Context in narrative work

September 24, 2018

One quote from my contribution to the ‘StoryTheFuture’ event was picked up in social media. I’m not sure it really qualifies as going viral but it did have some impact. I said: Stop telling leaders to tell stories and (instead) get them to take actions that will generate stories. A theme I have been running for some years. Dr Amit Nagpal picked it up on Facebook and got a response from Shawn Callahan who said I wrote about story-triggering in Putting Stories to Work. Like most things in life it’s rarely a binary decision of stop this but do that. I made the case for leaders to use all three approaches in story work: telling, triggering, and listening. I keep meaning to write a review of that book (which I recommend) in the context of telling the story of the various groups that came together in IBM around narrative. A part goal there is to make sure that everyone who was involved gets acknowledged, another goal is to talk about the different pathways that were available when that period ended and the reasons for the choices I made. Either way I promised to expand on the point today so here goes.

Its important to point out that the quote was not in isolation, it came within the context of suggesting that we needed to move to shifting things from the present rather than setting goals and critically making sense of the present by allowing people to self-interpret their own stories. These changes are a major theme of my approach to managing complexity. If the desired future state is close to where we are then, yes, we can set goals. But most of the time the goals are too aspirational, too far in the future, too platitudinous and that just creates a seedbed for continued illusion or delusion or both. So there is a binary aspect to this unless the desired future state is adjacent to the current one. To get to the point where you can take actions that create stories you first need to understand the context, in particular you need to understand the dispositional state of the system and the likely energy cost of attempting change.

So lets look at this from the perspective of what a leader does and I’d like to suggest some different language. This links back to the Children’s Party story (this telling also has aspects of dispositional mapping in it) in which a series of small actions seek to catalyse change within boundaries (a type of constraint). The catalyse word is critical here and I prefer it to trigger. If I pull a trigger I have a pretty good idea of what will happen which a catalyst may or may not work and I may need to experiment before I get it right. In that context actions work, in particular actions that make a negative story difficult to tell. The advise I give to executives if they are picking up on negative stories is not to tell a story about why its wrong, but rather to go and take small actions that make those stories increasingly difficult to tell. Also by the way WAIT to see if the stories change, don’t go and tell people!

Listening to stories is critical in one to one or small group conversations. We have an exercise called Silent Listening in which ideas are presented to silence followed by the idea creator having to listen to a discussion without any right to respond or explain. It increases scanning and insight. But at an organisational level its more problematic as we tend to be biased by the first stories we here. It’s one of the reasons I reduced the emphasis on workshops in our work as they tended to premature convergence as people formed conclusions or found favourite stories. The material in the TedX referenced above shows a landscape based on SenseMaker® which is a distributed ethnographic tool. People self interpret their own stories – we can see patterns in the statistics BEFORE we read the stories which then serve to explain what is meant and help people understand what to do. So I’d talk more about making sense of the narrative landscape in order to set the context for catalytic actions. Further those actions should be distributed, it’s not just about the leader.

Finally we come to the problematic issue of what the leader should tell by way of story. I’ll pick up on that in tomorrow’s post





Banner picture by ceridwen
In text picture Photo by Easton Oliver on Unsplash

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