Cynthia Kurtz Q&A

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Another new and wonderful story acquaintance is Cynthia Kurtz, who is linked with the previous subject of this Q&A series Ron Donaldson, because they have both worked with Dave Snowden. I learned about Cynthia when I stumbled across her terrific free book on working with stories. Her Q&A will appear over the next four days.

Bio of Cynthia Kurtz: Cynthia Kurtz offers support services to consultants who help organizations and communities conduct projects in which they collect diverse perspectives and experiences, discover patterns, make sense of the patterns they see, make decisions, and plan for the future. CynthiaKurtzPicture.jpg She also does original research and writes on topics related to narrative inquiry, decision support, and complexity. Cynthia has been working as an independent researcher and consultant in the field of organizational narrative since 1999, working with a series of groups (IBM Research, IBM’s Global Services consultancy practice, IBM’s Institute of Knowledge Management, IBM’s Cynefin Centre, and Cognitive Edge). You can see representative projects and research topics on her web site. Her free online book Working with Stories can be found here. Her original background is in evolutionary biology and software design, and her older educational simulations can be found here.


Q&A with Cynthia Kurtz:

Q: You note in the introduction to your no-cost online book, Working with Stories, that you’ve helped plan and execute several dozen story projects globally. workingwithstoriesborder.jpg Can you cite one that was particularly effective, rewarding, or satisfying?

