Saturday, December 26, 2009

Show me the village

The weekly print edition of the Christian Science Monitor has an article (not available online) in its December 20 edition by Gloria Goodale called "Show Me the Money." The article explains how sites like YouTube, Hulu and Metacafe are doing less posting of user-generated content and more delivery of commercial content, essentially because little-s, naturally occurring stories don't sell well enough.

"In the rush to monetize the Internet, the little guy is getting pushed out," says Benjamin Wayne, a digital media strategist and CEO of Fliqz.

Since I can't find the article online, I'll quote more than I had planned to. Later the article says:

"User-generated content is one of the most democratic developments in the creative world since the days of Homer," says Paul Levinson, author of "New New Media" and a media studies professor at Fordham University in New York. "People can distribute their own creations widely and easily for the first time in history," he says. "They will not give that up easily."

And finally:

Wayne says that the great illusion of widespread access to storytelling tools is that everyone has a meaningful ability to tell their own story. In fact, very few are capable of telling a story that the rest of us want to pay to watch, he says. "Everyone wants to create this," he says, "but nobody wants to consume it."

This is where I think the internet strategists are getting it wrong. It's not true that nobody wants to consume user-generated content. It's just that people in other villages aren't interested in it.

People haven't changed much since the days when news and entertainment meant the village bard in the village square. Just because we can connect with thousands of people around the world about any issue under the sun doesn't mean our brains have suddenly changed to suit it. Yes, we surf the web and look at the occasional skateboard-riding dog, but our substantial web connections happen among a relatively small number of people. Even the word "surf" implies not entering the water but merely skimming the surface. When people want to dive in, they still look for their village.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the internet is splitting into two internets: the local democratic village, and the global corporate marketplace. Using the terms of the "identity interaction braid" in this paper, the internet is undergoing a split between selection interactions, which can be huge in scope, and those of mobilization and commitment, which require reduced scope. Maybe we need separate terms for these two internets. Maybe the "internet" is a village while the "Internet" is a global marketplace.

As I remember it, the early web (and here I'm talking the early 80s, when I first used it) did a better job of helping people navigate connections between local and global than it does now that the marketplace has become more prominent. If you remember "logging in" to a BBS or joining a listserv, you can remember how web gatherings felt more like locations than big "sites" like Facebook do today. Maybe it was easier to feel like there were online communities when there were fewer people online; but I think the culture of the web has changed too.

Some of the messages, beliefs and assumptions that improve selection interactions wreak havoc in the worlds of mobilization and commitment. This impacts storytelling as well as other interactions. Not only are we told that only purposeful stories deserve to be called stories, and that stories should be rated by popularity as if they were toasters; we are also told that bigger groups are always better, no matter what activity takes place in them. Size provides power and utility in the marketplace, but in the village it can be harmful. Some so-called community sites prominently display the number of group members in ways that suggest groups succeed only when they grow large. And to hear people talk about their amateur video postings, you'd think that stories only matter if thousands of people are watching. That's not how people interact: it's how companies sell their wares. Turning every act of storytelling into a super-sized marketplace activity may put more money into the hands of web service providers, but it goes against what stories have done in human groups for thousands of years. The clever insertion of the word "you" in YouTube did not bring television into the village, as it seemed to promise; it dragged stories out of the village and into the marketplace.

I'm not saying people should return to insular ignorance and abandon the amazing diversity of the web, where we can discover affinities with people in locations and walks of life we would never have encountered in past ages. What I'm saying is that rushing to the opposite extreme of trying to create one giant village isn't working either. The naturally occuring stories people tell each other only because things have happened to them belong in villages, not in the marketplace. And this covers most amateur digital storytelling.

If the village is the natural habitat of wild stories, the marketplace is a fenced monoculture farm where domesticated stories are raised. It makes perfect sense that YouTube and its like are increasingly promoting purposeful stories over naturally occurring stories, because such sites are not villages. When people post naturally occurring stories on sites like YouTube, the stories are like wild animals struggling to survive on a fenced farm: they fail to thrive. When wild stories can no longer find refugia in the little-i internet because of habitat destruction by the asphalt big-I Internet, the result is a reduction in narrative diversity. This in turn reduces our collective capacity to respond elastically to crises. It's also less fun.

They took all the trees
Put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

-- Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

(By the way, Big Yellow Taxi was written in 1970. Guess how many people have recorded versions of it, according to Joni Mitchell's site? ... 262 people. Struck a nerve, do you think? Maybe it wasn't just about trees.)

What we need to preserve narrative diversity is two things: first, better support for storytelling in small groups (more natural habitat set aside); and second, a better conversation between local and global scales (better urban wildlife management, including wildlife bridges).

If the internet wants to enable such a conversation between local and global, it might be well served by looking at oral storytelling traditions. Bards learn stories from local or nearby bards, usually over decades of apprenticeship. They interact with their communities in both telling and listening, incorporating elements from local stories as well as influencing stories told in conversation. And these traditions do not rely entirely on the professional telling of stories by a few bards; the term encompasses other, more casual forms of storytelling such as the grandmother bouncing the little one on her knee. In the oral tradition, larger story themes move across large regions through site-to-site transfer, and local and global elements are deliberately and skilfully mixed. Most of all, the oral tradition lives in the village and draws its power from community and connection.

It's interesting that the media studies professor quoted in the CSM article mentions Homer. Most scholars believe that Homer, like Aesop, represents a conglomeration of several or even many people who wrote down tales that had been passed down and elaborated in the oral tradition for hundreds of years. By saying "the days of Homer," I'm curious whether Mr. Levinson meant the act of writing down the Illiad and the Odyssey, or the oral tradition from which they came. In a way, user-generated content as a democratic development would be better supported by making the little-i internet work more like the days before Homer than like what came after.

[T]he Cyclopes ... have no laws nor assemblies of the people,
but live in caves on the tops of high mountains;
each is lord and master in his family,
and they take no account of their neighbours.

-- Homer, The Odyssey

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Eight observations - 6th

(This is the sixth in a series of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. See the first post for more information about the origin of the "eight things.")

What people think you mean when you talk about stories and story projects, and what you can do about it

This observation originally arose from watching what happened when I asked people to tell me stories, both in what they said and their body language (when I could see it). People veer off into one or more of several predictable trajectories at the mention of the word "story." I've been amazed by the consistency in the responses I've seen. People even use the same words even though they have never heard other people use them. I have found this to be true whether I am talking with people face to face, on the phone, in groups, or over the web. Over time I've developed a sort of map of the universe of what people think stories are and do, and I've found it has uses at different levels.

A story function triangle

First, here are categories of responses I've seen to the word "story" mapped in relation to three functions stories provide: they engage our attention, they influence our beliefs or actions, and they transfer knowledge and information.

Note that some types of story involve more than one function. A lesson engages and informs; a performance influences and engages; an opinion influences and informs. Fables (folk tales) are the most powerful and adaptable stories because they include all three elements.

This next triangle shows paraphrases of some of the things I've heard people say in story collection workshops and what that indicates they were thinking I meant when I said "story."

This triangle shows the same divisions but with synonyms of the word "story" I found on

I thought at first while doing this little thesaurus exercise that there was nothing in the "joke" spot. But soon I realized that stories as gossip and rumor fit well there, because they engage people in connecting with emotional resonance on issues that are difficult to talk about. In that sense jokes, gossip and rumors are all methods of oblique emotional engagement through stories.

Naturally occurring and purposeful stories

You can envision two copies of this triangular model occupying two parallel planes: the plane of naturally occurring stories and the plane of purposeful stories.

