Narrative Patterning : Alternate History and Fragmented Narrative

Written by Zhen Goh

The use of narrative techniques in management can reveal both the patterns of an organisation, and are in turn the means by which it can be patterned. As noted by Snowden (2001), managers who introduce narrative as a tool for understanding cultural patterning have often succumbed to one of the temptations of using narrative as a tool to propogate ideal behaviours (2001). The introduction of predictable and scripted stories into an organisation becomes nothing more than another thinly-veiled version of tightly scripted “best practice” – instead of a genuine attempt to understand the organic culture of the organisation.

“Organisations must be aware that it is not enough to employ a journalist, scriptwriter, actor or even a traditional storyteller… their skills do not necessarily transfer into the organisational context intact. All too frequently, there may be resistance in the audience to being ‘told a story’… A factual story is fraught with peril: to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth requires both a prestigious feat of memory and a suspension of the normal human tendency to reinvent history…” (2001 (2005): 3)

In this vein, rather than try to control the process, it is more important to allow narrative to manifest in its many incarnations.

In the telling and re-telling of stories arise varying versions, different points of emphasis and personal embellishments – the adoption of hypothetical tales or fable-like approaches can also bring the point across more effectively than pure emphasis on “fact”. In literary traditions, writers and scholars have long produced “allohistorical narratives” out of fundamentally pre- sentist motives. Allohistorical tales have assumed different typological forms depending upon how their authors have viewed the present (Rosenfeld, 2002: 90). Recent trends in the world of science, such as chaos theory, have also worked to reduce the power of deterministic thinking and thus have encouraged alternate history (Ferguson, 1999).

The function of alternate history—the answer to the question “why do we ask ‘what if?’”—is to express our changing views about the present. Alternate histories have come in different varieties in order to accommodate different views towards the contemporary world. Alternate history is inherently presentist. It explores the past less for its own sake than to utilize it instrumentally to comment upon the present. Based as it is upon conjecture, alternate history necessarily reflects its authors’ hopes and fears (Demandt, 1993). Nightmare scenarios have most often been used to validate the present, while fantasy scenarios have been utilized in order to criticize it. By tracing how a given theme has been portrayed over time, we can learn a great deal about any organisation’s or society’s views of its past.

Certain methods in the Cognitive Edge approach incorporate these elements of exploring alternate histories and/or projections. In The Future-Backwards, workshop participants are often asked to project heaven- and hell-type situations which their organisation could possibly encounter. These enables organisations to explore the hopes and fears of their employees. Although the situations may be fictitious and appear fantastical, these fictitious accounts are still imprinted with the organisation-specific culture and narrative patterning. The workshop method therefore becomes in and of itself, also a method of intervention by encouraging individuals to share hopes and fears, the present becomes easier to criticise, and future decisions can be affirmed. The removal of these anecdotal and narrative techniques from the restrictions of the present “reality” also enables employees to be more honest in their explorations of hypothetical situations – it becomes removed from the “best practice” script that they might otherwise be pressured to follow.

Another example of this is the use of metaphor as an effective tool for exploring and expressing different possibilities within the organisation. Metaphor is the lintel of the bridge that connects thought and language to human condition (Arendt, 1978) since it is a meaning-making procedure whose aim is to produce the individual projects that shape the world (Bateson, 1979). Metaphor exercises a great attractive power on human mind, which was highlighted since Aristotle in its rhetorical and poetical value. Thus, it facilitates comprehension by stimulating the search for “a different meaning” where the code of language seems clumsy in the encounter with the unspeakable. To create and/or to understand a metaphor is to win a battle with what is inexpressible, which is what constantly challenges human life (Manuti & Mininni, 2010).

In this sense, alternate histories and projections, and fragmented narratives which arise from hypothetical situations or metaphors provide less threatening and more accessible methods of stimulating exploration within organisations. Although they are not “fact”, the lack of the burden of “factual” gravity allows participants the opportunity for freedom of expression – whilst still maintaining the narrative patterning inherent in each culture.


Arendt, H. 1978. The life of the mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Bateson, G. 1979. Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: Dutton.

Demandt, A. 1993. History That Never Happened: A Treatise on the Question, What Would Have Happened If…? Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.

Ferguson, N. 1999. ed. Virtual History: Alternatives and Counter-Factuals. New York: Basic Books.

Manuti, A. & Mininni, G. 2010. “Metaphor as an expressive resource of human creativity in organisational life”, in World Futures. 66: 335-350.

Rosenfeld, G. 2002. “Why do we ask ‘What If?’: Reflections on the function of Alternate History”, in History and Theory. 41: 90-103.

Snowden, D. 2001. “Narrative Paterns: the perils and possibilities of using story in organisations”, in Knowledge Management. 4 (10). (edited and reprinted in 2005 for The Cynefin Centre).