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To evaluate or describe?

July 20, 2016

Yesterday I referenced Max’s reminder to me of a conversation we had in which one or other of us came up with the idea that Stories are espoused theories whereas anecdotes are theories-in-use. I also included his reflections on Erasmus, something to which I will return next week; for the moment I want to take up the stories and anecdote idea. The reference is the Agryris and Schon’s contrast between actions that we take and theories that we espouse. Like others of the period the ida that we design actions to achieve desired consequences and that reality may not match perception has origins in Jung and can be seen in models such as the Johari window (often confused with Cynefin by the way but that is for another day). It goes with the whole idea of mental models which still persist, although I would suggest that the idea is both an error in granularity and in identity. I will pick that up tomorrow. I think we also need to move on from assuming intentionality is necessarily based on design for outcomes but that is not the theme for this post.

Agryris and Schon are not asserting that there is a difference between what we say and what we do, but that there are two theories, one consistent with saying (espoused theory) and the other with doing (theory in use). The theories are the important thing here, hence my link to the parallel development of the idea of mental models. Now I have long made the contrast between a story which is told and constructed, with a purpose and an anecdote (or rather anecdotes) which represent what is actually happening. This can be simplified into a key distinction in sense-making (not necessarily Weick’s sensemaking) between evaluation and description. That distinction is also key to SenseMaker® where we both gather observations and, through the abstract signification, encourage description of those observations not evaluation. One reason for that is that evaluation by necessity implies a power relationship (my Humpty Dumpty reference) and thus forms the interpretation based on a desired outcome. When we construct stories we have a purpose, either explicit or implicit, intended to achieve some purpose. When leaders are taught to tell stories they start with some purpose or intent. A story is always more than an anecdote or observation, it has greater form and structure. To be a clear I am not saying that this is wrong of itself, but we need to be aware that all story telling is to a degree propaganda.

Now in contrast, where we gather observations and anecdotes from a large population and allow the originators the power of descriptive interpretation of that material we create a different type of map. One that reveals patterns of potential as well as current reality. Intervention then can be action based: What can I/we do tomorrow to create more observations/anecdotes like these, fewer like this. We don’t tell a story of what we would like to be, but take actions that influence reality. A vector has direction, intensity and speed; it is adaptive as discoveries on a journey cannot always be anticipated. A specific goal or over structured intent may indeed mean that we miss them. So by changing the granularity both to fragment it (multiple observations) and to cluster it (looking at bored populations), by distributing cognition (interpretative) process we put the decision makers in direct contact with that observation data through action (disintermediation): the three basic heuristics of complexity based interventions.

That may be a little over elaborate so let me simplify it. The interaction of small actions with observational/anecdotal level means that at various levels within an organisation we radically reduce the contrast between the two theories, in deed we may remove the need for the distinction. More tomorrow

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