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Storytelling In The News: #109

Cyclical vs linear storytelling in organizational change

April 4, 2004

During my stay in Australia last week, I participated in a workshop in a storytelling program that has reached some 60,000 participants and evaluated as a success by the Australian Government. Although the program is focused on helping individuals cope with personal transitions and loss, it has implications for organizational change programs, which often founder on unexpressed grieving for "the way things used to be".

Change and and the loss of personal identity

These days, personal identity is bound up with what we do in the context of our work. When that work context suddenly and significantly changes, the individuals involved are essentially being asked to change their personal identities. It's hardly any wonder that this doesn't happen easily or quickly or naturally.

While participants may appear to be going along with organizational change programs, there is often an invisible undercurrent of feeling focused on getting back to "the way things used to be". When the opportunity presents itself, employees abruptly revert to the old way of behaving, because "that's how things have always been done around here".

The typical management tactic is to ignore the "silent grieving" for the past and hope that sufficient momentum can be created for the change that those who yearn for the past will be swept along by the forward progress.

An alternative is to recognize the grieving process for what it is and explicitly deal with it. The difficulty in accomplishing this is that there are no obvious processes or terminology in the management vocabulary for coping with such deep-seated and rarely expressed feelings.

This is where the Australian program called "Seasons for Growth" might come in. It's a program aimed at helping people of all ages cope with major change and transitions in their lives. It involves a shift from a linear lens to a cyclical lens on the world.

The linear storytelling lens

Western civilization is largely based on a linear view of the world. It is exemplified by Aristotle’s Poetics, in which a story is seen as something with a beginning, a middle and an ending. Once the story has ended, it’s over. The story has ended, and there’s nothing left for the listener but a void. The linear view of life is just a metaphor for the world, but if we use this metaphor to view the world, we find ourselves in this void, when the story ends. It’s a void created by a linear lens that we’re using to view the world.

The linear view of the world is also implicit in such models as Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" which tracks the progress of a protagonist in a voyage that has a start and an ending.

The problem with the linear view of the world is that once the story ends, there is nowhere else to go. One is left in a void. When things are going well, that may not be a problem. But when severe personal loss is involved, such as death of a loved one or devastating illness or incapacity, the ending of the story can cause various kinds of anxiety, unease, neuroses, suffering and unhappiness and an inability to cope.

It’s not often realized that the linear lens is something that we bring to the world, not something that is inherent in the world itself. What we don’t always grasp that it’s not the only lens that we can use to view the world. The fact is that we can bring other lenses to view the world. In particular we can view the world through a cyclical lens, of which the lens of seasons is an example.

The cyclical lens

The Seasons for Growth program is based not on a linear view of life but rather on cyclical view of the world. It uses a metaphor -- the four seasons of the annual calendar. In the annual calendar, the seasons never “end”. Autumn is followed by winter, which is followed by spring, and which is followed by summer, and then we’re into autumn again, and so on. There is never a point in time when the seasons have ended. The seasons never end. They just change.

Each of the seasons has a meaning which flows from the previous and which leads on to the next season. Thus:

* Autumn is the season of which we experience loss. The fruits drop to the ground, the flowers are no more. We recognize that the flourishing summer is no longer with us.

* Winter is a season which we experience the pain of this loss. In the cold of the season, we tend to go inwards, and suffer from the lack of what is no longer with us.

* Spring is the season when we experience the thrill of the rebirth of new life. We still remember the coldness of winter, but we also look ahead to the potential of new growth, new energy, new prospects of life.

* Summer is the season for the enjoyment of the fullness of life, its plenitude, its richness, luxuriant in the fruits. It’s a season of looking outwards, of satisfaction, of pleasure, of delight of happiness.

No season is right or wrong. It’s rather that each season is different.

We might like to be always “in summer” or always “in spring”, but this is not possible in our world. Loss and change is inevitable. Wisdom entails embracing change and recognizing that there are seasons and feelings appropriate to each part of the cycle, and honoring those feelings.

In the cyclical view of the world, the seasons never end. One season follows another, inevitably and necessarily.

Each season has a set of feelings associated with it, and that are appropriate to it.

When it comes to the weather, we can see that there is no point in fighting or denying the shift from Spring and Summer to Autumn and Winter. It’s the same in dealing with human loss and transition. There’s no point fighting the seasons. Human life is inevitably filled with loss and the pain of loss. Life can’t be perpetual enjoyment. The point is to understand the seasons and learn the ways of dealing with the peculiarities of each season, and learn various ways of coping with the different seasons, and how to move on from one to the other.

