Monthly Archives: July 2007

The mythos and logos of story

I realise, with increasing intensity, the complexity of the layers of meaning in stories, and the challenge represented by so-called truth. What kinds of questions are raised, or answered, by using ‘factual’ and ‘fictional’ (or sometimes ‘factional’ as a former colleague coined it) stories, by contradictory version of the past, and by the complex layers of the practical and the emotional which are surfaced through story?

One slant on this comes from Karen Armstrong in her ‘Short History of Myth’ . In it, she disentangles “Mythos” deep values and meaning – and “logos” – practical lessons and knowledge. (My bold)

“Logos is quite different from mythical thinking. Unlike myth, logos must correspond accurately to objective facts. It is the mental activity we use when we want to make things happen in the world: when we organise our society or develop technology. Unlike myth, it is essentially pragmatic. Where myth looks back to the imaginary world of the sacred archetype or to a lost paradise, logos forges ahead, constantly trying to discover something new, to refine old insights, create startling inventions, and achieve a greater control over the environment. Mythos and logos both have their limitations, however. In the pre-modern world, most people realised that myth and reason were complementary; each had its separate sphere, each its particular area of competence and human beings needed both these modes of thought. A myth could not tell a hunter how to kill his prey or how to organise an expedition efficiently, but it helped him to deal with his complicated emotions about the killing of animals. Logos was efficient, practical and rational, but it could not answer questions about the ultimate value of human life nor could it mitigate human pain and sorrow.

From the very beginning, therefore, homo sapiens understood instinctively that myth and logos had separate jobs to do. He used logos to develop new weaponry, and myth, with its accompanying rituals, to reconcile himself to the tragic facts of life that threatened to overwhelm him, and prevent him from acting effectively.

When I read this, it was enormously powerful in shedding light on something that had eluded me about story for the first, oh, 10 years or so. And what I like about it is that it’s so bloomin’ obvious I can’t think why I didn’t see it before. Those are the best kinds of discovery, the ones that are uncovery of something that was there all along. (Reminds me again of Rilke and his inhabit the questions. I’ve blogged it before, but, as with study of sacred texts ( small deep enquiry into a small set of texts, as in koranic study, rather than a wide shallow trawl across many), its one of those quotes to come back to over and over again, so I’ll insert it here, before picking up my thread again:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Inhabit the questions now. Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some distant day into the answer.”

The mythos/logos thing helped me understand one of the things (a very important thing) which goes wrong with storytelling in organisations. Not just with explicit storytelling under that banner, but with all kinds of organisational communication, audit, review, planning, process, workflow. So don’t just file this under the cateory of those narrative people whining on. This is of fundamental import to the dysfuncion of most organisational systems I’ve experienced. It’s so important, I’m going to put it in bold, in direct contravention of Jane Austen’s advice (Mansfield Park) about etiquette in writing.

We fail, in most circumstances, most of the time, in most organisational systems, to understand which mode we are in (how to kill a bear/how it feels to kill a bear), or which mode we need to be in, or that the linked ways of being -mythos and logos – must both be present for something of meaning to be taking place . We muddle the mythos and the logos and fail to understand that they are there to perform different functions. So when we conduct, say, a lessons learned evaluation, we tend to home in the logos (how it went wrong) and diminish the usefulness of the mythos (what catharsis is needed for those who feel shamed, hurt or vulnerable because they feel responsible for it going wrong) by ignoring it, or worse, by shuffling things which need to be about emotions into the logos part of the evaluation and prodding at people’s bruisedness. Or even worse, we bundle the mythos into a few spun phrases which sidestep ritual and the need for the sacred altogether, and so spin people, centrifugally, away from the heart of the acts and into some distance place to nurse their wounds.

In his work at Cognitive Edge, I’m pleased to see that Dave Snowden makes a place for sacred stories in his categorisations.

I was at a workshop last October at the International Storytelling Centre in Jonesborough, Tennessee. One of the speakers suddenly said mid speech, ‘point to yourself’. Without exception, we all pointed our fingers at our hearts. And he said ‘You see, no-one points at their head.’

Since I came across the distinction I’ve found the logos/mythos divide a useful one to hold in mind. We need to be prepared to hear both parts – the mythical and the logical, the emotional as well as the practical. The mythical parts are inevitably more difficult to hear and digest, they are messy and often challenging, and the ‘truths’ may come to be told through metaphor and analogy that challenge the tidier analytical frames in which senior management feel comfortable conversing. But it will be necessary to acknowledge them even so.

See how I dip my toe in the river of metaphor but still don’t take the immersion plunge.

Soon. Soon.

Peel me another ant

I’m finding the bubbling and brewing of possible threads of thinking which I need to fumble into writing quite a torment. At the risk of mixing my metaphors too greatly I’m finding the hints of ideas and piles of old scraps and scribbles bouncing around, sometimes bouncing off each other, sometimes sticking to each other to make a fuzzy kind of chain of enquiry. It always ends with more questions that’s for sure.

And somehow I notice with some alarm I’m ducking metaphor, even though I need it, because I can’t wrestle it into a place where I can see it clearly, let alone write anything down Although I’ve a nice article I’ve kept on dog-whistling politics as a way into writing about it.

And then, I’m wondering about bias in narrative enquiry and documentation, how we select memories, how we recall, what role remeniscence plays in opening up future possibility.

I’ve also got a nice little riff building which tries to link Elias Canetti’s ‘Crowds and Power’ with the recent news that Fiona Reynolds is going to take the National Trust into being an environmental activitist, and a small article in the newspaper on the same day about how sex-workers are clubbing together to give foreign sex-workers English lessons to make them a bit safer. (I once shared a childminder with Fiona, a long time ago, and I can tell Gordon Brown and whoever now runs DEFRA, I wouldn’t be in their shoes.)

