Narrative in Arabian Nights

January 18, 2009

Nice article by Hugh Kennedy in last Friday’s AFR review reprinted from the New Statesman here reviewing a new translation of Arabian Nights.  In particular, this section caught my eye:

What distinguishes the Nights and, despite its great length, stops it from becoming tedious, is the different registers of story – comic, romantic, sad, adventurous. It is impossible to predict the twists and turns, and, embarking on any of the stories or cycles of stories, the reader can have no idea where he or she is going to end up.

The most typical narrative device is, of course, the story within the story, in which the lead story of the sequence is repeatedly interrupted as the hero meets people (or animals or jinns) who have their own tales to tell, or when people staying awake at night begin to tell the stories of their lives. No one is ever told to shut up in the Nights: if there are eight brothers, each with a story to tell, they must all have their say. Equally intriguing is the way in which the narrative, after wandering serendipitously in many different directions, gradually brings you back to the main thread and the reader feels that little jolt of recognition: “So that’s how we got there.”

I must admit when I recollect some scenes from my own time in Arabia this feeling of everyone needing to have their say and tell their own story.  The importance here is having the time (which is often so short and punctuated in Western business) to have these conversations and allow people to have their say.  The art of the facilitator is, of course, tied to getting the story back on track after going on tangents but being left with the feeling that those tangents have been important to the overall story rather than meaningless sidetracks.

Advertising Safety – A Message for All this Festive Season

December 27, 2008

At this time of the year, we hear lots of messages on the TV and the radio extolling people to be safe, drive carefully and drink responsibly.  I have particularly noticed two advertisements on the TV that have attempted to push this safety message; each attempting to push the emotional buttons to get people to heed this important message.

The first is an advertisement from the Victorian Transport Accident Commission with local Police officers stating that they will be out in force over the festive season to catch people if they drink too much.  The advertisement shows images of police officers going up to the front door of a house to tell the occupant the terrible news that their loved one has been killed in a car crash.  The emotional pull here is of the woman in the house wailing when she hears the news.  Other ads from this agency in the past have shown the result of car crashes, of victims with head injuries and other disabilities, of what happens when people fool around while driving.

The second safety-oriented advertisement is from the Victorian Worksafe organisation, stressing how important it is to be safe at work.  This advertisement shows a typical family scene – at home with the kids fighting over the remote control and  Mum having to referee.  The TV then shows a brief news clip of the aftermath of an explosion at a work site with the family then questioning whether that was where the father was working that day.  You see the tension with the Mum trying to shield the daughter from her own concern which is alleviated when Dad walks in the door saying did you hear about the explosion and the daughter coming up and giving him a big hug for being home safe.

Each of these advertisements is trying to get across the message of the importance of safety, not just for you, but for your family as well.  The second worksafe advertisement breaks me up whenever I see it while the first one fails to provide that emotional connection for me.  Each has 30 seconds get the message across, one worked, the other not as well.  The reasons why the worksafe one works for me is that I have a similarly aged daughter and I can connect with the scene of coming home, that it builds suspense throughout the ad, that it tells a story from the family’s point of view rather than that of others such as the police, even though you do not know if anyone has been hurt.  It clearly shows the importance of effective story telling, and how that can be done in a short 30 second commercial.

I wish you a very SAFE and wonderful festive season!

The Eye of Seeing Hero Story Archetypes

March 27, 2008

It was a quiet evening here in Dubai so I decided to head off to the local cinema to catch the latest Jessica Alba film – The Eye.  Given my interest in eyes, and the fair beauty of the main character, I thought it seemed a good film to watch.  It ended up being an OK film, kept my interest all the way through with only a couple of guffaws due to the plotline.  Typical US Hollywood Hero Movie plot though.

There has been a fair debate on other blogs (Dave, Patrick and Graham) recently about archetypes.  In the Hero Story plot of Joseph Campbell and popularised by Viogler, there were 7 main archetypes and this film had nearly all of them. 

Hero – obviously Jessica herself who goes through all the plotlines including the return
Herald – the surgery and her sister
Shadow – death and disbelief
Mentor – the donor
Threshold guardian – the unbelievers, the ghosts, the kids, lots of these as it’s Hollywood!
Shapeshifter – possibly Alicia but it was all fairly predictable – an attribute of the donor
Trickster – not much comedic talent or cutting the hero down to size in this film.

