Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Questions for you, questions for me

Two posts in a row! Hooray! To be honest, I miss writing in the blog. It was fun. I'll see if I can start doing it at least once a month again. However, I will need to hold myself back from writing those long essays that took up weeks of my time. Must not get in too deep. Must not get in too deep.

Anyhew, I have been thinking a lot about the PNI Institute lately. We started it six years ago, and it has not grown into what I hoped it would become. This is what I was hoping to create:

  1. A lively discussion
  2. A free online quarterly or biennial peer-reviewed journal for PNI practitioners, with papers that spread techniques, share tips, recount experiences, and play with ideas
  3. An annual or biannual online conference that brings people together to brainstorm, learn, talk, share experiences, get to know each other, and help PNI thrive

We have done the first of these things, with 60+ phone calls during which we talked about many things PNI-related and PNI-adjacent. In that sense the effort has been a success.

However, I still want to do the other things. (I always say "do the other things" in a JFK voice.)

On our last phone call in September, we talked about doing two new things:

  1. We will hold a series of three special calls, starting in January, to discuss The Future of PNI and the PNI Institute (please say that in a Carl Sagan voice). We will talk about how we could ramp up to a bigger and better PNI Institute that better supports PNI practitioners.
  2. I have set up a survey to find out what people want from the PNI Institute in the future. If you have used participatory narrative inquiry, or even if you are just interested in it, I would very much value your opinion about what the PNI Institute should do to support you. (Please fill out the survey in your own voice.)

That's it!

Wait - one more thing. 

A colleague recently sent me an excellent question about PNI in practice, a question that had come up in a workshop. I answered the question, and then I thought - Hey, wait a minute. I used to have a "mail bag" series on the blog, where I would post answers to questions I got in email. I stopped doing that, but it was a good way to feed the blog.

So here's the deal: if you have a question about PNI, send it to me in an email. If I think everyone would benefit from the answer, I'll answer it here. (Otherwise I'll just answer it to you.) Deal?

Now, I don't want to push this blog post off the top of the blog, because I want people to fill out my survey. So I'll just tack my "mail bag" answer on to this post. 

 The question was:

In our story sharing session yesterday, we had a discussion about removing data such as a telephone number and a name that someone mentioned in their story. Some people said they thought removing the information would hurt the integrity of the story. Others said it wouldn't. What is your opinion?

What belongs in a story and what doesn't belong depends entirely on context. In some groups and communities, at some times, about some topics, and in some circumstances of story collection and spread (meaning, who told the stories and who will see them), the inclusion of personal information can contribute to the integrity of a story. However, context can change in a second.

When people are sharing stories in person, they constantly renegotiate what belongs in the story and what doesn't. For example:

  • A person who is in the middle of telling a story might suddenly change tack and reduce the amount of personal information they reveal when a new person enters the group.
  • On the other hand, if the new person shares telling rights and can corroborate what the storyteller has been saying, the storyteller may gain confidence and add more personal information, because they now have backup.
  • If a person they are nervous about leaves the group, a storyteller might shift to telling the story more openly. Conversely, if that person was providing the storyteller with social support, the story might suddenly become more circumspect.
  • Say a group is walking together and they pass from a quiet corner into a busy hallway. The story that is being told may suddenly shrink until the group gets back to a quieter place again, when it may expand.

In other words, from moment to moment, stories shift their shapes depending on the shifting contexts in which they are being told.

The problem with collecting stories is that once a story has been recorded or written down, it can no longer adapt to its environment. It has been frozen in one contextual state.

Thus when you collect stories among groups of people who are talking to each other, their stories might become frozen into states that make less sense, or sound strange, or even pose dangers to the storytellers in other contexts.

It doesn't seem to me that people are aware of this. They don't notice that they are renegotiating the shapes of their stories as they talk, and they don't realize what freezing their story in one context and thawing it out in another is going to do. 

Of course, sometimes there are no freezing-and-thawing problems. But when the topic is personal or emotional, freeze-thaw damage can be significant. And it's invisible. It's not like people are going to tell you that they regretted participating in your project once they saw their story in another context. They'll just walk away the next time you ask them to tell a story. Or they'll tell you a safer, less meaningful story. And you won't know why.

