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:
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:
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.