Ever since WWS came out people have been confused about what it is about. Some people think it's about telling stories and are surprised that there is almost nothing that could be used for persuasive story construction in it. (Though there is some; the results of some of the sensemaking sections can usefully feed story crafting, but I don't feature it.) Others think it's about qualitative research without the sensemaking element. Still others think it's related to narrative therapy, or community development, or other more limited issues. So recently I've been thinking about this confusion.
There is also the irritating issue of how I keep being forced to say "the approach I use and recommend" and "story projects" and "this type of work" and other clumsy-messy names. I don't like jargon and gratuitously fancy names for things, because they stand in the way of understanding and utility, which are my goals. For that reason I've worked hard to strip away weird names for ideas and concepts and methods, and I'm still working on that for the next edition (any particularly weird names you don't like?). But there is something to say for making a clear statement about what something is and isn't in the name you choose for it. That improves understanding and utility, so I should move towards it.
What do people in this field call it? Well, it's a little difficult to say what "this field" is exactly. There are a lot of styles and flavors and opinions and disputes. To start with, people have been studying narrative in organizations and communities for decades. Some of my favorite papers in the area are from the 80s, and some of those researchers are still active, though they tend to be more academic and less applied in their focus. I arrived in the field and started developing the concepts and methods I use today in 1999 at IBM Research with John C. Thomas. Our focus was primarily on applied research, or ways we could help IBM and its clients apply ideas about narrative in organizations for practical benefit. In 2001 I started working with Dave Snowden, Sharon Darwent, and Fiona Incledon, who basically had the same mandate, and the exchange of ideas went both ways. At some point Steve Bealing, Shawn Callahan, Warwick Holder, Rob Peagler, Steve Barth, and a few other people joined the group and contributed their own ideas (my memory is fuzzy on when various people came and went). At one point we had a great synergy going when we called ourselves the IBM Cynefin Centre. This was round about 2002-2003, when Dave and I collaborated on the IBM Systems Journal article on the Cynefin framework. A lot of the method development happened during those years, and I always think of that time as when "the group" existed and was doing its best work. Of course, unlike most of the others I was always a temp or contractor looking in from the outside at IBM, which may have been a plus in terms of working on my own later. In 2004 the group split up and most of us went our separate ways. I did contract work off and on for Dave and Steve at Cognitive Edge for the next few years, stopping sometime last year.
So most of the concepts and techniques in WWS came from those collaborations and influences, but not exactly. Inevitably, the group has drifted apart according to our backgrounds, perspectives and interests, and we have all added our own styles to what we do. In the past few years I've collaborated with some new people who were not in the original group, as I'm sure others have done as well. So "my" approach is not the same as the approach used by Cognitive Edge or by Anecdote, or really by any of the people who have learned about and made the ideas and techniques their own since. Some of the early "audience members" have become developers of their own ideas. In fact, I've been heartened by the number of people I've seen building their own concepts and frameworks and methods from a variety of sources, including new stuff I've never thought of before, which is what should be happening.
So then what do people call this approach? These are the names I've seen used to refer to it.
- Business narrative. That name fits when you work on both sides (telling and listening) and primarily work with businesses. But it doesn't fit what WWS is about. I have always intended the book for people in a much broader scope of small groups, including local communities and even families and friends. And it's not about all of narrative; it's just the listening and working-with part. As I've said before, there are thousands of books about how to write compelling stories, but few on how to listen and work with stories.
- Narrative inquiry. I've seen people use this term to describe the approach; its Wikipedia page shows clear links between the term and what I do. But from what I've seen, the academic field of narrative inquiry is far removed from the approach described in WWS. Academic narrative inquiry tends to feature only the collection of stories and their interpretation by outside experts. I don't advocate that approach simply because I don't think it has much utility for creating contextually-situated positive change.
- Organizational complexity using narrative. Some people feature the decision-making and complexity-science aspect of the approach more than the narrative aspect. I use and recommend both aspects, which work well together (after all, narrative is nothing if not complex), but if one is required and the other is nice-to-have in describing WWS, I'd pick narrative every time. Narrative has to be in the forefront, for me.
- Story listening, story gathering. I've used both of these terms myself, but somehow they still don't communicate enough of what I want to help people do in WWS. It's not just about listening to stories or collecting them. It's about doing something with them, and not in a separate context but with the people who told them.
- Organizational and community narrative. That's the subtitle of this blog; but again people often think it's about the telling side. And it doesn't capture all of what WWS is about.
Somehow every one of these terms is missing something. But "Working with Stories" is missing something too; it's missing clarity. If I absolutely need to give a name to "the approach I use and recommend" (which, as has been pointed out to me, isn't much of a brand presence) I would like to choose the name Participatory Narrative Inquiry.
The reason to include each of these words has to do with a particular emphasis of my flavor of the approach, as follows.
- Participative - One of the biggest influences on my work in the past ten years has been the field of participatory action research. Keeping the storytellers in the loop has huge benefits that I've seen played out over and over. Participation is part of every project I do and describe. It can vary in degree, from simply asking people to interpret their own stories, to helping people move through group sensemaking activities where they build their own understandings of issues and problems. In my opinion, if you take the participative aspect out of the approach, it just blends in with all of the other we-decide-what-you-think surveying techniques, even if the narrative is still left in. This is where I part company with many academic researchers who never venture to question their authority to frame the experiences of others (though not all do! I'm not that biased ;).
- Narrative - The narrative part of the approach I use is in no way optional. I've never been willing to go along with those who have said the approach can work for non-narrative material. In fact I've seen the approach fail (or at least perform poorly) when most of what was collected was not narrative in nature. When people tell stories, an entirely different set of social dynamics and cognitive processes takes place. When narrative is taken out of the equation, you may have sensemaking and you may have opinion gathering, but the magic of storytelling is lost. The closer you can get to natural story exchange the more powerful the magic is, but even a spoonful of narrative is worth more -- for the purposes I describe in WWS -- than bathtubs full of opinion. (And by the way, I'm using "magic" poetically, it's not a new-age crystal-spirits reference. What I mean is that narrative has aspects of utility for sensemaking that other conversational modes do not.)
- Inquiry - In every project I describe, somebody finds out something about something. They might better understand a conflict, or their own feelings, or the nuances of a topic, or how things got to be the way they are, or how things could improve, or any number of things. But the approach is never just about connecting or teaching or persuading people with stories. Even when a story project makes something happen, something happens because somebody found a new way to look at something, which is what inquiry is about. Including the inquiry word also makes it clear that the approach is not about telling stories (at least not all by itself). Nor is it about listening simply for the sake of listening. There is always somewhere new to get to, something to achieve.
So, I've been pondering changing the name of WWS to
Participatory Narrative Inquiry: Working with Stories in your Community or Organizationor
Working with Stories in your Community or Organization: Participatory Narrative InquiryThe downsides of either of those names are: they are long, they are different and new and strange, and they might sound academic and out of reach for the audience I most want to reach. But either would also make it more clear what the book is about and for, and would reduce the number of people who think it's about something else.
Another option is not to change the name of the book, but to feature the PNI name in the introduction and other places, as the name of the approach. If PNI is mentioned in the blurb and so on, it should help people figure out whether the book is what they were looking for.
So, kind readers, do you think the term Participatory Narrative Inquiry effectively communicates the salient points of the approach described in Working with Stories? If not, why? Or if so, do you think it works better in the book's name or just in its description?