By Ian Gee: (Edgelands Consultancy)
I really enjoyed the discussion about edgelands that my last post stimulated and what you have all said has got me thinking, in particular about the use of the journey metaphor in the practice of OD.
It seems to me, that since the beginning of time, we have been using the metaphor of the journey to characterise change and transformation. I am sure all of us, as practitioners, have used this metaphor to facilitate processes whereby we help teams and organisations map out their ‘journey’ from current reality to a desired future state. How often though, hand on heart, can we say that the ‘journey’ has been completed as planned and the transformation fully realised? That is, the ‘journey’ has come to a successful conclusion, and the Hobbits go home happy and satisfied!
The notion of journeys is not just embedded the practice of OD but all around us. From the ‘X factor’ to ‘The Great British Bake Off’ people talk about the ‘journey’ they are on. I am beginning to think geneticists will soon announce they have found the ‘journey’ gene in our DNA!
I recently read and would recommend ‘The Undiscovered Country, Journeys Amongst the Dead’ by Carl Watkins. He references Elizabeth Rowe’s 1728 book ‘Friendship in Death, ’ which she wrote after the death of her beloved husband Thomas. In the book she imagines a series of letters Thomas has sent back to her from ‘that celestial place’. His letters describe the journeys others have taken to get there. Thomas presents death as a passage from one country to another. ‘Released from the tempestuous journeys of this world. the dead alight among soft and peaceful habitation and the summits of everlasting hills’. This reminded me of running a workshop with Dick Beckhard in the early days of developing my OD skills and capabilities. One of Dicks’ techniques was to get participants to write a first person, present tense, account of what they and their organisations would be like and doing 3 or 4 years after the change they were planning had taken place. Learning from Dick, who was a great teacher and mentor, I have also had many people at the end of workshops write a post card, from the future, to themselves.
So why do I think journeys are for Hobbits? I know from my practice, that in meetings where the senior leader has stood up before a group and started in on the journey metaphor, people tell me their heart sinks and they look on with a tired weariness. Why is this? I believe what the journey metaphor ignores is that during any change or transformation we enter a liminal space. The word liminal comes from the Latin Limens, meaning ‘threshold’. Liminal space is a place of transition, waiting and not knowing. Liminality, like death, is a personal experience and not one subject to universal solutions or true understanding. The universal journey of change preached by leaders and OD professionals alike is just that, universal. It implies a universality of experience and a shared sense of what the future might be. Our increasing use of Social Media has led us into a world where we expect everything to be targeted and personalised. The universal journey metaphor does not take account of this or the intense process of liminality that change and transformation generate. I believe that we OD professionals need do is develop new metaphors, even journey ones, that are personal, interactive, engaging and participative. It would be great to hear what you think and if you agree, your ideas on how we can do this in ways that honour our individual experiences of liminality and change.