I feel like it is the responsibility of the facilitator to help people avoid falling into situations they would never be in without the artificial freezing of their stories. That's why I ask people to leave personal information out of the stories they tell, even if they are talking to other people in person, and even if it supports the integrity or meaning of the story in the present context, because what they say will be heard in other contexts than the one in which they are telling it.

I have even gone so far as to remove personal information from stories to protect storytellers from contextual changes they didn't see coming when they told the stories. For example, in one project where stories were collected over the web, lots of people put their names and phone numbers, and the names and phone numbers of other people, into their stories (even though we asked them not to). If that information had been kept with the stories and posted somewhere, say online, it could have led to harassment of some people. I felt that it was important to take that information out of the stories, partly because I myself didn't know in what contexts the stories would end up being read.

For the same reason, I like to give people in story collection sessions the option to review their transcripts afterward and ask for changes. Hardly anybody ever asks for changes, or even asks to see the transcripts, but I think that knowing they can change what they say later on helps people to open up and trust the process.

I guess I would say that storytelling is both powerful and dangerous, and that the power of stories to communicate and make sense of the world cannot be accessed until the danger inherent in telling stories is kept under control.  

That's my answer to one of your questions - now what are your answers to my questions?

Monday, September 28, 2020

What I have been up to

Hello people. It has been increasingly bothering me that my last blog post was over a year ago. I wonder if people might think I have vanished off the face of the earth! Not yet. 

I have been working on a book. I have been working on it harder and more exclusively than I usually work on books, to the point of refusing paid work, shunning correspondence, and not keeping up with other projects (including this blog). But now I'm close to being done with the book, close enough to tell you about it.

It is not the book you think it is. For the past several years I have been working on a book (At Home with Stories) about the interplay between commercial and conversational storytelling. Two years ago, I was putting a lot of time into that book project, and I felt like I was maybe six months away from finishing it. Then I suddenly got a rush of consulting work that lasted for several months. I was glad to make some money! Then I was eager to get back to the book.

But then, just as I was getting started on the book again, my mother suddenly passed away. She was 87 years old, but we thought she had another year or two left, and besides, my mother was not the kind of person who did things without a plan. Anyway, last summer I ended up spending a lot of time at the house I grew up in, helping to clean it out and sell it. 

There is nothing like being suddenly orphaned to draw your attention to what you are going to do with the rest of your time on the planet. That's probably why I found myself thinking a lot about the Confluence framework. It had been years since I had put any time or thought into it, but somehow, at my childhood home, it reached out to me and asked me to work on it some more.

The Confluence framework is a series of two-dimensional spaces that people can use to think about organization and self-organization in situations they care about. From 2001 to 2010, its basic form (its first space) was part of the Cynefin sensemaking framework. In 2010, I started calling it the Confluence sensemaking framework. Since then it has existed only as a page on this blog. I wanted to develop it into something better, but other projects kept getting in the way (see above). Then, last summer, as I said, I decided to spend a little time on it before I plunged back into working on the At Home with Stories book.

My first thought was that I should write an academic paper. As an independent researcher, I try to publish peer-reviewed papers every so often. But I can't say that I enjoy the process. Finding the right publisher, figuring out what they want, writing the paper, dealing with the editing process, and then realizing that hardly anybody will ever read what I have written . . . is a little disheartening. Writing for everyone on earth, like I did with my first book, gives me a lot more creative energy. So I decided not to write an academic paper.

Then I thought: maybe I should make the framework into a game. I mean, it is a game, in the sense that it is a group exercise people do with materials and instructions. So I thought: why not make it into a nice cheap or free card game that lots of people could download and use? So I started working on card designs and board patterns. 

One part of the game, an essential part, I thought, was a series of example cards: situations people could think and talk about as they placed them on the spaces. I started working on a series of example cards. The explanatory texts on the example cards kept getting longer. And the game's instruction sheet kept getting longer. Then one day I realized that the Confluence framework didn't want to be a game with a book in it. It wanted to be a book with a game in it.

Another book? I was still in the middle of writing At Home with Stories, and I had started writing that book in the middle of writing More Work with Stories. Did I really want to live inside three nested book projects? But I thought: well, maybe I can write this new book quickly, and then I can get back to the other one (and then the other one after that). So I tried writing just the first chapter of the book, as a test. It took two weeks, and it was a lot of fun. So I thought, well, maybe I can finish the whole book in six months. 

It has been over a year since that day, but I am close to finishing the book. These are the chapters as they stand right now.

