Twelvetide 20:06 Narrative appreciated

December 30, 2020

DSC 7885A lot of the early work on narrative, which I summarised yesterday was largely based on instinct and common sense.  There was background theory – I focused on aesthetics and ethics when I studied Philosophy and I was formally trained in rhetoric at school and carried that forward into competitive debating at University and beyond.  Any public speaker knows the power of weaving an audience into a story and those stories refine themselves in the process of being told and retold to the point where their use becomes automatic.  You can tell a story to make a point while observing the audience and thinking about what you will say next.  All good oratory responds to an audience and is not scripted.  I was also fascinated by ritual and semiotics in religious practice long before I knew the significance of it for human decision and meaning-making, Self-deprecation is also important in public speak and I know that for each of the near-fatal accidents I have been involved in (two in the car, one on the bike and three climbing) I have ended up telling the story at some conference or other to make a point.  We are, as I said yesterday fascinated by the learning involved in any failure.

The common element between my work on knowledge management and the emerging practice of complexity was narrative and in these posts, I am bringing all three of them back together again.  But the most recent phase of my work on narrative has seen my focus on theory to understand, scale, and modify practice.   I can trace this back to the period between meetings of the Academy of Management in 2009 and 2010.

Interestingly it was at an earlier meeting of the Academy of Management which took place in Washington DC back in 2001 when I started to realise the academic significance of my work on knowledge management.  I got a special award for original contributions to the field and had to present my ideas for response by Max Boisot and J C Spender which was a baptism of fire.  I still find it ironic when I get accused of being too academic – most of what I do starts with practice.

But back to 2009/2010, the two events were as described below:

2009 Chicago

Complexity in human systems: Exploring how leaders respond & what research has to say about it.
8:00am – 11:00am Sheraton Chicago: Arkansas Room
Chair: James K. Hazy, Adelphi U.
Presenters: David Snowden, Cognitive Edge Ltd; Pierpaolo Andriani, eBMS- Scuola Superiore ISUFI- U. of Salento; Bill McKelvey, U. of California, Los Angeles

2010 Montreal 

Complexity in Human Systems: Data collection & interpretation techniques
10:15am – 12:15pm Delta Centre-Ville: Verriere A
Organizer: James K. Hazy, Adelphi U.
Participants: David Snowden, Cognitive Edge Ltd; Max Boisot, U.of Birmingham; Pierpaolo Andriani, Durham Business School

Between these two events, Max and I had a few meetings, and either at the AoM or in the period between them he asked me to go through SenseMaker® again in more detail and in particular asked why I had decided to use triads and abstraction for self-signification.  Now I had explained both to him a few times but this time I could tell he was listening differently and at the end of it he said something along the lines of “You know, you may have solved the problem of abduction in decision making”.   Now it was rare for a conversation with Max not to end up with me being sent away to read two or three dense textbooks in order to be allowed to speak about the matter so this was a significant development and I paid attention.  At the Montreal session, he presented the issues around different types of logic and I blogged about it at the time.  As it happened the same question had been posed when we got involved in the major ramping up of our DARPA work post 911 the best part of a decade earlier.   Admiral Poindexter has talked about it in the context of weak signal detection.  If you look at the history of terrorism someone always spots something that later proves to be significant and sometimes people pay attention and disaster is adverted, but most of the time we only see the relevant information with the benefit of hindsight.  The problem is the number of weak signals in.  In the link to my earlier post, you will see Max’s proof of what we can never join up the dots in advance. While most of the time someone will spot something and realise the significance in the majority of cases they may not get the attention of a decision-maker.  And you can’t blame the decision-maker, they are facing multiple demands on their time and attention and they also carry the can so a safety-first approach is more or less inevitable.  The problem of abduction is how is my intuitive leap to have more credence than yours?  Another related problem is how to make small things visible early and in such a way that people are prepared to take potentially risky actions based on limited information.

This linked with the first time I saw (or rather didn’t see) the Gorilla Video in which six students play with a basketball and you are asked to count the number of times they passed the ball.  You send up not seeing the woman in a gorilla suit who walks through the group and beats her chest.  Someone we know as inattentional blindness – we do not see what we do not expect to see.   The occasion was KM Asia and the speaker was John Seely Brown and it must have been a long time ago as KM Asia was then a significant and well-attended event each year in Singapore. I think it was 2005 but I couldn’t swear to it.  That got me into a lot of reading and some of the understandings about the way we make decisions that I outlined in an earlier post in this series.  Our original work with SenseMaker® had been to increase understanding, providing a rich contextual web of anecdotes to help explain what was going on: numbers are objective, narrative is persuasive, but the two together and you are getting somewhere.  I know started to realise that our work here could also show outlier events – the 17% who do see a gorilla but are ignored and derided by those who don’t.  By mathematically demonstrating that an outlier exists and bringing a decision-maker attention to that we make a major dent in the problem of abduction.  This is called attention triggering, if humans know there is something anomalous they will search it out but if there is no reason to suspect an anomaly they will ignore it.

Form here I am going to assume some knowledge of SenseMaker® so if you are not familiar you might want to take a look at the web site.  I had originally used triads for signification in order to avoid gaming.  I originally played with the idea at an IKM event in Dublin but no one really caught on and Cynthia didn’t like it so I put it on the back burner.  But post IBM, with the DARPA and other work it came critical.  The consequences of current or past practice were too high if people could trace input to output or knew what answer was expected of them – something inevitable with a Likert scale.  By getting respondents to weigh up the balance of three positive or three negative qualities we avoided that.  Also the approach more closely resembled the reality of human decision making – things are rarely black or white.  So back in 2015 we created CrowdSensor and MassSense which moved us away from anecdotal capture and patterns into mass participation in situational assessment and decision support.  This combined with my use of fitness landscapes, another key bit of theory helping explain and expand the practice.  I first got the idea for that by looking at a three dimensional model of Singapore during a war game and then started to make connections with Manual deLanda’s interpretation of Assemblage theory.  That also came out of my paralleling my daughter’s anthropology degree and her award-winning Master’s thesis which used Deleuze and Guattari work there. It all came together when I realised that a trope is an assemblage is a strange attractor.

