Thursday, March 10, 2022

Cleaning the office again

So I'm working on another crazy new business venture (you'll find out soon enough), and when I start a new venture I always feel the need to clean my office. 

What are stories for?

Here's a thing I came across in my cleaning that I thought you might like to see. Years ago, I wrote about an experience that helped me understand the allure of stories. I was eating breakfast one day while leafing through a magazine, and I saw an advertisement that went like this:

something in small print


something else in small print

In a split second, my hand jerked the magazine up to my face. I had to know what was because of what. 

I used this little story to talk about why stories are so engaging. To survive, we need to know what happens because of what. Stories help us figure that out, because in every story, something happens because of something.

Well. When I was cleaning my office this time, I found that advertisement. Apparently I had ripped it out of the magazine and kept it.

It doesn't say "because." It says "more importantly." Huh. I remembered it wrong all these years. 

That's even better! Now it shows two things:

  1. Stories are engaging because we need to know what is more important than what. In every story, something is more important than something else. (It just so happens that this is also true.) Stories are importance filters. They help us to distinguish signals from noise.
  2. Stories are unreliable because we often remember them wrong, change them in memory, and use them to deceive ourselves and others. Stories can help us to distinguish signals from noise. But they can also distort signals, and they can create illusions of signals that do not exist. 

When it comes to making sense of the world, stories are necessary and insufficient. This is why narrative thinking works best in synergy with other modes of thinking. We are the storytelling animal, yes, and we are the list-making animal, the data-gathering animal, the hypothesis-testing animal, and the fact-checking animal. 

This is also why every folk tale tradition, going back thousands of years, includes stories whose purpose is to ridicule the simplistic belief that storytelling can ever be sufficient in and of itself.

Anyway, I thought you folks might enjoy that little story-of-a-story.

Anybody want a book?

If you have spoken to me over Zoom in the past decade, you may have experienced this snippet of conversation.

You: Some interesting thing.

Me: Oh, I have this great book about that! It's by . . . I don't remember, but it's here somewhere. Let me look.

You: More interesting things. 

Me: What? Oh, sorry, I was looking for that book.

This will no longer happen. I have finally rearranged all of my books into nice neat categories. 

What are the categories? What sorts of books does an ecologist-turned-social-researcher have on her shelves? 

  • folk tales,
  • narrative (separated, of course, into form, function, and phenomenon), 
  • story work, group work, community work, organizational work (including knowledge management),
  • anthropology, sociology, research (narrative, action, qualitative, mixed-methods),
  • ecology, science, history and philosophy of science,
  • complexity, complexity in human life (groups, societies, organizations), 
  • decision making, decision support, policy, conflict, political science,
  • knowledge, psychology, cognitive science, philosophy,
  • history, culture, cultural change,
  • art, writing, design (visual, educational, software, games), programming, statistics.


While sorting, I found multiple copies of several books. If anyone wants any of these books, send me an email with your physical address, and I will send it to you. The books are:

One of the books I "bought" multiple copies of was my own. Apparently, when I have needed to look up something in WWS, I have been taking copies out of the box of books I bought to sell or give away at conferences, forgetting that I had already done so. I found three of these extra copies of WWS, sticky-noted but otherwise pristine.

But on looking at my box of books, I think I should just give the whole thing away. I have about a dozen copies of WWS that would have gone into other hands over the past few years if I had been attending in-person conferences. But as it is, they are just sitting here taking up space. So if you want one, let me know, and I'll send it to you.

Of course, it will cost me something to mail books to you, especially if you are not in the United States. However, I am willing to set up a sliding scale so I can declutter my office. If you want to send me something to defray the shipping cost, go ahead and do that. (You can use the donate button on either the WWS or NarraFirma web site. On the NF site, the blue donate button is near the bottom of the page.) If you can't send me anything for the postage, I'll send you the book(s) you want anyway.

[Update: Due to this thing called inflation and shipping prices being higher than I remember, I have had to restrict this free-books offer to only those with a US address. Sorry!]

