Journeys are for Hobbits

Posted: February 28, 2013 by Ian Gee in Change, Human Resources, Leadership, OD


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.

  1. vpettee says:

    Ian, your comments certainly stimulate thought. I’m of a more jaded point of view. I wonder if the majority of us have grown beyond that need for metaphors. Maybe we could revert to the fifties…the plain truth. Do metaphors immediately engender caution and distrust in the Hobbits’ minds?

  2. Carole Grimwood says:

    I couldn’t agree more. The journey is well and truly over and I’m not convinced that a single metaphor is helpful. It’s interesting that you should choose The Hobbit. I see that particular journey as much more of an adventure – and the concept of a series of adventures is one that has more resonance for me. Adventure brings connotations which are more positive, exciting and engaging whilst at the same time full of unknowns, challenge and risk. How we approach our adventures is both personal and defining.

    One approach that has worked well is making use of the creative metaphors of books and films to which individuals can personally relate. The metaphors that emerge from this are incredibly varied and can provide new frames of reference that bring insight and help to shift focus.

    • Alan Warner says:

      A picture tells a thousand words . It is a well known journalistic technique to describe the height of something as say the size of two double decker buses on top of each other or the area of something as say four football pitches . The idea is of course to try and quickly connect with the listener or reader.
      The question therefore is , does it matter how a message or approach is described ? Surely the best approach is one that works and if a journey does it for some people so what?
      However , I interpret what Ian is saying as being that the OD professional needs to be sensitive to the needs of their client which includes context and style . They may want to change all or some of where they are now and getting on the same wavelength with the person responsible for that change and the people who are being asked to change requires more than a stock metaphor, it needs all that Ian has suggested and sometimes it maybe a journey.

  3. mrhibbert says:

    At my place, the comms survey I do regularly fetches up some negative feedback about ‘journey’ metaphors, usually from older hands. For them it conjures up the forced marches they’ve endured previously, and reminds them of the leaders who had a dream, then left. Or the leaders who had a dream, then changed the destination (perhaps ducking the chance to explain why Dream A was wrong). Or the leaders who had a dream, then realised that shooting 10% of the pilgrims would get them there quicker.

    Trouble is, as Bruce Chatwin tells us, there’s a nomad under our collective skin that makes this one of the few ways we know to talk about progress (& check the etymology of “progress”). The other big one is ‘building’, but that’s more appropriate for contexts where the design is clear and the steps required just involve some concerted lifting. Journeys make it possible for us to talk in vaguer terms about achieving a vision – in a more open-ended process that calls on everyone to discover the necessary design elements by focusing on one objective. Old hands hate these visions – they experience them as temporary blights on the real work, which tends to be unchanging.

    Another thought: Vagueness is particularly useful for C-Suite folk who have to tiptoe around exhaustively detailed and robust strategies and plans at lower levels – they need to paint a picture without offering detail that flatly contradicts such plans (thus alienating their owners). In consequence, while they provide a nice, cohering narrative for very senior leadership, juniors notice that these visions tend to lack teeth or local impact (although a surprising number of visions will cash out in cost cutting their local leadership is delighted to be able to blame on the CEO).

    So I wonder if visions on the whole are suspect – management apologia, not practical information. Perhaps it’s better to talk about the hard metrics we’re aiming to shift, and to tell a coherent story about those (having ironed out the differences with middle-management in advance).

  4. Sam Ma'ayan says:

    Very interesting article Ian, especially the connection between the language used to describe change problems and organisational ‘change fatigue’. Out of interest, how do you think this relates to consumer confidence? Do commercial organisations that generate significant brand loyalty (I’m thinking perhaps banks, sports teams, fashion brands etc) and are publicly going through a ‘journey of change’ place their customers into this same weary state the senior leaders must go through?

  5. I think metaphors and anything else that bring stories to life are great as long as they are relevant, simplify the complex and so on. The problem with a “journey” is that it implies there is a beginning and an end. And yet we hear every day that change is constant. For those impacted negatively, the journey’s end quickly begins to sound like being pushed off a cliff or told you have a terminal illness, whereas the truth is that it’s really just the end of one chapter and the start of a new one (mixing metaphors already). And there’s even less of a journey’s end if you remain in an organization to fight on. I agree with Alan that, like religion, if it works so what? Even if it does seem a bit of a cop out to wheel out and dust off the old journey slides. Maybe we should call it “life”. After all, as in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, it wasn’t really about the journey at all but how he changed his view on life along the way.

