A narrative enquiry approach to strategic planning in community organisations: A ritual of legacy in transition
Frances Hancock & David Epston
Frances Hancock can be contacted via: Ardra Associates, P.O. Box 59002, Mangere Bridge,Auckland 2022, New Zealand.
David Epston can be contacted via: The Family Therapy Centre, PO Box 88-89, Green Bay, Auckland. Also, School of Social Practice, UNITEC Institute of Technology, Henderson,Auckland, New Zealand
In this paper we explore the relevance and possible applications of narrative forms of enquiry to strategic planning in community organisations. How does one translate the ideas and practices of narrative enquiry, which have their genesis in the realm of family therapy, to the field of organisational development? Are there ‘family resemblances’ or do such practices need to be re-invented? In particular, what is a possible starting point for a narrative enquiry approach to strategic planning with community organisations? We propose that a narrative enquiry approach to strategic planning can rouse practitioners at all levels of the organisation to recall and pass on ‘stories that deeply matter’. Such storytelling implicates a ‘story-in-the-making’ in the form of a stirring and unfolding organisational legacy. Organisational practitioners not only remember that legacy into the present but also appraise how it might pass in transit into ‘a sought-after future’. Narrative enquiry may assist organisational practitioners (paid or voluntary, governance or staff) to inspirit their practice with a new-found sense of meaning, purpose and zeal for organisational mission. It may also help summon foresight to evolve a strategic direction and plan capable of guiding them, perhaps along ‘the road less travelled’ towards a sought- after future.
￼Why a Narrative Enquiry Approach to Strategic Planning in Community Organisations?
In New Zealand many community organisations are under-resourced and over-worked, struggling to achieve a financial reserve that secures their operating budget from year to year.They strive for financial viability in a competitive funding environment that often seems to pitch one’s mission against another’s mission. Both the philanthropic dollar and contestable funding are highly sought after. Community organisations often have to contend with time-consuming contracting and reporting requirements, exhaustive policy standards and ever- increasing contract accountabilities.
Community organisations also face the challenge of delivering a high quality, professional service within tight budgets, and managers find it difficult to secure funding for their own role let alone justify the cost of an outside consultant, especially in areas such as strategic planning, policy development, financial management, organisational review or human resources. Staff loyalty (often fostered by personal and professional allegiances to organisational values, mission and vision) may come under threat as workload demands increase or as salaried positions in other sectors, or even within the community sector, offer greater remuneration and/or enhanced employee benefits.
Community organisations can no longer rely on the abundant goodwill and generosity of volunteers to fill staffing gaps. Competing interests in a changing environment and a faster pace of life discourage volunteerism. Many community organisations struggle to find and recruit a suitable mix of skilled and experienced candidates willing to act in a voluntary governance capacity and who are equally passionately committed to the mission of the organisation.
When resources are tight, demands from funders increasing, personnel stretched and volunteerism under threat, how can a strategic planning process help encourage an increased sense of ownership of and commitment to organisational mission and vision? How does one generate enquiries so that organisational practitioners consider strategic planning in terms of an unfolding organisational narrative that implicates and links organisational legacy to a sought-after future, rather than reduce such planning to a tools and templates approach? How does one generate enquiries that lead to a story which organisational practitioners not only ‘live’ (Rilke, 1954, p. 35) but also ‘re-author’ (White, 1995, p. 31) as they go along, a story that deeply matters to them?
How does one create a strategic planning process that engages the passion and commitment of organisational practitioners because it implicates their knowledges and guides the way to a sought-after future to which they can pledge their allegiance?
A Narrative Enquiry Approach
A narrative approach to strategic planning has its roots in post-structuralist, post-modernist, social constructionist enquiry. It argues that ‘realities are socially constructed’, ‘constituted through language’ and ‘organised and maintained through narratives’ (Freedman & Coombs, 1996, p. 22). Conversation is a means of knowledge production and a form of social action through which narratives are crafted and sustained. Donald Polkinghorne (1988) suggests that:
Narrative is a form of ‘meaning making’. … Narrative recognizes the meaningfulness of individual experiences by noting how they function as parts of the whole. Its particular subject matter is human actions and events that affect human beings, which it configures into wholes according to the roles these actions and events play in bringing about a conclusion. … One’s own actions, the actions of others, and chance natural happenings will appear as meaningful contributions, positive as well as negative, toward the fulfillment of a personal or social aim.The narrative scheme serves as a lens through which the apparently independent and disconnected elements of existence are seen as related parts of a whole. (1988, p. 36)
In organisational life, narratives take various forms, such as vision, mission and values statements, strategic planning and policy documents, marketing campaigns, media announcements, annual repor ts, and so on. As ar tifacts, such narratives constitute an organisational archive that represents core concerns and commitments, distinguishes priorities and preferred approaches, and records effects and outcomes of the organisation’s work.
