One of the common threads to so many sense-making approaches is the importance they place on narratives and storytelling as a way to explain the world.

This week’s article continues my recent series on sense-making, and focuses on why storytelling is so important – and what makes for a particularly useful narrative.


This week’s article

The importance of narrative

Why sense-making prioritises storytelling over numbers

In the last article in the series, we defined sense-making as:

  • a continuous social process
  • through which people both understand and shape their environments
  • explaining complex situations
  • through plausible narratives
  • that are adopted and refined by others

Narratives, then, are central to sense-making. These narratives are as the colloquial definition of the word would suggest: the stories that we tell each other and the arguments we have amongst ourselves, the speeches we make and the essays we write, but also the jokes and anecdotes we tell each other down the pub.

Narratives are important partly because of what they’re not: they’re not black-and-white, clearly defined and quantified models of the world. They’re full of ambiguity and nuance, allusion and metaphor. But so is the real world; it’s precisely this flexibility that makes narratives useful.

Because of this flexibility, we engage with them in a different way. We look at a sales forecast and treat it as a prediction, evaluating its accuracy and its likelihood to be true. But we don’t read a science fiction story and speculate as to the probability of the events it describes coming true. The story’s narrative is useful partly as straightforward entertainment, but also because it invites us to imagine different futures and different possibilities, opening us up to new perspectives and new ways of thinking.

Narratives allow for a cast of characters, too, allowing different perspectives to be represented and to compete with one another. Many issues require us to say “on the one hand, this; but on the other, that”. Narratives allow us to represented those different sides to the argument, and as we engage with a narrative we might sympathise first with one perspective and then another, changing our minds as we go.

They’re also democratic. Anyone can offer up a new narrative or criticise an existing one, using tools of thought and language that are universal. Complex quantitative models, on the other hand, are technical and exclusive. They’re able to be interpreted by only an elite few, and to be challenged by even fewer; moreover, those who do have the technical wherewithal to challenge them are likely to be more homogeneous than the broader population.

There’s something very human, then, about narratives. They’re how we learn and how we’ve always learned; they’re how we interacted in day-to-day life. But there’s a positive feedback loop there. Narratives are useful because we’re used to them; but we’re used to them because they’ve proved extraordinarily useful over the roughly 100,000 years that humans have been able to communicate with one another.

Not all narratives are equally useful for sense-making, though. Sense-making, with its focus on navigating through complexity and its need for narratives to be socially integrated, values narratives that are:

  • Illuminating
  • Coherent
  • Credible
  • Adequately complex
  • Biased towards action

Narratives are illuminating when they give us an “a-ha!” moment; when they change the way we think, offering us a new perspective on an issue. They take something that seemed messy and intractable and, by focusing on a particular set of facts, give us clarity.

Narratives are coherent when they hang together and make internal sense. We reach the end of them satisfied that we know, as Richard Rumelt says, “what’s going on here”. The gun on the table in the first act is fired in the second; the detective makes his accusation in the drawing-room dénouement.

Narratives are credible when they make external sense. They’re believable, and they reflect something about the real world and about the humans within it. As John Kay says, “Pride and Prejudice is not true, but it is credible.” It teaches us many things about the regency period, even if we’re not the type of person who would read a work of social history. Narratives don’t need to be correct to be useful; it’s much more important that they be credible.

Narratives are adequately complex when they avoid over-simplification. The world is messy and complex; simplistic, childish stories are not useful in making sense of it. Narratives are useful precisely because they can be rich in complexity, incorporating metaphors and allusions, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. As Karl Weick suggests, for a narrative to be useful it must be as complex as the problem it’s describing.

Narratives are biased towards action when they connect to a real-world need and provide useful context for decision-making. They’re not abstract and generalised. Narratives also have this quality when they’re compelling and easy to engage with; the sharing and challenging of a narrative is an important action too.

The creation, sharing and challenging of narratives is the central action within sense-making. It underpins everything. In subsequent articles, we’ll look at various techniques for shaping those narratives; some from anthropology, some from engineering, some from history, but all useful in making sense of the world in order to act within it.

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