  6. I like – and totally agree with – the idea of change being a liminal “near death experience”. Actually, that´s quite accurate in terms of the workings of our minds – there is this void we sometimes drop into when facing challenging stuff. It´s quite natural. The problem often is that organizations are generally not very competent in dealing with these kinds of experiences, which ultimately drive peoples´ behaviors. I think the first step is to take seriously the fact that experiences drive behaviors, behaviors are always subjective and dynamic, while change management is too often objective and rigid.

  7. We live in an extraordinarily linear culture and we may be about to experience the shock of understanding that the story of humanity is not one of unending “progress”. Older metaphors of stewardship, gardening, circularity, continuing to reproduce wisdom authentically etc have a power and truth that we ignore.

  8. natalia says:

    Good reflections….. At the end my taste is…we need to innovate faster!

  9. Brad says:

    I think the Americans would use the term – “the narrative” similar to how you have used the term – “the journey”, only avoiding the notion of an ‘end’. To me the value in OD/HR is quite similar to how (and why) organizations develop mission, vision and value statements in order to store dynamic applications in a more static media. The power of the journey/narrative is found in its ability to be unfurled in parallel with our natural thought processes, resonating like music, in order to expedite the transference and retention of values, if not knowledge. However if the story-line is more template than real, more medium than message, more music devoid of verse, it can backfire. The power, and I do mean power, of controlling an effective narrative should never be discounted for it relates directly to the expression, ‘history is written by the victors’. A real journey communicated effectively can invaluably bring sustainability to information and data, a contrived journey resonates like music in a vacuum. Knowing the difference is an important competency in OD/HR.

  10. Arun S Kaimal says:

    Many Thanks for sharing your blog. i beneifted from the same .i do agree , as a young learner / traveller in the world of HR, the journey metaphor resonated with me but could well mean different things to different individuals depending on thier life stages .

    Also as some say the pleasure of the chase comes to an end with the catch . May be the new paradigm in the uberconnected world of today is to be ‘travelling always’ and never cease to be in the state of motion ( journey ) . The search for excellence never stops . This Agility is something that we all need to inculcate into ourselves so that we are able to steer velocity in the right direction and not necessarily towards a predefined end goal .

    Thanks again for sharing thoughts Ian . Keep walking :o)

  11. Ruth Steinholtz says:

    Metaphors speak to people’s emotions. Many in the C suite prefer not to acknowledge emotion, however managing purely on the basis of rationality is no better than managing purely on the basis of emotion. A balance is needed. Metaphors are useful in my opinion because they speak to the heart – the difficult bit is that they communicate different things to different people depending on their experience as mrhibbert points out. I don’ t think that is a reason not to look for metaphors; rather it supports Ian’s initial premise that perhaps it is time to look for new metaphors and not to rely solely on the concept of the journey.

    Thank you Ian for the thought-provoking post – I am not sure what other metaphors are appropriate, but I will put the question on the “back-burner” and allow my unconscious to ponder it! I admit that I wince when talking about the journey to clients, but I had never challenged myself to find a better way to describe what I meant! I appreciate the challenge.

  12. Imran Rehman says:

    Thanks for this thought provoking post and it has got me thinking. A journey unfolds and has an undetermined end that could either excite, energise or leave you hanging on a limb. What came to me were two thoughts that dont necessarily relate to each other but might be worth exploring to find an alternative to help “relabel” the personal / group experience of change / transformation in organisations.

    The first thought is how “walks” throughout history have been used to help unfold a result. There is never a liminal space we need to enter with a walk, whether we begin a walk to catch up with an individual who is here to visit us for a period of time, to wander to clear our thoughts / grow up / reach a new frame of mind, to settle some food we have eaten together, to shed a depression that has beleaguered our path in life – personally or professionally or just to the local shop to fetch the morning rolls + newspaper for breakfast. Every walk is a ‘walkshop’ in itself and every walk we undertake has the potential to lead us through a liminal space to a new place.