And then again, I’m tormented (almost to sleeplessness) by the stupidity of having taken on a 7,000 word commission to write about knowledge intensive firms, knowledge work and knowledge workers. But I don’t even know where to begin with it. I realise after 12 years I know nothing, nothing about what knowledge work is, or knowledge workers. Do I start with the knowledge economy and move down, as it were, into the day-to-day? Do I try and make a distinction between knowledge and information. I lay awake in bed last night trying to work out which of the following were knowledge workers:
architect, structural engineer, site project manager, bricklayer, electrician, plasterer
consultant, doctor, nurse, volunteer
lawyer, compliance officer
office of fair trading policy maker, callcentre manager, call centre worker
clothes designer, shop manager, shop assistant
scientist, researcher
librarian, knowledge manager, information officer
web designer, code writer
professor, phd student, mba student, undergraduate
sushi chef, maitre d’, waiter, plongeur
or what about a health and safety officer?

Or do we all slide in and out of knowledge work? Say the scientist is really only a scientist until he works in a multi-disciplinary team and has to shape his independent contribution to be collaboratively effective without being watered down? The waiter is only a waiter when he serves table, but a knowledge worker when he knows exactly where a particular guest likes to be seated? A call centre worker is an information worker until he has to handle a difficult call from an angry customer with a long history of difficult dealings which needs unravelling and piecing back together so the right actions can be taken? A plasterer is only a plasterer when he does an odd job or works under instruction, but a knowledge worker when he works in a team who have to construct a house? Is it knowledge work for the help desk woman to say ‘have you turned it off and back on again?’ I was down the Orange shop the other day because I couldn’t hear people ringing me and they couldn’t hear me. The very helpful man undid the back of the phone, blew hard into it and reassembled it and it worked fine. Last time something was wrong he got the SIM card out, got a children’s eraser and rubbed off whatever static had built up and that worked too. Is that knowledge work? I think so. It takes a lot of knowledge to know something so simple is the answer.

I am hanging on by the merest thread here of being able to make any sense at all of the distinctions, only slightly helped by an article I read in an Irish business magazine I picked up while idling my way back from Geneva on a plane yesterday. It talks of Ireland as a knowledge economy.

‘[An] example is the change that has been going on in medical technology. Go back 20 years and we were producing disposable items – products that would be used once in a hospital and thrown away. Now we are producing cardiac stems and we are producing orthopaedic instruments. What has happened with all of those is that tehy are high-value-added products that require good engineering and technical skills. So instead of paying operatives E.25,000 to E.30,000, they are now employing engineers and technicians that earn E.40,000 to E100,000 each. That is the change to the high knowledge economy. The people employed now have to have skills. More importantly for us, they are people who innovate. They aim to improve processes and do things better and apply that knowledge.’

Would that make, say Jamie Oliver a knowledge worker (chef, TV, restaurants, social responsibility) and my local Italian delicatessen/cafe, restaurant not? Even though there’s probably been as much entreprenuership, hard work, know-how, innovation and risk taking down the road to get that off the ground?

Or is knowledge work about connecting people, brokering links. There’s a danger that, in our energy to identify, profile the jobs of, list competences for and upskill these people, whoever they are, we make it essential that they are both busy and seen to be busy, always on the go, always meeting in third spaces, wi-fired up, always updating themselves on the world, and the world on them, responding to email enquiries on their blackberries, constantly foraging for the networks which will compensate for the lack of social capital and thinking time they could build if they were allowed to sit in one place (cold desk?), put up pictures of their family and go home at five. I remember once, in a piece of work on physical knowledge spaces, somebody told me that when she really wants to think, she doesn’t stay at her own desk. Too many interruptions. She goes and hides at a hot desk.

I can’t help thinking of bee colonies. It’s the dumb old workers, the dones who get to do all the work while the queen lounges around shouting ‘peel me another ant’ while she contemplates the mystery and philosophy of the bee hive and its associated rituals and hierarchies over the millennia. I bet she gets more knowledge work done than they do.

I’m reminded of a rather excellent book by Jane Jacobs on which I’m sure I’ll write more and on which I’ve written before in the good old days of knocking out never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width papers with Clive to force us to think on different subjects. (Rather charmingly, he rang last week after a long silence to say it’s time we wrote our potboiler.) Jane Jacobs is a very interesting woman. ‘Systems of Survival’ is a very interesting book, essential, in my view to getting to some clear thinking in this muddled domain of knowledge management and knowledge sharing. In the smallest of nutshells, she writes that there are two, and only two, human systems. One is the Guardian system, conservative, looks after it’s own, fuelled by tradition, ritual and the stories which hold the present community clearly linked to the past, not comfortable with strangers, deal with each other through bonds of trust not legal contract. The other is the Trader sytem, explorers, travellers, deal-doers, contracters, they go out, encounter new worlds and people, they strike deals, make money, acquire capital of various kinds. Big businesses are Trader systems. the Public sector providers have largely been a Guardian system. To try and mix the two is to try to mix oil and water. They don’t. I’m not going to unpeel the layers here, except to say that, in my view, in our knowledge management world, we’ve not done enough to understand the implications of this. We bungle about, with our snatched bits of Einstein and Peter Drucker, our magpied scraps of theory from different philosophies of knowledge and schools of management theory, culted gurus, and make out like knowledge work sits comfortably simultaneously in both the Guardian and the Trader systems. But where does a community of practice end and a marketplace begin? Are the knowledge workers the boundary people who are uniquely competent to see both worlds and pass from one to another and back again?

