New Direction 3 – Storytelling and Myth Making

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Stories enable people to place their experience in a process of time, to draw on metaphors and to reflect on their experience through the process of storytelling itself.

Storytelling may simply involve the recounting of history. The facilitator, through a range of possible research methods tries to construct a history of an issue or a question in order to extract meaning or learning from it. It may be that stories are gleaned, via interviews, from respondents: ‘Tell the story of how that problem arose and was solved.’

Capturing data in the form of stories in relation to change and innovation enables researchers to gain insight into the experience of designing or using a technology over a process of time. The process of storytelling (depending on the level of structure imposed by the researcher) allows the one telling the story to feel free to tell it in his or her own preferred style. Issues which are more or less relevant to the researcher will be included and the story can be analysed either inductively or deductively. The researcher may focus the storyteller along a range of dimensions aimed at eliciting specific kinds of data:

stories of success or failure

stories of pleasure or pain

stories where a critical lesson was learned

stories which focus on the answering of a question or solving of a technical problem

stories in which something expected or unexpected occurred

In all cases the ‘freeness’ of style in storytelling may capture richer data or enable a respondent to feel more at ease than in a formal interview or focus group.

The process may also be cathartic for the storyteller in that the telling of a story, the sharing of it may help to resolve issues or surface feelings which were kept below the surface.

On a broader level, the design, assessment, implementation of a technology or set of processes can in itself be seen as ‘story’ or even part of a larger story of the organisation’s strategic journey. Seeing this as a story enables research to track the evolving ‘plot’, to track past, current and emerging ‘characters to identify themes, and to draw out ‘lessons.’ Even story ‘genres’ can be identified and worked with.

One can work on an even broader level looking at the stories of technologies or processes from their earliest roots, to track their development and draw out learning from the past that can inform present or future decisions. Innovations can arise from this for example, the clockwork radio.

At the micro-level of the firm there is much rich data in an organisation’s hi-story or the history of its sector or industry that can throw light on current problems and challenges.

When an interviewee is asked to tell a story about a particular experience or critical incident in the form of a story, this may be experienced as a ‘freeing up’ of communication. Respondents may be more confident when in story telling mode and this can enable a more comprehensive and richer picture to emerge of the experience for the researcher. The data is, of course, less structured and more difficult to analyse, but a greater depth of analysis can be achieved, particularly in terms of surfacing behavioural patterns, not simply the intellectual opinions of the respondent.

In terms of identifying problems with technology use or design, the behavioural level of analysis is as, if not more, important than the opinions and views of users. There is, of course, the danger that the storyteller may ‘dress up’ the account in an idealised way. However, as with good interview practice, the use of triangulation and checks and balances for bias can be brought into play. Also, collecting a range of stories about a similar issue or problem from a range of different respondents can, if they conflict, be a useful observation in itself. For example, why is it that one operator’s experience of a laser machine contains only negative stories and anecdotes whilst another’s is wholly positive? Is this wholly down to differences in their personal behaviours and attitudes, or might there be factors in the design of the laser or the associate training which could be partly causal?

Link to stories are myths. An organisational myth is built up over time and expressed in the views, feelings, opinions and stories of employees. A myth is essentially an unreality based on the continuation of a shared view of a particular element in an organisation’s behaviours, values or structures and systems. Myths are not easy to dispel and may also be imported into an organisation from outside, often brought influential new employees. Myths often grow up around negative experiences, and current negative experiences which support the myth serve only to strengthen it. Some myths therefore have some basis in truth in that current or recent behaviour serves to confirm them.

Examples of myths include:

‘Our technologies never perform as well as they should on actual implementation’

‘All accountants in our organisation have little or no understanding of manufacturing’

‘Engineers are not interested in team working outside of their own specialised area of work’

‘This change programme is going to fail like all the previous ones’

‘Senior managers are only serving their own interests’

Breaking myths involves modelling current and future behaviour on activities and processes, behaviours and values which contradict the myth. They ‘dispel’ the myth. One presenter at the Advanced Research Workshop believed that some myths took at least five years of concerted effort to dispel.

As an aid to change and innovation and innovation and planning, it can be a useful technique to identify prevailing myths in the organisation and to ask:

how does the technology or change being assessed, support or help to dispel myths in the organisation, if implemented?

what aspects in the design or implementation plan will falter because of prevailing myths?

how can the technology be redesigned or how can implementation be changed to confront and dispel prevailing myths?

what culture change, training and development is needed to dispel myths BEFORE choice is made or implementation carried out?

what myths can we actually use to advantage in implementing this technology?

 

 


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