In the context of community organisations, a narrative consultant seeks to engage with those traditionally tasked with strategic planning (in governance and management roles), and where possible with other insiders (staff or volunteers commonly not authorised to speak in such organisational developments) and interested outsiders (key external stakeholders), to extend ‘the interpretative privilege to a wide range of voices’ (Holstein & Gubrium, ￼￼￼1995, p. 24). Other staff members may contribute experiential or professional knowledge from their unique organisational positioning or life-earned wisdom. Key external stakeholders may offer information or perspectives to help situate or steer discussions.
Adopting the ethics of collaborative ethnography (Lassiter, 2005), the narrative consultant joins with the organisation to uncover, deliberate on and reproduce the tacit knowledge of its practitioners through narrative enquiry, the telling of stories that deeply matter, and a dynamic interplay of generative thinking and collective sense-making.The commitment to privilege and harness insider knowledge demands ingenuity and reflexivity over a more predictable execution of well-worn strategic planning tools and templates. David Epston explains that:
Insider knowledges are local, particular and at times unique as they often arise from imagination and inspiration, not the usual technologies of scientific knowledge-making. … Because they are, in the first instance, the intellectual property or otherwise of the person(s) concerned, outsiders cannot rightly claim either invention or ownership of such knowledges. Insider knowledges are modest and make no claims beyond the person(s) concerned.They do not seek any monopolies of ‘knowing’ but sponsor many kinds and ways of knowing. Insider knowledges do not provide grand schemes as they are far too humble for that … and are carried best by and through stories. (Email to Frances Hancock, 5 May, 2005)
What occupies the mind of the narrative consultant is how to enter the conversation of strategic planning in a way that will convince organisational practitioners that their precious time is fruitfully spent.Within the first hour, the conversation moves quickly towards uncovering the crux of a developing organisational narrative in which those present find they have a professional and possibly a personal stake.The crux of this developing narrative alerts practitioners to that which is promising and already at work in the organisation, by inviting them to name and talk about such promise in terms of a stirring and unfolding organisational legacy.
Construed as an occasion for ‘meaning making’, strategic planning can be viewed as an organisational ‘drama with a developing plot’ (De Sola Pool, 1957, p. 193, cited in Holstein & Gubrium, 2003, p. 73), and as ‘an ongoing, interpretative accomplishment’ (Holstein & Gubrium, 2003, p. 73).The narrative consultant is challenged to ‘activate, stimulate and cultivate’ the ‘interpretative capabilities’ (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995, p. 17) of organisational practitioners to ‘apprehend, understand, organise and convey’ reality (Holstein & Gubrium, 2011, p. 342) and ‘in such a way that alternate considerations are brought into play’ (Holstein & Gubrium, 2003, p. 75) and they are able to chart a course into a sought-after future.
Another characteristic of a narrative enquiry approach is that organisational practitioners are invited to stand together in relation to a problem rather than allow problems to rule by dividing people. Problems are viewed ‘as separate from people’ and ‘externalised’ (White & Epston, 1990), which:
[E]ncourages persons to objectify and, at times, to personify the problems that they experience as oppressive. … The externalising of the problem enables persons to separate from the dominant stories that have been shaping of their lives and relationships. In so doing, persons are able to identify previously neglected but vital aspects of lived experience – aspects that could not have been predicted from a reading of the dominant story. (pp. 38, 40–41)
In a strategic planning process, the development of the plan is a problematic in the sense that it is a current challenge facing organisational practitioners. Often, a specific problem or source of vexation emerges in the planning process, such as: ‘how can this organisation plan for long-term financial sustainability instead of always battling to maintain short-term financial viability?’
A narrative enquiry approach sets out to identify and document preferred ways of being, talking, working, interacting and thinking. It assumes that such preferences will orient organisational practitioners to a sought- after future and perhaps indicate to them that it may already be in existence.This approach thus focuses on organisational stories that allow for the promise already at work, envisioning the strategic planning encounter as an opportunity to engage the imagination and its creativity.Why are stories important? Frank (2010, p. 3) concludes that ‘Stories animate human life; that is their work; stories work with people, for people, always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided’.
A New Starting Point and a More Adaptable Approach
I (Frances) received a phone call from the chairperson of a small community organisation with a long history and consequent reputation for high quality service, seeking my help with a strategic planning process. I had worked with this organisation as a consultant for some time and had facilitated its strategic planning process three years before.‘What difference do you hope this strategic planning process might make to the organisation and to the people it works alongside?’ I asked the chairperson. He expressed the board’s wish for the organisation to develop new ideas to shape a strategic direction aimed at long-term financial sustainability without forsaking its mission of community-based social services and political advocacy.
