Saturday, July 10, 2010

Practicing sensemaking with stories

Recently a correspondent asked me what he should do to prepare for a sensemaking workshop he was planning. I said the best preparation I knew of for a productive sensemaking workshop is another sensemaking workshop before it. Meaning: it takes practice. This is true both for learning to use sensemaking frameworks and exercises and for learning to help other people use them.

Over the past few years I've been trying to help lots of people make use of the ideas and techniques I use (and helped develop) in the field of organizational and community narrative. In particular, I've been trying to reach people who can't attend training courses (where they can learn by having someone else guide them through the techniques in person). Why am I doing this? I don't know, it's just what I care about. I've always been a big fan of knowledge democratization such as was done by my heroes, the writers of Where There Is No Doctor.

Try this at home

(As I may have said before) I'm working on the rewrite of my book Working with Stories, and as our story begins, I've come to yet another dilemma along the way. Since my goal is for the book to someday reach lots of people, I can't hold a training workshop for all of them. But people have told me that the hardest part of the book to make practical use of is how to go from "here is this exercise" to actually being able to facilitate it with an unprepared group. I've been thinking about incorporating a "try it yourself" section for each narrative exercise, but ... I don't know, I never do those parts of books myself. When it says "stop right now and do this before you read further" I usually say "yeah, yeah, let's not and say we did" and move on. So I'm thinking, if I do have these DIY parts they have to be interesting enough to tempt people to try them out.

So I'm working out what might be a useful and also compelling DIY activity for each sensemaking exercise in the book. For the exercise about using a sensemaking framework to map items onto a landscape, my attention at first turned to the experiences I had getting people started using the Cynefin framework several years ago. The original goal of what Dave calls the "butterfly stamping" exercise was to help people move from understanding the point of the framework and what its domains meant to actually being able to pick it up and use it for whatever goal they had in mind. It was sort of like getting people from understanding what a hammer was for to being able to pound in nails with it. I call this sort of thing an "internalization" exercise, since it helps people bring the framework inside their way of thinking and make it their own.

The basic idea of internalization is simple: start with some items chosen for breadth of placement (so the whole space gets considered) and breadth of subject matter (so you get practice placing items in multiple contexts). You can do this with any set of items as long as they fulfill these criteria. Our original sets covered instances of hierarchy and meshwork (and mixes thereof) in the animal, vegetable, mineral and human worlds; but later we tried other mixtures with some success.

But the fact is, I've never been all that happy with the internalization exercise, because it takes people up one step into understanding and then leaves them there. It needs a second phase, and I don't just mean changing what sorts of elements you place. The times I've seen people use a sensemaking framework really well have been when they went beyond placing isolated elements and began to work whole stories into the space (whether they were things that had really happened or constructed fictions). In the white paper I wrote last year about the Cynefin framework (though actually it was about confluence) I went through an extended example of working through a single story using the framework.

Still, because I know that different people learn differently, I have been wary of saying one way of using such a framework is better than another. Perhaps working with whole stories is only something I prefer because I like it better. Maybe it's not really a step up. But I do know that I've seen people map whole stories, and I've seen what looks to be greater understanding when they do it. This just feels like something I need to help people do, instinctively.

I was thinking about this today as my family took a walk down to the creek to throw rocks around and sit in the finally-not-too-cold water. On the way home, the rain suddenly broke out and we got drenched (although some of us were already pretty wet: okay, that was me). As I walked along I thought: this is how a sensemaking framework must feel when people drop things onto it, like beaver dams and jet engines and traffic jams. And that using a sensemaking framework with whole stories is more like giving the framework a nice soaking bath (with bubbles and candles of course). Both methods of internalization are useful and I think they are complementary, but people might have preferences. I hate showers and love baths, but some people love showers and never take baths. My guess is that it would be best to suggest people try whichever they like best, and then the other.

Coincidentally, just in the past week I noticed some stories that seemed like good examples to play with in a sensemaking space. They should help me explain what I mean about using whole stories for sensemaking practice.

