Monday, January 26, 2009

"Underground" as an example of narrative sensemaking

Over the last couple of years, I've gotten more involved with collecting and sorting through multiple narratives to help businesses understand and deal with difficult problems. (Difficult, meaning the normal tools such as numerical analysis, process mapping, etc., are insufficient to understanding the issue.) This has become a cornerstone of my professional life, and it's been a rewarding and at times thrilling undertaking.

Shawn Callahan at Anecdote introduced me to this area, and then I learned about the work of Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge. I met Cynthia Kurtz, who was an early collaborator with Dave Snowden, and have learned a lot from her as well. To the extent that the work I do is valuable to my clients, these folks deserve much credit.

Yet one of the best teachers I have had here (and I'm still a rank beginner) is the book "Underground" by Haruki Murakami. He's one of my favorite novelists, and this is one of his few nonfiction books. I read it years ago, long before I'd learned the terms "story listening," "mass narrative capture," or "sensemaking." But when I began learning from Shawn, Dave, Cynthia and others, it immediately came to mind.

In "Underground" Murakami seeks to understand and to help readers understand one of the most terrifying episodes in recent history--the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo movement in 1995.

Except for a brief author's preface, the book consists of the stories of survivors of the attack. Murakami interviewed everyone he could find from the list of victims, and presented their stories, unadorned, one after the other. He then interviewed a number of members of Aum Shinrikyo, and presented their stories, as well (a decision that is aligned with goals of narrative learning to take in multiple perspectives of a situation).

The result is a chilling, relentless book, that nonetheless does what no news report, CNN story or even historical chronicle could do--shows the impact of the attack and its aftermath on the real people who were caught up in it; and illuminates the puzzling (to outsiders) behavior of the Aum Shinrikyo members. It's a fully-realized, three-dimensional picture of a disaster, and goes a long way to explaining the unexplainable. In this way it's like an extended version of John Hersey's great "Hiroshima," though shorn of the authorial voice.

When you read this book, the stories layer and layer; you see the event from a deeper and deeper perspective, till you almost feel like you're there, inside the attack, experiencing it with the victims. And then you read the Aum Shinrikyo stories, and somehow you see that their world has its own internal logic. You finish the book, and you're exhausted, but you know deeply about this terrible event, how it happened and what it did to people. Your brain is working hard throughout--you're sensemaking.

If you're interested in narrative sensemaking, or you just want to learn the full story of a human disaster, you must read "Underground."

(Here's a much earlier reference to "Underground" and the subject of story-listening.)

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