Friday, December 23, 2011


It's a little thing, really. But I can't stop thinking about it.

Lately my son and I have been totally caught up in a new computer experience called Minecraft. Minecraft is a curious concoction. At its core it is a virtual world where an avatar that represents you walks around in a landscape of voxel blocks: dirt, grass, trees, rivers, caves, blue skies. What happens in that landscape is up to you. Some people use Minecraft to play a game of wits and skill. If you use the game in any of the "difficulty" modes (Easy, Medium, Hard) monsters come out at night and try to kill you as you try to survive and build shelter. But you can also "play the game" in Peaceful or Creative modes, the first in which there are no monsters and the second in which you can't be hurt in any way. In these modes the program is not really a game at all but a huge sculptural canvas.

For the most part we have "played the game" only in Peaceful and Creative modes, because we do not want to fight the monsters. Why? First, anything you practice you get good at, so does it make sense to practice hurting? Second, pretending to fight in a war is disrespectful to the thousands of kids who actually are fighting in wars. (I have in mind a social project that brings some kids who love pretending to fight in wars to spend a few days with kids who are actually fighting in wars. I wonder how much they would like the pretending after that.) Third, are we to take the word of the Minecraft creators that these monsters don't deserve to live? How do we know they aren't defending their homeland from invasion? Just because they look like zombies and skeletons doesn't mean anything. Don't lots of very nice children look like that on certain October nights? Fourth, and lastly, fighting is boring and repetitive. I did have my days playing Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager, but it didn't take me long to realize that destruction is just mostly tedium. Creation is where the fun is, in the wide open spaces of the imagination, not in the dull thuds of weapon on flesh.

So we have used Minecraft for the most part as a canvas and testing bed for imaginary worlds. For this it is an excellent system, because the program not only comes equipped with various building materials, simple machines and pseudo-electronic circuits you can recombine in endless ways, but is also extendable by writing your own Java modifications ("mods"). We haven't built a mod yet but we plan to. The problem is that you have to turn off all the cool mods you have downloaded while you build your own, and we are having too much fun with them to do that yet.

We have been using Minecraft to explore mathematics, logic, programming, engineering, architecture, art, cartography, history, archaeology, and so on. My son builds mostly elaborate contraptions: combination locks, musical instruments, alarm systems, factories, vehicles, buildings, transportation and distribution systems, mazes, automated farms. Here "he" is in front of one of his automated mining and processing facilities. We also enjoy downloading and exploring some of the many amazing creations other people have shared: castles, factories, puzzles, whole cities collaboratively built.

My explorations have been more whimsical and surreal. I've built a lot of symbolic structures: labyrinths, sculptures, temples, pavilions, meeting spaces. I have also built machines, but my machines all have Sisyphsus-like tasks, like a quarry that mines and fills the mine at once.

One joint project of which I am very fond is the creation of a Minecraft version of Jorge Luis Borges' "Library of Babel," which we have crafted in meticulous detail and on which we are writing out the short story on signs the visitor reads as they travel around the library puzzle (which we will eventually upload for other Minecraft users to enjoy). This is both a tribute to Borges and a creation in the spirit of his "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" which is about a man who writes Don Quixote, word for word the same, centuries later. For this reason our Library must not contain one additional word that is not in the short story. Very cool.

I have been enjoying Minecraft so much that I considered writing a post about it here to recommend it, along the lines of the story games post I wrote last year about games that create useful storytelling and sensemaking materials for parents and kids. But a few days ago I thought of something that gave me another reason to write about Minecraft, as a cautionary tale about the stories sometimes invisibly embedded in the tools we use.

What lies within

Deep within this otherwise excellent learning system and fun game is a frighteningly dangerous story. You probably didn't notice it when I wrote about it above. I'll repeat it: "you can also "play the game" in Peaceful or Creative modes, the first in which there are no monsters and the second in which you can't be hurt in any way."

I'll say it a third time. In peaceful mode there are no monsters. Peace is not coexistence with the monsters: it is eradication of the monsters. It is genocide.

If you are using Minecraft in a mode that allows monsters, and then you switch to Peaceful mode, the monsters disappear. It was when I was watching this happen that I suddenly saw the story hiding inside the game. We had created a "behavioral observation world" with blinds from which we observed and discussed the behavior of the various types of monsters. My son wanted to make a change to the blind, so he pulled up the options screen and changed the game mode from Easy to Peaceful. Poof, the monsters all disappeared. It was so much like the eradication of a population, along with its culture and history, that I suddenly realized this was a perfect analogue for ethnic cleansing.

Even when the peaceful mode is set on, any "spawners" that normally create monsters still create something, as my son pointed out; it's just that the things created immediately poof out of existence again. So not only does peace mean all members of an ethnic class are eradicated, any new ones that manage to be born are essentially killed at birth.

That's a zombie in our behavioral observation laboratory, with the flame-filled spawner that made him in the background. I tried to get a screenshot of the little infanticide poofs but could not catch them; they are soon forgotten.

The creators of Minecraft could have called this mode "Alone" or simply "No Monsters" mode. Why did they call it peaceful? A truly peaceful existence would not eradicate enemies; it would transform them into friends, or at least neighbors. The more I think about this the more upsetting I find it. Millions of children, mostly in wealthy countries, are learning that peace can only come about when the people who don't look like us no longer exist.

What bothers me more than finding this story underlying an apparently harmless game is how long it took me to realize this. We discovered Minecraft four or five months ago. Why did I never notice that peace meant eradication before? I probably saw those monsters poof away in front of me ten times before I realized the contradiction between peace and removal.

In their defense I'm sure the Minecraft creators didn't realize they had told this story. Maybe it was a story hidden deep inside another story, one they had been told long ago. It's a story we've all heard before. Maybe we are telling it without knowing it.

I have been thinking about creating a "truly peaceful" modification that changes the underlying story presented by the game experience. In this mode the monsters would still exist; they just wouldn't be after you. They would live out their lives next to you in peace, only responding if you attack them. (There do currently exist some "neutral" monsters that do not attack unless provoked; but in "peaceful" mode they face the firing squad along with everyone else.)

Here's an interesting wrinkle I'm thinking about adding: an "inequality" mode. In this mode the monsters exist and don't bother you; but they have nicer stuff than you have. If you can barely put food on the table, they are feasting. If you manage to build a tiny one-room hut out of dirt, they have a castle next door made of gold. The challenge, the game of wits and skill, is to live next to the entitled monsters without letting the injustice and humiliation of the situation get to you to the extent that you lash out and bring their wrath (they would have superior weapons, of course) against your impoverished people. That would be a great learning experience, and of practical use in adult life, for the majority of people on this planet. That would be a different story hidden inside, wouldn't it?

