Awkward, lumpy, rough or stilted …

February 20, 2024

I’m playing with fire a bit here as I am not a native Welsh speaker, and there are subtleties of meaning that I don’t fully understand.  Any feedback is appreciated, and please assume good intent.  Still, I was struck when reading a poem in translation – with the original Welsh on the adjacent page – at two different words that translate as granular but mean different things.  They are clapiog, which means awkward, lumpy, rough or stilted and gronynnog, which is a more direct translation.  In narrative and other areas of organisational development, this can translate into differences between categorising things and understanding linkages.  The former are two frequently awkward and miss subtle differences.    I’m using the metaphor of containers here as both a positive and a negative.  Container shipping resulted in radical improvements in efficiency over hand stacking of cargo holds and better integration with road transport.  While smaller containers were part and parcel of shipping from the early Greek use of amphorae in the 1950s, we see the development of standardised metal shipping containers that are now familiar on the road in trailer parks and docklands and highly specialised ships.   As most measures focused on efficiency, shipping containers radically reduced labour requirements at all points in the supply chain act, and embodied knowledge was also lost at the same time.  I’m making a judgment on that now other than to call it out as a more or less inevitable consequence.  The more coarsely grained, the more efficiency, the more adaptability within defined constraints, and the less resilience when those constraints no longer apply.   There isn’t a right and a wrong here, but there is a danger in not recognising unique contexts and changes in those contexts.  

But it does raise a question.  If you make everything a formal garden, where will genetic variety come from if the context of your formalisation is no longer sustainable?  Keeping a wildflower garden there is critical, just as are rare breed farms and so on in agriculture.

This post is part of a series on narrative and narrative approaches to sense-making. Having made the general point about granularity and its consequences, I want to apply that and a few other things.  One of the major frustrations I and others have is when well-meaning (and often less well-meaning)  people talk about changing or creating a narrative.  The idea that you can do this top-down or that some form of elite can choose or interpret the underlying narrative of a society is deeply problematic.  Populists don’t do this; they pick up an existing pattern and magnify it to work the dispositional landscape rather than trying to design it.   I’ll talk in future blog posts about citizen engagement in this respect.  But put very simply, if you want to change the culture of an organisation or a society, then you have to do the same thing, and that doesn’t work if your containers are clapiog.   The tendency of a lot of people in narrative,  in particular those indulging themselves with Jungian Archetypes (which are very definitely clapiog) in creating the Hero’s Journey, while attractive to Senior Executives, is not going to do anything other than generate anti-stories, the cynical watercooler stories that pick up and amplify the inevitable failure of the Hero to live up to expectations outside the comfort of a fictional environment.

More like these, fewer like those

Through narrative and estuarine mapping (assemblages and affordances), our work focuses on finding what you want to amplify and what you want to avoid, then asking people, at scale and in context, the question in the subheading.   We also need to recognise a few key things about human sense-making.  

  1. We only really switch to real thinking when we detect anomalies.  A very small eye section moves into hyperfocus when something unusual comes along. Most of the time, we lack detail in vision, which is better for anomaly detection.  So, creating anomalies is vital; one of the ways we do that is to combine observational anecdotes about real-world events and then show different groups of people how they have interpreted them differently.  That leads to a variation of the above question: Why did they see these things like this while we saw them like that? Note the question is plural; we never look at one thing as we seek a pattern.   The fact that the parties have gone through the same process is critical to this work; it is not the same if a well-meaning factory admonishes or guilt trips people for not seeing things from another perspective.  Novelty is also critical here, disturbing the expected patterns.
  2. That also plays out of curiosity, as does another critical aspect: the progressive and partial reveal characterising a good story.  The author gives us titbits, and we anticipate how the story develops. And a really good author makes sure we often get that wrong which sucks us in more.  In organisation work, this is done by looking at statistical patterns and clicking through to the story.  Something that makes outliers more interesting.  If I present a landscape or cluster map to an Executive and see an atypical cluster, they will tend to investigate it.  If the people behind that cluster seek access, they will be ignored – trigger curiosity through slight differences rather than admonishing people to be open to novel ideas and mavericks.  They should be, but that won’t happen, so seek a better course and make them want to look.  The sacred storybook I discussed in my last post is another way to do this.
  3. History matters and any complex system has high path dependency.  We use our past individual and collective experience at a fragmented level to make sense of the here and now.  The past contains patterns now recognised as good or bad, with the benefit of hindsight.  By associating the current situation with a past failure, by associating, we can destroy a good idea, or using a past success can justify a poor decision.  Again, granularity matters;  if you have an entirely constructed story, there is too much clapiog and not enough gronynnog.  Anecdotal patterns provide greater resilience and variety.  There is then the exciting use of counterfactual (different from the use in Estuarine Mapping) story form, which takes the form:  What would have happened if ? Again, it triggers curiosity by linking the familiar with the unfamiliar.  It is a form of executive communication that is too rarely taught.

Of course, all these build in nostalgia when appropriate and critical because they are based on real anecdotes captured at scale. They have strong coherence to reality but at the right level of granularity.  Decomposition and recombination are the essence of complexity.  Combined in different contexts, small things can help make sense in an uncertain world; more coarsely-grained things lack context sensitivity.  They are awkward, lumpy, rough and frequently stilted.

This is also a counterbalance to attempts to control the narrative by discussing how other people should behave.  One of the many problems with things like the Innder Development Goals is that they are a culturally specific form that approaches neo-colonialism by preaching Enlightenment and Northern European value systems.  IDG are not the only sinner here, by the way; most inter-government agencies make the same mistakes as do many of the great and good talking about climate change and the need for peace.  The granularity is all wrong, and the timing is always premature.  First, initiate changes in the substrate, then move to amplify what is working.  Oh, and gaslighting people into talking about a meta-crisis is not the way to avoid what is a poly crisis, but that is a subject for another post or two.


The opening picture of shipping containers is by Guillaume Bolduc sourced from Unsplash; the banner picture was taken by yours truly walking from Capel Curig to Pen-y-Pass.  It shows Castell y Gwynt en route from Glyder Fach to Glyder Fawr, with Yr Wyddfa’s distinct silhouette on the horizon just to the left.   Walking is problematic because it is on massive rock slabs, many shifting when you step on them.  I broke a rib when that happened once, and I ended up trapped upside down between two boulders, and it took some effort to extradite myself.  The granularity could be better …

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