Making Organizational Transformation a Bridge to the Future instead of a Cliff

Making Organizational Transformation a Bridge to the Future instead of a Cliff

In the recently released annual Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Report, 88% of respondents reported the need to redesign their organization to meet the needs of the future as Important or Very Important, making it the most important issue of the year for the 10,000 executives in 140 countries that were surveyed. No less striking: Only 11% reported feeling competent to build the organization of the future.

Why such a big gap between urgent need and capability? One reason may be the way that change is represented as the need to get ready for a completely different and unrecognizable future right now.  Preparation starts to look like the need to jump off the solid ground of the present into a dark and uncertain abyss.  Alarming indeed.

But what if preparation were more like building a bridge between the past and the future?   That would be a much more stable and reassuring approach to the unknown, and we could leave the past behind slowly as we became more familiar with the contours of the future.

The is the premise of the transformation planning framework offered by the Strategic Narrative Institute, and why I have written so much about the importance of drawing strength from the past. Neither organizations nor people can simply shed the narratives, habits or muscle memory of the past when they want to do something new.

But they can review the past, bring to the surface the many voices and actions, decisions and processes that generated the present, and make decisions—in the same way they  do about the future—about which elements of the past they most want to retain to set the course of the journey to the future.

Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Incorporate a review of existing official and unofficial narratives of the organization into strategic planning sessions, or into transformation planning. The explicit and implicit narratives about how the organization came into being makes it clearer which will serve the future, and which may need to be abandoned
  • Gather different stakeholders from within the organization to generate ideas about the narrative of the past, especially if they will play a role in driving the narrative of the future
  • Put together a timeline of the official past, based on published accounts, leaders’ speeches or other media or lore as a baseline for the narrative the organization tells about itself
  • Ask questions such as:
    • When did the narrative of this organization begin? It may have been on the day doors opened for business, or when the founders got their big idea, or for others, when they first arrived on the scene.
    • What were the most important events that shaped the present? These may be those recorded in history, or never recorded.
    • Are there critical events that should be considered part of history that have been forgotten?
    • Which events were changing points for the organization?
    • Are there exemplary events that embody the values, or traits that will be required going forward?

Even a simple activity organized as a discussion can produce a recognition that the past, that solid and comforting ground under our feet, can play a useful role in preparing people for innovation and new practices. It is surprising on its face to make the claim that the past is as open ended as the future. After all, it happened. But new discoveries, recovered artifacts of our physical and cognitive experiences, and revisions in what we believe is important mean that there are always choices about how to remember. 

As you prepare for organizational transformation, you can interrogate the past as well: What will serve as a critical touchpoint for continuity? What parts of the past is it time to lay to rest? In what ways are the organization’s intended future already present in the life of its past?

Each month, the Catalyst provides a quick list of useful and provocative sources for thinking more deeply and building strong strategic narratives in our institutions, communities and nations.

This month features two projects that literally provide new narratives about complex challenges, and thus new pathways to solutions. Maybe they are models for your own innovative approach to exploring new solutions to hard problems:

Collaborative Game: Narratives of Daily Life in a Changed Climate

Climate change isn’t something most of us are experiencing all at once, so how could we know how a changed future climate will really affect our everyday lives? News and analytic reports can provide us with trends and information, but not the palpable, tactile feelings of our daily experience.

In 2014, a collaboration between gamemaker extraordinaire Ken Eklund and Columbia University’s PoLAR Partnership gave us a way, through a game that playfully imagined that “the voicemail system of the future has sprung a leak,” as Eklund put it.  Little bits of daily communication fall through the leak into the present in the form of voicemails: From a woman in 2050 seeking to stay with a friend if she cannot sell her house on the Florida coast before it is submerged in the encroaching ocean; from a woman raving about the great rock climbing in 2041; from a guy calling his friend, and bummed out about a Chicago concert cancelled because of the heat. 

As Wired explained the project before its inception:

“Sometime in the near future(s), something will go awry with the voicemail system sending messages spiraling back through time, a phenomenon that is being referred to as “chronofall.” These messages take the form of small, elegant crystalline structures referred to as “chronofacts” that can be decoded to reveal a taste of life in the future. But these chronofacts aren’t just coming from “the” future: chronofacts carry voicemails from the cloud of all possible futures: happy futures, bleak futures, unimaginable futures. A new project called FutureCoast and its “Coaster” enthusiasts seek to collect as many chronofacts as possible, with the goal of cataloging and organizing them into coherent glimpses of the possible futures awaiting us….”

The supercool project is now over, but all of its artifacts are still available on the web: 

You can learn more about the project here.

You can listen to the voicemail-chronofacts here.

You can watch a video about an art exhibit inspired by the voicemails here

Multimedia Education: Narratives of Resilience to Violent Extremism

Extreme Dialogue was founded in 2016 to “reduce the appeal of extremism among young people and offer a positive alternative to the increasing amounts of extremist materials and propaganda available online." It combines short films and educational resources for teachers and others to provoke new thinking and dialogue around radicalization.

The chief goal of the project is to open safe spaces for difficult conversations. Beginning with the premise that ‘a problem cannot be solved in the same frame with which it was created, Extreme Dialogue offers a different frame. As the authors of the Teacher’s Guide write, “ We believe that we must listen, and listen harder, providing places and spaces in which people can encounter ‘the other’, abandon assumptions and allow for critical and meaningful dialogue, whether through film or in real life, or preferably both. Our resources aim to help achieve this.”

The films are powerful autobiographical accounts by the real people who experienced them.  Billy Mccurrie explains how his father’s murder by the Irish Republican Army as a child inspired him to seek revenge through violent participation in an opposing paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force. He forswore violence after being arrested and imprisoned. Canadian Christianne Beaudreau tells the story of her son Damian, who was killed in Syria after joining ISIS, and her own tale of the experience as his mother.

Project materials are available in English, French, Hungarian and Dutch. Extreme dialogue was funded by the European Commission and Public Safety Canada, and film makers, policy research, educational and philanthropic organizations also served as project partners.

The project’s homepage, with links to films and teaching resources, is available here.

Webinars: Accelerate Organizational Transformation with Strategic Narrative Insights. If you are seeking ways to more effectively prepare your organization for the future using narrative-based strategy, a webinar on this approach could be a valuable use of an hour.  A recent  presentation to Ascentios Growth Partners, based in Johannesburg, provided an opportunity for a rich discussion of the challenges of organizational change that participants described as valuable and relevant. 

Keynote: Thriving on the Cusp of Uncertainty: Why do some leaders and organizations manage change more readily than others? I will be sharing insights and practical guidance into this question for the MetLife Annual National Brokers Summit in New York City this month. If this is a question that your organization would also like to explore, I’d love to hear from you at

Assessment: Is your Organization Optimized to Explore Alternative Futures?  It’s great to hear that an increasing number of organizations are concerned about the future and may want to engage in a formal strategic foresight project to better grasp potential alternative futures.

This highly rewarding activity is also a difficult one because it asks people to leave behind their typical assumptions.  This assessment can help leaders and teams make the most of a potential project by making sure that necessary resources and mindsets are in place before any projects get off the ground. You can take the Strategic Foresight Readiness Assessment here.

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