And then you can envision another triangular plane beneath: the plane of life itself (which is of course why we tell stories in the first place). People, and groups of people, need to maintain energy, interact with other people and groups, and learn from experience to better survive and thrive.

The natural state of wild stories is people talking about things that have happened to them because the things have happened to them. A naturally occurring story has no purpose in the same way that a crow has no purpose. Or, if the purpose of a crow is to make more crows, the purpose of a naturally occurring story is to make more stories. (Of course when I say "a story has no purpose," what I really mean is that it has no purpose other than helping humans survive and thrive.)

Purposeful stories, on the other hand, are like domesticated animals. The purpose of a domesticated chicken is so strong that the chicken is unable to survive in the wild.

The function of a purposeful story, or its place on the triangle, is designed in advance. But the function of a naturally occurring story - if it has one - becomes apparent only after it has been told.

When we shape a naturally occurring story to fit our needs, we are essentially domesticating it to suit a purpose. We do this naturally and without realizing it all the time. We encounter many wild stories every day, but we select some to tame based on needs we may only be vaguely aware of (or may deny). For example, the first time little Joey says "dog," one parent will tell the other simply because it happened. The second time Joey's parent tells the story to a neighbor, they might add some details that emphasize how precocious little Joey is. By the time little Joey is a dog trainer with a syndicated TV show, the story may have grown to an elaborate fantasy about how Joey had a precocious empathy with dogs never seen before or since - a full-blown purposeful fable.

I'm sure someone will be saying here that there are no completely purpose-less stories, that even the shyest of wild stories has some purpose whether we admit it or not. I agree, and that is why I drew a center region on the model instead of a center point, because the center point is theoretical and probably never seen in real human conversation.

A story project triangle

My final triangle shows the same functions, but this time they apply to projects in which stories are collected. Story engagement maps onto using stories that engage the world by making things happen. Story influence maps onto using stories to change an existing situation. Knowledge and information transfer using stories maps onto using stories to discover and explore.

Here I've taken the "Things you can do" headings in the What is working with stories page from WWS and placed them on the triangle.

It is interesting, first, that the project categories from the book map so well and completely onto the triangle. It is also interesting that only one category maps into the center region: that of connecting people without any other purpose.

As with stories, story projects exist at two levels. Some story projects are highly purposeful in that they have predefined goals, but others are wild in the sense that the goal is only to collect some stories and see what comes of it. Neither is better, but they are different.

In practice

When you ask people to tell you stories, they will almost always move away from what you want them to do in two predictable ways. First, they will float up from the natural plane to the purposeful plane. Second, they will move towards one or two of the triangle vertices.

Why keep people in the middle of the natural plane of storytelling? Because for story listening to lead to useful outcomes, it requires the authenticity of wild stories. As soon as a wild story is given a purpose (usually through what people think you want them to do) it becomes a purposeful story and authenticity dissipates. Authenticity is the essence of story listening. It is what separates the approach from focus groups and surveys, which are soaked in purpose.

For the best story listening, you need to keep people both on the natural plane and in the middle region of the triangle until after the story has been told. Afterwards, when you ask people to answer questions about their stories, they can place the stories precisely in the triangle. Such placement does give both storyteller and listener valuable understandings about the story, but it must be done at the right time. In fact, telling people that they will have a chance to describe and explain their story afterward helps them keep the story in the center, because it allows them to tell it without explanatory purpose. So if you are asking questions about stories, let people know.

How can you keep people in the middle of the natural storytelling plane? With preparation and practice. When you are collecting stories in interviews or group sessions, pay attention to which vertices of the triangle people seem to be attracted to, and adjust your approach. Such attractions will vary both by individual personality and by group culture. Engineers tend to be drawn to the information-transfer vertex, while performers gravitate to engagement and salespeople to influence. The better you get at recognizing deviations from the center of the natural plane, the easier you will find it to help people return there.

What I've found works best is to balance your attention on three elements of experience, each of which keys in to one of the triangle vertices:
  • events - what happened? - information transfer
  • perspectives - what happened to you? - influence
  • emotions - how did you feel about what happened to you? - engagement
Creating such a balance communicates freedom from a single purpose. It also creates a downward motion through its emphasis on what actually happened to the teller.

Beware of story elicitation questions that favor any of the triangle vertices unduly. Here are a few examples of questions that pull stories into the vertices (and up into the purposeful plane):
  • What was the most powerful (memorable, exciting, wonderful) moment during this event? - engagement
  • Which story would you tell a friend to convince them to agree with you on this issue? - influence
  • At what moment did you learn the most during this process? - transfer

But having said that, if your project is heavily invested in one of the triangle vertices, it is reasonable to include a question that deliberately guides people toward a purpose. However, understand that you will not be collecting naturally occurring stories when you do this. The stories will be crafted for the purpose of performing to the specifications you have outlined. Sometimes you do want this purpose and should accept it. However, I usually suggest that every vertex-pointing question be offset with a centering question. Why? Because one of the reasons you are collecting stories in the first place is to find out things you cannot possibly guess in advance. The more you corral stories into one location, the greater your danger of missing useful patterns and trends in unexpected locations where you have not have the foresight to look.

At the project level

At the story project level, the triangle model is useful in three ways. It can help you figure out your goals; it can help you plan your project; and it can help you explain the project to other people.

You can use the diagram is to create a triangular portrait of your project's goals and motivations, with some areas lit up and others dark. One way to fill out the triangle is to tell two purposeful future histories about your project before it starts: the best outcome and the worst outcome. In the best outcome, which of the areas of the triangle are most prominent? Do you find things out? Do you get new ideas? And then in the worst outcome, which areas are missing or go badly? Do you fail to resolve conflicts? Do you find it impossible to make decisions or choose between options? By doing this you can find out which areas matter the most to you, and you might be surprised by what you find.

Once you understand your motivations in doing the project, you can use the diagram to plan how you will carry it out. Recall earlier that I cautioned against story elicitation questions that lead people into one of the triangle vertices. There are ways to design your project towards a goal without leading people into a vertex in their storytelling, by carefully selecting how you collect stories (but not what questions you ask).

These are some ideas on methods:
  • If you need to tap into engagement in order to prioritize and make decisions, choose methods that draw out energy and emotion, like storytelling exercises or face-to-face interviews.
  • If you need to tap into influence in order to understand conflicts and problems, choose methods that draw out conflicting perspectives, like asking different groups of people to answer the same questions or do the same sense-making exercises.
  • If you need to tap into knowledge transfer in order to find things out, choose methods that encourage detailed description. Ask people to tell you about the items on their desk or have people build complex timelines of the events in a field or career.

For story elicitation when you do choose to lead people deliberately into a vertex, try these approaches:

  • For engagement, pay special attention to words that evoke emotional expression. For example, a question about the time a person felt especially happy or sad or angry would convey that emphasis.
  • For influence, favor words that ask people to repond from a particular perspective. A question about a time people were surprised, or disagreed, or felt misunderstood or alone or unique would tap into perspective-based stories.
  • For knowledge transfer, communicate an attention to learning and discovery. A question about a time when something suddenly became apparent would bring out learning stories.

Finally, the triangle model is useful in getting "buy in" from people whose support you need to complete the project. A common problem with getting people to help you (or let you) do story projects is that they misunderstand what you are trying to do, what will happen, and what will be the result of the project. I've seen several projects die because their instigators were unable to communicate to those in charge (of money or permission) what they wanted to do. Or more likely, the instigators were unable to stop those in charge from jumping to erroneous conclusions about what the project was about.