A: Actually, the projects I’ve found most effective, rewarding, and satisfying are also the projects I feel the least able to talk about. Most of my favorite projects have dealt with sensitive issues; most have revealed insights about “the way we are” and “the way we do things” that have been difficult or painful for clients to confront; and most have been about issues clients don’t want widely discussed. So I find I can’t pull out one project to describe in full. I could, however, mention two aspects of what I’ve done to help with story projects that I find particularly rewarding and use that to answer the question in a hopefully useful way.
One satisfying aspect of the work has been helping clients get past their own barriers to success. At the start of story projects, a common obstacle is that clients want to find out about something but are hesitant to ask people to talk about it: it makes them or the storytellers look bad, or it’s just a very sensitive topic. Sometimes it is necessary to push clients a little bit out of their comfort zone in order to make the project succeed for them. I’ve seen projects that had high ambitions but kept to the “safe” questions and ended up not finding out very much that was useful. Sometimes I help to carefully word questions so that they ask the things the client wants to know without revealing to the storytellers that the client wants to know about those things. For example, in one project the client had heard a rumor that some customers thought their attention to customer needs varied by socioeconomic group. The client was uncomfortable asking people about the rumor but at the same time they did want to explore it. So we worked at the questions until we found a way to address the issue indirectly; and it turned out there was a pattern around the issue that gave the client something useful to think about.
The other aspect I’ve found rewarding is providing catalysis for story projects. I like to call what I do catalysis instead of analysis, because a catalyst speeds up chemical reactions and catabolic processes break up large molecules and release energy. I help people speed up sensemaking, break down previous solidifications of thought and belief, and release energy to consider new ideas. So I do this catalysis by looking at hundreds or thousands of collected stories (and self-intepretive answers to questions about them) and finding catalyzing patterns for the client to look at, play with, and react to. Because I come to the stories as a deliberately na├»ve outsider, I often find things people would have never thought to consider. Also for some reason (ecology background?) I seem to be comfortable finding these patterns and so have found a sort of niche where I fit well into the process.
To give an example of how the catalyzing patterns are used, I’ll tell you what my colleagues Michael Cheveldave and Dave Snowden did with them in a recent client workshop. They first asked the workshop participants to seek patterns in the stories and answers that were collected without any intervention. Then after some time they showed them the patterns I had highlighted, with the graphical visualizations blown up to poster size so people could walk around and see several at once. The workshop participants used those patterns to stimulate new discussions and debates that led to the discovery of new patterns (reinforcing, contradicting, related, reacting, reminding). Finally the participants integrated all of their observations and interpretations into general insights (this is the analysis or solidifying part, which you will note was done by the client, not the “analyst” or “expert”) based on the stories and interpretations collected.
If I were to choose some patterns I’ve often seen repeated, speaking broadly, these are some that come to mind.
  • Several times now I have seen people viewing their clients or customers or employees or constituents with contempt, for example equating weakness, confusion or ignorance with insignificance, low status/value/worth or even wrongdoing. This is a fascinating pattern — in most cases people are biting the hands that feed them — and I wonder what it says about our society, besides the obvious connection between familiarity and contempt.
  • I’ve often seen an interesting mixture of wariness toward large institutions and authority figures and high expectations for the solutions they bring. These two patterns taken together seem to say that people are conflicted about the utility of power structures in society.
  • I often see attitudes and beliefs changing as people age, often passing from inexperienced idealism to frustrated struggle to practical resignation and/or self-righteous entitlement. I’ve seen similar generational patterns in several projects now and in fact always recommend making sure a diversity of ages are included in storytelling because of it.
  • I am constantly amazed at the human ability to hold and express complex and contradictory beliefs — about nearly everything!
Overall I think the projects I’ve been most proud of are those that had the biggest potential to bring out the voices of people who otherwise had little power to change their conditions. When I’ve had a hand in this I’ve been grateful to have the chance to contribute.
Q: In the book, you write “I and others have seen from experience that this approach is superior to approaches that don’t respect the integrity of the raw story and end up (whatever their good intentions) injecting the biased interpretations of people outside the community.” Can you talk a bit about your observations of approaches that have disrespected the integrity of the raw story? What are the consequences when biased outsider interpretations are injected?
A: There are two positions embedded in that statement — raw stories and self-interpretation — and I can tell a story from my own experience describing how I came to my current understanding of each position. The first position is that raw stories of personal experience are far superior to crafted stories for the things I care about when working with stories. For the purposes of advertising products and services, delivering specific purposeful messages, and entertaining people, crafted stories are often (but not always) best. But for the purposes of helping people learn, think, make decisions, get new ideas, grow, and get along, I’ve found that there is nothing better than a raw story.