What my son and I have done about this discovery, besides talking about building new mods for Minecraft, is to discuss the implications of such an underlying assumption and how such assumptions can seep into our perceptions and decisions and actions without our knowledge. We have asked what underlying assumptions lie under other favorite stories, like Wall-E (why did the humans feel no compassion for the earth?), Cars (why did the creators of Cars perfect representations of cars as emotion-filled personifications of people, only to claim that torture scenes in Cars 2 were all right for children to watch because "they are just cars"?), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (why didn't Santa Claus protect Rudolph from abuse until after he proved useful?) and many other of the stories we are told today.

Stories will always be as dangerous as they are powerful and empowering. The biggest challenge never lies in the creation of stories, but in the uncritical, ignorant reception of them by audiences trained to suspend disbelief.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What we see and what we build

So my son and I are reading this excellent book called Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, and so far I have found two elements that just beg to be connected to narrative sensemaking. They are both in the chapter by Denis Cosgrove on world maps.

First, Cosgrove talks about how we think of the words "world," "earth" and "globe" differently than people did in the past. To us, they all mean pretty much the same thing, but this is a new experience in human history.
"World" is a social concept. ... "Earth" refers today to the planet that sustains life; its reference is elemental rather than social.
This is a reference to an earlier statement about how people used to think "earth" meant only the element earth, as in earth, air, fire, water, aether. There was no "earth" concept as a planet, at least among most people. Cosgrove goes on:
"Globe" is a geometric term, another word for a sphere. ... The relationship between the globe and the modern world map is close. ... The modern, scientific conception of the world extends to the whole of the globe and encompasses the whole earth, which is why these three terms are now interchangeable. Any world is a totality and has spatial boundaries, but the coincidence of the world's boundaries with the planetary globe's is a modern conception, a consequence as much as a cause of maps.
I had not realized this before: that before (some) people knew half the planet's land masses existed, they still built globes, but those globes were not like ours. They were spheres built to represent their idea of what must have seemed a much smaller planet. To take one example, the globe created by Crates of Mallus, according to Wikipedia, ca. 150 BC, looked like this:

To me today, this globe looks like a sweater too small for its wearer: there is not enough fabric to cover the space.

The Hunt-Lenox globe, built around 1510, showed South America as one continent, but North America as a series of small islands, nothing more being known about it at the time. The globe belongs to the New York Public Library on whose site photographs can be seen; here is a drawing of it from the Encyclopedia Brittanica of 1874 (the image of which I found in this article).

What amazes me about these early globes is that people built a coherent representation of the world as a sphere even though they were missing part of it. They sewed together the edges of what they knew to be so as to make it into the shape they knew it had to take. This is a perfect analogue to sensemaking: we take what we know and form it into something that represents what must be. We give it coherence and form through our efforts to make sense of it. Imagine what it must have been like to build and use such incomplete globes, then find out about the New World in its entirety. It would be like us finding another earth, teeming with life, hiding behind the moon. How would our sensemaking cope with that? How would we change?

That leads into Cosgrove's second amazing (to me) statement about maps and sensemaking:
The 1972 photograph taken by NASA's Apollo 17 astronauts, unique as an eye-witness photograph of humans' home planet, ... is certainly not thought of as a "map," although it shares many technical aspects with world maps, and has influenced considerably the design of subsequent world maps -- for example the disappearance of the graticule (grid) of latitude and longitude, the "photographic" appearance, and the use of "natural" color on many wall and atlas maps today.
So our maps, our conceptual representations of the world we live in, have changed to more closely match our enlarged experience of the world.

If you are as old as I am or older, and you can remember your first sight of that first photograph of the planet, you can verify this fact. I remember globes and maps with stronger grids and less-natural colors, and I do now own and often look at maps that look more like the "real" earth, as we know it now. I had not noticed the difference! Have you?

To illustrate, this first example is from a 1925 encyclopedia, and the second is from the 2004 CIA World Factbook. I wanted to find a 1960s (or better, early 1970s) example but failed (probably because I was looking on Wikipedia's Wikimedia commons site for images I could legally copy).

Today we don't sew together what we know from maps to create a globe; we take apart what we know of the globe (meaning, today, the planet) to create maps. The grids and false colors that once helped us make sense of what we were piecing together now stand in the way of making sense of what we see. I guess the question is: what are we sewing together now?

I don't know exactly what to make of this idea -- yet -- but it has something to do with sensemaking and narrative. My mind has been clutching the idea, mumbling to itself and and running around in circles ever since I came across it a few days ago. I thought I'd tell you about it because it might spark some thoughts in your mind before my mind gets around to telling me what it wants to do with it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nail fungus infection is not a choice of yours.

I'm sorry! I was cleaning out the spam this morning and came across that gem of a title. I just had to use it.

What I mean by it is: here is a report on book writing progress. The book's content is between eighty and ninety percent done (hard to say exactly). The more I write the more I like it, but it is not yet done. Five of my closest colleague-friends, those who may see what I have written before anyone may see what I have written, have received "early-early" review copies of the incomplete book. All others on the reviewer list (and I thank each and every one of them for their patience) will receive the "early" version for review as soon as anybody may see it.

However I will show you the high-level table of contents, in case you have any feedback on the book's structure, and so you can see that I am still writing it. Color key:
  • new writing in red
  • writing from the blog (cleaned up and improved) in blue, blue for blog
  • writing from the original book (cleaned up and improved) in green, green for growth
  • parts yet to be finished in shocking purple
The contents:

Part One: Introduction and Evaluation
Chapter 1: Introduction
What this book is for
Why I wrote this book
This book and you
Notes on the book
Chapter 2: Why Work with Stories?
Why work with stories?
Why work with stories?
Why work with stories?
[Summary/Resources/Activities repeat in each chapter, some done some not]
Part Two: Fundamentals of Story Work
Chapter 3: What Is a Story?
The ant and the dove
Definitions of story, stories of definition
A working definition
Chapter 4: What Are Stories For?
Stories are maps of experience
Stories are sounding devices
Stories are elements of play
Stories are packages of meaning
Chapter 5: How Do Stories Work?
Stories in society
Stories in conversation
Stories in use
Stories in stories
Stories in personalities
Part Three: A Guide to Participatory Narrative Inquiry
Chapter 6: Introducing Participatory Narrative Inquiry
PNI definitions
PNI phases
PNI principles
Chapter 7: Project Planning
Knowing your storytellers
Knowing your topic
Considering privacy
Chapter 8: Story Collection
Methods of story collection
Asking people to tell stories
Diverse questions for diverse motivations
How many stories to collect
Asking questions about stories
Facilitating group story sessions
Story collection exercises
Chapter 9: Narrative Catalysis
Chapter 10: Narrative Sensemaking
Chapter 11: Narrative Intervention
Chapter 12: Narrative Return
Part Four: Advanced Topics in PNI
Chapter 13: Advanced Introduction to PNI
PNI justified
PNI in context
PNI opportunities
PNI dangers
Chapter 14: Becoming a PNI Practitioner
The essential skills of a PNI practitioner
Breadth and depth in story work
Evaluations of story work
Chapter 15: Advanced Topics in Project Planning
Habits of story planning
Planning projects with the story uses triangle
Planning projects with stories in personalities
Transparency in PNI projects
Resolving tensions between needs
Practical ethics in story work
Chapter 16: Advanced Topics in Story Collection
Habits of story collection
Story collecting venues and story personalities
How not to ask too many questions about stories
When you can't ask questions about stories
Transcribing storytelling
What to expect when you're expecting stories
The story fundamentals questions expanded
Chapter 17: Advanced topics in Narrative Catalysis
Chapter 18: Advanced Topics in Narrative Sensemaking
Chapter 19: Advanced Topics in Narrative Intervention
Chapter 20: Advanced topics in Narrative Return
Part Five: PNI Stories
Chapter 21: PNI Stories from Other Lands
Collecting stories in a poor urban community (Jonathan Carter)
Helping a community market listen to its customers (John Caddell)
Evaluating effectiveness helping youth in foster care (Stephen Shimshock)
Using a specific narrative process to face conflictual situations (Stephane Dangel)
Chapter 22: PNI Stories from My Journey
Incorporating narrative into e-learning
Probing a wound gently
Holding up a mirror
We said, they said
Too much and too little
Contradicting ourselves
Shooting the messenger
The near miss
Discovering the obvious
10-15 more of these stories left to clean up
Acknowledgements and biography