Gangrene + water  = gangrene

Last week my son and I watched a fascinating program about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge from 1870 to 1883. In 1867 the man who designed the bridge, John A. Roebling, had just received word that his proposal was approved and construction could begin. He was reviewing the site for the bridge when a ferry boat came up to the dock just as he accidentally got his foot entangled in some materials on the dock. The ferry crushed his foot, and he had to have some number of toes amputated. Unfortunately Roebling was an advocate of hydrotherapy and refused to use anything but plain water to heal his foot. Gangrene and tetanus soon set in and he died about three weeks later, leaving the bridge in the hands of his eldest son Washington Roebling.

Now if I use the confluence framework (if I call it a "model" please poke me with something sharp) to think about this story, this is what I come up with. When John Roebling was at the docks reviewing the site, things were stable. He had good control of the project; his provident eye was overseeing the site; and there was little other connection as of yet. I'd put that in the lower right, near the bottom. The crushing of Roebling's foot reduced the central force (less control by him over his foot) and shifted things to the lower left corner. Soon after, as microorganisms started to grow, the position of the situation rushed up into massive self-organization. Roebling hoped to use hydrotherapy to impose order (through the provident eye of scientific medicine) and simultaneously avoid the onset of bacterial self-organization, thereby returning to his starting point. But the provident eye of hydrotherapy turned out to have no central authority, and the hoped-for force did not materialize. Thus he stayed on the left side of the space while the microorganisms ran rampant and Roebling exited the diagram when all connections were broken.

If Roebling had listened to his doctor (or son or wife or ...) order would have been quickly imposed by the strong central force of antibiotic medicine, averting the rush up to the top of the space. Certainly the others around him must have seen his actions not as dominated by a strong saving force, but devoid of connection entirely; a retreat to the far left side from which there was no control over the onrushing infection.

If I try to draw the story on the confluence framework, I get something like this.

My version of this is guaranteed to differ from that of an engineer, a historian, or even just a person who was alive in 1867. That doesn't matter. What matters is that making such a diagram is a useful way to internalize a sensemaking framework.

Caisson disease

Later in the building of the same bridge, another calamity ensued that claimed the lives of several builders. The bridge design involved building two large caissons that were to hold up the support towers for the suspension cables. Caissons are essentially big wooden boxes set upside-down in the water. Each caisson was first dropped into the water and weighted with granite blocks so that it sunk to the bottom of the river. Then the water inside the caisson was pumped out and the box was filled with pressurized air. Men went down into the caisson with shovels and wheelbarrows and moved the dirt and boulders they found into a central shaft from which a dredging bucket removed the collected materials. This was to continue until the caisson hit bedrock, at which point they would know it was ready to support the bridge tower.

The problem with the caissons was that when the men doing the digging out returned to the top of the caisson, they got inexplicably weak and sick, and some died. It was only years later that people understood why. They had the bends. They came out of the high pressure compressed air in the caisson (which was needed to keep the water out) too quickly. Washington Roebling, who insisted on doing everything his workers did, also suffered from the disease and as a result was an invalid for most of the rest of his life. (His wife Emily Warren Roebling stepped in and formed an essential link between her husband and the bridge's construction, and her name is embossed on the bridge along with his and his father's.) At one point in the building of the North caisson, so many men were falling ill, and so many were refusing to enter the caisson, that Roebling took the risk of stopping the caisson's descent with thirty feet of sand left above the bedrock. The North tower of the bridge still stands on sand (which is however apparently quite firm).

So let's look at this story on the confluence framework. When the story starts, the well-known engineering knowledge behind caisson descent presented a strong central force. The river, the mud, the boulders, and the bedrock were mixtures of hierarchy and meshwork, so together the situation sat somewhat in the upper right. The strong central force of compressed air pulled the situation further to the right, and also pulled it down because the meshwork connections in the bodies of the builders began to break down. Also, the meshwork coherence of the bridge team itself suffered, as workers refused to enter the caissons. When Washington Roebling made the decision to stop the descent of the North caisson, he removed the central decompression force, allowing bodies and morale to heal, so the situation moved toward the center again.

