Monday 20 December 2010

Brian Hanrahan RIP

I was sorry to learn of Brian Hanrahan's death today.  He contributed to the Essex Futures programme last year and made a valuable and memorable contribution.  He was also kind enough to make time to talk to me about the book I'm writing, purely on the basis of that one previous meeting.  He was obviously an outstanding journalist, but what I remember equally was his kind, unassuming and generous spirit.

May he rest in peace.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Re-writing the story

The awayday yesterday went even better than I expected: the participants recognised some very fundamental issues that they need to address in terms of the purpose and effectiveness of their combined contribution to their organisation.

Prior to the day, there was a lot of frustration in all of the teams represented.  The distributed ones felt that the central team was imposing processes on them which were onerous and  frustrated those working at the front line; the central team felt overworked and under-appreciated, having to police a system to which they did not fully subscribe.

 A lot of the implicit blaming of each other drained away as they recognised their shared frustrations - and shared aspirations.  In dialogue, they have decided on a strategic shift to move away from fire-fighting to value-adding. They are also determined to renew their relationships with the rest of the organisation and re-write the story of their place and contribution within the organisation.

Recognising this will require more work, initially, in order to get the big benefits they are aiming for, there was nevertheless a real sense of energy and commitment to take the agenda forward.  And I am confident they will.

Saturday 11 December 2010

A great week

As well as a good day's coaching on Monday and module two of Essex Futures, which went very well on Thursday, I have had a series of fascinating interviews for my book.

This week I have seen Marina Taylor, Philippa Stokes, Tim Melville-Ross, Luke Johnson, Sir John Ashworth, Doug Richard and Merdith Belbin.  Each brought a unique perspective to bear on my project and all were valuable.  I continue to be delighted with how generous busy people are with their time and their ideas.

But as to what they've told me, you'll have to wait till I write the book and buy a copy!  All I can say is that if I do them, their stories and their insights justice, it will be a great read.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Staying busy...

Had a fascinating interview with Marina Taylor at Akzo Nobel today: she told me a recent true story which will make a great case study for the book (suitably anonymised of course).  And before that I was talking with Peter Block in the US (one of my favourite writers) and Chene Swart of South Africa, who offered a lot of valuable insights and encouragement.

Off to London tomorrow for three more interviews, then to Colchester for the next Essex Futures event, followed by another interview, then to Cambridge on Friday for a couple more interviews.

I am learning so much, meeting so many fascinating people, and generally enjoying the process so much that there's a real risk I'll prolong the interview stage for ever and never write the thing - except I have also promised so many people I will, as an insurance policy against that temptation!

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Defeated by the snow...

The closure of the A 66 meant I couldn't get across to Durham for a morning meeting, and so I also cancelled another couple in Newcastle in the afternoon, as it seemed too much to try to battle through the weather (and risk not getting home again).  But I hate that: I guess it's pride...

However, it did mean I had an unexpected day at home, and I was able to use it to develop some ideas for another bid I'm going for - including workshops on Manager as Coach, Leadership, Change Management, Presentation Skills, Negotiating and Influencing: interesting seeing how my interest in narrative approaches feeds in to all of these.

I also refreshed a lot of my materials for an outplacement support workshop on Friday - not least because I suspect there may be more of these to come in the current (economic) climate.  I think I'll travel on Thursday evening to make sure I'm there for the workshop...

Monday 29 November 2010

Too busy to blog...

It has been a really busy period recently, with book interviews, and the development of a number of new programmes for various clients, old and new.

Somehow I am still misled by the diary (which shows a few days at home) into thinking it will be a quiet week: and then I try to fit in all the things I've committed to...

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Fascinating Stuff

I have now interviewed half a dozen people for my book - and it has been a fascinating process.  Already the scope of the book and my understanding of the issues have both expanded rapidly - I need to put some boundaries around the project or it will grow for ever...

So far I have spoken to academics, leaders of organisations large and small, and HR people.  Every one of them has contributed not only the anecdotes and perspectives I was expecting, but also a fresh angle, question or insight that took me by surprise.

And I have another 30 or so people lined up to interview.  Truly exciting times - but don't hold your breath waiting for the book, as it could be a while yet...

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Social Inclusion through the Digital Economy

The SIDE project is officially launched tomorrow, and is already producing some impressive work, ranging from digital jewellery that can bring tangible benefits for people dealing with dementia, to  research assisting older drivers in driving safer for longer, to the Ambient Kitchen.

