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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Four in the braid

Last week I went to a workshop at a thinktank in DC on social networks and behavior, desirable and otherwise. Something happened there. You will like it. Maybe not today, but soon.

Coming to the braid

As I participated in the conversations about social networks I did what I always do: I saw patterns. I noticed that the things people were saying about social networks could be described as having three dimensions:
  1. the flow of ideas, memes, concepts;
  2. who knows whom, relationships, nodes and edges; and 
  3. memberships, shared contexts, the life of groups.
So I started drawing little triangular and cuboidal pictures of these three dimensions interacting: ideas, relations, contexts. Then I noticed that they matched the "braid" of ideas I like to think about, which is based partly on Harrison White's three species of identity interaction. (If you know about this already, why not get a drink and come back. I'll just be a minute.)

In the second chapter of White's 1992 book Identity and Control (an excellent book for the patient reader) he explores three "species" of interaction between identities in human society, or ways people interact whether at the individual or group level (or both at once):
  1. selection, or sifting, sorting and categorizing;
  2. mobilization, or relating and persuading; and
  3. commitment, or working in groups toward common goals.
I have found these dimensions of great use in my understanding of how people interact ever since I read about them sometime around 2005. In 2009 I published a paper called "Three strands in a braid" about how they relate to aspects of identity and areas in the Cynefin framework and can be used to design better social software. There I put it this way:
  1. Selection of categorical aspects of identity based on characteristic–based evaluation of safety operates across the chaotic/complex boundary.
  2. Mobilization of relational aspects of identity based on membership–based evaluation of importance operates across the complex/knowable boundary.
  3. Commitment of positional aspects of identity based on placement–based evaluation of utility operates across the knowable/known boundary.
Or if you like pictures better:

So I was sitting there last week in this workshop drawing these diagrams and the braid came to mind. This was not surprising since we were talking about people interacting.

It's full of stories

But then, all of a sudden, another piece fit into the puzzle. I have no idea why it happened just then, because it should have happened six years ago, but I wrote this on the diagram:
  1. ideas = selection = story form
  2. relations = mobilization = story phenomenon
  3. context = commitment = story function
The explosion of possibility inherent in this connection may not be immediately apparent, but I have gotten more excited about it every hour since it first burst forth.

This table may help: (or not):

species of interactionselectionmobilizationcommitment
identity iscategoricalrelationalpositional
parts or wholes? each part singlypart to partpart to whole
evaluation is ofpurity, safety prestige, importance utility, quality
interaction space (these are White's terms, I don't like them)arena council interface
for examplemarketplace legislature aircraft crew
on-line SharePoint
the question asked isfriendly? hostile?dominant? submissive?useful? useless?
peoplemix and matchconnect and rankbuild and use
evaluation is bycharacteristicsmembershipspositions/roles
the activity issifting, including, excluding coalition building and dissolutionrole lock-in and ritual transfer
these things are networkedideaspeoplecontexts
the area on Cynefin ischaotic/complexcomplex/knowableknowable/known
hierarchy strength isuniformly weakrising and fallinguniformly strong
meshwork strength isrising and fallinguniformly strongrising and falling

Still here? Now let's add in the story dimensions.

species of interactionselectionmobilizationcommitment
the most relevant story dimension isformphenomenonfunction
stories havegenreshistoriesuses
example stories arefolk talesurban myths, rumorsmedical records
stories are studied bynarratologists, folkloristsanthropologists, sociologistscognitive scientists
stories work when theyattract, engage, stimulate, spark connect, travel, repeat, growexplain, reveal, surprise, overturn
stories help peopleexplore ideas, define themselvesshare experiences, build connectionsunderstand problems, make decisions
collected stories might be used to help peoplethink about what sort of person they would like to beget along with others, find common groundmake decisions and plans, solve problems
purposeful stories might be used toposition a productrecruit membersdesign a product

The reason this is so exciting is that it has implications for how we can deliberately work with stories to produce useful outcomes when people interact.