In the same way that people rush to a vertex or side of the triangle when you ask them to tell stories, people rush to conclusions when you describe a story project. Maybe you want to help people transfer knowledge using stories, and people think you want to make dangerous changes to corporate culture. Or you want to find stories that engage people, and they think you want to collect personal information. Or you want to do a naturally centered story project, one that collects stories without preordaining what you will get from them, and they want to push you into collecting only "compelling" stories or "the best" stories.

You can use the triangle model to plan how you will communicate to people - funders, collaborators, management - about the project itself. You don't have to show people the diagram, but using it can help you to craft a story about how your project will proceed, so that you can convince them to help you or let you carry it out. It can also help you think about how people might respond and plan for it. For example, if you want to do a centered project, you might prepare a plan for guiding perceptions at each vertex (oh, that's just project planning; oh, that's just marketing and sales; oh, that's just KM) back to a more balanced perception of what you plan to do and why.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Working with Stories wants to know

This is an open call to readers of my book Working with Stories.

As some know, I started out this blog by dusting off a presentation I made in 2000 on eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups. I've been surprised by how much I have to say about those observations nine story-filled years later. I thought these posts would be little things, but every simple observation I made then unfolds itself like origami into a long essay as soon as I reflect on what I've learned about it since.

So I've decided to finish the last three posts, then fold all the new writing into WWS and put out a second edition. This new stuff should complement the existing WWS text, which people have said is more of a "field guide" or "how to," with more of the "why" of the topic.

What is missing?

My question to you is: What should I add to WWS besides finishing these eight observations? What do you think WWS needs that it doesn't have? What do you wish it explained that it doesn't?

And of course, tell me about your experiences with WWS. What happened when you read it? What were the high points and the low points? (I'm going into my cave....)

What about the pictures?

And another question: Do the pictures of leaves and things work for you? Or are they just distracting? I used them because I took them so they are free, and also I wanted to help people think a little about what I wrote by putting in things that challenged them to find connections. But I could replace them with the standard thing of stock pictures of people doing things in offices, etc etc.

Which is better?

Personally I find all the pictures of people in meeting rooms b.o.r.i.n.g. But maybe my leaf pictures are boring too. Be honest, I can handle it (%_^)

Please send questions, topics, suggestions, feedback in email (cfkurtz at cfkurtz dot com) or on the WWS Google Group or in comments on this blog.

Working with Stories will thank you.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Eight observations - 5th

(This is the fifth in a series of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. See the first post for more information about the origin of the "eight things.")

Truth is more useful than fiction

This observation is about the career-changing discovery I encountered during my first few years of work in organizational narrative: that true, raw, real stories of personal experience are more useful for almost every task you can imagine than are stories of pure fiction. In the few cases where fictional stories are preferable as the end result, considering true stories will create a far more effective fiction than creating one from whole cloth (if that is even possible). I've written elsewhere about the story of this discovery and how it influenced my later work in the field.

In the years since I first encountered this discovery, I have often thought about it. Not about the discovery itself, which I have seen played out so many times that it has reached the level of a natural law in my mind. But I can't help thinking often about the imbalance between this natural law and what I see people doing and wanting to do in this field. And I keep asking myself the same questions.
  1. Why do people call a field in which organizations do many different things related to stories "organizational story telling?" Why is the side that helps people craft fictional stories so much more prominent and noticeable than the side that helps people listen to raw, personal, true stories? Why are there so many more people and groups and books and programs on the telling side?
  2. Why have I seen so many people - clients, researchers, consultants, practitioners - start their journey through organizational narrative on the telling side? Why have I heard the same starting-with-the-telling story from several other people who work in this field? Why does it so often require a striking revelation such as the one I had to understand that listening to stories is at least as useful as telling them? 
  3. Why did it take me over a year to come to this realization? What was I doing before that? What was I thinking? Why didn't I see it sooner? What made me assume that telling stories would be the best way to address all manner of organizational goals? It's almost like the telling side stood in front of the listening side, obscuring it, outshining it, blotting it out. Why?
Two points before I move on here. First, I want to make it clear that I am not saying anything against the telling side of organizational narrative. I work on the listening side because I think it has more power to produce positive change, and probably because it fits my scientific background better. But I also respect work on the telling side, as long as it is done with integrity. I especially respect those who span all areas of story work, because the two sides should complement and help each other. The trends I am pondering are not about whether all the parts of the organizational story puzzle should exist, but about the imbalance I see in the sizes of the pieces.

I also realize not everyone reading this post will agree with my "natural law." I have seen evidence for truth being more useful than fiction in dozens of projects, but that evidence is not always easy to communicate (though I have tried). If you can meet me halfway and concede that the truth is at least as useful as fiction for most things, read on.

You're soaking in it

To tell the truth, I didn't write the observation "truth is more useful than fiction" on the day I made my big discovery about stories. What I really thought of was this old television commercial.

Madge: [to client] When I see your hands, I wish I were a nurse.
Client: Dish washing, Madge.
Madge: Ever try Palmolive dish washing detergent? Softens your hands while you do the dishes.
Client: Pretty green.
Madge: You're soaking in it.
Client: The dishing washing liquid?
Madge: Palmolive.
Client: Mild then?
Madge: Oh, more than just mild.
Announcer: Right, Madge. Palmolive lasts from the first glass to last grease casserole. And it softens hands while you do dishes.
Client: [Two weeks later] Madge, that Palmolive liquid of yours, I'm simply in love with it.

When I sat at my desk juxtaposing my failures to write resonant fictional stories with the amazingly rich true stories people had told me, I thought, "I'm soaking in stories and don't know it." Coming back to it years later, that silly old commercial is a perfect metaphor for listening to stories, because washing dishes is just the sort of mundane thing people don't want to do, but that gets surprisingly good results.

But ... I was too underconfident to use Madge for my presentation, so I came up with "truth is more useful than fiction" instead, as a play on the old joke "truth is stranger than fiction."

Truth is more what than fiction?

When I revisited this observation for this blog post, I thought I should look into where the truth-fiction joke came from and how it is used.

Apparently the first use of the phrase "truth is stranger than fiction" was in 1823, in the poem Don Juan by Lord Byron:

'Tis strange, -but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
Then Mark Twain said:
It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.
And G.K. Chesterton chimed in:
Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction, for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it.
There seems to be a pattern here, of fiction working within a different set of rules than true experience. (More on that later...)

Intrigued by this proverb and remembering my change to it, I tried a little experiment. I typed "truth than fiction" into Google. In the 847 results (page titles and snippets), I noted every word used in the "X" place in the phrase "truth is X than fiction." This journey through the hinterlands of Google constituted an unscientific sampling of the ways people talk about truth and fiction. From the 847 results I found 39 words or phrases in the "X" spot. Then I clustered the 39 words into four groups, which I'll explain here.

The first group of results were along the same lines as my "more useful" revelation. Truth is
  • more powerful
  • funnier
  • better
  • stronger
  • more beautiful
  • more fascinating
  • more interesting
  • more gripping
  • foxier
  • less dull
  • more miraculous
  • reads better
So far so good, right? Hang on.

