Change. Chapter 3. Collective sense-making through stories

“The past changes a little every time we retell it.” — Hilary Mantel

Introduction to the chapter

Over the years many people have propositioned me to buy Adventures with Agile. In one of these discussions, the CEO of the other company told me that I would go far because I was able to express truth in the form of storytelling. I have thought about this a lot. Stories have been used for thousands of years and stories were once the primary way to convey truths from generation to generation.

One of the big ‘aha’ moments for any systems coach is the realisation that everyone has a part of the truth. No one has all the truth. In systems coaching this is expressed as

‘Everyone is right, but only partially’.

Stories and metaphor are essential in collective sense-making. Teams tell their stories in our coaching and facilitation sessions and they collate these together to make a larger story that contains insights that no one person had when they wrote theirs. A new collective cultural truth emerges from the collection of everyone’s partial truths.

The biggest challenge with organisational change is not understanding agility or that agility doesn’t fit with the culture. The biggest challenges are the ones that are not talked about. The ‘elephant in the room’ or the conflicts that simmer away unspoken between people, teams, or departments, or the manager that can’t really do their job but no one has the right way to help them improve, or the successful expert who refuses to change because it will require deep inner work they have no idea how to start or that it even exists as an option or the people who are afraid that if things change their positions will be threatened or worse they might be made to look incompetent or small.

These hidden challenges are the real blockers to organisational change. The problems exist not in the physical concrete world of the process but the emotional and energetic worlds of our minds and bodies. Stories are a very powerful tool to unlock these hidden challenges, make them visible in a safe way and allow individuals, teams, and whole organisations to make sense of them, and to emerge a pathway that takes them into account.

This chapter is about using stories for coaching in general. In the next chapter I will tell you a specific story about macro events that effect organisations. I will use my story as an example to teach you about stories in general by giving you key learning points.


Key learning: The storyteller always gives you a partial truth


This story I will tell you is from my perspective and it contains elements of historical fact that form a partial truth. History is created by the storyteller. I encourage you to form your own perspective and to take this account as a partial truth.

“History is mostly guessing; the rest is prejudice.” — Will Durant

This story I will tell you was written from the heart of the City of London. This has guided my thinking and how I wove some of the elements together. I am a western white male; I was brought up in England and as such have a specific perspective on the world. I fully accept that I, just as everyone else, has bias, privilege, and a partial picture. This truth is a partial truth. No one has the whole picture. That is the nature of reality, we all have a small piece to share, and this is mine.

Historic precursor to the agile movement

Key learning: Stories need to have a purpose and be relatable


We are going to go on an adventure through the last 600 years of history going back further than most of the agile community have gone so that we can uncover the larger macro cycles of change.

The timeline we will create uncovers and weaves together the ingredients for organisational change. These include human shifts in consciousness, identity and philosophy, advancements in technology, and economics. This is what agility is; it is the summation of many very real human changes that result in organisational shifts. Without considering these elements we might mistake agility for a shallow revolution at best or a bunch or processes at worst.

I have identified three distinct ages of organisational reform. We are just beginning the third age of reorganization.

Finding hope

Key learning: Stories should provide hope and be phrased in the positive


Many of us see that a better world is possible and get frustrated when it looks like we are going backwards.

Gallop polls and other surveys as well as basic observation show that many people are unhappy at work and would rather be doing something else. There is a general feeling of hopelessness across the planet both in work and in society caused by the perception that the problems we face are too large and too complex for any of us to make a difference. This is compounded by the observation that our political systems no longer serve us and those at the top are nothing to aspire to.

Perhaps the deepest learning from this timeline is for us to see that change is inevitable and that even though in the short term there seem to be backwards steps in our society in terms of leadership, regulation, control, and popularism that limits the opportunities that we’ve got, we are inevitably moving towards a freer society with higher levels of complexity and higher standards of living.

This is another important use for stories; creating a vision that we can aspire to. This is an important tool for any leader. Whatever lens you are looking at organisational agility through, this story gives you a new way to see the present and the future, and to find hope that it is going to be alright.

Method for choosing what is relevant and what is not

Key learning: Choose wisely what you add as there is always more content that time to tell it


When I looked back at our history, there is so much data that even choosing information we create bias. The risk is that we pull out only the elements that support what we believe already. I focused on organization design and chose events related to why we organise ourselves as we do. Working backwards rather than forwards definitely helps to create a more honest timeline. I learnt this technique in a game called Future Backwards.

I looked back and looked for shifts in the way we organize ourselves, the very big shifts. I chose significant places in history where organizational changes occurred. As I worked backwards, I stopped at the end of the 14th / 15th century just before colonialism as I felt I had enough data for patterns to appear and three distinct ages had emerged.

If I went back further, I might have been able to define even larger macro changes, but it seemed that was enough and a good place to start.

To explore this timeline with others, I created a game that we play on our Enterprise Agile Coaching Courses. So far, close to a thousand people have played this game. Participants place elements on a timeline and discover their own story and insights from history. I have woven some of the insights that people had into the story in the next chapter. We now play an adaption of this emergent insight game online.