The centre is directed by the impressive Paul Watson with a very strong team, and is one of the largest research projects of its type (ie not Medical etc research).  Its overall aim is to tackle social exclusion  by making it easier for people to access the life-changing benefits offered by digital technologies. 

Moving Mountains

Good Moving Mountains (influencing and negotiating skills) Workshop yesterday at Durham University.

Very perceptive group: really liked the stuff on narratives and how important they can be in this context!

Several went away resolved to re-author their stories about some of their more difficult working relationships and difficult colleagues.

Friday 5 November 2010

In defence of truth (again....)

An interesting discussion with someone else - an academic this time - who can’t see how I reconcile believing in the possibility of absolute truth with working with multiple subjectivities or narratives.
I genuinely can’t see the problem, but we’ll come back to that.
It seems one of her concerns, inter alia, is that a belief in absolute truth has led, historically, to terrible persecution, oppression, totalitarianism, fascism and so on - none of which I would deny.
Oddly my adherence to the possibility of talking about truth in part springs from the same concern.  I believe it is important that we can say both that the Holocaust really happened (a claim to truth about the past) and that the Holocaust was a bad thing (a claim to truth about a value judgement).
And the fact that a belief in absolute truth has led to terrible things does not demonstrate that it is false or bad, merely that it is dangerous or powerful.  Just as the fact that religious belief has led to all sorts of attrocities does not prove it to be false, any more than the fact that in others religious belief leads to behaviours we may regard as good proves it to be true.  It was probably Augustine or someone like that who first postulated that Abusus non tollit usum (the abuse of something does not render its correct use impossible).
In fact, I would posit that it is the best things which become the worst when abused.  Thus the abuse of human love is one of the most terrible things (and my interlocutor made a pretty absolute claim about rape being always wrong), but that does not mean that human love is a bad thing.
My two principle concerns about the absolutely relativist approach are:
One is the inherent illogicality of the claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth - which is itself a claim to know absolute truth.
The other is the risk that if all value-judgements are seen a subjective social constructs, then one can easily opt out of them.  I may say the Holocaust was a bad thing, but someone else may say that from their perspective it was not, it’s only a late 20th century social construct to interpret it in that way.
I think people sometimes confuse my insistence on the possibility of absolute truth with the idea that I think I know what it is;  or conversely, that my recognition of multiple subjectivities means that I cannot possibly believe in objective truth.
My view is that, as we all know, the map is not the territory: our understanding of reality is not reality itself.  However, to map a territory is to recognise that the territory exists, and a map that says ‘here is America’ is more truthful than one that says ‘here be dragons’ - although it is clearly still a map, not the reality it represents.  Further, multiple maps may be useful for different people or different purposes - none of which are the reality, but all of which tell us something about it.  But to say that there is no such reality, and that we are making the maps up simply as consensual constructs with no basis in what is truly ‘out there’ seems to me a nonsense.

Thursday 4 November 2010

Essex Futures '10-'11

Just returning from the kick off event for the next Essex Futures programme.  Each year, Colin Riordan the VC, and I wonder if the new group can possibly meet the high standards of previous groups.

This year, once again, we were delighted to find that they could.  After two days of hard work, they have come up with very thoughtful presentations on leadership, forged real relationships with colleagues hitherto unknown, and developed startlingly creative and exciting proposals for the projects they will work on through the year.

We also had a very thought-provoking session with Essex alumna Philippa Stokes, who has just left a senior Personnel role at British Airways, and shared her perceptions and insights in a very open and honest way.

So I'm already looking forward to the next day of the programme, in December, where I'm sure they will attack the potentially dry subject of Financial Management with similar verve and enthusiasm!

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Walking Meeting

I wrote about Walking Coaching a few posts ago - but it is worth putting on the record that walking meetings can be very productive too.

We had a partnership meeting on Monday: Jane is both my business partner (as an accountant she is a brilliant head of finance and admin) and my wife.

So we had a partnership meeting, setting the world (or at least the business) to rights as we walked over Pikewassa (complete with dog and two of the children, as it's half term - but they entertained themselves while we talked).

This is not (purely) self-indlugent: as with coaching, you have a different quality of conversation when walking in the great outdoors to the conversations you have sat over a desk or even a coffee table.

If you are looking to solve problems, be creative, share dreams and visions, and commune in a different way, then walking meetings are well worth a try.