    The second thought comes from Walter Gropius – the founder of Bauhaus – or literally translated as the “house of construction” and stands for “school of building”. The key thinking of Gropius about how designers should perceive change in the school of building is – today’s luxuries are tomorrow’s norm. This makes me feel a journey can not offer more than what is a norm for organisations. That is, transformation / change is attached to a journey and will always use the well tested tools of yesterday to try and design an organisation for tomorrow.

    So, ask yourselves honestly, when was the last time you took something new with you to test out on a journey with the intention of experiencing something different, learning something new or changing / transforming yourself. I can’t!

    I dont know the term, and I do not purport to have found all the elements to a possible answer but a synthesis of a ‘walkshop’ and the thought of entering a transformation process with the Gropius ‘mindset’ from the school of building could produce an interesting mix of expressons to explore.

  13. Chris Van de Rydt says:

    I found your blog about the “journey” very interesting. I don’t have any experience with HR situations, but John does, as he has an HR background along with his accounting. I’ll show him your blog to see what he thinks.

    I can see where overuse of a metaphor can become boring to those listening to a presentation about proposed change in an organization, but maybe it depends how it fits with what the group is attempting to accomplish. Writers, and many others have certainly used the idea of a journey through the milennia. Maybe we use the metaphor because it can be used in so many different contexts, from the hero myths to pregnancy.
    The anticipation of a trip(journey) to a foreign country does give us a sense of excitement for the possibilities of wonderful experiences, but at the same time anxiety because we are entering a place out of our comfort zone. The trip may not turn out as we thought, but maybe we’ll learn new things about this place and ourselves in the process. We’ll meet interesting people and the most serendipitous experiences usually happen, which make the trip memorable. People talk about life “being all about the journey” and in teaching,when we had students write essays etc., we emphasized the “process” over the finished product.
    Maybe the journey to change something will be smooth or “full of bad weather and grouchy hotel staff”, but when you have someone else to join you on the voyage, it becomes so much more worthwhile and you have memories to share.
    I don’t have a big problem with using the idea of the jouney, I guess.

    This probably has little to do with what you’re talking about and has little value, but I had fun thinking about it and jotting down thoughts as I sit here at the computer.

  14. I loved your blog Ian. We had a session on using metaphor for change and learning on my MSc. I distinctly remember the lecturer saying that metaphor was great….but that all metaphors had their limitations so don’t get carried away with them. I used metaphor for my MSc dissertation investigating the impact of protracted change on an organisation that was closing. It was great to start with because emotions were high and we found a good language for understanding them, but I found that I had to be careful. Talking in terms of one person’s metaphor is fine for them but if someone else sees it differently you can alienate them. I also found that once I’d done all the focus groups and interviews, gathered up all the data, analysed it and written it up, I had a massive ‘So What’ moment – it was great data but I wasn’t entirely sure what use it had been. Interestingly I ran a session with a bunch of people recently who were going through a lot of change and who weren’t coping with it. I suggested using a metaphor exercise to start with in order to understand where everyone was coming from. The client hated the idea, thought it was too emotional and I had to abandon it.

    The journey metaphor thing is interesting and often comes up when you use metaphor. I suspect it is culturally defined by us over here in the affluent western world where we think in terms of ‘going somewhere’ in our lives. I’m not sure it’s a metaphor that you’d find people using everywhere. In the company where I did my MSc study, they had a vision/mission etc. which had been defined by someone using a journey metaphor. They printed it all up in a little book that was given to staff and on the front there was a picture of a winding road leading off into the distance – you know the sort of thing. This seemed to make sense to them but when I saw it, but all I could think was that this journey was never ending and we’re never going to get there. A bit like the journey to Mordor!

