paying attention, ”this is where it gets interesting. To build effective messaging of narratives we need to have a structure that can actually persuade people. So, I’m taking a page from political communication, which is all about exploring how to create effective messages. I suggest using a messaging formula developed by communication researcher and strategist, Anat Shenker-Osorio.” Olivia stopped for a second to check that they were still listening. They were. “So,” she continued, ”it’s actually pretty straightforward. Shenker-Osorio suggests a messaging formula that goes as follows: “Start with a shared value, then move to a problem, where you also call out the villains creating it, and finally you end with a solution.”
OK,” Ron said. “So how do we do this?” “Well, we can brainstorm a message and then make sure that it entails all of the four characteristics I mentioned or at least most of them,” Olivia responded.
“I can start,” Marcus looked at them. “Here’s my idea for a message: ‘We believe in the power of business to make a difference and that HarvestFusion has the capabilities and resources to reimagine how to meet people’s food needs sustainably. We also recognize that the business model that has led to HarvestFusion’s success so far includes components that still harm our communities and our planet, such as selling single-use water bottles worldwide. Selling water packed in single-use plastic bottles generates significant waste and contributes to the climate crisis. We, HarvestFusion’s employees, want our company to become a driver of positive impact, and to do so, we call the company to stop selling water bottles and make our waters business part of the solution, not the problem.’”
“Not bad at all,” Olivia clapped her hands. “I wrote it down so we won’t forget it.” Ron looked at her note: “What if we further emphasize the opportunity in innovating the waters business so it better integrates with the shift to a 1.5C lifestyle, not to mention the risk of still being stuck in yesterday’s world. You mentioned meaning and rewilding,” he looked at Olivia, “I think that working on innovation that supports the shift to a lifestyle that is regenerative and climate-centered sounds exactly that, certainly more than just saying, ‘hey, let’s stop selling bottled water.’” “Cool,” Olivia smiled, “I like this framing. It can also be perceived as empowering, as in ‘we want to take on this challenge because we believe we can do it.’”
“At the same,” Shira said, “I’m wondering if it’s not too cautious in terms of making clear who is responsible for the environmental failures of the current business model and the fact that it still has significant degenerative components like bottled water. Didn’t you say we need to talk in terms of villains and heroes? So, if the employees are the heroes, who is the villain here, the economic system?” She looked at Olivia, who nodded in agreement. “You have a point here. Shenker-Osorio suggests that if we use a passive voice, we hurt the message as we fail to explain why things are the way they are and the choices we actually have.”
“So, let me suggest a different approach,” Shira quickly suggested. “What if we go with this message: ‘HarvestFusion has been known for years as a company where values and performance go hand in hand. This is what makes us a great company. At the same time, we are now facing a reality where our leadership prioritizes the company’s performance over its values by supporting and expanding business units, such as the waters business, which hurt people and the planet and contribute to the climate crisis. We can and should do better as a company whose culture and performance have been built on sustainability values. Therefore, we, HarvestFusion’s employees, call the company’s leadership to stop selling water bottles and make our waters business part of the solution, not the problem.’”
“Isn’t that just too combative?” Ron asked. Marcus wasn’t too happy about it either. “I don’t see how it empowers employees if we say the company’s leadership is the one to blame and also the one to fix this mess.”
“But it won’t happen without the employees pressuring the C-suite and the board, so there’s some empowerment there,” Shira insisted.
“Still, I don’t find something there that will help employees get excited about a potential alternative to the current state of things, and furthermore, I am not sure if this message would be meaningful to them,” Ron stressed.
“I understand your point,” Olivia told Ron, “but let’s face it — the C-suite and the Board are responsible for the company’s strategy. We can’t just let them off the hook.”
Ron was not convinced. “I don’t like that idea of a radical message in general,” he said. “It’s not smart to alienate the C-suite. We need to recognize that they don’t set the rules of the system and that working within the economic system requires compromise.”
“There’s no way this is going to work if we keep sugarcoating things,” Olivia responded. “Someone needs to be responsible. If we blame it on the economic system, then it will be easier for the leadership to ignore or dismiss our demands. After all, it’s the system, not them, so what can they do about it? And then nothing will come out of it.”
“There’s also the question of the horizon we have in mind,” Olivia added. “Shenker-Osorio also suggests we need to offer a clear desirable alternative — we can’t just say ‘no to bottled water’ without ‘yes to something else.’ A desirable vision could be the way to make it more than just about denouncing the other side, even if we take a more combative approach towards the leadership.”
The four of them continued to discuss and debate the best message and narrative to move forward with. Eventually, Shira looked at her watch and said: “OK, guys, it’s getting late. Let me take all the notes that Olivia wrote down and do some thinking over the weekend. I’ll try to come up with a message that we can all agree on. I’ll send it to you by Monday morning and then you can let me know what you think.” They agreed and left the bar, still thinking about what the ideal narrative would be all the way home.
On Monday morning Shira texted Olivia, Ron, and Marcus the following: Following our discussion, here is the message I came up with eventually. I hope it works for everyone.