Understanding the seasons

Through the metaphor of the four seasons, participants in Seasons for Growth find a vocabulary and a conceptual framework for talking about loss.

Seasons for Growth helps participants to see that stories don’t end – it’s just that the seasons move on. In a cyclical view of the world as seasons, the story never ends. You never get out of the story. The seasons simply continue.

Participants come to see that change involves genuine loss – Autumn – that led to real pain – Winter. But then they can also see that Winter doesn't have to go on forever. Winter is eventually followed by Spring. In my case, Spring means finding ways to move on and find new sources of identity and creativity.

Of course, this view of the Seasons doesn't remove the pain of loss. Participants still find themselves myself slipping back in Winter from time to time. But now they can see it for what it is . Remembering the loss isn't the end of the world any more. Participants are no longer in a void. They recognize that Winter is a temporary period. They can see that Winter is the natural response of grief to loss. It is a way of recognizing the pain. Being able to talk about the feelings associated with change equips better them to deal with it. The metaphor of the seasons enables them to talk to others about their loss and the feelings associated with it. They have a vocabulary for talking about it. And they see that it's not a perpetual Winter. They know that they will get back to Spring and Summer again. And this knowledge bolsters their confidence and helps them get back to Spring and Summer again sooner than they otherwise would have.

The shift from independence to interdependence

The normal management approach to the loss of identity caused by change -- if anyone ever dares raise the issue -- is to urge employees to “stop living in the past”, “grow up”, and “get over it”. That story had ended. Everybody is meant to have moved on. Everyone is expected to be “independent” and resilient, by putting their loss behind them and never talking about it and in effect denying the reality that it has actually happened. Since the story had ended, there was supposedly no place for it in their lives as “independent” adults. The model of an independent adult was someone who shucked off life’s problems, turned the page and moved on.

The choices presented are thus either (a) morbidly and wrongly living in the past in thinking about the loss, or (b) “moving on” and living in denial that it had ever happened.

The whole model of being an independent adult, who shucks off life’s problems, who turns pages, and forgets about loss and never talks about it with others, is a heroic model, but one that is essentially unlivable. It overlooks the fact that we as human beings are not just independent decision-making animals: we are interdependent. We are totally dependent for the first decade or two of our lives and also totally dependent for the last one or two decades of our lives. Even for the period of our adult lives when our current culture invites us to think of ourselves as independent we are actually interdependent on others for almost everything that makes life possible and worth living – our food, our water, our electricity, our transport, our communications, our language, our books, our entertainment. We are at best interdependent animals.

And nowhere is this more important in the area of dealing with loss and change. When the world is uncaring and unsupportive of the seasons that we happen to be going through, it just makes things worse. The model of independence has implicit within it a view of human nature that is out of sync with the world. The model of independence works moderately well for the season of Summer, for those moments when everything is going well and we are enjoying life with full satisfaction. But life isn’t just about Summer. Life also has inevitable loss and pain in it – i.e. Autumn and Winter.

The independence model is a model designed for perpetually fair weather. It isn’t a good model for human life which is inevitably full not only fair weather but of frequently inclement weather.

The model of independence is a very bad model when it comes to the loss of Autumn or the pain of Winter, when it tells us to “grow up”, and “get over it” and “turn the page”. By denying the reality of the seasons, it makes the pain worse, and makes it more difficult to deal with.

It is when the environment accepts and respects the reality of different seasons in our lives, and recognizes that we are interdependent and needing support and nourishment from our environment that we are better able to cope.

And that’s an interesting dimension of the Seasons for Growth program. It’s about building networks and communities that provide support through the different seasons of life. Providing a supportive metaphor of life that not only helps us to understand the different seasons in our life, and to be able to discuss these issues in a caring and respectful way, but also enables to recognize which season we are in, and think about the kinds of actions that are appropriate to that season, and also providing a supportive environment for others who are going through different seasons in their lives.

Implications for corporate change programs

Corporate change programs could learn from Seasons for Growth by drawing on its principal elements::

* It’s a shift from viewing the world through a linear lens (where stories end and live in a void) to one of viewing the world through a cyclical lens (where the story never ends – it just changes).

* It’s a shift from an unrealistic vision of individuals as heroically independent, able to shuck off life’s losses and pains, to a vision of individuals as inherently interdependent and entitled to support and nurturing as we cope with the transitions of living.

* It offers a helpful metaphor for understanding and coping with the inevitable loss and pain that accompanies all human life, including the changes involved in corporate change programs.

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