The Practitioner’s Journey: Initiation

From the Change Thinking Blog
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Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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In this series, we’re exploring the implications of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey[1], by following the story of a fictitious change practitioner named Sara. In my last post, we looked at the first of the four stages, Departure. In this post, I’ll describe the Initiation phase of the Journey, where the hero is tested, but then crosses a threshold that causes profound change in her. I’ll also offer some questions to help you explore whether this phase has relevancy for where you are in your quest.

Sara is no longer the change practitioner she used to be, but she hasn’t yet transformed to what she will become. She is a work in progress. When she departed from her uneventful, but familiar, professional status quo, she let go of one trapeze well before being in position to grab another. She isn’t consciously heading toward something specific as much as she is distancing herself from the work and clients she no longer identifies with. She is clear about what she is leaving behind, but has only a vague notion and her intuition to guide her toward her destiny.

Sara used to rely on certain things, events, and feelings to stabilize her during rough periods with clients—particularly challenging assignments—but none of that brings the sense of equilibrium it once did. With no reliable anchors to cling to, she feels disoriented.

She is re-inventing herself in mid-air. More accurately, she is discovering herself in mid-air, because what she is finding out about herself has always been there.

Through the Initiation part of the process, Sara felt as though she was walking through a forest blindfolded. There were trees, brush, stumps, and rocks everywhere and the only way she could avoid falling was to first bump into something and then react. Stretching out her arms and taking small steps wasn’t much of a strategy, but it had to do because there were no maps to follow and she had no past reference points to help her anticipate the next encounter.

To say the least, groping around foreign terrain with mostly bruises and scratches to show for her efforts wasn’t fun. Since Sara didn’t really know how to practice her craft any differently than she always had, she decided to read everything she could get her hands on that was in any way connected to change execution at the mastery level. She also began attending meetings/conferences where other change agents congregate, hoping to find some like-minded practitioners who were also seeking alternative answers. These activities were well worth the effort, but she felt she gained the most by simply experimenting…trying new ways of communicating with her clients, testing different approaches to diagnosis and intervention, exploring unique ways to approach measuring change success, etc.

Although searching in the dark for illumination was interesting, she felt she wasn’t making the headway she should. Also, all this experimentation produced more liabilities than assets. Since she was trying to find answers and she wasn’t even sure of the questions, her clients had some negative reactions. They noticed she wasn’t working on the kinds of activities that used to occupy her time, and none of them appreciated the shift they noticed in her demeanor. She was becoming much too forthright and unequivocal for their tastes.

One of her clients told her boss that it was inappropriate for her to be so direct and explicit when reviewing some of the risk in a recent change readiness diagnosis. “She was insubordinate when she suggested that my sponsorship was the biggest problem we faced,” he complained. Sara’s boss was a politically sensitive creature when it came to leaders being uncomfortable, so he came down hard on Sara for “stirring up so much dust.” “This isn’t like you,” he said. “I don’t know what is going on in your life but I hope you get back to your old self soon.”

The combination of unhappy clients, an unsupportive boss, and failure to find the answers she was looking for weighed heavily on Sara. She was risking everything professionally, yet had no safety net—no plan B if the Journey proved too much and she needed to return to the way things were.

As all of this mounted, she felt more lost than ever. She wasn’t certain this quest for a more meaningful career was the right course for her, yet she knew she could never return to the frustration and hollowness she experienced before. She couldn’t go back, but she wasn’t confident about how to move forward.

She had reached her lowest point with all this when, by chance, she met a woman, a master change practitioner, who gave her some extremely useful and encouraging advice. Through a series of exchanges with the woman, Sara found the strength to go on. She renewed her search for alternative ways to relate to herself as a professional change facilitator, and to her clients.

Following her crises in confidence, she was grateful to be back on her trajectory, but her pilgrimage was no easier. Soon, she faced even more problems with less-than-desirable results. She continued to raise eyebrows when she tested out new perspectives and approaches to her work. In addition, clients became more uneasy with her frank, sometimes blunt, way of interacting with them.

As disconcerting as all this was, she found it intriguing that support and assistance appeared when she least expected it. Lucky intercessions continued to occur. Sometimes it was someone she hadn’t previously known who offered prudent council, sometimes it was a close friend with sage advice. Sometimes, a helpful interpretation would come from something she read or through her prayer or meditation. The package it came in varied, but when Sara needed it most, a teacher of some type appeared with the knowledge and/or inspiration she needed to carry on.

Each of these junctures gave her the means and stamina to plow ahead, and bolstered her conviction and self-assurance as well. But the Journey became significantly longer and more challenging than she could ever have imagined and she found herself emotionally exhausted. At the same time, however, her resolve to find deeper meaning in her work and greater skill as a practitioner was more tenacious than ever.

Over time, the hindrances and setbacks she faced intensified to the point that, even with the periodic, unexpected coaching and the bolstered determination, the obstacles seemed insurmountable. She made clear progress toward a new understanding of how to practice her craft, but each time she successfully addressed one predicament, the ante went up and a new, more knotty quandary emerged. Sometimes she felt like she was running up a down escalator.

Despite all this, things began to come into focus for her about why she was in the business of facilitating organizational transition and what she was to accomplish in her role as a change agent. She began to understand that there was more to her professional endeavors than simply providing economically for herself and her family. She began to feel a sense of a larger purpose for the work.

With a greater sense of mission than she ever had before, her role as a practitioner took on a new dimension and significance. This was no longer just a job. For the first time, she found herself registering a deeper level of responsibility about what she could offer others—in particular, the colleagues she left behind when she embarked on this odyssey.

At the same time, it became clear to Sara that the Journey was leading her to operate at new levels of knowledge and skill. She could see that her proficiency with conceptual models, diagnostic tools, and intervention techniques was evolving far beyond her previous capabilities.

In a sense, she knew she was making important gains. From another perspective, however, she realized she was far from where she needed to be. She was still not functioning at the mastery standard she aspired to. Sara wasn’t sure what was missing, but she knew that her wisdom and insight didn’t match that of the veteran practitioners whose work she had read or seen presented over the years.

And then it happened…

Next: Slaying the Dragon

How about you? Consider these questions.

  • Have you experienced Departure, only to turn back as the Journey became harder, the path forward more difficult? If so, what would be required for you to set out again?
  • If you have begun the Journey, what are some of the things or feelings that you used to rely on as stabilizers for yourself that no longer create a sense of equilibrium?
  • What was it like to run blindfolded with harmful obstacles at every turn…exploring yourself and your change work in new, untested ways?
  • What was it like to go through a period of having little support, encouragement, positive feedback, etc. from people around you as you experimented with new approaches?
  • What price did you pay for this Journey?
  • Did you have a safety net…a plan B if the Journey proved too much and you returned to the way things were?
  • Who/what showed up as your teachers…providing the guidance/encouragement you needed to continue moving forward?
  • Related to your change work, what meaning or purpose has emerged that provides a benefit to others rather than yourself? What is the greater good, the broader impact this is having for others?
  • To what extent are you shaping this purpose and to what extent is it shaping you?

Go to the beginning of the series.


[1] Please see the first post of this series for a high-level outline of this archetype, using J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Posted on: February 26, 2013 03:57 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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Joseph Campbell’s work and insight has significantly impacted my life in meaningful ways since college. Thank you for drawing on his work in such a skillful way. It was perfectly timed. Good job!

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