When I told my husband about this discovery he suggested a useful way to test it: try to break it. If I am right about my flash of insight, some combinations should make more sense than others. So here we go. To make the comparisons simpler I'll take the three examples of stories I give above (folk tales, urban myths, medical records) and think about how they might be used in selection, mobilization and commitment.

Testing story form: folk tales

Folk tales are used by all societies to make sense of life itself. They present a substrate on which we can explore categorical aspects of identity. Folk tales are often exaggerated, strange, obscene, frightening, funny and full of chance. They push us near but not quite into mystery. They don't tell us what to do or whom to trust, but they do give us a behavioral repertoire to mix and match. In any sufficiently complex body of folk tales one can "go shopping" for identity. I remember doing this as a child, wandering through books of fables looking for ones that "spoke to me" because they captured some essential element of my self-image. After I found a good match I would revisit it year after year to find validation in my chosen form. People do this today more often with movies and television and video games than with ancient folk tales, but the mechanism is the same: we create cloaks of identity out of characteristics assembled from the stories society offers us.

As people build their cloaks of folklore (also including songs and proverbs) they use them to represent themselves to others. My dad used to say, when he was working on some carpentry or mechanical project, "A blind man with diarrhea wouldn't stop to look at it." Meaning, it's good enough. But there is another message: I enjoy clever puns. (Shockingly, Google has not heard this joke.) This and many other silly little stories he used to tell were his way of expressing who he was. I use quite a few of his stories myself for the same purpose. Another person might say, "Good enough for government work," and that would say something about them (and they would know that).

Today many people use movies and television shows to think about who they are and to tell other people about it. If I say "that's shiny" I have identified an important characteristic of myself to a whole group of people. I even wrote it once on this blog, knowing it was a secret signal to other Firefly fans. I knew I shouldn't do that, I did! But I couldn't help myself. I wasn't reaching out to build a coalition with other Firefly fans: I was simply saying "Yes I am as bad-ass as the people on that show." Very silly and very human. In this sense folk tales and their contemporary counterparts are no different from the purchasing choices we use to declare our characteristics to others. We wear them, and because we wear them we try them on and see if they fit. Folk tale collections and movie schedules are wardrobes.

Are folk tales used to build coalitions? Not on their own. People sometimes use stories to convey messages and draw people to a cause, but most cause-related stories are not entirely fictional. I do have several folk tale collections on my shelves put together with themes - let me see - on girl power, peace, teaching, managing; but these are not used to draw people into a coalition. They are meant to be used by people already in the coalition, to explore how they will work within it and what it means to them. I doubt old men buy folk tale collections about girl power.

Are folk tales used to get things done? Sometimes, but obliquely. Story facilitators might use folk tales to help people build stories, but the folk tales provide only scaffolding, not content. They are subordinated to the real stories which are the more crucial element.

Testing story phenomenon: urban myths

Jan Harold Brunvald is the authority on urban myths. Says he in The Vanishing Hitchhiker:
In the world of modern urban legends [unlike in folk tales] there is usually no geographical or generational gap between teller and event. The story is true; it really occurred, and recently, and always to someone else who is quite close to the narrator, or at least "a friend of a friend." Urban legends are told both in the course of casual conversations and in such special situations as campfires, slumber parties, and college dormitory bull sessions. The legends' physical settings are often close by, real, and sometimes even locally renowned for other such happenings. Though the characters in the stories are usually nameless, they are true-to-life examples of the kind of people the narrators and their audience know firsthand.
If you have ever heard a real live urban myth, not a story about one, you probably remember it. When my sister and I went to college together she used to tell amazing stories to which I of course listened with perfect gullibility. She was sure they were entirely true and that some friend of some friend had actually heard them from a friend of ... and so on. It was only when I was much older that I found them in urban legend books and realized what she had been passing on. My favorite was the exploding toilet story, which I believed to be true for at least a decade. I fear I am too well informed now to experience the fun of participating in this societal phenomenon, but I think that's not unusual. The fact that urban legends move more through younger people is probably indicative of their greater need to understand how they fit into society.