When I facilitated the planning process previously, I came armed with a kit full of strategic planning tools and templates. First we reviewed the existing plan, highlighting achievements and objectives yet to be completed.Then we took a snapshot of ‘the picture now’ by under taking various organisational, stakeholder and environmental analyses.We reviewed the organisation’s programs and services.We scoped its existing funding strategy.We cast our view towards the horizon and charted a vision. Against this backdrop, we devised a detailed action plan, named assumptions underpinning the plan, and identified critical success factors, noting potential risks and identifying risk management strategies. Much had been achieved over three years but funding issues remained. The board was also concerned that a focus on service delivery, which was much easier to fund, had obscured the organisation’s political advocacy mission.
This time I sought a new starting point to strategic planning, informed by a five-year apprenticeship with David Epston. I had apprenticed myself to David to learn about narrative enquiry and how to apply this approach to my work in organisational and community developments (Hancock, Epston & McKenzie, 2006; Hancock, Chilcott & Epston, 2007; Hancock & Epston, 2008; SECPHO, Hancock & Epston, 2009).This time, when I embarked on strategic planning I investigated a notion of organisational legacy derived from what I referred to as ‘defining moments in your organisation’s history’. I designated those moments as incidents which told stories that respected the organisation’s mission. I described respect as ‘hard won’ in that it made a difference in the everyday lives of those who consumed their services and those who provided them.
I sought a more adaptable approach to the process itself rather than relying on a predetermined routine. More flexibility allowed me to follow the lead of the conversation (Hancock & Epston, 2008), as well as attend to cues on how and with whom to progress the planning process at each turning point.The first half- day workshop involved a combined group of board members, management and staff, allowing as many as possible to be present ‘at the star ting line’. The next steps would be planned at the conclusion of the workshop so that everyone could decide and understand the best way to proceed, given time and resource constraints.
A Narrative Enquiry Approach Takes Time to Engage an Aura of Hospitality
At the beginning of the workshop, I set out to engage the group in an aura of hospitality. My purpose was to create a welcoming and hospitable ‘environment conducive to the production of a range and complexity of meanings that address[ed] relevant issues, and [were not] confined by predetermined agenda’ (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995, p. 17). I invited participants to welcome each other by offering as many different greetings as this culturally diverse group knew.This simple practice of hospitality generated warmth and humour – and surprise at the rich resource of languages in the group. I encouraged people to breathe in deeply the air of concentration and breathe out concerns or pressing deadlines that might distract them from the strategic planning conversation ahead of us.
Then I asked participants to recall times in their lives other than work when they had found themselves planning strategically to achieve a particular purpose. Participants told stories of planning to buy their first home, go on an extended vacation, manage a new career move, and so on. In asking this question, I assumed I was in the presence of skilled strategic planners, who had something to teach me about the process.This enquiry reminded us all that strategic planning is a fairly common although often unrecognised activity of daily living, and not the esoteric domain of corporate life. It also allowed for shared reflection on the purpose of strategic planning; who is involved, how often it happens and how this process might benefit everyone in the room and those they worked alongside.
I invited participants to embrace the following ways of working together. ￼￼￼￼
When we are together let us speak in ways that will foster respect and grow relationship; let’s listen to hear and appreciate other points of view; let’s share the talk time and create a space that invites the kind of ‘telling talk’ that is often confined to the privacy of stairwells or elevators, behind closed doors or over coffee in the staff lunchroom after a meeting. Let’s take regular breaks to rest our minds and enjoy good food.And we mustn’t forget rule number six! Let’s have fun as we work together by cultivating an atmosphere that enjoys our laughter.
I then asked participants to place themselves on an imaginary timeline that would remind us how long they had been associated with the organisation.There was much jostling and some negotiation as people found their place. I was intrigued to discover that, while the organisation had been a legal entity for 15 years, a number of participants had an association that exceeded 20 years. One person attested to a 25-year connection. Legacy, I learned, is not confined to a date on a charitable trust deed.These longer term associations charted a significant period of gestation leading up to organisational establishment. During this gestation, people and groups had engaged faithfully in ongoing conversations and taken steps towards bringing the organisation into existence, persevering with a compelling vision.
Enquiries That Introduce The Organisation by Way of Respect
I then began a new line of enquiry in the workshop by asking participants to deliberate on the following statement1:
I invite you to introduce me to your organisation in a way that would have me come to respect the difference it has made in the everyday lives of the people, groups or communities it works alongside, since it began so many years ago.