The blog posts are primarily referring to culturally elicited specific archetypes rather than the above archetypes that are more universal and do not actually need to relate to a person. 

The last comment in the film is the standard “seeing is believing but sometimes you need to believe in order to see” line.  It’s something that I have used in some of my presentations as well that in many instances, you need to trust a situation in order to be able to see the knowledge inherent in it.  A closed mind will not see anything, a cynic may only see what he wants to see, although at the other end of the scale, blind faith will accept everything.  Too often, we fail to open ourselves to the unexpected or to be able to listen to the subtle.  In these cases, you cannot see unless you are prepared to open the door and personally experience the situation.

Scenario Planning and the Cynefin framework

July 3, 2007

I have recently been at a workshop conducted by David Snowden and Viv Read for accreditation into the Cognitive Edge world.  More on this another time but it was a most interesting few days learning about the theory and application of a range of techniques that are quite powerful in a range of contexts.

Dave has recently made a couple of posts about the limitations of scenario planning which I have heard him mention on a number of previous occasions.  In particular, that the use of scenario planning is more applicable for the ordered domains in the Cynefin framework.  In his words:

[scenario planning] lies in the space of the “knowable” future, complicated, susceptible to analysis yes, but inherently a near equilibrium state. In a complex system boundary conditions and attractor mechanisms (the knowable aspects of a complex system) may benefit from such application.

Dave further mentions other techniques such as Future Backwards that can used to manage uncertain complex environments.  In one of his blog posts, Dave says that “Future Backwards is not an alternative to Scenario Planning” yet in describing the approach on the Cynefin website and in the other blog post, it says “This technique was developed as an alternative to scenario planning and is designed to increase the number of perspectives that a group can take both on an understanding of their past, and of the range of possible futures. ”  Somewhat confusing. 

After seeing future backwards work a couple of times, I do see it somewhat as an alternative to scenario planning as both map out future worlds.  They are also quite different.  Future Backwards identifies impossibly good (heaven) and bad (Hell) future states and the possible journeys from each of those positions with a kick-off point from an timeline.  Scenario planning on the other hand tends to offer more scenarios than just those two that are often not simply heaven and hell, and tend to be more plausible rather than extreme.  Scenarios tend to have a common past (which is the present) whereas the views of the future developed through Future Backwards may have an alternative timeline of significant events than that of the present.  Future Backwards aims to construct a consensus view of the history while scenario planning aims to identify consensus views of the future and tends not to examine the past at all.  Dave states that scenario planning tends to create their stories going forwards in time whereas future backwards constructs history in reverse which is much harder to game.  Many scenarios that I have seen developed work best when the future timeline is created backwards using the backcasting technique rather than forwards in a story-telling manner (although this might then be used to construct the narrative of the scenario for communication purposes). 

I am particularly interested in Dave’s positioning of scenario planning in the ordered domain.  The key to scenarios is to map uncertainties with the standard approach identifying what issues are most uncertain and most important and to use these as the main scenario logics.  Dave’s view appears to be that scenarios are attempts to project the future and that by doing this, it constrains the organisation to only consider these futures.  In a sense this is true with the art of scenario planning trying to identify those issues that are deemed to be the most plausible and critical for considering the organisation’s future.

Much of the modern essence of scenario planning is that the scenarios themselves don’t necessarily matter.  They are useful constructs of possible future worlds to frame and inform current and future strategies for an organisations.  The classical Shell approach of identifying future scenarios and monitoring to see if they come true and adjusting organisational strategies to fit is quite simplistic and is not the purpose of scenario planning that I have witnessed for many organisations. 

The complex unordered domain in the Cynefin framework is one of probe, sense and respond rather than the complicated ordered domain of sense, analyse and respond.  Is the creation of scenarios a probe into the future to make sense of an uncertain world (my view of scenario formation in a complex ontological frame) or is it to sense different future worlds and then analyse them using expert opinion.  Much modern scenario planning is an emergent process – the future scenarios and their strategic insights cannot be determined beforehand – there is retrospective coherence.  In this respect, they seem to more closely suit the complex domain.

Another interesting futures approach that Cognitive Edge is exploring is using fitness landscapes to identify weak signals that could not be determined beforehand – that have no predetermined scenarios around them.  Weak signal detection is one of the bugbears of any environmental scanning system and the new stuff that Dave is working on certainly seems to be a winner here compared with other methods of trawling through reams of information trying to paste together a possible impact.

