Monday, June 28, 2010

Better confluence diagrams

A comment on my last post (thanks commenter) was that the scan of my 2001 diagram for the confluence model was unreadable. (That's because my chicken scratches were barely readable to me and I was embarassed to show them in detail!)

So rather than put up a bigger scan, I copied it over to PowerPoint. This gave me the opportunity to merge in the contents of another version that was even messier but had a few more nuances on it. So here is what I had back then, but cleaned up:

The vertical line shows a point beyond which most human systems don't go, because people self-organize naturally. In my notes it says "but there is sometimes the ILLUSION that human systems can be found in this area, and we have to deal with that." (Whoever "we" is.) The blobby areas are supposed to be indistinct and boundary-less, and there aren't supposed to be gaps between blobs. (That was just me struggling with the hegemony of PowerPoint.)

After moving my sketches to a cleaner diagram I immediately could see how my thinking has moved on since 2001. I'm not even sure I agree with all of the word placements in that space. So I tried a "2010" version of the same thing. This also shows rotating/flipping it so that it matches the Cynefin framework. (If I went back to my original directions I'd go insane trying to remap them all the time.) The arrows mean that conditions of absolute purity only pertain to the extreme corners of the space. Thus perfectly pure hierarchy is barely represented (because it rarely exists in reality). In between these extremes, you can imagine all sorts of mixtures.

Here is another representation for the mixtures of hierarchy and meshwork which I used in a 2001 presentation. I think this one is easier to understand, but it's hard to draw on a chalkboard or the back of a napkin, and that makes it hard to use in practice.

The reason the hierarchy+meshwork diagram is so much larger than the others is that I was trying to show how multiple hierarchies can be connected in larger systems that involve both confluent elements.

After this I tried going back to my examples from the original 2001 diagram and placing them again. This is just a first try and I'm sure there are some mistakes mixed in. But why not give it a try? There wasn't enough space to place all the things I'd like to place one one space, so I separated non-human and human patterns. For non-human patterns:
Note that patterns outside of human invention rarely go all the way to extreme hierarchy, because nature is always messy and rarely isolated. Really serious order tends to reside only in human constructions (especially ones that never leave the controlled world of mental gymnastics). Also note that different patterns have different sizes on the diagram. That is my way of showing that some have more internal diversity than others. A beaver dam, for example, is much less variable than a migratory event.

These are some placements for human patterns:

Again there is an area rarely entered, but it is on the other side of hierarchy. If people are not connecting with other people, and making at least a little attempt to control their worlds, they seem to stop being people at all. [Edit: Later somebody pointed out that I seem to be making definitive placements here, which contradicts my statement that the model should be used for comparison and mutual understanding, not definition and restriction. Please consider these diagrams not as "explanations of reality" but as examples of how one person might place such items; and also consider that the best use of all such models is to juxtapose these placements with others (say by engineers, artists, politicians, children, etc etc etc). That is their real power.]

And finally I want to tie in White's identity interaction types. For those who don't know about this, I've become increasingly enamored of the explanatory power of this classification of interactions among human identities. For details see the paper but this is the summary:
  1. Selection of categorical aspects of identity based on characteristic–based evaluation of safety operates across the chaotic/complex boundary.
  2. Mobilization of relational aspects of identity based on membership–based evaluation of importance operates across the complex/knowableboundary.
  3. Commitment of positional aspects of identity based on placement–based evaluation of utility operates across the knowable/known boundary.
And looking again at these on the confluence model, I feel that they look like this.
Notice that the circles get smaller as you move from selection (largest scope) to commitment (smallest scope). That makes sense.

And last but not least, here is the medicine wheel mixed in.
The arrows coming out from the circle denote the cardinal directions (those I have dealt with so far).  I originally drew the medicine wheel inside the "humans only conver these areas" part of the space. But the medicine wheel isn't only about human systems; it covers all of reality. So I think it should take up the whole space. (The only reason it doesn't is that the space isn't square.) It might be interesting to consider what the corners, outside the circle, might be, and whether the ancient teachings say anything about that. Much to learn.

Doing this redrawing presents me with many new questions. For example, should gases, liquids and solids be on these diagrams at all? Is a solid more self-organized than a gas? Is it more ordered? Or is that distinction orthogonal to the whole thing? And where does chaos (as in chaos theory, not as in confusion) fit on this diagram? I have never been able to make up my mind about where it fits in, if it does. On the one hand, you could argue that chaotic patterns will be strongest in the lower left (as in Cynefin). On the other hand, some argue that chaos theory can explain things way up into the upper right (along with complexity theory). On the other hand, you could make the case that chaos is orthogonal to this whole thing and underlies everything that goes on, perhaps on a different plane. Or, you could just say that unorder = chaos + complexity and let it go at that. I'm not sure what is most useful.

So there is much to think about. If you would like to think along with me, why not join in. I have no answers, only enthusiasm.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Here is a series of recent discoveries regarding models and frameworks for narrative sensemaking. I'll tell it as a story. (Narrative sensemaking, for those unfamiliar with the term, is where people, usually a group of people, begin with stories, or elements of stories, and consider them in such a way that larger patterns emerge among them that provide insights about a topic of interest. It builds on the work of Weick and Dervin in the sensemaking field.)

To start with the dilemma, or if you prefer, the instigating incident: I've been working on the method sections for the rewrite of Working with Stories, and I've been snagged on an obstacle. I dodged this obstacle in previous editions of the book but now I'm taking a hard look at comprehensibility and find I can't avoid it any further. It's the section on building narrative sensemaking landscapes, and it's snagged on the Cynefin framework.

Two great tastes that taste great together

As some may know, I helped Dave Snowden refine his Cynefin framework from 2001 to ... some years later, I'm not sure when. In order to tell the larger story about sensemaking landscapes and Working with Stories, I'll have to tell you something about this collaboration. So bear with me, it will be useful later. My mandate when I first started to work with Dave was to help him and Sharon Darwent with conceptual and methodological development to support their work in developing new consultancy practices. Eager to start, I read everything Dave had written in the field. I understood the narrative stuff; it was similar to what I was writing at the time, having spent two years researching organizational narrative (with John C. Thomas) at IBM Research. But Dave's Cynefin model, as it stood then, left me entirely confused. This wasn't Dave's fault; we were just used to thinking in different ways. He would say things like "the vertical dimension is culture" which caused little stars and whirligigs of bewilderment to appear in front of my eyes. In my world dimensions go from something to something else, and I couldn't make head nor tails of a variation-free dimension. I was trained as a scientist, so of course I was most comfortable with axes of variation; and Dave was trained primarily as a philosopher and businessperson, so of course he was most comfortable with non-dimensional conceptual distinctions. [Update: Apparently Dave has a physics background of which I was not aware, or of which I was aware at one time but forgot about. Apologies to him for the unintentional misrepresentation.]

Trying to find my way out of this confusion, I decided to try and build my own decision support model. Perhaps backing off and thinking about the issues on my own could help me come back and understand another perspective. I asked Sharon (whose background was in hydrology) to help me, and we two scientists sat down and for several hours talked about complexity and systems and societies and decision making. We asked ourselves: if one was to help people make decisions in many situations, what axes of variation would it be reasonable to consider? We came up with two axes that we thought mattered more than anything else: "the degree of imposed order" and "the degree of self-organization." We drew up a two-dimensional space with those axis labels on it and began to place examples into different areas on it (the French revolution, guilds, dictatorships, bees, pulleys, and so on). The messy diagram I show here is one of the few versions I still have (I seem to have discarded most of those notes).

After playing with our new nameless model for a while, I felt confident that I could return to Dave's model and try to make sense of it. The next day (or so) I presented our model to Dave. Sharon and I were a bit nervous, since Dave didn't exactly ask us to create our own model. Dave looked at the model I had drawn in silence for half a minute. Then he jumped up out of his chair, rushed across the room, and exclaimed, "It's the same thing!" And it was. Sort of. Mostly. We had it turned around and upside down from his, but essentially we had arrived at the same mapping of concepts. I didn't believe it at first (and have little ability to manipulate objects in 3D in my head, so he had to show me the flipping around part several times) but then I saw it was very close in meaning. In Dave's known/simple domain, the degree of imposed order is high and the degree of self-organization is low. In the knowable/complicated domain, both imposition and self-organization are high. In the complex domain, self-organization is dominant; and in chaos neither are strong.