The words in Brunvald's explanation all have to do with connection: recent, close, friend, casual, local, renowned, "the kind of people," firsthand. This connects strongly to mobilization, which has to do with the shifting connections of group formation and dissolution. Says White:
The council species, familiar in social mobilizations, are disciplines centered on a process of balancing contending but ever-shifting coalitions. Preexisting strings of dependency set up the endless process of mobilizing and remobilizing, as in an extended kin group with corporate rights whose allocations are balanced and rebalanced in a mutual discipline. The dynamics of contention keep this discipline going up and down in a scale of mobilization.
What he means is that mobilization is about lots of people working out who to trust and hang out with, which has something to do with who can get you the things you want and who might take the things you have. This is pretty much the function of urban legends in society. Here are the five most popular not-true urban legends on right now, and what they say about groups:
  1. Putting your burned hand in flour can cure a burn completely. Message: the doctors are not telling us everything. Us: the people. Them: the doctors. (Note: This is not true. Don't do it.)
  2. Criminals are soaking business cards in a prescription drug called "burundanga" to incapacitate their victims. Message: People are waiting to capture you, and prescription drugs are dangerous. Us: the public. Them: criminals and drug companies.
  3. A movie is coming out soon that will portray Jesus as gay. Message: Atheists are out to destroy society. Us: Christians. Them: Atheists.
  4. A (fictitious) young girl is missing. Message: criminals are trying to steal your children. Us: parents. Them: criminals.
  5. Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Message: He is not one of us. Us: Americans. Them: Obama.
I was going to cover the top ten, but the top five made my point so well I didn't have to go on. Folk tales might differ around the world, but they are essentially the same stories about universal life adapted to local conditions. Urban legends might cover similar themes around the world, but they are locally situated in scope and meaning.

Are urban myths used to sift and sort? Yes, but that is not their dominant characteristic. There are collections of urban myths, but they are used more to explore societal movements and changes than to shop for characteristics of identity. People may build collections of stories they tell, but they are used more to warn people about other groups of people than to explore how we should live. When you get an email that says "Watch out because UPS uniforms have been stolen by terrorists" (the number 11 false tale in the current list on it is not about life lessons but about who to trust. Whom to trust, I know, but it just looks wrong.

Are urban myths used to get things done? The only scenario I can come up with that involves this combination is that of researchers paying attention to urban myths and rumors to find out what people are anxious about. However, that is not a case of the stories themselves being useful, but of the stories of the stories being useful. In other words, researchers pay more attention to transmission and change in the telling of urban legends than to the form of the stories (characters, setting, conflicts) or their function (cognitive benefits).

Testing story function: medical records

A strictly utilitarian set of stories, evaluated on quality for purpose, constrained to limited distribution, and rigidly structured, is found in the medical histories in the file cabinets of any doctor's office. (I mean, on the computer in any doctor's office.) My doctor's office has one on me: when and where I was born, my family history, my injuries and illnesses as a child, teenager and adult; my allergies, concerns, and lifestyle.

The primary use of medical records is to get things done: to treat patients effectively, consistently and carefully. Information usually does not travel between patients or doctors but stays close to its task. In fact, constraints on the spread of medical histories are crucial to the performance of the care team. If the patient cannot speak in confidence and have their history protected, treatment will be compromised. The cognitive functions of stories come to the forefront in medical records. Doctors look for patterns that help them diagnose conditions. Anomalies and surprises matter, as do correlations and correspondences.

Are medical records used to build coalitions? Only anonymously and never in detail. Research studies sometimes compile facts about patient demographics, lifestyles, and conditions; but they work with facts drawn from stories rather than from whole stories. Sometimes a group advocating for stronger funding for medical research on a condition will use the story of a patient to persuade people to join its cause. But the story used in this way is not a medical record; it is a personal, emotional appeal devoid of clinical detail.

Are medical records used to sift and sort? Not whole stories. Doctors and hospitals do sometimes compile information about patients in order to boost their diagnostic abilities. But as with the mobilization case, this information is generally compiled piecemeal. Even when people self-diagnose using stories told on the internet, they are not reading medical records; they are reading stories of personal experience, which include emotion and perspective but not detail. (Personal stories are not good choices to illustrate any of the extremes of story form, function or phenomenon, since they blend all three elements.)

