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Three journeys: A narrative approach

to successful organisational change

INTRODUCTION a palpable sense for why and how to close

that gap. As a result, a narrative approach
Early on in Anecdote, we did a training-
to change and continuous improvement
needs assessment for part of the Australian
enables organisations to better prepare
Defence Force. Our discovery phase involved
themselves for dealing with today’s
two teams; one team adopted a structured
complex challenges and opportunities.
interview technique and the other used
By Shawn Callahan anecdote circles to collect stories.
and David B. Drake, PhD* After our first day in the field we met with
This paper describes the approach we take
the structured interview guys to compare
with clients to successfully foster change
notes. “On first blush,” they said, “it
in their organisations. It is based on our
seems like most things are in order. They
deep knowledge of both complexity and
are adhering to OH&S processes. Sure,
narratives, and it reflects our holistic
there are some areas for improvement but
approach in working at both systemic and
generally things are OK.” As they were
personal levels to help organisations and
providing this assessment, those of us on
their people move forward. Coaching is
the anecdotes team just looked at each
integral to our process at each step of the
other in astonishment and replied, “So,
way and to our clients’ success in reaching
you didn’t hear about the soldiers who
their change and improvement goals. Our
are showering in their own urine because
approach helps leaders and organisations
their recycling system is broken or hear
embrace the need for change, approach
about the workshop where everyone wears
it openly, prepare for it fully, and achieve
protective footwear because some poor
the critical outcomes—whether it be a new
fellow lost his toes in an accident but no
technology, a turnaround, a new strategy
one wears protective eyewear because
or some other cause.
they have never had an eye accident?”.
We had heard story upon story of major I’m excited to be writing this paper with
transgressions that weren’t picked up in Dr David Drake, a renowned expert on
the structured interview approach. narrative approaches to coaching in
support of leadership development and
This experience confirmed our assessment
cultural change in organisations. In this
that a narrative approach is great for
paper, we offer a narrative- and coaching-
yielding new, and otherwise hidden,
based process framed as three journeys
insights. A number of years and many
based on our experience that the best
clients later, we have seen that there is
solutions are those that are developed and
something even more important narrative
owned by the people in the organisation
techniques provide: a resolve among
and can be embedded in their day-to-
people to do something about the situation
day activities. The process is also based
and a frame for mapping how to do so.
on an analysis of a historical journey of
Stories provide people with a keener
change as well as our appreciation for
awareness of their current situation, a
*Center for Narrative the contemporary challenges inherent in
clearer vision for their desired state, and
Coaching, USA dealing with the complexities of change. 1 ©Anecdote Pty Ltd

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A LEGENDARY STORY This time of preparation, based on their

AS A FRAME FOR initial knowledge, was the second journey.
SUCCESSFUL CHANGE Since much of their journey would take
them into the unknown, their plans relied
Our approach to change was inspired by
on partial information and an earned trust
the story of Lewis and Clark, the intrepid
in their leadership skills. In moving from
explorers who made the first crossing to
concept to plan, Lewis and Clark engaged
the American West, who forged a trail that
Our approach to change the people who would be involved in and
would lead to the formation of what we
was inspired by the story of affected by what actually happened. It
now know as the United States. Thomas
was a time for engaging them in the vision,
Lewis and Clark, the intrepid Jefferson, the third President, knew that
preparing for what they may encounter,
explorers who made the first opening up the west coast was critical in
and getting what we now call their ‘buy in’.
crossing to the American the short-term to understand the nature
Then, they embarked on the actual trip,
West, who forged a trail that of what he had just bought (the Louisiana
the third journey for which they had been
would lead to the formation Purchase) and in the long-term for his trade
preparing. The further they travelled up
of what we now know as the and political ambitions in fulfilling his vision
the Missouri River, the sparser the available
for the country. Jefferson and Meriwether
United States. information became. One of their biggest
Lewis pored over maps and journals to
surprises was the scale of the Rocky
form in their minds how the journey might
Mountains, a range of peaks unlike any
unfold, what resources might be required,
they had seen before. However, for every
what success would look and feel like,
unexpected turn of events or what seemed
and how they might get the support from
like an impassable barrier, the expedition
Congress to embark on this adventure. This
adapted and remained resilient. They
was the first journey—as it was conceived in
eventually discovered a path through these
the minds of the two leaders.
mountains and on to the Columbia River—
Once they got their funding, Lewis and his
though it was not the all-water passage to
co-leader, William Clark, selected and
the west coast they had hoped to find. The
trained their expedition members in St Louis,
first two journeys not only helped them plan
Missouri—at that point the westernmost
and prepare for this expedition, but also
outpost of the fledgling nation. While there,
helped them refocus, regroup and reorient
they gathered the resources and practised
in the face of hardships, errors in judgment,
the skills they imagined would be needed
boredom and fatigue, and the like.
to make the trip.