The seeing eye

So we merged the models and called them two "forms" or "versions" or "facets" of Cynefin. I found this a great relief, because every time Dave talked about his version of Cynefin, I simply translated to my version of it, and I could magically understand what he was saying. Soon I started drawing what I called my "seeing eye diagram" as a way to translate between the two models more easily. I have these eye-diagrams littered all over my notes from that time. The eye probably came from the Eye of Providence, which is as close to a central directorate as you can get (and is on US money). Later the eye got dropped from official uses of the diagram because some people found it too confusing. But I always draw it, myself; it's what distinguishes the director from the others. (I particularly like the areas where the central directorate gropes after the self-organized pawns but can't quite get a grasp on them.)

If you look closely at the 2003 IBM Systems Journal article Dave and I wrote together about the framework (sadly no longer available for free from the ISJ, but if you search for it you may find some unofficial versions), you can see signs of negotiated compromise between what are essentially two different models. The sections called "Keep the baby, lose the bathwater" and "Connection strengths of Cynefin domains" show my way of thinking about it (minus the eyes). And this quote comes from me:
We say "build the framework" because the Cynefin framework is created anew each time it is used, with distinctions meaningful to the current context. To some extent, it does not even exist in the way we describe it here, devoid of context, but is always used to enable sense-making in a particular setting.
That's not exactly true in practice, at least not the way the framework has been used by many, but I would like it to be true. By the way, the reason we started calling it a "framework" instead of a "model" was that the reviewers for the ISJ article threw a fit at our casual, non-scientific use of the term "model." (Such scientists.)

Drifting apart

Anyway, we called my version of the model many things: the dimensional form of Cynefin, Cynefin with axes, continuous Cynefin, Cynthia's seeing-eye thing, and so on. When I explained Cynefin to people, I found that those who didn't understand Dave's model understood mine, and vice versa. It seemed to come down to whether people had more comfort with concepts or with gradients. Over the years, Dave usually used and explained his version and I usually used and explained mine. And eventually I came to realize that even though we had made the two models live together in one article (in sort of a shotgun wedding) they never were exactly the same. For one, my original model had no boundaries (the boundaries in the seeing-eye diagram above were a compromise, and I didn't always draw them). For another, I never really wanted to have any one-word names for states; I preferred talking about the degree of something that covered a continuous range of variation. It's not better, it's just different. It's who I am. (A note to those who will say that I should be saying "Sharon's and Cynthia's seeing-eye thing" because Sharon and I built it together: it could have been that, but Sharon didn't seem to want to use it. At least she never called it "our" model, so it sort of became mine. Though she is certainly welcome to share it again anytime she likes, and she definitely gets credit for discovering it, if credit is due to either of us.)

I'm not sure why my version of the model has been talked about so little over the years. It might have a lot to do with me dropping off the seeing-and-being-seen scene following the birth of my son. Or, my version might just be less useful to the greatest number of people. I don't mind if it is less useful; it works for me. I don't need to storm the world with my ideas. Last year I put a (self-published? unpublished?) white paper on my web site essentially trying to explain my form of the model and help people use it, but it was awkward to call it a "form" of the Cynefin framework when so few people think of it that way. And I don't really think of it that way anymore either.

And now we come to the issue I've been pondering lately. What should I say in Working with Stories about building a sensemaking framework with stories? I never could write very well about Dave's Cynefin model, and nobody will think that my model is the Cynefin model. I don't want to confuse people, but I don't want to leave it out again. After a few months of pondering over this, I've finally come to a solution. I think the two models want to amicably part company. They aren't the same model, and they no longer need to be forced to live together, and my life and my task would be easier if they lived their own lives.

The confluence model of decision support

After coming to this realization, I needed a name for my model. "Cynthia's seeing-eye thing" just doesn't work if you are trying to write about something. As I thought about what sort of name might be best, I went on a walk to our nearby creek with my son. Watching the water swirling around large boulders (central directorates) and pooling in little eddies (self-organization), I realized that the most important element of my conceptual model is that directed structure and self-organization intermingle and interact. They are not found in separate domains, and they are almost never found alone, and they almost never fail to impact each other. In my model the locations in which only one of these forces can be found are infinitesimally small points in the corners of the space. The word "confluence" occurred to me as I watched the waters swirl and join. So I think a good term for the model is the "confluence" model. (There is already a confluence model of intelligence and birth order, and another one related to sexual agression. Still, a few supporting words will differentiate it.)

More confluence

Now I want to continue the story into another type of confluence, one having to do with thought and originality. I've seen so many people make good use of the distinction between complex and complicated that I began to wonder where the distinction came from. It seems that the earliest mentions of this distinction go back to a 1987 paper by the anthropologists Shirley Strum and Bruno Latour called "Redefining the social link: from baboons to humans." (This is in Social Science Information, volume 26, number 4. You can find it online, for a fee, here.) Strum and Latour introduce the terms in this way.
For the rest of our discussion we will consider that baboons live in COMPLEX societies and have complex sociality. When they construct and repair their social order, they do so only with limited resources, their bodies, their social skills and whatever social strategies they can construct. A baboon is, in our view, the ideal COMPETENT MEMBER portrayed by ethnomethodologists, a social actor having difficulty negotiating one factor at a time, constantly subject to the interference of others with similar problems. These limited resources make possible only limited social stability.

Greater stability is acquired only with additional resources; something besides what is encoded in bodies and attainable through social skills is needed. Material resources and symbols can be used to enforce or reinforce a particular view of "what society is" and permit social life to shift away from complexity to what we will call complication. Something is "complicated" when it is made of a succession of simple operations. Computers are the archetype of a complicated structure where tasks are achieved by the machine doing a series of simple steps. We suggest that the shift from complexity to complication is the crucial practical distinction between types of social life. ...

How does the shift from social complexity to social complication happen? Figure 1 illustrates how we imagine this progression. The first line indicates a baboon-like society in which socialness is complex, by our use of that term, and society is complex but not complicated because individuals are unable to organize others on a large scale.... The second line positions hypothetical hunter-gatherers [where] language, symbols and material objects can be used to simplify the task of ascertaining and negotiating the nature of the social order. ...
To summarize our theoretical model, once individuals are aggregated and choose not to avoid each other, there must be a secondary adaptation to a new competitive environment of conspecifics. Two strategies are possible: manipulate the genotypes to obtain different phenotypes (eusocial insects) or manipulate the phenotypes of similar genotypes through increasing social skills. Similar bodies adapting to social life have, themselves, two possibilities: build the society using only social skills (non-human primates) or utilize additional material resources and symbols, as necessary, to define the social bond (human societies). In the human step different types of societies are created depending on the extent of new resources that are used.
This explanation exactly connects to things I have written about how the dominant force in hierarchy is the arch, meaning the structure inherent in the nouns we create (words, symbols, objects), and how the dominant force in meshwork is the work, or the constant construction and repair of the social order (conversations, imaginings, projects). (I'm not sure when I first encountered Manuel de Landa's terms for structure and self-organization, but I increasingly use them in preference, as they are much more meaningful, to me at least.)

Now, have you looked closely at Strum and Latour's diagram of their theoretical model? If you haven't, look again. It is identical to my confluence model. Their "ability to organize others on a large scale" is my "degree of imposed order." Their "degree of social complexity" is my "degree of self-organization."

Finding this connection to Strum and Latour's model gives me two senses of happiness. First, I'm excited that it came from ethology, my original field, which gives me a sense of circular completion. (It also makes me wonder if I read Strum and Latour's work in graduate school, since it was published the year after I entered a Ph.D. program in the field. Stranger things have happened....) Second, I'm excited that instead of talking about "my" model while standing alone (or with Sharon, or with Sharon and Dave), I can instead talk about tapping into the great confluent stream of understanding that is humanity.

