Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Groupthink, groupfence, groupsense

Here is a rambling series of mental peregrinations, a set of musings that you might find muse-worthy as well, about thinking and creating individually and in groups. I often find that things I think I'm unique in thinking about turn out to be on the minds of lots of other people too, so see if any of this makes any connections for you.

To start: I've been pretty busy working on narrative catalysis projects lately, and one day at the end of poring over tons of stories and graphs and trends, I found myself groping about for relief and made this.

It's a mosaic from a kid's craft kit. (Say it's cute so we can move on. ... I'm waiting ... Okay.)

In the kit you get little square foam stickers in different colors, and you get pieces of paper with little squares drawn on them, and each little square has a number on it. On the box there is a color-number key: place a red foam square on squares marked one, and so on. It's like paint-by-number except the paint comes in little squares. Easy-peasy.

As one part of me lay on the bed contentedly sticking squares on squares, another part of me noticed how quickly I rushed to this activity and how strongly I clung to it. It felt like a long drink of water after days in the desert. The noticing part of me wondered why this was.

Then the noticing part noticed the funny relationship of this "artwork" to the artwork I used to do. When I was a child I wanted to be an artist, and in college I took what was called a "minor concentration" of classes in art, thinking possibly of becoming a biological illustrator or nature-theme artist. I did not take that path, but often wonder about it. (Here was the turning: one fateful day, a real artist came to one of my classes, pored over our drawings, made a comment about the work of the person next to me, and then walked past my drawing. Well, obviously I was not meant to be a great artist, so no point in continuing further. There you have it, the mind of the 20-year-old absolutist laid bare.)

The main difference between these artworks, if we can grace them (all or any) with that name, is in their degree of complexity. The mosaic exhibits extremely simple hierarchy and requires almost no thought, at least on my part. Read the number, place the square, repeat. The drawings, however, involve strong elements of meshwork, regarding not only color and shape and medium and instrument, but also metaphor and symbol -- swans are a common motif in most of my early artwork, as symbols of myself, and of power and beauty and fear and frustration and all the things I was making sense of at the time. All of the artwork I was making at the time had a strong element of meshwork. Note the letters these two words have in common: w-o-r-k.

(To those who don't know the hierarchy and meshwork terms: they are Manuel de Landa's. Hierarchies are organized structures such as rules and procedures and blueprints, and meshworks are self-organized complex systems such as flocks and shoals. I like these terms better than any others for describing these phenomena, and I also agree with de Landa that rarely is either form found without the other intermingled.)

The work in meshwork, the arch in hierarchy

Here is what I'm seeing. As always this is based on my own experiences and those I've seen around me, and these are not arguments about facts but expressions of perspective, and they may not be universally valid. They are more like hunches than anything else.

Emergence requires presence. It requires awareness, negotiation, the building and verification of trust, the mending of fences when they need to be mended and the removal of barriers when they obstruct. Most people do emergence well, but rarely without effort. If it is without effort, it is more likely to involve following instructions, not participating in emergence. Meshwork is work.

Hierarchy, the non-emergent order we create, with its arches and balustrades, requires presence and thought predominantly for the hierarchy builders, the writers of the instructions. Surely the people who decided where each colored square in "my" mosaic should sit so as to create the maximally-appealing-to-those-with-the-money butterfly image expended much effort in their work. But I didn't have to. That's the beauty of following along. (This is not to say that followers in hierarchies don't do work; many do most of the real work hierarchies do, like build roads and plow fields and stitch together shoes. But when I say "work" here I'm referring specifically to the effort required to build and maintain the structure and viability of the system itself, not to any material products it might create.)

Complexity fatigue and complication fatigue

So, why did I follow along with the mosaic instructions the other day, instead of partaking in some swan-propelled sensemaking? Because I'd been working all week, and almost all of the work I do involves a combination of emergence and hierarchy building. When I look through trends in the stories people told and the way they answered questions about them, I am negotiating, becoming aware, building and removing barriers, and instructing others in how they might use the patterns we both see in the stories. Writing is a similar emerging-and-building mix. I'd put these activities up in the upper right hand corner of the confluence framework. In other words, I've been suffering from both complexity fatigue (an abundance of the work in meshwork) and complication fatigue (an abundance of the work in hierarchy building). This is the same reason that in a house full of programmers our VCRs and DVD players have always flashed 12:00 for years on end. That part of us is already in use.

(To those unaware of the confluence framework: picture increasing structure/hierarchy going from left to right, overlaid with increasing self-organization/meshwork going from bottom to top. Lots of each puts you in the upper right. That's all it is: just a visualization tool like many others. It's just my visualization tool, which is why I gravitate to it. I'm used to it. By the way, a note to those who are tired of reading these parenthetical catch-you-up elements: I'm planning to avail myself of blogger's "pages" feature to send people off to oft-required explanations, saving you the trouble of skipping things.)

One bit of evidence that my attraction to the mosaic was truly fatigue-related is that at first I couldn't find any prescribed way to map numbers to colors, and I began to think you were supposed to come up with your own ideas of what colors to put where. My disappointment on finding this out was as great as my excitement when I discovered a rosetta-stone "color key" on the mosaic box. I didn't have to think! The thinking had been done for me! To paraphrase Kenneth Grahame, I settled to my task in great joy and contentment.

I can provide a few other examples of this sort of mixed complexity and complication fatigue. For one, I used to play the piano. I was never very good, but I loved to spend time every day improving my muscle memory as well as my idiosyncratic interpretations of favorite pieces from Chopin, Mendelssohn, Bach and so on. Now I rarely play. I look at my piano often, and sometimes I give it a little pet as I walk by, and I hope I'll be able to play it again someday, but even when I do have a half hour when I could play it, I find I can't. The part of me it needs is the same part of me other things need, and there isn't any of that part left over most of the time. When I used to work on piano pieces, I laid down instructions and followed them at the same time, and I participated in the emergence of whatever my interpretation of the piece was going to be. I've noticed that when I do play the piano now, every few months or so, all I can bring myself to do is visit my old friends, about whom many instructions were laid down years ago. (I often just let my fingers do what they remember, as slowly as they need to, being unable to bring the memories to more central attention.)