  1. Two Forces -- Organization and self-organization
  2. Thinking in Space -- How to use this book
  3. The Jungle -- Self-organization considered alone
  4. The Machine -- Organization considered alone
  5. Inundation -- How self-organization influences organization
  6. Regulation -- How organization influences self-organization
  7. The Mix -- How organization and self-organization interact
  8. The Void -- When organization and self-organization are weak
  9. Exercise Materials -- Copy these pages
  10. FAQ -- Questions about Confluence

Eight of the ten chapters are finished, reviewed, and revised. The ninth chapter (The Mix) is about halfway done. After that only one chapter remains (The Void). As of this writing I am fairly confident that, barring any emergencies, the book will be ready to publish in . . . January? February?

This is the book cover as it stands right now.

Writing this new book has been an act of faith and patience, but it has also been a joy and a revelation. It has helped me to develop the Confluence framework into a state that I believe will be much more useful to the world. I have reworked all of the framework's spaces, added two more spaces, and improved all of the diagrams. In fact, I now wince every time I have to look at what I wrote about the framework before. That's an excellent sign of progress.

For each of the seven book chapters that describes a space, I have allowed the space itself to suggest several situations and stories that I think will help readers understand and make use of the space. In all there will be about fifty of these examples. 

The process of discovering and exploring these examples has led me on many journeys through subjects I knew little about to start with. Some of the journeys have been simple and straightforward; others have been long, frustrating, and full of surprises. All of them have been revelatory, in the sense that I understand the ways in which organization and self-organization come together much better than I did before I started the book project. Hopefully some of that improved understanding will make its way to the people who read the book.

Even though the worked examples fill up most of the book, they are not its main purpose. They are there to support the book's main purpose, which is to help groups of people think about and talk about situations they care about. For that reason, the book contains game-like instructions and materials that I expect people to photocopy and use in group exercises. My hope is that people in families and work teams and citizen groups and all kinds of decision-making bodies will use the book to enhance their situational understanding and decision making.

The book has an upbeat, every-person style like you'd find in a science magazine. I am aiming it at a general readership with a late high school or early college reading ability. And I am forcing myself to keep it short: no longer than 200 pages in total. (That goal alone accounts for a lot of the time I've spent on the book. If I could write as long a book as I wanted, it would probably be done already.)

I have been having three people read and comment on each chapter as I have written it. In addition, I have a list of sixteen people (of all ages and backgrounds, some of whom know nothing about complexity) who have agreed to read the entire book when it's ready and send me feedback before I publish it. If you are not on that list and would like to be, I would be happy to add you. Just send me an email. The only caveat is that I am asking people to send me their feedback within two weeks of receiving the book draft, so I can get it ready to publish soon after it's done. 

So that's what I've been up to. I hope to get back to writing the other book (At Home with Stories) sometime next year. And even though I haven't been working on that book, I've been working on it in the back of my mind. I have a better plan for it than I did before. So putting it aside for a while might end up being a good thing in the long run.

A quick note about NarraFirma. I did plan to work on it for a month this fall. I have a list of small bugs and feature requests I was hoping to address. However, I decided to put off any major releases until the book is done (I do not want to lose momentum). I do plan/hope to spend a good few months on the next version of NarraFirma in the early new year. If you have any ideas for NarraFirma, or if you find any bugs, please let me know. I will be getting to it again soon.

A quick note about COVID-19. I had it. Don't get it. It's not fun. A few tips in preparation: Learn to sleep on your stomach. Find some breathing exercises online. Practice them daily. Strengthen your lungs. Get lots of aerobic exercise. Take Vitamin D. Buy a pulse oximeter, some cough medicine, some licorice tea, and a good heating pad. Take care of yourself. Practice your gratitude.

In conclusion: I am still here. I am still working hard. I hope to have something to show you soon.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Even more NarraFirma

I have just finished another NarraFirma release, again based on commissions, with more new features. Chiefly this:


I am calling it a "correlation map." It shows relationships among all the scale questions in your project in one graph. When you hover over a link you can see the scatterplot of combined values (as in this example). When you hover over a bubble you can see a histogram of values for that question.

You can also see how relationships among scale questions appear for subsets of stories based on answers to choice questions, like this:

 
Also included in the new release are more improvements to the catalysis process based on user feedback. For details see the blog post on narrafirma.com.