You could look at this and say, "What? You have so much left to do! All those shocking purple parts!" But of course the introduction, planning and story collection parts would be the longest. The other parts will be much shorter and faster to write, so I do see a sort of light at the end of the tunnel. I am working on the catalysis section now, writing by PNI phase, sorting into basic and advanced as I go.

The "PNI stories" should end up at between 20 and 25 when I'm finished: this will be a sort of (highly anonymized/fictionalized) "folk tale collection" of stories about things I've learned from projects I've done: not "case studies" or "best practices" but more like a trial and error parade. The format is the same as in the previous case studies, but there are just lots of them now. I have notes on all of these stories but about half remain to be cleaned up. Sort of like a nail fungus infection, which is no choice of mine or yours, just something that remains to be dealt with.

Why I am I telling you this? Because the blog was hungry; to let you know I'm still writing; because I wouldn't mind some feedback on the organization of the material; because winter is coming; because I found such an excellent spam title.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

PLA articles; Recruitment drive

Volume 63 of the journal Participatory Learning and Action has come out, and I am author or co-author in three of its articles. Click here, then on "Download PDF (free)" to read it. The volume is titled "How wide are the ripples? From local participation to international organisational learning" and its description is as follows.
Do you work with or in an international or northern office of an international non-governmental organisation (INGO)? Do you facilitate participatory processes at the grassroots? Have you ever wondered how wide an impact the process might have?

When a pebble is thrown in the water it creates ripples. But just as the ripples fade as they lose momentum, the strong local impact of good quality participatory grassroots processes also weakens as it gets further away from the original context. Yet the insight and analysis, evidence and stories generated and documented during participatory processes are just the kinds of information which are needed to inform good development policy and planning.

This issue shares reflections and experiences of bringing grassroots knowledge and information from participatory processes to bear at international level. It examines the possibilities and challenges involved – as well as strategies for strengthening practice. It aims to inspire other empowered activists working with INGOs to be a conscious and active part of change: to bring about more accountable, equitable and participatory development.
The articles I contributed to are as follows:
  1. "Bridges to understanding and action: using stories to negotiate meaning across community boundaries" by Cynthia Kurtz and Stephen Shimshock,  page 63
  2. "Telling stories: who makes sense of participatory communication?" by Hannah Beardon, Jasber Singh, Rose McCausland, Cynthia Kurtz and Clodagh Miskelly, page 77
  3. "Working with your community's stories" by Cynthia Kurtz, page 167
All of the articles in this journal are worth reading. They contain many inspirational stories and ideas for application in participatory work.

Meet me in the room of requirement 

I expect to deliver early copies of the greatly expanded third edition of Working with Stories by the end of this month to an eager army of skimmers/readers for essential feedback, to be incorporated as I finish the formatting. If you want to join the WWS army, send me an email and I will put you on the list to receive the manuscript.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hints of things to come

How is the book coming? I have nearly finished reviewing hundreds of books and papers and typing in must-have quotes from them, all so I can remove the unpleasant "sorry there are so few references here" bit I had in the book before. I have been having a wonderful time re-reading lots of things I first encountered a decade ago and finding parts I never noticed before and so on, but all good things must come to an end. This means that nothing remains now but to finish all the parts of the book not quite finished and pull it all together. Which will still take a while. But it is happening.

However I wanted to show you this nice little bit of coalescence: some new diagrams on the stages of a PNI (participatory narrative inquiry) project, which came popping out of somewhere onto paper the other day. I put a full description of this on the PNI page.

If you study this diagram you may find something exciting about it. (Well, I found something exciting about it.) The parts of the process inside the triangle are all emergent, unordered processes -- things that rely heavily on the meshwork of many connections and perspectives coming together. The parts outside the triangle feature stronger components of hierarchy, structure, order. So in a sense this shows how PNI brings together organization and self-organization into a dynamic interplay for the purpose of supporting collective narrative sensemaking. (If this makes no sense to you, read about the confluence framework. That may help ... or it may just make things worse.)

Feedback/encouragement accepted with wild enthusiasm.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Meet the NarraCat

I finally got around to releasing NarraCat. It is a set of scripts for narrative catalysis I've been using and building for the past few years. You will find a page on NarraCat on the right side of the blog under "useful things."

I don't expect more than a handful of people to be very interested in using NarraCat. It's not a polished package, that's for sure. It has a face only a programmer could love, and you have to treat it like a baby to get it to do what you want. But I've come to respect and depend on it, so I think at least a few other people might like to use it too. If you want to work with stories and have the time and patience, or know somebody who is willing to have the time and patience for you, you might find NarraCat useful. If you do use it, let me know.

Why release NarraCat now? For one, we just put out some source code for our ancient-history projects PlantStudio and StoryHarp (due to that one more request that tipped it over into doing something about it), and that got me thinking about open source. Also, I'm starting to think about writing the catalysis part of the book, and it's hard to describe catalysis without referring to the tool I know best (even though I intend to describe things you can do without software as well). Write what you know, they say, so I will.

By the way, if and when Rakontu ever grows large enough and strong enough, it will probably swallow up NarraCat; but that may take a while, and besides there may be reasons to use NarraCat by itself even then. So for now I'll let it wander and see if it finds interesting places to go.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rakontu on WWSW Wednesday

I will be talking about Rakontu on the Worldwide Story Work Ning group on Wednesday the 13th of July, 2011.

In preparation for that, I thought about what I'd like to say about Rakontu, and that turned into an "elevator pitch" presentation that starts out like this (excerpted):

Click here to see the rest of the pitch.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mum's the word

Resolved: The next post you see on this blog will announce the release of the third edition of my book Working with Stories.

