The Power of Story

I believe we are storied beings. Our lives have a beginning, middle and end. Within that life, there are numerous chapters, plots and sub plots. There have undoubtedly been some unexpected twists. The characters include heroes and villains; perhaps some characters turn out to be a bit of both! And while this all might seem self-evident, the true impact of our need and reflex to story our lives was a relatively recent revelation for me.

Two books that I read recently – Brené Brown’s “Rising Strong” and Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score” – have really driven home the impact of how we story our lives. Brené’s work is all about story and about owning our stories. It provides a roadmap for how to live through – and rise from – those ‘face down’ moments in our lives. Van der Kolk’s book isn’t specifically about story. It describes how traumatic events in our lives – both the sudden and extreme ones as well as the repeated ones that traumatize us over time – are stored in our brains. Both authors point towards the need to understand how we’ve created (and in some cases, made up by filling in the blanks) the story of those events. In the case of truly traumatic events, it involves opening pathways for the cognitive processing part of the brain (the neo-cortex) to have access to (and help to sort out) the painful memories stored like flashcards in the more ancient limbic part of our brain. The message for me from both books; having an honest and authentic account of our stories and being able to fully own (or integrate) them is critical to our happiness and success in life.

That revelation got me to thinking about the stories we have and hold about the organizations we work in. I believe that the act of owning and integrating our organization’s story can be just as powerful for an organization’s success. After all, once you strip away the buildings and equipment and policies and titles, organizations are nothing more than networks of relationships. So I decided to find ways to integrate the concept of ‘story’ more fully in my work. Along with my colleague Kim Lyster, I used the story metaphor as part of a recent strategic planning event. We helped the organization tell ‘the story up until now’, which included some of the traditional elements of a SWOT analysis. That process confirmed that the stories people made up about the organization were often only partially accurate or complete. We teased out, listened to, and valued all of the stories that people carried about the organization and we rumbled with the differences in those stories. Stories are very real in their consequences; they inform actions and behaviors. So the act of ensuring that the stories are consistent, accurate and fully owned by everyone is critical to building a foundation for the future. The work also included a heavy emphasis on values identification, because I firmly believe that knowing our values is core to us understanding and owning our stories, both as individuals and in our organizations. Having established a firm base of a shared story and common values, the second half of the planning event involved helping the organization to “write the next chapter”. We supported them to clearly define an authentic future state and the steps needed to walk a path towards that desired end based on what they learned through rumbling with their stories. Although we need to continue to refine this approach, I’m very encouraged by our initial experiences and plan to continue to evolve it in some upcoming strategic planning events.

Beyond strategic planning, I’m convinced that the work to give people tools to reality check their stories and rumble with differences will transform organizations. So as you walk your walk everyday in your organization or company, I encourage you to think about the ways in which the people you are interacting with are constructing their stories and how that impacts the work. By remaining curious and honouring those stories, we can open a space to have courageous and sometimes difficult conversations about where we want to go and how to get there. And those conversations can be powerful drivers of positive change.

PS – I plan to discuss how story can be a bigger part of evaluation work in an upcoming post, so stay tuned!

Use Your Strategic Plan Like It’s Your Budget!

Strategic plans have a lot in common with budgets. They are both plans for the future that outline some expectations. But few organizations hold themselves accountable to the goals in their strategic plans the same way they do with budgets. I think they are equally as important to your future success.

