A couple of recent blog posts have featured useful discussions of key elements of business narrative work.
“Sensemaking is what we refer to as intuition”
Idris Mootee, in his blog Innovation Playground (via Futurelab), discussed sensemaking–which in many ways is the secret sauce of the narrative approach to gaining business insight. Here’s what Mootee writes:
Sensemaking is a metacognitive strategy, it is clear that people recognize patterns in the data in ways that they can’t talk about. That kind of inarticulate recognition (meaning that you can’t express it easily) is what we perceive as intuition. We’ve all got it, and good sensemakers have good intuitions about how things go together.
Applying Mootee’s ideas to narrative works except for his statement about “good sensemakers.” For narrative work, a single “good sensemaker” doesn’t exist–instead, the collective intelligence of a group of people reading through and finding patterns in stories is the sensemaker.
Low Tech And On The Ground
I love this expression, coined by Terry Miller, describing story gathering and sensemaking work in his recent post at the Cognitive Edge Guest blog. “On the ground,” is a crucial term. Narrative approaches require seeing things at ground level, not at 35,000 feet. It’s immersing oneself in the moment-to-moment and using collective evaluation to make sense of what is going on. Without this, you could be like the generals in “War & Peace”–making detailed war plans that have no effect on winning or losing.
“Low tech” is also a critical observation. Potential clients recoil from this–we have been brainwashed to believe that applying enough megaflops can solve any problem. And, by contrast, anything handmade and low-tech isn’t “industrial strength” and is to be avoided. But stories require context, and creating context requires human experience and sharing that experience through dialogue. Computers can’t do that, no matter how many megaflops they can process.
Another application of low tech is the interventions that help people deal with what they learn from stories. In my experience, the findings of a narrative project imply two kinds of changes to help address them:
(1) very simple changes that are obvious once the problem is properly understood. In a project of mine, we learned through examining customer service rep stories that fewer than 1/3 of the reps used the best practices that had been designed, and also saw that calls where reps forswore best practice didn’t end as well as the others.
(2) small things to try that may or may not help. Other learnings from narrative projects do not have straightforward solutions. The bad news is that the best course of action takes some time to determine. The good news is that a low-tech, cheap experimental approach can be applied. My favorite example of this type of approach is the solution a Singapore hospital devised to reduce emergency-room wait times.