I have just six or seven sections left to write, then it's cleanup and preparation for print publishing. It may take a month, it may take longer. But I have promised myself that everything left to put in the book will be in the book only. Writing things here first, and thinking what to feed the blog, takes too much scarce time away from getting the book done. If I slip up and write a blog post, you are hereby authorized - no, entreated - to chastise me severely. Or, let's say if I write one longer than your hand you may chastise me severely. What if I see an interesting article? Come on.

To those who are encountering this blog for the first time during this its quiescent period, you may be interested in a list of the most popular posts here. (This list comes to you through the astounding power of the all-seeing eye known as Google Analytics.)
  1. Complexity/chaos stories: Butterflies, keystones and climbers
  2. The confluence post and those that followed from it (most popular among these were better confluence diagrams, another sibling and whose truths)
  3. Why narrative inquiry?
  4. Stories of definition
  5. Groupthink, groupfence, groupsense
  6. Steal these ideas
  7. The natural storytelling series (sweetness of disgrace, hierarchy and meshwork, authorities of story, solutions)
  8. E-books, narrative context and the future of reading
  9. Identity and harmony in meshwork and hierarchy
  10. WEIRD research on WEIRD people
A list of my favorite posts? Why thanks for asking.

First, I like the "eight observations" posts I started the blog with, so I'll set them out here in order:
  1. stories compact knowledge
  2. stories have stories
  3. the life cycle of stories (and then some bits left over from 1, 2, and 3);
  4. ways you can interact with stories - telling, making, listening (its dangers and opportunities), and herding;
  5. truth is more useful than fiction;
  6. varied perceptions of stories and story work;
  7. whether people tell stories, and whether they think they tell stories; and finally,
  8. computers and stories.
Obviously I like the things I put in the "useful things" pages, because, that's why I put them there. As to other posts, I think my readers have done a pretty good job of sorting out the best ones. I'll let them speak for me.

Thanks for reading, everybody, and hang on for that book rewrite. General encouragement and/or blame may be submitted via the comment system or email.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Watch "Reclaiming the Power of Personal Narrative"

I just came across this TEDx talk on Reclaiming the Power of Personal Narrative by Robert Tercek. I don't usually recommend things, but if you have connected to any of what I have written here about the decline of natural storytelling (and what I'm trying to do about it), watch this talk. It made my heart pound like a hammer, it was so like what I have been saying. The resonance is encouraging.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Evaluations of story work

I've been giving my working-with-stories spiel, telling people they can do things with their stories that can help them achieve their goals, for about, let's say, ten years now, if we consider the first two years getting my feet wet. I always watch how people respond to the spiel, and I have noticed some patterns in how people respond and how I deal with that. I thought it might be useful to write about this for other people who might be giving similar talks.

If I think of the main ways in which people respond I come up with three primary responses. Within each I find three sub-responses. (Obviously all that really means is that I like to group things into threes.) For each sub-response I have considered - guess how many - three possible explanations for why people had that reaction: they didn't know any better; they disagree; and they have a valid point.

Note that I have left out any reactions to my spiel caused by the way I give it or my personality. I originally had five overall responses, but realized that two of them were actually about me and not about story work. I could write volumes about my investigations of why people like or don't like me, and some of it might even be interesting in a funny navel-gazing sort of way. But I don't think it's useful to the exploration of this topic.

You all look like ants to me

The most common response is the insufficiency response. This response is that story work is not serious, does not scale, or has insufficient credentials.

That's cute. Now go away.

The not-serious-enough reaction happens when people assume I can only be talking about quilts and pie recipes when I talk about stories. The primary indicator of this reaction is lack of eye contact and a profusion of fidgeting. When I see people have this reaction, they might as well be making the "blah blah" hand signal in my general direction, it's so obvious that they are waiting for me to shut up. Do I get this reaction more often from men? Yes, but it's only a matter of degree.

One tack to deal with this issue is to avoid the use of the word "story" and instead use terms with more authoritative sounding prefixes like narra- and cogno- and meta- and so on. I sometimes do this (see the title of this blog) but I absolutely refuse to do it entirely or all the time. I have gained so much respect for the great power and danger of stories that I don't want to put a hair shirt on it to make it appear more serious.

How do I respond when people react as though I've been extolling the wonders of Hello Kitty? I launch a war story. I've seen stories work wonders in projects with difficult, sensitive, even frightening topics, and I have the stories to prove it. This requires time, so if there is no chance of getting enough time I let it go and move on. If you have done more than a few projects (and they were not all about chewing gum) you should have some war stories of your own.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: The war story usually helps a lot. People see that story work can be serious and want to learn more. This is not one of the hard issues to educate people about.
  2. To the dissenting: A good war story can pry open minds, but usually it takes a few or several (of ascending severity), and these people often pick apart tales of insufficiently resounding impact. That's fine; hold still and let them probe your experiences.
  3. To those with a valid point: On a spectrum from chewing gum to bomb disposal, story work is not right up there at the top. It has its limitations. The sooner you can admit that, the more energy will be freed up to help people find a place where it can fit.

This is for little people doing little things.

The does-not-scale reaction happens when people assume the only thing you can do with stories is listen to them one by one in small individual or group interactions. They perceive the approach to be possibly useful on a small scale but impossible to scale up to larger problems because it relies on intense human interaction. I find this reaction prominent when people believe their scope of attention is large, thus all small-scale solutions must be quickly discarded to save time.

To begin with, this is an erroneous assumption. Everything scales up if you have the time to do it. How did the ancient Egyptians build the giant pyramids with no earth-moving machinery? Simple. They thought there was nothing strange about pounding one rock onto another rock for ten years in a row. We believe there is no time for anything today, but sometimes we mistake choices for conditions. Some things are important enough to spend the time on, when the outcome is important enough.

However, the no-time assumption is so universal and iron-clad that I never try very hard or very long to struggle against it. Instead, when I sense a does-not-scale reaction coming, I pull out a magic word: quantification. Having lots of time may be inconceivable to many people today, but having lots of information is comfortably familiar. It is true that reading and making sense of hundreds or thousands of stories one by one does not scale well (given lack of time). But compiling quantifiable interpretations of stories by those who know them best does scale well. What's more, it scales back down too, in the sense that people in small groups can use patterns formed by hundreds of interpretations to make sense of their own local situations.

