Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Collecting and organizing narratives makes sense of complex problems

When I discuss my latest project, improving organizational performance via collecting and making sense of the narratives that employees carry with them, most people are initially skeptical. And organizational development professionals are often the quickest to dismiss the approach as "more of the same."

So why am I convinced that narrative collection, selection, and sensemaking will work better than existing methods of gathering and acting on metrics, surveys and executive intuition?

It's all about complexity. By now, we've ERPed, Six-Sigma'ed, Re-engineered, Rightsized, Business-Intelligenced and Job Sculpted our companies. Basic problems, such as systematizing processes, ensuring consistency of actions, enforcing policies and procedures, have largely been solved.

The problems that remain are messier, stickier, and more ambiguous, because they are more about people and their innate complexity. Difficulties in communicating, understanding each other, managing egos. Problems of company strategy, culture, management of change and managerial decisionmaking. Identifying and making use of organizational wisdom. These problems don't have rote solutions. They don't even have optimal solutions. In fact, there may be many outcomes that work well and equally many that are undesirable.

So, back to narrative. Creating stories about ourselves and our surroundings has been used since the beginning of history to make sense of and help us deal with our messiest, most daunting problems (check out this bestselling book for some examples).

One example I know of perfectly demonstrates the narrative technique. Underground, by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, intends to make sense of the senseless--the Aum Shinrikyo cult's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

It does so by collecting and presenting stories. Thirty-four victims of the attack describe the day and its aftermath, in moment-to-moment detail. Eight cult members talk about their involvement and their feelings while perpetrating the atrocity.

The author is invisible, except for a brief prologue and small essay midway through. His task was to interview the survivors and cult members, select and edit the stories, and lay them out.

Reading this book is as close to being there that day as you could imagine. And the series of narratives, one laid on top of another, greatly illuminates the surprise and panic, the lingering fear and dread and perseverence, that being part of such an event brings on.

It's indescribable, unsummarizable, this book. And that's the point. A carefully-collected, organized collection of stories can bring an understanding of the most complex situations in a way that can't be summarized by a consultant, or a graphic, or a PowerPoint presentation.

Enter that in your SAP system.

(Photo by fuzzcat via flickr)

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