The narrative debate

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The narrative debate

I came across the following in one of Dave Snowden’s articles that I haven’t read for a while .. (it’s quite long, so please bear with me!)

“When people first become aware of the importance of narrative in organisational sense making, the often go through a stage when they think the best thing would be to tell stories in order to control the organisation or some issue.  This belief is a swamp across which consultants must guide clients safely, because it presumes that narrative is an ordered phenomenon which can be designed and directed, when in fact it is an emergent property of complex interactions.  (This is why the narrative and complexity elements of Cynefin programmes are deeply interlinked.)  Not only is attempted narrative control dangerous, but there is much more to be gained by using narrative to sense and seed patterns that cannot be approached in other ways.
Narrative is a powerful but largely hidden force in all groups, and it works best if it stays that way. It is used to implicitly negotiate many elements of knowledge, truth and meaning in organisations in ways that would not be possible in direct conversation. It is as dangerous to force narrative to the surface as it is to force an emergent workshop into a predetermined agenda. If you ask people to submit stories as deliverables outside of the context of group recollection, they will usually deny that there are any such stories, or they will construct artificial stories that they think will satisfy you without actually revealing anything important. Telling manipulative idealistic stories, conducting “expert” analyses of storytelling, and “extracting” stories as isolated artifacts into “knowledge bases” devoid of context, are all in danger of derailing the hidden course of narrative and jeopardizing its essential function.

A narrative database in particular is not a document repository (although it may usefully link with such things): it is something more powerful and more dangerous than that, and should be treated with respect.  This needs not only to be understood by consultants but also communicated to clients.  If they want a document repository, there are many places they can go to be given such a thing.”

I think this quite succinctly captures what I think of as the Narrative debate.  On the one hand there are those on the one side of the narrative continuum, which is about storytelling, on the other side there are those who use narrative as a means of probing complex problems.  I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle (as it usually does), but I also suspect that finding that truth will probably involve some healthy debate!



By |December 4th, 2007|Categories: Narrative|Tags: , , |0 Comments

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