What I do more often lately, when I get time, is to take my camera out into the woods. I've noticed that I take pictures in a unique way compared to most other amateur photographers I know. I know very little about proper photography and cameras and f-stops and the minuteae many photographers thrive on; and I don't want to know. I just go out and let the woods fall into my camera. I do love my digital SLR, but that's mainly for what it can do for me, not what I can do to it. I mess with only a few of the many available settings. I've come to realize that I love this activity so much partly because there is so little of either hierarchy or meshwork in it, especially now that I have a digital camera and can throw away most of what I collect. I'm not following instructions, and I'm not building anything. I'm just watching and waiting, like one of those fish that sits on the bottom of the ocean waiting for edible detritus to fall on it.

The precious gift of being dragged into doing things you could never have imagined doing in a million years

The next obvious question I asked myself is: Why do I have such a strong need to flee from both emergence and hierarchy-building now, when I didn't before? I still do essentially the same work as I did when I was twenty five and thirty five. What is different now? Why am I building mosaics instead of painting swans? The reason is that now I have a child. Childhood is literally emergence; very little else goes on. Children might follow instructions sometimes, for a while, partly, but most of what is forming in their minds is not following instructions so much as using them in developing something larger and more complex. That's why people say kids are "sponges" or that everything is "grist for the mill." If you have spent any time around children you can attest to this.

Soon after my son was born, somebody asked me if I'd read a particular book, and I said what I often say now: "I bought it, but I haven't got around to reading it yet." I added that I wasn't reading half as much as I had before. (To all you younger people who might have children someday: It Takes A Lot Of Time. Decades.) So this person said, "Well, just don't let your brain turn to mush." A standard response, and one everyone will recognize and many agree with. I've thought about that statement many times in the past several years. In some important ways my brain has turned to mush, but more precisely, it has turned to mesh. Meshwork. Being with a child, not just sometimes but for several hours a day for years and years, is a prolonged soak in self-organization.

Here's an example of what I mean. I am not at liberty to divulge any details about the hours I spend pretending with my son every day, but it will suffice to tell you that most of it involves stories, and most of it involves emergence. This one-on-one story work, like playing the piano and poring over hundreds of stories, involves both meshwork and instruction-building, but much more of the former. And it takes a lot of energy to keep up. It started before my son could speak, when I created a circuit of oft-repeated stories centered around a small animal and his many friends and adventures. These stories were fun for both of us, but I also mixed in lessons in conflict resolution, innovation, problem solving and emotional intelligence, as well as sensemaking around real-life concerns as they came up. At some point my son took over the story vehicle and I became more of an assistant. Now every new story we experience, whether in real life or from a book or movie or neighbor or walk, gets mixed in, elaborated and spun out into new stories, very few technically plausible. I still keep a hand in guiding some aspects of these stories, but their basic form and structure are created by their principal author, who brings his own lessons and concerns into the process. Many parents (and aunts and uncles and friends) will smile as they recognize their own interactions in this description. This is not just "watching" children: it's helping them do the hard work of building their own brains. And it can be as draining as any other work. (I hardly need say that while I was building my mosaic somebody was dancing all around me making up stories and insisting I act my parts with the proper voices and reactions.)

This realization does make me wonder if this could be some part of why people don't view child care as "real" work, because it is mostly meshwork and very little hierarchy building. Is this the reason people of higher status are considered "arch" -- because they are in charge of building the structures of life? Is this the reason so many people say parenthood is hard and apparently without benefit (other than the glaringly obvious one), because the value of increased skill with emergence is so little understood? Is this the reason a brain "turning to mush" usually has a negative connotation? For me at least, the journey through parenthood has yielded amazing improvements in my ability to deal with complexity, something I was much less familiar and comfortable with beforehand. (By the way, thanks to a correspondent for a stimulating discussion on this issue.)

Refugia and ecosystem health

So, as I thought about what I do when I need respite from the different types of work I do, as a researcher and as a parent, I realized that I tend to find relief in the bottom of the confluence framework: either on the right, in the simplicity of blindly following instructions, or on the left, in the quiet world of the deep, waiting for chance to rain down. This led me into thinking about refugia. In population biology, refugia are isolated havens where remnants of species survive climatic or other catastrophes. Some populations branch out after the catastrophe and recolonize regions; others remain in their hideouts and never recover in large numbers. It's been a while since I've read about refugia, but as I recall the more (and more diverse) refugia an ecosystem contains, the more resilient it will be to fluctuations in environmental conditions over time. This is most likely true for individuals, and for groups and societies as well.

At the same time, the idea of respite reminded me of caregivers, which brought me to thinking about how complexity fatigue might be related to compassion fatigue. I wondered if these ideas had ever been put together before. So I Googled for both "compassion fatigue" and "complexity fatigue." I found only one combination of the terms: a book by Richard Sakwa called Chechnya: From Past to Future. Here is the quote of relevance:
The appearance of 'traumatized' democracies coincided with the spread of what I term 'complexity fatigue', a growing reluctance on the part of the public throughout the world to negotiate the extremely complex and undoubtedly difficult factors underlying such seemingly intractable conflicts as those in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Kashmir, Kosovo or, of course, Chechnya. Simplistic, short-term 'fixes' based on force were clearly not without attraction either to those citizens who, apparently, preferred escapist entertainment to engagement with complex issues.
Note that the connection to compassion fatigue is not found in it, but in an explanatory note linked to the complexity fatigue term, thus:
Derived from the concept in politics of 'compassion fatigue', see Susan D. Mieller, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sells Disease, Famine, War and Death (New York, Routledge, 1999).
This led me into another whole train of thought about how refugia and respite might provide benefits in fields that regularly have to deal with both compassion and complexity fatigue. Perhaps if people are burned out on something, following simple instructions for a while might restore balance. (Atul Gawande's Checklist Manifesto came to mind: could some part of the power of this simple technique be in the respite it provides from the complexities of medical care?)

Or perhaps a brief dip in a quiet pool of low connections, like one of those sensory deprivation chambers, would restore depleted energy. People sometimes offer massages as relief in stressful conditions, and massages are remarkably instruction-following activities: you literally hand your body over to someone else. Television is a combination of instruction-following and low connections: your brain simply waits in the deep for things to fall onto it. Another "drop out" activity I do sometimes, when it's too late to go out walking in the woods, is to go to Netflix and find the stupidest comedy I can ("Arrested Development" is my current choice) and just let the stupidity rain down onto me. But a little stupidity goes a long way, I find, and a hundred earths could fit into the stupidity television provides.