But beware: never invoke the powers of quantification in relation to stories without watching for the bounce-back soul-draining reaction. Sometimes people will counter that piling up any kind of data about stories strips them of their humanity. This reversal sometimes comes from the same people who said stories do not scale up in the first place. This is not strange; it only reflects the deep-seated conflict between our village history and the metropolitan world. In preparation for this reversal I hold in reserve another magic phrase: mixed methods research. Describing the way in which I use patterns to find stories and stories to find patterns often helps people understand that I attempt to balance the requirements of scale and meaning.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: They usually ask questions about exactly how the stories and quantifiable patterns are used together. Having some examples on hand helps.
  2. To the dissenting: There are strong biases on either side of the spectrum of qualitative and quantitative research. I've met people who wouldn't touch a statistic with a ten-foot pole and people who would sooner eat a worm than sit through a touchy-feely story. When I sense that the person I am speaking to inhabits one extreme of this spectrum, I downplay the other extreme and reassure them that due diligence is paid to their part. This is never completely successful, but it helps.
  3. To those with a valid point: Well, yes. Trying to scale up while keeping things human is a difficult balance, just as trying to maintain a winning career while raising a child is a difficult balance. Anyone who is honest with themselves will readily admit that a mixed-methods project will explore less deeply and less broadly than a single-methods project could. But on the other side of that loss (as in parenthood) is the synergism of exploring two worlds at once. Patterns and stories can help each other make sense. And I can tell some stories that illustrate that, of course. I'll bet you can too.

What university did you say you were from?

The not-credentialed-enough reaction takes place when people evaluate the worth of the approach primarily by what institutions promote it, not by what it can do. This reaction often follows on the heels of the realization that the approach I am talking about has no journal, no academic departments and no annual conference. A light goes out in the eyes of these people as they put me, and everything I say, into the "guest on Oprah" category. (The area of credentials is one place where the evaluations me as a story worker enter into the evaluations of story work itself.)

I do not fault people for this perception. I remember once as a child, on one of my family's epic treks across the country, standing in a parking lot next to some national monument (Yosemite?) watching a messy, tipsy-looking man handing out brochures. I took one. It turned out he had his own private theory about physics and the cosmos, and he thought handing out brochures in parking lots was a valid way of promulgating it. I watched the people taking the brochures too, and the greater portion finding other ways through the parking lot. (These people are essential, the soap-box people, the ranters, the unhinged. If you can find one in a big city, get a cup of coffee and find a spot to watch. Not them: the others. The spectrum of responses is simply fascinating.) From some perspectives, I am not one bit different from that man in the parking lot. A blog? A self-published e-book? A list of projects?

When I meet with this reaction I do a quick test. How high is the institutional-credential barrier? Is it impervious to utility? I usually conduct this test by telling a story. Not a story about me; a story about the power of story work. I can tell people these stories until they fall asleep, and long after that. If the person can see the utility of the approach for what it is, we can talk on. If the reaction in their eyes is "that's nice, invalid individual" I give up and move on. Can't please everybody.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: They want to hear more. They want to know where the approach came from, who was involved in it, how it was developed. They want to evaluate it on its merits and are willing to put aside its rootlessness.
  2. To the dissenting: The wall around some academic researchers is so high and strong that no story could ever breach it. I know this because I once lived inside that wall. (Do I miss it? Yes, very much. I miss the unconditional love of the affiliated for the affiliated. But I don't miss the privations and self-delusive constraints that went with it.) When I sense an exceptionally strong academic wall, I usually give up and go away. I was never one for climbing the heap. Nothing wrong with it, but it's not my thing.
  3. To those with a valid point: Certainly! I am perfectly willing to admit that I made up the name Participatory Narrative Inquiry last year. I am open about the fact that my approach is idiosyncratic, incomplete, flawed, derivative, and fallible. I don't think this any different from most work done inside the great wall, but somehow the very fact that I am willing to cry institutional "uncle" seems to help people move past the institutional-credential barrier. Paradoxically, it helps people move on to evaluate the approach on its own merits. And when you evaluate story work on its merits, it performs.

Go back from whence you came

The second large class of responses I want to consider is the one based on fear and denial. It occurs when people understand, correctly, that story work has the potential to reveal unpleasant truths. This is not the whole truth; story work also empowers, enables and energizes. But some people in some contexts latch on to the danger of story work and rush away. I will call the varieties of rushing away Pandora's box, show me the money, and stories going beyond their station.

Pandora, put that box away.

This reaction happens when people recognize, rightly, that once a story project is set in motion it could lead to them being asked to change or give up some power. This is the essential nature of participatory action research, in which action is as much of a goal as research. People in positions of power are most likely to react in this way. One thing I've noticed is that all of the fear/denial reactions tend to be muted. When people feel the approach is silly or fringe, they communicate this quickly and strongly. When people feel threatened by the possibilities offered, they just get very quiet and very busy. This is not to say they are wrong in doing this; it's just how I've seen people react.

When I sense a Pandora's box reaction, my response is to bring down the level of emotion. I tell my tamest stories, ones about helping people sort out problems with their email clients. I emphasize that story projects can be done at many levels of intensity. Like a pediatrician with a needle, I mention small pilot projects as especially useful to gently probe sensitive wounds. At the same time I highlight the positive power of story work to address intractable problems. I talk about pent-up energy released, people grateful to be heard, feelings of inclusion and hope, openings, transformations. These are not lies. They are just not aspects of story people do not always want to hear about, especially those prone to the not-serious reaction mentioned above.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: Telling tame stories helps the fearful feel more at ease, but I've noticed that doesn't work by itself. Something has to compensate for the danger, and that something is the power to make good things happen. People out of power often think those in power want nothing but more power. But that's wrong. Often they are frustrated at the fact that their power doesn't translate more efficiently to positive change. Showing them how stories can improve this translation is sometimes compelling.
  2. To the dissenting: Sometimes I give the releasing-pent-up-energy argument and it falls flat. Usually that means people have become cynical or fatalistic and believe only in a Machiavellian world of control. In their view there is no energy to be released, and all transformations are affronts to their identity. This sort of reaction is a slamming door, and I usually just walk away from it rubbing my squashed nose.
  3. To those with a valid point: Absolutely. At some times and in some places the challenge of change is far too dangerous to consider. I cannot possibly understand the context and challenges of trying to keep an organization or community running in balance. If I sense this reaction I fall back to the "planting a seed" stance where I ask them to keep the ideas in mind for a future time when another context might make story work more appropriate. It's only respectful to do that.

Show me the money.

This is the return on investment (ROI) reaction. I usually see it in people who feel they are deprived of options or resources. That may be nice for the rich folks, they say, but we are dealing with reality here and can't afford this kind of high-risk work. We need to carefully mete out each penny we spend, so we will be going with a safe choice, like a standard survey, thank you very much.

How do I respond to this reaction? First, by talking about how story work can scale down to almost no cost at all. Go ahead and do your standard survey, I say, but why not add two narrative questions to it and see what you find out? Just a spoonful of narrative can help a survey produce more delightful results. You don't have to find tens of thousands of dollars to get useful results in story work. I have some stories about teensy story projects that still produced useful outcomes. I don't pull those out in front of the not-serious folks, but for the constrained they are encouraging.

Another tack I take in this case is to ask which resources are limited and which are not. Sometimes when people don't have money they do have time or knowledge or connections. Story work is possible on a shoestring if people are willing and able to build their own skills and can ask others for help. There are free tools, free books and free advice. And there are exchanges of things other than money. I often exchange work for other things I need, like network connections, examples of work I can show prospective clients, and good word of mouth. So do a lot of other people. Resourceful people know that money is only one resource of many.