The truth is dangerous

Look at the second set. Truth is
  • scarier
  • sadder
  • worse
  • more stark
  • more deadly
  • more bitter
  • more ghastly
  • more dangerous
  • darker
  • more horrible
  • crazier
  • more bizarre
This set of results brings to mind what is called the psychological immune system, that complex of cognitive biases and heuristics that protects us from falling apart when we confront "stark reality." Says Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness:

We may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but rose-colored glasses are neither opaque nor clear. They can't be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it -- to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, diaper babies, and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive. But they can't be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters ("I'm sure this thing will fly"), plant the corn ("This year will be a banner crop"), and tolerate the babies ("what a bundle of joy!"). We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

True stories keep our glasses translucent rather than opaque; so they are scary, but necessary. Gilbert goes on to say:

Rather than think of people as hopelessly Panglossian ... we might think of them as having a psychological immune system that defends the mind against unhappiness.... [T]he physical immune system must strike a balance between two competing needs: the need to recognize and destroy foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria, and the need to recognize and respect the body's own cells. ... A healthy physical immune system must balance its competing needs and find a way to defend us well -- but not too well. ... A healthy psychological immune system strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it....

This is exactly the function of story listening: to learn just enough about what is good and bad about our situation to do something about it. When stories are only used for telling, there is a danger of defending oneself so well that an auto-immune disorder develops.

Reading about confirmation bias in particular brings to mind the observations I previously made about how I've seen people sabotage their own interests when they consider, plan, carry out, and complete a story project. Consider these aspects of confirmation bias:
  • Selective collection of evidence comes in when people ask the wrong people the wrong questions at the wrong times and in the wrong ways, making sure that they will avoid collecting stories that challenge their beliefs.
  • Selective interpretation of evidence comes in when people fight with the stories they have collected or disqualify stories or storytellers.
  • Selective recall of evidence comes in when people collect and confront stories, but process them in a way that reduces the outcome of the story project or hides its result so that it will be quickly forgotten.
When I consider this, I stop wondering that listening to stories is not more prominent and begin to be amazed that anybody is doing it.

The truth is foreign

The third set of "Truth is X than fiction" usages travels into well-studied in-group out-group territory. Truth is
  • rarer
  • weirder
  • lamer
  • stupider
  • grosser
  • odder
  • messier
  • geekier
  • gayer
  • more racist
This makes me think of the same psychological immune function operating at the group level. It points to common biases such as in-group bias (those people can't have anything useful to say), out-group homogeneity bias (there are no nuances to what those people think), and the group attribution error (those people are the way they are because they are that way; there is no point finding out why). When this immune system is working well, it should let in just enough of the "other" to be useful without endangering group identity and coherence. However, such protections can be too strong for our own good.

Notice how many of the "truth is foreign" descriptors have to do with social status. (Look again at the disgust on the woman's face as she finds out she is soaking in lowly dishwashing liquid. And how Madge gently but firmly pushes her hands back into it.) Is it possible that people don't want to hear stories about people beneath them in the social order because they fear it will drag them down by association? According to social comparison theory, people prefer to compare themselves upwards rather than downwards in the social order. In that light it is interesting that packaged fiction created for the purposes of advertising and entertainment tends to reinforce upward social comparison. The famous example of the people on the sitcom Friends having an apartment that would cost far more than their meagre salaries is only one of many such upward comparison forces.

In their 2005 paper "Income Aspirations, Television and Happiness:
Evidence from the World Values Surveys
, Luigino Bruni and Luca Stanca

... present evidence indicating that the effect of income on both life and financial satisfaction is significantly smaller for heavy television viewers, relative to occasional viewers.

In other words, the more television you watch, the less satisfied you are with your income. I wonder what would happen if the reverse study was conducted: would people who are regularly exposed to non-fictional, raw stories of personal experience told by those with lower socioeconomic status experience a lower correlation between income and happiness?

The truth is boring

The final set of "Truth is X than fiction" usages are few but interesting. Truth is
  • less believable
  • less cool
  • smaller
  • shorter
  • weaker

My guess is that these have partly to do with the phenomenon of the supernormal stimulus, or, our being evolutionarily unprepared for the scope and size of current stimuli. For tens of thousands of years people told stories around quiet campfires without the aid of Hollywood special effects and wall-sized enlargements of everyday sights.

There is a famous story that during an early motion picture screening, of L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1896, members of the audience screamed and attempted to get away from the train that was apparently heading straight at them. It is unclear whether this really happened or whether the reaction was to an early 3D film with the same subject. But in either case, if you compare this reaction to the blasé reactions of people today to scenes of giant spaceships descending and the like (even in today's 3D movies), it is clear that our expectations about the presentation of fictional stories have been radically transformed. Compared to this level of impact, simple anecdotes told by regular people seem so inconsequential as to almost fade from existence. They are like small eggs abandoned by their mothers who instead incubate the larger eggs left by parasitic cowbirds. Maybe this also explains why people want to collect so many stories: they are trying to replace size with volume.

Another issue is that long ago, people rarely heard true stories about people outside their village or tribe. Most people have heard about Dunbar's number, which is essentially the maximum number of people we can keep track of being related to. This number is generally reported to be around 150 people, though depending on the circumstances it can be larger or smaller. So, there is another possible clue to the puzzle: maybe listening to the personal experiences of people outside the normal scope of village life requires an artificially enlarged scope of connectedness for which people are ill prepared.

In The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Gottschall and Wilson, Daniel Nettle talks about why "drama" tends to involve supernormal stimuli:

A drama consisting of a genuine slice of life, unedited, would be unlikely to be very interesting. The reason is that conversations are only interesting to the extent that you know about the individuals involved and your social world is bound into theirs; as their distance from you increases, the interest level declines. Given that dramatic characters are usually strangers to us, then, the conversation will have to be unusually interesting to hold our attention. That is, the drama has to be an intensified version of the concerns of ordinary conversation.
By this account, fiction is exciting because it has to be to get you to engage in paying attention to the experiences of people you don't know. If that is true, then it can be no surprise that listening to raw, personal stories told by people whose experience you need to know about but who have no close relationship to you may take conscious effort. This is yet another reason to be amazed that anybody is listening to real stories.

Use the Force, Luke

As I consider these explanations, the image I keep seeing is that point in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke has to fight Vader/himself in the cave.

  I feel cold, death.

  That place... is strong with the 
  dark side of the Force.  A domain 
  of evil it is.  In you must go.

  What's in there?

  Only what you take with you.

Luke looks warily between the tree and Yoda.  He starts to strap on his 
weapon belt.

  Your weapons... you will not 
  need them.

Luke gives the tree a long look, than shakes his head "no."  Yoda 

[In the cave, Luke fights Darth Vader and then ...]

The metallic banging of the helmet fills the cave as Vader's head 
spins and bounces, smashes on the floor, and finally stops. 
For an instant it rests on the floor, then it cracks vertically. 
The black helmet and breath mask fall away to reveal... Luke's head.

Across the space, the standing Luke gasps at the sight, wide-eyed in 

When we listen to stories about ourselves or about things we care about, we enter a dark cave and find ourselves waiting, cloaked in our deepest fears. Luke took his weapon into the cave, but it did not help him; it only hindered his exploration. The same thing happens when people fight with the stories they find in their caves.

Let me stop a moment. I feel that I am in danger of sounding like I believe that people who tell stories or work on the telling side of organizational narrative are afraid of listening to stories, or biased or bigoted or self-deluded. That's not what I'm trying to say. My guess is that people either don't see that listening to stories could be helpful to their task, or they do see it but dismiss it because of the dangers it presents. And it is as dangerous as it is helpful. Listening to stories is a knife with no handle. It reveals; it teaches; it provides; but it cuts. Nobody in their right mind would reach for such a knife, unless they know it can bring them something that nothing else can. Finding out what listening to stories and working with stories can bring to a task requires putting aside, for a while, some of the instinctual protections that keep us safe.

As I think about this, I also begin to understand more about why people sabotage their own projects. It may be simply inevitable. It also becomes more clear why outsiders like Yoda can help people limit their self-sabotage. Yoda is not threatened by confronting Luke's deepest fears. It's not his cave.

