Quote – Abraham Lincoln

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think and act anew.

Thanks Dave.  

What's in a name?

Little unwritten rule in group facilitation: do not interrupt a group conversation abruptly.

Confession: I broke it today!

The Story: I have been running a couple of Story Circles with a company who have had significant staff churn in the last year or so. We've been using the Story Circles as a way of exploring the problem. After two circles and heaps of stories about the company's history, its founders, mergers and acquisitions, the experience of staff around leadership and the aspects of the business that are invitations for staff to stay, I realised that I did not hear a single story of why the company has the acronym name it has.

I could not help but interrupt the conversation and ask, "What does your name stand for?" What happened next stunned me … silence and blank stares, until someone piped up and offered an unabbreviated version of the name (that wasn't convincing in its accuracy).

The title of a Story is of vital importance in relation to the narrative. The same must then apply, in my mind, to companies and their name. It's no wonder that staff become disenchanted with their employer when it becomes so difficult to remember the meaning and stories that informed the decision of how to name the entity.

This is why I believe companies should not have acronyms as a name – it is rare that acronym embodies a story.

Narrative Pulse – Vlok to speak

picture of adriaan vlok Former apartheid-era Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok, renowned for his drastic measures to reduce unrest in 1980s, will be the guest speaker at Justice Sunday at Northfield, Benoni, this Sunday, 10h00.

In a recent act of contrition, Vlok made news by washing the feet of Rev Frank Chikane who survived a murder attempt under Vlok's watch.

If you're around this part of South Africa, see you there.

Book smart vs. Street smart

picture of donald trumpIf there's someone I feel indifferent about, it is Donald Trump . His self-inundated series The Apprentice holds very little excitement for me besides his whimsical "you're fired" decisions and hoping the editors slip in a snippet of his hair catching sail in a gust of wind.

The latest season showing here in South Africa is The Apprentice 3: Books Smarts versus Street Smarts. Having previously pitted the sexes against each other, he now has those with Ivy League college educations battling it out against those with no formal education.

It's a classic plot that plays out in businesses and professions everyday. In my own field of organisational development, group facilitation and narrative, there are those of us who were trained and studied formally, while there are those who have been facilitating out of a passion and gifting that has emerged over time in their careers.

cross cultural conversations

I sat with one such street smart the other day, Carel Wandrag . He's currently a Valuation Actuary at Sanlam who is also forging ahead with addressing diversity in organisations through his Cross Cultural Conversations. An Acturay who facilitates discussions? Yep, I was pretty skeptical! It doesn't look like much when you see his web presence, but sit with him over a meal and you can hear the passion and spirit he brings to conversations. I recommend connecting with him.

Another street smart who I enjoy working with is Barrie Bramley who has a knack for doing the theory without even knowing it.

Unlike Trump's underlings, there is a wonderful potential for collaboration between the street and book smarts.



Overcoming the Monster

Have you ever wondered why we identify so much with the hero in a story?

It's part of the reason, I think, that J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has been so popular – that despite your age, Harry represents something that we can identify with. In battling with the 'monster' of the story, the hero embodies something we wish we were. This goes for numerous other literary hero's and movie stars. Booker , in the Seven Basic Plots , has tapped into this wonderfully:

"One may sum up by saying that, physically, morally and psychologically, the monster in storytelling thus represents everything in human nature which is somehow twisted and less than perfect. Above all, and it is the supreme characteristic of every monster who has ever been portrayed in a story, he or she is egocentric. The monster is heartless; totally unable to feel for others, although this may sometimes be disguised beneath a deceptively charming, kindly or solicitious exterior; its only real concern is to look after its own interests at the expense of everyone else in the world.

Such is the nature of the figure against whom the hero is pitted, in a battle to the death. And we never have any doubt as to why the hero stands in opposition to such a centre of dark and destructive power: because the hero's own motivation and qualities are presented as so completely in contrast to those ascribed to the monster. We see the hero being drawn into the struggle not just on his own behalf but to save others: to save all those who are suffering in the monster's shadow; to free the community or the kingdom the monster is threatening; to liberate the 'Princess' it has imprisoned. The hero is always shown as acting selflessly and in some higher cause, in a way which shows him standing at the opposite pole to the monster's egocentricity."

