Twelvetide 20:05 Narrative the early years

December 29, 2020

50340783181 47c3214138 oAs I indicated yesterday my group in IBM UK got into the wider field of narrative through the process of knowledge discovery.  We found that collecting stories around decisions made allowed us to more effectively may what people knew by creating a meaningful context.  We also discovered that people journaling that experience was more effective than recall after the event.  That was really brought home to me on a narrative project we did on IBM outsourcing sales.  This was an important aspect of IBM, or more specifically IBM Global Services, revenue stream, and the sales process is wonderfully binary you either win or you lose.  The problem with outsourcing is that the bid budgets are significant, often running into millions of dollars so winning or losing can make or break a career.  The project lead was Jens (I wish I could remember his full name) and a lot of the work was done in Germany.  Interestingly throughout this period IBM and Lotus in Germany were among the most receptive to the ideas.  He was one of those brilliant guys you met from time to time in IBM who could manage the politics of the system, something I never mastered but were also open to true innovation.

As a part of the process we carried out lessons learned narrative capture with the bid teams before and after the point where they knew if they had won or lost.  Identical scripted processes and the results were interesting.  The stories told before they knew the outcome were rich, carried multiple possibilities, and were exploratory in nature.  The stories after they knew were explanations, more limited in scope and nature.  For those who had failed the past was being re-interpreted to excuse failure, for those who succeeded it was compressed to take the form of the Hero’s journey, overcoming obstacles to achieve the promised land.   One recommendation that came out of that project was that teams who won should be broken up, teams that had lost but learned a lesson or two kept together and those that were all excuses should be fired.  That is a story for another day, but the key insight that came out of that programme was that the close you got to the actual experience, the more factual the recall.

The concept of journaling experience came from that, and its a key part of SenseMaker® and something which is a development focus at the moment.  I also started to do work with what became known as Naive Interviewing in which someone would interview the knowledge holder to capture learning in narrative form but from a naive perspective.  Some examples of that included the use of children on work experience, engineering students to capture knowledge from engineers in the North Sea, and my own work in what I would now call Participative Ethnography in which you enter an environment not as a consultant but as an apprentice, you do the shit work (literally if working with water company engineers) and engage.  It takes a few days and the odd initiation rite (if asked to collect a “Long Weight” from the depot go along with it).  I got more useful material about actual practice in one week of that type of work than a large consultancy team had obtained in months.  Again the lesson is to get close to the practice, don’t make assumptions, as naive questions.  By being clearly not the expert people start to teach you, and it’s in teaching stories that we mostly discover meaning.

We also developed anecdote circulates designed to stimulate ditting otherwise known as fish tales.  I tell a story, you have to tell a better story and so on.  That resulted in another discovery, something I called the story paradox: if you tell someone to tell; the truth they will lie, if you ask them to lie then they are more likely to tell the truth.  Fiction has always been a key element of narrative practice and in fiction we can discover truth above and beyond experience.  Teams who had failed were encouraged to tell stories of how they had failed and vice versa.  The key insight was that mattered was learning more than facts.  We also did a lot of work to reduce facilitator impact and that one remains problematic to this day.  Many a consultant gets their motivation from engagement in the process itself rather than standing back.  I created the Three Facilitator Rule here in which Facilitator C leaves the room, A leads, and B monitors.  The minute B senses any bias on influence in A they simply stand up.  At that point A has a minute to hand over to B, leave the room and send in C to monitor B.  That cycle continues and it is very rare for anyone to survive more than 10-15 minutes before they get taken out”.  One of the most popular techniques I have ever created The Future Backwards came out of that work.  Creating multiple threads of alternative counter-factual histories none of which traced back to the present.  I came to call that Sidecasting and there a series of blog posts on that subject which start here, interspersed with a story of my own foolishness in not understanding the nature of a green pit viper.  The final post is here and I restored the fly fishing images.  So there was a key theme to the methods of capturing anecdotal material which was to work indirectly, take a naive perspective, and reduce as far as possible facilitation, in particular any facilitation approaching the problem from a causal framing of motivation.