Although through my statement I sought to be ‘introduced’ to the organisation, at the same time I suggested how they might look for the answer – ’the difference it [the organisation] has made in the everyday lives of [those] it works alongside’ – by inviting organisational practitioners to deliberate on its history. This placed me as the audience to such stories; but a very particular audience; one who seeks to respect the organisation for having served its purposes.The enquiry not only proposes that practitioners view the organisation through the ‘eyes of respect’ by emphasising the impact of its mission, but also situates it in a span of time (‘so many years ago’), to set temporal outlines for the question.
As just one example of the replies I received, a board member talked about the care and attention given to evolving a respectful manner of consulting with local community groups and organisations before the organisation was formerly established:
Our organisational pioneers decided to go slowly and ‘go to the people’ rather than steamroll through town and expect people to come to them.These pioneers visited different agencies and groups over a six- month period, learning from them how this evolving organisation might be able to make a difference. They also hosted periodic gatherings, inviting others living and working in the area to talk about the vision they [residents and community colleagues] had for their community.Those early conversations not only fostered relationship building and a community mandate for the organisation’s mission but also produced a fairly rigorous work program, which in time the organisation took up and has since delivered on faithfully.
Such storytelling demands a closer look. I proposed a successor to my enquiry above.
Looking back on your years with this organisation, what is one defining moment that has helped to foster in you a respect for its mission?
This enquiry had organisational practitioners again consider a span of time, but not the age of the organisation as in the earlier question. Instead, it invited participants to cast their eyes back over their years of service with the organisation.The enquiry assumed that, regardless of the length of time practitioners had been involved with the organisation, they would likely have participated in, witnessed or been told about at least one defining moment that inspired in them a feeling of respect for the mission of the organisation.The enquiry asked organisational practitioners to recall and to remember into the present ‘a telling time’ they considered wor thy of the status of a defining moment; in other words, an event that was crucial to and at the heart of the mission of the organisation in terms of respect.The enquiry suggests that respect for mission is not happenstance but occurs through one’s participation in or being told of defining moments in organisational history.
As an example of a response to this enquiry, one staff member recalled a change in the role of management:
The previous manager decided after seven years it was time to leave. Staff felt quite bereft to lose ￼￼￼him, although we were delighted he was moving on to another exciting opportunity.With a gap of about two months between his leaving and the new person starting, staff were in limbo.We worked as a team to keep things going until the new person was appointed. A powhiri (Maori ceremony) was held to welcome the new manager.When she came inside our building with colleagues from her previous job and other supporters, it was as if our big crowd was joined by her big crowd and suddenly made stronger. We had an overwhelming sense that a taonga (treasure) had come into our midst.The previous manager was acknowledged and staff felt ready to embrace the new.The ceremony reminded everyone that the mission of this organisation is as much about a way of doing things as it is about what we do.
Enquiries That Implicate A Desired Organisational Legacy
I continued the conversation by implying that such defining moments could shed light on the legacy of the organisation:
What is one defining moment that can shed some light on the legacy of this organisation that you want to see continued into the future?
By introducing the notion of legacy, this enquiry assumes the organisation has one. Moreover, this legacy is not only worthy of being recalled and remembered into the present, but also may be a strong candidate for continuance into the future.The reference to the future clearly indicates temporal directionality and suggests that organisational practitioners might have a personal interest in carrying the legacy into the future.The enquiry suggests that such defining moments sketch the outline of a legacy rather than capturing it fully which, even if possible, may inadvertently contain or limit the promise of a sought-after future lying there.As the legacy‘travels’ through time into the circumstances of the future, it very likely earns a reputation for flexibility, responsiveness and resilience. How else could it survive changing times and conditions?The metaphor of legacy is employed purposively to help sustain the interest and commitment of ‘the old hands’ while also attracting newcomers who, through their contributions, will enable this legacy to reveal itself in fresh and inspiring ways.
One participant talked about wanting to preserve ‘the hallmarks of respect and deep listening alive’ in the organisation’s ‘time-honoured consultation practices’. Another commented on ‘the abundant hospitality that permeates organisational events and interactions’, which ‘encourages people to believe in themselves and focus on the positive’. Another wanted to continue the way staff are ‘acknowledged for the difference they make in the work they do, which is often highly pressured and challenging’. Another valued a legacy in which cultural diversity was ‘treated as a gift and a resource rather than considered as a barrier or a burden’.
In my next enquiry, I invited participants into a collective sense-making that would plot these defining moments into a larger narrative.
As you have been listening to the stories of defining moments in your organisation’s history, what ideas do you have about the kind of legacy implicated in such storytelling? If you were to bestow a name on that legacy, what name would you call it? For example, is it a legacy of courageous risk-taking, or a legacy of entrepreneurial enterprise, or a legacy of hope? Or something else?