Participants playing the timeline game

The starting place for our adventure

Key learning: People pay more attention to the start and the end of the story than the middle


Another factor that went into the story is that I live in Wapping which is a little bend in the mighty river Thames in London.

It’s next to the iconic Tower Bridge. All around where I live are warehouses that have been converted into flats. If you walk down by the river, you can go down these little stairs, called Alderman Stairs, that lead down to the river.


Alderman Stairs


Those stairs were built in 900 CE. They are there so people could go down and cross the river in tiny little boats. That was the only way across the river, apart from the old wooden London Bridge which was so crowded it could take many hours to get across.

If you go down to the bottom of these stairs when the tide is out, you can look back against the riverbank. You’ll see there are old rotten oak beams from the 14th century. On top of these beams they built the warehouses from the 15th and 16th centuries. The first warehouses were built as Britain became a colonizing power in the 15th century. On top of the 15th century buildings, you can see further buildings of the 18th century warehouses that were needed as the industrial revolution fuelled further global expansion and boats and cargo became much bigger and much more frequent.

The buildings were damaged in the second world war but again this has been built upon and you can see a veneer over the old warehouse buildings where they’ve been turned into residential properties in the 1970s and later. London has this incredible layering of all the different ages. Living in such a historical part of the world really gives you this impression of how things have changed and that we are living in the flow of something much bigger than we are as individuals.


The old London Port Authority building


There’s a building near where I live that is now a hotel (10 Trinity Square), it used to be the place where the British Empire, through the London Port Authority, collected all the taxes from all of the boats coming in and out of the Thames into the city of London. Ships would come and bring their gold and silver to St. Katherine Docks. Just down the road there is Gun wharf, Tobacco wharf, and Butler’s wharf where all the tea was stored.

This is where the AWA office is; in St Katherine docks. This is where all the gems and all the gold that fuelled the power of the richest and most expansive empire the world has ever known were stored. There are still energetic energy lines from this hub that reach across the planet.

At AWA, we are changing that residual energy into making the world a better place. Using the same energetic connection points to channel a new consciousness that is shaping the next age of organisational change and expansion. This positive expansion is happening inside us, emotionally, mentally, energetically, and spiritually.

Does the starting place make this story relevant for people who are not from London?

On every training class that I run I ask participants where they are from. We have had attendees from every continent, and I hear the same stories from South America, India, US, China, Europe, Africa, and all over the world. The same challenges face us all regardless of race, colour, culture, or nationality.

So, the answer to the above question is yes. This story is highly relevant for everyone.

We may start our adventure in London, but it will take us on a journey to many destinations. Many cultures have grown, disappeared, or changed significantly during the last 600 years. India for example, has an incredibly rich culture, going back thousands of years. To ignore the fundamental inputs from India and China would be to negate a vast section of the global population and their cultural history. I have included events that I have seen as relevant for our global understanding of organizational design and the changes we face today.

Chinese and Indian culture is significantly different from the US, UK or Europe. However, the ways of doing business, especially big business, are either historically the same, or these cultures have borrowed or been forced to adopt attributes from the western way of running companies. Everywhere there is hierarchical control, overemphasis on centralized decision making, a lack of acceptance of failure, and deep inequality between the rich and the poor. These attributes are prevalent throughout all cultures who are operating on an international stage.

Even though the whole world has different histories and cultures, the patterns described in the timeline from this one culture and history gives us what we need to understand the planetary shift in organizational structure and culture and to see where we are headed and what types of problems we face today.

It must be said though, that the tools we are using to adapt our organisations right now, often have their roots and originate from the Eastern world, such as Japanese respect for people, Indian methods of self-development and increasing awareness, and the never-ending incremental and cyclical balance of the Chinese I-Ching.

Metaphors, similes, and analogies

Key learning: Use a metaphor that emerges from the stories


“Our team is like a leaking tanker, losing its precious fuel, every time someone leaves”.

“Giving work over to ops is like leaving our baby at the orphanage”.

“Remember that time we stayed up all night working to get the platform back online? Our team does whatever it takes to make our business work”.

Let the teams grow their own metaphors and examples and encourage them to build upon them. Often insights emerge as the stories are embellished.

In the 600 year adventure, I tell in the next chapter, I use the example of a single human’s development as a simile for the development of society.

Everyone’s an author

Key learning: Make sure everyone gets to contribute to the story so that collective
sense-making is possible


I welcome readers to create their own timeline based on their world view and country of origin and to share commonalities and differences.

Together our stories make more sense.

The story in the form of a timeline is in the next chapter.

The first step in using stories as a tool for organisational change is to get people to share theirs. By sharing stories, building metaphor, and then combining them together, it is possible to build a shared narrative that enables decision making.

The AWA playbook can be used for this as we will see later in this book.

Notes on this chapter:

This chapter is derived from a lot of research and then transcribed through coaching sessions given to me by Tony Richards. Thank you, Tony!

Image sources:

Note of this book

This chapter forms part of the book by Simon Powers called Change.

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