And that thought leads us on to ...

Ancient confluence, ancient sensemaking

Now for the final piece. There is another confluence, a more important one, an ancient one, that I discovered just a few months ago. How I managed to miss it all these years (and everybody else along with me, apparently) is a mystery.

Here's how I discovered it. I was having one of my career self-pity-parties and typing my name and the names of everything I've ever created into Google and thinking about how nobody cares about me. (You do it too, admit it! Or some clever spammers wouldn't create fake links that start with "A smart blogger put an intriguing blog post on [your blog name].") So I typed in "Three strands in a braid" which is the name of a paper I published in the online anything-about-the-internet journal First Monday. Surprisingly, I also found links to Three Strands in The Braid, Paula Underwood's book about bringing Native American wisdom to use in contemporary society. I have great respect for Paula Underwood, having been moved by her book The Walking People. I had not meant to tread upon Ms. Underwood's book name, and out of contrition began to look over her braid book. This got me started roaming over web sites on Native American wisdom, which was only a desultory way of avoiding work until I stopped, breathless and amazed, in front of the medicine wheel.

The medicine wheel refers to a body of ancient wisdom shared by many tribes throughout North America, as well as a series of sacred structures, some dated to 5000 years ago. Small differences in interpretation and application abound in the medicine wheel structure and meaning, but the essential form is fairly consistent. The medicine wheel is also remarkably similar to my confluence model, to Strum and Latour's social-link model, and to the Cynefin framework. Since this eye-opening discovery I've been reading several books and web sites about the medicine wheel, and it has become clear to me that the confluences on this topic are much, much larger than just a few great minds thinking alike. What I believe we have tapped into, each in our own way, is as large as what it means to be a human being.

Let me show you the connections. Most medicine wheels use the map directions North, East, South and West (usually going round in a circle) to introduce the concepts involved. Nearly every book or web site on the medicine wheel differs in its precise labels as to the attributes of each direction, so I need to choose one. Of the books I've read I like The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology by Sun Bear and Wabun best, so I'll use those directions. (Sorry to you folks down under; you'll have to reverse the North-South directions.)

The North is the direction of winter, night, old age, earth and the physical world. In the North a dominant central force -- age, cold, darkness, the laws of physics -- holds each constituent element in its grasp. Here everyone knows the answer, because there can be only one answer. This is the realm of categorizing, of predicting trends and of following strong unchanging traditions. From The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology:
The power of Waboose [the North] is a paradoxical power. It is new life cloaked in death, rapid growth cloaked in rest. It is the power of the ice-goddess with a warm heart beneath a frozen exterior. It is the power of new life beginning to throb through an apparently rotting seed... It is the power of the trees covered with ice crystals, dancing in the North wind. It is the power of the animals huddling together for warmth, hunting together for food.
This relates to what I said (in "Three strands in a braid") about the extreme state of the simple/known condition:
People naturally form constituent connections all the time, so in a sense, as they say, "hope rises." Dictators attempt to move the situation to the extreme bottom–right corner [simple, known, the dead of winter] where they have absolute control and no other connections exist. Loyalty tests and other mind games are meant to sever nascent connections among the subjugated masses, especially those given subordinate power. However, keeping up such an unnatural situation requires a huge influx of energy, so these situations eventually implode through their own fragility. 
In other words, extreme order is the paradoxical power of new life cloaked in death, rapid growth cloaked in rest.

The East is the direction of spring, sunrise, youth, air and the spiritual world. In the East old connections are broken and everything starts anew. Everyone is floating in the void, kings and paupers alike. Here no one knows the answer, because no question has yet been asked. This is the realm of mystery, of uncanny sensation, and of action. From The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology:
For humans, youth is the time when everything is fresh and new, when they can see the universe in a raindrop and spend hours looking at the beauty of a blade of grass. Watch an infant stare at a tree and you'll know some of the power of Wabun [the East]. Youth is ... the time of experiencing everything as a first. It is the time of swimming in the stream of pure energy unhampered by the limitations of age, or of fears. It is the time when vision is expanded, like that of the eagle, when people seee as if from a high place.... [People who are comfortable in this place] have the ability to reach to the realms beyond the earth, in a natural and intuitive way. The people associated with Wabun have wisdom, and the possibility of bringing illumination and enlightenment to themselves and those they touch.
From Kurtz and Snowden 2003:
The chaotic domain is in a very real sense uncanny, in that there is a potential for order but few can see it — or if they can, they rarely do unless they have the courage to act. In known space it pays to be canny, that is, to know how to work the system in all its intricacies (canny meaning not only shrewd but safe). But in chaotic space, a canny ability gets you nowhere (there is no system to be worked). You need a different type of ability, one that is uncannily mysterious, sometimes even to its owner. Canny people tend to succeed in their own lifetimes; uncanny people tend to be recognized and appreciated only centuries later, because during their time their actions appeared to be either insane or pointless....  [Chaos] brings new perspectives, which cause radical disruptions in stable patterns of thought and lead to new complex patterns.
(I suspect the uncanny are afforded more respect in Native American traditions than in the corridors of power in the Western world. This is only one of several differences in value and belief that come up when these frameworks are juxtaposed.)

The South is the direction of summer, mid-day, young adulthood, water and the emotional world. In the South meshwork connections form and strengthen like growing plants. Here everyone has their own answer because everyone has their own path. This is the realm of storytelling, of mutual aid, and of learning by trial and error through probing explorations. From The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology:
At midday the lessons of the spirit received during sleep are put into action as people make plans and their direction for the day grows and takes shape. This is the time of reaching outward and growing in the things of the world. It is the time of testing wisdom by bringing it into physical being and helping it to grow. Sometimes the original direction is correct, and sometimes it must change; to know, the idea must first become an external reality. 
From Kurtz and Snowden 2003:
The decision model in this [complex] space is to create probes to make the patterns or potential patterns more visible before we take any action. We can then sense those patterns and respond by stabilizing those patterns that we find desirable, by destabilizing those we do not want, and by seeding the space so that patterns we want are more likely to emerge.
The West is the direction of autumn, sunset, middle age, fire and the intellectual world. In the West connections begin to harden into customs and rules, and central and networked forces intermingle for good and ill. Here the experts know the answers, because they keep the knowledge and wisdom that has arisen and stabilized. This is the realm of teaching, of listening to elders and encountering the wisdom of distilled knowledge. From The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology:
In human life the middle years are those of power. You have experienced some of life. You have learned some of its lessons and made your initial mistakes. You have tried working on the many projects that seemed appealing in your youth and often have found the direction that you were meant to take. Once you find your direction, you receive the power that comes with knowing where you are going.... The middle years are the ones of responsibility. There are growing children to raise, there are aging parents to care for, there are younger brothers and sisters to teach and help to find their own paths.
From Kurtz and Snowden 2003:
While stable cause and effect relationships exist in this [knowable] domain, they may not be fully known, or they may be known only by a limited group of people. In general, relationships are separated over time and space in chains that are difficult to fully understand. Everything in this domain is capable of movement to the known domain. The only issue is whether we can afford the time and resources to move from the knowable to the known; in general, we cannot and instead rely on expert opinion, which in turn creates a key dependency on trust between expert advisor and decision maker.... Just-in-time (JIT) transfer is movement from the complex to the knowable, selectively. This movement is often called exploitation in the complexity literature, and it involves the selective choice of stable patterns in complex space for ordered representation.
If you are at all familiar with the domains of the Cynefin framework, you can quickly see the mappings here. You can also see that the dimension of central order shared by my confluence model and Strum and Latour's social-link model increases from the Southeast to the Northwest, and the dimension of self-organization increases from the Northeast to the Southwest.