Here I ask practitioners to consider the notion of legacy implicated in the various stories of defining moments in organisational history.The suggestion is that storytelling not only generates and constructs narratives from defining moments, but also serves to implicate a legacy as plot or storyline.What remains undecided is to what extent such a storyline can tell the future, or should at all? I provide a smorgasbord of possible ‘names’ to assist organisational practitioners with the unfamiliar act of naming.To name or to characterise something is to bring it into being through language.This act signifies a moral author(ity) and author(ship), which some in the organisation may undertake more readily than others who are less likely to be consulted.
Participants variously described a legacy of ‘standing tall, standing strong’,‘cutting-edge collaboration’,‘energising action’;‘gutsy,brave and focused leadership’,‘keeping the vision alive and at the forefront’,‘believing in people’ and ‘looking to the community for advice’.
Such impassioned responses provided points of entry to my next enquiry:
Do you find that recalling or hearing others talk about defining moments in organisational history and naming an unfolding organisational legacy also helps to fuel a collective passion for ongoing involvement in the mission? And if so, why do you think this is? ￼￼￼
This question invites organisational practitioners to consider possible effects of ‘recalling or hearing others talk about defining moments’ and of ‘naming an unfolding organisational legacy’. It proposes that such activities help fuel a passion or zeal for ongoing involvement, not simply in the delivery of programs and services but in something much larger – its mission now plotted in terms of ‘an unfolding legacy’. Such passion is not just individual; it can also become the collective ownership of those contributing to the mission, where the sum has a value greater than each of the parts.The enquiry asks practitioners to make sense of such acts of recalling defining moments and naming organisational legacy by deliberating on the collective passion aroused in doing so. The enquiry also creates space for different viewpoints by asking for ‘your thinking’ rather than a corporate view.
Enquiries That Appraise Organisational Legacy
Until now, practitioners had been asked to consider aspects of the legacy they wanted conserved into the future.The previous line of enquiry deliberately employed the metaphor of legacy to distinguish, name and appraise organisational histories and practices that fostered respect and aligned closely with mission. Such enquiry has the effect of increasing awareness and generating pride and ownership, and allows for the handing down and over of histories and practices from one generation to the next.
The conversation turned when organisational practitioners were asked to consider the next enquiry, which challenged any possible assumption that all aspects of organisational legacy are durable over time:
What, if any, aspects of organisational legacy may have to change or be let go in order to meet the challenges of current and future times?
This enquiry sets out deliberately to have organisational practitioners appraise organisational legacy. It implies that certain aspects may have become outdated or could curb the transition of the legacy into the future unless they are confronted and re-visioned. Some practices may have to change or even let go for the legacy to meet up with the current and foreseeable circumstances of the organisation’s life. It is implied that acting ahead of time to offset such a contest will enable an unfolding legacy to move towards a sought-after future.
In response to the above enquiry, the manager of the organisation voiced a need to challenge mounting accountabilities required in government contracting which, she considered, contributed little to progressing the mission of the organisation.The organisation had worked hard to meet all contract requirements to demonstrate high performance in service delivery, fulfill legal compliance, and establish a proven track record with a key funder. Constantly changing the goalposts of contract accountability had instilled an impression that the government was more concerned about managing risks than ensuring the provision of high quality, community-based ser vice deliver y. She said that if the organisation ‘didn’t challenge the system and test the contracting process, it would almost certainly become smothered under an avalanche of paperwork’.
A board member suggested that,
Our organisation assumed in the past that passion, commitment and goodwill were good enough measures of sound organisational performance and professional practice.We can no longer leave performance management to chance.We have to distinguish our mission not only through the services and programs we provide but also through a consistently high level of performance that both service users and funders can depend upon.
Legacy as a Means to Appraise Organisational Achievement
Continuing the workshop, I proposed a line of enquiry that would have organisational practitioners not only review the outcomes of the previous strategic plan in terms of actively supporting an unfolding organisational legacy, but also position them in relation to their future successors, beginning with the following question:
Thinking about your collective responsibility for unfolding the legacy of this organisation, what has the organisation achieved over the past three years that you are most proud of? And why?
Here I invited participants to consider organisational achievements in terms of their collective responsibility to unfold an organisational legacy, and within a specific time span.The suggestion is that such achievements contribute to an unfolding legacy and, as a consequence, foster a sense of pride in organisational practitioners. Participants named an array of achievements that had generated a sense of pride, and a list of outcomes was documented. Pride was located in various sources that revealed what participants valued (such as ‘talking straight to families’) and what they intended to achieve (such as ‘making a tangible difference in the lives of our families’). ￼￼￼￼￼
The line of enquiry continued with the next question:
What, if any, organisational actions or inactions during this time may have hindered such a legacy passing in transit into a sought-after future?