At this time I would like to extend a sincere apology to a person (they know who they are) to whom I promised to send one of my duplicate books several years ago. I forgot to do it, then lost the book.

If you ask me to send you one of these books, and I don't send it, please, keep reminding me.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Mail bag: How many stories?

Last week somebody asked me a question via email that I've already answered lots of times: How many stories should a PNI project collect? 

I was about to say "it's on page whatever in my book," like I usually do, but then I thought -- why don't I write something new this time, just to see what happens? I'm glad I did, because I think my answer is getting better as I keep doing more projects. Anyway, here's what I wrote. Maybe it will be helpful to you as well.

The "how many stories" question comes up often when people are planning story projects. The answer is a bit complicated, but it depends on six things: issues, ambitions, abstractions, experiences, engagement, and people.

Issues: One or many?

If you want to talk about one big, simple issue, you need one set of stories. However, if you want to talk about multiple issues, or one very complex issue with a lot of other issues embedded within it, you need more stories. 

One way I like to use to figure out if an issue is complex is to keep asking "And what issues lie within that?" and then stop when the answer is "there aren't any issues within it."

For whatever number of stories you plan to collect, you must multiply it by the number of discrete issues you want to talk about. For example, if I wanted to help people talk about jobs and homelessness, I would gather two sets of stories (with some common questions to tie them together), so people can explore each issue with the depth it requires.

Ambitions: Exploratory or in-depth?

If you want to:

  • prove without a doubt that something is happening (in a way that cannot be dismissed),
  • represent the voices of people who have not been heard (in a way that cannot be ignored),
  • help people think through an issue deeply enough to arrive at useful conclusions and plans (in a way that will not fall apart later on), then
  • you need more stories than if you just want to explore a topic and see what happens.

Ambitious projects need 2-4 times as many stories as exploratory projects. In an ambitious project, the patterns in the stories must be obvious, plentiful, and complex enough to be explored in depth. In an exploratory project, it's okay if the patterns are just interesting hints at things people might want to explore more fully in the future. 

Abstractions: Concrete or vague?

If you want to explore abstract issues that are difficult to explain in ordinary words, you will need more stories than if you want to explore simple, concrete issues. 

For example, say you want to know how people feel about the new traffic lights in your neighborhood. You can just ask people how they feel about the new traffic lights in your neighborhood. But if you want to explore how your community is building resilience for a 21st century future, or some other string of jargon that means a lot to some people and nothing to others, you might have trouble gathering relevant stories. Most likely, you'll get a lot of "scattershot" stories based on people's guesses as to what you might be asking them to talk about.

A good test is to write down a question you would like to ask people, then translate it into simple, everyday language. Search for the "1000 most common words" in whatever language the question will be in, then remove all the words in the question that are not in that list. Then ask yourself: if you frame your question in common words, will the stories told in response adequately address the issue you want to address? If yes, just ask the question that way, and you're fine. You won't need extra stories.

But if rephrasing your question with common words will push it far away from the issue you want to address, then you will need to collect more stories, so that some of the scattershot stories you collect will fall onto your target.

Experiences: With stories, or with stories and patterns?

If you want people to meet in rooms, share stories, and do some sensemaking exercises together, you can gather as few as twenty stories per session. You might do that a few times within a project, but as long as it's people talking, you can see and work with patterns in a few dozen to several dozen stories.

On the other hand, if you want to do what I call catalysis (which is just analysis without the definitive conclusions), you need at least 100 stories to start finding statistical patterns in your data (answers to questions about stories). At 100 stories most such patterns tend to be weak. At 150 or 200 stories patterns are stronger (and less likely to be considered fake or irrelevant). I get pretty nervous when I have do catalysis with only 100 stories to work with. At around 200 stories I start to feel more comfortable, because the patterns I find are easy to see and talk about (without worrying that people will say "there's nothing there"). 

