Interview with Dr David Drake about Narrative Design Labs (Audio & Transcript)

  • Submitted on 27 May 2013

Aly McNicoll, New Zealand Coaching & Mentoring Centre director, interviews Dr David Drake from his home in Sydney, about his upcoming Narrative Design Labs workshop in Auckland on 20-22 July 2013, and the narrative coaching approach in general.


Introduction: Hello. I'm Aly McNicoll from the New Zealand Coaching & Mentoring Centre. I am talking today with Dr. David Drake. He's a global thought leader in coaching and leadership and founder of Narrative Coaching. He's our visiting expert for 2013 so he'll be visiting New Zealand at the end of June to run a two day workshop and master class. June 20th in Auckland.

Aly: Welcome David. We're delighted to have you as our visiting expert for 2013 and part of that, for us, is about continuing to develop the coaching and the leadership development professions here in New Zealand. I think I first met you at the coaching psychology conference in Sydney?

Dr. David Drake: Yes.

Aly: We particularly invited you because we saw that your workshops were an opportunity for some advanced development for experienced coaches, leaders, leadership development practitioners. That's the background to inviting you this year.

David: Thank you.

Aly: It's an interesting title, "The Narrative Design Lab". It would be good to hear from you what the title's about and what the focus is for the workshop.

David: I've been teaching coaching for about 15-18 years and have always worked with people embedding their skills in their practices or at work or in their professional life. I've always been interested in the relationship between people and the environments in which they work. I see them as kind of going hand in hand.

I developed Narrative Coaching in 2002 in the course of finishing my PhD. I've been teaching it around the world ever since then. The labs sort of mirror that in the sense that narrative coaching brings together a narrative structure. How stories are formed, how they're shared, how they're heard, how they reflect how the mind works.

We integrate narrative psychology which is about how people develop and learn and grow. Therefore I can work with them that way. We look a bit about series of narrative practices about how to help work with the material that emerges in client sessions.

The design lab just takes that to the next level and says, 'Okay, let's just think about ourselves as practitioners, the narrative skills themselves, and then helping people sort of re-conceive what coaching actually might be.'

Aly: Great. That's what I really liked about your workshop - it was a great blend of some new models, some new ways of thinking, but also some really practical exercises and techniques both to use on ourselves and with the clients and groups that we work with. How did you get into coaching?

David: I got into coaching because I was asked by a client of mine who ran a large programme at a university to create a capstone or a final course for a management program. Back then there were very, very few resources around coaching because it was in 1997. I sort of cobbled what I could find together and created this in essence four day coaching programme and just loved it.

I was like, 'Whatever this coaching thing is, I like this.' My clients were quite pleased because many of them had been through a variety of leadership development programme and were kind of tired of the same old thing. They found the coaching approach quite helpful. I started embedding it a lot in all my culture change projects for clients, a lot of my leadership development work and just established a little niche for myself, developing internal coaching skills programmes and service of some kind of change ambition.

Along the way I just keep seeing what we knew about some of the limitations of training and coaching sometimes. Is it we focus too much on the individual? Then sort of the coaching becomes a luxury and doesn't really fit with the rest of their life easily. I spent a lot of time looking at what are the stories that they're embedded in that work at home or in their community that are supporting the story of their life in their work and ones that are not.

We started looking at weaving organisational narrative and personal narrative together so that both groups and individuals could flourish. I've kind of built it up from there and then I've found that a lot of practitioners who have been through a lot of programmes and certifications really didn't want any more new stuff, because they already had lots of stuff and tools and this and that. What they wanted was a chance to kind of integrate what they knew and maybe refresh it a bit about how they brought that to their clients.

We started building up these labs as a way to help them do that. It's been very effective for them that way.

Aly: Great. I was thinking of the word 'lab' does imply that sort of learning laboratory, the workshop concept. I've also heard you talk about it as a bit of a retreat as well.

David: Yeah because we thought people come into workshops with the frame, 'I'm going to get some takeaways and I'm going to get some tools. I'm going to add to my kit bag,' and all this other slang we throw around. It's true. You get that.

I think in the kind of world that we live in, people want help with really big issues and a lot of complexity and requires a lot of resilience and robustness on our part, I find, and maybe you find too. To help them in that space, which means that we have to be able to, almost like an artisan from the era of the Renaissance, we have to really know our craft and really know what we're doing. We also have to be quite confident and fluid almost like an artist. To use what's appropriate for clients. The lab is sort of that mixture of play and work and fun and seriousness. It really helps what we find, as you would as a good alchemist, I suppose, get down to the essence of things as quickly as possible.

Aly:  Yeah. It's a little bit challenging to find workshops when you have been trained and are in practice as a coach or leadership development person. Workshops that keep extending you and keep advancing your mastery of the craft.

David: Yeah.

Aly: Who might benefit from this workshop coming up, David?

David: What we're finding that people appreciate is they feel that many coaches kind of feel they've plateaued as the markets maybe softening or changing a bit. We're now being drawn into other kinds of coaching related projects. That people are thinking, particularly more advanced but just kind of looking what's next for them. How can they both personally use and commercially sell coaching?

What we've found is that people who are ready for a new learning challenge, who maybe want to branch out in their coaching into some other areas and re-conceive their practice or re-balance their practice. People that want to work more deeply with people in a non-therapeutic but in a coaching way. We find that there's a lot of time pressure on our clients. There's a pressure to work faster, which then we have to sort of resist and reposition so that it's actually still developmental for the client.

People that want to learn how to get to the essence of issues with their clients more quickly. I think they've been quite appreciative of this.