I’ve seen a lot of strategic plans over the years. I’ve been involved in facilitating the development of more than a dozen of them just in the last few years. Although I’ve gotten better at helping to create them, it requires a lot of time and effort to build a process and format that will meet the specific needs of each individual client. I’ve also learned that although the strategic directions or goals chosen by organizations often fall along similar lines, no two plans are alike and the path to achieving a particular direction or goal can be dramatically different. Most importantly, I’ve learned that a failure to develop a detailed plan that outlines how your organization will achieve its goals or directions and a willingness to regularly monitor progress too often ends in lack-luster results. Or even no results. [Read more…]

Building Innovation Muscle

I’ve written before about the role of best practices and my skepticism that an overly narrow focus on identifying and replicating them is the best and most effective way to address client needs. I recently read a book titled “High Performance Nonprofit Organizations” by Letts, Ryan and Grossman that points out one of the unintended consequences of a narrow focus on replicating practices established elsewhere; the decoupling of idea generation and program development (i.e., the “creating and innovating” part of the business) from service delivery systems and capacity (i.e., the “doing” part of the business). The authors argue that adaptive capacity – the capacity to innovate based on identifying and responding to needs – is a critical element in high performing non-profits, just as it is in successful for-profit companies around the world. By outsourcing idea generation and program development, non-profits lose out on the powerful impact that a strong culture of innovation can have. [Read more…]

Is Organizational Alignment Necessary for Success?

Creating organizational alignment. It’s the stuff of awesome posters with images of rowers all pulling with perfect precision towards the finish line. It’s the holy grail of organizational strategic development work. I’ve been among the apostles believing that a key to success for organizations delivering human services is creating a high degree of alignment around a mission or a set of common goals. In fact, I’m a fan (and user) of the Balanced Scorecard approach for organizational planning which is all about alignment. But it’s much easier said than done. And to what degree is it necessary? There is some evidence to suggest that, although some degree of alignment is necessary, a high degree of alignment doesn’t actually distinguish the good from the great when it comes to human services agencies. [Read more…]

Trust, Autonomy & Leadership

In preparation for a workshop I recently did for Leadership Victoria  titled “Leading in Uncertain Times”, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of leadership in solving complex problems.  I’ve believed for a long time that leadership matters.  My PhD dissertation focused on the relationship between program leadership and client outcomes.  I discovered that helping clients deal with complex issues in their lives was as much about how workers related and attended to them as it was about what particular intervention model or approach they used.  The characteristics of relating and attending to clients were largely mirrored in leader-worker relationships.  In other words, workers valued the same kind of relationship with their leader as client’s valued with them.  I discovered that trust and autonomy were at the core of those relationships.

As I closed the loop on my dissertation and looked for links between what I had learned and the existing leadership literature, I became drawn to Complexity Science.  Trust and autonomy are key aspects of emerging models of leadership and organizational decision making based on Complexity Science.  Several authors have contributed greatly to my understanding of this area, most notably Dave Snowden and Margaret Wheatley.  The Cynefin model developed by Dave Snowden and his associates at Cognitive Edge has powerful potential as a decision making model for leaders seeking to solve highly complex problems.  Their model cautions against a ‘command and control’ approach to solving these kinds of problems, focusing instead on probing and sensing before moving to action.  In other words, we have to trust that those in the system or network have the answers and provide enough space (i.e., freedom and autonomy) for those answers to emerge.  Margaret Wheatley’s writings, some of which are available on her website, focus heavily on the use of small and large group processes to solve complex problems.  She too places a high value on trusting that solutions exist and that human’s underlying drive for freedom and creativity is key to solving complex problems.

Although I still consider myself a relative beginner in understanding how Complexity Science can be used by leaders to solve complex problems, I’m excited by the possibilities.  This approach challenges us to resist the urge to rush in and take control, to rely heavily on our relationships and networks of individuals with a stake in the problem, and to trust that solutions exist and will emerge if we provide creative space for that to occur.

Why Leadership and the Organization Matter

Some time back, I wrote an article for the Federation of Community Social Services’ (FCSS) Research to Practice Network titled “Why The Organization Matters”. Those of you who know me are aware that it’s a topic near and dear to my heart. In fact, it’s the topic that pulled me into doing a PhD! I know – I really need a life. Anyways, that article explored some of the research on how organizational level variables (like culture, climate, structure, and leadership) had both direct and indirect impacts on client outcomes. [Read more…]

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