If people had known about the bends when the workers entered the caissons, the strong central force of decompression would have been countered by another central force, that of slow reintroduction to lower pressure, and such a drastic movement of the situation would not have taken place. A doctor or diver going back into the past today would quickly remedy the situation and would see it as without any complication (though they might have other concerns about the quality of the underground air). It's also probably true that a particularly unfriendly feminist might point out that the incident had a silver lining in showing the intellectual worth of Emily Roebling (who later went on to become a lawyer) and thus bringing a central force to aid in women's rights.

Farm implements

This is unrelated to bridge building; it's just something I saw in our local magazine, Adirondack Life. It was in an article about a family that farms in the old way, with draft horses. I don't have to explain this one; I can just show you the quote.
We found many of the horse-drawn tools we needed in the back of neighbors’ barns, or dumped in the hedgerows, or even, once, from the front yard of a local bed-and-breakfast, where a John Deere two-horse cultivator was being used as a lawn ornament. Some of these tools had had their long tongues whacked off so they could be pulled with a small tractor. When the tractors got bigger, so did the tools, and this small-scale equipment was retired. It’s easy enough to replace a tongue, and unlike an engine, a horse-drawn tool can spend a few decades in a hedgerow and only require a day or two of fiddling to put it back into working order. It was much more difficult to recover the skills and the knowledge we needed to use those tools with horses. I’d ridden horses all my life, but I lacked the deep understanding that [a neighbor who had grown up with farm horses] had of a working relationship with animals.
I just love the image of a tool so simple that you can leave it out in a hedgerow for decades then clean it up and use it. Imagine doing that with your laptop. Anyway, I see three stories here: the story of the tool, of the horses, and of the people. The tool was used, bumped up and down and back and forth, with hierarchy and meshwork coming and going; then it lost its central integrity (got lopped off) and finally came to rest in a place of relative isolation in front of a bed-and-breakfast (maybe some meshwork kids played on it); then it was given a strong central purpose again and taken back up into the midst of things where it lives on.

Draft horses used to live under the yoke of a strong central directorate (farmers), though they were never easy to pull far down from self-organization, being herd animals. As farm animals were replaced by tractors, then bigger tractors, they lost most of their centrality and shifted over into more lightly organized lives as pets or show horses or curiosities. With some people taking up the old ways again draft horses shift to the right again, but only sporadically, still as a charming curiosity. The old days of strong centrality and hard-working horses on every farm are long gone. But to the writer of this article, they may be surging back.

Now to people, and farms, and farming. A century ago in the US most people were farmers and now hardly anybody is. Farming has gone from high self-organization and high hierarchy to low self-organization (huge homogeneities) and strong central control (factory farming). Still, there are movements, such as the one described in the article, that bring things up and to the left. Community supported agriculture moves things up. Organic farming moves things up. Small farms move things up and to the left. If we map all of these together we can see a sort of bloom outward, then a partial return. Simple tools and horses and farms move outward from the center in a dispersal of connections between people and horses and tools; then they begin to gather again, though only the one plow makes a full circle.

The Wild Wood

Now here is one more great sensemaking story. It's the chapter about the "Wild Wood" in The Wind in the Willows. I love this chapter; it's all about what friends should be like. The Mole, who is inexperienced and meek, decides to venture out one day, against the Water Rat's advice, to call on Badger. Badger lives in the middle of the Wild Wood, a place "river-bankers" like Ratty hardly ever go. The Wild Wood is an excellent metaphorical illustration of self-organization: things happen there, and nobody understands how they get started or where they will end up, least of all the wild-wooders themselves. Anyway, so Moley ends up being "chivvied" by the weasels and stoats in the Wild Wood (first with little evil sharp faces, then whistling, then pattering, then outright chasing) until, faint with exhaustion and fear, he takes refuge in an old beech tree. There he is found by Ratty, who has come out looking for him with his pistols and stout cudgel ("and the whistling and pattering, which he had heard quite plainly on his first entry, died away and ceased").