Here's where we went:

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Great Response

Very pleased with the positive responses I've been getting to requests for interviews for my book.

It is providing me with an opportunity to talk to some people whose work I've long admired, such as Merdith Belbin and Peter Block, as well as significant leaders in business, including Dragon Doug Richard, Luke Johnson (of Pizza Express and Channel 4 fame),  academics, a Chief Constable, and many practitioners both within organisations like P&G, & Selfridges, and external consultants.

Should provide a rich array of narratives for me to draw on: I hope I do them justice.

If you are interested in contributing (see previous post In Praise of Pride adn Prejudice for the initial ideas) do get in touch!

Monday 18 October 2010

Great day on Narrative

I attended a day on Introduction to Narrative Practices at Newcastle University today, run by Liz Todd and Marilyn O'Neill.

It was fascinating and inspirational.  The overview, the anecdotes and examples from experience, the exercises, the video of narrative therapy in practice, all added up to a great learning experience.

Other participants and their perspectives were also a valuable part of the day, and Liz and Marilyn ensured that all had the opportunity to contribute.

They also managed to simplify what is presented in Michael White's work as quite a complex process to its essence, both in terms of practitioner's position and core processes: Unravelling problem-saturated narratives, re-authoring the preferred narrative, and maintaining the preferred narrative and building resilience.

I learned a lot, both from Liz and Marilyn and from my fellow participants who were almost all from the therapeutic world, rather than the organisational development world I inhabit.

So lots of food for thought - and action!

Friday 15 October 2010

In Defence of Truth

In a comment on a recent post, Mo wrote: It is not possible to both hold the belief that there are objective truths "out there" and practice what Michael White advocated. 

This reminded me of the NLP trainers I come across, who proclaim The Map is Not the Territory (as though that is some new insight) and therefore there is no such thing as objective truth.

Both claims have made asses of those who proclaim them; because both use a truth-claim to try to refute the possibility of truth.

There's nothing new here, of course.  It was Pilate who said 'What is truth?' - a classic politician's way out of confronting the reality of the choice he faced.

If objective truth is not possible, then the types of conversation in which both the above claims were made are quite literally meaningless.  All we could talk about would be subjective feelings and opinions.

However, we know that is not the case; we just need to be careful of the claim to know what objective truth is.  But that it exists is self-evident to all but the most [perhaps I should leave you to fill in that blank]...

Don't try this at home...

Father and Son Launch iPhone, HD Video Camera into Space
By Adam Rosen (4:00 am, Oct. 12, 2010)
Taking their iPhone Where No iDevice Has Gone Before, a father and son in Newburgh, NY recently took a weekend science project to new heights.  Luke and Max Geissbuhlerattached an HD Video Camera, iPhone and some styrofoam packing to a weather balloon, then launched their homemade satellite on a journey that lasted 72 minutes and climbed over 100,000 feet into the atmosphere!
The resulting footage is stunning, and has been described as some of the best amateur space footage ever.  The weather balloon burst after reaching about 19 miles high, then plummeted back to Earth by parachute and landed in a tree.  TheiPhone’s on-board GPS helped located the equipment once it landed, undamaged and only 30 miles away from the launch site!

Go there to see the fantastic photos and video footage - and hands off my iphone!

More on Walking Coaching

Back in August, I posted about Walking and Coaching and how well they work together.

Here is one client's feedback (he's a bit of an addict  - keeps coming back for more...)

'You must be mad to go up there on a day like this' said my wife as I packed my things for my 'Day in the Lakes' with Andrew. Well the gloomy forecast of gales and snow did not materialise and I had one of the most memorable personal development days in my professional life so far.
Having finally heaved my weary bones to the top of a snow-capped Blencathra, the views that we enjoyed that day down into the valleys below were breathtaking. Every morning when I come into the office, log onto my pc, the photograph from the peak of Blencathra as my screensaver reminds me of that experience and, as a relatively inexperienced hill walker, the exhilaration of having made it to the top and back. 
The opportunity to get away from the office, the phone and email and just have time to think (and chat) was such a privilege and one that I shall remember for years to come. Coupled with the chance to walk and talk with Andrew about my own 'journey' was an experience I shall never forget. Andrews local knowledge of the safe routes up and down Blencathra coupled with the perceptive, sensitive way in which we explored the issues that I had identified for discussion about my own 'journey' was an experience I shall never forget. 
Its too early to say whether this experience was life-changing, but it has had an effect in the short term. Like the view down the valley, the walk with Andrew helped to put things into perspective and work out where I am going and how best to get there.
What Andrew sells (so subtly) is hope - in my case hope that with some simple strategies I will be able to make more effective use of my time and be able to cope better with the day-to-day demands of my job, the things that I'm paid to do now, but somehow to create time to make real progress in the strategic things that will benefit me (and indirectly I hope my employer too) in the longer term
A grand day out - Andrew's relaxed and easy going manner made the whole experience so enjoyable.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Good books on Leadership?