About improvements to NarraFirma

If you are a NarraFirma user, you should know that (a) I am interested to hear about your experiences and suggestions; and (b) I offer an excellent rate for open-source development commissions. You might want to look over the NF commissions page to see some of the ideas I am considering for the future of NarraFirma.

About this blog

I have not been posting on the blog much this year. I am not sure if anybody is reading it. Also, when I can find time between consulting gigs, I am working on two (nested) book projects, and I want to save my precious writing time for those. I will continue to announce things on the blog when I have things to announce; but the days of "feeding the blog" are, I think, over. (Unless a really great idea pops up that demands to be written about. That's different.)

Friday, May 17, 2019

NarraFirma keeps getting better

Last month I received some more development commissions to improve NarraFirma, so I have been working on it again, and I released a new version today.

The focus of this release has been on improving the flexibility and usability of the catalysis process.
  • You can now easily set up multiple observations per pattern and multiple patterns per observation. 
  • Many new options make your graphs and reports look the way you want them to.
  • There are new fields and new report types. 
  • The interface has been improved.
You can review the full list of changes at the NarraFirma blog.

By the way, if there is anything you would like to see improved in NarraFirma, I offer a pretty low development rate (as long as the changes are open source and reasonably useful to everyone). I am happy to talk about any improvements you would like to see.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Mail bag: Stepping stones

Hello readers. I have been very busy in the past few months with paying projects. This has been a wonderful thing for my prospects of continuing to do this work! But it has led to the neglect of this blog, and of the book project. I have a few partially written blog posts in development, because I've been learning a lot lately, but I like to wait until they are ready to be of use before I post them. As for the book, I should be able to get back to it soon. At the moment I'm working my way through a new set of development commissions for NarraFirma, plus another ongoing story collection.

However, I am recovering from a stomach bug today, so I wanted to do something simple and fun, so I started writing an email reply to a question somebody asked me last week. As I was writing, it occurred to me that some of you might like to read the question and my answer, and that my correspondent probably wouldn't mind if I posted their question here. This is an off-the-top-of-my-head answer, mind you, without any preparation, to take a break on a sick day, but you still might find it interesting.

The question was:
I have a question about how you relate sensemaking to ontology. I have heard the term multi-ontology used in reference to Cynefin, and I am wondering if Confluence as you use it is more useful for describing the environment. Do you have a working term around this? I am trying to connect this to the latest thinking in psychology around ontological pluralism of perception.
Here is the way I understand it. Ontology is the study of existence, of what-is. People used to talk about ontology as one thing, like there can only ever be one ontology to cover everything for everyone. Then some people realized that ontology wasn't really the study of what-is; it was the study of what-is-as-seen-by-those-who-get-to-say-what-is. And then the term began to be used in the plural, and people started to talk about ontological pluralism. (This is my vague sense of what happened. If I had the time and inclination I could look up all kinds of things and write pages about what exactly happened, but ... it was probably something like that. Now you see why it takes months for my blog posts to develop.)

My guess is that the term "multi-ontology" has been used to describe the Cynefin framework because it attempts to give people a way to represent multiple perspectives on what-is. That is, people can use Cynefin to talk about not only what-is in a general sense, but also with respect to various worldviews or mindsets on what-is. The Confluence framework also attempts to do this, but in a way that makes more sense to me.

In the white paper I wrote when I was on the verge of breaking Confluence away from Cynefin, I talked about visualizing "clouds" on Cynefin space (that is, on the "dimensional form" of Cynefin, which was my version of it, and which maybe no longer exists) to represent different perspectives, which could be called ontologies, or views of what-is. That paper represented most of the reason I moved Confluence away from Cynefin, because visualizing clouds drifting across a landscape requires a landscape, not a bunch of boxes. (Maybe the dimensional form of Cynefin was a thing, but it was not a thing people seemed to pay much attention to - and that's fine, but it didn't suit my needs.)
~ ~ ~  

Now, as to whether Confluence is "more useful for describing the environment," I would say that Confluence is more useful for describing the environment when a person is in the right state of mind to use it to do that. When they are not in the right state of mind, it is not more useful; it is less so.

