Storytelling, Sense-making, and Systems Thinking

Making sense of life through storytelling

I teach a class on systems thinking perspectives on public health. This past week we discussed the role of narratives and storytelling as ways to learn about systems and how to organize diverse information and how to make sense of it all.

For those working in systems thinking and complexity science within a public health context, there is much to be excited about in terms of opportunities, much less to be excited about when it comes to knowledge synthesis. That is, there isn’t a lot out there to synthesize when someone wants to study a problem from a systems perspective. Particularly if one is looking for clues as to what kind of evidence can inform decision making. Indeed, a great deal of the problems that systems thinkers face in many fields have no substantive body of evidence to support decision making.

And even if there was such a body, complex systems are often so dynamic that evidence becomes hard to apply because the contexts in which that knowledge is generated is so particular. Even on the same subject, a study of complexity or system dynamics might only provide guidance on ways to approach other problems, rather than prescriptive strategies. That’s complexity and systems for you.

But knowing that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at the problems in some depth. Those looking to take on systems problems tend to find two main questions (challenges) starting out: what are the boundaries of the system, and how does all the information within those boundaries fit together?

To answer these questions, I had my class consider the story of their problem. As part of the course, each student is asked to concentrate on one subject of personal interest and last week I asked the class to consider the story of the problem that they are wrestling with in their research and health promotion work. These public health problems include issues of workplace wellness, HIV/Hepatitis co-infection in prisons, healthy fathering, the application of design to health, youth engagement, environmental sustainability and resilience and more, so there is much to talk about.

Storytelling suffers from being that thing you did as kids like the photo above or something you do for fun, but isn’t widely considered a valid tool for exploring complex systems. It is this myth that I sought to dispel in my class, because when you start telling the story of system, remarkable things happen and much sense can be made from relatively little information.

I started off with some reference sources from the always interesting and insightful Dave Snowden, drawing on two of his earlier papers on narrative and organizational strategy. Dave’s written extensively on this topic, including role that paradox plays in stories, with many other resources found here. What this did was frame the issue not just of one of stories, but large and small narrative patterns that shape the way that people understand the system they are in.

In the case of the students in my class, they are all dealing with subject material for which there is little material on systems thinking to use as a start point. For most of them, they have little idea of where they are within that system relative to the problem at hand. Storytelling provides an opportunity to cover a lot of ground and organize the information that we already know about a system into a manner that allows us some sense-making opportunity. Sometimes there are large stories and grand narratives to which they belong, but often it is the small exchanges or micro-narratives that we work with. Both provide much fodder for systems thinking.

What makes a story is a coherent organization of information, characters, a plot, tension or conflict, a setting and a point of view. With these elements one starts to provide the context and boundary conditions for imagining a system and thus, the foundations for a model of it.

This can be done through long-form narrative or something simple like a haiku (in fact, one of the learners in the class wrote a series of haikus on her topic).

When you write out your story, notice what gets included and what does not.

  • What emotions are present (if any)?
  • Is there any reliance on past knowledge (or evidence)?
  • Are there characters that are more prominent and, if so, why?
  • What is the tension or unresolved conflict in the story?
  • Why was the setting chosen and what limits does it impose?
  • Are you avoiding parts of the system in storytelling intentionally? Or, are you choosing to tell the story in a manner that hides or obscures parts of it you feel uncomfortable with?

These are some of the questions that a systems thinker can ask of the story that is produced, and the answers provide insight into what the system holds, how its organized, and how you as an agent of inquiry and change intend to influence it. The goal isn’t to create the best model or the right model, for neither of those exist. What is about is creating appropriate, useful models. And as George Box famously said about models:

All models are false. Some models are useful

All stories are fiction, but for systems thinkers, some stories are useful.

** Photo from the New York Public Library via The Commons Flickr pool . No copyright exists.

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