The other thing Yoda gives to Luke is his experience in having entered and exited his own cave of self-discovery unscathed and enlightened, and having seen other people do this as well. Yoda is on the other side of the experience. He knows what Luke has not yet done, so he can give Luke the quiet confidence he needs to enter his cave. I've found this to be true in story projects as well. People are helped by hearing about other story projects as they start their own.

Fiction, truth, and play

Listening to true stories and building fictional stories are both activities that involve narrative, but they are fundamentally different activities with respect to the way people have lived for many thousands of years. Building fictional stories is a form of play, while listening to true stories is an activity of information gathering. These are different contexts with different rules.

Says Brian Boyd in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction:

All participants must understand behaviors like chasing and rough-and-tumble as play and not real attack. To initiate play, canids have a ritualized play bow, particularly stereotyped in the young, like the "Once upon a time" that signals to a human child a partial suspension of the rules of the real.... Play constitutes a first decoupling of the real, detaching aggression or any other "serious" behavior from its painful consequence so as to explore and master the possibilities of attack and defense. In play we act as if within quotation marks, as if these were hooks to lift the behavior from its context to let us turn it around for inspection.
This idea meshes well with the two patterns above (the preponderance of fictional story work and the ways people talk about truth and fiction). It also fits well with Klein's statement that people who cannot find a matching pattern for a situation they are facing undergo "mental simulation" - play - in order to construct a story that fits. In Sources of Power, Klein gives an example of how mental simulation is perceived:

During a visit to the National Fire Academy we met with one of the senior developers of training programs. In the middle of the meeting, the man stood up, walked over to the door, and closed it. Then in a hushed voice he said, "To be a good fireground commander, you need to have a rich fantasy life."

He was referring to the ability to use the imagination, to imagine how the fire got started, how it was going to continue spreading, or what would happen using a new procedure. A commander who cannot imagine these things is in trouble.

Why did the developer close the door before he revealed this ability? Because the idea of using fantasy as a source of power is as embarassing as the idea of using intuition as a source of power. He was using the term fantasy to refer to a heuristic strategy decision researchers call mental simulation, that is, the ability to imagine people and objects consciously and to transfrom those people and objects through several transitions, finally picturing them in a different way than at the start. This process is not just building a static snapshot. Rather, it is building a sequence of snapshots to play out and observe what occurs.

Maybe one of the reasons truth is scarier and more frighteningly foreign than fiction is that it is not play. Play suspends the dangers of attack and defense, of us and not-us, of near and far, of big and small. Listening to other people talk about their real experiences, when they are not in the groups we are instinctively attuned to gathering information about, pushes all of our danger buttons. It feels like going into a dark cave without any defenses. But when we work with the same stories in a sensemaking session, we bring them out of the cave and into the context of play, where the "rules of the real" are partially suspended. We select elements to cluster, build personifications, put events on timelines, and construct elaborate fictional stories using factual elements. These activities, like the firefighter's "fantasy," produce real and substantial benefits. Like a firefighter, an organization that cannot imagine these things is in trouble.

In practice

What does all of this mean to people actually trying to work with stories? I think we can draw a few recommendations from these thoughts, both for people doing story projects in their own organizations and communities and for people helping them do that.

First, be aware of the dangers of story listening. Become familiar with them. Why? Because the less you know about the cave the more vulnerable you will be to its dangers. Start with small projects so you can build your skill at entering the cave and confronting yourself without carrying weapons that reduce the value of the effort.

Second, bring Yoda with you to the mouth of the cave. Have someone unconnected to your identity participate in your story project. They don't have to be a consultant; they can be your next-door neighbor or your grandmother. Run your questions by them. Read them some of the stories you heard. Show them the patterns you think you see. Let them help you stop fighting your own goals.

Third, bring play into your story work as often and as soon as possible. For example, in a sensemaking session, don't just throw stories at people; have them start playing with them right away. Get them building things while they are absorbing stories, not afterward. Keep people, and keep yourself, in the context of play so that you can use the "partial suspension of the rules of the real" to your advantage.

Fourth, don't let play destroy the information gathering aspect of the effort. Don't delude yourself into thinking you have gone into the cave when you haven't. And don't bring play into the cave. In the context of the cave, play is like Luke's weapon: he wanted it for safety, but it diminished the cave's value along with its danger. In story work, you are likely to catch yourself sending subtle signals in your questions for and about stories that limit or direct the information you gather to what is safest. This reduces the power of information gathering. Everybody does this (myself included) and everybody needs help with it. People say "tell us your success story" or "talk about your best moment." Or they give an example that suggests safety is desired. These and other play-bow signals are elements of play that don't belong in the cave. Productive play cannot happen without productive material, and to get productive material you need to go into the cave without carrying the protection of play with you.

Parting quotes

In poking through the dregs of Google for things people said about truth and fiction, I found many related quotes. I noted these as well, and trimmed the list down to these three, which considering the explorations above, seem perfectly prescient.
The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear. - Herbert Agar
As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand. - Josh Billings
Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened. - Winston Churchill
And then I come to my all-time favorite quote about stories, by the poet Muriel Rukeyser. I'd venture a guess that nobody in the field of organizational story doesn't know this one. But here is the whole poem where the quote appears (trying to match her placement of words):

  Time comes into it.
                Say it.           Say it.

  The universe is made of stories,
                   not of atoms.

Why did she feel it was necessary to write "say it" twice? Doesn't that seem to point to something that everybody knows but nobody will admit? Could it be that she felt people don't want to know that the universe is made of stories? It's a thought.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Eight observations - 4th: herding

(This is the fourth in a series of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. See the first post for more information about the origin of the "eight things.")

(And then, in the fourth of the series of eight, this is the fourth in a nested series of four: telling stories, making stories happen, listening to stories, and herding stories.)

Herding stories

This observation is about getting stories to where they need to go when it isn't you they need to go to. It's about helping people experience the stories of other people for a reason you care about: helping, educating, persuading.

When I look back over the story projects I've done ... the fact is that I haven't actually done many projects in which I helped people pass on stories. More often I've helped stories disappear into a black hole.

It wasn't that way at first. Early on, most of the projects I worked on had a strong distribution component. I remember helping consultants prepare CDs containing hundreds of stories to be distributed to hundreds of people. But somehow, and I can't really put my finger on when this happened, the story projects I was asked to help with underwent a sea change to the distribution of reports and conclusions rather than stories.

Bigger, better, faster, cheaper

If I think about the factors for this change, I can come up with three: size, ambition and distance.
  • The earliest projects involved relatively few stories compared to what came later. I think our first-ever proof-of-concept "narrative database" had 35 stories in it. As the number of stories collected grew, first to a few hundred than to over a thousand, it became more difficult for people to take in all of what had been collected.
  • The projects got more ambitious as time went by. They began to address larger, more difficult, more intense, more emotional, and more potentially damaging information that clients didn't want to spread around too much. They began to address not just issues of tactics but of identity. The more consequential the projects became the more people felt they needed to be kept private.
  • The projects moved further into understanding the minds of people in other groups. Most of the earlier projects were about "things we say to ourselves" (or "things we say to ourselves about them"), while most of the more recent projects I've worked on have been more about "things they say about us."

So, for these reasons and probably a host of others, the projects I've worked on have migrated into an area where herding stories means collecting them in a pen and never letting them out again, or only letting out a carefully selected few. Of course this is a useful approach for many big, ambitious, distant projects. If the goal is to recommend policy improvements to a huge government agency, it is more productive to have twenty or fifty policy makers work with the stories in a three-day workshop than it is to distribute the stories to thousands of people. And it's a lot simpler and cheaper too.