Figure 1: Translating
the three journeys to
a business context

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The story of the Lewis and Clark expedition In our work with clients on the first journey,
offers lessons in how organisations can we gather stories to help the leaders
approach their journeys to bring about understand the current situation and needs,
change. Like Lewis and Clark, astute as well as help them to craft stories that
leaders today embark on change with capture the principles and characteristics of
only a general picture of where they’re the future state they desire. These stories
going and the knowledge that they will help them clarify: (1) Who are we? (2) What
encounter unimagined difficulties and seems true to us? (3) What matters to us?
opportunities along the way. As a result, (4) What are we seeking? We use coaching
the fate of the change effort often rests to draw out people and help them be
on how well they prepared themselves open and candid in their assessment,
and others. While modern organisations communication and agreements.
have better resources with which to work, The focus is on building awareness and
they too must juggle the needs of multiple harnessing the ambition. The goals at
stakeholders, the vicissitudes of human this stage are to (1) ensure that all of the
nature, the capriciousness of fate, the stories get told such that the organisation
limitations of partial maps, the need for has a clear sense of what is true at the
high-stakes decisions, and more. present; (2) articulate the new story the
organisation wants to tell about itself;
and (3) declare what they want as a result
THE FIRST JOURNEY and how this path will enable them to be
successful. This stage is about clarifying
In this first stage, leaders in an organisation
the purpose for the actual adventure.
develop a vision of what they would like to
EXAMPLE: In a client project for a large
achieve and define this end-state in broad
professional services firm, David worked with
terms. It involves setting the destination,
the business and human capital leaders to
the crusade, and mapping out how to get
recognise the centrality of better support for
there based on the available information their staff in achieving both the culture and
—while recognising that detailed plans the results they desired. He did interviews
are unlikely to be achieved at this stage with forty key stakeholders to get all the
(the world is too unpredictable for a stories out about what was happening in
The focus is on building simple, linear view). It is critical to clearly the culture in terms of current coaching
awareness and harnessing articulate the mission, the criteria for success, practices. The themes from these stories
the ambition. and the leadership parameters in order to were presented to the leadership team. They
create a solid framework for thinking about were asked to articulate what a new culture
would look like and what people would be
the venture.
doing differently if they achieved that vision.
LESSONS FROM LEWIS & CL ARK: David worked with the team to manage
• It is important to be clear on sharing the internal politics in order to position the
the rewards before there are any project for success. The result of this journey
• Travelling requires both authority was the envisioning of a map, based on the
and freedom/permission best available data, of how the firm could
achieve the shifts in culture and performance
• Change requires an organisation to
they were seeking.
venture into unknown territory; it is as
much about discovery as it is about design
• Every change process has its ‘St. Louis’
—a jumping off point into the unknown,
a hub for action, and a platform to which
one can return
• Often the landscape changes merely as
a result of setting out on the journey.