I don’t know. I’m in a state of entire not-knowing. My best hunch though is to flick through the literature on the subject, so as not to get caught out by how others have seen it, but let it pass through not rest in me, and to look for my inspiration in other places. I’m going to look at people and places and businesses and things I admire and try to see the knowledge work in it and see where that takes me, rather than start with abstract notions of knowledge work and knowledge worker.

I must go and lie down now.

‘You’ve got a whole repertoire of silences, don’t you?’

‘You’ve got a pissed-off one, and a resentful one, an I-hate-you-so-much-I’m-pretending-to-be-deaf one, and a worse one which is I-hate-you-so-much-I’m-pretending-to-be-foreign-and-I-don’t-understand-anything-you’re-saying. Your silences are the most eloquent thing about you. I can read them the way an eskimo reads snow.’

From ‘Memory of Water & Five Kinds of Silence’ by Shelagh Stevenson.

We don’t like silence in organisations. Apart from Quaker business meetings, I can’t imagine that most businesses would begin with a few moments silence to orient people. We plough on, with agenda, timetables, interruption, challenge. I’ve never before made a real list of silences and in fact was going to blog on something else triggered by this play but it’s too important to pass up now I’ve happened on it. Lets try and make a list of organisational silences.

1. There’s the management-speaking-at-you-which-silences-you silence
2. There’s the deafening-silence-of-lack-of-feedback
3. There’s the worker-silenced-and-the-management-doesn’t-even-notice silence
4. There’s the silence-about-what’s-really-going-on-masked-by-a-plethora-of-apparently-informative-memos silence
5. There’s the I-sent-you-an-email-asking-for-your-commentary-and-you-didn’t-reply silence
6. There’s the silence-of-avoidance-and-survival – if I keep quiet she won’t ask me to do such and such
7. There’s the silence-of-one-unwilling-to-blow-the-whistle-on-bad-practice-because-he-will-be-shot-as-the-messenger

I’m going to spend the day adding to this list. I doubt any of them would be positive. In fact I wonder whether most of them boil down to an unlistening leadership (and lets not confuse listening with consultation), a neglectful management, poorly handled requests for help or the silence of a workforce bleak with cynicism after the last round of consultation where their opinions were asked and appeared to count for nothing.

In story and narrative terms, silence and pause are essential to the rhythm and unfolding of the story. Silences are moments of recognition, high emotion and drama, or pause – shifts from one state to another. In conversations, silences are attention, acknowledgement, contemplation of what is being said. In some cultures, it’s appropriate to hold a silence, to allow what the other has said to sink in. So by squeezing out silence or using silence as a means of avoidance or disapproval, organisations do themselves no favours.

In one piece of work, we were investigating the relationship between functional services and the emotional context wrapped round them. Would people respond differently to a poor service if it were handled with empathy, or would that cut no ice? We worked with members of a callcentre, whose normal function was to pursue people who had not fulfilled contracts of various kinds. Their training was to use silence to nudge the recipient of the call into a flush of discomfort – not aggressively, just careful polite silences to get people to feel more obliged to cough up their side of the bargain. In working with us they found it quite a challenge to shift to a warm silence, an invitation, a leaning back to create a space between the caller and the recipient in which the conversation would grow. They were too used to leaning in, getting a bit close and face to face, pushing the other to lean back onto the back foot.

In the story work we’ve done, we’ve found silence essential, but also quite difficult to manage. One technique in workshops is to encourage people, at the end of a telling, to sit in silence, and perhaps wave their fingers and hands above their heads instead of clapping. Clapping cuts off the story and the pause it needs to sink in.

When we use pinboards, we often find it useful to mix rounds of call-out, small group work etc with silent rounds of card writing. These perform several functions
1. those with quiet voices or unpopular views are not drowned out – they get a chance to write what they want and this becomes part of collection of views which are ordered by the participants themselves
2. it’s important to make room for the second wave, the unrehearsed thoughts and memories where real nuggets of insight are to be found. There’s a great tendency only to give room to the rehearsed and ready, and miss sight of the fact that the unrehearsed, more private messy stuff behind it is the thing one needs to be giving room to.

I experienced the power of silence in great force once, in a workshop run for the London International Festival of Theatre by Peter Reder. A group of business people and young musicians met at the Union Chapel in Islington. Each of us brought 5 items and started by sitting in circles, telling the person next door what these items signified. Then we were asked to gather in one big group and, in silence, lay out objects, one of us at a time, in a way which we privately thought them to be associated. We created characters – a bloke with snazzy dark glasses, a mobile phone, a packet of fags, a bottle of vodka, who you could almost see sitting at a bar in a speakeasy. A young woman with a shell necklace, swaying in a grass skirt under a palm tree on a desert island somewhere.

And then Peter asked us to move the objects from where they were and create different groupings, again all in silence. We catalogued them – all the mobile phones together, all the car keys. And then we did a third round, I can’t remember what. And then we did speak about how we’d come to do this together and why we’d made the choices we had. There’d been almost a dreamy limbo, a sense of moving through water, not air, or a dance, as we’d collaborated in silence to make these groupings.

So its less about silence than about shifts in pace – a move from the relentless timetabling of organisations, deluded into thinking they and their meetings and projects are trains, and can run on time. Room for slowness, tempo shifts, rhythms of work (something Clive Holtham and I used to write about a lot under the working title of Slow Knowledge).

Yesterday I was reading a lovely little book – ‘Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Soicety’ a note of conversations held between Daniel Barenboim, the Jewish musician, and Edward W Said, the Palestinian author. At one point in it, Barenboim talks of the mistakes musicians make about tempo:

‘You know, tempo is always related to content, and many musicians make, to my mind, the fatal mistake of first deciding on a tempo. They take a metronome, sometimes given by the composer, which is inevitably too fast because when the composer writes the metronome marktins, he doesn’t have the weight of sound. He only has the imagination in his brain.