I wonder to what extent the monsters are a shadow projection of the parts of our identity we can't bear to face up to. Maybe the monster represents all that we wish we could be, but can't.?

Move on

Am I the only who gets hot under the collar when I see someone waving the old South African flag at an international sporting event? Clearly not!

Why do I find it offensive? After all, it is the symbol of a time in history, and of a regime, that kept me comfortable in my youth, allowed my parents to get their jobs and generally kept me oblivious to the real pain being felt in our country's consciousness.

It's ironic though, that waving the flag ony really happens at international events. I can only draw the conclusion that the waving is done by people who left our country at a time when they felt their comfort and safety were under threat, resent the introduction of democracy and now wait for the international stage to show their old allegiance and defiance.

Please, move on.


Narrative Pulse – Voices of opposition

picture of tony leon

Tony Leon , the vocal leader of the opposition party to the African National Congress , the Democratic Alliance , announced his resignation from the party's leadership position yesterday (read about it here ). South Africa has a love-hate relationship with Leon. On the one hand he has revamped an organisation that was shattered shortly after the 1994 elections into a viable opposition voice to the majority party. Then, on the other hand, he has led the party into a reputation for being a bunch of belligerent nay-sayers who sniff out possible political scandals with wolf-like veracity.

I'm not sure the country knows how to deal with him and his party. In listening to talk radio today, some callers banished him to irrelevance and others damn near sobbed in sadness over his resignation. My personal take on the resignation is that, as a country, we'll be losing the prominence of an important voice.

DA rally Like him or not, Leon is no doubt one of the country's best debaters and public speakers. With relative ease he can weave fact, opinion and progressive argument into his oration. He has been a useful benchmark as we've forged our democracy. My concern is that when he steps down in May 2007 we potentially lose the benefit of a powerful opposition voice in the country's political landscape.

Such voices are vitally important, though rather unpalatable sometimes. You see,the South African discursive landscape is much like a personal narrative. As we make sense of our lives and the world around us, we attempt to integrate the differing "voices" at our disposal into a coherent "story" of how we see the world, ourselves and our place in the Story. On one hand you have a tendency to form a dominant story about an aspect of your life. As information is processed that seems to affirm this story, it gains dominance over other potential alternative stories that counter such a story. Technically, the dominant story subjugates the alternative story.

Alternative stories are vital to our functioning as rational, logical human beings. We need to be constantly integrating or rejecting alternative stories in a Hegelian manner to make sense of our world. Without them we stand to lose perspective on our world.

And so, in the case of Tony Leon, I'm saddened that I may not be able to hear his voice, often embodying an alternative story of what is happening in our country's narrative pulse. I'm even more perturbed by the speculation and conjecturing that his successor should be chosen on racial grounds so that the DA can gain some ascendency amongst black south African's and not on the basis of how this person will be best embody the opposition voice.


Images courtesy of Curiouser and Curiouser1


On the doorstep of magic

picture of narrative bookToday I picked up my eagerly-awaited copy of Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. It has been on my to-read list for what seems like aeons. Guilt has driven me: for someone so passionate about narrative, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it should already have dirty, dog-eared, coffee-stained pages as it lies at the bottom of my bookcase.

Barely a few pages in, I have this uneasy feeling that I recognise as the same feeling I've had when friends have offered to show me how they do the little magic tricks they know.

Know that feeling?

You're giddy with the child-like awe of a mysterious event, but know that there is a rational explanation for this "magic". Do you give in and find out the "secret", or do you hold onto the joyous awe and relish it? The awe wants to be sustained. Your mind bounces back as strongly with a craving for the peace of knowing. Inevitably you ask for the answer, knowing that you'd never be able to see the trick in the same innocent way again. I wonder if Adam and Eve had the same experience?