A third means of dealing with this reaction is to ask how people are spending their money now. If they are already paying through the nose for a solution that doesn't produce the outcome they need, they might want to consider redistributing their funds. We might be able to find a way to make it work.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: Usually when I let resource-constrained people in on the secret that story work doesn't have to be expensive, they get very excited. People making the most of scant resources are highly motivated to work toward their goals. A little encouragement to these folks often goes a long way.
  2. To the dissenting: Disagreement in this reaction usually goes along the lines of people saying I can't fathom the severity of their constraints. You rich consultants can't possibly understand our world, so any "solutions" you offer are just sales pitches intended to manipulate us into adding our pittances to your overflowing coffers. To this I respond: HA! I can describe the sorry state of my financial affairs in sufficient detail to cut any of these delusions off at the pass. However, I hate games of doing-without, so I only enter into them when the situation is dire. The better thing is to simply and respectfully ask: What are your constraints and how can I help you work within them?
  3. To those with a valid point: This is another one of those "planting a seed" situations. If they truly do not have the means to do any story work right now, they might someday. In this case I offer only general educational help. When people understand what story work can do for them, they can return to it someday when their prospects are looking up. In the meantime, they can continue to learn about it a little at a time and thereby improve their outcome when the right time does come.

Don't give stories ideas beyond their station.

The third reaction in the fear/denial category has to do with identity and class. To put it simply, sometimes I encounter people who believe that stories, or more precisely those people's stories, are beneath them. If I'm pitching story work to a CEO, for example, and the CEO begins to understand that they might actually be asked to listen to the experiences of people far below them, they (rightly) perceive dangers to well-established class boundaries. It's a mixing thing. The mixing of stories brings mixing of perspectives and power. People having this reaction get telltale signs of alarm and disgust on their faces, as though I had just used a double negative or dragged my filthy handkerchief across my sweaty brow. They look at the floor, they discover a prior appointment, they shuffle their symbols of authority around. If confronted with evidence of this reaction, those having it will deny it with hysterical force. They may not know they are doing it themselves. But you can see it happen, and if you talk about this work long enough you will see it happen.

I remember once pitching a story project at a government agency. At the start of the meeting, the room filled up with middle-aged male managers and their younger female subordinates. As my colleagues and I described how a story project could help their organization draw on the positive energy of the collective hopes people have for the organization's future, I watched the young women get more and more excited and the older men shut down. You could see it happening: one group was thinking "we could actually have an impact on how this place works" and the other group was thinking "they could actually have an impact on how this place works." The meeting ended when the managers wanted to constrain the project such that, essentially, there would be no way for stories to empower those at the bottom. I've now seen this sort of thing happen several times in projects that had strong support until those in charge realized that those beneath might speak to those above, at which time they were abruptly and without explanation canceled.

How do I respond to this reaction? First, I control my own emotions. The respect I have grown for stories - for every single story told by every single human being, no matter how humble - is part of my identity. After I emerge victorious from my struggle to not slap some sense into the person, I attempt to enter into name-dropping mode. People who know me will know I hate name-dropping and do it poorly, which is why I said "attempt" because I don't always succeed. Sometimes I can't get past the reaction and walk away under my own cloud of disgust. But when I can sense some degree of humanity under the disdain, I respond to the reaction by bringing out some of the names of the heavy-hitters who have funded and approved of story work I've done. To be honest I fail in this more often than I succeed. You might do better. I have sat at lunch with lots of important people, but I can never remember their names afterward. Status is just not something I pay attention to, which is bad for business. I work best when I can partner with someone who flourishes in the world of status. Still, if I have a fresh cup of coffee I can tell a few stories about authorities like government agencies and giant corporations that have supported and appreciated story work in the past.

I cannot tell people honestly that there will be no mixing of classes in story work. But I can describe how other people in high places suffered no permanent damage from it and in fact received positive benefits. I also recount projects in which stories were collected in anonymous ways and in which maximal distances were retained between classes. I dangle the "prince and the pauper" image of being able to listen in on the storytellings of subordinates without being themselves heard. Essentially I explain that the mixing is both worthwhile and controllable, to some extent, especially when the project is designed with that constraint in mind. You might think this is pandering to the worst corruptions of power, but I don't see it that way. If I can get those in charge to listen to the perspectives and experiences of those not in charge, both groups can be helped by it. In fact I have seen that happen more than once. It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: People with this initial reaction are often relieved when I explain that they don't have to expose themselves to the rabble to conduct a story project. They often come back with issues they would like to address and want to hear about potential solutions.   
  2. To the dissenting: Sometimes I fail in convincing people that story work is sufficiently safe, worthwhile or prestigious. As I said, I know I have poor skills in this area, so I forgive myself and move on.
  3. To those with a valid point: No story project can offer perfect safety to those in power. If speaking truth to power is empowering, telling stories to power is even more so. So yes, I do admit that the element of risk to power structures can never be completely eliminated. Story work requires courage on the part of of those in charge. Only the most confident can pull it off. That's an Emperor-has-no-clothes ploy, but sometimes it works.

Yeah, yeah, I've heard of this

When I started giving my spiel about working with stories, this third category of reactions did not exist. As the years go by I find it grows and grows. It is the category of reactions that mistake what I mean by "working with stories" for doing other things with stories, things the listener doesn't consider appropriate or useful. I separate that into three perceptions: branding, propaganda, and New Age.

By the way, I find this category of reactions much harder to deal with than the other two, and that for two reasons. First, I keep forgetting to think about it and am often surprised by it. Because it has been growing so imperceptibly I have not updated my spiel to prominently include a list of things I am not talking about. I need to work on that. Second, I find it's easier to fill a void than to displace an object. If people have no idea what I'm talking about I can educate them. But if they think they already know, if they have already popped me into a pigeonhole, it's a lot harder to squirm out of that box than it is to build a new one. So watch out for that.

I've heard of this, it's for selling things.

This is the reaction where people think I am talking about advertising, branding, marketing, tv commercials, and so on. Just recently I talked for five minutes to a person about how you could learn so many things by listening to the stories people tell, only to have them respond with, "So you tell stories, right?" Sigh. My guess is that the world of advertising has latched onto storytelling so strongly, and so many people have noticed it, that it has become the superficial understanding of what stories do and are for. That's sad. But at the same time I have no wish to denigrate those who use storytelling to promote ideas and products. That would be the pot calling the kettle black, since I use storytelling to promote my own services. Still, I wish people were more aware of the entire spectrum, no, world of what story is to humanity ... a point about which I may have written from time to time.

So how do I respond to the it's-for-sales reaction? The first thing I do is draw attention to the fact that people tell stories every day, dozens of them. I find this necessary since so many people seem to have forgotten it. I point out that even somebody telling their spouse about picking their child up from school is still a story, even if it doesn't boast a Hollywood plot. With that understanding in place I tell a few stories about projects in which these "little-s" stories (as Shawn Callahan so usefully calls them), when collected together, have revealed astounding insights that have transformed not only understandings of issues but options available.