A coaching client who is off sick at present asked for ideas for reading about leadership.  I suggested from the top of my head:

The New Leaders (Goleman et al); Maverick, Ricardo Semler; John Kotter, Leading Change; Peter Block, Empowered Manager; Escape from Cluelessness, Boleman & Deal; 7 Habits Highly Effective People, Covey; Fifth Discipline, Senge; 

that lot should keep him going.

But in case he's on a speed reading kick what would others add...?

Friday 8 October 2010

HR Awayday

Fascinating day with the HR team at Newcastle University.  Committed and professional, looking both at the big picture in challenging times and at some very specific and pragmatic actions to take the agenda forward - and they were up for playing on the beach to re-energise during their lunch time.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

A great day with some great people...

I spent yesterday at Essex University with some (relatively) newly-appointed Heads of Department, Deans and Directors.

The VC Colin Riordan kick-started the day with a brief overview of the challenging times ahead given the emerging story of the coalition government's plans for HE.  As ever, Colin made sure this was a dialogue, not a monologue, and his optimism ensured it was thought-provoking and challenging rather than depressing...

Then we spent the day discussing various aspects of their new role: mind maps helped to illustrate the sheer complexity of it; syndicate work generated some rich discussion around the people management issues and options for them; a case study (based on an academic at another University whom I am coaching) stimulated some great discussion of  approaches to leadership; and further syndicate work helped generate rich strategies for communication - formal and informal, disseminating information and eliciting feedback.

I was asked to design it as a highly participative day (I did use one slide...)  and so most of the wisdom and ideas came from the participants;  and we also enjoyed the perspectives of a more experienced head, Maria Fasli who joined us for the day.

Although Universities face challenging times, with the commitment and passion of people like these, I am sure the best will continue to flourish!

Friday 1 October 2010

In Praise of Pride and Prejudice

This describes the thinking behind my forthcoming book: Freeing People to Perform - How changing their stories can transform your people

It is long: a more elegant version for reading/printing is on Scribd

As Jane Austen might have written, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are two sides to every story.  However, the multistory approach recognises that in fact there are many more than two stories to every side.
By way of a few stories, I hope to illustrate the power of working with others’ stories - and our own - in unblocking difficulties and winning hearts and minds.  I include one disaster story, as we often learn as much from our failures as our successes.  Here are the starts of some stories which we will re-visit later in this article.
The Story of the Coffee Cup
The row over the unwashed coffee cup blew up suddenly and escalated dramatically.  One of the protagonists, Annie, got herself signed off work for stress, and the other, Clare, complained to the Deputy Chief Executive.  The whole department seemed to be in meltdown and the team leader unable to cope.  It was as though civil war had broken out with an intensity of hostilities and recriminations that was hard to believe.
Of course, it became clear that the coffee cup was only the last straw in a long-running feud between the Clare and Annie, who had managed to get most of the department to side with one or other of them. Regular councils of war were held by each party in the staff restaurant, where the latest news of the hostility of the other was told and re-told.
The question was, how was it possible to sort this mess out?  The hostilities actually went back almost two years and were deeply embedded.  Annie and Clare could each tell a terrible story of the other: of provocation, rudeness, unreasonableness, and so on.  And in that word story lay the start of a solution.
The Story of the Reluctant Leader
Mike had recently been promoted to team leader and was doing a great job.  The one concern his boss had was that he seemed to lack confidence in his own abilities as a leader.   However, all the indicators were positive: productivity was high, morale was high, absenteeism and sickness were low.  But Mike believed he was a fraud, and that in accepting the leader’s job, and salary, he was cheating the organisation.  His boss needed to break through this but was not sure it would be possible.
The Story of the Unpromotable Managers
After the management assessment centre, the unsuccessful candidates, who had been identified as not having potential for promotion, were sent on a series of workshops to address their deficiencies - or as they saw it, to lick their wounds...  Within the year, nearly all had secured a promotion, after all.

