Manipulating narrative?

September 14, 2016

As promised yesterday it is more than time to update some of my thinking on narrative as communication. I’ve taught aspects of this from time to time on the four day Cynefin and sense-making courses, but I can only give it around half a day here and now I have two. I’m writing this at the end of day one and have completed most of the theory sections. There is something about teaching that clarifies ideas and I kept dashing to the side to make notes as ideas, particularly synthesis and synergy with wider aspects of anthro-complexity occurred to me.

One general theme here is a concern I have had for the best part of two decades, namely the various attempts to take an artisan process and reduce it to a simplistic process that can be programmed into course attendees. The latest of these attempts to the commoditisation of design thinking but narrative, or rather story telling was one of the first. An Irish seanchaí (literally a bearer of the old law) even in the modern day is meant to service a decade long apprenticeship. Reporters on the national press serve years as a cub reporter in the provinces and so on. In a disintermediated and increasingly fact free world the cult of the amateur is compounded by the industrialisation of the artisan and the echo chamber impact of social medial. Couple that with the desire for instant gratification, the quick fix accredited process and we have an issue. The linked loss of professionalisation (and respect for professionals) together with the socialisation (and consequent ethical development) is one that should be of increasing concern. Don’t get me wrong here, I have no issue with the use of modern technology and the ability to connect quickly with multiple identities and handle personal and business transactions with ease. But rather like Vico (one of my favourite philosophers) I want to say to the unthinking advocates of the modern enlightenment that while the new has huge value, there is much to be lost from the past.

So after that neo-rant lets get onto the issue of narrative management, possibly (if we are all honest) narrative manipulation. Any attempt to communicate involves a level of manipulation and trying to pretend otherwise can too easily lead to inauthentic action. So what is involved in managing the narrative landscape of a modern organisation? I started todays’s session with the following quote:

What about expert searchers who have spent years honing their ability to detect small abnormalities in specific types of image? We asked 24 radiologists to perform a familiar lung nodule detection task. A gorilla, 48 times larger than the average nodule, was inserted in the last case. 83% of radiologists did not see the gorilla. Eye-tracking revealed that the majority of the those who missed the gorilla looked directly at the location of the gorilla. Even expert searchers, operating in their domain of expertise, are vulnerable to inattentional blindness.

The invisible gorilla strikes again (
Drew, Vo & Wolfe 
 Psychol Sci. Sep 2013; 24(9): 1848–1853).

That allowed me to make the point that whatever you say is filtered through the patterns of recent experience. So if you want to achieve change in a modern organisation, the last thing you should do is announce a change initiative. The prior patterns are generally memories of over idealistic, non adaptive promises about some mythical perfect future. Reality has made more or less everyone cynical, and legitimately so. Better the start making changes than announce that change will happen. Following that I moved on the make the following seven points.

  1. I see nothing wrong in teaching leaders to improve their communication skills, but that cannot be achieved in a one or two day training programme, no matter how well scripted or how fancy the supporting materials. Training in communication is not anything particularly new. I’ve attended courses in it, served an apprenticeship in school and university debating and worked my way up the ranks from track to keynote speaker. Its taken time and a mixture of formal training, practice and a degree of natural talent. Remember as well that in the celtic traditions the story teller was a servant to the Monarch and to the community, not the Monarch.
  2. The Dumbledoor problem, or excessive use of the Hero’s Journey. Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore had to die in the penultimate book, for the same reason that Gandalf has to appear to die in The Two Towers. The mentor having initiated our common man (or rather boy or hobbit) in the journey, has to withdraw from the story to allow the true hero, our alter ego, to complete the journey we aspire to live. The pattern is too known, too familiar, too often only achieved in fiction and never in reality to have anything other than limited impact.
  3. Authentic use of narrative, something that can be changed and practices easily, is to assembly your own anecdotal material into a sequence of narrative that provides a sense of direction to the audience by was of conversation as much as communication. We got most of the way through this exercise, using the water engineer story as template today. Once created it can be compromised and simplified, but it is not necessarily a performance, in fact it may we weakened as such.
  4. Artefacts, such as archetypes provide a scaffolding of meaning and intervention of great power and antiquity. I’ve written on that elsewhere so won’t replicate it here, and we will be create them tomorrow anyway. Such artefacts allow multiple participants to weave an emergent narrative over multiple anecdotes and experiences rather than becoming recipients of the message.
  5. Providing anecdotal material to indicate a direction of travel should ideally be facts or counterfactuals not pure fiction. Counterfactuals deserve a post in their own right but the range from alternative histories, turning point departures in a story threat (what would have happened if …) to complex fables such as we find in the ever wonderful Just So Stories. Telling stories about what could be is very different from stories of what could have been in terms of resonance and resilience.
  6. It is nearly always more effective to indicate where experience indicates one should not go, rather than to tell people the destination. In complexity terms this creates a boundary or barrier of past shared and commonly understood negative experience, it channels behaviour without making the destination too specific. That allows people the right to make their own journeys within general directions, but does not mandate the goal. It also allows new discoveries on the journey that could not be anticipated and has the advantage of being both ethical and effective. Lower energy cost, more adaptability.
  7. Always be aware that you are playing with people’s lives, their practices and their identity.  As a manager or leader you have a responsibility to provide direction and to indicate limits, but the more autonomy you can provide the better for you, the better for your employees and the better for the health of the organisation and society of which you are both a part.

Obviously I said a lot more than this, but that is enough for the moment.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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