Using a story spine for sensemaking

October 21, 2007

Last Christmas I visited my folks in Jervis Bay on the New South Wales coast. My father and I were driving to his local shops when he mentioned that he recently got a bad batch of petrol. I asked him what happened and he said, “I filled up at either Vincentia or Huskisson. Come to think of it there was a tanker refuelling the petrol station at Vincentia. I bet it was churning up gunk in the bottom of the reservoir and I managed to get some of that in my car.” This was probably the first time my father told his bad petrol story. He was making sense of his experience but what came next I found really interesting. “And you know what Shawn, I’ll never again fill up at a station when there’s a tanker refuelling.” Dad rapidly went from a story of his experience to a rule of thumb that will change his buying patterns for the rest of his life. There was no analysis, no assessment of the pros and cons, just a plausible story. It occurred to me that this is how we make many of our decisions. It is sensemaking.

I had an immediate application for this insight. We’d been running a series of workshops across Australia for an organisation helping their regional centres establish knowledge strategies. The approach involved collecting stories on how people created, shared and used their knowledge. We then use a workshop process to identify the major patterns in those stories. At one point in the workshop the participants are faced with a wall of post-it notes clustered into themes such as ‘siloed information,’ ‘hard to find expertise,’ and ‘easy to speak our mind.’ To really help the workshop participants understand these clusters we needed to get them to write a story of how these issues emerged.

In my first attempt I presented the workshop participants with a sheet of butcher’s paper and asked them to write a story. They toiled at the task for about 30 minutes and found it difficult. They didn’t really know what I meant by ‘a story’ and they felt inadequate to create one. All the groups ended up merely presenting a set of dot points. A dismal failure. So I searched around for a way to guide the participants in their storytelling endeavours.

One of our friends, Viv McWaters, mentioned to us a while back that she had used a story spine approach to help people come together and work toward a common goal. A story spine is simply a structure for a story that looks like this:

Way back when …
Everyday …
But one day …
Because of that …
Because of that …
Because of that …
Ever since then …
And the moral of the story is …

Each phrase of the story spine forms the beginning of a sentence that springboards the story writer to explain what happened.

So on my next workshop, this time in Dubbo, I asked the workshop participants to create a story explaining a theme that emerged from the clustering exercise using the story spine approach. At first there was a little resistance; it seemed a little weird to be asked to write a story. But within minutes everyone was immersed in the task and the room noise skyrocketed with animated conversation.

Each story was written by a small group and served the task of generating a conversation about what had happened to get them to this point in their organisation. It also helped the group notice things that previously had been taken for granted while providing a way for people to say our loud what actually occurred. As Weick says, ‘how do I know what I know until I hear myself say it?’

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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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