Cool video on Global Warming action

February 21, 2007

Here’s a link to a great video recently released on the cooltheglobe website (developed by Adam Boland, produced of Seven’s Sunrise program) and also available on the Ministry of Sound website.  It’s a remix of the classic Pink Floyd “Another Brick in the Wall” single with the video outlining a great message on global warming showing how individuals can play a major role in reducing emissions. 

It’s also a great way of engaging the younger audiences about this topic as well as showing the utility of new media for storytelling and communicating ideas (video, stunts, music, humour all combined in the message).  I also like the civil disobedience undertones in it!

Hero’s Story and Archetypes

February 10, 2007

I ran a workshop a couple of years ago on adopting a Hero’s story plot with its archetypes to organisations to outline the narrative journey of foresight.  Everyone loves a story and hero stories are the most common type.  They are so well known that they are embedded in our subconscious so that we know what is going to happen before the story unfolds (especially for formulaic Hollywood movies).  I find that it is best to bring out this plotline when a group is a bit stuck with what to do next or if time is quite short and some structure is required.

Below is a template for the Hero’s story from a book by Chris Vogler who has adapted many of the themes from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 

ACT 1 (Departure, Separation)

  • Heroes are introduced in the Ordinary World, where
  • They receive a Call to Adventure
  • They are reluctant at first or Refuse the Call, but
  • Are encouraged after Meeting with the Mentor
  • To Cross the first Threshold and enter the special world, where

ACT 2 (Descent, Initiation, Penetration)

  • They encounter Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • They Approach (to the

    crossing a second threshold

  • Where they endure their Supreme Ordeal
  • They take possession of their Reward and

ACT 3 (Return)

  • Are pursued on the Road Back to the ordinary world
  • They cross the third threshold experience a Resurrection and are transformed by the experience
  • They Return with the elixir, a boon or treasure to benefit the ordinary world.

This journey follows that of the Transformation Cycle.  Act 1 consists of the first stages of breakdown of meaning (refusing the call) and reconceptualisations (meeting the mentor and accepting the challenge).  Act 2  is the next stage or negotiations and conflicts with the final stage of selective legitimation in Act 3.

The plot is quite standard but the archetypes are what makes it interesting.  There are seven main archetypes and below lists them with some of their attributes in various people at different stages of projects (foresight of KM related).

  • Hero – Winning a project or business case, walking the talk, expanding one’s own learning
  • Mentor – Providing leadership, introducing and using foresight methodologies or KM enablers, leadng a shadow network
  • Threshold Guardians – Facilitator, deal with boundary spanning, knowledge validation
  • Herald – Announce the burning platform, launch a project
  • Shapeshifter – Navigate through the politics of the organisation, multi-level approaches
  • Shadow – Being a Wholesale Antithesis Generator, So-What and What-if perspectives
  • Trickster – Creating humour, left-field perspectives

Carolyn Myss describes archetypes as guides to “get beyond reason to where you can see and understand the symbolic or greater meaning of experiences.”  Think about that next time someone is pissing you off or creating a block or helping you out – they have a role to play in your life’s story – you just have to work out what that role is!

Pursuing Happiness – An American View

February 4, 2007

Last night, my family went to the cinema to watch the Will Smith movie Pursuit of Happyness.  My 13 year old son said it was one of the best reality-style (non-animation) movies he has seen and really enjoyed the Hero Story plotline. For myself, it was a great movie in demonstrating the love of family and how motivation can overcome adversity.  And how happiness is something that has to be pursued, it is something that requires your own energy to make happen, you have to be open to happiness and do something for it wash over you.


But the other subtext of the movie reveals also the view that happiness is achieved through success/achievement and the attainment of money.  Many happiness surveys demonstrate the correlation between happiness and income but that this tops out once a comfortable subsistence level of wealth is obtained.  This movie sits right in the middle of the ER/orange (in Spiral Dynamics speak) level of materialist/achiever – the strive for improvement and goal-oriented planning – a level that dominates Hollywood and capitalism. 

Yet the next level beyond this in humanity’s never ending quest requires one to discover that material wealth does not bring happiness or peace.  The final part of the movie where Will Smith attains his reward and the text afterwards showing what happens to him in later life does not reveal this further development but shows that hard work, achieving your goals and close ties to family and God are the values and goals that society should value; I for one am less convinced (although it’s not a bad start). 