I started out in this field in the same way many people do — I got excited about all the advice on “how to tell a great story” and assumed that only the best, most compelling stories could “get things done,” whatever it was you wanted to do. My second year at IBM Research was spent on a project researching how storytelling could improve e-learning. Our group tried out different ways to help instructors write stories that would help people learn how to use software or do any number of things more quickly and easily. We had some little success with this, but things didn’t really pick up until we started holding workshops where we asked people to talk about their experiences. Our original intention was to take the raw stories we collected and “make something out of them” while developing methods to help other people make similar resources; but we kept failing. The crafted stories were always less compelling, less memorable, and less educational than the raw stories, even though we were “improving” them using all the wonderful advice we could find. Somehow every time we improved the stories by crafting them, an essential spark was lost.
One day we had this sort of metaphorical realization that we were trying to grow trees in a forest. Stories better than any we could come up with were all around us, and we were discounting them because we had a narrow idea of what a useful story was. We began to see that a raw story of personal experience is a priceless gem that cannot be taken apart and put back together without removing its powerful qualities. So we changed the project. Once we abandoned our original ideas about how writing “good” stories would improve e-learning and instead concentrated on figuring out the best ways of “getting the stories to where they needed to be” the e-learning resources we were creating, and our ability to help other people create such resources, improved tremendously.
The second part of that “respect the integrity of the raw story” statement is my position on expert interpretation. I believe that interpretation by outside experts jeopardizes the goals I care most about when working with stories, for two reasons: it cannot help getting essential things wrong (through not understanding subtle nuances of context which only insiders can know); and it is incapable of making useful insights fully resonate and changes really happen inside a community, because it is not “of us.”
The dangers-of-expert-interpretation story took place soon after I started working with a group that was doing story projects with IBM clients. Now this group had started out just as I had, writing crafted stories to help clients achieve goals, and they had made a similar transition to collecting and valuing raw stories. However, at the time I joined the group, they still believed, as I did, that expert interpretation of stories was essential. The turning point came on a project in which we collected videotapes of something like a hundred retiring employees describing their long careers. In our enthusiasm we had allowed too many people to generate too many hours of videotape, and we realized that we could never get through them all in time. After a flurry of discussion and debate, we decided to hold a workshop and ask the employees themselves to watch the videotapes (distributing the videos so that everyone saw a few and every interview was seen by a few people), and have them interpret the results and come up with their own conclusions. We were worried that we would have a lot of work to do after these uninitiated non-experts had finished their exercise, but we decided to go ahead anyway, thinking that at least our task would be reduced.
Imagine our astonishment when we found that the quality of the results exceeded our previous finely tuned expert interpretations, and that the results resonated better with the client as well. This was another awakening. As we had before been trying to grow stories in a forest of stories, we had been trying to grow interpretations in a forest of interpretations. In both cases the stories or interpretations surrounding us were of superior utility and authenticity — in the context in which we needed to work with them — than the stories or interpretations we were trying to build.
Those experiences, combined with some others that reinforced the same overall patterns, convinced us that these two principles — raw stories and self-interpretation — were key to effective story projects. In the dozens of projects I’ve worked on since then I’ve seen those lessons repeated many times. In fact I’ve come to realize that people who work with stories in organizations and communities (and here I am not talking about professional storytellers) seem to go through three phases, which roughly match the three aspects of stories I like to think about — story form, function and phenomenon. People seem to start out, as I did, infatuated with story form: they memorize McKee and try to turn every story into a “great” story. Once they get past that they start thinking about how they can “use” story function to change situations, inject learning, propel messages, and so on (all of which is fairly mechanical thinking). And finally they arrive at the phenomenon stage where they begin to see stories as elements in a complex ecology and start thinking about ways to tend stories, herd them, take care of them, and get them where they need to go. That final stage, in my opinion, is the best place to end up when you want to work with stories in communities and organizations.
Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?
A: I’m sad about how much packaged entertainment and crafted messages have changed our world. Sheet music and novels were met with wide condemnation when they came out because it was said people would no longer come up with their own music and stories. The people condemning those media would hardly recognize the world of today, where it seems people have barely a thought to themselves but spend their time listening to other people sing, watching other people play games, and hearing what other people think. With kids it’s even worse. It’s a difficult task to keep our children from being inundated by media-generated images, which erode their innate abilities to create their own stories and worlds.
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When I found the excellent book, Where There Is No Doctor, the paragraph that surprised me the most was this one:
Today in over-developed as well as under-developed countries, existing health care systems are in a state of crisis. Often, human needs are not being well met. There is too little fairness. Too much is in the hands of too few.
In the same way that people in the “over-developed” countries have given doctors too much control over their health and reduced their ability to heal themselves, people (mostly in those same countries) have given commercial imaginers too much control over their imagination and reduced their ability to make up their own stories.
