One of the anecdotes I’ll tell in support of using narrative techniques within the organisational culture realm is this one, gathered from an anecdote circle in the banking sector:
A client relationship manager needed to meet face-to-face with a client regarding a query on his account. This client had a reputation in the business for being grumpy, insolent and very volatile. Knowing this, she asked her manager to accompany her into the meeting … for backup. During the course of the meeting, for some reason, the client got so angry that he stood up and lifted his arm to hit the employee. Fortunately, her manager was quick enough to intercept his strike and held his arm at bay. The CEO of the business heard about this incident and invoked a restraining order against the client – he could remain a client of the bank, but he was never to set foot again on the premesis.
Now, you draw a parallel between this story and the often-found statement on a company’s Our Values poster: We care for our staff. Which one says more? The statement, or the story? Which one provides context for the value? The statement, or the story? Pretty clear, isn’t it?
And so, when punting the use of narrative in organisations I’ll often say how narratives are high in context … thus providing a depth of information that isrelevant and specific. I think it’s a pretty good argument for how useful narratives are.
But then, Barrie has recently referred me to a book that takes a dialectical stance on the usefulness of narrative – a stance that counters the usefulness of narrative and purports that narrative has a “compression”
effect that, due to our intellectual make-up, allows us to focus too
much on the specifics and lose sight of the alternatives open for
consideration. The books is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestseller The Black Swan.
A Black Swan is an event with three attributes:
- It is an outlier, beyond the realm of regular expectations,
- It carries a massive impact, and
- We concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
Taleb’s argument is that we are hardwired for the specific i.e. we
have a blindness with regards to to randomness, and it is therein the
randomness that lies the biggest impact. He lists some examples of
Black Swans (that people did not forecast): Google’s success, the
proliferation of the internet, the 9-11 attacks, the 1987 stock dropout
and a really nice one: The Marginot Line.
And so, Taleb’s problem with narrative is how it helps us focus on
specifics through the context they provide, thus rendering us blind to
the alternatives that might be embodies within the narrative.
Interestingly, his book is punctuated with stories – a ploy, he writes,
of fighting fire with fire!
Having just started reading the book, I only have a 1st Principles
grasp on his argument and look forward to seeing his argument unfold.
But at this stage, I’m not convinced his argument warrants a de facto
rejection of narrative (after all, why would I do that – it would mean
relinquishing how I earn my money!), but perhaps rather an acute
awareness of how “limiting” narratives can be in generating greater
depths of knowledge.