But then again, it was an American movie!

Shifting narratives for war legitimacy

January 17, 2007

Good article last week (12 Jan 2007) in the Fin Review by Ferdinand Mount.  He comments on the shifting narratives for the legitimacy of recent wars.  He notes the history of Asian wars in the latter half of the 20th century that failed to leave behind effective democracies (apart from Malaysia and South Korea).  “We have continued to plunge into proxy wars at regular intervals” as we forget the pain and agony of the last one. 

He makes an interesting comment about the need to effectively name a war and that the current war in Iraq lacks a legitimising name.  Iraq War, Second Gulf War, Long Gulf War, War on Terror are all used but “that there is at present no public narrative that will carry the weight of the second Saddam war”. 

This remonds me of the benefits of effectively naming or branding an initiative to help it gain traction.  Within our department, we have Improving Justice seminars and I was talking today with someone about having a Doing KM conference rather than just seeing a bunch of talking heads.  But then this requires a common and consistent purpose and for the current Iraw war, this was lacking as another article in the same Review section by James Bamford notes:  “The White House took our [intelligence] work and twisted it for its own ends and Tenet (then CIA Director) set a tone whereby people know what he and the White House wanted to hear.” 

Perhaps the intelligence community suffered from not heeding the old saying: “Never fight a story with a bunch of facts:  you have to fight it with another story”.  And that is almost impossible if the dominant narrative keeps shifting!

Knowledge and memory using story

January 11, 2007

Came across this great quote today from a landmark paper by Schank (not Mark Schenk!) and Abelson (see for the full text) that was done some more than 10 years ago but still relevant.

The understanding problem is simply that humans are not really set up to hear logic. People tell stories because they know that others like to hear stories. The reason that people like to hear stories, however, is not transparent to them. People need a context to help them relate what they have heard to what they already know. We understand events in terms of other events we have already understood. When a decision-making heuristic, or rule of thumb, is presented to us without a context, we cannot decide the validity of the rule we have heard, nor do we know where to store this rule in our memories. Thus, what we are presented is both difficult to evaluate and difficult to remember, making it virtually useless. People who fail to couch what they have to say in memorable stories will have their rules fall on deaf ears despite their best intentions and despite the best intentions of their listeners. A good teacher is not one who explains things correctly but one who couches his explanations in a memorable (i.e., an interesting) format.  

This reminded me of a presentation that I saw by Steve Denning, one of the masters in storytelling, last year at KM Australia.  He said we are trained in abstractions (maths, physics, historical facts, hard science, etc) but we live stories.  He stressed the need to establish narrative as a core leadership competence and that he fell into storytelling  in his career when the rational arguments did not work but that stories did.  Something really important there for the knowledge managers amongst us!

Organisational Zoo – VPSCIN lunch

November 4, 2006

Had a great lunch on Friday with Arthur Shelley and his Organisational Zoo hosted by VPSCIN. Aside from working for Cadbury’s and always seeming to have a (un?)healthy supply of chocolates on-hand, he has recently published a great book on what he calls the organizational zoo. 

He wrote the book to build better relationships between people at work using metaphors to clarify team dynamics and match stakeholders in projects.  Arthur says that organisations are like zoos with lots of animals who are not normally together placed in cages (desks and work-pods) and forced to interact.  This obviously causes stress and the metaphors help to relieve the stress in a fun, gender-neutral and positive way.

 Arthur ran an interesting exercise which highlighted how the addition of some extra bits of information can change your decisions quite markedly using pictures of people.  He then ran a “quick and dirty” psychological profiling exercise which was highly effective and provides a great snapshot of someone is like (at that time).

His animal archetypes were great.  From the lion who rules by fear with the big ego, to the owl as the eternal mentor, to the whale as the techno-dude who are highly specialised but really hard to communicate with, to the yak as the enthusiastic blunderer.  They key is that effective zoos need a mix of animals that suit particular contexts. 

I think it just goes to show that there is a little bit of animal in everyone. Or as we discovered, a lot of animal in certain people. And, as a former Zoologist like Frank Connolly who coordinates VPSCIN, I’ve always said that I wanted to work with animals and now I realise that I have finally achieved my dream!  The moral of that story of course is to be careful of what you wish for as it might come true!

More on this session here at the VPSCIN blog