The Narrative Lens and Organizational Change

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Issues & Observations

The Narrative Lens and Organizational Change
Nick Nissley and Stedman Graham


hat do a CEO and a six-year-old child grieving over the death of her pet dog have in common? More than you might think. Recently a friend told us a story about her daughter, who after the death of the family’s chocolate Labrador said, “I wish we could just give Woody a pill and make him a puppy again.” It reminded us that when people’s health fails them, they often seek prescriptions. Our friend’s daughter was hoping for a drug remedy to restore her dog’s health and vitality. Later that evening we attended a client engagement in San Diego, where we listened to the organization’s CEO speak to more than a hundred shareholders, telling them the story of the organization he founded. He proudly talked about the company’s founding and its history of winning. But he also painted an honest picture of a less-thanoptimistic market outlook and the complex challenges and risks the company was facing. He said that strategies that had worked for the company in the past would no longer help it navigate through future challenges. He described how the company would be forced to

shift gears. He confidently told the shareholders that a new strategic plan had been drawn up at the company’s recent leadership retreat and that his management team was beginning to deliver on it.

The business world in recent years has shown increasing interest in the narrative lens and more specifically in the relationship between leadership storytelling and organizational change.

Editor’s note: Issues & Observations is a venue for CCL staff members and associates to express their personal views about leadership.

After the CEO finished speaking, we reflected on his speech. His approach sounded quite similar to approaches detailed in many other executives’ speeches to shareholders we had heard over the past few years. The next day we continued to reflect on the similarity of the CEO’s speech to many we had heard before. At the same time, our

friend’s story of her daughter’s response to the death of the family dog—her desire for a prescription to make everything right—was percolating in our minds. We came to appreciate both stories through the lens of narrative. The CEO was telling his shareholders a story— actually two stories: one a proud story of organizational health and the other, like the story of Woody, a story of demise and the desire to restore good health. It was as if the CEO had to let go of one script and embrace another—a new strategic plan for his team to enact. In the months following our experience in San Diego, we came to more fully appreciate the power of the narrative lens. The business world in recent years has shown increasing interest in the narrative lens and more specifically in the relationship between leadership storytelling and organizational change. Consider some of the recently published books that address the power of leadership storytelling: The Power of Story: Rewrite Your Destiny in Business and in Life, by Jim Loehr (Free Press, 2007), Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact, by Annette Simmons (AMACOM, 2007), and The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative, by Stephen Denning (Jossey-Bass, 2005). It was

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When It’s Time for a New Script
The idea (and the term) of rescription arose from Nick Nissley’s applied research at the Banff Centre and Stedman Graham’s leadership coaching experience with executives around the world. Rescription is a narrative tool, a process employed by leaders to create new stories when their old stories no longer serve them. For example, organizations and their leaders often become stuck in dysfunctional story lines and find themselves repeating scripts that don’t yield the desired results....
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