I digress.

In addition to Booker's basic premise of exploring the 7 basic narrative plots that permeate all of our stories, he poses that all stories come from the same source. He says,

"When we penetrate to the root of what our impulse to imagine stories is really about, we see there is in fact no kind of story, however serious or however trivial, which does not ultimately spring from the same source: Which is not shaped by the same archetypal rules and spun from the same universal language."

This is a dilemma. Do I continue reading knowing that I may never be able to watch a movie in the same innocent, participative manner again. Knowing that I may be saying goodbye to the sublime surrender that allows me to get wrapped up in the story, but rather sit on my couch with my new cerebral friend who will want to identify and analyse the basic plot and it's probable ending before the movie is out?

The excitement over J.K. Rowling's final instalment of the Harry Potter series is also at risk. I had no clue that Dumbledore would be killed and now I run the risk of knowing the ending before even reading it (if she is also subject to Booker's notions of the same archetypal rules)

Or, the possibility exists that I'm being overly melodramatic about this, continue reading, discover the "magic" and be disappointed because it is so weak much like finding out the secret behind a trick is far from enchanting.

I'll let you know.

Why narrative

pciture of narrative notesI often get asked why I believe narrative is such an important part of addressing issues around organisational culture and change. Here is a brief explanation:

There is a common discussion thread amongst people involved in organisations: the business environment is becoming more complex than ever before. In days gone by we could get a grasp on organisational issues with ease as we linked the problem with its cause and resultant effect. Today however, the business landscape is more complex. The tried and tested means of identifying, analyzing and resolving issues seems to be less effective.

It is in this context of discontinuous change that I believe narrative and storytelling have an important role to play as we develop and improve our organisations and their ability to navigate the unpredictable business landscape.

If the nature of problems is changing as well, we need a way of understanding problems that adapts to this complexity. I believe such understanding can be achieved through the use of narrative and stories in organisations. If there is one form of communication than can handle complexity, and even embody it, it is narrative. Stories are by their very nature complex and simple at the same time.

Stories told by employees, and the stories of the organisation’s history, capture and communicate a wider degree of knowledge about the organisation and its culture than linguistic statements do. Capturing stories is for us a preferred way of understanding your organisation, its depth, soul and goings on.

One needs to be intentionally mindful that our organizations are human in nature, and that it is the human side of our business that will be the competitive advantage in this ever-changing world. Change and its effects are not restricted to the structural processes and divisions with which we typically analyse business. The way in which people view themselves, how they add value to the organization, how they behave and what they hold dear are paramount in a culture that handles change. Never before has collective identity and culture been so important to the success of an organization.

There are two basic challenges as leaders navigate this landscape: integrating individuals into an effective whole, and adapting effectively to the external environment in order to survive. As groups find solutions to these problems over time, they engage in a kind of collective learning that creates the set of shared assumptions and beliefs we call "culture."

Thinking about and engaging with organizational culture is a leadership imperative. Edgar Schein writes, "The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them." I argue that the consciousness Schein describes is best achieved through the use of narrative.

Because culture is so embedded within the history and shared experience of the organization, the stories told by employeess and the stories of the organisation capture the organisational memory and culture in a more robust and useful manner than do best practice cultural audits.

Narrative is also profoundly useful in establishing a shared, integrated organisational culture. Schein (1993) argues that dialogue, rooted in narrative and experiences, enables groups to create a shared set of meanings and a common thinking process. Culture surrounds us all, and we need to understand how it is created, embedded, developed, manipulated, managed, and changed. To understand the culture is to understand your organization.



We're the Web's last frontier

Look, we may be a bit behind the times in terms of infrastructure, but I definitely do not have free-roaming lions and elephants to deal with outside my mud-hut as I write this post. Nor did I have to stoke the coal burner for enough energy to power my laptop.

It's writing like this from the reputable business magazine and site, Inc.com , that Safari-gear stores in the States and Europe love as bundling tourists spend valuable cash in preparation for a visit to deepest, darkest Africa.