What do I mean about being in the right state of mind? It's like when people learn about biology. First you learn about kingdoms and phyla and classes and orders and genera and species, and you learn about evolutionary eras, and you learn about stages of embryonic development, and you learn lots of other names for things. You get the most you can from all those boxes, and then they tell you (or you realize) that the boxes are made up, that the boundaries between cells and organs and bodies, between colonies and organisms, between species, between historical periods, between stages of development, are lines we drew, not lines we found.

After you cross that threshold, you begin to explore biology at a completely different level. You see intermingling and interaction you could never have imagined before. You see things that might or might not be alive. You see living things that might be organisms and might be parts of organisms. You see organisms that are both plants and animals (or maybe neither). You see trees that might be forests and forests that might be trees. You even begin to see yourself differently - as both a being and an assemblage of beings. The things you think about become more confusing, and a lot more fascinating.

~ ~ ~

You cannot reach the second level of understanding biology without going through the first level. If I tried to explain biology to you without using any artificial constructions, I couldn't do it. For example, every time I said "species" I would have to qualify the word with a dozen statements about how the species concept is flawed and controversial and challenged by many examples in nature, and how we really shouldn't be putting a lot of weight onto it, but that it has some benefit as a mental construct in spite of its limitations. Two quick quotes:
No term is more difficult to define than "species," and on no point are zoologists more divided than as to what should be understood by this word. -- H.A. Nicholson, 1872.

We show that although discrete phenotypic clusters exist in most [plant] genera (greater than 80%), the correspondence of taxonomic species to these clusters is poor (less than 60%). -- Rieseberg et al., 2006
I would have to explain all of these layers of nuance for every term I used, and we would make very slow progress.

This is exactly why people create categories - useful yet artificial constructions - even though they know that the utility of those categories will decline later on. Categories are both necessary and insufficient. You can find them in every sphere of knowledge, from board games to rocket science. The beginners know the spaces and the experts know the space.

This is why I like to think of boundaries that divide up the indivisible space of what-is as stepping stones to greater understanding.

What bothers me is when people step onto a stepping stone and become convinced that they have reached the other side. The best stepping stones wobble, that is, communicate their weaknesses to those who are in the right place to notice them. When a framework or model does not cause anyone to question it or want to reach beyond it, it stops people from making progress beyond it when it is time for them to do so.

~ ~ ~

The great majority of people start thinking about organization and self-organization by using one of the things-in-boxes frameworks, of which there are many. This is appropriate, because at that stage of thinking, you need boxes to be able to think about organization and self-organization. Attempting to understand those things on a continuous, blended landscape is too confusing to be useful - at that time.

Can you imagine explaining to someone who is trying to learn the various families of birds that the very species (and indeed families) whose names they are struggling to remember have shifted over time? What would they say if you told them that the categories they are learning have been influenced by accidents and personalities and disagreements and mistakes - and fashions and fads, of all things? What would they say if you told them that thirty years from now some of the names will have changed? No teacher would bring any of that messy stuff into the picture when their students were prepping for a test on bird identification. You don't learn about the messy stuff until years later, when you start exploring what's behind things like Linnaean taxonomy and the periodic table and other constructs we take for granted. Sometimes there are juicy stories about why we frame things the way we do, and how we almost framed them differently, but somebody said something to somebody at some party, and everything changed. Things are never as simple as they appear when you are first learning the names of things.

When you have got as much as you can out of thinking about organization and self-organization by using the things-in-boxes frameworks - and you can tell when you have reached that point, because you start asking more questions about the boxes than about the things inside them - it is time to move on to a more nuanced way of thinking. After you cross that threshold, you begin to explore organization and self-organization at a completely different level. You see patterns that are both complex and complicated - and usually, not in the way you expected them to come together. You see how these forces help and hinder and seed and destroy each other.

from flickr, by Alfred Grupstra
As you begin to explore the nuances of intermingling and interaction, you realize just how far down these things go - to the extent that simple words like "system" and "adaptive" start to seem ridiculous to you. The categories and boundaries and zones you once saw as canonical morph from certainties into contingencies. You see many new things: influxes, backflows, pockets, flourishes, flashes, disasters, revolutions, realignments, black holes, bright lights, peace, joy.

~ ~ ~

When you reach that second level of thinking about organization and self-organization, it's time to use the Confluence framework, or another of the continuous frameworks, such as ... such as ... I don't think there are any other continuous frameworks. Dee Hock's chaordic concept and Manuel deLanda's ideas on meshwork and hierarchy talk about blending, but they don't have sensemaking frameworks, in the sense of diagrams and exercises people can use to think with them. I know that Ralph Stacey talks about blending (somewhere, I'm not sure where), but his Agreement-Certainty matrix describes a priori bounded spaces, and seems to be used in that way.

