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Nowt wrong with fiction

By Dave Snowden  ·  May 4, 2012  ·  Reflections

I'm not sure why Shawn over at Anecdote reacted so badly to Jonathan Gottschall's article on Story Telling.  Ok it not the most original of articles but its hardly going to set back the field of business story telling.  Assuming said field is in a good place (which I doubt but more on that in a future post) then all the article says is that stories work better than PowerPoint, that people can be changed by story and that we need to develop our defenses against propaganda.  In fact the article is a mildly hostile (more indicating concern) review of Tell to Win and Gottschall conjoins its author Peter Guber with Annette Simmons and Steven Denning.

As far as I can see Shawn has a few targets:

  • He is arguing for telling and retelling of what he calls Little 's' stories or anecdotes over professional or Big 'S' stories.  Now given I taught Shawn the power of anecdotes over a decade ago I am hardly going to disagree with this, but I do think the picture is incomplete.  I've previously posted on what I think is a wider picture of story work and I won't repeat the material here.  Just because one thing works (and it does) we shouldn't assume that is the be all and end all of the field.  My previous post expands on that.
  • He seems to be set against fictional stories.  Now in two respects here I agree with him.  Firstly making up stories (otherwise known as self-deception of lying) is obviously a mistake.  Secondly the excruciating process of forcing executives to act, or attempt to become traditional storytellers over night is, as Shawn says, a waste of time.  That said I have done good work in giving an executive an actor to coach, that removes the embarrassment increases the learning. However there are other uses of fiction.  For example getting successful teams to make up a story or how they failed based on turning points or vice versa can work well.  Archetypal story forms can be used to rapidly spread learning and they are mostly fictional in form.   What I think is key is authenticity as to the claim being made.  Fiction is fine until you attempt to pretend its fact.
  • Shawn does agree with Gottschall of the need for proper research, but does not pick up (and I understand why) Gottschall's criticism of the organisational story telling movement as only validating itself by self-reported effect.  There is a body of research coming out of both natural science and the humanities that provides new insights into the role of story in human evolution, intelligence and sense-making.  What I think both he and Gottschall miss is the danger on fixing in reports of scientific research to validate existing commercial practice.  There is far too much of that (mirror neurons being a classic recent case).

Now as it happens I am working for two days next week with a group of very bright trans-media people who handle the narrative universe of which the Hollywood Film is just a small and linear part.  I'll post on that next week as I learn as much as I teach when I work with these people.  What I do know is that fiction can create perspectives on reality than allow for change not achievable through simplistic retelling of anecdotes.  One of the classics here is Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home which had a major political impact back in 1966.  Films, and the material that surrounds them from games to merchandising is a part of our reality, or at least our perception of possible futures.  The fictional stories of oral histories create patterns of response to uncertainty that we use decades later.

However we need to realise that fiction is part of the interwoven nature of how we make meaning from reality.  Its not an either/or but a contextual both/and.  Gottschall argues that the central metaphor of Guber's work is the Trojan Horse; stories get inside where more direct approaches fail.  To my mind (and I think Gottschall) the more we learn about that the better, both in terms of practice but also so that we can better train our defences.

So I suspect that Shawn's real target is (and if not I think it should be) Guber, Denning et al.  Whatever the world of organisational narrative is a rich field, and we can't afford to settle on one, albeit useful aspect.