Monthly Archives: September 2017

The New Geography of Change


We keep using old maps. No wonder we feel lost.

Think of time in the way Aristotle described a story- Beginning Middle End. He said that was what made a story seem whole- it is what we term the axis of coherence. It is our first basic map. Simple isn’t it, but watch how we can use it.


Any human experience is bound by time- and our human brains translate experience into memory through the telling of stories. “Once upon a time” is how we attempt to navigate time as it moves. As recent brain studies have shown, eg Daniel Kahneman,  “Thinking Fast and Slow” we don’t remember duration, we remember peaks and troughs and endings. He calls it the Peak-End rule.

Last week I attended an angry meeting. I don’t remember that 3 hour meeting with a three hour memory, I remember incidents from the beginning, middle and ending, the highs and lows of emotion, the places where there was drama, breakthroughs and break downs and how I felt at the end, how I made sense of it and what I resolved to do because of it.

As I walk back through that time, I notice that meaning changed, that what I felt at the beginning had changed by the time we got to the middle and was transformed again at the ending, and it means even more now because I acted on that meaning. I will tell you the meeting was X as if it meant one thing, but the experience of it was many things and it had phases that punctuated time. Meaning moved.  It always does. So I want to track it through mapping. 

When I map the way meaning moves, I notice with Aristotle that-

The Beginning is the time to create, be open to any and every possibility- it has that feel and field of energy. “What can we become?” You usually only get one beginning. But no bridges are burned, no options closed. The way ahead is open. 

The Middle  gets complicated and so, it is always a good  time to correct, to look back and to look forward, to make a change, to make a decision about what to take forward and what to discard. It has that kind of recognizable feel and field of energy. This is the only place where you have time to change what could change the end, and it is also the place where we are most likely to get lost.  A great book I get people to read dealing with being Lost in The Middle is The One Thingby Gary Keller- His question “What is the ONE thing I need to do now/ and give up doing now,here in the Middle that will make passage to the end easier or even open up a different possibility altogether?” Just ONE thing!

The Ending is the time to complete, to see the whole as a whole- that is the identifiable  feel and field of energy on offer and only on offer here. Sometimes we try to have multiple endings, but that is usually a stuck or incomplete middle- you only get one ending. The circle is closed.

This leads us to postulate that “Energy is a condition of position” -that who we are is largely a function of where we are. That knowing where we are in a story counts far more than knowing what story we are in. If we misread our position, we end up losing the chance to harness the energy on offer, or live up to the opportunities of our time. 

Some examples- Too many marriages fail because couples mistake a different position in the same story as being a different story. But what marriage means moves, especially after the fourth kid, and the empty nest.

Too many organizations pull out of change strategy in the middle because they mistake the murkiness of the Middle as an ending, a failure to complete and they rush back to a new beginning, so that organizations are nothing but the history of false starts and lost middles. They didn’t map their position, and use the energy on offer.

Another case in point was the Obama’s two terms.  Half way through, people were already writing him off, sensing the energy of the middle of his term felt like the ending, but no, this iwas the middle, the place where one has to correct and reconnect to purpose, to reset. Obama saying he will govern with or without Congress is typical of a Middle. You cut your losses before you move on. But Obama never successfully  reconnected to his beginning, the reason he ran? Presidents have to if they want to land an Ending that feels complete rather than an Ending of lost opportunities.

Its a simple map but we use it all the time  in intuitive ways to read the energy of a story- a program, an organization, a career, a project, a conference, a relationship, etc and map where we are and where we are going.

I am working with an Americorps team over a 12 month period to help them translate their experiences into stories, and their stories into memories of significance. The way we do that is to meet three times over a year, first to declare a Beginning and dream, next to meet half way to declare a Middle and review and reset, and finally, to meet to declare an ending and complete and celebrate and harvest the time. Our purpose is to design experiences to be memorable, and since we know that memory is a storyteller, we make it easier by designing the experiences through the map or template of BME- the axis of coherence. If we adjudge the outcome that matters to be a story told and retold, then we design the input in the shape of a story. 