As happy as I am to find this connection, it is not all that surprising. I had an inkling of it back when I wrote this (in Kurtz and Snowden 2003):
We do not pretend that all the basic ideas inherent in the Cynefin framework are new or unique. They can in fact be found floating around history for thousands of years.
I just hadn't known they were floating around in this amount of detail at the time. When I wrote that I was thinking mainly of the many folk tales and mythologies that distinguished between imposed and self-organized structure (I mentioned the Babylonian creation myth which is just one of many such references).

The power of tapping in

This association opens up whole new areas of thought for me. For example, most versions of the medicine wheel include a middle region analogous to the disorder region in Cynefin terms. There are two more directions -- up to the sky and down into the earth -- which are not found in either the Cynefin model or my confluence model, so I'll be exploring how those might usefully fit in. I'm intrigued as well by the circle around the outside of the wheel, which is meant to demonstrate the unity of all conditions in one intermingled world. In addition several books have been published that explain how the concepts of the medicine wheel can be used in sensemaking exercises not unlike those I've used myself. For example, one activity involves "walking the wheel" to think about how a situation might be seen from each of the four directions and how one might thereby gain a deeper perspective on it.

It's hard to describe my feelings of humility, privilege and wonder on realizing that I and others have stumbled onto a truth that is at least several thousand years old. I am only beginning to explore what has been written about the medicine wheel and will continue to do so. Of course, what I can discover as a person of Eastern European ancestry and conventional scientific training will be something quite different than what a Native American can learn from the elders in their tribe. From what I've heard there is much more not available in books. Still, I eventually hope to arrive at a place where I feel that my understanding has benefited from all possible exposure to the great confluent stream of thought and wisdom I have encountered, and where I can in turn give something back, if only respectful attention, to the stream itself.

Now please note that I do not wish to claim that the medicine wheel is the same as the Cynefin framework, or Strum and Latour's model, or that it is better or more correct than these, or any other such nonsense. The reason I am excited about this discovery is because it enlarges, not reduces, my ability to help people make sense of the world. This is an amazing degree of parallelism between systems that seem on the surface to have nothing in common. I'm beginning to think the whole construct is something that may have come up many times in human history, like the Golden Rule or the ziggurat or the oft-repeated concept of "it's bigger on the inside than the outside" (that's one of my fantasy-Ph.D. dissertations right there). What I'm most concerned about is not who can claim credit for anything but what we, all of us, can do with it.

What makes a model fit for sensemaking?

In practical terms, this solves my problem with writing a method description for sensemaking landscapes in Working with Stories. I will simply describe multiple ways of framing a landscape for group sensemaking, among which people might have different reasons (background? personality? goal?) to choose. You might want to choose the labels of the Cynefin framework, of my confluence model, of Strum and Latour's social link model, of the medicine wheel, or of other models I know nothing about. This also allows me to write about each of the frameworks I do know about without either subscribing fully to it or assuming that everyone else thinks in the same way I do.

I've seen it noted that the Cynefin framework covers similar ground to Herbert Simon's bounded rationality model and to Elliott Jacques' requisite organization model, though I have yet to read more about these models (but plan to do so). Manuel de Landa's concepts of hierarchy and meshwork (and their intermingling) are also similar, as are Dee Hock's writings on chaordic organizations. (If you know of any other overlaps, reader, please send me a note. I'm interested in giving people as many ways to find a good fit for their contexts and purposes as I can.)

The obvious next question is: where do we stop? What sorts of models are not useful for narrative sensemaking?

The utility of building a sensemaking framework lies in its ability to enable the emergence of new understandings from the overlaying of many seemingly disparate experiences and perspectives. It is a convergent technique, a way of moving from specific to general: but not by categorizing, which is done beforehand and is not an activity of discovery at all. Rather, it shares something with the idea of grounded theory, in which data create rather than prove or disprove theory. Because of the way sensemaking works, many models work as well as others, in the proper context; but for the same reason there are some characteristics a model has to have before it can be useful. I've come up with three so far.

1. Value-free dimensions. Sensemaking depends on the self-organized emergence, not the straightforward creation, of meaningful patterns in the things considered. If the placement of items into patterns is predetermined, no sensemaking can take place.

To illustrate this, consider two group activities you might conduct in a gymnasium full of people. Let's say you first ask everyone to stand in front of a large marked scale of heights. This is a predetermined placement, so doing the exercise brings no additional insight that could not be gathered from, say, measuring each person independently and collating the responses on a computer. Now consider what would happen if you asked each person to stand in a location that best fits their agreement with a series of statements posted around the room. The patterns that result from this exercise probably cannot be predicted even if you know the people in the room very well. If you ask each person to answer a set of survey questions, you will not get the same result. To begin with, an act of physical positioning (whether of yourself or of an object) invokes a different set of cognitive processes than preparing a linguistic response. But more importantly, the people in the room wouldn't be human if they didn't negotiate meaning by continually monitoring where they and the others are in the room (constantly subject to the interference of others with similar problems). Such an activity would not represent an objective or experimentally repeatable method of measurement. But measurement is not the goal; sensemaking is.

Many models built for understanding and communication have implied or explicit value axes. The classic case is of the graph where the approach you wish to evangelize is in the upper-right-hand corner (nearest to God). You can use value-based models for sensemaking, if you can obfuscate the value axes. You can switch the directionality so that our common up-is-good bias is subverted (the right-is-best bias may be culturally variant and probably has a lot to do with writing direction -- hey, wouldn't that be an interesting dissertation topic).

Another method of subversion is to change the terms used so that they confuse direct communication of value. If you want to use a model with an axis called "efficiency," think of either a value-free way to talk about it (perhaps "precision" or "agency") or think of some way to highlight both the positive and negative aspects of it at once (something like "getting things done efficiently, even if they are nasty things"). But if you have to work really hard to push a model into value-free use, don't deceive yourself; better to use another model than to destroy what could be valuable insights.

2. At least two dimensions. The essential activity in building a sensemaking framework is the mapping of elements, in this case narratives or elements of narrative, onto a space of resonant meaning. Building a topographical map entails gathering information about point descriptions: longitude, latitude, height and meaning. The addition of meaning is not always noticed, but if you look at a real topographical map, labels such as the names of mountain peaks and lakes and the locations of human-made structures are as important as contour lines. In the example I show here, roads, streams, buildings and administrative boundaries are marked. (The little dot near the bottom is my house, which has a lot of meaning around here.) Building a sensemaking landscape requires a similar process. So it follows that in order to build such a map you must define what your longitude and latitude mean; what height pertains to (if anything); and what features will be marked. All of the models I've described here define two dimensions of variation, either explicitly or implicitly (by marking out the rarified extremes of the space). From what I've seen, you need at least two dimensions in order for sensemaking to work well.

Models that feature triangles or pyramids (lots of this, some of this, little of this) are really only unidimensional, so they don't work. Why doesn't one dimension work? Well, first, if you are trying to squeeze the values out of an axis (and people are very good at squeezing values into axes), the effort is more obvious if there is only one axis. People have a harder time finding out the correct answer if there are two overlaid dimensions, especially if at least one of them is flipped from their expectation. I've seen people use one dimension of variation for sensemaking, but the insights gained seem to be thinner and weaker; there is less sense made.

What about three dimensions? Well, there are two problems with sensemaking in three dimensions. First, it requires more physical preparation. Preparing to place flat objects on a wall is much easier than preparing to place three-dimensional objects in 3D space. You could have people sculpt a clay surface together, and that might yield some fascinating insights, but it could also just get messy.

Also, I must enter here a plea from the non-3D-thinkers population: beware of thinking 2D representations of 3D objects are 3D objects. Some people have the ability to look at such representations (usually on computer screens) and think about them. Many of us don't. I remember in graduate school when the wave of 3D Tetris hit. I had been marginally adequate at regular Tetris (though I'm not a fast thinker in any number of dimensions). But when I was faced with a 3D Tetris challenge, I simply froze, turning the virtual object over and over but unable to come up with any plan for putting it anywhere. I watched in amazement as other people manipulated and dropped the Tetris things (what do they call them?) in microseconds. Clearly this is a genetic determination, and clearly some of us were not standing in the 2D-as-3D line when they gave this ability out. (I think I was over by the left-handed synesthesia booth.) It's much easier with physical manipulation, but people who have the 2D-as-3D ability sometimes forget that the rest of us can't follow them into that world. So to be safe and include every voice, I'd stick to two dimensions.