The Story of the Offstage Character
This story is an example of where the ideas outlined in this article failed to deliver, so we will hold it back until the ideas have been articulated.
The Story of the Blind Hog
This tells how an ordinary trainer, facilitator and coach, who made a living using material, ideas and skills learned from others, finally, and almost accidentally, created an approach of real meaning and value himself... only to learn that he was not after all the first to stumble across such ideas.  As they say, even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while.
We all know that people often hold different views of the same reality: ‘the map is not the territory’ has become something of a mantra in some circles.  We are also familiar with the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy: that believing in something may make it come true.  Indeed this wisdom goes back a long way: it is the stuff of Greek tragedy.  Oedipus’ parents, fearing the prophecies made about him at his birth, seek to prevent their coming true, and in so doing create the very circumstances which cause Oedipus to fulfil them.  
What I, the Blind Hog, discovered is a powerful way of using these insights and the whole concept of story, to dissolve conflicts, remove stumbling blocks, and enable great performance. 
However, I did find that in many ways I was re-creating in an organisational context, approaches used in therapeutic settings.  Moreover, once I started to look at that literature, I was able to enrich my approach with some of their techniques; however I am always aware that I am not a therapist, and my approach is a pragmatic one which leaders in any organisation could adopt and adapt.
So what’s the big idea?  
The basic principle is to recognise how we create stories, normally outside of our conscious awareness, to make sense of our experience, and then live out these stories.  Further, over time, we may well have collected a multiplicity of stories, sometimes contradictory, and that there are times when not all of these are available to us; particularly if a dominant story is very strong and muscles others off-stage.  By a dominant story, I mean one which has taken the foreground to such an extent that it is perceived, at least for a time, as the whole truth.  Typically, in the situations in which I am asked to help, these are problem-saturated, or conflict-saturated stories.  For example...
When Clare (in the Story of the Coffee Cup) started work at her first job, she was young, and inexperienced in the world of work.  However, she was outgoing and apparently confident.  When embarrassed, she had the habit of laughing as a nervous release.  Annie had worked in the department for years.  She had a heart of gold, but a slightly dour manner which often concealed that.  She understood how important precision was in the department’s work, as their output was often used in court cases, and could be torn apart by hostile lawyers unless it was perfect.  
Clare did not report to Annie, but Annie noticed a couple of errors in Clare’s work and pointed them out.  Clare was upset by this, and gave her nervous laugh.  And from that small interaction, each built a huge edifice of meaning.  Clare saw Annie as bullying and interfering; Annie saw Clare as insubordinate, unconcerned about her work and cheeky.
From that moment, without realising it, each had started to construct a story about the other, and collected evidence to prove that her story was real.  From then, all interactions which confirmed, or seemed to confirm, the dominant narrative were noticed, collected and believed.  Any interactions which seemed to contradict the story were either discounted as atypical, or not noticed at all.  Neutral interactions were interpreted according to the story; and all of this outside the conscious awareness of either party.
From there it was a short step to recruiting allies and briefing them; and in that process, stories were re-told, often with extra colour, and their truth became unassailable; they were really dominant.  And from there it was only a matter of time till the whole department went to war with itself.
But what was interesting to discover, and proved the salvation of this team, was that these dominant narratives were not the only stories that each protagonist told herself.  Buried quite deep under the surface were others.  When asked (and after being allowed sufficient time to tell her dominant narrative) Clare was able to tell of another Annie; an Annie who had been demonstrably kind to her on a number of occasions.  “That’s what’s so maddening!” she said, “Sometimes she can be really nice - I just don’t know where I am with her.”
The same was true for Mike (the hero of the Story of the Reluctant Leader).  His dominant story, that he was a sham as a leader, concealed another, that he was helping the team to perform well.  Mike’s stories also helped me to recognise the link between these narratives and people’s underlying value systems.  The reason this was such a big issue for Mike was that he felt a genuine commitment to the work of the organisation which employed him, and had a strong personal ethic around a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.  Helping Mike to re-engage with his story about himself as having a real commitment to the organisation, and being essentially an honest person was part of the process we went through.
It is worth pointing out, at this stage, that my accounts of the people and stories in this article are themselves stories: narratives constructed to convey meaning.  The real people are far more subtle and complex than I can capture in a few lines, and their stories more varied.
Working with story
Given that understanding, of how stories are built and how most of us hold onto a multiplicity of different stories, we can start to work with them in some simple and powerful ways.
Annie and Clare (The Story of the Coffee Cup) were helped to rebuild their relationship by rebuilding their stories about each other and their relationship.  This was not done through some quick trick like ‘re-framing,’ but by a rigorous exploration of their perceptions and interpretations.