HarvestFusion has been founded on a strong culture of innovation and a deep commitment to making a positive impact. However, we are increasingly concerned that the company’s leadership isn’t doing enough to address the pressing climate crisis, particularly with regard to our unsustainable waters business, which has significant environmental impacts. As a company that aspires to be a regenerative leader, we cannot continue expanding a degenerative business model reliant on selling single-use plastic water bottles.
Therefore, we urge the company’s leadership to join us in developing a comprehensive plan to reinvent the waters business. This transition should involve adopting a new business model that aligns with 1.5C lifestyles and completely phases out reliance on single-use bottles by 2025. By reaffirming our ethos and reimagining our business, we can pave the way for a more meaningful and impactful future that benefits the planet, our dedicated employees, and our valued customers.
Should Olivia, Ron, and Marcus embrace Shira’s narrative?
To further explore the narrative Shira sent to her colleagues, we asked ChatGPT to provide its evaluation of the two main choices they have in front of them. Here’s what it came up with:
Yes, they should.
Olivia, Ron, and Marcus should consider accepting Shira’s narrative for several compelling reasons. Firstly, Shira’s message aligns remarkably well with the criteria of an effective narrative, as evaluated. It is meaningful and rewilding, captivating the audience’s imagination by presenting a vision of positive change and challenging the status quo within HarvestFusion’s unsustainable waters business. Moreover, the narrative is empowering, acknowledging the crucial role of employees in driving transformative change and inspiring them to take action.
Secondly, Shira’s narrative centers around the well-being of the audience, as it emphasizes the importance of creating a more sustainable future for the planet and communities, including employees and customers. By calling for a shift away from single-use plastic bottles and urging the company to embrace a 1.5C lifestyle, the narrative demonstrates a commitment to current and future well-being. Additionally, the message offers clear impacts in the present by addressing the pressing issue of the climate crisis and the need for immediate action. It holds the company’s leadership accountable for their actions and calls for a comprehensive plan to reinvent the waters business, providing a tangible roadmap for change.
Informed by the messaging formula suggested by communication researcher Anat Shenker-Osorio, Shira’s narrative strategically starts with shared values, acknowledges the problem, identifies the villains contributing to it, and ends with a solution. This formula enhances the narrative’s potential to mobilize colleagues, as it resonates with employees’ shared beliefs and aspirations for a sustainable future while providing a clear and compelling path forward. Overall, Shira’s narrative demonstrates outstanding effectiveness in mobilizing colleagues and driving transformative change within HarvestFusion, making it a compelling and valuable proposition for Olivia, Ron, and Marcus to embrace.
No, they shouldn’t.
While Shira’s narrative holds some potential to inspire change, Olivia and her colleagues might be hesitant to fully embrace it for several reasons. Firstly, the narrative takes a combative approach by pointing fingers at the company’s leadership as villains responsible for environmental failures. This accusatory tone might alienate the C-suite and the board, making them less receptive to the proposed changes. Olivia and her colleagues may recognize that working within the existing economic system requires compromise and collaboration rather than positioning the leadership as the sole problem.
Secondly, the narrative seems to oversimplify the complex challenges faced by the company. While advocating for a complete transition away from single-use plastic water bottles by 2025 is a commendable goal, the practicalities of achieving such a massive shift might be daunting and require careful consideration. Olivia and her colleagues might worry that a radical message could overlook the potential repercussions on the company’s financial stability and operational capabilities.
Additionally, the narrative’s focus on presenting a clear alternative to the current state of affairs may be too narrow. Olivia and her colleagues might feel that it lacks the necessary nuance to address the multi-faceted sustainability issues that HarvestFusion faces. A more comprehensive and holistic approach might be needed to ensure that the proposed changes align with the company’s long-term vision and values.
In conclusion, while Shira’s narrative carries some positive elements, Olivia and her colleagues might be cautious about fully embracing it due to its combative tone, potential oversimplification, and lack of broader consideration for the company’s complexities. A more collaborative and pragmatic approach might be necessary to drive sustainable change within HarvestFusion effectively.
- Reinsborough, Patrick, and Doyle Canning. 2017. Re:Imagining Change — How to Use Story-Based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World. 2nd ed. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
- Knights, Sam. 2019. “Introduction: The Story So Far.” In This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, edited by Clare Farrell, Alison Green, Sam Knights, William Skeaping, and Extinction Rebellion, 186. Penguin.
- Shenker-Osorio, A. (2017) Messaging This Moment: A Handbook for Progressive Communicators. Available at: https://bit.ly/3Rg4L7G
- Lewis A. et al. (2021). 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Towards A Fair Consumption Space for All. Hot or Cool Institute, Berlin, Germany. https://hotorcool.org/1-5-degree-lifestyles-report/
*Olivia refers to the point Sam Knights makes in This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook: “We need to rewild the world. That much is obvious. But first we need to rewild the imagination. We must all learn how to dream again, and we have to learn that together. To break down the old ways of thinking and to move beyond our current conception of what is and what is not possible.”
Part 1 of the case study is available here.
Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design & Management at Parsons School of Design — The New School.
Lucia Jaramillo is a graduate student in the MS Strategic Design and Management Program at Parsons School of Design — The New School.