3. Meaningful space. The last requirement of any model that supports sensemaking is that it resonate meaningfully with the people who use it. This is the main reason that I think replacing the terms on the bubbles or axes or quadrants or circles of whatever model you want to use is perfectly permissible, as long as the translation is true. Because if the space doesn't mean anything to the sensemakers, the patterns won't mean anything either. Find a space that works in practice, not just in theory. You can only find this out by trying it in practice with any particular group. What I like to do is have a few manifestations of any sensemaking model on hand so that if one isn't resonating I can pull out another, relabel, and try again. Or you can use the salad-bar method and present two or more sets of labels at once and ask people to choose what works best for their group. (The spring, sunrise, birth, air, spirit labels do this in the medicine wheel.) Another method is to explain what you mean in general and ask the people themselves to come up with their own labels (while you check the translation for accuracy). This approach tends to require a more motivated group; some will respond to such a request with bland refusal. Be ready to do what works and adapt to the conditions you find.

There are other requirements for sensemaking regarding the items used (their focus and breadth), the physical setting, the people involved, and so on, but that is another topic for another time.

With regard to the conceptual frameworks and models you can use for beneficial narrative sensemaking, I'm happy to say that I've found much to explore. Hopefully this will be of as much use to you as it has been to me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Participative Narrative Inquiry

Recently I've started moving "into the onion" on writing the third edition of Working with Stories (I'm calling edition two the addition of the case studies last year, otherwise I'd get too mixed up). And I'm now in the process of forcing myself to confront some of the book's shortcomings (having completed all possible stalling operations). I know of these shortcomings because of things people have told me about the book or parts of it, either directly or indirectly. No need to parade all of my senses of inadequacy regarding the book, but one issue I think merits asking for feedback: the name of the book and the name of the approach.

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.
In addition there is the field of Appreciative Inquiry, which has no relation historically to the group I was part of but shares some of the same narrative and exploratory aspects. I like some things about AI, and I get the point that focusing on the positive brings energy to bear on issues ... but I still can't help feeling like AI throws the baby out with the bathwater. I think narrative can definitely appreciate and build on strengths, but I think that's just a start: it can do much more.

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.
  1. 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 ;).
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
Amazingly in this age of everything having already been said by somebody, I can only find one link on Google with this phrase in it (here) and another on Yahoo (here). It looks like people are using these terms together to indicate that they have blended some complementary approaches -- mainly appreciative inquiry, participative action research, and narrative inquiry. There are also many references to "narrative inquiry" and "participatory inquiry" and "participatory narrative."

So, I've been pondering changing the name of WWS to
Participatory Narrative Inquiry: Working with Stories in your Community or Organization 
Working with Stories in your Community or Organization: Participatory Narrative Inquiry
The 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?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The experience ratchet

This is just a few fragments of thought left over from other writings, things I've been pondering lately about stories. It's somewhat related to the "natural storytelling" idea, but not perfectly.

Amazing devices

The first thought is from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which, if you've read some of my previous posts, I finished re-reading lately. One quirky reference kept coming up in the novel that relates to changes in the way we perceive our world today. (To those who are not familiar with The Magic Mountain, it follows a young man who visits a tuberculosis sanitarium in Switzerland and stays for seven years.)

The quirky reference is to some amazing technological devices that Hans Castorp (our young man in the story) encounters at the sanitarium.
In the first social room there were also a few optical gadgets for their amusement: the first, a stereoscopic viewer, the lenses of which you stared at photographs you inserted into it -- a Venetian gondolier for example, in all his bloodless and rigid substantiality; the second, a long, tubelike kaleidoscope that you put up to one eye, and by turning a little ring with one hand, you could conjure up a magical fluctuation of colorful stars and arabesques; and finally, a little rotating drum in which you placed a strip of cinematographic film and then looked through an opening on one side to watch a miller wrestle with a chimney sweep, a schoolmaster paddle a pupil, a tightrope-walker do somersaults, or a farmer and his wife dance a rustic waltz. Laying his chilled hands on his knees, Hans Castorp gazed into each of these apparatuses for a good while.
Let me ask you: When was the last time you gazed into a kaleidoscope for more than a few seconds? And who looks at those sorts of objects today? Two-year-old children? For how long?

What's even more amazing is that Hans Castorp comes back and looks into these gadgets again and again as he settles into the routine of the place.
At four there would be afternoon tea with cake and preserves ... [more descriptions of routine activities] ... and afterward a peep or two into the stereoscopic viewer, the kaleidoscopic tube, or the cinematographic drum. Hans Castorp had the daily schedule down pat....
To our eyes, such an activity seems as nonsensical as spending half an hour a day staring at the spoons and forks in our silverware drawer.

Later in the book, a gramophone arrives to enthusiastic reception:
[T]here was no comparison to those little mechanisms [the optical gadgets] in value, status and rank. This was no childish, monotonous peep show, of which they were all tired and with which no one bothered after his first three weeks here.
Two interesting things here: first, people "bothered with" the optical gadgets for three weeks when we would have discarded them in minutes. Second, the new gramophone is not just a more interesting sensory experience: it's better in rank. Of course this is one of Mann's many ironic chestnuts that make The Magic Mountain such a joy to read, but it's also a telling observation about why our expectations of sensory experience keep ratcheting up. We are seeking value, status and rank.

The rank ratchet

The influence of ranking in human society connects our obsessions with new technology to the celebrity worship phenomenon, to information overload, to internet addiction, and to the popularity of purposeful stories, all of which are the subject of several recent books including Supernormal Stimuli and The Pleasure Trap. And all of this connects to evolution. From an article in the BBC news:
Evolutionary anthropologist Francesco Gill-White from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia told New Scientist; "It makes sense for you to rank individuals according to how successful they are at the behaviours you are trying to copy, because whoever is getting more of what everybody wants is probably using above-average methods."
Rank and status ultimately tie into fitness through sexual selection. We may not be very tied to the number of offspring we have nowadays, but the urge to give our offspring a "better life" is no different than a bird's struggle to provide her fledglings with the best possible probability of raising fit children in turn. Many studies have shown that women still choose carefully, or try to choose carefully in the face of incomplete and distorted information, a man who will support their children well in one way or another. (And vice versa, except that to men care is less important than genetic quality: hence the emphasis on physical beauty.)

The problem is that sexual selection can "run away" to such an extreme that species survival is threatened. This is one of the great puzzles of evolutionary theory, though the puzzling part goes away when you stop thinking evolution has a direction. It comes down to a Faustian bargain: sexual reproduction increases genetic variation to face changing environmental conditions, but it entails a division of labor in bearing offspring. Because females invest more in their offspring than males, they have a greater need to choose mates carefully. So males have a need to compete, and this competition can ratchet up to the point of damaging male fitness. Like mutation and inbreeding, sexual selection is a maladaptive evolutionary process that continues because it's linked to something useful enough to carry it along in spite of its damaging effects. 

So, expectations of both visual and narrative spectacles have been increasing because of three factors: a biological ratchet in which evaluation of mates based on observable features outside the average changes as the average changes; an incentive to make use of such a ratchet; and the ability to make use of the ratchet.
Of course, people have been attempting to influence the behavior of other human beings since before there were human beings. But recently, as we have understood more and more of how people think, the third factor has grown in importance. So, part of the reason our expectations about visual and narrative spectacle keep increasing is that the ratchet is built in. This goes some way towards explaining big fancy houses and cars and clothes ... and stories. Essentially, Avatar is a peacock's tail: a really big, nice one. (So was Titanic, and other blockbusters before that.) Beside Avatar, a kaleidoscope looks like a bit of lint. But a kaleidoscope is still a pretty amazing thing. It's not the experiences that have changed, it's us.