…Anyway, this has led, at least, many musicians simply to take the decision of the tempo as a first decision and, then, see what content you put into it. And you cannot do that. It’s exactly the other way. IT’s the content htat really determines the tempo.’

He does go on to say that there is a certain necessary speed as well if the music (say the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh) is not to dissipate – things lose the chance to succeed when the tempo becomes too slow.

But my point is this: what leader of an organisation do you know who is willing to eschew ‘quick wins’ and to stand up to auditors, board members and investors in establishing the right tempo for different projects, plans and kinds of work? What workers are willing to slow things down or speed them up because the internal rhythm of the work demands it, not the external demands of the organisational planning cycle?

An unpronounceable Chzech man, whose name I must recall but which has remarkably few vowels for its length, wrote well on this. He called the best kind of time ‘flow’ – the moment when you are alive in time and lose track of time – in the making of a sculpture, or writing a good passage, or performing, or attending a performance which holds you entranced. Why not make ‘flow’ the aspiration of the organisation at all levels?

It’s the same with all units of time. From a ten minute telephone call (something you could Dennet-wise call an organisational meme) to a one hour meeting to a monthly team meeting to a Board meeting or the annual reporting cycle. They all take time, and much of it is redundant time dressed up in busy-ness, noise and action. If we had the courage to tug at time, slow things down, speed them up, change the beat, use time in the variety of ways it offers, not in the monolithic way we’ve been convinced of – well, then, time (and it’s wise use) would generate tremendous energy, not the pall of inertia which so often hangs of the processes and production cycles of the system.

Taking stories to the other side

In one of the episodes of the final series of the West Wing, CJ Cragg is more and more frustrated by her inability to make a dent, leave something behind. So when someone from an NGO tries to make an appointment with her, she breaks with habit and gives him a slot in her diary.

He overwhelms her with statistics about the atrocities in Sudan. Thousands, millions, terrible things, rape, amputation, devastation. It’s all beyond her grasp, there is nothing she can imagining doing in this vastness of human failure, and he can see from her face that he is losing her attention, so he says, suddenly

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

20 words (I approximate, from memory.)

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

You can see the image of this slice through her helplessness and frustration and spring her to action, unorthorised by the President. When, at the end of the episode, he calls her to task for not having cleared things with me, it is this that she says to him. All the same, neither would have acted on those 20 words alone, although it took the 20 words to push CJ to action. The big numbers, the huge evidence of human tragedy filtered through the tiny glow of unbearable imagery.

This embrace between narrative and analysis was brought to mind for me yesterday by an article in the Guardian called ‘When the lights go out, students take off to the airport’

It tells the story, spliced with statistics, of the children in Guinea who go to study by the floodlgihts at Bgessia International Airport because they have no electricity at home. I doubt I would have read it if it had said ‘The lack of eletrictricity in Guinea is a ‘geological scandal”, although that quote comes further down in the article, when I’m ready to read it.

Some big challenges here, which must always be held close to the heart in marrying narrative and analysis in a thoughtful and authentic way, not just to pull.

The first is, how to make sure the illumination is not dramatising, but genuinely representative and informative, a way through image or metaphor, to help people find their way into a subject. In this article I really could hold the picture of the children and their education in mind and fill myself up with statistics on a subject which I had only thought about a little before.

An old article from March 2006, in something called OW weekly (whatever that is), lies filed in my ‘Small Stories’ category in my slowly emerging filing system. It is a profile, by Carole Cadwalladr of Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. Mary has been transforming the language of aid. She says

‘If we keep this conversation in trade langauge, then it keeps it as trade. But if we can show the human-rights consequences then i’ts more powerful. It makes people very uncomfortable.’

Cadwalladr goes on to say

‘Everywhere we go, Mary has a story to tell. At the coffee farm, she tells her audeince how she grew up surrounded by farmers in ‘the poorest part of Ireland’. At the Amana hospital she points out that Ireland’s history was not so very different from that of Tanzania, a poor ex-colonial land with a tortured history. There’s a story for everyone. And this, I realise, is what Mary does…you’ve got to be able to tell people things in language they understand. And what Mary’s doing is taking stories to the other side. To US member of Congress, she too takes from the cotton fields of Mali, of babies lying in ditches, because of the US governemtns’ $4 billion of aid to US cotton farmers. To the Tanzanians she tells stories of Ireland’s rise out of pverty adn to the country’s president Kikwete, she presses home how small changes in the health-care system that we saw in action at Amana hospital can signficiantly reduce the nubmer of women who die in childbirth.’

Steve Denning, formerly of the World Bank, coined the term springboard stories a while back for these small, condensed evocations, which he sees as an essential part of the armoury of the leader, tiny sparkplugs which spring people to imagination and action. (It’s by far his best book in my view, although I find that it limits the concept of storytelling in organisations to one to do with higher order communication and leadership skills and that’s not where I’m inclined to spend my time. But his categorisations and especially the appendices are rich food for thought on structuring and placing a springboard story and should not be bypassed by anyone with an interest in the subject. I’d also like to make clear that, whatever my critique, I have the utmost respect for Steve in what he has done to transform the credibility and acceptance of narrative and story in an organisational context, not least in co-founding the Golden Fleece with Madelyn Blair and others.)

What I’ve spoken of so far is a mix, about which I’m truthfully a bit uneasy of factual journalism spiced up with strong images which will draw the reader in, and the stories that inspiring leaders select for themselves from their own autobiography, and what they witness and carry with them as travellers who cross the divide between worlds.