If anyone is interested in learning more or a free consult to get you started, let me know. My email is If anyone finds this useful in their work, just tell me and you can use it with CNS permission. Here is the BME with the Three C’s.

B ( Creative)________M (Corrective)_________E ( Complete)

If one were to ask how can you apply this map, my answer is to share my own experience of designing summer programs for young leaders from Northern Ireland or South Africa or Israel Palestine. The 8 weeks is shaped on a BME axis- so that some events only happen in week 1-2 to inject dream and possibility, some review and retreat events in the Middle for correction and reset, and the final rituals and celebrations and trip to NYC at the end to foster that high note of completion.

If this is the way the brain translates experience into memory, we design for memory. What we call DEM, designing experiences to be Memorable. 


Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene.

He coined the phrase MEMES to be be its cultural equivalent. It never hit me before how appropriate that name was, meme. It screams ME ME ME. Don’t know about you, but I never could grasp what a meme was, but now it doesn’t matter, you know it when you hear it, right? the Me Me Me meme.

I read recently that he could have also called it the Unselfish Gene, which he might have had to call Wewe, but WE WE WE all the way home didn’t sound right, save for kids games. Imagine saying-How do we spread We We’s instead of Me Me’s? its a profound question that any five year old can grasp, even if Wall Street or Congress can’t. They seem to think the Constitution begins “Me the People,”

Unconfirmed rumor says the AFLCIO wanted Rich to call it the Labor Gene, known as Team, but his spokesperson said NO WAY JIMMY , there is no eye in team, only e and a, and probably m and…. is that a t at the starting line? Probably. Southern Baptists also objected, saying they wanted God Gene, and heavens, there are four eyes in Mississippi. What is that supposed to mean-a selfish River? Disney said his parks would sponsor calling it the Fun and Fantasy Gene, aka Theme, and the United Cattle Farmers and Food Association said they would pay for the name Healthy to fit into your jeans-Gene with only a small vowel change to mo mo- as in ” Steak and Veg build your mo Jo mo-Tivation, increase your Mo Jo Mo-bility.” Tea Party Neo Palinists lobbied for the title Libertarian Gene, aka Mean, because meme sounded too girly. But ME ME won the day and the history, as they say, is the rest or the most of it.

In a last minute bid, the paradenoid party tried to head off immigration reform by calling it the Foreigners Gene, or ‘them them.’ How do you stop them them’s from spreading their tijuanas over the border and killing off all our me me memes that us we we’s work so hard to inculcate. Our nation is founded on me me’s becoming we we’s to hold out the them them’s. Not Selfish at all.

This whole sorry fictitious affair had to end when the Producers of the King’s Speech objected to any terminology that invited derision of stutterers. Henceforth, the Council on Civil Liberties ruled that meme must NEVER be hyphenated. A gene can be selfish, yes but memes are for sharing, No?


Where are we when we ask WHY? What direction in time are we drawn to? Not the future normally. “Why” is not found up ahead, though it might well be that we did what we did because of what we hoped would happen. But ‘why’ tells a different story. Its the story of behind or before. Even our dream of a future was in the past- where the WHY happened. WHY happens in a place, which is where we go looking for it -in The Territory of Why.

Why the recession?? This question points us to look at what comes before the financial crash, not after. Why did we have the wars? Because of what happened leading up to it. Why did she leave her family? Because she hated her life. It is the present interrogating the past. When we are obsessed with Why, why 9-11 or why the recession, or why war, or even Why me- we tend to be facing backwards,even if what we find might help us next time face more fiercely forward. WHY has us looking in a certain direction. It is positional.

Where are we when we we ask HOW? How did she manage to win the gold medal? How did Obama win the nomination? What direction in time are we looking at? We are focusing on the unfolding process, not the reason or motive behind or before. HOW wants to grip the workings of the plot within and go back to the present of that past- what was happening and what led to what. It has us looking with a certain focus which is also positional. HOW is also not normally found in the future, but in the territory of HOW.