But still, something has been lost. It seemed like in the early projects there was more diffuse organizational learning, more cultural change, more energy generated than there has been recently. So many people were exposed to the raw stories that the stories entered into the life of the organization in a different way than they do now. I miss that.

Shrews and pandas: Story project habitat diversification

This distinction reminds me of something I said a while back about how some stories are like tiny animals, some are like cute fuzzy big animals, and some are like slow-growing funguses that cover acres. Maybe story projects are like that too. Maybe what happened is that I started out helping with shrew projects and slowly moved into panda projects. But the shrew projects still need help, and so do the giant fungus projects, and those are not as well supported by the field, at least not from what I see people doing.

I don't think it's wrong to support one type of project rather than another. Not at all. What I'm saying is that the ecosystem of organizational and community narrative can only be healthy when a wide range of story (and story project) habitats is available. The ways in which such habitats are available can and should be diverse. The optimal habitat for tiny story projects used to be the kitchen table or the community center; but that habitat has been undergoing massive fragmentation.

It was in response to these sea changes - both in the organizational narrative field and in natural story habitats - that made me want to build Rakontu. (If you don't know already, Rakontu is my free and open-source story sharing web application.) Projects that use Rakontu are shrew projects, though I suppose funguses could grow there too, in time. Certainly I'm not so arrogant or stupid as to believe that my solution is the solution to habitat diversification for story projects, but I do humbly hope that the ideas in Rakontu can help to move that process along.

In practice

To balance things out, here's what I'd like to see more organizations doing. Discover the energy that comes from having more than just the people in the policy-planning team engage with collected raw stories. Here are a few fictional scenarios.

Say you want to improve customer service. You have collected stories from the customers who hate you the most and love you the most. Rather than bottle them up and distill "strategic insights" from them, let the stories run loose all over your organization. Invite people to talk about them and tell their own stories about them. Invite people to suggest new policies that will change the way customers see you. Don't be afraid that the stories will "get out" - tell people what you are doing and why, and you'll gain by demonstrating that you are confident enough to take your faults seriously. (The story that you take negative stories seriously is a great positive story, by the way.)

Or, say you want to help your merger succeed. You have collected stories from both merging groups. Instead of having a small number of people give you a report on "signals" in the data, create a common forum and place the stories there as conversation starters. See what conversations take off. Ask people to use the stories to find opportunities to work together.

Or, say you want to guide government policy about an issue that affects millions of people. You have collected stories about how members of the public see an issue. Here's a crazy idea: show the stories to other members of the public, and ask them to respond with stories of their own. See what impact it has, not on what goes in behind closed doors, but on what people say to their government representatives.

I can hear something ... all right, somebody out there is sniggering. Yes, of course doing these things may produce mayhem. Of course the results will not be clear or reliable. Of course people will post all sorts of useless crap. That goes without saying, but it's not the point. What I'm trying to say is, the way of "finding out important things in order to change important things" is not the only way to improve things with stories. There is also, sometimes, merit in simply building pathways for stories to travel on that weren't there before.

I know I'm way over my metaphor limit for this post - but - it's kind of like, if the ants need a bridge, you can spend lots of money and bring in lots of big machines and build something important and correct and permanent. Or you can put little crumbs in the right places, and the ants will build a bridge of their own. The ant bridge won't hold heavy equipment or even stay in place for very long, but the ants will get something out of it. If what you want is to help the ants be ants, that might be exactly what you need to do.

And one more thing: please, if you are already collecting stories and making them available to other people, stop categorizing them by location and date. Give people some meaningful ways to find stories. Ask people how they feel, or why the story was told, or who would be helped by it, or when it can't be told, or who will be most likely to retell it. Take a look at the ideas behind Rakontu and copy them for your project. I don't mind; I'm dropping crumbs for the ants. I want to help them be ants.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Eight observations - 4th: listening: opportunities

(This is the fourth in a series of eight observations about stories and storytelling in groups, and about helping people tell and work with stories. See the first post for more information about the origin of the "eight things.")

(And then, in the fourth of the series of eight, this is the third in a nested series of four: telling stories, making stories happen, listening to stories, and herding stories.)

(And then, this post is about opportunities in story listening.)

When I wanted to write about the opportunities you can find in listening to stories, I found myself hindered by three obstacles.
  1. The opportunities in listening to stories are so diverse and idiosyncratic that it's impossible to list predictable outcomes that will hold for all story projects.
  2. As an external consultant who catalyzes sensemaking but does not recommend solutions, I never arrive at conclusions or discover opportunities. At the end of every story project there is a "rest of the story" -- that is, what people do with what they have collected -- but I don't (and can't and shouldn't) try to participate in that part of the story. I help to set the story in motion, then step aside. My clients are not obliged to share the ending of their stories with me, and often they don't.
  3. For some story projects I do know the whole story of the project, but I am bound by agreements of confidentiality; so it's difficult to trot out detailed stories of how story projects helped people make changes. For many clients the things they found most useful were also the things they are least willing to talk about in public.
So, what to do? How to talk about the wonders of story listening without spilling the beans or making things up?

The Landscape of Story Listening Opportunities

Here's what I decided to do. I pulled out and skimmed over all of the catalysis reports, workshop records, and other project-related writings I've created over the past ten years. Every time I saw an outcome (something found out, confronted, noticed, discovered, enabled, put in motion) I jotted it down. But I translated every outcome to something generic, like "So that's what has been happening!" When I got through all the project materials I could find, I had about 200 such outcomes. I clustered those, clustered the clusters, gave the clusters names, and removed all the redundant items. I tried to get each cluster down to ten items or fewer (but did not always succeed).

In doing this little retrospective exercise, I translated from the specific to the general partly to get past any problems with client confidentiality, but more so to make the outcomes transfer better into any situation you might be facing. In doing this I hoped to communicate the scope of opportunities you can gain by listening to stories. I wanted to show you the lay of the land and give you a fly-over of what I've seen.

These are all translations of real (usually much more detailed) patterns I and others saw both in stories that were told and in answers that were given to questions about stories. Remember that because most of these outcomes came from my contributions to story projects as an outside catalyst, I have no idea which of these things actually worked for clients. And some of the catalyzing elements I throw out to stimulate sensemaking are deliberately off-base. But still, I think you can get something useful for your story listening by poking around in these outcomes.

Also note that in all of the outcomes here I talk about a fictional-composite "us" and a fictional-composite "them." Usually "they" are the people who told the stories and "we" are the people who asked them to tell the stories. These groups can be the same people, but more often they are not.

The resulting list of outcomes has these large clusters:
  1. Climbing through the looking glass - finding out what you look like from the other side
  2. Building a field guide - finding natural distinctions among storytellers
  3. Exploring natural history - getting to know your storytellers
  4. Talking to the elephants - confronting taboo problems
  5. Harvesting ideas - finding solutions you hadn't thought of
  6. Healing the machine - building trust

Climbing through the looking glass

There is this great part in Through the Looking Glass where Alice discovers that things in the world on the other side of the mirror are not the same as what you can see in the mirror:
Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was a different as possible. For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fire seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney-piece (you know you can only see the back of it in the Looking-glass) had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.