I guess the last thing that I'd offer Aly is that a lot of the folks that have come have really appreciated that, while there's some really distinct features of the lab, they don't have to let go of what they've learned before. So, again, it's not more stuff that's being added. It's really about maturing or deepening what they already have. What I've found is it gives them a sense of permission to go out and be more courageous, a bit more creative about how they approach their work with clients.

Aly: Certainly one outcome I found from doing the workshop is it just really increases my confidence and my comfort with going deeper with both individuals and with groups. That was a great outcome for me. Where else have you run the Narrative Design Labs?

David: I was just actually making a list this morning. We've had the occasion to do them certainly in Melbourne, Australia as well as San Fransisco, Toronto, London, Vienna and Ljubljana in Slovenia. Then we've got your fair city of Auckland and Portland, Oregon and Amsterdam coming up in the next couple of months.

Aly:  I believe you spoke at an ICF conference. Was that in Australia or New Zealand?

David: I've spoken at ICF conferences here in Australia, in Canada, America, London and Geneva. I've been to an ICF chapter meeting, I think, one of the very first ICF chapter meetings in New Zealand, just south of Auckland.

Aly:  Great. I was at a panelled discussion this morning. It was an ICF breakfast where we had a range of New Zealand organisations talking about coaching strategy and the successes and the challenges. It was great to hear some narratives from those organisations just to really get a gauge of what's lurking here in New Zealand.

David: What were some of the highlights for you? What did you take from that conversation?

Aly:  Some of the things that came through, we are a distinct culture in terms of work places. Just a need for very practical approaches and approaches to coaching that can be scaled. Since some large organizations have challenges around scaling. How to get coaching out to all people who can benefit from it. But also finding a way that's kind of fast and practical so that people don't do it as an add on . . .

David: Right.

Aly:  . . . that they actually integrate it into the mindset or the way of approaching conversations.

David: I'm starting to run some labs now with organizations. That's what I've done for a long time which is looking at what conversations an employee has during the day that matter the most. How would they take a coaching approach to those conversations whether they're with customers or clients, with their team, whatever it is. We find that, again like I said, it's got to be part of the way you do business.

No one's got the luxury of time anymore to just do coaching. Very rarely anyways.

Aly: Yeah. Another thing I liked about your approach to coaching was the emphasis you placed on the sustaining the change part of your model. Which I hadn't seen quite so strongly in other coaching models. It would be good to hear what brought you to that frame of mind.

David: Well, I think a couple of things, one I've had this long standing debate with Tony Grant and others about goals and in my view the futility of goals for most of us and then whether they are often reframed. It is such that when we all get so busy and it's easy in our lives now to keep ticking things over and we never seem to quite finish anything.

And the sense of what we know from the research now about what creates mastery is just repetitive, deliberate practice. What we realised then, we don't have the infrastructure to build up elaborate systems, nor do we want to. What we've done is said, 'Well, if we can get people to pivot on one or two things at a time even if it's quite small, and then to really ingrain that.' That, over time, adds up to make a sustainable change.

What we've found for a lot of our clients and corporations is that when we would ask them about coaching goals, they'd have these long lists. We said, 'How would you ever accomplish that long list?' It's just insurmountable for most of us now. We've really started to hone in on focusing on a few things at a time. Making little, the image I often use is the tug boat, just these little gentle nudges in the direction that you want to go.

We've found by really just simplifying the expectations of coaching, like trying to get into that point of leverage like a tug boat would. We've had some really great success. Our larger goal is to develop mastery and maturity in people. Along the way they get better at certain and specific things that were less...yeah. So we just focus that way. It works quite well.

Aly: Yep. Just to finish up, it would be great to hear what your vision and your mission is around these labs globally.

David: Yeah. We've actually been thinking about that for quite a long time and kind of looking at the different successes that people have had in the programme. What we've started to realise is that we're trying to even more overtly begin to shift the labs away from traditional workshops to retreat formats. Then accelerating the ability of people to create products and programmes based on their experience in the labs.

Often times in these kinds of programmes you either come in and have your own experience and then go away. Say, 'That was nice but I'm done now.' Or, you might step further into this but then you're sort of expected to adopt that methodology or that sort of tribe or way of doing things. It becomes more of a - what's the word? It becomes more of a pattern you sort of have to follow. 'I'm going to do this methodology. I'm going to do that methodology. I'm going to use this model, that model.'

Our vision really is that we want to understand that engine or the dynamics of human development and changed. We want to equip our graduates to not only do that for themselves and their clients, but to start to create small things that they can use to help their clients.

Yesterday I had a colleague over. We had tea and toast. And we created a little activity in my kitchen using some things to help her sort out a dilemma that she was facing. Within 10 minutes we had it resolved for her using some really creative uses of lab technology.

We just think that, you know, our vision is to bring simple tools, simple frames, simple methods to people who can use this whenever, wherever they want. Then connect them across the globe through the web. We've built a website to start to do that, so that people can sell these things to each other. They can learn from each other. We've got a hub in London that's forming. I'll sort of solidify the hub in San Francisco when I move back later this year, we'll have a hub here in Sydney and then we've got two or three others in the works.

It's a really distributive model to connect people with the same sort of passion and the same sort of philosophy to create small things to help their clients on a daily basis.

Aly:  Great. It's really part of the global coaching community. I know you are a strong member of that. We're really looking forward to the workshops . . .

David: Thanks.

Aly:  . . . in June and there's a third day optional master class on archetype strengths and shadows as well which was a very powerful part of the process I know.

David:  It was, it's a fun one. I happen to like that one.

Aly: Great. Thanks for talking with us this morning and we look forward to seeing you later in the month.

David: All right. Thanks, Aly.