Where are we when we ask WHEN? We want to mark the time, to put an event into some sort of sequence, or chain of events. When did he say he was leaving the company, before or after you wanted to fire him? When did you see the accused, before he left the nightclub or after? ‘When’ is a significant marker to be able to deduce what came before and what came after. In other words, its one more locative question. It gets asked for and asks from a position in time which is the territory of WHEN.

When we start to think of specific questions as markers of a certain territory, we start to see differences in the way meaning gets shaped, and how borders are drawn around knowledge. It might even help us understand the conflict between those asking WHY and those asking HOW and those asking WHEN.

They who ask WHY are going back to the past, for understanding or vindication. Fair enough. But a nation that is always asking Why tends to be always facing backwards until they flip the question to Why Not? In my own nation Australia, there seem to be so many commissions of inquiry into what happened and why that one fears that there is little oxygen or appetite left for the future. We get so upset at how we treated the refugees or aborigines back in the 1950′s that we don’t see that we are not doing much better now. If you want to stop a focus on the future dead, ask a WHY question about a tragic past. It happens in the Middle East all the time.

Those who ask HOW are the ones obsessed with the present, pragmatists who get it done and don’t worry why. HOW people address the task, not the telos. As Americans, we used to being problem solvers who didn’t waste time on WHY when clearly, what mattered was How. What is the problem? Lets solve it. We have seen it in Washington these past 5 years. The question has been: How do we reform health care, not WHY do we need health care reform. The HOW’s soon run out of patience with the WHYs. Why versus How tends to become the Past versus the Present.

Those who want to know WHEN are the ones who want to know the times, not why or how. At what point did it or will it occur.They are about what came next or what comes next, the future, as in WHEN will it be done by? When can we expect an answer? WHEN is another positional move directing our gaze to the stream of time- before, during, after. It sees events as contemporary, “with time” and wants an answer that relates what happened to when it happened. When did women get the vote? is probably as informative a question as Why and How. The Times, they are a changing, which means that WHEN picks up on that more than the WHY or the HOW.

If we map this on to Washington politics, we see more clearly into the impasse. It might be because of partisan rancor, but what if its because people are asking different questions-The Why’s
(Republicans) are fed up with the How’s (Democrats) while the When’s (we the People) are impatient with both because nothing is happening, for lack of know why and know how.


The old idea of stories that we learn as kids is like a golden age of reverie. We grew up to indulge the imagination with stories, fairy tales, a fantasy world where dogs and cats could talk and elephants could fly. It was a world made fit for children, but as we grew older, we were told to put away our childish things, to embrace the world of hard science full of facts and stats. It was time to leave stories behind.  That was the day the music died.

Some of us refused to grow up if it meant leaving stories. We became adult artists, trying desperately to survive in our profit obsessed culture. We tried to bring stories back in through a corporate side door. We called it Storytelling for Business.  And we made our case to NASA and the World Bank and IBM. Stories were good for leaders getting a message across. Stories were good for storing knowledge. Stories were good attention grabbers to sell your brand. Stories were for that inner child full of wants that we never outgrow anyway and they can increase the bottom line.  Stories can make you money, we pleaded, so please pay us so we can pay our bills and be able to keep on telling stories.

Twenty years ago that was a hard argument to make. But if success can be measured by the number of books that come out each year on storytelling for business, you would have to say that the battle is over, and stories won. Everyone wants to be a storyteller.  There is even an Organizational Storytelling for Dummies. We, this beleagued minority, has gone mainstream. We can bask in the glory of our success. But something doesn’t quite feel right.  Did we win the battle and lose the war?

Now that all the big companies want to use story,  and the market place is now seen as a battle of stories, has this- to quote an old title- “using narrative means for a commercial and corporate ends”, sold out the soul of story and what stories are meant to be about?