This enquiry introduces the idea that legacy is not simply a thing of the past but is capable of ‘passing in transit’ to a sought-after future. Here, I propose that legacy is not confined to one’s memories or to organisational history, but rather exists in transit as a kind of ‘living story’ or ‘story-in-the-making’, in which organisational practitioners not only ‘live’ it (Rilke, 1954, p. 35), but perhaps re-author it (White, 1995, p. 31) as they go along, including through their actions or inactions.The story-in-the-making unfurls towards a specific kind of future, one which organisational practitioners not only desire but also aspire to in order to manifest a common vision.
In considering actions that could hinder the legacy’s journey in transit to the future, one participant referred to a governance decision to ‘pay an outside consultant to write governance policies from scratch’, rather than work with the board to generate and document policies that had evolved through practice but had never been recorded in writing. By taking ‘a short-cut’ approach, the board may have overlooked the valuable knowledge and experiences of board members, and prevented an opportunity to deliberate on the governance model they wanted to evolve.Another participant referred to an inability of the organisation ‘to come fully to grips with its financial challenges, allowing funding applications to slide rather than aggressively pursuing such funding avenues’. If allowed to continue, such troubling inactions could prevent the legacy passing in transit to a desired future.
The line of enquiry progressed further with this next question:
Twenty years from now when your successors look back, how might they assess the achievements gained over the past three years, as well as those actions or inactions you now consider may have hindered the transit of organisational legacy into the future?
Here I ask practitioners to stand in the shoes of their successors and critically appraise what has been accomplished over the previous three years.This positions participants in direct relation to those who are to follow. It also invites consideration about how actions and inactions in recent years may be judged in years to come. Such an enquiry implies an accountability that reaches beyond immediate stakeholders and timeframes to include future colleagues, who one may never meet.
The idea that future successors might assess recent actions and inactions took many participants by surprise. They had not considered that actions and inactions could be held up to scrutiny by their successors 20 years hence. ‘Such an idea’, one suggested, ‘challenges current contributors to accept a greater level of accountability and will have us remember that our current efforts could well have, and hopefully will have, significant long-term implications’.
When the workshop broke for afternoon tea, an unexpected event occurred.The manager excused herself to make an important phone call.As participants were reconvening the workshop, she arrived back with ‘surprising good news’. She reported that a major philanthropic trust had agreed to give the organisation a very substantial grant to help secure its financial viability over the next year.This news was especially pleasing because, 18 months earlier, the organisation had found itself in dire straits financially.While the philanthropic trust had had a longstanding relationship with this community organisation and appreciated its proven track record, it had never given such a significant grant. Such a decision at this time could not have been predicted, hence the element of ‘surprisingness’ (Morson, 1994, p. 22).The manager concluded that the grant would not only cover the delivery of some existing services but would also enable the organisation to pursue activities aimed at better securing organisational sustainability, including a multi-stream funding strategy that would renegotiate the terms of a current government contract.
I immediately used ‘the eventfulness’ of the phone call as a springboard to deliberation on a sought-after future and possible pathways forward:
Thinking about this surprising good news arriving unexpectedly at the very time you are plotting a new course, and also recalling our earlier conversations today in which you remembered defining moments in an unfolding and praiseworthy legacy, what is the promise you now see working for a sustainable, prosperous and sought-after future?
This enquiry states ‘the event’ – the surprising good news conveyed – and invites everyone to deliberate ￼￼￼on its significance in relation to the strategic planning exercise under way.The question sets this event as a crucial point or a narrative crux, investing it with what Bakhtin describes as an ‘eventfulness’ or ‘momentousness’ (cited in Morson, 1994, p. 22). In this enquiry the historical narrative meets at a crossroad with the future narrative; it is implied that, if the organisation proceeds in this direction, it is momentous because it prevents the organisation from going in another direction.The enquiry sets out to plot how to continue the course already set for the organisation (by its legacy), and then asks par ticipants to bear in mind the ‘promise’ they now see working for a sustainable, prosperous and sought-after future in relation to this unexpected but momentous event.The notion of promise invites organisational practitioners to consider that events, such as the unexpected good news from the philanthropic trust, are evidence for the possibility (and probability) of moving towards a sought-after future.
In response to this enquiry, according to participants, the promise rested in the organisation being able to rely on the following: a well-earned organisational reputation; the trust external stakeholders invest in the integrity of board members; enduring relationships with funders willing to work in partnership with an organisation that makes a substantial difference in people’s lives; confidence in the organisation’s capacity to deliver a high quality service; and the organisation’s continuing legacy of harnessing opportunities that support a new direction and ensure its mission into the future.The event also showed that the relatively recent but proactive approach to funding applications is more likely to achieve positive outcomes than taking for granted one’s organisational reputation.