How are we all to make sure connection between the big context, the facts, and the small stories which bring them to life are kept honest? How are we to keep the difference between analytical reporting and storytelling positive and make sure holds its integrity. In a 5 year project working with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation we worked towards, and ended up with a guide to using story as an instrument of knowledge management in an aid setting: ‘Story Guide: building bridges using narrative techniques’ At the beginning, we showed two ways of telling of the same thing. The first had been collected through a technique for sharing personal experiences collectively that allows, through emergent self-selection, the stories resonant for the community be identified by them.

The Inspiring Pot
“Bangladesh is a really impressive place… in a positive sense. I was in a village last year working in water and sanitation. We were trying to promote the use of improved latrines, but could not produce concrete slabs and rings locally for a low cost. Somebody told me to visit the latrines of a lady in the village, so I went along and said, “Can I see your latrines?” She had made a latrine out of a clay pot with the bottom cut off. Then with a potter from the area she developed a small local production of bottomless pots, and they became the latrines. Ingenious.

A few weeks later I was in another village and saw a hand pump; it was broken, just a small piece missing. So I said to the villagers, “Why don’t you repair your pump?” And they said, “Oh, we just wait for another donor to bring a new pump.” So I said, “Why don’t you visit the lady in the village over there? She finds ways of getting things done for herself.”

Perhaps 30 personal stories of experiences in the field had been shared (in repeated rounds in smaller groups) and then people had selected the most resonant for them, bringing it down to 3 stories which held collective meaning. These were retold to the whole room, and recorded word for word (in this case, frantic typing, normally with a small Olympus or mini disc)

A while later, when we were trying to convey what the written conventions of organisational reporting do to shrivel and spoil raw materials, I rewrote this as

Lessons learned from fieldwork in Bangladesh

“In our evaluation of a project in Bangladesh we noted a wide variance in the competence of individual villages to develop sustainable and effective solutions to problems encountered, for example in replacing broken parts or developing low cost products for example new latrines. The lessons to be learned from this evaluation are that we should:

* work against over-dependence on donors;
* note and encourage entrepreneurial approaches to problems;
* identify existing and repeatable good practices;
* build and strengthen communication between villages to assist cross-fertilization of ideas at the grassroots level.”

I always meant this to be tongue in cheek: an ironic way to make an important point. And we’ve used the comparison a lot to engage people with the subject. It always works. But I’ve come to see that both ways of conveying the material work well. Jacques actual story, recorded by us, is a terrific illustration of the dependence that can develop on aid workers and the helplessness of those provided for. But the duller, less illuminating translation into report-speak also acts as a bridge, a way to summarise and abstract and create a way to compare this with other illuminations to find common patterns. It’s both/and not either/or.

Coming back to electricity and it’s lack. This has come up for me in respect of another challenge, which we noticed acutely for the first time when running a story competition for the Islamic Development Bank. The competition, ‘Voices from the Field’ invited IDBers (‘IDaBers’, those who work for this impressive development bank) to submit true stories of the impact of the Bank on its beneficiaries. How to set the judging criteria for such a competition is a long blog for a different time, and much more besides on the process of handling such a competition. We did it pretty well, building on two previous competitions. But we still noticed a new challenge in the selection of longlisted and shortlisted winning stories. It was so much easier to respond to stories of personal journeys than those of big projects. The young girl in Bangladesh, given a grant to do vocational training who ends up running her own sewing business; the young man, given a grant, who becomes a doctor and goes home to set up a health centre. These were so much easier to tell and respond to than the big electricity and road projects which have more systemic substance.

And we found ourselves giving particular credit to those who could, somehow, convey the big projects but bring them down to the personal. One winning story, as I recall, was about an electricity project, perhaps in Sudan. The teller began with a powerful evocation of the consequences of the lack of electricity – the sweat, the dark, people dying on operating tables. And then the presence of IDB as a contributor to an infrastructure project which brings electricity is conveyed via watching a news report on television. And we move back to a personal view of what it feels like afterwards.

I raise this to bring me back round to the beginning – the marriage of narrative and analysis, huge systemic systems and their human impact in a truly representative and not a dramatising way, but one which will change the perspectives and actions of the listener or reader.

But I’d like to end in a slightly different place, which is surprise. The IDB judges surprised themselves in their judging in several ways. In judging this story, one of them said that he hadn’t expected to be moved by such a story in some ways. After all, they are common experiences for most in member countries, not much out of the norm. But in fact when he was reading the stories for the first time, there was a power cut in Jeddah, and as he lay awake slick with sweat it suddenly flashed into his mind that he had forgotten what it was like always to be in the heat and the dark. So the story re-evoked for him personally, in a powerful way, the point of why he went to work. To stop such things happening.

In Algeria over the past 10 years or so they’ve gone from 2 – 15 newspapers.

All well read too and only lightly censored.

No blogs for days and then two come along at once. Typical of the information highway I say. But this has been on my list to post for a week or two and I’m thinking hard about our new assignment – a Knowledge Enquiry into the knowledge transfer and knowledge economy impact of the cultural assets (experts, collections, spaces) of London (museums, archives, libraries). So what is knowledge transfer? What’s a knowledge economy? What is evidence? How do you find it out? How do you verify?

This is something I found out (but have not checked on) in conversation with the Algerian man who runs a stall in the farmers market. An excellent stall with bourek and Algerian flatbreads and pastries and mint tea, all of which he makes himself. We always chat, about this and that.

How did I find it out? Not by asking about newspapers, but by talking to him about how safe I’d be travelling as a Western woman alone in Algeria.