Of course, interpretation matters and I will talk more about that tomorrow in the context of epistemic justice.  But another emergent method came about as a result of a casual reference when I was speaking at a conference of Librarians in Buxton many years ago.  One of the participants asked if I had read Idries Shah’s Mulla Nasrudin stories.  I hadn’t so I got the book and fell in love with the Sufi’s use of story to spread learning.  Basically, if you do something stupid you don’t tell a story about how you did it but instead, you tell one about the Mullah.  This is a long-standing use of archetypal stories and that became a whole strand of work that was picked up and developed by Sonja in South Africa along with others.  I wrote the approach up in this article so will not repeat the content here but the use of archetypes to capture lessons learned is one of the most valuable techniques I have created.  IBM in Germany used animated versions of them in chat lines with great effect.   This also goes back to the DARPA work I completed in Arlington the day before the tragic events of 911 where we took US history and distilled it into a set of archetypal situations.   It’s easier with the US as their view of history is episodic but it works with others.  We then got a group of people to discuss a current situation through the lenses of those archetypes and removed conflict.  That may not sound special, but we had selected a group of people with violently opposed political views and getting them to consensus has a significant impact and secured us the post-911 work.

Most significantly I realised that I didn’t like the outcome of Joseph Campbell work on the Hero’s Journey,  although I respect and enjoy the work.  The problem is that to get to universals Campbell loses too much in the detail, a general problem with all uses of Jungian archetypes by the way and also some of the abuses such as the pseudo-science if Myers Briggs personality tests.  The reality of the work showed multiple differences by group and we did some pioneering work.  In one project with Sharon, we create four archetype sets namely managers’ perception of themselves and of employees and employees perception of themselves and managers.  Each family of archetypes was drawn by a cartoonist and we but the board of the company in an internal meeting room with each of the four walls populated by a family of archetypes, each drawn on A2 paper.  That room may have lacked physical windows but it opened up a window to two to the souls of that company.  Situational and persona archetypes remain a key method within the pantheon of naturalising sense-making and we plan to make more use of them in SenseMaker® this year.  But read the linked article, it has a lot more detail.  For the purpose of this series, I am more focused on the principles than the practice.

This leads me to the more problematic area of storytelling which of course has a double meaning in English.  A lot of thought went into this and I eventually evolved to a solution that involved providing executives with Screenshot 2021 01 01 at 12 51a framework into which they could insert their own anecdotes and then through telling and re-telling those stories to different audiences refine and improve the approach.  I used a teaching story I had developed based on participative ethnography working with a group of water engineers.  If I can find a recording I will link it here but for the moment it escapes me.  The template is shown to the right and its the most frequently used of a family of techniques.  In summary different groups working in parallel go through the five steps indicated and at the end of each stage tell the story to one of the other groups.  When first did this I used Silent Listening where after speaking you just listen to people talking without the right of response.  That then developed into ritual dissent (third party link as the new website seems to have lost a lot of the links) which was more effective. I still remember when I created that in Kananaskis Alberta where one of the directors of a major company would just not shut up.  When I run the process I also show some film clips and play a scriptwriter talking about the sciences.   The french lace scene from Casablanca and the french toast scene from Kramer v Kramer both work, one to illustrate layers of meaning the other the role of conflict.  I show the scene get them to talk about the commentary then set them on another round.

At that Kananaskis session, we ended up with around one hundred executives, all above to use anecdote assemblies instead of PowerPoint, and never once did we try and teach them to be story tellers.  What we did was take the natural process by which we all develop stories and put in some structure so we could scale.  The technique is also powerful to discover stories – record all the anecdotes and to reveal differences between groups.

So that was the first period, during my time in IBM and immediately afterward.  A focus on anecdotal material, self-interpretation, and discovery.   In parallel I was reading more and talking more with people from other narrative and related traditions and post IBM that produced a new set of tools and methods around SenseMaker® that are entirely consistent with these earlier methods, but better informed by theory; but that its for tomorrow.


It was a transit day today, moving holiday cottages and the tops were forecast to be under heavy cloud for most of the day.  So I had a sleep in and then called in to claim Dodd, one of my favorite Wainwrights with good views and enough of a walk to justify eating well in the evening.  The banner picture is looking towards Carlside with Skiddaw Little Man in the background.  The last time I was here I went onto Carlside side than Skiddaw with a side trip to Long Side and Unlock Pike before completing eight Wainwrights with Lonscale Fell and Latrigg.  But that was late summer and shorts weather!  I saw it as a short walk so went up in Wellington Boots but regretted not having walking boots and microspikes on the top!  The clouds parted and the views were down to Keswick and Derwent Water were special.

Today’s picture of a stone wall was taken back in September when I did the Southern Llanthony Circuit with Chris Bolton.  Situated on the initial ascent of Hatterall Hill is part of a complex network of walls that are associated with a remote farmhouse and which entangles itself at times with the sensible oaks, rowan, and hawthorn that are so much a feature of the landscape.



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Twelvetide 20:06 Narrative appreciated

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A lot of the early work on narrative, which I summarised yesterday was largely based ...

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