The internet shallows and deep narrative

Another piece that fits in here is the recent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. It talks about how people skim more and read less, get more distracted, and lose our ability to concentrate, as a result of taking in too much information in a shallow way. Of course that matches perfectly what I've been thinking about the reduction in deep narrative dives. I've felt the retreat to the shallows happening myself, though I've fought the beast (more on that later).

Do you play music?

Here's a funny little related pattern I've noticed lately. Recently I've noticed that when people are telling a story and they say "I played some music," they don't actually mean they played some music. They mean they listened to somebody else play some music. I've heard this in conversation enough times to start wondering about it.

So I tried one of my micro-research projects on Google. I compared matches for various mentions of playing and listening in relation to music. To find stories in which people talked about listening to or playing music, I looked for "I was listening to some music" or "I listened to some music" or "I am listening to some music" (people sometimes tell stories in the present tense). Contrasting these with "I was playing some music" (and so on), I get these match counts. (If this image is hard to read, click on it to see it bigger.)

So either everybody out there is playing lots of music, or people are no longer using the words "playing music" to mean making music come out of an instrument. To find out which it was, I skimmed the first few pages of links for each of these, and I found these results. The red bars are how many links actually referred to playing music (yourself), and the blue bars are how many actually referred to listening to music.

Considering that the number of people who say "I was playing some music" when they were not should be zero, that's surprising. So people are definitely telling stories in which playing music does not mean playing music. It doesn't help, of course, that music players have a "play" button. That's the commercial-advantage part of the ratchet: our thinking listening is playing is convenient for those who want to sell us music. (Why doesn't the button say "listen"? Because we are more likely to buy it if we think we are making it happen.)

When I looked for terms that are less likely to come up in stories but more in statements about oneself -- I like to play music, I like playing music -- the pattern changed:

Looking only at "I like playing music," more people say they like listening to music than playing it. Only 16 out of the first 40 pages for this phrase referred to listening to music, so when people said they played music using this phrase they were more likely to mean it -- hence the more accurate count.

For the second phrase, "I like to play music," most of these pages really did refer to people playing instruments. Only 3 out of the first 40 hits on this phrase were actually about listening to music. This evidently is what people say when they really do play music on an instrument. (Most of the first correct-use hits were interviews of and forum posts by band members.)

So when people describe what they do in factual statements, they are not very likely to use "playing music" to slide over into just listening to it. But when people tell stories, they speak of listening as playing. What this says to me is that when people are put on the spot and asked what they actually do, they keep to the literal truth (I play music, or listen to music). But when they tell stories, the literal truth is not so important and statements about the past can blur truth and wouldn't-it-be-nice. Standard storytelling behavior, but indicative of a cultural change about what we do and what we wish we did. Or what we will let ourselves believe we do when we are not being so careful about the facts.

This whole thing makes me wonder if someday we will say we had a thought when what we really mean will be that we heard somebody else's thought. Or we'll say we did something, when what we really mean was that somebody else did it and we heard about it. The bigger-better-faster the things we consume, the smaller-worse-slower become our own actual creations.

That sound you hear is the sound of the ratchet turning.


At this point I am supposed to say how we can turn the ratchet back. I have no answers, but my intuition tells me two things. First, knowledge can be used in many ways. The more we know about how to influence and manipulate people, the more we know about how to detect and avoid manipulation. Watching the ratchet and feeling it turn reduces its power to influence our decisions. Books like Influence are empowering in this regard.

Possibly more important than knowledge are unratcheters. Unratcheters are rich, deep experiences that can support infinite internal expansion without enhancement. They are bigger on the inside than the outside. They are satisfied with themselves, so the bigger-better-faster ratchet has no power over them. When I walk in the woods, for example, I can expand the intensity of my attention a thousand-fold without coming to the end of what is going on before me and around me. Lots of things are internally infinite like this: gardening, cooking, playing an instrument (really playing one), singing, walking, doing yoga, running, having long face-to-face conversations, and so on. Unratcheters are all activities of creation rather than consumption; that's why they never end. Nobody ever gets to the end of playing the violin, but when you come to the end of a violin CD, it's over. Even if you play the CD a thousand times it's still the same CD; it cannot expand internally. If you begin to create something from that CD, maybe incorporate it into your own thoughts or your own music, or even juxtapose it and shape your experiences around it, you start to unratchet. The reason unratcheters unratchet is that they don't build up: they build in.

Here's an example. About two years ago I found out that my nearly daily migraines were being caused by an allergy to sulfur compounds in food. I threw out my normal food, including all of my teas, herbs and spices (all regularly sprayed with sulfite preservatives), and started over. I started growing and harvesting all of my own teas and herbs. I now have between twenty and thirty medicinal herbs in little tins on my kitchen counter, and I assemble teas based on what I feel I need at the time -- digestive soothing, stress relief, a liver tonic, a tasty treat, and so on. I have a wonderful time making and enjoying these concoctions. And there seems to be no end to the depth of this hobby: I learn about new medicinal plants every year, and I try new combinations of herbs constantly. Recently I found out that all food certified as organic by the US Department of Agriculture cannot contain sulfur-based preservatives (because I'm not the only one allergic to them). So it turns out I can just buy organic teas and stop growing, collecting and drying my own. But what a sad, sad thing that would be. It would collapse my expanding unratcheter and return me to the custody of the same ratcheters I've been susceptible to all these years. New and improved! Delicious! Energizing! Calming! Put a Zing in your summer! What a let-down. Having found a new world rich with unexplored landscapes, I have no interest in returning to the old world. That's an unratcheter.

I've been writing about personal unratchers, but is there a societal unratcheter? Maybe. The advertising/marketing genie is out of the bottle, but I wonder if there is a way to benefit commercially from unratcheting. I've certainly bought a lot of books about medicinal plants and medicinal teas in the past few years, and some little tins, and a pretty nice dehydrator. Maybe what people need to do, if they want to market unratcheting, is turn their attention away from providing packaged, limited experiences and towards helping people create their own internally rich experiences. If you sell tea, maybe you should find a way to help people mix their own teas. If you sell music, maybe you should find a way to help people create their own music. Just making it easy to build assemblages of previously indivisible products brings a little more richness inside. Some of this is already happening, from what I've seen. Last winter I put together my own winter-holidays CD of individual pieces of music on It wasn't much of an unratcheter, but it was a start. I predict the age of the unratcheters is coming, and we will love them, and we will all calm down and make more of our own stuff and start enjoying life more. Maybe we'll even start telling more stories of our own. Now wouldn't that be nice.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New ideas for emergent constructs

One of my favorite narrative exercises is what I call the derivation of emergent constructs (and some call archetype construction or two-stage emergence). This is a technique for producing representations of shared understandings about aspects of told stories.

In the emergent constructs exercise, people either tell stories or talk about previously told stories (or some combination), and while doing this note down narrative elements. These elements are used to build larger constructions of meaning. For example, people might list characters, actors or players in a story, then cluster and recluster these to produce personifications. Taken together with themes, values, situations and other constructs, personifications create a collective understanding of meaning.

I've been making a few changes to how I suggest people do this exercise in the past few years, based on my observations on what works and doesn't in various contexts. I'm going to put this in the new version of Working with Stories (as part of improving all of my exercise descriptions), but I thought I'd write about the specific changes here, partly to get feedback on these ideas.

Questions work better than labels

One aspect of the emergent constructs exercise that I've been moving past lately is giving people one-word categories for the things they are supposed to extract from their stories. For example, I used to ask people to enumerate characters, issues, behaviors and circumstances in stories. But I've come to believe this produces overly static and narrow responses. Lately I'm finding these questions work better:
  • Who is doing things in this story?
  • What is this story about?
  • What matters to the people in this story?
  • What is going on in this story?
These are for characters, issues, influences (which lead to values) and states of affairs (which lead to situations), respectively. The instruction is: As you listen to each story, whenever the question has a new answer, write it down.