This more-is-better trend continues until about 600 stories, when you start running into diminishing returns. At that point you are better off using your time to collect stories on a different issue (unless, of course, some other aspect of this list means you need to push the number up for other reasons).

Catalysis is not important to, or even advisable for, every PNI project. Sometimes you do need to generate a lot of graphs and statistics. But sometimes you can get the same result with fewer stories by having people work with the stories directly, in sensemaking exercises. It all depends on what sorts of experiences you want people to have.

I always advise people to imagine the people they want to help or reach (whoever they are) responding to patterns in the stories and other data they plan to collect. If you can picture those people looking at graphs and statistical patterns and saying, "Oh, wow, now I get it," then you want those things to show those people, so you need catalysis.

But if you can picture the same people saying the same things because they are working with the stories directly (i.e., without any graphs and statistics), you don't need catalysis. In fact, it might be a bad idea. It might waste time you can use for other, more important things, like talking to more people, holding more sessions, covering more issues, getting more stories to more people, helping more people learn how to gather and work with stories, or iterating over the project more times.

On my web site I have an excerpt from a catalysis report which a client allowed me to share. If you look at it, you can see what the patterns that come out of catalysis tend to look like. If that seems like it would not be useful to your project, you don't need catalysis, and you don't need hundreds of stories. On the other hand, if that sort of report seems like just the kind of thing you need, then you can look at the numbers listed on the second page of the report. Those are typical numbers for projects that support catalysis well.

Engagement: Deep conversations, or messages in bottles?

A lot of "what works" in story work has to do with facilitation and engagement. I once saw a project with 80 stories work far better (in the sense of generating more useful insights) than a project with 1600 stories. 

  • The stories in the first project came from a group session with 20 people that was carried out by an expert facilitator who helped the people in the room feel welcome, safe, and heard. As a result, the people really spoke to the issues, and their stories and answers to questions contained many striking insights. 
  • The second project used a web form that had embedded in it some constraining expectations about what respondents ought to say. Those 1600 people said more surface-level things, so even with 20 times more stories, less useful insight came out of the project. It was still a good project, but it did not explore its issues as deeply as the project with 80 stories.

So there is a quality-quantity balance. The more quality you can get in your stories (in terms of how deeply and authentically people can explore the issues at hand), the fewer stories will provide the same result. Conversely, if for some reason you cannot gather quality stories (maybe people are reluctant, or you can't talk to them in person), a greater quantity of stories can make up for it, to some extent. 

On some projects, quality is the primary constraint (so you need more stories), and on other projects, quantity is the primary constraint (so you need deeper engagement in the stories you can collect).

People: Small or large community? Small or large need?

The more people you want to listen to, and the more the people in that group need to feel heard, the more stories you need to collect. Participatory story work never results in statistical sampling (because it's self-selecting), but you do need more stories to talk about issues in a community of 10,000 than in a community of 100. And you need more stories in a community with a strong need to be heard than in a community where people have already had plenty of chances to speak up.

My general rule is that if at least 20% of the people in any community have shared stories in a project, people tend to feel that the collected stories are representative of the community. In cases where people in a community feel especially unheard, that percent has to go up, maybe to 30% or 40%. The story collection also has to be balanced to represent all relevant viewpoints, but that is the shape of the collection, not its size. 

Having said that, a rule of thumb based on percentage doesn't work as well if the population is huge. If, say, there are 50,000 people in a community, hearing from 20,000 of them might pose logistical problems. I have seen story projects collect 10,000 stories, but it's not the norm. Most projects have fewer than 1000 stories, just because the people doing the projects have limited time to gather and work with the stories.

In the case of a larger community, it's reasonable to say that 20-40% of the community should be invited to share stories. After all, it's more about who is allowed to speak than who actually speaks.

Web-based surveys tend to get a 5-10% response rate, so if 20,000 people are invited to speak, you would get something like 1000-2000 stories, which is doable logistically.

