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  • Writer's pictureNick Smith

Q is for Quest ...

A Christmas and New Year break like none I've known - lacking in time with friends and family, no changes in scenery. In pursuit, I suppose, of a different 2021, with the challenges of 2020 resolving themselves into a new, richer, normal - though as the vaccines enabling that arrive, so also do new variants and another lockdown. This will change me, will change us. Sounds a bit like an epic quest - and, ironically, Scottish Quest (other nations are available) was one boardgame that made an appearance over the break.

A quest, of course, is only one form a story can take - one that lends itself to play, to games. Both story and play are important for us not just as children, but also as we navigate adult challenges, as we grow and develop more broadly, as we change. Stories offer the potential for reframing our experience: who we are, where we've been, and where we're going - they bring meaning. And play lightens the tone, while further developing the imaginative skills that help us with that reframing and exploration of past, present and future.

So it's no surprise that stories, often quest stories, have come to play an important role in engaging people in organisational change - inviting them into the story, to make a change journey: coming together at a present start point that recognises past successes and failures; travelling through clear and threatening challenges; to reach a better future. We've found that when well constructed and skilfully deployed, such stories will sustain and remain effective over extended periods, providing a shared and helpful commentary on, and navigation through, change.

The many variants of story theory explore the roles stories can fulfil, and the different underlying characteristics and structures they can exhibit - and highlighting these makes it clear why stories can be a powerful tool for business change. Some random examples with which we're almost certainly familiar:

  • Story-telling to create the opportunity for engagement, interaction, and feedback

  • Stories as a tool to connect the individual to the wider group or to new groups, and to shared purpose, experience, values, and / or culture

  • Story structures that can act analogously for organisational change journeys - featuring dissatisfaction with, or a call to leave, the present situation; a challenging journey, with obstacles, helpers, threats, and courage; success (often initially requiring renewed effort if it is to be secured for the long term), reward, and / or a new, enhanced community.

Back to my end of year break to apply this for the now. I'm wondering if the current situation - journeying through a Covid landscape - might mean we'd do well to incorporate into new (or renewed) organisational change stories some aspects we tend to leave out:

  • Existential threat: that's where many of our organisations are, with Covid threatening the organisation itself, or at the very least, the form it's taken till now

  • Unanticipated dangers: we can't (I suspect) predict all of the very real challenges we're going to face over the next few years - that's true of allies we'll encounter too

  • The contingent nature of successful change: the reality is, it seems, that whether success through Covid is thriving or merely surviving, that we're going to have to fight to sustain it

  • Re-integration into our renewed community: isn't part of our hope that post-Covid our organisational communities will be renewed, albeit with changed ways of working?

So, what about (re-)writing our organisational change stories to incorporate those elements - and inviting and equipping those making the change journeys to recognise that they are the heroes of these quest stories? Anybody done that yet?

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