This is an excellent metaphor for seeing yourself through the eyes of other people. When you look into a mirror, you see yourself reflected in a mechanical way: you look, but you do not move. Asking people questions in controlled surveys with closed-ended questions that exclude exploration is like looking into a mirror. But when Alice climbed through the mirror into the other room, she saw things she could not have seen without going there. Asking people to tell you stories is like climbing through a mirror because you are asking them to bring you into their mirror world and show you around. When you immerse yourself in the stories people tell, you are not just looking into their world, you are going there. So the outcomes in this cluster all have to do with what people found out by climbing through the mirror.

 How they see us
  • Is that really the way they see us?
  • Do we really come off that way?
  • I would have never thought people would use that word to describe us.
  • It appears that people see our role as this, when we thought they thought our role was that.
  • We thought they saw us as helpers, but they see as as unwelcome outsiders who don't understand and can't help.
  • People don't think we know about this issue. They think we aren't aware of their problems with it.
  • We thought the way they see us was simple, but it is complex and contradictory.
  • These people feel they have a different relationship to us than these people do. That must be why they have interpreted our actions so differently.
  • These people sure don't think anybody is listening to their needs, least of all us.
What they think we are saying
  • So we see it like this and they see it like that. It's amazing that we could interpret the same thing so differently.
  • That is not what we thought they thought that word meant.
  • So that's how they have been interpreting that thing we said. That was not what we thought we were saying.
  • We hadn't realized this issue could be looked at from that point of view.
  • If they think that, it explains why they reacted to what we said in that way. Perhaps we should have said this instead.
  • We never even realized people were seeing this as different from that. Now that we come to think of it, they are different, from that point of view.
  • So if we hear this, from now on we know it means that, not that.
  • We asked about this, but people responded with feelings about that.
  • People interpreted this to mean that, which must mean they think this.
  • Perhaps the way we asked this question led people answer in that way. Maybe that word cued them into a meaning we hadn't intended to convey.

Building a field guide

This cluster of outcomes has to do with gaining a better understanding of the characteristics and groupings of people who are telling stories. I'd say one of the most frequent positive outcomes of story projects is that people realize either that there are subgroups among the storytellers that were previously unknown, or that the subgroups that exist are different from was previously understood. These outcomes give people a sort of field guide to the groups involved in an issue so that messages and approaches can be tailored to what works best for each group.

Species identification
  • These people are held back by this, but those people are held back by that.
  • We had assumed that all of the reasons people had for doing this were the same; but these people did it for this reason and these people did it for this other reason. We should not treat both groups the same way, because what works for one motivation will not work for the other.
  • We had assumed those groups would be very different in their outlook, but these areas of commonality are surprising, and useful.
  • This thing we've been doing seemed to be working because these people were responding favorably to it. But these other people had the opposite reaction, and we didn't see their feelings because the first group was more vocal. But the second group has been increasingly unhappy with what we've been doing, and that could be a problem.
  • People in this situation need something quite different than people in that situation, but we have been treating them all the same. That might be why there has been such a variable response and outcome.
  • So we've been paying more attention to these people than to those. No wonder that group feels upset.
  • We thought these people had a problem with this, and they do; but it's a surprise that those people have a problem with it too.
  • We thought everybody was concerned about this, but in fact only these people are concerned about it, and these other people are concerned about this other thing instead.
  • These two groups of people are having contradictory reactions to our messages. For one group they are appealing but to the other group they are upsetting.
  • It looks like the people in these different groups not only have different experiences with respect to this issue; they seem to also have different expectations about what the issue entails and what is normal.
Species interaction
  • Wow, these people really live in different worlds. No wonder they don't see eye to eye.
  • It looks like these people are making a lot of assumptions about those people that are not always based on accurate information. Perhaps helping them learn more would reduce some of these problems.
  • These two groups define what is good and right differently.
  • We hadn't realized that people with different backgrounds saw the issue so differently.
  • These two groups of people seem to be working at cross purposes.
  • When these people talk about this, they mean something different than when these people talk about it, and that is just because of the nature of their experiences being different, not because of any confusion or lack of education about it. It makes sense now that they would see it differently.
  • So these people are afraid of that, while those people are afraid of that. I can see now why they seem to work against each other. Perhaps addressing this could help.

Exploring natural history

The outcomes in this cluster have to do with getting to know people better: studying them, really.

Life history: what makes people tick
  • So that is what motivates them.
  • Is that really the way they see themselves?
  • These people are doing things for more complicated reasons than we thought.
  • That was not what we expected people in that category to say. We will have to think again about that category and what it means.
  • We hadn't realized these people feel that this issue is so central to their identity. If we seem to block them on that issue we are threatening them more than we thought. If we help them on that issue we may be able to help them more than we thought.
  • Where people fall on this scale seems to have a big effect on how they responded to this issue.
  • People don't seem to want to waste their time talking about this issue.
  • This situation seems so dangerous to these people that they seem unable to talk about it at all.
  • It looks like people felt they had to answer this question in only one way.
  • These people are more proud of their ability to do this than we had realized.
  • That fact that they said this means that they haven't thought much about that.
  • They told a different story if they gave this answer than if they gave this answer.
  • We always thought they were like this, but they seem more inclined to that.
  • The people who it seemed would be most likely to say this said that, and vice versa.
Behavioral study: why people do what they do
  • So that's why they did that.
  • We never realized that was holding them back from doing what we thought would be easy for them to do.
  • So this is why these people are so afraid of that happening.
  • This must be a trigger for them. Maybe if we didn't do that they might not react so strongly.
  • We had thought everybody would care about this issue, but it looks like whether people feel like they should care about this issue is heavily dependent on the role they see themselves as playing.
  • This seems to be a problem for people, but they seem to think they can't do anything about it and are resigned. No wonder they feel hopeless.
  • This group of people doesn't seem to see the problem we are trying to address at all. It looks like they don't think it exists.
  • It looks like these people just can't do anything about the issue we have asked them to help us with. It's not that they don't care, it's that they are unable to help.
Habitat study: wants and needs
  • So that's what these people want.
  • We hadn't realized that people need that. We haven't been giving that to them.
  • They say they want this, but they aren't aware that they really need that. Perhaps helping them with that will help them.
  • We keep asking these people what they want, but they don't know what they want. They are more confused than we thought. We need to look into this more.
  • They really need some of this, but we've been giving them too much, and it is having the opposite effect. We need to match what we give better to what they need.
  • We thought we were overdoing this, but it looks like people want even more than we had been doing.
  • We thought people didn't want to be bothered with this issue and so were avoiding asking them about it, but in fact they have been offended because they feel ownership for it and resent being left out of it.
  • People seem to be saying that things used to be like this, and now they are getting more and more like that, and they wish it wasn't happening.
  • Wow, they really don't like it when we do that. But they don't mind that.
  • So they consider this a lesser evil than that. We thought they were the same.
  • People really hate it when that happens.
  • We thought this issue was hampering people, but it doesn't seem to bother them very much.
  • So they like it when we do that! We were not even doing it on purpose.
  • It's interesting that we got such a tepid response on this issue. We thought it was important to these people, but apparently they don't care about it.

Talking to the elephants

Nearly a standard result in story projects is that the elephants in the room break their silence and start loudly telling story after story to anyone who will listen. As a result it becomes impossible to continue to deny the existence of problems everybody knows about. This can have a cathartic effect on a person or group or population, in a workshop, in a private office sitting alone, in a building, across an organization. However, the moment when the elephants start to talk is also one of the most dangerous moments in a story project, because people are most likely to turn away or shred the project in reaction. That is one of the reasons why confronting a mass of collected stories is best done in the context of a sensemaking session.