By the way, I did find one other reference to "complexity fatigue" but I think it is misguided. Apparently the term is also used to refer to the difficulty consumers have in understanding the bewildering arrays of product choices available. This is not complexity fatigue at all, but option fatigue in a universe of complicated (not complex) choices.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, and something there is that does, and something there is that has a love-hate relationship with walls

The next ingredients in the soup I've been stirring were two comments: one I saw on a discussion board last week, and one to this blog. Both mentioned the difficulty of one person understanding the mental constructs created by another person. One implied that humanity might be better off if we did not build or explain conceptual frameworks, but instead shared our experiences without erecting structures to explain them. I am grateful for both comments because they got me thinking and because they came to me at just the right time. But I disagree with the second comment. Why? Because people build structures. Everyone does it, whether we explain them to each other or not. Give a child a room full of blocks and they will build fewer numbers of things out of them. It's just what we do. It's not the only thing we do, but we all do it, and it's not possible to wish it away, nor is it useful.

Here's a little example. I've noticed in my years of talking with people, or trying to, that there are two dimensions of interruption in speech: whether people interrupt, and whether they allow others to interrupt them. If you put the dimensions together you get a structure like this:

Do they interrupt?
Do they allow others to interrupt them?Yes/yes: an interrupter/interruptee would say
"We talk over each other and it's fine with everyone, so what's the problem?"

No/yes: a non-interrupter interruptee would say
"I'll let you interrupt me and I'll never do it back to you, but I will resent it and hold it against you forever."
Yes/no: an interrupter/non-interruptee would say
"When I interrupt, I have something more important to say and must be heard. When you interrupt, you are being rude and insubordinate, and must be stopped."
No/no: a non-interrupter non-interruptee would say
"If anybody interrupts anybody we will all come to blows, and we must avoid that! Everyone please be nice!!"

I'm a yes/yes, an interrupter/interruptee. In my family we are all that way. We talk over and under and around each other, and our conversations are melees, and nobody gets in a huff about it. I get along best with fellow melee-lovers like myself, of course, but I can also get along pretty well with the no/no type. It takes an effort to hold myself in, but at least I don't feel things are unfair. (I do sometimes have to step outside and scream silently afterward, but I can stand that.)

Now you'd think I would get on well with the non-interrupter/interruptee sort, but after a while I end up avoiding them because I feel more and more guilty every time we talk (and some of them like to store up that guilt for later use, in special guilt receptacles located behind their earlobes). But the absolute worst, for me, is the interrupter/non-interruptee. They cut me off at every half-sentence, and when I try to do the same they talk over me, or louder and louder, until I stop. (I'm sorry to say that most of these have been older men, though there have been notable exceptions.) I've got to where I can recognize the other person's style in a few seconds and can accommodate both my behavior and my expectations to the circumstances.

I defy you to find anyone on this planet who does not have a least one personal theory like that, silly as it is. It might be as simple as "watch out for people named Doug," and it might be far from precise articulation, but it will be there. Personal theories can be missed if you are not paying attention, because people don't wear them on their sleeves. But get just about anybody talking for a few hours, and you are sure to hear about some sort of model or framework or other construction in some form. I've heard some pretty memorable ones from people who are not considered "intellectual" or "thought leaders" or any such thing. Saying people should not build and maintain theories and frameworks and mental constructs is as silly as saying we should strip away all hierarchy from organizational structures and make everything complex. You can't do it. People build things.

So, if you accept my statement that people build things, what are we to do? How are we to stand in our structures and talk to each other over our walls? When I read the comment that my last post was indeed "clear as mud" to at least one reader (and thank you for saying it, reader) I thought: well, whose fault is that? I'd say the fault is evenly spread among writers and readers, in most cases. Anybody who explains their theories and models has a responsibility to keep their clarity factor high, and anybody who reads about theories and models has a responsibility to read more before they condemn and pass on. On another blog post I saw, somebody referenced a figure in my first post on the confluence framework. After their post was a criticism that you could not possibly make if you had actually read the post in which the figure was found. That's a failure of responsibility on the side of the reader. I understand we are all "shallow" thinkers now, but that's no excuse, it's just an explanation.

On the morning of my nephew's wedding, we were all at the hotel lounging around the pool. He asked me what time it was and I casually mumbled, "Three o'clock." "WHAT?" said my nephew. Only then did I realize what I had done. In the little microcosm of my husband and myself (this was before the child) "three o'clock" was our little code for "I don't know what time it is," our version of freckle-past-a-hair. However, my nephew didn't know this, and it threw him into a panic. I said something like "Oh, sorry, that means I don't know what time it is." "NO IT DOESN'T!" he quite correctly replied. If my framework is your emergency, it is at least as much my fault as it is yours if you don't understand. But unless it's the day of your wedding, you have a part to play as well.

Groupthink and friends

People talk a lot about groupthink as a pathological organizational pattern. The next stop on my perambulations was to wonder if there is perhaps another side to groupthink. If I can coin some extra words for our use today (and yes that's another example of how people just can't help making up structures as they go), let's say that groupsense is what happens when a group of people comes together and experiences synergy, such that they arrive somewhere together they could not have arrived separately. Maybe they discover an insight or come to a difficult decision or see the whole and the parts at the same time. Achieving groupsense requires both structure and destruction; both barriers and pathways through; both boundaries and gradients; both divergence and convergence; both independent thought and sharing. It is the interplay between separation and mingling that produces the best sensemaking, as I and many others have seen in a variety of settings.

On the other side of groupsense from groupthink lies what I'm going to call, only partly in jest, groupfence. By this I mean both the maintenance of boundaries and barriers beyond their utility and the jostling over territory that goes on when people are more concerned with keeping their personal theories intact than with getting anywhere worth going.

Groupthink and groupfence both involve an inability or unwillingness to confront complexity and complication, whether they are intermingled or not (usually they are). Groupthink is like my mosaic building: following the instructions of authorities because they are authorities. Groupfence is the opposite retreat to the quiet land of few connections. It is a failure to summon the energy to transcend boundaries without destroying them, to understand other perspectives without controlling or condemning them.

But I don't find it helpful to cast these patterns as moral failings or even antisocial behavior. Rather, like my rush to the mosaic, they are states in which a person or group or society can find themselves, states which are part of the natural ebb and flow of attention and energy. Certainly they can become pathological if they continue too long or spread too far, in the same way that a household fire can consume the house it warms if it is not well tended. But that does not mean they don't have their times and places and uses.