Now to me, it’s interesting for 2 reasons which we might want to think about in our narrative enquiries and building of evidence bases:

1. an interesting shred of evidence. Only a shred. But he’s an educated man, been here for 17 years, very attached to his home land, observant. In his view, with which I happen to concur, the increase in range of press is an indicator of a society which is opening up to challenge and so more robust. It’s a little nugget to hold on to, a bit of a surprise, something which leaves a knotted handkerchief in the mind as a reminder to build other shreds around it – Algerian shreds, things to do with how the published press, censorship and so on can be indicators of the openness of a society.

2. I found it out in passing while asking about something else. So it was offered to me tangentially by way of evidence that I would be treated with openness not hostility. I wasn’t looking for it. I was looking for something else altogether.

Which leads me to wonder the extent to which we need to ask direct questions or to ask indirect questions which lead us to shreds and snippets we can built into patterns.

Which leads me in turn to wonder about horizon scanning methodologies and inferential research and whether we should boning up on these in any way.

Two dimensions is not enough.

“At 400ft they see a big black man and they cross the road to avoid me,” he explains. “At 200ft they cross back because they realise that I’m a professional basketball player and they want a closer look.” But recently, he says, they have come a bit closer and then crossed again. “At 50ft they recognise me as the gay bloke who just came out and then they cross back across the road again.”

This from an article in the Guardian about John Amaechi, a British Sportsman who became a big star in American basketball. The article is called ‘I’m not just that big gay bloke’

The power of this tiny extract in putting you into his experience and being able to witness (lets be truthful) yourself from the outside, is quite shocking.

I was reminded of the article posted recently on opendemocracy called ‘Mulitiplicity not long division’. I’m going to quote from the beginning and then make a couple of observations.

‘I heard a hilarious story from a big burly London taxi-driver. To please his younger daughter, he had got up very early one morning and drove all the way to Cardiff to buy her an expensive rare-breed dog. “It cost me an arm and a leg and it looks like a toy sheep. Now, of course, at the end of my shift, my wife is at work and the girls are at dancing class, I have to walk the dog. I don’t know why, the missus bought this pale pink lead with gold studs. So I’m walking along when I spot a mate driving his cab and I try and stuff the dog in my pocket because I don’t want him thinking I’m gay.”

Here I bridled a little. But this was a nice guy. Although he was one of the lads, he adored his family and clearly would do anything for them, he was able to laugh at himself and he entertained me. None of my gay friends would be seen dead walking that dog either. The wider point is that the cabbie defined himself too narrowly, drawing on the stereotypical view that you can’t share characteristics with a group you don’t belong to.

The world seems to be ruled by this kind of binary thinking. From the technology we use to terrorism, it’s the one / nought principle, the on / off switch, the yes / no question, the in / out classification or for / against challenge – which, by limiting individual identity, imagination and allegiance, creates and exacerbates social division. Those in power use it deliberately for their own advantage. The binary logic of politicised group identity means that belonging to one group equals conflict with another. As Diane Enns puts it in a new paper from the Berghof Peace Centre, we inhabit “a world in which identities are endlessly generated in binary pairs, pitted against each other.”

Now I find two things interesting here. The first is that she used a personal anecdote to punch her way into a complex subject. The anecdote (Geertzwise) is a window into a big pattern. And I’ll come back to that. But you could imagine both this and the short extract about John Amaechi being pretty good conversation starters, things which slow you down a bit, interrupt your thinking, make you see a subject in 3d, not 2d.

(A detour here. I recently went on a sculpture course, having hardly done anything with my hands in my life except type and cook. Our teacher pointed out that sculpture differs from painting in that it exists in time. Or to be successful it exists in time. You can’t just see it from one vantage point. You, the viewer, need to travel through space and time to appreciate and question it. If you can, you should touch it too. Taste the knowledge. Although that’s not where I got the name of the blog from. Another time.)

I’ll come back to the 2d 3d part. But I’d like to travel via Jim Lord’s book ‘What kind of world do you want, which I referenced once before.’ I find it a puzzling and slightly flimsy book, so I’m intrigued that I’ve referenced it twice now and thought about it quite a bit. Informed by Appreciative Inquiry, it makes well the point that complex thinking arises more readily from concrete example. p. 129

‘Here’s a simple example from the way staff at the University of Michigan prepared for a $3billion campaign. In the middle of a flip chart, we wrote the name of a gentleman who had made one of the largest commitments to the university. Then the small group offered factors and conditions that they believed had influenced that person’s decision to invest. They included even something as seemingly small as a casual comment made by the receptionist.

As we began to discover the lively interplay between all parts of the system, we created our own theory of contribution, a theory distinctive to the university’s history, culture and community,a nd to the particular individual. Sucha specific, complex, nuanced understanding stands in sharp contrast to the more usual view that contributions result from simple, generic cause-and-effect mechanism….’

So viewing things from the specific is much more likely to yield a 3d picture. It’s a banal truth of course. But why are we, in an organisational context, largely to unable to take this truth on board and use it to do work for us? I’d suggest it’s because it suits us to hide behind the binary in may of our systems and organisations. It’s safer that way. You can stay disengaged, stay in your head, not engage your heart.

This takes me to Amarya Sen and his fairly recent book ‘Identity and Violence.’ In an essay derived from the book in Slate magazine, he says

‘A person belongs to many different groups, of which a religious affiliation is only one. To see, for example, a mathematician who happens to be a Muslim by religion mainly in terms of Islamic identity would be to hide more than it reveals. Even today, when a modern mathematician at, say, MIT or Princeton invokes an “algorithm” to solve a difficult computational problem, he or she helps to commemorate the contributions of the ninth-century Muslim mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, from whose name the term algorithm is derived (the term “algebra” comes from the title of his Arabic mathematical treatise “Al Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah”). To concentrate only on Al-Khwarizmi’s Islamic identity over his identity as a mathematician would be extremely misleading, and yet he clearly was also a Muslim. Similarly, to give an automatic priority to the Islamic identity of a Muslim person in order to understand his or her role in the civil society, or in the literary world, or in creative work in arts and science, can result in profound misunderstanding.’