Story dimensions and confluence

Assuming you don't violently disagree with these connections, let me explore a bit more into the confluence space of each of the story dimensions. To repeat:

species of interactionselectionmobilizationcommitment
evaluation is ofpurity, safety prestige, importance utility, quality
story dimensionformphenomenonfunction
example storiesfolk talesurban legendslife stories
hierarchy strength uniformly weakrising and fallinguniformly strong
meshwork strength rising and fallinguniformly strongrising and falling

Story form and confluence

If story form is most relevant in selection interactions, it should involve weak hierarchy and variable meshwork. In a collection of folk tales, whether it is written in a book or remembered by a grandfather, there is little if any hierarchy involved. Most of the books of folk tales on my shelves have no explanation for the order of the stories in them. A few categorize the stories by theme ("Animal Tales" and so on) but this is for convenience. What is important in folk tale collections is their flexibility to adapt to many connections and uses. An excellent storyteller is able to draw from their collection whatever story is most appropriate to any situation.

Divination systems, by the way, are essentially story collections, and they have little in the way of central ordering. The I Ching goes so far as to connect itself to the great meshwork of all being, which for about ten minutes in 1989 I may have actually believed. All divination systems connect themselves to some sort of order, but it's not hierarchy they call upon. The sad thing about divination systems is that because people think they ought to work, their great utility as books of wisdom is little known.

If story form is most relevant in selection interactions, it should place emphasis on purity and safety. This holds, because it is in the spheres in which story form is most important - narratology, screen writing, the study of folk tales - that the purity of form matters most. Books in these areas spend a lot of time on definition, categorization and exclusion. What sort plot arc does the story have? What motif? What genre? Is it a "good" story?

Here's a quote from a recommendation of a comic novel: "There's a purity of storytelling and a level of artistic proficiency here not seen often enough in American comics." Another, by an actor about a movie director: "'He's making a movie from his heart. Even though Chris makes these gargantuan movies, he manages to maintain that purity of storytelling. I think that's a big part of why so many people love his movies." Can you imagine these statements being made in reference to a rumor or a medical record? Or even to someone's personal story about their child's birth? Wouldn't that be an insult rather than a compliment?

Story phenomenon and confluence

If story phenomenon is most relevant in mobilization interactions, it should involve strong meshwork and variable hierarchy. This is true of urban legends, which are all about the hierarchies that control our daily lives. Government, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, food providers, police, organized crime, religious organizations, entertainment providers. It is hard to find an urban legend that is not about the actions of controlling hierarchies. You might think the legends about criminals manipulate meshwork connections, but no: they are about control, centralized control, by criminals over many people. The great majority of abductions are by family members, but these do not turn into urban legends. People who seize control of larger situations - serial killers, snipers, neighborhood burglars - are more likely to be found prowling in urban legends. Urban legends are all about control by people other than yourself.

If story phenomenon is most relevant in mobilization interactions, it should place emphasis on prestige and importance. This is also an element prevalent in urban myths, which swirl around the famous and infamous. When the people in urban myths are not well known or entirely made up, they are identified as noteworthy by their extreme appearance or behavior, or they connect to archetypally important images. Here's one: after the recent tornadoes in Florida, a story went around about a toddler found safe in a refrigerator who said, "A man with wings put me there." The prestige in this story is related to the power of angels. It is probably impossible to find an urban legend that does not relate to power as well as to group distinctions. The large number of current legends in the US about terrorists and Muslims shows how much people feel the need to work out who they can trust.

Story function and confluence

If story function is most relevant in commitment interactions, it should involve strong hierarchy and variable meshwork. This is true of medical records, which are centrally constrained in distribution and internal structure. You may manage to squeeze a personal story into your medical appointment, but your doctor is not going to write it into your medical record unless you mention an incident of a medical nature. Of course doctors think about similarities among patients and learn from experience, but the doctor is the central authority and stories cannot travel through any other path. Certainly patients do not share their detailed medical histories with each other; they rely on authorities to manage any coordinations. Variable meshwork comes in when doctors look over your file for connections between constituent elements of your history. Do you have a family history of heart disease? Do you live a sedentary lifestyle? Experienced doctors can see clusters forming in the attributes of a patient's history.