Up the down spiral

Let me begin to tie this rambling discourse together now, if that is possible. Yet another of my personal theories has to do with how I manage the demands of life with a finite supply of energy. I've noticed what I call a "spiral" of energy and fatigue. (I'm not the only one to use that word for it, of course, as the book Spiral Up can attest, though this is not a recommendation as I haven't read it, yet ... I'll get around to it eventually.) I've noticed that certain activities, like walking, doing yoga, lifting weights, cleaning or fixing the house, reading old novels, drawing and going to public events are energizing and draining at the same time. Meaning, there is an entry cost, but there is also an energy surge at some point during the activity and afterwards. When I can give myself a sort of boost up into a higher wrap of the spiral, the resulting energy surge pulls me up further still. For example, I might start the preliminaries of yoga (getting out the mat, putting Enya on, getting out my yoga cards -- great resource by the way, other afficionados) even when I feel far too tired to start. And when I'm doing yoga regularly, the aches and creaks go away, and I have the energy to walk and run, which boosts me up higher yet until I'm cooking and cleaning and everything's shiny. I've also noticed how events can knock me back down the spiral. One reason I dread moving is that every time I move it takes me years to find my way back up again from the major jolt of having everything reappear in new configurations.

Boosting up is the reverse of refugia supporting remnants of vanishing populations; it's more like a patch of fine weather that makes a fine fruit harvest that keeps the monkeys from quarreling so they can watch each other use tools in new ways. It's a synergy of life itself, sort of a cosmic what-goes-around-comes-around. It reminds me of one of my favorite songs on the Putomayo World Playground compilation. It's by Eric Bibb and it goes, in part:
Take every knock as a boost
And every stumbling block as a stepping stone
Lift up your head and hold your own
Just keep goin’ on
In groups, our "knocks" are our differences, our arguments and fences. Our stumbling blocks are our inabilities to understand each other and move past possessiveness and argument towards new things we could never do alone. We can avoid those knocks and retreat into instruction-following and detritus-catching, or we can use them as stepping stones to boost ourselves up into something stronger. But it takes work, possibly the hardest kind of work there is, to do this collectively. I boost myself up my personal spiral much less often than I wish I did, and I suspect most of us can say the same, but boosting the life of a group takes much more energy than boosting one life. I'm going to offend those who hate neologisms even more and call this groupboost. (And of course the reverse of this, when events push groups down the spiral, could be called groupknock, but I hesitate to bold that for fear the neologism police will break down my door.)

One way of boosting group life up the spiral is group sensemaking. Going through a process (facilitated or not) where divergence and convergence, boundaries and gradients, my theories and your theories, my energy and your energy, alternately take center stage, seems to boost a group up the spiral to where things that seemed impossible start to move into place. Models that seemed abstract take more concrete form; perspectives that seemed irreconcilable become not uniform but multiplex; tasks that seemed beyond the collective will begin to seem within reach. But it doesn't happen without work, on all sides. It takes work to explain over and over the basics of a theory most readers don't need to hear again; it takes work to click on links that say "if you don't know what I mean by that click here;" it takes work to remember both what three o-clock means and what it doesn't mean; it takes work to double-check facts and refrain from releasing an edited video before finding out what the rest of the video is like; it takes work to listen both to those who agree with you and those who disagree and find unexpected insights in both. None of us boost the spiral as often or as well as we could.

This connects to a major problem I have with much of what is being written about complexity for business these days. Most of what I've seen offers complexity as a sort of magical panacea, a way to avoid work. Stuart Kauffman famously said self-organization was "order for free." From what I've seen it's just the opposite, at least where human beings are concerned. That is why I think there has been less uptake of complexity theory in organizations: it sounds a lot more like something-for-nothing than it really is. You can't just strip away hierarchy and step out into a wonderful new world beyond the dome. It's outside the dome that the hardest work begins. The difference is that in meshwork the work is more finely distributed. Birds flying in flocks do little things to correct their motions -- where are my neighbors, what are they doing -- but they do them thousands of times a day. It isn't just moving your wings up and down that's tiring. If bird flocks had instruction builders, the work would be more concentrated and thus more obvious, what with all the instruction sheets held in beaks and under wings. But it would not necessarily add up to any less work.

In the end, she gets out her old saw and plays a tune

Now to my final connection, which is to the world of stories and storytelling, of course. In the quote from Sakwa's book Chechnya: From Past to Future above, did you notice the last sentence? I'll put it in again.
Simplistic, short-term 'fixes' based on force were clearly not without attraction either to those citizens who, apparently, preferred escapist entertainment to engagement with complex issues. 
Anyone who has read my long series of -- no, not rants, expressions of concern -- about the decline of natural storytelling will recognize the connection here. (Does this not remind you of our hero Hans Castorp lying in his comfortable chaise taking his rest cure?)

Regular, raw stories told by regular, raw people are complex, messy, rambling, filled with references few understand, often boring, and usually far more important to their tellers than to anyone else. (Hm, that sounds like this blog post.) If raw stories were cars they would be Fiats. I once had a Fiat, and it took a lot of work to drive it. At a speed of about 40 miles per hour, its little windows began to shake, and I'd have to find another car and follow it to keep the air resistance down. This was convenient because the speedometer didn't work, so the car ahead of me was my speedometer. When I first bought the car, every time you pushed on the gas the car jumped a bit to the right, and every time you pushed on the brake it jumped a bit to the left. So I learned to compensate. Later I got a bushing replaced in the front axle, and after that the car added to its repertoire a jump randomly to the left or right every time it hit a bump. Driving it was like dancing a waltz: I responded to my partner's every whim. It was years after my Fiat was dead and buried before I stopped making the many little compensating hops that were no longer necessary in other cars. I also became an ace tire changer in the Fiat years and could replace a flat tire in five minutes (flat).