The beech tree and the Rat are central forces that move the action to the right and reduce the force of the self-organized mob. After the Rat finds the grateful and relieved Mole, the two animals take a rest in the beech tree for a short time. When they come out again, they are surprised to find that snow covers everything and they cannot find their way back. All connections to prior memory have been lost through the strong central force of the blanketing snow. The two animals search for any recognizable feature (connection) in the snow until suddenly the Mole cuts his shin on what turns out to be a door-scraper (that's one of those things you scrape your muddy boots on at the door). From thence Ratty goes on to find one accoutrement of a proper doorway after another (and the action jerks in little hops to the right) until finally the great force of Badger opens the door and saves the cold and weary travelers. As they eat a hearty meal "in great joy and contentment," the animals restore their meshwork connections with Badger and finally return to the safety of home.

In sharing these examples I've tried to illustrate how you can do something different, complementary, and deeper with a sensemaking framework if you bathe it in a story than if you simply rain things onto it. This is true of any framework, as long as it defines a space. The more practice you get doing this, the more stories will begin to swoop around the space for you, and you have only to watch them.

I have given only a brief idea of what you can do with this technique. My sensemaking "portraits" of these stories are simplistic because I have looked at them alone (and not very hard either). One of the greatest things about sensemaking is that my sense of things could never be the same as your sense of things, and that's a good thing. If we combine our views we are almost always going to come up with something more multi-faceted than any of us could have alone. Conflict and disagreement don't ruin sensemaking: they just build a richer portrait -- as long as we remember what sensemaking is for and don't try to use it for the wrong things. Sensemaking is for opening up, not closing down. When the time comes for coming to conclusions and making definitions, and it does, the work requires different rules.

Some of the things you can explore that I only hinted at here include:
  • how the situation changes throughout the story (including from different points of view)
  • what might have happened if things had gone differently
  • how different people might see the same story (both separate events and the whole story)
  • what aspects of the situations of the story were located where (perhaps at one moment in the story there were competing elements, or complementary elements?)
Good sensemaking stories

Through this exploration of whole-story sensemaking practice, I'm beginning to think helping people do this is worth pursuing. (What do you think?) What I'm thinking I'll do is develop these and some more DIY sensemaking stories, and then help people get started making their own diagrams. (It would probably be best if I didn't draw the diagrams for any of the DIY stories themselves, since people will be strongly influenced to copy them.)

I was stuck for a while on how to build a bridge between the isolated "rained down" items and the immersive "bath" stories, but luckily I was reading The Wind In The Willows last night and came across this serendipitously perfect passage:
As he [this is the Mole] sat on the grass and looked across the river, a dark hole in the bank opposite, just above the water's edge, caught his eye, and dreamily he fell to considering what a nice snug dwelling-place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust. As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture.
A brown little face, with whiskers.
A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice.
Small neat ears and thick silky hair.
It was the Water Rat!
And there you go. The secret is to use the stories all the way through, in both rain and bath; but start with the star of the story, "something bright and small," and let the story grow up around it. You might start with the moral of the story, or its ending, or crisis, or resolution. You could either put the star up front or let people read the story and extract their own tiny star out of it. Then they can add details one by one so that they begin gradually to grow up around it, like a frame round a picture.

Of course I know better than to present some number of "canned" stories and expect people to want to use them to practice sensemaking. People are notorious for needing stories to speak to them before they can become motivated. So I will also need to help people come up with some sensemaking-practice stories of their own. That brings me to the question of what makes a story a good sensemaking story. Some are and some aren't, and choosing the wrong story won't provide practice, or at least not the right sort of practice.

So, after some thought, I come up with these three qualities of a story that is useful for sensemaking.

Interaction on meaningful dimensions. It has all of the spatial dimensions of the framework you want to use it with, and those dimensions interact in some way. For the confluence framework a good sensemaking story has to have both hierarchy and meshwork. A good contrast here is between The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland. If there is self-organization in Alice in Wonderland I can't find it. The whole thing is one linguistic and mathematical and logical game after another, and it's all hierarchy. Nothing grows or becomes, it just is (and argues). If you tried to map out Alice in Wonderland on the confluence framework, I'm not sure it would cover much of the space. (If I'm wrong somebody please point it out!)