If story function is most relevant in commitment interactions, it should place emphasis on utility and quality. I've heard it said among doctors that a diagnosis can only be as good as the history that informed it. Medical schools place emphasis on learning how to take a complete and detailed history with high utility for diagnostic success. But doctors do not learn how to find out the social status of patients, which would be useful if mobilization was the goal, or whether they are dog or cat people, which would help to categorize and select them.

The quality of a patient history is so important to medical care that doctors sometimes direct their patients (or attempt to direct them) to keep symptom and food diaries. When I was a child I had terrible allergies and was hospitalized for intestinal bleeding that turned out be lactose intolerance. I well remember the arduous task of writing down every morsel of food I ate for months at a time (which of course made it impossible to sneak sweets). That's hierarchical control for you, and it chafes, doesn't it? Going to the hospital, may I never do so again, is not so much about pain but about loss of control. Memories of food control are probably why I refused to keep a migraine diary for decades, though I must of course sheepishly admit that finally giving in and doing this was what led me to the great reduction of the condition. The meshwork of connections between the foods and the headaches practically jumped out of the notebook and surprised me. The story had a function and carried it out. It had great utility.


So there you go. I think I have proven to myself that the scribbles I made last week do mean something. But have I proven it to you? Is anyone still reading this? No matter, I will plunge on.

Why does this correspondence matter? Because it has great utility on a number of different scales.

We can think about why different dimensions of stories work best in different interactions. We can tell stories with attention to those dimensions, and we can listen to stories with attention to those dimensions. Say I want to better understand how an organization works out issues of power and prestige. I should make sure I pay close attention to eliciting stories strong in the phenomenon dimension: perhaps rumors, or stories about rumors. And I should ask questions about those stories that pertain to story phenomenon. Where did this story come from? Has it changed? Where would you tell it? And so on. Now suppose I am planning a different project, one to help a product designer understand the fundamental characteristics of her users. Can you guess? I should pay attention to story form, because that will bring out characteristics for selection. I should probably get people to tell stories and derive their own archetypal constructs, as means of representing those characteristics in meaningful ways. Do you see?

We should also be able to think about transitions between dimensions in different parts of a story project. I did a project once where we asked inventors about the patent process. We had three goals.
  1. We wanted to understand what people needed to help them get through the process, so internal policies might be updated or corrected. For this we needed information on the quality of the process and where it might be improved. This was like medical records but instead of symptoms and spasms we wanted to know about bottlenecks and enablers. 
  2. We wanted to understand how people cooperated and connected as they invented things and worked on patent applications together. For this we needed information on the importance of various people in the system; who could get things moving, who people went to for advice. This was like finding out the urban legends about "how things work around here."
  3. We wanted to build a learning resource to help new inventors get up to speed. For this we needed information about the characteristics of an effective inventor, one more pure in their application of the process. We needed to find the heroes of the folk tales about invention and patenting and compile collections of wisdom.
This was an example of a project in which the goals were mixed; but the implementation of the goals took place at different times. At one point in the project we were writing recommendations to the people who ran the patenting process, so there we should have paid special attention to story function. At another point we were mapping out who we should invite to our story collection workshops, so there we should have paid special attention to story phenomenon. Finally, near the end of the project we built a learning resource that incorporated real stories. There we should have thought about story form. I hadn't thought of any of this back then and can't remember if I did pay attention to different aspects of story, but if I could go back in time I would use this idea there. Though I would probably go back to some other time, to be truthful.