Dealing with my crazy tiny Fiat, and dealing with the real stories real people tell, takes work, mainly of the meshwork variety. But packaged stories are different. They are like fancy new luxury cars that anticipate your every whim. You don't learn to drive a luxury car; it learns to drive you. The seat remembers your settings, the thermostat remembers whether you like sweaters. The designers scramble to figure out where you want to put your cup and groceries. In the same way, the creators of commercial entertainment take special pains to build their hierarchies so that your part of the story is effortless. Here's a quote I quoted once before, from the audio series "Word of Mouth" on "Who is Telling Stories Today?" 
"You can turn on a television and watch Three's a Crowd, and it doesn't make any difference how stupid it is, you'll get some laughs out of it. It's quick and it's easy, and you don't have to put up with Grandma Simpkins, who's a wonderful storyteller but sometimes it takes her a half a pint of whiskey and two or three hours to get going, and she drools. But for me, I'd spend the time around Grandma Simpkins, but...."
My Fiat drooled like anything, but it told some great stories. And it was a lot more fun to drive than most of the safer, nicer-looking, more reliable, boring cars I've had since. (Though I could tell you some great stories about my brakes-once-in-a-while Corolla, and my made-out-of-two-junked-cars Duster, and my backfiring-war-games Celica, and my.... What's that? I'm drooling?)

But seriously, folks, what I'm trying to say here is let's all take what respite we need in our instructions and packaged stories and deep pools and private theories, but let's not forget the very real and very hard work we all have to do, which is to listen to each other, learn from each other, and go together where we all want to go.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Identity and harmony in meshwork and hierarchy

This is yet another post on sensemaking (but it has stories in it!). What got me started on the exploration I want to tell you about was something Dave Snowden said in one of his posts about the history of Cynefin. He said "To use Cynthia's words we now have a hierarchy and meshwork conflicted but harmonious."

That struck me as funny because I didn't actually say "conflicted but harmonious." I said "conflicted, harmonious." And I didn't mean the comma to mean "but." So that got me thinking - thanks Dave - about what I did mean by that comma. This is where it led me.

To put the same question another way: What happens when hierarchy and meshwork combine? And what do I mean when I say the confluence framework, among others, explores that combination? Since most sensemaking frameworks are not models-of-the-world but tools, that question leads inexorably onward to the next question: What are all the practically useful ways we can think about the combinations of hierarchy and meshwork? I've come up with two dimensions of variation in combination that I think are useful to think about: identity and harmony.

Before I start, a caveat. This is a blog post. It's not an intellectual treatise, though it could become one someday when it grows up. But at the moment it's just me thinking out loud and hoping to find some synergy with others who are thinking about the same things.

Identity in hierarchy + meshwork

The identity dimension has to do with the elements in the system: the seeing eye and the dots under it. I've always drawn the diagram for the upper-right hierarchy+meshwork area like this:

...with the dots having two relationships at once: meshwork connections to the other dots, and hierarchy connections to the seeing eye. But I'm now realizing that's only one way things could be connected. If we consider the identities of the elements involved, they can be either merged (as above) or separate:

In the separate condition, no one element has both meshwork and hierarchy connections at the same time. Separation of identities can happen in many ways, and they can of course be wonderfully partial and complex. Some separations I can think of are of agency (we do things differently), of social distance (we live in different social circles), of time (we live/lived in different time periods), and of space (we live on different continents). Any or all of these (and more!) could contribute to separation, in intermingled ways.

Harmony in hierarchy + meshwork

The second useful dimension I can think of is harmony (complementarity, mutuality), or its opposite, discord (conflict, antagonism). This has to do not with the presence or absence of hierarchy or meshwork connections, but with the relationships among connections: do connections draw other connections close, or push them away? Like sound waves, do they reinforce each other, or do they cancel each other out?

When I combine these two dimensions, I end up with four interesting conditions that describe how hierarchy and meshwork can combine. I will look first at the merged condition. When hierarchy and meshwork are merged in one network, the dominant question is: Are we working at cross purposes? Notice the all-important word "we" in that question.

On both sides of this figure you have merged networks with both hierarchical and meshwork connections among the same elements. On the left (merged, harmonious), the different connections support and reinforce each other, and we speak of a group doing this and that. Here I draw the connection lines as attracting each other, clumping even. One example is that when teachers are themselves parents, they can often understand things from both the hierarchical and meshwork aspects of the school system, and thus aid both networks as they move between them. Folk tales about merged harmony tend to feature synergy, or people doing things together that were impossible alone: The Bremen Town Musicians is about a group of animals traveling and supporting each other when each alone was too weak to survive.

On the right side (merged, discordant) the different connections repel and work against each other, and we speak of a group doing this but that. Here I draw the connection lines as repelling each other, rushing apart. In this situation people feel conflicts between their hierarchical roles and their meshwork roles and say they are "torn between two worlds" or that others are "Janus-faced" or "talking out of both sides of their mouths." Conflicts take many forms: the hierarchical connections might seize control over the meshwork connections via abuse or brute force; and the meshwork connections might undermine hierarchical connections via gossip and nasty rumors. Here official stories and anti-stories fight for dominance, and people who appear to be one thing (friends) might in truth be another (abusers). These are situations in which deep secrets are "hidden in plain sight" and taboos on who can tell what, where, when, and to whom abound. A folktale version of this situation, on the meshwork side, is Little Claus and Big Claus, in which the powerless yet clever little Claus outwits the hierarchically endowed Big Claus over and over again.

Now if we look at what happens when hierarchies and meshworks are not merged but separate, the dominant question is: Are you with us or against us? Note the separation of "you" and "us."

Again we have two conditions, harmonious and discordant. On the left (separate, harmonious), the two separate networks engage with each other in mutually beneficial ways, even though they come from and maintain different connections. Again I draw the connection lines as attracting each other. This is the situation in which we speak of "strange bedfellows" and possibly "realpolitik" and "trust but verify," where people who have little in common find a shared purpose and pursue it together, but without merging. They might teach each other some important things, but they do not merge their networks. In this area are found stories of bridges built between worlds. The Nightingale is an example of this sort of story. The emperor and the nightingale come from different worlds. They do not always agree or live in harmony; but in the end the nightingale teaches the emperor a valuable lesson, and together they teach it to us.

On the right side (separate, discordant), the two separate networks work against each other. Again I draw the lines repelling. This is the classic xenophobic, tribal situation in which people "draw lines in the sand" and engage in demonization, simplification and caricature to solidify distinctions. Here are found cautionary tales about misplaced trust such as Little Red Riding Hood, and also much rumor and gossip about "the other" in many social settings.