The first step was to build sufficient trust with each of them individually to be able to help them.  A key part of that was, in a confidential one-to-one setting, to listen to their stories in their entirety - and to respect them. That involved resisting the urge to challenge or correct either of them when she made a leap of logic which was clearly fallacious.  At the conclusion, each heard a sympathetic summary of her story, designed to demonstrate that she had been truly heard, and that she was not being challenged on the story.  That is an important step, as the stories were dear to them and any attack might cause them to cling more tightly to them: but my agenda was to get them to loosen their grip just a little bit.
The next step in the process was to talk a little about stories, how we construct them and collect evidence and so on.  I did this by talking about my mother-in-law and my wife: a classic tale of love and misunderstanding....; something each was able to relate to and recognise - and laugh at.  Somehow when we look at others’ stories, it is much easier for us to see that stories have an existence of their own, separate from the protagonists.  This distancing, or externalising, of the story is the prelude to starting to question it.
That created the atmosphere for a gentle probing of the comprehensiveness of their stories: was there anything which had happened over the last two years which did not fit the story so well?  In the conversation with Clare, that was when the tears finally broke through and she made the “That’s what’s so maddening!” comment.  In fact, when asked, she provided numerous examples of Annie’s kindness.
Now that her grip on the story was a little loosened and her curiosity about it as a story was engaged, I posed a different type of question:  ‘If you had to give this story a name, like a fairy tale, what would you call it?’  After the barest moment’s reflection she replied: “The Princess and the Ogre!”
That created all sorts of possibilities. Some we pursued were asking whether Annie really got out of bed each day with an ogre-ish desire to make the princess’s life hell; and what Annie’s story might be called.  We debated various options for that, in a fairly light-hearted way.  This whole segment of the conversation was designed to continue the loosening of Clare’s grip on her story, by creating some distance between her and it (by the explicit naming of it as a story ‘out there’ as it were), by recognising the hyperbole implicit in the designation of Annie as an ‘ogre,’ and by starting to imagine how it might look from Annie’s perspective (by considering her name for it).
That led us to the moment where it seemed appropriate to re-consider Clare’s story.  What I proposed was that there might alternative narratives to The Princess and the Ogre; stories which accounted for more of the evidence (including Annie’s acts of kindness) and that were less implausible than casting her as an ogre.  I asked Clare if she would be interested to hear Annie’s story, if Annie were willing to listen to hers, and to explore whether between them they could construct better stories of the past and for the future.  She needed some convincing that Annie would enter into the spirit of enquiry I was suggesting, but agreed that if Annie was prepared to, she would be.
Having had a parallel conversation with Annie, and also with all the other members of the team, we finally got to a stage where the whole team came together to look for a way forward.  The one thing on which the whole team strongly agreed was that things could not go on the way they had been.  Whilst neither protagonist was fully open to the idea that she might have misread the other, each was each pretty clear that that other had misread her!
So we had a day of story telling: each of the protagonists telling her story, (with clear ground rules preventing interruption or correction), and other members of the team invited to comment in turn.  We then set about seeking a story which all could agree covered more of the evidence we had started to assemble, and that was when we got to the story of the dour, experienced, committed professional, and the new, slightly nervous, extravert team member.
We then started to ‘thicken the plot’: that is we went back over the two years to see what evidence there was that the emerging story was a better fit than their previous personal stories: and we found lots of it. 
Somewhere along the way, there was a wonderful dawning revelation: not only is it possible for us to have a future together that works, but our past isn’t half as awful as we thought it was.  Annie and Clare experienced, among other things, huge relief, at no longer feeling so dreadfully misunderstood and also no longer feeling so hated by the other.
The final stage was to look at what evidence everybody would need to see from now onwards, to starve the old stories of evidence, and provide plenty of evidence for the new story.  That became the action plan for the team.
The power of this lay in part in the fact that everyone was convinced that the new story was a better account of what had been going on than the previous stories.  It was not a result of positive (wishful) thinking or ‘re-framing’ but of seriously engaging with the evidence each had collected - and the evidence each had overlooked. So the better future was grounded in a more positive - and also a more credible - understanding of the past.  We were not trying to make up stories or simply put a positive frame around the past, but really interrogate our understanding of it, to find a richer picture that we could all believe in  - and typically where no party is so evil and malicious as their antagonist had imagined.
Towards a Framework
I am reluctant to produce a final route map for this process, as I undertake it in a fairly intuitive way, and the sequence I used with Annie and Clare was what seemed appropriate on that particular occasion; indeed it is only with hindsight that I have pulled it into such a coherent narrative.
However, there are certain key processes that are helpful along the way, and the overall effect is often very powerful indeed.  

