One of the projects I have been working on recently, with my excellent colleague Jan Allon-Smith, has been resolving and long-standing, ingrained and toxic conflict in a large organisation.
We did a lot of preparatory work (interviews, report-writing etc) to understand the issues, and then to present (as Peter Block recommends in the excellent Flawless Consulting) a clear and simple picture of what is happening, and develop a possible way forward; and in particular to earn the trust of those involved. But the delivery end of the project has been surprisingly light-touch. Nonetheless, in a few short meetings, spread over a few months, we have helped people re-write what had been a conflict-saturated story.
Interestingly, this has been one of those occasions where the work on shifting stories has been more implicit than explicit. Whilst we referred to stories explicitly in the initial report and recommendations, we haven’t used that language in the meetings/workshops when we have gathered the participants together. Indeed, we have used very little formal theory, beyond proposing Nancy Kline’s components of a Thinking Environment as ground rules for the conversations.
So we opened with a brief check in, using pictures as an invitation to say something personal, and then explained the Thinking Environment ground rules. With those in place – that is a real commitment to listen and attend to each other – we simply invited the protagonists to tell their stories (though, as I say, we didn’t u
se this language): their unhelpful stories of how it had been, and why they wanted to change, and their more helpful stories of how they would like it to be.
When everyone had been heard, and had heard each others’ stories, it emerged (as we had hoped) that they all agreed that they had all contributed to the problems; that they all wanted to move on; and that they believed that collectively, they could do so. So we invited them to identify what that would take, and what they should do if they felt anyone was backsliding, and that became their agreed action plan (thickening the plot of the new, more helpful story of working well together). Finally, we had a brief checkout, again using the picture cards to prompt them to reflect on how they felt at the end of the meeting.
That initial meeting was itself, of course, an example of them working well together, so they had real experience of that which made the new story more credible.
This week, we had a follow up meeting. We started with a check in: again using the pictures, in part to help re-capture the spirit of the first meeting. Then we reminded them of those same ground rules. And then (and not without some trepidation) invited them each to tell us what had gone well, and what less well, since the last meeting.
What was most interesting from a ManyStory point of view was how their stories about themselves and each other had shifted in the intervening period. They were far more positive about their colleagues (former antagonists) and had noticed them going out of their way to honour the commitments made at the previous meeting. They were more self-aware, reflecting both on what they had done that was helpful, and also on the fact that they still had some way to go.
They were also honest about problems that had arisen: but how they talked about them was different: they were problems to be solved together, not signs of mistrust and betrayal as they would have been a few months ago. Changing the story, the lens through which they were interpreting everything, changes everything. And they saw the unhelpful story as largely in the past; whilst the more helpful one was partly come true, and partly still beckoning just over the horizon. Indeed, in the final check out, it was interesting to see the images people were choosing: stormy seas in the background, with calm patches in view, and similar.
We have agreed to re-visit all this in the New Year, as they are clear that there is still work to do. But given teh shift that we have seen, we think the odds are very high that the new story will be more fully established, and the old, unhelpful, conflict-saturated story will be consigned to history, and only remembered for the purposes of learning and acknowledging the progress made.