As always I do not see these four categories as large boxes with thin lines between: I see them as extremes, dots at the corners of a wide plain of variation with plenty of room for real examples to walk about. So the space can be defined thus:

As with the confluence space, the arrows denote the fact that the four diagrams illustrate extreme positions.

Conflicted but harmonious?

Now let's go back to the question that started this exploration. As you recall, I said meshwork and hierarchy was "conflicted, harmonious" and Dave interpreted that as "conflicted but harmonious." When I read that, I had a visceral, knee-jerk that's-not-what-I-meant reaction. After exploring all these possibilities, I can now see what produced it.

My guess is that Dave was thinking primarily of a merged state, where the elements share one network with hierarchical and meshworked elements in it. This is understandable since that's what the seeing-eye diagram draws. My rapid response was to rush to the right side of the space. Why? I'm an individualist? A contrarian? Too used to working alone? I felt something was being left out? Who knows? But it turned out to be a useful reaction anyway.

Side story: Once I was glancing at the back of a magazine, and there I saw the usual advertisement for a shiny car. I prepared to ignore it, but then without my bidding my hand suddenly propelled the magazine up to my eyes. I looked at it to find out why I had thrust it in front of myself so violently. The advertisement went like this: (lots of tiny words) BECAUSE (lots of tiny words). I had to know what that "because" was connecting, and right away too. People say bad things about knee-jerk reactions, and sometimes they are quite dangerous. But sometimes they can be amazingly useful. (Except, not in that particular case since I already had a car.)

Using the identity+harmony space for sensemaking

Okay, so now we get to the what-is-the-point point of the essay. A model or framework or space or set of dimensions has no right to exist, in my opinion, if you can't use it for anything. So let's get into this vehicle and see where it can take us.

Most real-life situations will lie somewhere between paradisiacal harmony and powder-keg discord; and between impenetrable homogeneity and unbridgeable heterogeneity. So if we define such a space with such extremes, we can use it to place items and think about their placements. Here is a bit of single-perspective sensemaking on an identity-harmony space:

How does this identity-harmony space connect to the confluence framework? I guess it must be some kind of multi-dimensional addition, because at nearly every point in the confluence space (excluding only thin lines along the left and bottom) this how-they-combine space can apply. It's not orthogonal, because something orthogonal has to share one axis. It's more like ... further up and further in. I would use it after I'd done some work with the confluence framework, possibly by choosing elements on the original framework that most directly involve interactions and relationships, since that is what it most involves.

Now let's work a few examples in more detail than simply drawing a box on the space. My favorite quote on the combination of meshwork and hierarchy comes from Kostof's excellent book The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings through History, thus:
"If we were to scan several hundred city plans at random across the range of history, we would discover a more fundamental reason to question the usefulness of urban dichotomies based on geometry. We would find that the two primary versions of urban arrangement, the planned and the "organic", often exist side by side.... Most historic towns, and virtually all those of metropolitan size, are puzzles of premeditated and spontaneous segments, variously interlocked or juxtaposed.... The two kinds of urban form do not always stand in contiguous relationship. They metamorphose. The reworking of prior geometries over time leaves urban palimpsests where a once regular grid plan is feebly esconced within a maze of cul-de-sacs and narrow winding streets."
The words "side by side" indicate separation, because for there to be two sides there have to be two entities. However, the mention of puzzles is intriguing, because a puzzle moves from separate to merged as it is built, although one could argue that a puzzle is never really separate, because the image was drawn before the pieces were cut apart. Building a picture out of two puzzles would be a good example of separate networks working together (or merging; which is it?).

Also note "they metamorphose" -- a temporal sign. As the elements are "reworked" they create "palimpsests." Now a real palimpsest, historically, is a writing surface that was "used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased," according to Merriam-Webster. Scraping something off is more likely to be an action of discord than refinement. I read a fascinating book ages ago, and probably couldn't find it now, about how medieval copiers of ancient texts replaced many mentions of "he and he" and "she and she" with "he and she" in order to "correct" ancient ideas of the validity of homosexual love. Here the hierarchy of the church displayed discord with the closer-to-meshwork of ancient society, so I'd class many historical palimpsests as closest to the separate discordant (against) area of the identity-harmony space. The "feebly esconced" reference, for me, cements it: the narrow winding meshwork won out against the regular-grid-plan hierarchy. (At least that's my interpretation of it.)

To choose another example, let's consider for a moment the BP oil spill. BP and the US government agencies concerned with regulating the oil industry are both organizations with more hierarchy than meshwork in their mixtures. Internally they are probably a mixture of AND and BUT relationship patterns. However, after the spill other groups are now more obviously involved (though they were before as well): the various meshworks of fishermen, wildlife enthusiasts, environmentalists, and homeowners living in the areas affected by the spill. These meshworks are separate from BP and the US government agencies, and they are now operating with a mixture of WITH and AGAINST dynamics in relation to those entities. (It seems the balance there is much closer to AGAINST than WITH.) Now certainly a BP engineer, or a volunteer cleaning oil off pelicans, or a newly idle shrimper, or a government inspector, or a politician representing a shore county, would see these relationships differently, and that would be worth exploring.

I wonder if, by using this framework, people might discover opportunities in areas of the space they had not considered. Perhaps they might be mistaking a WITH relationship for an AND relationship and trying to create artificial homogeneity, which might destroy the benefits both AND and WITH cooperation could bring. Or perhaps people might have a stronger shared identity with another group than is obvious at first glance, and because of this they might be mistaking BUT discord for AGAINST discord. I suppose the "success strategies" in each of these conditions would vary; certainly the same action that would repair a breach in one area would create one in another. Thinking about trajectories over time, and the possible consequences of various actions, in the space might also be fruitful.

Piano keys

Do you know how, when you are working on something, a song keeps playing in your head, for no reason apparently, and then you realize it's some part of you sending a message to another part of you? Lately as I've been thinking about this how-do-they-mix issue, the song "Ebony and Ivory" keeps playing in my mind.
Ebony And Ivory
Live Together In Perfect Harmony
Side By Side On My Piano Keyboard
Oh Lord, Why Don't We?