  • Listen to each person’s dominant story and honour it
  • Explain the way in which we build stories
  • Start to open up distance between the individual and the story; encourage externalisation
  • Invite them to name their dominant, problem-saturated or conflict-saturated story
  • Start to explore any counter-evidence
  • Consider the other person’s dominant story and its name
  • Search for alternative narratives which fit all the evidence better - and are positive
  • Thicken the plot, both historically, and from now on
Naming the story is a relatively recent addition to my approach, but it has real power.  Is it that naming forces an exaggeration? Or does it make explicit the exaggeration that’s already happening?  Either way, it does seem to help externalise the story, creating a distance between the individual and the story.  Also, it gets to the heart of the issue: why is this so important to me?  Moreover, it raises the possibility of asking:  ‘What do you think the other person’s dominant story is?’  Often people seem to imagine: ‘she comes into work to make my life hell.’ One can then ask “Is that really her story, do you think?”  Probably not...
Mike, (The Story of the Reluctant Leader) was an example of someone where the name of the story was actually the heart of the issue.  His problem essentially was his belief that he was not a good leader. I did all I could to help him loosen his grip on that story: all the evidence was against him, but that didn’t seem to count.  His idea of leadership was either heroic (Gandhi, etc) or tyrannical (his experience at work) and he was clear that he was neither.  So we eventually re-named his job as team coach.  The minute we did so, a weight was lifted from his shoulders: this was a role in which he could excel: indeed he was already doing well in it.  To strengthen this new story, we did two things.  One was to look back at the past for evidence of Mike as a good team coach - and we found plenty, including from before his promotion.  Suddenly he was able to believe that he had earned his promotion and was worthy of it!  The other was that Mike checked with his boss that she was happy with his role being team coach: she readily agreed, and Mike’s problems with team leadership have evaporated. 
Thickening the plot is a concept I learned from the field of Narrative Therapy, though the way I go about it is not  the way therapists might.  I tend to do it firstly historically, by re-visiting the past through the lens of the new positive narrative and seeing how well it accounts for all the evidence we have collected, and also seeing what new evidence we can collect that this narrative is preferable. Then I invite people to look forward, and agree how we will continue to nourish the new story (what evidence we will go out of our way to provide in support of it) and also what evidence we may need to starve the old story of, to prevent its resurgence (that is, are there any particular behaviours, or interpretations of others’ behaviours, which we will need to stop doing....)
This was particularly powerful with the protagonists in the Story of the Unpromotable Managers.  While many of them were convinced the assessment centre had not been fair, we looked at the story they needed to be able to tell back into the organisation, to get their careers moving forward again.  Part of that story clearly had to be how they had worked to overcome the shortfalls identified by the centre.  We did not need to debate how accurate the assessment was: we simply had to recognise the need to collect evidence to prove that the perceived weakness was a weakness no longer.
That led to each participant working to prove that he or she was capable of demonstrating strengths in those areas; and over the course of several months, they supported each other in developing that evidence using real work projects, and meeting as action learning sets to drive them forward and check that the learning was both applied and captured.  By the end of the series of workshops, all had a good story to tell - and the organisation heard them, so that many are now promoted.
A Story of Failure: the Offstage Character
Like any approach, this one is not a guaranteed panacea.  One failure I learned a lot from was in a social work setting, where a new manager had been appointed over a team involved in some quite creative approaches.  The senior practitioner was unhappy with the financial constraints suddenly placed upon her and her team; but that was the very job the new manager had been appointed to do.  The relationship quickly deteriorated and by the time I was asked to help, the two were not prepared to speak to each other.  The boss was also involved, and I included him in the process.  However what I failed to pick up in the early stages was the key role of an off-stage character, who used to share an office with the new manager, and who was still very influential with her.  
