Homo Narrans: of infinite-resource- and-sagacity,

November 25, 2020

Illustration at p 5 in Just So Stories c1912As I promised yesterday I want to pick up on the use of narrative in lessons learned, or more properly lessons learning processes.  The idea here is that looking backward is all well and good but what really matters is what learning is happening in the here and now. The whole point of learning lessons is not to create a fancy database or catalog of best practices (although both may have utility) but to allow people to rapidly adapt to change and unexpected circumstances.  The problem with any retrospective is that memories adjust reality to match the political needs of the present.  In one major programme in IBM we ran identical lessons learned processes on large sales teams before and after they knew if they had won the bid.  The context here was outsourcing so the bid costs were high involving large teams with a binary endpoint; clear success or failure, hero or villain.  The post turning point memories were always completely different from the identical event which had been run a week or less before when the outcome was unknown.  Now, this is human nature, if we succeed then we tend to remember the story as one of the obstacles overcome by teamwork and rationality; if we fail then it was bad luck or inadequate resourcing.

So the first principle is not to go for what has been learned, but to capture the lessons and observations as the activities take place: reduce retrospection to the minimum.  This is where we use SenseMaker® as a workbook unprotects, often replacing a formal end of period reporting process with dynamic real-time capture.  That capture also allows us the create a serendipitous mechanism of search.  The person in need basically mentally asks him or herself the question: If I knew the answer to this then I would signify it like this. The system then finds all the observational data so signified by others in the field and presents them as a group to allow synthesis and action.  This type of search increases the chance of serendipitous discovery of the unexpected and creating increases resilience.

The second principle is to allow the use of fiction as well as fact, a reference to the paradox of story I mentioned in yesterday’s post.  This is often done by creating a timeline of a past project or activity and identifying turning points on that timeline.  You then ask a counterfactual question about what would have happened if, at the turning point, a different decision had been made or some other outcome was reversed or radically changed.  This allows an individual or group of individuals to explore possibilities in which they will draw on their many and various experiences to create alternative timelines that provide a rich repository of knowledge.  There are also three benefits to this approach which are worth pointing out:

  1. Ironically you are more likely to get to the truth if you allow people to indulge in speculative what-ifs.  Especially if put under pressure to come up with something people fall back on real experience, but as this is a fictional setting they feel free to share the experience as there is no personal attribution of blame.
  2. You don’t confine the learning to people’s memories of what they think happened, but extend the learning to multiple What, So What, now What type questioning; something that goes back to Gibb’s Reflective Cycle from 1988 and possibly earlier – I remain surprised at the number of people who claim originality in its use.
  3. Alternative histories of success and failure can e cathartic in allowing people to move on and reconcile themselves to what happened.  If you do a lot of counter factorials and can’t develop a better outcome then maybe that disappointment is not so bad.

The third principle is not to over-structure the learning where the problems to be solved are complex in nature.  We can use Cynefin here with the two ordered domains permitting high levels of codification and structure with a degree of enforcement not only possible but desirable.  In the complex domain, life gets more interesting.  In some cases, we can encapsulate learning in a simple heuristic and associate that with a collection of exemplar stories or a teaching story.  In other cases, we need to serendipitously discover and blend together multiple anecdotal data items to come up with a unique and contextual form of action.  That is where we get into narrative enhanced doctrine which will be the subject of a future post.

So the goal of all of this is to create adaptive capacity and that requires narrative to be part of extended consciousness, something that highly structured lessons learned programmes are poor at.  As the Whale discovered, you may be powerful but up against infinite resource and sagacity, you are very likely to lose!

In How the Whale Got his Throat which is my Just-so-Story of the day, the Whale is tricked by a small ‘Stute Fish into swallowing a Mariner who proceeds to cause such mayhem that the Whale is forced to set him on his home shore and then discovers that a grating has been placed in his throat (secured by suspenders) so that from now on his diet is plankton, not man, or more importantly Stute Fish.

But as soon as the Mariner, who was a man of infinite-resource- and-sagacity, found himself truly inside the Whale’s warm, dark, inside cup-boards, he stumped and he jumped and he thumped and he bumped, and he pranced and he danced, and he banged and he clanged, and he hit and he bit, and he leaped and he creeped, and he prowled and he howled, and he hopped and he dropped, and he cried and he sighed, and he crawled and he bawled, and he stepped and he lepped, and he danced hornpipes where he shouldn’t, and the Whale felt most unhappy indeed. (Have you forgotten the suspenders?)

The dictionary defines sagacity as the quality of being salacious which in turn means showing keen mental discernment and good judgment along with exhibiting wisdom and something the Scots and Northumbrians (where my family name comes from) call being canny which can translate as being astute or possible ’stute!

Tomorrow the use of archetypes in narrative work


Banner picture by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash, Opening illustration by Kipling, Rudyard, Gleeson, Joseph M. (Joseph Michael), or Bransom, Paul, 1885- (ill.), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



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Homo Narrans: preface

The  Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling were a key part of my formative years ...

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Homo Narrans: archetypes

Two days ago (apologies for skipping a day) I said that I would pick up ...

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