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These stories help them clarify: (1) What

THE SECOND JOURNEY is the whole story? What are we missing?
(2) What will we need to be successful in
In this stage, the rest of the organisation
our search? (3) What is likely to challenge
(or a representative subset) plans how they
us? What will be our response? (4) What
will get to the desired state, determines
is the story we are telling ourselves about
what may impede their progress, and
this venture? We use coaching to bring
prepares themselves for what they need
out parts of the stories that have been
to do. This journey involves understanding
discounted or avoided, to increase the
the current capacity, culture and business
sense of agency among people, and
environment based on stories collected,
challenging their interpretations to make
and developing the best possible map
room for new ones as needed to achieve
based on current information and resources
The focus is on making plans their goals.
available to guide them on the trip. This
and becoming prepared. The focus is on making plans and becoming
journey builds both extra capacity and
prepared. The goals at this stage are to
distinct skills so as to build an adaptive and
identify and bring together key stakeholders
resilient organisation. Identifying clear
who can (1) gather stories of past successes
decision-making processes and roles/
they can draw on to aid them in this new
responsibilities are essential.
journey; (2) create an iterative design
LESSONS FROM LEWIS & CL ARK: for reaching the vision; (3) establish the
• The success of the mission often comes necessary roles; and (4) develop the key
down to the level of development and skills and resources that will be useful for
cohesion of the team this journey. This stage is about developing
• The story for change must be told, at the people and making the initial plans for
least initially, in the language of those the actual journey.
most affected by it, if leaders want their EXAMPLE: Initial decisions were made in
engagement the client project to move beyond their
• It is critical that those who are asked to traditional approaches to change and
lead the way have what they need in development based on lessons learned and
order to be successful input from the interviewees and others. We
• Preparation in complex environments were able to co-develop an innovative design
requires testing assumptions and balancing we felt would be more suitable for the path
the needs for adaptation and execution to change we would undertake in the firm.
As part of this design, coaching champions
• It is dangerous to take an old paradigm
representing all of the service teams were
and old ways of living into a new land.
chosen and partnered with their business
In our work with clients on the second
unit/service team leaders and human capital
journey, we help clients work with the
liaisons. Each of the three groups received
narrative material in terms of making
extensive training on a coaching curriculum
sense and meaning of it as the basis for
designed explicitly for this organisation and
interpretation, envisioning and planning.
its aims. The teams would then be sent out,
almost like scouting and advance parties,
to explore how they could bring coaching
to their groups. Knowing that much of this
would be new for all those involved, we
developed their role as shadow coaches
to guide others.

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In our work with clients on the third

THE THIRD JOURNEY journey, we gather and work with the
stories that are emerging as people are
In this stage, the organisation embarks
on the change journey. These stories help
on the actual venture, implementing the
them clarify: (1) To what do we need to
planned (and unplanned) activities over a
pay attention? (2) What are our non-
defined horizon. Through a combination
negotiables? (3) What else is possible
of small initiatives and larger projects,
now? (4) What will success look like? We
new behaviours are encouraged and new
use coaching to help them increase their
opportunities are engaged in moving
awareness and observational skills, ask
toward the vision. In the process, many
the hard questions, design new strategies,
changes are made along the way in
and make progress toward their goal.
how things are done in response to new
The focus is on taking action The focus is on taking action and effectively
circumstances and/or knowledge. The third
and effectively adapting. adapting. The goals at this stage are to
journey enables staff to sense and respond
move beyond imagination and preparation
to change, persist and innovate as needed,
to implementation in putting the
and keep their eye on the desired goal. This
plan into action through (1) providing
is a time when the motivation is sustained
ongoing coaching of the project leaders;
through clarity around the characteristics
(2) supporting learning, reflection and
and benefits of the new place. There is
course correction; (3) making process and
a balance between learning, reflecting,
systems improvements to adapt to new
innovating, adapting, and course correcting
circumstances and expedite the journey;
AND being able to execute on the plan,
and (4) celebrating the arrival at the vision.
retain cohesion, be disciplined, and make
This stage is about courageously moving
hard choices.
forward and making progress on the plan
LESSONS FROM LEWIS & CL ARK: in order to fulfil the original purpose.
• Knowing where you are is as important EXAMPLE: In the client project, each triad
as knowing where you are going. Having (service team leader, coaching champion and
markers on the journey is important human capital staff person) is scouting out
• Vital insights, information and life-giving and engaging in opportunities to employ
resources often come from people on their new coaching skills as part of small
the ‘fringes’; ventures fail when they initiatives designed to make an impact on
go unacknowledged. Leaders also need how they do business. They are linked to
people to ask the ‘dumb’ questions that compare notes about how to use these
point to easy solutions that are often experiences to increase their understanding
overlooked of the terrain, and how to move forward
• Prudent leaders are clear on the mission, in creating the desired new culture. The
but humble and flexible enough to amend security of being part of this larger group
their assumptions and routes in light and the freedom to move where they have
of their actual experience on the trip. passion and traction (within the vector of the
Change leaders must balance between larger vision) is yielding the kind of progress
making progress and tending to the people they have not seen using traditional change
• Some decisions are more important than methods. They are addressing the obstacles
others on big trips. The challenge is that that impede the firm’s progress and rolling
sometimes you don’t always know which the successes from the small initiatives into
ones are which until after the fact broader projects to interject coaching in all
aspects of selection, retention, promotion,
• When people are fully prepared for and
evaluation and development, as well as in
deeply engaged in a mission, they are
business development and client services.
intensely alert and alive.