The other key here is the realisation of the role of abstraction.  Art comes before language in human evolution and our ability to see things through an abstract lens is key to our sense-making and to innovation.  So by shifting interpretation to the abstract we increased the potential for meaning to emerge.  It is however an ongoing problem in SenseMaker® project design in that people try and be over explicit rather than abstract in the way they design signifiers.  The paradox is that they get less precision as a result, not more.  Of course, narrative is of itself an abstraction, it carries what I have called necessary ambiguity which gives it adaptive capacity.  Critically meaning is achieved by looking at a cluster of anecdotal observations or opinions, not a single narrative.  At the moment I am working on using pictures and symbols as well as words in signification for just this reason.  The work on archetypes I mentioned yesterday is also important here – humans are more comfortable i the abstract than the concrete and for good evolutionary reasons but it can also have a downside.

That brings me to the final component, namely the problem of curation or (borrowing a phrase from Beth) cognitive sovereignty.  This links in with the key concept of epistemic justice.   In the early days, I had a lot of encounters that started with a phrase such as ”You need to talk to X they are working on narrative” something which generally resulted in some aspect of what became known as digital storytelling.  There was always powerful material here but it was curated by keywords or by experts.  Someone else decided what the narrative meant and/or it became impossible to find things as the volume grew.  The dependence on keywords was ironically terribly limiting for anyone working in narrative who should know the limitations of what can be written down and the cultural dependency of language, more specifically the way that language is used in power.  Power is in the hands of the curator so I was determined to distribute that responsibility.   I think it is no coincidence that the bulk of digital storytelling is initiated and managed by journalists who have a need to tell a story using other people’s material.  OK in the context of journalism, in wider narrative work far less so.

So a lot of this later period has been about developing distributed sense-making through software, but also about integrating a diverse body of theory to validate the process and allow for scaling.  It also involved the development of a new vector theory of change that focuses on shifting the situation from one small narrative island to another in a series of stepping stones.  I’ve always seen behaviour economies as more yanking than nudging and our narrative work provides a realistic and more ethical approach.

I moved from what to why and I am now moving to wherefore.

So to complete this section with its focus on narrative I will as promised summarise some of the key principles and again they are seven in number – nothing like an enabling constraint 🙂

  1. Narrative forms of knowing and communication carry necessary ambiguity which allows them to more readily adapt to changing contexts than written documents.
  2. Anecdotes are the natural form of narrative exchange, storytelling is a specific form and skill and is different and not natural to day to day discourse.  It also has a double meaning in English and the minute you engage in the selection and presentation of material to communicate a message then you start to strip away potential meaning from the raw material.
  3. Proximity in time and space is critical to gaining insight as to what happened, but in fiction often lies the truth
  4. Power belongs to the curator and interpretation, the narrative itself just is, who interprets it determines its meaning which means that the primary interpreter should be the originator of the material.  If you start to think you are the arbitrator of truth in other people’s narratives you are in a very bad place.
  5. Organisational stories that seek to lay down an idealistic pattern of behaviour that is not lived by the storyteller will do more harm than good and will generate anti-stories
  6. Multiple narratives over time create patterns or wells of attraction that can determine how whole populations see the world, or how a small team perceived itself.  Mapping these and understanding where you can shift things is key
  7. Numbers are objective, narrative is persuasive; combine the two and you can make a substantial difference.  Asking What can I do tomorrow to create more stories like these and fewer stories like those is a more effective change technique than trying to close the gap to an idealistic future.

I may change these over the next few days but time to move on to the third leg of naturalising sense-making namely complexity adaptive systems theory


Today’s banner picture was taken on the summit of Helvelyn on one of those perfect winter days where sun, snow, clouds all come together in a perfect storm.  The view is looking south-east from the summit.  You can find the rest of the pictures and a map of the route  here.   I took the 20mm fixed lens as it has the best depth of field for mountain conditions and while I had a telephoto in the rucksack it was far too cold to make any changes.  The temperature at the top was minus 18ºC and I drained two batteries during the day which meant I had to be careful and missed out on some possibly interesting pictures at the end of the walk.

I have broken with my pictures of stone walls, in part because there were none and secondly because I wanted to make a point about being equipped.  I put on the microspikes  (pictured) a little too late have slipped and slithered my way up to the 500m line without.  It may be a male issue – coming down I advised one party that without crampons or microspikes it simply wasn’t not safe.  It was especially bad at lower levels where many walkers and trodden down the snow which had melted and refrozen.   In a time of Covid it is particularly irresponsible to risk injury and more stress on the mountain rescue and hospital services.  I saw parents in tracksuits and wellington boots taking children in trainers up a mountain where I started to regret not taking crampons as at times even the microspikes felt a little insecure.  I doubt any of them had the equipment to survive overnight.  I was carrying a survival sack and had three sets of gloves – the double layered ones shown and even then I went over to full mitts from 800m onwards.

There is a metaphor here of course just as walls create boundaries, so spikes create stickiness something essential to creating confidence in managing uncertainty.



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Twelvetide 20:07 Early complexity influences

I can’t remember when complexity science came into the picture - it was in the ...

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