If stories are collected in person, in interviews or groups, it's hard to get 1000 stories, even if you invite 20,000 people. It takes more time and energy to come to a session or interview than to fill out a web form, so instead of a 5-10% response rate you will tend to get more like 1%. On the other hand, stories gathered in interviews and sessions are so much deeper and richer than web-collected stories that smaller numbers of stories may not be a problem (see above).

Another thing is that, if a project contains multiple sub-projects that explore different issues (also see above), they can together add up to hearing from 20-40% of the population, even when the population is large. You can link sub-projects together by using some common questions. If you do that, you can get to huge numbers of stories, spread across sub-projects within a larger, overarching project.


Thursday, January 6, 2022

Narratopia is an open source game

Two blog posts back, I said I was going to work on Narratopia again. I said I planned to work on two tasks: (1) trim the print-on-demand version of the game to make it cheaper, and (2) make the game easier to translate. 

I did try. For weeks. But both of the tasks turned out to be much harder than I anticipated. I could not find a way to trim down the print-on-demand cost very much. And I could not find a way to make the translation process easy for you without creating an ongoing burden for myself.

Eventually I found a solution. It happened through a chain of events that I would like to tell you about.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a visual artist, so I took every art class I could find. At first I had trouble getting started on new drawings. Every time I faced a blank sheet of paper I would freeze. So I developed a mantra: There's always more paper. I would look through my drawing pad, of perhaps 200 pages, and say to myself, "If I try to draw this thing" -- whatever I was drawing -- "this many times, probably at least one of them will be all right." And then I could start drawing. 

I've used that mantra for everything I've done since then: for every drawing, but also for every blog post, article, book, software package, game, and so on. That's why every project I've ever worked on has gone through so many versions. And that's why I intended to go back and work on Narratopia for a fourth time. I did work on it. I got stuck. I was trying to get unstuck.

Then, over the holidays, I decided to take a rare week off and play video games. I was playing a nice little puzzle game called The Last Campfire when I realized something about my mantra.

In The Last Campfire, you are a little pillowcase being, and you walk around a fantastic landscape helping other little pillowcase beings find the energy or hope or something to move on in their journey to . . . I don't know, I haven't finished the game yet. Anyway, so far all of these little pillowcase beings have been super grateful for my help, and I've been getting a nice warm feeling every time I help one.

But it's a lie. I'm not playing the game to help the pillowcase beings. I'm playing the game because the way you help the pillowcase beings is to solve puzzles. Solving the puzzles is interesting and fun. That's why I'm playing the game. The pillowcase beings are basically just animated buttons I click to get to the puzzles. 

So anyway, I was playing this game, and I thought: this game reminds me of my life. 

I have spent a good portion of my professional life as a speculative entrepreneur. Over the years I've worked on project after project that nobody asked me to do. I've written blog posts, articles, and books. I've developed concepts, frameworks, exercises, and methods. I've built software and games. I've started professional networks. I did all of these projects because I wanted to help people. But I also did all of these projects because they were interesting and fun. To some extent, the people I helped were just the buttons I clicked to get to the puzzles.

My next thought was: ah, but there is a critical difference between The Last Campfire and my life. In The Last Campfire, after you solve each puzzle and free its little pillowcase being, you get to walk away. In my life, it has never been easy to walk away from projects. Every project I have started has taken on a life of its own, and it has lingered, clinging, demanding my time and energy. For years, sometimes for decades. The downside of "there's always more paper" is that, well, there's always more paper, and more, and more.

Thus arose a new mantra: There's always more fire. An infinite capacity to create requires an infinite capacity to destroy. You can't have one without the other.

I can't believe it took me forty years to figure that out. This year, I resolve to get better at walking away from projects I no longer find interesting or fun -- even if I think people still need them. If people need them, people will step up.

So, when I got back to work, I decided to release Narratopia as an open source game. You figure it out. You can now download all of the files I used to make the game and mess with them yourself. If you want to print the game more cheaply, go ahead. If you want to translate the game, go ahead. I'm moving on to the next puzzle.