Movement in meaningful space. There is some kind of systemic change from the beginning to the end of the story. Things have to happen in relation to the spatial dimensions of the framework. If the story changes in other ways but sits still on the framework of choice, it isn't a great story for practicing the use of that framework. The Secret Garden is another great sensemaking story for the confluence framework, because the self-organizing forces of nature change from nearly non-existent at the start to overwhelmingly (and yes, preachingly) strong near the end. In contrast, a corporate story from which all change, challenge and learning has been purged (we've always been perfectly smart and capable, etc etc) is less likely to be useful.

Multiple perspectives. There have to be at least two perspectives from which the story can plausibly be told or interpreted. If it is impossible to come up with more than one placement for any of the events in the story, using it will not provide good practice. Some of the Winnie the Pooh stories provide refreshing perspectives on such things as what it takes to be happy (Eeyore's birthday, my all-time favorite), what makes someone brave (Piglet's many selfless acts), and what makes a person smart (for which Pooh is a perfect conundrum). Sadly, the Disney versions of the Pooh stories removed most of this ambiguity (and poor happy-in-his-own-way Eeyore gets a permanent rain cloud), but the originals still invite many perspectives.
Probably my absolute favorite sensemaking story is The Neverending Story, which I have faithfully reread every year or so for decades. (Do not, I implore you, watch the movies.) This story has every possible attribute a great sensemaking story could want. Hierarchy and meshwork dance together throughout the story; change and becoming is what it's all about; and it's a new story every time I read it.

So, that's the idea I'm working on right now. I'd love to hear from people: do you use whole stories in sensemaking? If so, how do you do it? If not, do you think this would be useful to you (and to others)?

And, do you know any great sensemaking stories?


Unknown said...

I share your view of Disney's reduction of Winnie the Pooh to a cliche. Ditto the door scraper scene in Wind in the WIllows, is not only one of the funniest stories, but its also one of the big transitionary moments in the story as a whole. The equivalent for Ratty is the decision not to follow the sea rat. Interestingly that those wonderful chapters tend to be neglected in favour of the anti-hero Toad but never mind!

One set I use a lot is the "Just So Stories", aside from using language that explains its meaning in context ("the great grey-green greasy Limpopo river" to take one example), each story represents a complex set of interactions with the environment, other creatures and sundry demi-Gods. Each can be used as a metaphor for organisational issues if (and that is a problem) people are familiar with the stories.

Unknown said...

Hi, Cynthia,

An interesting story I've encountered a few times is "The Corporate Merger." That story looks radically different depending on your perspective. Here it is in brief:

The Camp Hill Company has a long and basically successful history. It employs a lot of people in its various locations and provides decent returns to its owners.

Then, the shadow of change comes. The Camp Hill Company's industry is in the midst of consolidation. The Chicago Company, a larger competitor, offers a good price to merge with the Camp Hill Company.

Camp Hill's owners, after discussing the many ramifications of their decision, agree to sell to the competitor. The owners make a nice profit on the deal.

After the merger is closed, many jobs at the (former) Camp Hill Company are cut. Some executives leave with large severance packages, others with much smaller sums. Eventually management (made up of mostly Chicago and some Camp Hill staff) decide to close some of the old company's key locations. Some employees relocate to other Chicago facilities; the remainder leave or are let go. The Camp Hill Company's name and brand are retired.

Some years later, as consolidation continues, the Chicago Company's management is approached by the Portland Company with an offer to merge.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Thanks for the comments, Dave and John. Good idea to look at the "Just So Stories," I will. Definitely "The Cat That Walked By Himself" is a good candidate, as is "How the Leopard Got Its Spots." John, the merger story just begs to be explored on a sensemaking framework, doesn't it. And it would make a perfect multiple perspective practice story. Very useful and thanks!