Finally, this connects to something I've been thinking about for the past few months in relation to the field of organizational and community narrative. If the entire field of story work is a system, how could this "braid of four" help people work together to cooperate and build better projects together? My work lies in listening to stories, and this means I pay a lot of attention to story function and story phenomenon, but little to story form. Most of the people "on the telling side" pay a lot of attention to story form. I've always wondered how we could work together better, and this connection gives a possible answer. White and others have thought about what happens when interactions transition between the three dimensions, say when people move from selecting to mobilizing. We can apply these same transitional concepts to cooperation across different areas of story work. What should we pay attention to? What should we watch out for? I haven't got there yet, but I think this may be a promising path.

I am aware that I have probably not explained these connections very well. I have not yet figured out how to talk about White's dimensions in a way that doesn't cause people to look for the coffee machine. I half-wrote another blog post about where White's dimensions came from, because I think knowing their story makes them make more sense. I think putting it in this post would break something, so I'll post it later.

By the way, I was upset at first because my braid had grown another strand, but just in time I started reading the excellent book World Textiles, which explains that a braid can have any number of strands, not just three. I did not know that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What are you building?

Here is a small insight, just a tiny one, you might find useful.

One of our every-spring projects is our gradual cabin. Last spring we learned how to set up and stabilize a foundation, so last year it was just a tent platform with a big tarp over it. This spring we are learning how to frame walls, and the cabin will soon be a screen house (with a big tarp over it). Next year, finances and spare time willing, we will learn how to build roof trusses, and it will be a screen house with a good solid roof. Eventually it will get walls and windows and insulation and become a cozy little cabin with all the amenities. That's the plan anyway.

A few weeks ago we built the two through walls, eight feet long, with common studs placed 16 inches on center. (Note the rank amateur's snobbish parading of knowledge.) Then we built the first butt wall, eight feet minus two wall widths long, with common studs placed 16 inches on center.

So there we were, about to start building the last wall: last because it had the complicated door opening in it. (We avoided window openings by saying we'll have ... thin windows that fit between 16 inch studs. Yeah, thin windows, that's the ticket. What can I say? Gradual buildings look gradual even when they are done.) So I'm sitting in the living room looking up door framing one more time, and I come across this paragraph in The Black and Decker Complete Outdoor Builder:
If the wall is a butt wall, mark the plate at 1 1/2", then move the tape so the 3 1/2" tape mark is aligned with the end of the plate. Keeping the tape at that position, mark at 15 1/4" (for 16" spacing) or 23 1/4" (for 24" spacing) then mark every 16" (or 24") from there. The 3 1/2" that are "buried" account for the width of the through wall.
On seeing this I do what I usually do when skimming: see a lot of numbers, think "ugh, numbers, complicated" and skip it. But this time something holds me back. I go back and stare at the paragraph again. It seems to mean something. I read it several more times and meaning begins to emerge.

Here, I will graciously translate it into non-expert-carpenter-speak for you. It says:
The butt wall is shorter than the through wall, because it doesn't go through. It butts up against the wall that does go through. That's why we call it that. The edge of the butt wall is not the edge of the building. It's not even the edge of the wall, once you put the walls together.
So if you want your standing-up boards to be correctly placed, so that when you nail your pieces of plywood onto them you are not nailing into nothing, you had better not put them 16 inches from the end of the butt wall, but 16 inches from the end of the building. That includes the end of the through wall.
So ... if you already did put the studs in the wrong place, take the wall apart and move them. Now.
As I took apart the wall and moved the studs I pondered this revelation. (Luckily I always use screws so I can take things apart after I ... provide illustrative examples of things not to do. You know, teaching a child, you have to make these sacrifices.) I had made a conceptual blunder: I thought I was building a wall. But I was not building a wall, I was building a house. If I had not happened upon that paragraph before I put the walls together I would have added the double plates on top, put on the screening, and found out only years from now that I had nothing to nail the wall sheathing onto. 

I find I like this visual image a lot: the wall itself, the wall in place, the studs where they seem to belong, the studs where they do belong. I find I can use it in many domains. Say you are building a story, a data set, a report, a solution, an initiative, a software product, a career, relationship, a life. Are you building a wall? Are you sure? Is that the only thing you are building? Is building a wall getting in the way of building a house? Where might you try to fasten something on, years from now, and find only thin air where there should be support?

Useful questions?