Script the Change, Then Make It Happen - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #113

Script the Change, Then Make It Happen

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Change initiatives often fail for a reason that may seem obvious in retrospect but is often overlooked: no clear and detailed vision of a future with the change in place. What is the new environment? Who is doing what? Writing a movie script of the change — starting with the ideal future then imagining the story of how that change can be achieved — inspires and guides the change initiative, injects creativity into the change process, and reveals inconsistencies and challenges that can block successful implementation.


Research shows that 50 to 75 per cent of all change initiatives fail. And yet, some companies are consistently better at successfully implementing change, and some leaders successfully lead a variety of important change initiatives throughout their careers.

What is the key ingredient to this success? According to Greg Shea, Adjunct Professor of Management and Faculty Associate at the Wharton School’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, the secret of success has a familiar name: Vision. For Shea, however, vision is not some blurry, inspirational concept of a golden future, but a specific, finely detailed description of what is happening once the change is in place. This detailed description is especially concerned with the behaviours of the people: who is doing what, who is talking to whom, who is responsible for what, and so forth.

Because these granular behaviour details and not just general descriptions are important, Shea’s research shows that successful change agents will use different types of story-telling techniques to bring the future alive. This living vision of the future not only details the success to come, but also helps detail the steps needed to achieve that success.

For example, Disney uses storyboards — a Hollywood technique that tells the story of a movie scene-by-scene. The movie in this case is the overall story of the ideal customer experience, with the star of the movie being the guest, and each scene depicting in detail a specific experience or event. This storyboarding technique helps Disney improve existing processes and troubleshoot proposed changes.

Storyboarding is just one method of what Shea calls “scripting” the future. The methodology advocated by Shea parallels the writing of a movie script. It starts with creating a scene that shows a specific moment in the ideal future of the organization — a scene that allows people to watch the future as if they are watching a movie. This detailed scene then becomes a blueprint: Here’s what the future looks like, now how do we achieve it? And as with a movie script, a change script is about action. It is about behaviours. It is about who needs to be doing what and why.

With too many change initiatives, leaders extrapolate from the present without a clear vision of where the organization or company is heading. The scriptwriting technique starts with a scene describing the ideal future then works back to the present. By starting with an ideal, people will be more creative and freer in imagining the path to achieving that future. 


Scriptwriting starts with a vision of the desired end-state depicted in a detailed scene. Two principles apply to this scene:

  1. The scene must be far enough in the future so that it is not impacted by current constraints. For executives, the scene should be taking place in five to ten years; for managers, the scene can take place in two to three years.
  2. The ideal future is just that: ideal. Leaders must imagine that everything is exactly as they want it. The success is complete.

For the scriptwriting process to be effective, the script must drill down into specific behaviours. To ensure this specificity, change leaders should:

  • Pick one particular person in a particular role in the organization as the “star” of the scene: Imagine how the change impacts that person’s day-to-day work: what they are doing, what they are saying, to whom they are talking. Then focus on other key roles, and apply the same detail.
  • Make up props: Write out the agenda of an imagined meeting or outline the contents of an imagined report, for example, to help fill in the details.
  • Use the scenes diagnostically: The scriptwriting process creates a blueprint for change not only in terms of implementation steps but also as a diagnostic tool for potential issues. How does the work environment change to accommodate the evolving scenes in the script? Are these changes consistent with the current work environment? Scriptwriting can reveal inconsistencies in the desired outcome that need to be addressed, perhaps by adjustments to the vision.



‘Visionary Leadership: Creating Scenes that Change the Future,’ Nano Tools for Leaders ®, Wharton@Work e-newsletter, Wharton Executive Education, February 2013.

Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work, Gregory P. Shea and Cassie A. Solomon, Wharton Digital Press, 2013.

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Idea conceived

January 1, 2013

Idea posted

Mar 2013
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