Q&A with a Story Guru: Cynthia Kurtz, Part 1

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. 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 (Question 1):

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. 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.