So much of what is written about leadership and organisational change fails to reflect the lived experience and all too human dynamics of what really happens. In the cauldron of transformation, management science reveals its limits as a governing metaphor for human organisations. Modern networks liberate the potential for active participation and make consent (not command) critical. Social production and willing individual involvement, the hallmarks of IT phenomena like Wikipedia, ebay, OhMyNews, Linux and MySpace, are also transforming the workplace. Many who have lived through profound change under these conditions recognise that it is not reducible to simplistic recipes and technocratic processes.
This project will seek to provide a counterview; humanistic and biographical; based upon first person accounts and stories. In so doing it touches on broader issues; the emerging forms of organisation and leadership which provide a satisfying and productive container; the replacement of industrial institutions with information age institutions able to withstand rapid change, connect with fast changing market realities and become centres for learning, innovation, sustainability and fulfilling work.
The core research will be based on interviews, first hand accounts from veterans of organisational change. The choice of veterans is deliberate; only when you exit a process (whether an organisation, a relationship or residence) do you tend to seek closure by creating a satisfying story (with beginning, middle, end) and a stable interpretation. Veterans will also be able to speak more candidly about difficulties along the way.
Our going-in assumptions, which are open for challenge are that:
- while organisations are leaner, faster, more flexible and less hidebound with traditions, change isn’t getting any easier
- one reason for that is that (along with the command and control rigid hierarchy and bureaucracy) the authority of the centre has declined; organisations must now be engaged rather than told
- a way to grasp the ‘drama’ of change is to relate it to archetypal human stories; organisations too have quests, reformations, comedies of misunderstanding, rags to riches (re)launches...
- these stories contain invaluable insights on the key steps, roles and defining moments which enable change to succeed; for instance in every heroic quest it is important to have periods of rest and celebration between the episodes of high drama
- there are also lessons in a story framework about how change is presented or sold, internally and externally; we will deliberately chose some examples where this has been done well
- we will present the findings in common sense business language; the archetypal stories are there to help us make sense of change, and bring what we hear to life, not mystify it.
The pamphlet will include a critique of ‘business school’ thinking, on organisations and organisational change:
- we want to find out whether change leaders draw on such thinking in practice, and if so, what value they place on this thinking
- a related question is what insights are transferable between organisations of different types; to what extent do (or do not) stories of similar changes provide a roadmap of ‘best practise’?
- we recognise the value of these models and frameworks, but argue that they offer only partial insights for leaders faced with having to make holistic judgements, and play too little regard to the tough business of working with and through people;
- we suspect that the focus on living and telling stories ‘works’ because leadership is a profoundly human endeavour, good people making it up as they go along, often relying on learnt behaviours, basic intuitions and drawing on past experience, in ‘real time’.
We aim to develop a practical resource for those leading change, which relates the framework of lived storytelling, to the ‘constellations’ of relationship and capacity that leaders need to bring about in order to deliver change:
- rather than focus on organisational ‘functions’, we suspect that what matters to leaders today is who they have around them, what they can achieve, and what resource/support they have to do it;
- rather than seeing the boundary of organisations as shaped by a hierarchical model of accountability, in the era of the network we suggest that it is just as important to see organisations as embracing customers/stakeholders, who are actively engaged through increasingly interactive and immediate forms of communication;
- above all, we suggest that leaders should be conscious of the stories they are scripting, as they lead organisational change.
As a result, we also want to create some new insights in understanding the barriers to successful change:
- if key stakeholders, front line managers or board members, are working to a different storyline, the critical mass and alignment to effect change may not be achieved;
- perhaps, sometimes, it can be more personal than that: change is so often about changing people, and if individuals don’t like or ‘get’ the story that will result, then change won’t happen;
- and we need to understand how stories are told over time, ‘skeletons in the closet’, past events apparently long forgotten that in certain circumstances suddenly come to life again.
There is a widespread recognition, for instance among change consultants, that ‘storytelling’ – ie translating the dry facts of strategy into an inspiring human framework – is key to engaging your people. But in the authors’ view this is a narrow understanding and to some extent a trivialising of the relevance of archetypal stories. It is simply a view on internal communications. In our view the deeper meaning and life of organisations is a story, and it is this narrative which is the hidden hand in its development; whether an organisation sees itself, for instance, as a challenger or the establishment underlies all other discussions. If you look at the trajectory of organisations such as the BBC you can see that possessing a unique story (public service integrity translated into a mandate to innovate) can pervade decision making and individual motivation. Not all organisations have a strong sense of their story – some are technocratic rather than humanistic. But our hypothesis is that all companies today which must change dramatically will - whether they recognise is or not - be embarking on an archetypal story, be it a heroic battle, a quest, an exodus, a reformation, or indeed a tragedy.
In the age of the network, however, it is not enough for leaders to script stories and to be aware that this is what they are doing;
- networked organisations mean that organisational stories must inherently be co-produced, they cannot just be handed down;
- more than that even, the story of what the organisation is and will be, and how it should get there, must be actively co-created: where power is distributed, it will anyway be passively co-created, often with negative and unintended consequences;
- if past lives and the frustrated stories of other actors are not worked through, and their energy exorcised or harnessed, the story will degenerate, and the organisation fracture or not succeed in change;
- the ‘tipping point’ is reached, when and if, the leaders’ narrative is embedded in the lived experience of other actors with distributed power, and then, when the outcomes that they produce (in terms of products, customer service, stakeholder relationship, etc) are consistent with the leaders’ narrative, and are seen/felt to be so.
Thus far we have been discussing what our associates and Demo) assume to be the case, through substantial experience of change in organisations and a long-running interest in the human, creative and cultural aspects of that change. But the research will be a journey of discovery; let’s start what leaders of organisational change say and see what we can make with that.
The intended outputs of the project are:
- a steering group or ‘Storyboard’
- a Demos pamphlet provisionally entitled Story.Org
- a community of interest and ongoing discussion online
- an accessible library of interviews, capturing the stories first hand
- a launch event,
- follow up sessions with leaders in organisations, to explain the findings and translate them into practical questions such as the right character for the role
We are keen to connect this work to other activities in this field.
We are also interested to hear from potential supporters and funders who could support the development of the project.
For more contact Grahame at firstname.lastname@example.org , Tony at email@example.com or John at firstname.lastname@example.org