The many faces of Narrative

October 18, 2010

I had lunch yesterday with my colleague Bob Horn yesterday. I worked with Bob about 8 years ago on a really interesting project called aMap at the HCI Lab at Stanford that employed wall-size interactive displays to render and manipulate argumentation maps. His work is fascinating and his achievements significant. He has received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on the Information Mapping method from the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and another lifetime achievement award, the Thomas Gilbert Award, from the International Society for Performance and Instruction. He is a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science and a Woodrow Wilson Fellow.

Bob’s work is around Visual Language[1] and there are a number of parallels to his work in information mural creation and the general approach found in Cognitive Edge’s Anectdote Circles and Cynefin contextualisation. The structure of both are the same in terms of information gathering and iterations with participants that together, as a group, signify the meaning of their problem space. But there are some important differences, notably around the use of narrative.

Simply put, Bob doesn’t emphasise it, but prefers to “chunk” ideas into visual “information blocks” [2]. Below is an example of a recent project Bob did for the World Business Council that visualizes 350 milestones to achieve a sustainable world by 2050:

From my perspective, Bob’s work is quite powerful and I think when experienced in person, his information murals are a visual narrative. But that is not the same thing as a written narrative or a story someone tells out of their own experience. In fairness, not all circumstances require participants to tell their stories, and so it is interesting to recognize that there are many approaches to what is essentially the same goal of sensemaking. Bob’s work is positioned similarly to Dave Snowden’s, as a set of New Tools for Resolving Wicked Problems

Narrative can take many forms. I am reminded here of Alicia Juarrero’s work where she states:

“In a true interpretive narrative, the telling of the tale explains by knitting together sequential but interconnected threads, such that it describes a temporal and contextual pattern, the meaningful organization that flows through the singular sequence of events and binds them into a whole.”[3]

In that paper, Juarerro reminds us that there are many forms, including reenactment, simulations, theatrical performance and narrative all serve to provide a way for us to make sense of the complexity of human behavior.

This raises some interesting questions: When is the use of descriptive narrative most useful? When are visual murals or other diagrams most useful? What heuristics should we use to decide which tools to employ when supporting customers address their complex issues?

[1] Horn, Robert E. 1998. Visual Language: global communication for the 21st century. Bainbridge Island, WA: MacroVU, Inc.
[2] Horn, Robert E. 1998. Structured Writing as a Paradigm. In Instructional Development: State of the Art, eds. Alexander Romiszowski, and Charles Dills, Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Educational Technology Publications.
[3] Juarrero. Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System. Emergence (2000) vol. 2 (2) pp. 24-57

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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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