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It is important to tend to the consequences CONCLUSION

—intended and unintended—of efforts
Things that are complex only make sense
to change an organisation. There is often
in hindsight. They’re messy. Knowledge,
a lot of hard work on the backside of the
innovation, collaboration, culture, in fact
three journeys to implement and integrate
most things involving people, are complex,
It is important to tend to the the gains that have been made. We can
where there could be a hundred things that
consequences—intended and think of this stage as a fourth journey
an organisation could set out to do without
unintended—of efforts to (you weren’t expecting that, were you?).
knowing what to expect in return. But
It is one we take seriously in helping
change an organisation. to make progress we don’t try to boil the
clients sustain the new ways of being and
There is often a lot of hard ocean; instead we help the organisation
working, and the new results that have
work on the backside of the identify areas that really matter to the
emerged. Some additional lessons from
three journeys to implement business and then focus, in the full
Lewis & Clark can be useful in making
knowledge that unexpected things might
and integrate the gains that the fourth journey:
happen. We then help the business foster
have been made. • The leader of the change effort must the good things and disrupt and discourage
manage the impact and narrative of the bad. It’s an ongoing process.
the trip on behalf of sponsors and allies
A key frame we use in supporting
‘back home’ while attending to the needs
organisations to conceptualise and
of the trip and fulfilling its mission
orchestrate change is through the use of
• Everybody integral to the venture (even the three journeys model. We have found it
those who may oppose it) must have a useful in helping clients integrate narrative
place in the story that meets enough of work, coaching and an understanding of
their needs. It is better to get the story complexity to design effective change and
out on a successful trip than it is to wait improvement projects with our clients. The
for the ‘whole book’ to be written stories within an organisation can be used
• A key to change is to figure out how as a tool for assessment, development and
to create growth from a base that is in movement in helping organisations know
motion. It is easier to direct the inevitable where they are at any point in time, and
flow of energy that is unleashed in the where they want to be in the near future.
face of opportunity than it is to stop it Coaching helps them build the awareness,
or even control it at times confidence, maturity and abilities in order
• People who do well with big change often to be successful in their quest.
find it hard to return to the ‘normal’ Where would you like to take your
life that comes with implementation organisation?
—choose their roles carefully
• Each adventure sets the stage for others
like it to follow, by placing them in
the context of a bigger and broader
narrative. However, throughout history,
leaders of change generally fail to
account for the people who are displaced
by change—and all that is lost as a result.
This is neither ethical nor sustainable.

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Drake, D. B. (2007). An integrated approach
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Putting stories to work


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