  15. Natalia Bogoyavlenskaya says:

    Ian, thanks so much for the post and thanks everyone for the great discussion – made me think about one of my favourite metaphors and why actually I don’t want and will not abandon it 🙂 Instead of adjusting metaphors I suggest we should try bringing organisations to experience change as true Journey. If we can make it more personal, interactive, engaging and participative, the metaphors can stay 🙂

    I see two main reasons why people’s heart is sinking when they are called by the management to join yet another journey when they do not feel they quite reached the previous destination (or two). The first reason is that we are often thinking about organisational change in terms of destination only largely disregarding, as Chris pointed out, the very experience of getting there, the wealth of learning along the way. How much of learning is usually captured along an organisational change especially when we had to ‘move the focus’ to yet another ‘destination’? Very little indeed. At the same time, if we think about the real journeys we had in our lives and what made them enjoyable for us, apart from our reaching the very place we were aiming at we are usually happy to recall not only appearing at the destination place but also how we planned it and how great it was to actually deviate from the plan to visit that little village that had not been on the map. We saw and learned a lot along the way, we did have a Journey!

    Essentially also it was our choice – if not initiative – to get on that journey. It was ours, we owned it! Which brings me to the second reason I see for organisational journey announcements to produce very little excitement – people are not really invited to join, they are forced to come alone. I heard people reflecting on their experience of org change saying they were ‘dragged down the road’ rather than given any choice, the experience having very little to do with being on a journey. But is there a place for the change ownership for every single person in the company? I do believe there is. Every single employee is a professional in his or her area (that’s why they were invited to join their companies in the first place) and simply know best the very area they are responsible for. Owning this area implies owning changes affecting it – meaning not only seeking optimal implementation of the announced change but also coming with own change initiatives. And how many companies are good at capturing and building on employees’ initiatives? I really see a call for OD professionals to support building a culture of ownership in organisations. We keep talking that the nature of change is changing. It becomes so fluid that it is hardly possible to keep relying on detailed planning and execution. Instead it should become an everyday conscious experience for everyone, owned, shared and learned from. Welcome to the Journey! 🙂

  16. Sure Ian. “Journey” is overused. My pet hate is “way forward”. A metaphor is but a metaphor; no single metaphor embodies all wisdom. But the journey metaphor encompasses two profound truths that I am rather fond of, and that express ancient wisdom that has stood the test of time (or at least a couple of millennia) which is a lot more than most of the management drivel spouted today by wannabe gurus will do.

    These two ancient truths are “the journey of a thousand miles starts with but a single step” and, of course, “the first step starts where your feet are”.

    In days of old, in ancient Japan, in the summer evenings, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used, with candles inside. Someone offered such a lantern to a blind man who wanted to go home after a visit.

    “I don’t need a lantern. Light or darkness is all the same to me”.

    “It is not for you my friend. Without one, someone else may run into you on the road.”

    The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far a passer-by run squarely into him.

    “Why don’t you look out where you walk? Can’t you see my lantern?” said the blind man.

    “How could I? Your candle has burned out while you walked, my poor man,” answered the stranger.

    • Wilson Wong (@drwilsonwong) says:

      Thank you Ian for another thoughtful blog. I also liked Geoffrey Morton-Haworth’s parable which presents a timelessness to the experiencing of life.
      Often in OD, the audience is left expectant, suspended in that “liminal space”, you describe Ian, which as we all know breeds its own narratives that can transform expectation to ‘purgatory’ (another kind of holding space).
      I’m not sure I can offer an alternative to ‘journey’ especially as I often see change, when paced badly, feel like a treadmill (where however hard you try to cope with the currents you seem to be standing still) or like Groundhog Day (it just feels and smells like I’ve been through this before). Geoffrey’s point about individual experiences/ circumstances and the web of relations one inhabits and acknowledges colouring the ‘spaces’ along one’s work-life is perhaps one that can be explored instead of the exhausted view that the effects of (OD) interventions can always be pre-determined.

  17. I’m coming from a ‘hero’s journey’ classic narrative here. Your point about the personal death experience of the liminal corresponds exactly, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    A true journey story is egoistic in the sense that all obstacles and other characters in this type of narrative are a projection in some way of the hero’s own problems; enemies, allies, rivals, blockages, anxieties, fears, dreams etc that only he or she can ultimately deal with. Imagine a version of Star Wars where Luke doesn’t have to blow up the Death Star but let’s someone else do it for him, or the Godfather where Michael Corleone doesn’t assassinate his rivals. We’d feel cheated of a narrative experience, an expectation that is literally hardwired into us.