I managed to get all three individuals to the stage where I - and they - believed that it might be valuable to sit down in the same room and explore their stories.  However, the manager, who had shown some signs of movement and willingness to discuss by the end of our one-to-one conversation, now dug her heels in and refused to listen or to share.  I later learned that her friend and old office-mate had spent some time with her advising her not to give an inch, as the boss and the practitioner would both take a mile if she did.  Had I realised earlier the degree to which this off-stage character was actively involved in the dispute, I should have included her in the process.  In the event, we got nowhere, and the two people who had been prepared to move a little felt very bruised and abused.  The manager was eventually re-assigned to another area: most organisations’ default response to difficult relationship issues.
Some theoretical links
For a blind hog, I read quite a lot, and it may be that I have plagiarised more than I realise in putting this together,  However, the influences of which I am conscious include these.  There has been a lot written about the stories leaders tell to galvanise the troops, (Stephen Denning, ‘Telling Tales’, HBR May ’04; Bob McKee ‘Storytelling that Moves People,’ HBR June ’03).  
NLP (Neuro Lingusitc Programming: see Frogs into Princes or The Structure of Magic, Bandler and Grinder ) is also interested in how we make sense of the world, and is, I understand, the origin of the mantra ‘the map is not the territory.’  However, NLP seems to me to focus on techniques such as re-framing which essentially involve putting on rose-tinted glasses.
Eric Berne’s work on Transactional Analysis (Games People Play) has long interested me, and there are resonances in my approach with his understanding of life scripts.  However, I believe that what I am working with, though it may emanate in part from such deep sources, is closer to the surface and a lot easier to help people change.
The closest link I have found, and for this I am grateful to Liz Todd at Newcastle University who drew my attention to it, is narrative therapy and narrative mediation.  This is a field pioneered by the late Michael White (see, for example, Maps of Narrative Practice).  Reading texts in that context (eg Narrative Mediation, Winslade & Monk; What is Narrative Therapy?, Alice Morgan) made me wonder if I had discovered anything new at all - and eventually dispelled the illusion that I had.  
However, what I had done was rediscover, from experience, what others were discovering in a very different field, and it is the application of that to the organisational context which is perhaps my original contribution (though even here my story may be wildly inaccurate: and this article is, in part, designed to provoke a response to that assertion so that I can enrich my story).  I have certainly learned from that work, particularly with regard to ‘thickening the plot.’  I was heartened to read of the importance which practitioners of narrative approaches place on the re-kindling of hope. For some years, I have believed that one of my key skills is to help people re-discover hope in times of adversity.
Where I part company with the published work on narrative mediation and narrative therapy which I have read so far, is in the belief (or their story) that this pre-supposes a post-modern view of reality, and the absence of any objective truth.  I happen to believe in objective truth - but also recognise it is a very hard thing to verify, and a risky one to claim sole insight to.  Indeed it is because of my belief in, and respect for, objective reality, that I am so quick to recognise the multiple subjectivities to which I and everyone else lend temporary credence. 
Underpinning all of this is a fundamental orientation in my work which has been there since I first read Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search For Meaning) and was strengthened when feedback from clients kept repeating to me that what I did for them was help them to rekindle hope. There is a deep connection between meaning and hope, in my view; and that brings me to my most fundamental source of all: ‘these three remain: faith, hope and love.’  My tentative position at this stage is that working with people on richer and more positive meanings in their lives, and helping them rediscover hope for the future also enables them better to love themselves and others - with enormously powerful benefits, both at work and beyond.
At this stage of the article, only one question remains which I can answer:
Why in Praise of Pride and Prejudice? 
Not because pride and prejudice are considered good - in fact they are often the drivers behind unhelpful narratives - but rather because Jane Austen’s novel and the films made from it, exemplify how readily we can get the wrong end of the stick and then tenaciously interpret reality in a prejudicial way very convincingly, and also how discovering a better and truer narrative can let us all live happily ever after.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Targetted marketing

I logged on to Amazon (because I should have been working...) and found: | Close window

Recommended for you

Rand McNally Easy to Read! Texas State MapRand McNally Easy to Read! Texas State Map
by Rand McNally and Company (Author)
Our Price: £3.88
Used & new from £2.44
Rate this item
I own itI own it
Not interestedNot interested

Because you said you owned...

Sony ICD B600 Digital Dictation Voice RecorderSony ICD B600 Digital Dictation Voice Recorder 

Am I dumb not see the link?