Utility in narrative

January 13, 2011

For many years now I’ve made a strong distinction between narrative and story telling. In IBM days and afterwards I emphasised anecdotes over stories and frequently evidenced my dislike of the recipe type approaches typified in many a popular writer in this field. Often I have been critical (frequently highly critical) of the business (or organisational) story telling movement. However I have never gone so far as to call them zombies or to suggest that their products are little more than prosthetic devices. In a recent post my former colleague Shawn does precisely that and adds in artificial, forced and clumsy just to rub their noses in it. The link he makes with failure artificial intelligence is a good one and while I might be more circumspect in how I expressed it I am in broad agreement with the points Shawn makes, specifically:

  • We can learn from script writers, novelists etc. but we can’t replicate those skills in one or even five day storytelling courses.
  • Anecdotes have more value in an organisational context (I remain flattered by the way that Shawn chose Anecdote as the name of his company, along with unorder as his twitter name).
  • Too many story telling consultants focus on the performance of the story rather than the learning value of the content (I am paraphrasing here, Shawn does not say that explicitly)

All good stuff. Its where we got to in the old IBM story group training programmes and having devised it with Cynthia, Sharon and others it would be churlish to reject it! That said I think the linear scale between Little “s” and Big “S” storytelling is too limiting and we need to move on a bit.

I’ve taken Shawn’s linear distinction between little and big “s” story telling and placed it as a part of my x-axis which creates a left-right scale of the degree of effort required to create a narrative. On the far left we have micro-narratives of day to day existence. These are the stories we tell as a part of day to day existence and can include photographs, voice etc. etc. They are fragmented in nature and they just happen. We then have reflective narrative which butts up against Shawn’s little “s” stories but is different. Reflective stories are the micro-narratives we recall when prompted by circumstance or question or those we create as mental rehearsal evaluate action (think of Gary Klein’s work in Sources of Power here). They can also be other people’s stories, or examples from literature than we endorse as exemplars. An interesting sub-class here are stories of failure, or near failure used by trainers and mentors. By telling a story of how you failed, you build confidence in the trainee and you impart learning.

x-axis – effort and refinement

To complete the x-axis I’ve gone beyond anecdotes to the fragmented micro-narrative which is much of my work. I have also added metaphor on the far right. Metaphor type stories such as the Children’s Party Story or Longitude take time to construct, lots of experimentation and refinement. They have a lot of detail that people often don’t discover or appreciate the value of until after multiple tellings. There are also aspects of Big “S” Storytelling here. Common stories in companies and society as a whole are frequently referenced in day to day conversation, especially those that define key turning points in the organisation’s history. Neither is it complete stories by the way; I still use classics like Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows for key phrases that carry complex meaning to people who have also read those books. These stories are the modern equivalent of defining myths, we may not tell stories about Apollo and Athena but we do tell stories about great leaders, key episodes etc. These myth form stories define the identity of an organisation and they generally evolve, they are rarely constructed. Of course the evolutionary process can be accelerated. Metaphor is different and is very very powerful as the patterns of the metaphor already exist in the brain so they can trigger associative meaning of complex ideas and concepts which would otherwise be difficult to grasp. Adding counter factuals (what if variations) to metaphors can create a highly complex language and I will post on that in the future, for the moment I just want to marked here. Fractal stories are self-similar (like the branches of a tree) and you often find them in organisations, they generally inherit with variations from strong myth stories or common metaphors.

y-axis – context and resilience

Here I am combining the degree to which a story/anecdote/micro-narrative has utility aside from the context of its creation and also the distinction between resilience and robustness. The latter relates systems or processes which are fit for purpose and stand up to a lot of examination, but are expensive to create and vulnerable to catastrophic failure. Resilience is more about recovery, evolution and change; the form may change but the vector remains constant.

So what does this mean?

The basic argument here is that different types of story have different utilities and we need to be aware of of the when and how of those forms. Its not a good idea to say that one is bad and the other good, it is a good idea to say that all forms have utility in context. Key to understanding that utility are issues of volume and retrieval. Now there are more than this, but for the moment I want to talk about four specific locations on the chart above:

  • Low volume categorisation
    This is probably best illustrated by the cases that dominate management science. They have narrative form in that they impart a lesson and generally have a beginning middle and an end. They may not entertain but they have a purpose. They tend to be organised in the modern equivalent of a card catalogue system, in order to be cases they have to be specific. They also avoid ambiguity and rightly so given their purpose. You find both academic versions of this (the ubiquitous HBR cases) and also the business press who publish more journalistic material. The material tends to time specificity but is also is retrospective in nature and is specific to the context of the cases creation. A few survive, becoming seminal in nature but those are the exception.
  • Low volume, high resonance, high ambiguity
    This covers metaphor and also the myth type Big “S” Stories. By definition they are low volume as their creation takes time and experimentation. They can be culturally specific, but the big themes (the Hero’s Journey for example) tend to be the same although they will manifest differently. Key to these is that while they may appear to be precise, they have a high level of ambiguity which means they can rapidly adapt to changing context and circumstances. Used properly they can create a meta-language within an organisation, allowing complex meaning to be conveyed in a few words. They do require common understanding however so there is an investment if they are to be created (or adapted).
  • Medium volume tagging
    This is a growth area and includes blogs as well as the myriads of software packages that allow storage and recall of stories. We also have some very advanced approaches such as the digital story telling movement. Material here is captured through composition (a blog for example) or performed to camera. They can be constructed as a collage of experiences with a narrative threat. The material is facilitated in anecdote circles, results from interviews etc. etc. Once complete the material is placed in categories or is tagged with key words. That allows recall via semantic analysis tag clouds etc. There are issues of scalability, tagging requires consistent use of language. I really admire people like Patrick Lamb and Shawn who can do this, but I can’t even use the fiveteen categories on this blog and I’ve never got into tags. Use of language changes over time and its difficult to find things or see wider patterns.
  • High volume ambiguous signification
    This is the area which has been a large part of my and Cognitive Edge’s focus since we left IBM. Its the basis of SenseMaker®. The principle here is to move to multiple forms of capture (we are now using pens and iPods as well as web sites and this will extend over the next year or so to allow increasing levels of pervasive capture both as stories, but also as a part of operational processes, linking narrative to more formal systems. Key to this is self-signification in ambiguous structures. You could almost make a cylinder of the framework above in respect of ambiguity. If you’re not familiar with the approach then this University of Surrey video goes through the whole thing (and its patent pending by the way). The point is that ambiguity is key to effective search of high volume material. This is a summary post so I’m going to leave it there for the moment.

The real point of this post was (i) to create a wider context and (ii) to argue a key Cognitive Edge principle, different things work in different contexts. Saying my approach is right, their approach is wrong may be right in some contexts but its not true in all. Narrative or Story is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human, its a lot bigger than its practitioners.

One response to “Utility in narrative”

  1. Marcus Jenal says:

    Hi Dave. I know this is a rather old post and I am not even sure if you still receive notifications for comments. Anyway, I have been reading up on narrative work a bit and came across this post. I think it is extremely valuable in understanding different types of narratives.

    One question, though, with regards to the y axis in your diagram. Why do micro narrative have ‘context free meaning’? I would have thought that they are extremely context specific as they are fragmented and told in the moment. What is the mechanism that gives them utility beyond the context? Is it the fact that they come in high volume and the ambiguity of their signification? Would love to get your thoughts on this.

    And obviously would be good to know how your thinking about this topic in general has evolved.

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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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