This in turn leads me to Christoph Maier’s work on diversity, which I first came across at a knowledge management thing at the ILO a couple of years back. I’ve been prompted by this line of enquiry to get back in touch with Christoph, because I’ve a hunch there’s a great deal in this 3d thing which we need to push into organisational conversations of all kinds. I’ll write more on that when we’ve corresponded. Meanwhile, here’s an abstract I found online about his kaleidoscope approach:

‘The author proposes a fresh perspective on diversity. The individual ceases to be simply a member of a certain nation, ethnicity, race or gender group, and becomes a multi-faceted, unique kaleidoscope – a treasure for any workgroup. Setting out from this perspective, a conceptual framework for leading diversity – the ‘leading-diversity dice’ – is developed. This framework focuses on personal behaviour and the interactions of workgroup members. It defines leading diversity as a rational, emotional and spiritual process that centres on a shared humaneness and the African concept of ‘isithunzi’.

As I recall, any person at any moment can be driven by many facets of their present and historic situations and their future aspirations. This means that the kaleidoscope of which they are made up shakes and shifts all the time. To reduce any individual to black, white, Muslim, Christian, rich, poor dehumanises and corrodes the social fabric.

I can’t quite grasp at the reasons behind the segue to my final fragment, although they must be there somewhere. But this reminds me of what Anthony Gormley says in the introduction to the booklet accompanying his current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, ‘Blind Light’

‘You could say that there are two very discrete and almost oppositional places where a sculpture belongs. One is physical: in a landscape or a room, and the other is in the imagination of the viewer, in his/her experience and memory. They are equally important and in many sense the work is there waiting – almost like a trap – for the life of the viewer to come and fill it, or inhabit it. And then once ‘capture’ the art – or its arising – inhabits him or her.’

Why do I think this is connected? I’m really not sure. Perhaps it’s something about the role of the viewer, interviewer, reader, audience, and all the back history and kaleidoscope they bring with them into any situation which means each experience is unique in both it’s simplicity and its complexity. Probably too, it takes me back to the theme, the need for 3d thinking, but in fact not just thinking. 3d experiencing with all the senses if we are to make sense of ‘the systemic swirl of forces and conditions inside and around [a] person and those closest to him.’
(Jim Lord again)

In this case in fact, certainly with Allotment II which consists of reinforced concrete 300 life-size units dervied from the dimensions of local inhabitatns of Malmo aged 1.5 – 80 years, it really is a concrete experience, not a tired metaphor. For once.

Metaphors next, I’ve a feeling. Better gird my loins.

Fiction as a place of truth

I’ve written on this before and I’m bound to write on it over and over again because it’s at the very heart of our work as narrative enquirers in an organisational context.

It comes up for me again now because of the literary festival currently going on in London which has the theme of saying the unsayable A session I missed was with Kamila Shamsie and Tahmima Anam. In an article preceding the session in the Guardian Kamila Shamsie writes of growing up in a censoring dictatorship in Pakistan, an era when the ‘absence of truth was often possible without recourse to lies.’. She writes of the thrill of the effect of Shame, by Salman Rushdie, a book about politics in Pakistan:

‘Shame was never going to attract a vast readership in Pakistan, but for me – at 10 too young to read the book – it was the first indication that fiction was a place of truth, more trustworth than the news.’

She goes on to say that fiction writers can go to places which news reporters and historians fear to tread. And all the same, the emotional truth which becomes possible through fiction is not possible without facts:

‘You need to know the contours of the world into which you are going to drop your made-up characters and their made-up lives; when people ask me which parts of my novel are based on things that really happened, I point out that I can’t make up context, only the shapes that fill it.’

Another take on the truth and fiction comes in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi. The subversive women’s book club she sets up reads first ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. Nafisi says:

‘I formulated certain general questions for them to consider, the most central of which was how these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women. We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novles provided and the closed ones we were confined to. I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that ‘readers were born free and ought to remain free’.

So for Nafisi, rather in the Chinese way, the dislocation of time and space and examination of the big stories of birth, death, love, freedom, oppression, through literature creates a freedom for the reader to see their own life through the window of another experience.

But what about another challenge of the truth – it’s relative dullness. In his brilliant book ‘Stuart, a life backwards’ Alexander Masters starts, in chapter 0, with a disappointed conversation with his subject (Stuart, Shorter: thief, hostage-taker, psycho, addict, raconteur):

‘Stuart does not like the manuscript.
Through the pale Tesco stripes of his supermarket bag I can see the wedge of my papers. Two years’ worth of interviews and literary effort.
‘What’s the matter with it?’
‘It’s bollocks boring.”

And he suggests
‘Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.’

And so that is what Masters does. Triumphantly. It is an extraordinary story. Stuart’s life backwards, and Alexander Master’s own growth and change through the challenge of grappling with both finding out this life and struggling with a way to structure and convey it. And not only that, in the background, as he learns of the bigger issues of homelessness, addiction, abuse, and the institutitions involved, an extraordinary, vibrant, informed picture grows of this whole issue of homelessness which transforms the reader’s insight. So fact, fiction, story structure, biography, autobiography all blend to convey a far greater truth than either the facts or the story on their own. An embrace of narrative and analysis.