The other day I came across an review in Parenting magazine of story cards that solve the problem “we all face” of having a child ask for a story and “coming up blank.” What? Why should any healthy adult be incapable of making up a story? Isn’t there something wrong there? I don’t think people have lost the ability to tell stories as much as they have lost the expectation that it is their place to tell stories. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people balk at being asked to tell stories because they don’t think their stories are good enough to be “real stories.” Would that have been true a hundred years ago? A thousand? Of course there have been storytellers since the beginning of time, but I don’t think there has ever been a time when ordinary people were so removed from ordinary storytelling. I would like to see people get back to telling more of their own stories, singing more of their own songs, and playing more of their own games.
Having said all that, I do believe that crafted stories have their place in the world, as they always have. Long ago, when to tell crafted stories you had to memorize long epics and travel from town to town to tell them in person, it was difficult for crafted storytelling to get out of balance; but things are far out of balance now. I’m not sure how to set that balance right again, but I do have two suggestions. The first is that people who find they tell stories well and want to do so professionally should do the hard work to get it right. They should respect stories, make them their own, and work with integrity, passion and care.
Second, professional storytellers (and others working with narrative in other ways) should never allow themselves to believe that any crafted story is better or more entitled to be a “real story” than anyone’s raw personal story. story_corps.jpg Storytellers should radiate respect for raw stories of personal experience. It would be wonderful if all the professional storytellers out there could think about making it part of their responsibility to find more ways to help people tell their own stories. gig.jpg I applaud everyone who gives adult education classes about writing memoirs or putting together family stories, and I’m excited when I see people sharing personal stories online, and I am encouraged by projects like StoryCorps and books like Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs (of which there are far too few) that help raw stories of personal experience get to where they need to go. I hope more people will get involved in such things in the future; maybe then the balance can be restored.
Q: What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?
A: I came to story work after spending six years writing free educational simulations and participating in the great knowledge democratization and gift economy that is the internet. When that endeavor ended (not a monetary success, but we often joke that we got the internet in return) I was excited to have the chance to work with a group researching stories and storytelling in organizations at IBM Research. One of the things that struck me right away on taking up this work was that the wonderful ideas and techniques we were developing were bottled up and available only to giant corporations, government agencies, and academic institutions with money and knowledge and power. While being grateful that those powerful bodies were willing to pay me to do this work, I could see right away that the people most in need of story techniques were Margaret Mead’s small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens trying to change the world. I was very happy this spring to finally have enough time and knowledge to be able to write Working with Stories, which is my first return to participation in the gift economy. My aspiration for my own story work, and for that of others (if I may be so bold), is that lots and lots of people will find a way to balance putting food on the table and helping make working with stories something accessible to everyone on earth.
More specifically, one thing that I’d dearly love to do is write an open source suite of free software tools that can help small groups support community storytelling for local conflict resolution and decision support, with all that entails (seeing things from new perspectives, reconciling the past, envisioning the future, building bridges of understanding, discovering transforming insights, etc). I’ve looked some on the web and found nothing remotely like what I want to build. For example, generally when I search for “tell us your story” or “share your story” I find mostly just lists of stories, not dynamic exchanges. In the same way that people who want to discuss something can install any of dozens of free forum packages, I’d like people to have easy access to software that supports community storytelling and group sensemaking in a way forum software cannot. I’m looking into various sources of grant funding for such a project, for example the Knight News Challenge is one possibility. I’m also looking for collaborators so if you are interested please contact me!
Update since Cynthia’s response above: Since I wrote this last part, I’ve spent quite a bit of time working on a new project called Rakontu. Rakontu’s goal is to create a set of free and open-source software tools that communities can use to share and work with stories. Here is one of our shorter blurbs:
Long ago, community stories were tended by griots or shamans or bards or just older people. These story caretakers watched as stories formed patterns through time and space. They helped communities use their old and new stories to settle disputes and make decisions together. In many of today’s communities, increased segregation of age groups, increased mobility, and increased consumption of packaged media have reduced the story caretaker role. As a result, critical connections are not being tended and cannot be called upon in times of need. Communities need stories because they help people probe sensitive topics safely, experience events through the eyes of others, and get past knee-jerk reactions to contentious issues.
Rakontu will help communities share and connect stories into webs of resonant collective meaning, discover insight-creating patterns in collected stories, and work with stories during group sensemaking about decisions, conflicts and plans. Outcomes may include better consensus on tough choices, greater emotional engagement and resolve for action, and greater common strength in times of crisis.

So far we have a 100-page “Vision+Plan” document that lays out our goals and ideas, a great group of “well-wishers” and a grant application. As of this writing we are waiting to hear from the Knight Foundation as to whether we have advanced to the third round of consideration. But we are not sitting on our hands waiting for Prince Charming! We are moving forward with “bootstrap” plans that can work whether we have lots of time to work on it or just bits and pieces. Either way, it will be a fully open-source project, in ideas as well as code, and open to all. If anyone is interested in participating, the best thing to do is to skim over the Vision+Plan document since it will serve as the starting point in our design discussions.

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