We All Know
That People Are The Same Wherever You Go
There Is Good And Bad In Ev'ryone,
We Learn To Live,
We Learn To Give Each Other
What We Need To Survive Together Alive.
This is a fascinating interplay of connection statements. The first section seems to say clearly, if metaphorically, that the two types of people/keys are different. There's that "side by side" again. By itself I'd place that section somewhere between WITH and AGAINST (maybe closer to AGAINST and hoping to get closer to WITH). However, the second part draws on merged identity: people are the same, there is good and bad, "we" learn together. Taken together, the song seems to tell the story of a hoped-for trajectory: from AGAINST to WITH, and then to AND, someday. But the song ends with five repetitions of the phrase "Ebony, Ivory Living In Perfect Harmony" -- which seems to me to accept the hard truth of the separation of WITH, for now.

So, as my high school band teacher used to say: Clear as mud? Seriously, tell me. Does this make sense to you? Does it seem useful? (Or am I spinning out into endless space?) If it's not useful, why not? If it is useful, what do you think you could do with it?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Another sibling comes home

You people just have to see this. It is connected to the recent series of posts on sensemaking. (Anyone who is only interested in narrative without the sensemaking: our regular program will resume soon. Anyone who has no idea what sensemaking is: the Wikipedia page on it is pretty good.)

So Stephen Shimshock (whom I am cross-mentoring -- he's teaching me a lot about photography -- and who is using narrative in his work at Casey Family Programs) was telling somebody in the hallway about the confluence framework, and the guy said, "Sounds like the circumplex model."

So Stephen told me about it, and here it is. Its full name is "The Circumplex Model of Marital and Family Systems" and it comes from the field of family therapy. It was created by David H. Olson and Dean M. Gorall. I have shamelessly taken screen shots of two of the images in this PDF to show you. This one is striking to begin with:

It's flipped around, but the two axes are flexibility (from rigid to chaotic) -- my hierarchy or "degree of imposed order" -- and cohesion (from disengaged to enmeshed) -- my meshwork or "degree of self-organization." Note the amazing similarity in even the word "mesh" carrying through both frameworks.

More amazement awaits. Look at this image:

Does that not look just like one of my story-event drawings? Or one of the Cynefin "dynamics" diagrams? And the circumplex model was first published in 1989.

It truly amazes me that so many people could have come up with so many very similar concepts, across time and space and background and purpose and personality. And that I have been so long in finding these connections. There is quite a blossoming of wonder for me in this. I feel privileged to play a small part, a microscopic part if you think of it, in this whole big thing.

We are now up to six sure connections and two possibilities. The medicine wheel I have to see as a grandmother because she is so ancient and wise, and she deserves the respect due to an elder among us. But the five young siblings are:
  1. Strum and Latour's social-link model
  2. the circumplex model
  3. Manuel de Landa's concepts of hierarchy and meshwork and their intermingling
  4. the Cynefin framework
  5. the confluence framework
Two other possible siblings at this moment are parts of Tom Graves' enterprise canvas (correction: more likely, according to Tom, his context-space mapping) and the Four-Room Apartment theory (both of which arose around the time of the circumplex model). I have been very busy with a story project the past few weeks but hope to get time to delve further into these possible connections soon. I haven't even read the whole circumplex-model paper yet, but the images in it are so exciting I just had to share them right away. If you search for the term you will find even more papers about the circumplex model and its uses.

The reason I call these younger models and frameworks "siblings" is that in no way do I think they are identical. All of the siblings (and their grandmother) show strong signs of the history, background, learning style, goals and unique point of view of their creators. And, like real family members, none are any better or worse than any other, any more right or wrong, except possibly in specific contexts. And like real family members, they should all respect both family solidarity and individual gifts.

The exciting thing about being able to line all these frameworks and tools up next to each other is that this sensemaking family can create for us a sort of menu of approaches so that we can all find what we need, whenever we need it, whoever we are, however we think best, wherever we are coming from and wherever we want to go. It is of course, as I've said elsewhere, the most sophisticated use of such frameworks to be able to use all of them as our needs require it, to be comfortable with the whole family. A true master of sensemaking (if there could be such a person) would be able to visit with these and any other yet-to-be-discovered family members and learn something from each of them, and teach them each something as well.

[Edit: I realized after reflecting on this for a few days that I may have said something I didn't intend. By saying "we are now up to six connections" I may have seemed to imply that I was somehow in charge of how many things are connected. That is not my place, if indeed it is anyone's place. What I meant was that I'm collecting frameworks to describe in the sensemaking chapter of my book. That's all I meant. I am not the arbiter of all things. If fact my belief is that ideas and understandings about the world that go as deep as these frameworks are too big to be owned or controlled or corralled or even befriended by any one person. They tend to seek out many friends. I see them, like I see narrative methods, as like giant whales that let us swim alongside -- if we behave ourselves, that is.]

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Practicing sensemaking with stories

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

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

Try this at home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gangrene + water  = gangrene

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

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

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

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

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

Caisson disease

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

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

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

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

Farm implements

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

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

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

The Wild Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, do you know any great sensemaking stories?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Two times two is four

Here is another comment response the system threw out for being too long, and that I thought was worth bringing up to a blog post. This is thanks to Stephen Shimshock, who commented on the Of hypotheses and tools, models and frameworks post. Stephen mentioned how my diagrams (in the Better confluence diagrams post) that placed patterns like beaver dams, bees nests, dictators and discussion groups into locations could be confusing because they seem to claim that the placements are definitive. I hadn't meant to claim that, and in fact went back and added a note about it in the post itself.

I often come up against this issue when talking to people about sensemaking models and frameworks. They say, that's nice if you are talking about things like tastes and opinions, but there are large areas where everyone agrees on things, and what is the point of pretending to consider differences there?

I have two responses to this argument. The first is that there is little utility in making definitive placements of anything in a sensemaking space, since exploring similarities and differences in placement is the whole point of the thing. If something is so very well known that every possible person in every possible context is sure to agree, it is probably not connected to the reason you are doing the sensemaking anyway. If it's worth thinking together about, it is unlikely to be as common as you think. And if some things that never differ do slip in and everybody agrees on them, what is the harm in letting them stay? It reminds me of what we used to say when we found a little bug in our food: it won't eat much.

Second, be careful about what you think everyone knows, because it is not always what you think it is. Even the same person at different times in their life or in different contexts (where different identities come to the fore, for example) might place things in different spots. Even "things we can all agree on" sometimes hold hidden diversity.