Dave Eggers faced the same kind of issue in trying to share the story of Valentino Deng, one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan. In the Guardian Review of 26th May, there is a long, fascinating article called ‘It was just boys walking’ which details his struggle to wrestle the facts, gaps and partial recollections of his subject into a form which would engage the reader:

‘Valentino and I met up in Atlanta and San Franciso, spending days and weeks together, recording his story. We talked for hundreds of hours on the phone and sent thousands of emails back and forth…..I had been working on a book of oral hsitories from the lives of publics chool teachers in the US, and had studied different methods of storytelling. I assumed I would simply interview Valentino, straighten the narrative out a bit, ask some follow-up questions, and then assemlbe the book from his words. I even imagined for a while – much of our first year together – that I would simply be the editor of the book, not it’s author.’

But at the end of the first year Eggers realised that the material he had ‘did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaer articles already avaialbel to the world. It was clunky, spare, and full of holes.’

After huge labours and an emotional rollercoaster, Eggers finally did four things to make a window through which the truth and strength of the story could be conveyed:

1. He did source research himself, going to Sudan to fill in the gaps and increase the richness of the description
2. He wrote it as fiction

This raises some interesting issues for Thomas Jones, reviewing the book in the London Review of Books. In a genuinely favourable review, he raises some pertinent questions about authorship and ownership, which I’ll write more about another time:

‘And yet, that a story so concerned with so many different forms of dispossession should itself be subject to a ‘variety of appropriation is not unproblematic, and requires a more positive justification than mere silence. Eggers, unlike many of Achak’s American friends and benefactors, does not feature as a character in What Is the What. No doubt it was important to avoid distracting readers with anything that could be mistaken for cute metafictional trickery, one of the less interesting but more remarked-on aspects of Eggers’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a lightly fictionalised account of bringing up his younger brother after the deaths of his parents from cancer. But in What Is the What, Eggers is conspicuous by his absence from the narrative, which leaves you wondering how his name came to such solitary prominence on the cover, how the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng came to be ‘Copyright © Dave Eggers’.’

3. He used the more recent experiences of Deng, being mugged in his own home in the US by people he didn’t know as a framing device:

‘It was at this time I knew the book needed to be not only about Valentino’s expeirences in Sudan ajd the camps, but also about the many unforeseen struggles of his life in the US.’

And finally, he underpinned the structure with an ancient creation myth known in southern Sudan, which gave the book it’s final title ‘What is the What’

And then this today from Knowledge at Wharton on Michael Crichton’s new book ‘Next’. The article is called ‘A Novel on Genetic Research: It’s ‘Fiction, Except for the Parts That Aren’t’

A few extracts to get the juices rising, my bold:

‘In Next, published in November 2006, Crichton takes up genetic engineering again, this time from the vantage point of the law.

Next weaves together several storylines in order to trace the complex and confusing interplay of scientific innovation, legal loopholes, moral limits and economic opportunity.

Together, these real and imagined stories create a troubling portrait of a teeming biotech industry marred by corporate greed, legal confusion and moral uncertainty. Crichton’s is a world in which marketing executives promote the idea of using genetically modified animals to sell their products. It’s a world in which lawyers debate whether one’s body parts might actually be the highly profitable property of someone else. And it’s a world in which no one knows how to think through the biological and ethical dilemmas posed by a science that can rearrange natural boundaries at will. What people in this world are left with, in the absence of scientific and moral clarity, is the corrupting promise of unlimited economic opportunity and a legal system that is frighteningly ill-equipped to cope with the kind of ethical puzzles genetic research raises.

Crichton’s point is that as science outpaces the understanding of lawyers, judges, and government officers, our ability to maintain a coherent legal position on it is being radically compromised. And, as the examples cited above show, he has written convincingly on this point for some time. In Next, he crafts a novel around this argument as a way of painlessly developing it (a fast-paced story is always easier to follow than a complicated analysis). This might sound like cheating. And from an analytical viewpoint it does leave something to be desired. But a novel offers Crichton something nonfiction does not: It provides him with a way to help readers use their imaginations to grasp the implications of the law as i now stands


it’s evident in new kinds of scientific research, futures work and horizon scanning, this kind of blend of fact and fiction, present reality and future imagined states will become a necessary form, because only through hybrid vehicles of this kind can we have the kinds of debate and be moved to the necessary actions which we need to have as a society, a nation, and beyond national, cultural and educational boundaries. It’s worth taking a look at some of the work done by Defra (and in part commissioned from Sparknow) in their Horizon Scanning and Futures unit to explore this further.

I feel strongly that all these structural devices, the blend of fact, fiction, biography, autobiography, metaphor, myth, folktale, legend, traditional stories, the reorganising of time from liner to parallel to reversed, must all be explored by us who seek to do work using story and narrative in the context of organisations, to find ways to show people themselves and others, the worlds and systems they live and work in, the differences they can make. We must not be sucked into the pointlessness of the business case study in our attempts to render our lives, and the lives of others, truthfully. I’ll just keep on coming back, over and over again, to Clifford Geertz but Clifford Geertz plus.

‘In attempting to answer grand questions …, the anthropologist is always inclined to turn toward the concrete, the particular, the microscopic. We are the miniaturists of the social sciences, painting on Lilliputian canvases with what we take to be delicate strokes. We hope to find in the little what eludes us in the large, to stumble upon general truths while sorting through special cases.’

[From the introduction to Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia by Clifford Geertz, 1968]

In our narrative enquiry, we must hold onto our role as miniaturists and act as custodians who find ways to get people to see and hear and feel those tiny moments which hold huge difficult truths. And to do this we must play with new forms of representation to make sure what we make tears in the fabric that has been so cunning woven, which deludes us that the way organisations report on themselves, because apparently factual is truthful. It is not.

I’ve always liked, in this respect, the Buddhist notion of having a deep grasp of the past and taking a long view of the future in order to understand the now.