If things are going really well I bring in narrative sensemaking and explain how people can work together to negotiate meaning by starting with told stories. However, I hold that in reserve and only use it if we are over the first milestone (that stories form patterns). If people are not with me there, the sensemaking part only confuses them.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: When people have this reaction out of lack of information, they often become very excited about what is possible on the listening side of story work. There is little emotion involved in this perception, so the new information opens up options they want to explore.  
  2. To the dissenting: Disagreements to these explanations have mainly to do with a poor opinion of little-s stories. I find this opinion often in people who write or tell stories professionally. They are so used to evaluating stories on form that they cannot admit inconsequential anecdotes told by untrained laymen to the status of being real stories. And if little-s stories are not real stories, heaping them up won't mean anything either. When I find this reaction I call forth a few of the real little-s stories I remember from projects I've done. Some of those little stories, sitting there in the midst of hundreds, have jumped out, made me laugh or cry, and stuck with me. I remember one story on a project last year about medical conditions. It was about rheumatoid arthritis. I had been reading stories about several different conditions, and all were painful and full of sorrow. But this story was about how this man's greatest hope was that someday soon his wife could stretch out of the fetal position and just lay normally on the bed. He remembered days in years past in which he and his wife had taken walks in their garden. Who of us thinks of walking fifty feet as a dream lost and lying still as a hope deferred? Can anyone call that an inconsequential story? I can't.
  3. To those with a valid point: This is the only "those with a point" entry that I can't come up with something to say about. To my mind there isn't any valid point to be made about stories being "only" for sales. It's just so obviously ill-informed or wrong-headed. I have tried to think on both sides of the issues here, but on this one I find myself stumped. One glance at history should disabuse anyone of the notion that stories can only be used to sell things.

I've heard of this, it's propaganda.

This is the reaction that stories are the same as propaganda, and that all stories and all storytelling are suspect as a result. Even when I say I advocate listening to stories, people with this reaction believe I mean listening in a lying sort of way, perhaps by asking leading questions, or listening to half the story, or distorting what is heard, or selecting what will be retold. They say that even though I say I only listen to stories, I am really telling stories using the stories I hear (probably distorted) as input. In this view stories are lies, so they contaminate anything I could possibly do with them. Telling is lying, and listening is telling, so it's all lies from one end to the other.

How do I respond to this reaction? This is where I bring out my lists of rules and safeguards. I describe how I have learned through practice to invite people to share their experiences in safety; to guarantee anonymity; to ask people for their own interpretations instead of deciding what stories mean to an "expert" observer; to let those interpretations form patterns without applying preconceived hypotheses; to separate my outside interpretations from observations of patterns anyone can see; and to construct multiple interpretations so that project supports collective sense making rather than making declarations of fact. I don't deliver this as a lecture, but rather by recounting the stages of an actual project in which people discovered transforming insights. I talk about the role of a story worker like myself as a shepherd who helps stories get to where they need to be while tending them with care and respect.

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: Sometimes people respond to my explanation with curiosity about these rules and safeguards. Where did they come from? What impact do they have? I am happy to fill them in. Next they want to know how they can learn how to use these rules and how they can design a project that includes them. I explore that with them as well.
  2. To the dissenting: Some people are sceptical that these rules and safeguards work. They say these are rules with which to build elaborate self-delusions, not rules to create transparency and respectful care of stories. They believe I do advocate participating in propaganda and distortion but, like the scientist cringing in the corner while crying "they said they would use it for good," have told myself a story to excuse my own unethical behavior. If I believed that I would quit this work, not try to help others do it. All of my safeguards have been hard-won. Each has a story of development, and I can provide clear before-and-after comparisons that illustrate why I think the safeguard is needed and why I think it works. Some will never be convinced.
  3. To those with a valid point: I'm sure I do delude myself to some extent. I'm sure I do fail in my quest to be a careful story shepherd. But I have seen such strong positive outcomes from story work that I think it is worth doing it, and worth continuing to improve my practice, anyway. When people raise this point I humbly accept their criticism and say that I've thought long and hard about the issue myself. And then I tell a story about the positive power of story work, flaws and all.

I've heard of this, it's New Age crap.

The final sub-reaction in the "I know about this already" group is that anything connected with stories is about New Age spiritualism. In this view, because I have used the word "story" I am talking about asking people to connect their chakras, don a hemp robe and chant Wicca hymns to Mother Earth. From this perspective anything related to story is both weird, meaning not-of-us, and based on delusions and misunderstandings, thus useless. This is related to the no-credentials and not-serious views, but it adds the "already know it" element of classing story work with snippets previously remembered from popular misconceptions about professional storytellers and professional storytelling meetings. I went to a professional storytelling meeting once, and there was altogether too much soul-bearing and hugging for my comfort. The approach I advocate is not based on crystals or astrological alignment. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It's just not what I'm talking about, and I've found I need to watch for people putting the approach into that box.

How do I respond to the New Age reaction? As with the not-serious reaction, I tell war stories. I tell stories about real projects that had real impacts in tough situations. I talk about relieving pain, detecting abuse, soothing conflicts, opening eyes to damaging assumptions. I shift the focus from the ethereal cosmos to the nitty-gritty street life of everyday stories. If things are going well I talk about positive outcomes that can be achieved in story work, like raising hopes and giving voice to the voiceless. But I'm careful about that, because to some very hard-headed people any hint of softness will be taken as touchy-feely mushiness. For those folks I keep things on the up-and-up with mainstream cognitive terms like leadership and efficiency and discovery, and avoid fringe emotional terms like empowerment and enablement and giving voice to the voiceless. (Audience and purpose, my college writing teacher said.)

How people view this response:
  1. To the ill-informed: Getting people to the point of understanding that I don't mean New Age spiritualism, unlike many of the other perceptions, doesn't get me all the way home. I find that standing right behind the New Age reaction I often find the not-serious and not-credentialed reactions. They tend to bolster each other. So educating people on this particular point often requires a highly tuned performance, perhaps several, and a deal of patience. If I do get through to people on this point it's usually slowly and over time.
  2. To the dissenting: Sometimes self-identification with the mainstream and only the mainstream is so strong that no amount of protestation on my point will move them from their opinion that I am talking about strange doings. It's like I'm saying "blah blah story blah blah" and they can only hear that one word. So I use another word they like better: statistics. Nothing impresses the mainstream like statistical mumbo-jumbo. Here's a suggestion. Find a stats textbook. Learn the basics. Internalize the names of a few statistical tests and other arcane paraphenalia of the priesthood. But keep these things in reserve and use them only in emergencies. And before use, check to make sure there is no one in the audience who actually knows what you are talking about and will detect that you are remembering fragments from a textbook or a stats course you took twenty years ago. But seriously, folks, I don't try all that hard to pursue people who hysterically cling to mainstream conformity. If their mind isn't open just a teensy bit, they probably won't get much out of story work anyway.
  3. To those with a valid point: All right. I admit it. Stories are touchy feely! They are about emotions. Of course they are not objective measurements of fact! But here is my counter-point: where have numbers and facts got us? Is it not worth exploring what can be done, in a complementary fashion, to reinsert some humanity into the world of finding things out and making decisions? Can this be done without rendering all cognitive function floppy and spineless? Certainly. And I have some great stories about how it has been done.