I wonder if once stories become the servants of selling  they become qualitatively different to stories that are created for the joy of telling? Stories are free agents. They resist serving any master, and refuse being colonized or being instrumentalized.  That is why we are always so suspicious of the “official story.” It means Toyota or GM love telling us that they make the safest cars, or the head of NSA promising they are not spying on Americans, or that Drones are not assassinating citizens. We have learned to be skeptical, because invariably, a different story soon leaks out. All these carefully crafted narratives  are exposed as  arguments or sermons masquerading as fairy tales. They are so over-determined that they are not stories at all but cleverly crafted propaganda, selling us something other than the story itself. They come loaded down with an agenda.

If we know anything about stories, we know their power works best when they disturb and upend, whey they make a farce of our over serious intentions. They are biblical stories like the story of Nathan and King David where the prophet tells the story  of injustice that enrages the King who demands,”Bring me that man!” and the prophet shoots back, “You are the Man!.’ Or in Shakespeare’s  Hamlet, where the play within the play was his trick” to catch the conscience of the King.” How many of us are telling stories that catch the conscience of our consumer culture, our leaders, our bosses, our fellow storytellers?

On the way to the bank, did we lose the leading edge of story that so excited us twenty years ago? Did we sell out? Did we have a choice? And do we have one now?

Healing the Corporate Story Anyone? Try a Dose of Ethics.

In the Washington Post Op Ed page this week, we were treated to  an exhibit A of Corporate storytelling at its most disturbing:

Comcast and Time Warner merge, two disasters making one big disaster, according to Catherine Rampell- quoting the story that Comcast has the worst customer service story in the nation, closely followed by Time Warner. The Cable industry is a monopoly, so they can do what they want, Rampell says.

Richard Cohen on General Motors calls it a “Moral car Wreck” where we hear more about why GM decided that a recall to fix a part for 74 cents was deemed not a commercial proposition- while the new CEO claimed that this was the Old GM and she is the new GM.  Coming in the wake of the record Toyota fine, one’s faith in our car makers stories should be a crisis of faith.

Below Cohen, we read Carter Eskew on Christie on Christie, and the investigation that he set up to impartially examine the bridge closing scandal- and the findings that Governor Christie was proud to announce, that his own commission exonerates him!!!!The fact that anyone could be so outrageous and seemingly get away with it, speaks to the degrading of any serious political narratives. The Grand Jury might have other ideas however.

Michael Gerson goes off about the Movie Noah and the outrage from religious conservatives that Noah is the not so righteous righteous man that God was relying on. Churches exert enormous pressure on how a story can be told because in their minds, Orthodoxy trumps Creativity. Echoes of a Taliban Mind.

On the side column, Rahm Emanuel attacks the  GOP on their crazy early education story, claiming that they don’t have one. The page opposite mentions DC elections and Ukraine. What an array of story wrecks that have unraveled. We would spend days looking through an ocean of newsprint trying to find the pieces of Truth to see why it exploded into this mess.

Looking for some brighter news, the next day’s Washington Post arrives, but alas, it’s not much better. The news tells us all about the CIA lying about the intelligence that they claim was gained from torture. The report says this was fabricated. The side show is Senators fighting heads of departments. Meanwhile, the Malaysia Authorities now release the real transcript,  and say that there could have been a mechanical malfunction, even though they like their first story that someone did it, even if they can’t find any suspects. We are still finding rubbish in the ocean that for a few hours, becomes the latest piece of the plane wreckage, until it becomes discarded fishing gear. If ever a corporate story mattered, it was this one,  and yet how poorly the victims have been served while CNN enjoys new ratings.

Then, we read the headline,  “GM Chief apologizes Little Else”  next to  “NSA confirms warrantless searches” next to “Japanese Lab falsifies data” next to  “CIA and frayed trust” and finally “DC casts a vote for honesty”  Phew, what a trip through the news in just two days. Is any signal coming through the noise?

You would have to say that there are not too many corporate stories that are working here. From the private to the public to the non for profit sectors, there is a crisis of confidence. No one tells honest human stories anymore- Everyone is making it up to cover it up, or to dress it up or to sex it up. And we are teaching corporate storytelling????? What are we teaching? This? I don’t think so.

The ethical piece surely has to become the heart of what we are doing. I wrote a piece last week asking- Has storytelling gone over to the dark side? We all have some soul searching to do.

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