    For a true journey narrative to work, the hero must experience near death and other trials in order to deserve the completeness of return. Likewise, as you are saying here Ian, a work-journey metaphor can’t inspire if the heroes are generic and interchangeable. Fascinating.

  18. Brian Urwin says:

    Well I guess not many of us involved in OD have have the opportunity Bilbo had of reclaiming the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor…mores the pity! But I agree the journey is probably at its end as a useful metaphor. But what new metaphor? How about we go on a “trip”? Probably a bit retro? But we do need metaphors, they are so powerful… if “the journey” metaphor is still on its journey, it needs to redirect to new horizons..

  19. Ian Gee says:

    It’s been great reading all your comments. Thank you. They have certainly stimulated my thinking. I am new to the world of blogging am not sure yet what true dialogue looks like in the blogosphere! With my first post I gave individual reflections on each post we received. I am not sure if this feels acknowledging or patronising? This time, I thought I would pull together my reflections in a single piece. I don’t see this as concluding a conversation, simply as a way for me to keep track.

    For me, the process of blogging is a way to reflect on and curate my experience of working as an OD practitioner for the past 30 years. Your thoughts and reflections are key to this. They help me to develop, challenge and extend my thinking. The process of writing, reading, reflecting and writing again is also helping me to understand my own relationship to liminality.

    Here goes then, a few reflections. The journey metaphor still has power, both to enable and disable. What it needs to be though is intensely personal It losses its power when it becomes universalised. The structure of the Hero’s Journey reflects this. We may be able to identify common stages in a journey but what happens at each stage is intensely personal and for many people intensely private. I also wonder how this plays out in non-industrialised, non western nations and in the emerging markets? Personal journeys do not lend themselves to colourful brochures and slide sets or other attempts to store something so dynamic in static media. The ideas of taking a trip and having an adventure are ones to explore, as is the notion of a walk-shop. Having your friends come with you on a trip or adventure makes it more fun! Being forced on a journey and frog marched to the future does not.

    If the journey metaphor is useful, then OD practitioners need the skill to recognise the difference between a real and authentic journey as opposed to one that is false and contrived; to know how to tell the difference between artifice and authenticity. I think this is as true for customers as it is for employees. We need to find our voice when the contrived nature of a change journey clashes with the values we carry while travelling through our lives.

    Liminality is a highly personal experience that people go through at their own pace and time. I have the title for another blog post up my sleeve, “the Tyranny of Transitions’ where I want to explore this a bit more Liminality breeding its own narrative makes me think we need new ways of helping people understand how they move through liminality. Again in ways that are personal and authentic and not fixed and universalised.

    I am left with the thought that maybe we are all Nomads and Gypsy’s in the workplace, following our own organisational songlines as we move through our lives and careers. If this is the case, then perhaps the OD practitioner’s role is to help score as well as orchestrate.

    Matthew will be doing the next blog post in a week or so on Big Data. I will be back at the end of the month! Again thank you and looking forward.

  20. Bhavna says:

    Wow this is a really lively conversation… And great views from so many people. My own reflection is that the journey metaphor is overused, and thus a cliche… The sad truth is that more corporate ‘journeys’ fail than succeed and so each cliche or catch phrase is at risk of being associated with a dud somewhere, coming to represent what didn’t go well. Just by that logic, new metaphors are needed and old ones need to be recycled to keep them fresh… So they’d bring in their wording and visualisation, a wonder and energy to those who have the change ahead of them, rather than the weariness of having failed at it before.
    Your point about this being different in the East also made me think. Corporate careers are 30-40 years long… and that seems like a lot. Hindu philosophy says we live innumerable lives and life itself ‘recycles’ in birth and death cycles so we are in a human state for much, much longer than we realise. To live with that and yet stay sane, the ‘here and now’ is as important as the future. Every day is precious and every moment will be lived but once. Maybe some of that results in the fatalistic mess that the worst aspects of India are, but it also means that the ‘journey’ metaphor fails the ‘here and now’ test. Like some people have said above, the experience and ride are even more important than the destination and a methaphor that might work would need to combine those elements and fulfill the human need of being relevant, needed and atleast somewhat in control….

  21. laurenbklein says:

    Thank you Ian Gee for being brilliant. I appreciated your entire piece, but in particular enjoyed this section, “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.”

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