I wonder why I have never seen another continuous sensemaking framework for organization and self-organization. (I wonder why I have never noticed this before.) Either there is nothing like the Confluence framework, or something like it exists and I am unaware of it. If anybody knows of a sensemaking framework that helps people describe the intermingling and interaction of organization and self-organization in a space that has no boundaries marked out in advance, please tell me.

Because this is a problem. It is either a weakness in my awareness about what is available or a weakness in our collective support of sensemaking. There should be more stepping stones at this level than just one. The people who build sensemaking frameworks and the people who use them are like authors and readers of novels: every framework has its thinkers and every thinker has their frameworks. There should be a variety of frameworks available at the continuous level, just as there are at the discrete level. If you know of another such framework, please tell me. If you don't, somebody build one! We need more tools of this type.

To be clear, however, I do not believe that everyone - that anyone - needs to use the Confluence framework to make sense of the ways in which organization and self-organization intermingle and interact, either in general or with respect to any situation or topic. Nobody needs a sensemaking framework to make sense of things; they can just make sense of things. Frameworks are playthings, not gatekeepers. They are unnecessary and insufficient. Never let anybody tell you that you can't think without the thing they made. You don't need my framework; you don't need anybody's framework. You've already got what you need: that squishy thing in your head.

~ ~ ~

What do I have say about the term "multi-ontology"? I'd say it is useful, but again, I don't think it's sufficient. If you think about ontologies that are commonly contrasted, such as between Western and Eastern, or between the global North and South, or between indigenous and non-indigenous people, seeing these worldviews as simply "different" is a simplistic way of looking at them. In reality, different ways of seeing the world are not so easily separated. They intermingle and interact. The term "multi-ontology" is itself a putting-things-in-boxes term, and as such, I think it is best used as a stepping stone to deeper exploration.

I spent a few minutes today looking up "the epistemology of ontology" and found some people talking about it. I particularly liked what Seth Miller said in a blog post: "the ontology of epistemology is the epistemology of ontology." Meaning, when you reach into the roots of ontology you find epistemology, and vice versa. The two phenomena intermingle and interact.

~ ~ ~

from flickr, by davidgsteadman
One of the reasons I like the metaphor of clouds, and the exercise of visualizing them on the space defined by the Confluence framework, is that clouds are useful metaphors for ontologies.

This is true for several reasons. A cloud is both an object and a process. Where its boundaries lie depends on how you look at them. Its behavior is partially observable and partially predictable, but never sure or certain. It can sometimes be placed into a category, but only temporarily and provisionally. It has a history: it is born, grows, and dies. A cloud might be two clouds for a while, and then one cloud again, but in a different way.

Another useful thing about clouds is that they are used to perceive and understand other forces - air masses - that lie unseen in and around them. In the same way, ontologies, or ways of seeing the world, can be used to perceive and understand people and the lives they lead. If I tell you some aspect of my understanding about the world, some element of my personal ontology, you have learned about me in the same way that a meteorologist looking at the clouds in the sky has learned about the masses of air moving overhead. 

When people represent perspectives as clouds on Confluence space, they can talk about how those clouds intermingle and interact. They can ask questions like:
  • How are these clouds distinguished? Where do they overlap? Where are they far apart? Where do they bleed into each other? Where is it hard to tell which is which? Where is it easy to tell? 
  • How do these clouds influence each other? Are there places where they cooperate? Compete? Do both at once? Do they have indirect influences? Through what? Where and when?
  • How have these clouds changed over time? What has their history been like, considered individually and together? How might they change in the future? What would that mean?
I'm sure I could write more such cloud-exploring questions given more time, but I would like to post this today. Maybe I'll come back to it later.

~ ~ ~

Now I'll ask the question I ask myself about everything I say and think and write: What if I'm wrong? What if nobody "needs" to move to "a higher level" in their thinking about organization and self-organization, with or without the aid of a framework? Nobody could possibly deny that these things intermingle and interact, but I can see someone saying that there is no point in exploring such nuances, that I'm asking people to waste their time counting angels on the heads of pins. Sure, I can see that perspective. It's not my perspective - my view is that there is so much in here, if you just open the door and come in. But I can definitely see the point of view that the things I like to think about - the intermingling and the interaction - are not that important, that the broad expanses of - No. There are no broad expanses. In human life there is no non-intermingled organization or self-organization. There just isn't. Whenever you find one thing you find the other, and either you pay attention to that or you don't. And you should. Eventually, when you are ready, you should.