Focusing on a Sought-After Future
The notion of promise provides a pathway to considering possible options for the organisation moving forward. In a board meeting before the workshop, the manager had named options for the future that might be considered in this strategic planning process. Here was an opportunity to consider these options in more detail and go further by naming the decision-making criteria that would eventually be applied to assessing such options:
If 20 years from now your successors hunted out the documentation from this planning exercise stored in its organisational archives, what possible options for the future would they find that you had deliberated on? What compelling criteria would they find recorded in the archives that convinced you all to proceed with the favoured option and let them know that, all the while you were deliberating, you had them in your sights?
The enquiry again positions participants in relation to their successors, which reminds them that they are unfolding a story-in-the-making, which will be recorded in organisational archives and is likely to have far-reaching consequences. It defines the planning process in terms of deliberation; that is, reflection undertaken in a conscious and intentional manner that allows for thoughtful consideration at an unhurried pace. A distinction is implied in the use of the term ‘deliberation’. Deliberation is different from impulsive or hurried decision making that does not allow for the careful and often time- consuming discernment required in the face of challenging problem solving, with which a strategic planning process must often grapple.The second enquiry may seem somewhat premature, but challenges participants to think of decision-making criteria as they consider options for going forward. Such an enquiry implies the intervention required in deliberate decision making – bearing in mind that a more lax governance and management approach over the past 18 months had contributed to the organisation finding itself suddenly in dire financial circumstances.
The manager outlined the three distinct options she had named at the earlier board meeting. One effect of leaping so soon in the process to an overview of possible options was to invigorate the growing sense of promise and excitement already working in the organisation. Another effect was to help seed telling deliberations on a sought-after future.While one option offered a ‘business as usual’ approach, and a second provided for some additional growth, the third option heralded a new departure that involved courageous risk-taking.The manager expressed concern that the third option was almost too far-reaching to consider. But, in the context of enquiry thus far, other participants immediately welcomed what was now perceived as a ‘brave endeavour to chart a fresh course by thinking outside the square’. One board member observed,‘There’s an opportunity here for the organisation to do things differently and to shape a new direction that is almost beyond my imagination’. Another commented: ‘I feel enthused by a growing sense of the importance of this process’. Participants named specific criteria on which to base their eventual decisions.
The preferred option must fit with the mission and enable the organisation to continue to offer relevant and responsive programs and services, embrace new opportunities, be financially sustainable, retain core ￼￼￼operations, and further political advocacy initiatives. Such criteria were influenced by earlier musings and were a neat summary of the legacy in which they stood.
It was decided that the manager would work with me, their consultant, to further define and analyse the three options; workshop participants would reconvene at a later date to review and further deliberate on these options.
The board and manager would then test their collective thinking about the options with two key external stakeholders to identify other possible options and assess support for its preferred option.When it eventuated, this key stakeholder meeting generated further confidence in the emerging decision to pursue a far-reaching course and fostered goodwill between the parties. Both external stakeholders pledged their support for the favoured direction and agreed to work with the organisation to explore ways to progress it, including by harnessing available financial resources.
In this paper, we propose a possible starting point for a narrative enquiry approach to strategic planning with community organisations.The above lines of enquiry provide a kind of ‘ritual of legacy in transition’ in which a sought-after future is regarded as the ‘destination’. This ritual prevents the possibility of organisational history being overlooked or regarded as passé or some out-of-date folly which might well discredit and even disgrace it. Instead, it invites practitioners to remember organisational history in terms of a legacy that has made its way into the present and become more visible to those invested with its responsibility. A narrative enquiry approach requires organisational practitioners to appraise such a legacy and consider how preferred aspects might pass in transit into a sought-after future. It also positions organisational practitioners in relation to their future successors who are waiting to take up the challenges of mission and will one day bear witness to these very organisational actions and inactions.
Such a ritual provides a point of entry to strategic planning in community organisations that seeks to construct ‘rich story development’ (White, 1995, 2007). It captures hearts, minds and imaginations by getting quickly to the crux of an organisational narrative. It promises a future with the present deliberations as a crucible where the past and future commingle. It does not approach planning with a particular end in mind, but rather invites organisational practitioners to live in (and not outside) an organisational narrative.
This ritual recognises and respects the deeply held purposes and commitments that wide-ranging practitioners often bring to their work in the community sector, which has the effect of fueling zeal for ongoing engagement in organisational mission. It invites practitioners into a conversation that will matter deeply to them and, as such, is worthy of their time and careful consideration. Such deliberations have the potential to evolve sense-making that illuminates the promise already at work in organisational legacy, and shows how it can be continued into a sought-after future. Participants are challenged to see themselves as storymakers and storytellers whose agency, remembering and deliberative sense-making is helping to unfold and transit into the future an organisational legacy for which they can take pride.