Now here is my all-time favorite example of a perfectly known, universal, extreme-hierarchy item that isn't. Years ago I was reading Bertrand Russell's "A History of Western Philosophy" and came across this quote:
"... individuality -- what distinguishes one man from another -- is connected with the body and the irrational soul, while the rational soul or mind is divine and impersonal. One man likes oysters, and another likes pineapples; this distinguishes between them. But when they think about the multiplication table, provided they think correctly, there is no difference between them."
When I read this, I burst out laughing, jumped out of the bathtub and ran to read it to my husband. Why? Because I am blessed with the neurological quirk of synesthesia, and specifically the type called ordinal linguistic personification. That's a fancy term that means, to me, numbers and letters (and some other abstract symbols) are not shapes or mental constructs but living beings. Some are my friends and some ... are not my friends. Supposedly this is "cross-talk" between brain regions, the dealing-with-beings circuits mixing with the dealing-with-symbols circuits. As a result I am far from having no "individual" or "irrational" reaction to the multiplication table, a construct which Russell used many times to symbolize that which is unequivocally known (yes, right there in the bottom right hand corner).

To me, the very idea of multiplying and adding numbers is grotesque, like blending cats. I often confuse adding with multiplying, because it is all artificial and nonsensical. It is like a second language into which I must translate with difficulty, partly because doing arithmetic produces emotions that make it difficult to do quickly. Sometimes encountering the beauty of an arithmetic statement is akin to suddenly seeing a wonderful picture -- I simply have to stop and enjoy the view. Other arithmetic operations are dark alleys with frightening aspects, and coming upon them suddenly makes me shudder and back away. Imagine adding up your checkbook and suddenly finding you are holding a dead mouse.

In third grade the teacher often had us play a game where she would read out arithmetic operations one after another in rapid-fire speech, and we were to keep a running answer. For example, she would say "five plus three", then "times four", then "divided by two", then "plus nine", and so on. I always got stuck on the first operation. I sat there thinking "what is five plus three?" with five-beings and three-beings swimming around me. By the time I worked my way to five plus three being eight (that being a preposterous answer but correct, like a toad and a magpie making a moose), the rest of the class was way ahead. I usually sat drawing doodles or staring out the window until the game was over. Even today when I wrote the title of this post (2x2=4) I had a few moments of panic while I tried to guess whether it was true or not. I think it is. (The quirk has its up sides: apparently better-than-average reading and writing speed, visual memory and pattern recognition (2D only!), spelling accuracy, and maybe some degree of richness of experience (at least I can't imagine the poverty of such a depopulated universe), so turn your pitying eyes away, all ye who judge, but at any rate that is not the point of this post. The point is how the things we consider most universal may not always be. Not only that, but among synesthetes, each has their own universe of individual, irrational meaning: my five may be as nasty as your two, while your five may eat out of your hand.)

Do I "think correctly" about this? Obviously not, according to Bertrand Russell (who in his defense probably never heard of synesthesia). But considering that the incidence of synesthesia continues to go up and up (it was once estimated at 1 in 20,000 and is now up to 1 in 20), it's certainly something to think about. The most amazing part of the story is that the study of synesthesia lay dormant for several decades of the past century (it fell out of style with the advent of behaviorism) and millions of people were dismissed as strange, or more likely, like myself, learned to hide their way of seeing things. It makes me wonder how many other cognitive and perceptual diversities we overlook as we talk about what "we" know and how "we" think. I've heard that some people might have four or more types of cone cells for seeing colors, and that some people experience greater ranges of taste. Perhaps there are many more such differences. One reason we might not see them, even in plain view, is that being different is scary. I've graduated from telling only my closest friends about this quirk to being able to admit it to the world, but it took decades to accomplish the task, and I would never have made the leap if I could not link such an essay as this to authorized (hierarchical) defenses that make it clear I am not insane or delusional (or just credulous).

I also found this gem of a connection in Dostoyevsky's wonderful Notes from the Underground years after that. I'll shorten the passage as much as I can (but here are links to the longer version; part is in Chapter III and part in Chapter IV of Part I):
[When some are] confronted with the impossible they subside at once. The impossible means the stone wall! What stone wall? Why, of course, the laws of nature, the deductions of natural science, mathematics.... [Y]ou have just to accept it, there is no help for it, for twice two is a law of mathematics. Just try refuting it.... Merciful Heavens! but what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? ... Oh, absurdity of absurdities! How much better it is to understand it all, to recognise it all, all the impossibilities and the stone wall... is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it. And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death. Anyway, man has always been afraid of this mathematical certainty, and I am afraid of it now. Granted that man does nothing but seek that mathematical certainty, he traverses oceans, sacrifices his life in the quest, but to succeed, really to find it, dreads, I assure you. He feels that when he has found it there will be nothing for him to look for. When workmen have finished their work they do at least receive their pay, they go to the tavern, then they are taken to the police-station--and there is occupation for a week. But where can man go? Anyway, one can observe a certain awkwardness about him when he has attained such objects. He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd. In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all. But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.
Twice two makes four, the "stone wall" of fact, is definition. It is What-Is. Understanding it all, recognizing it all, all the impossibilities and the stone wall, is sensemaking. It is What-Appears. It is the process of the game, not the end of it. If we care about nothing but pushing on towards certainty, what we find is not life but the beginning of death. And there will be nothing left to look for.

Having said all that, I'm the first to admit that certainty is as attractive as it is pert and insufferable. You see how easy it is to slip into assertion, as shown by my here-is-a-beaver-dam diagrams. You'd think I would know better, but we are all vulnerable to, as the anthropologist Diana Forsythe termed it, "'I am the world' thinking." While definition has its purposes, it is useless for sensemaking. I'd even go so far as to say that definition is the opposite of sensemaking. Every time a person says "this is how things are" the only reasonable response is to take sides. It is only when we remember to say "this is one view of how things are, and here is another, and ..." that we start getting somewhere.

I guess what I'm saying is, well, Stephen said it so well in his comment that I'll let him say it again here:
I see the entire framework as negotiated space. Even when you look at the "simple" or "pure hierarchy" area, what is known to one may not be known to another. Each of us have our own framework, and any group framework is a negotiation of meaning for that specific context. This is exciting because it offers (depending on how sense making is set up) the opportunity for many voices (from all levels of power) to get incorporated into a general understanding. And, if the process is done ongoing that understanding can change and grow with the community context.
Precisely. And that "general understanding" can be and should be as diverse as the community itself.