You can give names to the answers later, after they have been produced. But labeling them beforehand seems to produce self-censorship: is this a bona fide character? Could I call this an issue? And so on. Labels also place the emphasis on the "things" in the stories rather than changes and movements within them.

Expertise, emotion and intellect

Another thing I'm finding is that one set of element-gathering questions doesn't work well for all groups. Two dimensions of context determine which questions work best for any group.
  1. Emotion-oriented versus intellect-oriented. Are your storytellers close to their emotions on this issue, or is it an issue about which you can expect them to be more intellectual and distanced? Is it something that engages their hearts or their minds?
  2. Expert versus novice. How familiar are your storytellers with technical language and complicated concepts in the subject matter they will be talking about? Is it something about which they can speak with confidence or something they have little to do with?
These two dimensions can combine in four ways.
  1. Emotion-oriented novices. The storytellers are novices in the subject matter you are asking them about, and they feel that the subject matter is  primarily emotional. Asking the CEOs of giant corporations about child care or nursing is likely to fit here.
  2. Intellect-oriented novices. The storytellers are novices in the subject matter, and it is something they see as an intellectual matter. Interviewing stay-at-home parents about particle physics or running giant corporations might fit into this category. 
  3. Emotion-oriented experts. The storytellers are experts in an area that is associated with emotion. Interviewing artists or performers or care-givers or stay-at-home parents about their work would fit into this category.
  4. Intellect-oriented experts. The storytellers are experts in an area not normally associated with emotions. Engineers or professors or managers talking about their work are a classic case here.
For novices of all kinds, what works is to keep it simple. Don't use categories or jargon, because novices will get nervous, apply their scant understanding poorly, jump to conclusions, and arrive at the wrong places. Whether you expect emotional or intellectual orientation, give novices the simplest questions you can come up with, like those above. One virtue of questions like "Who is doing things in this story?" is that they don't push people toward or away from emotion. These are broad, open questions that people can shape to meet their own perspectives and needs.

For experts, categories and jargon are a help, not a hindrance. Experts expect and depend on categories and labels, because they know what they mean and how to apply them. (Make sure you know what the categories and labels mean before you use them, however.) For emotion-oriented experts, categories should showcase emotion, while for intellect-oriented experts categories should abstract and intellectualize it.

So for example if I was asking a group of artists to pull elements out of their stories, I might ask questions like these.
  • Characters: Whose behavior creates meaningful events that impact the experiences people have in this story?
  • Issues: When the people in this story experience peaks of emotion such as anger or joy or fear or relief, what issues drive that intensity?
  • Influences: What influences motivate the people in this story to behave the way they do?
  • States of affairs: In what contexts, ranging from crisis to calm to elation, do the people in this story find themselves?
Notice in these questions how the emphasis is on the people in the story and their emotions within it. Words like experiences, anger, motivate, and crises all signal a closeness to the rawness of personal experience.

If I was working with intellect-oriented experts I would instead ask questions more like these.
  • Characters: What people, forces or factors move the plot of this story along?
  • Issues: What subjects or issues arise as this story unfolds?
  • Influences: What influences explain the behavior of the actors in this story?
  • States of affairs: What states of affairs take place in this story?
Here the emphasis is on the story, not on the people. Words like move, arise, explain, and take place signal emotional safety and attention to cognitive aspects of the story. In fact, these intellect-oriented questions are not that much different from one-word categories, which fits with the history of the technique's development: we started working on this method in workshops full of intellect-oriented experts, for whom these worked well.

Attribute questions

The second stage of emergent construct derivation entails having people describe their clusters of gathered elements with attributes. To elicit attributes about clusters we have always used questions, and those still work. However, I have found, again, that the best questions vary by storytelling group. Attribute questions that work well for novices don't work as well for experts, and attribute questions that draw out excellent attributes with one group will fail to produce useful attributes with the other.

With a group of novices in the subject matter, the best attribute questions are very simple, and are the same for all types of construct.
  • Look at this cluster of things. What's good about it? What's bad? 
That's very simple, nothing to parse, no jargon, no complexity. People are free to add their own interpretations, because the question is broad and flexible.

For a group of emotion-oriented experts, I like attribute questions like these.
  • Characters to Personifications: What would this character's best friend say about them? What would their worst enemy say about them?
  • Issues to Themes: What would someone who has had good experiences with this issue say about it? What would someone who has had bad experiences with this issue say about it?
  • Influences to Values: What would someone who values this influence say about it? What would someone who doesn't value this influence say about it?
  • States of affairs to Situations: How would an optimist describe this state of affairs? How would a pessimist describe this state of affairs?
As above note the emphasis on feelings and people. Here you are essentially asking people to tell tiny stories about the emotional reactions of people to the element clusters. Not coincidentally, emotion-oriented experts tend to tell a lot of stories.

For a group of intellect-oriented experts, I like attribute questions like these.

  • Characters to Personifications: What are some of the positive traits of this character? What are some of their negative traits?
  • Issues to Themes: What are the positive aspects of this issue? What about negative aspects?
  • Influences to Values: What arguments for supporting this influence can you make? What arguments for removing it can you make?
  • States of affairs to Situations: What are the opportunities inherent in this state of affairs? What are its dangers?
As above note the emphasis on the cognitive aspects of the story, not on people or emotions. These are less stories than lists of attributes, which is fitting because you are asking people to bring their analytical minds to bear on the story elements.

When I look back on questions I've asked and seen other people ask in these workshops, I'd say it has been a combination of all three of these sets (simple, emotion-oriented, intellect-oriented), which probably explains why the results have not been as uniform as I would like. I think I've groped my way toward better questions in context, sometimes, but this has been a dawning realization that was slow in coming.

Mixed groups

What should you do if your group is mixed? What if you expect to find two or three of the types in it? This could be because you have a mixture of people from different backgrounds, or because the people in your group inhabit multiple worlds at once. I've been told by scientists that I'm "such an artist" and by artists that I'm "such a scientist" (can't win, can I) so you may have some such people in your group that defy easy classification. When you expect mixtures of any kind, you can do any of four things.
  1. Strengthen the weakest link. If you think the novices in your session will be intimidated out of participating, and you need diverse input, or you will have a majority of novices, you might want to bring the question complexity down to their level and deliberately put aside any increased depth you might get from expert reflection. Experts can answer simpler questions; you will just get more shallow reflection as a result.
  2. Create choose-your-own exercise details. You can offer people multiple sets of questions and give them the opportunity to choose any set they like. This is easier when people are deriving only one type of construct. Just let people self-select and merge their contributions, which should be compatible even if they answered slightly different questions to get to them. To do this you need some tolerance and patience on the part of the participants to absorb more instructions, and you need more time for them to do that.
  3. Bring just-in-time complexity. You can offer simple questions, but keep some more complex ones close at hand. If someone asks what you mean by the simple questions, you can either quickly evaluate which they would do best with, or simply give them both complex sets (emotion-oriented and intellect-oriented) and let them choose. Probably only the experts will ask. But do this on the side and quietly, so as not to intimidate the novices. If somebody asks in front of the whole group, pretend you don't have time to tell them and say you'll talk to them separately. It's better to tell ten people out of twenty the deeper questions on the side than it is to intimidate the other ten people out of contributing. (Once you've seen the glazed eyes that say "I'm biding my time until I get out of here" and realize what it means for your output, you'll learn to keep novices engaged.)
  4. Divide and customize. You can divide people into separate groups based on their orientation (emotion or intellect) and expertise and give the different groups different questions. That approach is helpful if you were going to divide the groups up anyway, perhaps to get through a lot of clustering quickly or to separate people in different positions of power. It does reduce diversity in what you create, however.
If you are just getting started running workshops, you can of course use single-word categories and simple questions throughout. It's not going to ruin construct creation. But if you want to improve the result of your constructions and give them more useful meaning to the participants, these fine tunings might be helpful to you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rakontu lessons learned

Well, I've finally done it. I've wrapped up the Rakontu project, updated the web site, closed down the beta sites, and written a lessons-learned document.