Telling stories that define moments in organisational history has the effect of charging the imagination with ideas, and either translates or reinvents those ideas into a sought-after future.The metaphor of organisational legacy provides a nodal point of fierce relevance as practitioners respond to the stor y told, and to the histor y-in-the- making. Here, narrative enquiries are laden with dramatic effect, inviting practitioners not only to retain, revitalise and continue organisational legacy, but also to deliberate on it, discarding that which may prevent its transition into a sought-after future. In so doing, participants face this dilemma: if the organisation does not discard outdated practices or policies, then it will be very unlikely to secure the transition of organisational legacy into this sought- after future.
In some respects, considering possible options for strategic direction in the initial phase of a planning process may seem premature, having not yet considered in detail such matters as the environment in which the organisation operates or the wide-ranging challenges it faces. A narrative enquiry approach, however, takes its lead from the twists and turns of participant conversation (Hancock & Epston, 2008) and welcomes the opportunity to harness surprising ‘eventness’ from expected events. As Morson (1994) notes,
Eventness … is indispensable for real creativity and choice.Without it, the event becomes a mere shadow of itself, and the present moment loses all the qualities that give it special weight ….[such as] the weight of an irrevocable decision … [or] the suspense that comes with the need to select one ￼￼￼course of action and foreclose others… The eventful event must … be unrepeatable, that is, its meaning and weight are inextricably linked to the moment in which it is performed. Choice is momentous. It involves presentness.The same act performed later would not be quite the same act. It is therefore constituted in part by important particularities that no abstract and timeless system could foretell. Above all the eventful event must produce something genuinely new, something beyond a predictable consequence of earlier events. (p. 22)
While the enquiries in this paper may offer direction, they are not intended as a recipe or step-by-step outline. A narrative consultant will embrace the challenge of improvisation that arises in eventness and be constantly attuned to the particularities of the context and the engagement.They will also consider, among other things, narrative developments and thinking on strategy in organisational studies, which this paper did not set out to traverse. Some of these studies are sympathetic with the approach taken here.
Leading organisational theorists, Barry & Elmes (1997), for example,‘examin[ed] strategy as a form of narrative’ (p. 430), noting that if:
… storytelling is the preferred sensemaking currency of human relationships among internal and external stakeholders’ (Boje, 1991: 106), then surely strategy must rank as one of the most prominent, influential, and costly stories told in organizations.While some researchers have discussed ways in which strategic texts and authoring processes act as sequentializing sensemaking devices (e.g., Quinn, 1992;Weick, 1995), few have systematically described strategy using formal narrative concepts or models. (p. 430)
Barry and Elmes argue that a narrative approach to strategy ‘uses language to construct meaning’ (p. 432), and ‘explore ways in which organisational stakeholders create a discourse of direction (whether about becoming, being, or having been) to understand and influence one another’s actions’ (p. 432). For practitioners, ‘a narrativist stance can encourage exploration of strategic issues in more personally meaningful ways … [and] might provide a deeper sense of meaning and purpose than can be achieved through, for example, spreadsheet modeling.’ (p. 431)
Cummings (2008) further highlights the movement towards a postmodern approach to strategy:
It may be that strategy in the future is as much about remembering, reconstructing and utilizing the past as it is about a design towards something new. … the diminution of a belief in the power of grand designers and grand designs for the future, and the decline of the idea that there are object or essential categories that can be appealed to, leads to a scenario where an individual history, rather than be taken for granted or seen as no longer relevant, can be treated aesthetically: as a work of art to be restored, worked upon, promoted and used to give meaning in the present. Hence, we may see [in the future] greater emphasis on the articulation of strategic visions, missions and values moving something like a ‘catch stitch’, with a thread drawn backwards to reconnect with aspects of an organization’s past and consolidate its understanding of itself in the present before following this trajectory into the future. (pp. 190–191)
In conclusion, a narrative enquiry approach co-researches and names preferred pathways implicit in a person’s or organisation’s unfolding narrative, at the same time as it seeks to uncover and characterise particular problematics and their wide-ranging effects. Such an approach sets out towards the uncharted territory of what is possible to know rather than staying in the known lands of the familiar. Such enquiries must convince practitioners that the conversation is going some place they wanted to go but didn’t know where it was heading or how to get there.The metaphor of legacy acts as a continuous line or generative theme of a whole history, foreshadowing a horizon that organisational practitioners can move towards together.
1. In progressing this line of enquiry, I ‘translated’ a question commonly asked by David in his family therapy practice:‘What would you have me respect and appreciate about your son/daughter’s talents, abilities or ways of being?’
We acknowledge Professor Daved Barry, Professor of Creative Organization Studies, Department of Management, Politics, and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, who made an invaluable contribution to the development of this paper through his generous encouragement, critical insights and helpful suggestions. Recognising his leadership in the field of creative organisation studies and narrative studies, we also cite his work directly. ￼￼￼￼￼
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