Probably the best thing is to go by the 80/20 rule. You can probably achieve about eighty percent of what you would like to achieve in thinking about complexity by thinking about things in boxes. If you're already there and you want more, open the door and walk into the space where things are not so easily put into boxes, into the space of nebular ontology.

At my house right now, the air is warm in the daytime, but there's still quite a bit of snow on the ground, so every day we get these beautiful, serene ground fogs that thin out from bottom to top. I look for these ground fogs every year. I watch them as they wander through the trees, and I think about intermingling and interaction.

~ ~ ~

Now a few questions I think you might be asking. First, does my little come-to-the-clouds sermon mean that I think people should use things-in-boxes frameworks for a while, then abandon them? Absolutely not. I didn't stop calling red-winged blackbirds red-winged blackbirds after I explored the species concept more deeply. But I did see species differently than I did before. I stopped caring as much about whether I got every identification right, and I stopped thinking it mattered if other people did. The more I learned about all of the various categories in biology, the more they stopped being biology to me. They became things people built to study biology, and biology itself became something bigger, weirder, and harder to explain - but a lot more exciting. I didn't stop using the categories I had learned before, but I stopped them using them blindly, in every situation, without thinking about what they meant in context.

I've seen a lot of people go through changes like that as they have learned more about a subject (including stories, and including complexity). Everyone seems to start out by repeating terms from the dominant categories, memorizing them, holding onto them like totems, applying them to everything reflexively, without knowing why. Then, at some point, if they keep learning, they start asking more questions about the categories than about the things in them, and they start looking for the next stepping stone. Later, when they come back to the same categories, they treat them as resources, not templates. They use them like master chefs use cookbooks - to dip into for ideas, to step into and out of, to mix and match. But never again do they see those categories as fully capable of representing the subject they have learned about.

So, if you like the stepping stone you're standing on right now, and you don't want to leave it, I can give you this bit of encouragement: When you go back to a stepping stone after you've gone beyond it, it's an even better tool, because now you can use it in ways you never could before. Now you know why you are using it, and that changes everything. Now you use it when it's useful, and you don't use it when it's not useful, and you know which is which. You might even know how (and when) to use parts or aspects of it blended with parts or aspects of other tools, in a sort of cloud-like assemblage of ideas that intermingle and interact.

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Another question you might have is: Does the Confluence framework wobble? It does for me. I keep thinking that the process needs more support at the point where you discover features in your populated landscape. Some feature categories might be useful there. Also, I think the model might want to grow a bud, with more sub-frameworks in the area where organization and self-organization come together most strongly (that is, in addition to the mixed sub-framework).

Does the Confluence framework wobble for other people? I have no idea. That's because it isn't done growing yet. It's half a framework and half an idea for a framework. It needs more testing, and I need more feedback on it. This is partly my fault. I'm like one of those rock bands that refuse to play their old songs. If I don't have something new to say about something, you are not likely to hear from me about it. And I've always got lots of new ideas I don't have time to turn into real things.

Still, I have thought about introducing Confluence more formally, in a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. I haven't done that yet because the framework is not ready for it, not without more testing. I'm not going to describe a thing and how to use it until I can truthfully say that people have used it and found it useful. Sure, lots of people have used the simplest form of the framework, because it was part of another framework for a while (though it's a fair question how many people actually ever knew about or used it in that form). But I want to see if Confluence works now, the way I want it to work now. And if it doesn't work, I want to make it better.

Here's an idea. If you can find at least six people who want to spend a few hours in a room using the Confluence framework to think together about some situation or problem, I'll coach you as you plan and prepare for the session (over Skype), as long as you promise to tell me what happened and allow me to tell the story of what you did in a paper. (I'll show you what I plan to write and give you the chance to change it.) You do have to use the whole framework, not just the first, simplest bit. Let's say that the first five people who send me a note about this (and then actually do it, like within the next year) will get my help doing this for free. You'll help me and I'll help you. Plus, it'll be fun.