For example, say people have collected some hundreds of stories and they are going to have a few dozen people work with the stories in a sensemaking workshop. These people might think they should send out the stories for people to read before the session, as "homework," to save time for the more important activities that will take place in the session. I've seen that done, so I usually recommend against doing this and suggest handing out printed stories at the start of the session itself. Why? Because the context is different. If people are reading stories alone, perhaps in the midst of other work, they are not ready to hear the elephants talking and will dismiss or ignore them (and then the elephants will not attend the sensemaking session). But when people arrive at a sensemaking session and understand why they are there, they are ready to make the most of the opportunity of conversing with the elephants and learning from them. There is an element of ritual, of greeting the elephants if you will, that smoothes the transition to self-awareness.

Seeing the elephants: recognizing the problem
  • People really have a problem with this and need our help with it. We can't just keep ignoring it.
  • We knew people didn't like this, but we were ignoring how much they didn't like it.
  • So this thing we were trying to do to help is actually offending people.
  • We didn't realize how much they were bothered by that failing in our approach. I guess we thought it was tolerable.
  • We thought people knew we were struggling to fix this problem, but it looks like they think we don't care about the problem.
  • We knew people didn't like these two things, but now we can see that this one is considered a minor annoyance, but this one is much worse.
  • We thought that issue was very serious, but here is another issue that we hadn't even been talking about that seems like it may soon dwarf the first issue in terms of impact.
  • Oooh, this could be a bigger problem than we thought.
  • I guess it's time to start talking about this issue.
  • The trend is worsening, not getting better.
  • This is a portrait of a disaster waiting to happen.
Listening to the elephants: understanding the problem better
  • This is why things keep going wrong!
  • People never talk about this issue, so we thought they didn't care about it, but from these stories it appears that they are taking it for granted and that we had better not stop making sure it is there for them.
  • It looks like people have particular problems in these interactions with us, and these other interactions go more smoothly.
  • So that's where those rumors have been coming from.
  • We thought that the problem was caused by this, but in fact it looks like the problem is caused by this and that happening at the same time, with their effects adding up to the whole.
  • We thought people were worried about this, but in fact they are worried about this and that at the same time, and we have only been addressing this. We had better start paying attention to that.
  • This set of situations was described frequently and seemed to often lead to this outcome. Perhaps we can watch out for that situation and help people avoid that outcome in the future.
  • It looks like people facing this situation/context have very different needs than people facing this situation/context. Perhaps we should start more carefully considering which set of conditions applies when we provide help.
  • People need more help during this time than during that time. We should pay attention to whether people are entering this period in which problems tend to be more frequent.
  • Perhaps this isn't a problem that can be addressed but is just something that is in the nature of the activity and can't be fixed.
  • This approach doesn't work very well for this situation, but it does work well for that situation.
  • We thought that this was causing that, but actually, from what people are saying, they think this other thing is causing it.
Living with the elephants: correcting course
  • We've been going about this the wrong way.
  • Our way of thinking about this may be overly simple.
  • So that approach is clearly not working. It sounds like it is making things worse instead of better.
  • We thought this was working for people, but clearly it isn't.
  • We had thought to address this in order to help, but it looks like addressing that would help more.
  • Wow, people really think this is a bad idea.
  • This approach is more of a double-edged sword than we had realized.

Harvesting ideas

The best story projects surprise people with new ideas. Being ready to be humbled by the wisdom of people who seem to know nothing about something you know a lot about is a prerequisite for getting anything useful out of listening to stories.

Ideas for doing things better
  • We never realized that we could do that with that.
  • If we changed this, we might get a better response than what we have been getting.
  • This probably won't work for what we had thought it would do, but we've never realized we could use it for that.
  • So this little thing could have an impact on that big thing? We had not thought of trying that.
  • It looks like this thing that we were seeing as a problem is simultaneously a problem and an asset. I wonder what we could do to bring out the asset part of it.
  • This looks like an opportunity to help people where we can really make a difference.
  • Doing this looks like it would help people meet their challenges better.
  • So this, when it is present, rubs off the rough edges and helps people get past obstacles.
  • This seems to be something people wish could happen but don't really believe is practical. How much closer to that ideal could we help people get?
  • This is a portrait of an effective solution.
  • If we help these people with this, they should have less trouble trying to do that.
Ideas for helping people help themselves
  • We thought that these people couldn't help with that. But from these stories it looks like they could help and even be a resource for dealing with that.
  • Why don't these people work with these people? They seem to share a lot. Maybe connecting them would help both groups.
  • If we supported them in this, they might be more willing to help us do that.
  • The people who are most able to contribute find these conditions. If we improve the likelihood of those conditions happening, we might be able to help more people contribute and help everyone else.
  • Ah, so people need to be able to do this, but that prevents them from doing it. Perhaps if we help with that, they will be better able to do this.
  • If we gave people this oppportunity, it looks like they would take advantage of it and help everyone by it.
  • When people are thinking about this, they are less likely to do this than if they are thinking about that. Perhaps their frame of reference has an impact on the way they make this decision.
  • We thought people weren't willing to be challenged in this way, but it looks like they would welcome the challenge and would rise to it.
  • The common factor in these stories points to this issue. Perhaps if we can address that issue we can stem the tide and help people solve the problem.

Healing the machine

The last cluster of outcomes from story listening projects involves the impact not on those who listened to stories but on those who told the stories. The opportunity to be heard and to contribute can be the most important opportunity a story project provides. If lying to people about collecting their stories breaks the storytelling machine, truly listening to people, and making sure they know you are listening and value their contribution, has the opposite effect. It builds trust.

I've seen projects that seized this opportunity and used it to change how people felt about and perceived both listeners and tellers, and I've seen projects that squandered the opportunity, even when it was badly needed. How you talk about the project to people is very important. It takes work and testing, but usually you can find a way to convey to a group of people that their unique experiences are valuable to something you all care about. One one project I remember we found that saying, "We want to know what this is really like" helped people understand what we were after; but it took several iterations to get to what worked. It's different for every group, and it may be different for subgroups as well.

How you collect stories and what you do with them also has an impact on trust. For example, say you put out a report on a new policy direction that includes not only the insights arrived at in a sensemaking session, but also all the original stories from which those insights flowed. When the storytellers see how their unique experiences contributed to the new direction in policy, they see what they did to help and will be willing to help again (and perhaps most importantly, see themselves as someone who helps). But if you listen to them without giving them any indication that you used what they said, they may assume (rightly or wrongly) that you discarded their contribution. It can sometimes be hard to admit that grand policy conclusions were based partly on simple stories. Sometimes the experts in the group find it hard to share attribution with the laity. To be honest I've seen few projects that were willing to keep storytellers in the loop as the results of story listening were brought out. But when I have seen it done I've been amazed by the energy it has produced; and that is energy that future projects can tap into.

How storytellers react to telling stories
  • People certainly have a lot of energy around this issue.
  • When people talked about this they seemed to perk up.
  • The exchange of stories in the group went way up when we introduced this topic.
  • I wasn't sure people would open up about this issue, but we seem to have hit a vein on it.
  • One of the people asked me after this session if they could come to another one.
  • Watching that man's face when he told that story was amazing. He must be so proud of that accomplishment.
  • That person really needed to tell that story.
  • At first it looked like half the people were going to walk out! But in the end I think people were sorry when it was over.
  • That story just came spilling out, didn't it?
  • It was amazing how that particular story rippled through the whole group and made so many more stories come out.
  • I've noticed a change in how people talk about the project, now that they've actually contributed some stories. Word is getting out and more people want to be involved in it.
With that our fly-over view of the story-listening land of opportunity comes to a safe landing. I hope it has been helpful in planning your own journey.