The sound of understanding

You might be wondering why I am only talking about negative reactions. Doesn't anybody ever understand what I am talking about and see the potential of the approach? Sure, lots of times. When I see a light in their eyes and hear a click as the idea fits into a narrative-sized hole in their problem scope, I know we are ready to move to the next stage. I ask them to tell me about a problem or issue they would like to tackle, perhaps one they have not been able to address to their satisfaction with other methods. Usually people can come up with these easily, and I listen and ask questions. Then I do two things: I tell stories about projects around similar goals and problems I've worked on or know about from the past, and I throw out a fistful of ideas around projects they could do in the future. I try to match the size of the fistful and the ambition of the ideas to the level of risk-taking evident in the person I'm talking to. If I hear another click, we can start talking about more specific ideas. If I don't, maybe I didn't understand their problem well enough and need to ask more questions about it.

I did think at the start of writing this post about sub-divisions of the "I get it, I can use this" reaction, but in the end I think it's like Tolstoy said. Happy conversations about story work are all alike; every unhappy conversation is unhappy in its own way. When you can see that things are working as they should, off you go. If you have seen how well this stuff works you don't need my advice to talk with enthusiasm about story work. It's only when you hit walls, as we all sometimes do, that we need to compare notes and help each other get the message out.

Means of evaluation, forms of evidence

Now, as I was writing up these nine reactions to the working-with-stories spiel I noticed (and you noticed) how some are similar to others. So I of course organized them, and this is what I got.

What is this? Could it be Harrison White's (and Robert Bales') three means of evaluating human communications? Yes. (What a surprise, says the why-must-you-keep-harping-on-this reader.) The reactions I have seen to my story spiel fall naturally into three ways in which people evaluate what I have said. Story work is safe or dangerous; it has or lacks prestige; and it has or lacks utility. The third box here shows reactions that combine evaluations of prestige and utility - which is an understandable evaluation for someone in an organizational capacity, since those forces are constant to their work.

At the bottom of each box I show the general character of my response to each reaction. If the reaction shows an evaluation of safety, I ought to respond with reassurance. If the reaction shows an evaluation of prestige, I ought to respond with signals of authority. If the reaction shows an evaluation of utility, I ought to respond with proof that the approach works.

Of course now I want to go back over each of the "what I say" portions of this blog post and check to see if I am actually doing what I ought to do to help people make the evaluation they are inclined to make. (I only noticed this pattern after I wrote all those sections.) How about I leave that as an exercise for the reader, and go get a sandwich instead.

I end with a question. If you give a spiel about stories that bears any resemblance to mine, what reactions have you noted? Do they fit within this framework, or have I missed any? And how do you respond? What works for you?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Podcast on stories in software development and IT

The podcast interview I mentioned in a recent post on stories about definitions of story is out, so if you like listening more than reading here's your chance to hear me get way too excited talking about story work in relation to software development and information technology. It's on Tom Cagley's Software Process and Measurement Cast: "Interviews, essays, facts and tips about process improvement and measurement in the Information Technology arena!"

Tom had sent me some questions before the interview and I thought about answers for all of them, but we didn't have time to use them all in the time we had. So I wrote up the bits we didn't get to. If you've heard the podcast consider this an addendum to it.

Tom asked:
SPaMCAST listeners I have talked with are specially interested in understanding how you might recommend using stories for two scenarios.  What are your thoughts on using stories: (a) to uncover requirements, and (b) to identify issues during a project retrospective?
The requirements part of my reply is in the podcast. This is the second part, about project retrospectives.

Most people think source code is instructions for the computer. But that is only part of the picture. If instructions for the computer was the only thing that mattered, people would still be writing in machine language. Source code is at least as much about communication of intent from one person to another as it is about instructions to the computer. To some extent source code is a collection of stories about what people want to happen and what has happened along the way. So when people think about software development they should think about helping and allowing people to write stories as they write code. There is a lot of deep knowledge in "tribal memory" about why software is the way it is, and it often takes programmers new to a project a while to read the stories embedded in the code. The more people realize they are telling stories and do it on purpose the shorter and easier this can become.

Here is a quote from Grady Booch on the issue:
As the code written today becomes part of tomorrow's inexorably growing legacy, preserving these stories becomes increasingly important. It's costly to rely upon informal storytelling to preserve and communicate important decisions; it's incredibly costly to try to recreate those decisions and their rationale when the storytellers themselves are gone. Insofar as a software development organization can preserve its stories in a system's written architecture, it can make evolving that system materially easier.
I would respond that it's only costly to rely on informal storytelling because we have poor tools to do so, and we could have better ones (and I'm working on better ones). With better tools informal storytelling could be a boon to software development.

When people work in complex areas where they have to solve problems and resolve dilemmas (such as in software development), they play out daily stories of tension followed by resolution. What I've noticed is that at certain predictable points in these stories, call them Eureka moments, people experience little bursts or pulses of energy for knowledge exchange. They want to tell someone what they discovered or fixed or decided. But in many work environments there is no way to capture those bursts of knowledge because no audience is available when the storyteller wants to speak, and the knowledge pulse dissipates and is lost. So an idea that would help improve KM in any group working in a complex knowledge environment would be to have a Eureka-moment system to capture knowledge-intensive stories before the urge to tell them dissipates.

I've noticed that when I am programming and experience such a Eureka moment, I often check in my code to the source code repository system. The system becomes my audience, and I tell stories to it. Sometimes later I go back and read the stories, especially when I'm returning to a project I had to leave for a time. I think programmers could be encouraged to do this more explicitly, and then the system could be improved to tell new team members the stories of the project. Imagine joining a team and having access not only to the source code but also to the Eureka (and "uh-oh") stories of its development so far. Some relatively small tweaks to repository systems could improve their ability to support storytelling in this way.

Also, there is no reason why source code repositories couldn't tell stories about the project as a whole to new group members coming in, or old members looking to learn from what has happened. Such systems collect huge amounts of information about what was changed and when and by whom, and with some thinking these could be formed into reports that tell the story of the project. This relates to the first point above, which is that if building software is as much a matter of communication as of engineering, systems that support it should support human communication as well as they support communication with computers. Telling stories about what has happened and why and what that means has always been a big part of human communication. This is especially true when people are working towards common goals together. I think more attention to this idea in software development would bring rewards to any project.

By the way, I mentioned on the podcast, and I'll mention it again, that Whitney Quesenbery's and Kevin Brooks' book Storytelling for User Experience is an excellent resource for the place where story and software design come together.