Evolving storylines to create your first journey

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 2, 2007
Filed in Strategy

Rick Davies, the creator of the Most Significant Change techniques, has posted a description of a story-based technique he experimented with that’s designed to help a group of people imagine a set of future possibilities or, as Rick puts it, when embarking on a project we need “… a theory of change, and a theory of change when spelled out in detail can be seen as a story.”

Rick’s experiment was conducted with a group of secondary students but it’s clear this participatory process could be used in organisations. I’m particularly interested in how it might be used in our First Journey process. Here’s my rewriting of Rick’s process based on how it might work with a group of ten senior managers in the first journey.

  1. Give the ten participants some small filing cards, and asked them each to write the beginning of a story on one card about how the project we are about the embark will unfold. When completed, these ten cards are then posted, as a column of cards, on the left side of a whiteboard. This provided some initial variation
  2. Then ask the same participants to read all ten cards on the board, and for each of them to identify the story beginning they most liked. This involved selection
  3. Ask the participants to each use a second card to write a continuation of the one story beginning they most liked. These story segments are then posted next to the one story beginning they most liked. As a result, some stories beginnings will gain multiple new segments, others none. This step involves retention of the selected story beginnings, and introduction of further variation.
  4. Then ask participants to look at all the stories again, now they had been extended. Ask them to write a third generation story segment, which they add to the emerging storyline they most liked so far. This process is re-iterated for four generations or longer.

Rick then analyses the results of his experiment and explores different ways people could use the technique.

For me this approach would be ideal to get people talking about the possibilities of a project. It could be then followed by a pre-mortem to provide a reality check.

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About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Tushar Panchal says:

    Shawn, thanks for putting up great posts in here.
    Just on your last para “For me this approach would be ideal to get people talking about the possibilities of a project. It could be then followed by a pre-mortem to provide a reality check”, are you suggesting a refined-disciplined-brainstorming session?
    Sorry if it sounds like a stupid question.

  2. Shawn says:

    Hi Tushar, the difference between brain-storming and triggering conversation, which is what I think any good sensemaking technique should do, is that brain-storming consist of people offering ideas without reflection or commentary from the other participants. I can see evolving storylines triggering tremendous conversations about why people think the story will head in various directions and why some directions are more favoured than others.

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