Rakontu is the free, open source software I wrote last year to help small groups share and work with their stories online. I finished version one of Rakontu in the fall of 2009. There were five beta test groups, but only one of them got to the point of having much content (mainly due to the people managing the other groups being too busy to use it or not finding it fit their purposes as well as they had expected). The group that did gather content was a spin-off from John Caddell's Mistake Bank on Ning. We had 40 members and collected about 45 stories, though most of these were from John and myself going back and forth. That story exchange turned out to be most of the beta testing Rakontu had, but it was surprisingly helpful.

Rakontu has been a labor of love, and at the moment I'm all out of love, so it's on hiatus until more funding comes along, or I make a fantastic amount of money doing other things and can fund it myself. The software is still available, and it works, and I may be able to come back to it eventually, but at the moment it's having a rest.

I thought I'd post a few excerpts from the lessons learned document here. The full document is available on the theory page at (scroll to the bottom) and contains more about the history of the project, the beta testing, and some technology-related lessons. There are also a few other white papers on the theory page on why I built Rakontu and why I think things like it are needed.

The social aspects of Rakontu - what worked

I loved the exchange that got going between myself and John Caddell on the Mistake Bank Rakontu. For a few months we were trading a few stories a week. We were reminding each other of experiences, and making comments, and using the system in the way it should be used. In a way, the interaction between the two of us, over that short time, was the only real test of Rakontu. Rakontu is not meant to work for groups of people who don't know each other already. John and I knew each other, but I didn't know any of the other people in the Rakontu, and those exchanges were awkward. Not because it was anyone's fault, but because things like ratings and comments and views have a different meaning when you know people and when you don't.

In my writing I often reference Harrison White's model of human interaction where he distinguishes between selection activities (meeting people, making choices), mobilization activities (building coalitions, gathering converts) and commitment activities (working together as a team towards some goal). What I saw was that Rakontu worked really well for commitment activities -- John and myself talking together about what we've learned about mistakes. Rakontu didn't work well for mobilization or selection. This is a good thing, because I had meant Rakontu to work for commitment. I chose Margaret Mead's quote in my first writings about it:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
So that's a positive thing. I felt, in this tiny little test, that Rakontu did help a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens do something together, even if it was only a tiny thing. That gives me hope that it can keep doing that, eventually, on a larger scale -- or that its ideas can help with that sort of thing.

A surprising thing with relation to people and Rakontu -- I'm not sure whether to put this into what worked or what didn't  -- is that something like five or six people asked me if they could use Rakontu to collect some stories for short-term story projects. When I explained that it was meant to be used as part of an ongoing relationship and wouldn't work well for in-and-out story collection, they were disappointed. I suppose this is not very surprising, because my discomfort with the surgical nature of most story projects was one of the reasons I created Rakontu in the first place. It did make me wonder, however, whether I have been too purist about what should be created. For example, if Rakontu had the ability to do either short-term or long-term story collection, would the ideas spread more widely, and would it get more funding? Maybe. It's something to think about.

The social aspects of Rakontu - what didn't work

One of the most cringe-worthy moments while using Rakontu was -- and I thank this person heartily for participating, and mean no disrespect -- somebody sent me an email response saying something like "my story got three hits!" Sigh. So, in terms of people and social matters, the performance culture of today's storytelling, where people think they are on TV every time they open their mouths, was very much present even in the tiny attempts I made to try out story sharing. I wanted people to get away from the popularity rating that I believe precludes true sharing, especially of things as personal and emotional as stories, but I couldn't do it. You can't change cultural trends with software. I think any new work on Rakontu will have to confront that fact head-on and think of new ways to work through it.

The other thing that didn't work about people was that I have forgotten how little most people know about stories. There are several hurdles to getting people to understand why we are telling each other stories, what makes a story good or useful, what is a story, what isn't a story, what you do when you read a story, what you don't do, and why any of this matters. I tried to write succinct, helpful pieces for people just joining a Rakontu, but compared to typical social media applications, there is a much larger learning curve involved in storytelling.

One hope for getting people over this curve is that in a committed group, the people who are putting the energy into the project might be willing to explain the concepts in person and watch over things so that early misconceptions get put right. But that's a lot to ask. I was surprised how little the managers of the beta-test groups changed in the settings for their Rakontus. I set up Rakontu to be massively customizable. You can change what questions get asked, how activities are interpreted, what it looks like, what you tell people about why they are there, and many other things. However, I found that all the managers basically left everything the way I had set it by default. This is nothing against them, but it did make me realize that the hump extends all the way up to the people who are in charge of the thing.

I also think I had not realized how overwhelmed people are by all the software they have to contend with today. When I first started writing software, a typical user would have to make sense of only a handful of programs. Back then, it was not hard to find people eager to plumb the depths of your new software. But today, not only do people have dozens of programs on their computers, every major web site is its own program! No wonder people are worn out and don't want to learn anything. I realized this when somebody asked me if I wanted to start using Diigo to share web links. I wanted to, and installed it, but when I dropped down the Diigo menu for first time, I got this overwhelming feeling of too much, and I couldn't do it. I've come to realize that today, it doesn't matter if your software is good. There is just so much software out there, good or otherwise, that people need a very compelling reason to try it and learn it, before they can commit the time to it. It's a different world than it was.

I think this overload of web applications meshed with the "ugly" nature of Rakontu (I didn't have time to build in much mouse interactivity), in this way. I think people use the interactivity level of a web site -- its bells and whistles -- as a way of evaluating whether it is worth spending time learning. I do this myself. If a web site looks like somebody wrote it in 1995, I often move on. I'm guessing that when people looked at Rakontu and didn't see interactive graphics, they said "probably not that great" and moved on. I think the expectations for web software have increased so much that -- I should have seen this -- in the time I had available, by myself, I just had no hope of being able to make something as interactive and up-to-date as people have come to expect on the web today. That doesn't mean I think people are unable to see quality without adornment, it just means people are so busy they have to be very choosy. I was facing a bar much higher than I had imagined, and I should have backed off and chosen another path.

Building Rakontu - what worked

I built Rakontu for two reasons. I wanted to experiment with real working software in order to find out what would best support people sharing stories over the internet. I did that, if only in a small way. And I wanted to help other people think about how best to support people sharing stories over the internet. My hope is that the documents that have come out of the Rakontu project, if not the Rakontu software itself, will have a positive impact on the way people help other people share stories over the internet. So in that sense the project was a rousing success.

I think the most important thing that worked was that I got a chance to try out many of my ideas about story sharing in real software. I learned a lot building and using Rakontu. If I was to write Rakontu again, it would be vastly improved over what I could have done before because of all the things I have learned. My rule with building software, or writing books, holds for Rakontu: having done it, I'm ready to do it.

The other thing that worked was that I built something that works. I like Rakontu. I like using it. I would still be using it if I had a group that was using it. If I had written it for the desktop I would probably be using it for my own stories. (But watching over the web sites has taken too much time away from other things, so I can't really get back into that.) If I had more time to work on Rakontu, I would lean fairly heavily toward re-implementing it on the desktop and setting up some peer-to-peer or client-server capabilities on the back end, just to have more control over quality and reliability. (That's a hint of some of the technical stuff that I haven't excerpted, by the way.)

Building Rakontu - what didn't work

I wonder if I should have concentrated so much on building a working system. I only had a little time to work with, and I wanted to build something people could really use, but I probably still should have held back and written more of a proof of concept rather than a working system. In a working system there is so much more work to be done, on the help system, on testing, on talking to beta testers, and on and on forever. Prototyping frees you up to explore. So I wish I had prototyped more.

The other thing I learned, even though I had lovely support from some people (and many thanks to them, because they know who they are), I didn't have as much support as I needed. Bugs are disheartening. Disinterest is disheartening. Rejection is disheartening. It’s hard to keep up a project by yourself. You need moral support, and a lot of it, to keep going.

Still, I'm very glad I had the opportunity to do the project, and I'm glad I did it, and I learned a lot, and I hope to return to it, or to something similar, someday.