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Hermeneutical Unity

By Dave Snowden  ·  July 2, 2014  ·  Conference blogs, Reflections

An interesting first day at the Summer Institute; we started with a Danish song about love and followed that with the normal talk with someone you don't know exercise.  Now I am never wild about singing songs other than it Rugby matches, ideally in Welsh.  It reminds me of the day I discovered there was still an official IBM song book!  Thankfully we were no longer required to sing them with gymnastic exercises early in the morning although it came close at times.

However I lived through the experience and the get to know you exercises are always useful.  Two good conversations with people from different backgrounds with mutual curiosity on both sides. Especially the second where we ignored the instruction as to subject and spent twenty minutes or so talking about mediation and conflict resolution - something I have to speak on tomorrow.

So introductory session over and with suitable levels of caffeine I went into the first of my three sessions at the event; two talks and one workshop over three days plus a client event on the side.   This first talk was on Homo Narrans talking about the role of narrative and SenseMaker® in particular.  The format was two paired speakers, my co-speaker was John Shotter.  We had a good chat over breakfast and learnt we disliked many of the same things and had the same sense of humour - aways the best way to bond!

In the session I had exactly half an hour so ran through human metadata, more stories like this, fewer stories like that and the whole issues of managing in the present.  Given the audience I strongly emphasised five things:

  1. Allowing people to tell the story they want to tell, not mandating the type of story they are allowed to say (with a side swipe at Appreciate Inquiry in its modern manifestations)
  2. Granularity, working with day to day micro-narratives rather that stories/anecdotes gathered in workshops, influenced by the facilitation 
  3. Transferring the power of interpretation to the respondent, away from computer algorithms and experts
  4. Objectivity or evidence based if you are going to persuade people to do something different. That means numbers backed up by stories
  5. Managing the evolutionary potential of the present, rather than trying to work forwards to an idealised future.

It went down well, lots of nods and I detected an undercurrent of concern over things like AI and Social Construction in its purest forms.   That was confirmed when John Shotter spoke.  He very kindly said that he found my presentation "awesome" which was appreciated and then went on to make a series of valuable points.  I reproduce my notes below:

  • What I call micro-narratives he called vignettes which I like, he then went on to reference them as ​little noticiings which is a really great idea.  SenseMaker® allows you to record the small things of day to day living which would be swept aside in the wider facilitated narrative of a workshop.  I love his nomencliture here and will start to use that in training and papers.
  • He talked about downstream communication which is "after the fact and beside the point" compared with upstream conversation which is "before the fact" thinking and that matches well with our narrative work and complexity theory in general.
  • A key idea from his talk is a "moment of common reference" in which shared meaning emerges from multiple narratives.  To quote again "shared feelings, shared meaning, shared significance". That matches my current work on assemblage theory and the use of narrative patterns and will be a key aspect of my presentation Friday; so I now have language I can draw on for the translation from a social constructivist position to a realist one.  It also (a point I made in the question and answer session) links to the whole idea of an ideation culture, something we all understand but can't explain unless you are a part of the narrative flow of the group.
  • He quoted Wittgenstein who said that learning a language is about learning to share judgements, a vital lesson there.
  • Then we come to the wonderful idea of Hermeneutical Unity.  He referenced the opening words of the only Dickens novel I find remotely readable namely A tale of Two Cities.  Paradox builds on paradox until we share the sense of the situation. I reproduce it below as it makes the point so well.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

  • John argued (a core aspect of SenseMaker®'s approach to disintermediation) that we have to allow decision makers to be touched what comes out of the ordinary, those day to day not icings.
  • Turning to Appreciative Inquiry he said it started well with the observations in Cleveland but then became a formula.  I agreed with that, as a description if was good as a prescription it has just become another management consulting ideology
  • He finished referencing Mead's argument that mind is a consequence of communication and referenced the incompatibility between Chomsky and Foucault talking about Justice.  The important point here is that avoiding injustice is more important that some idealised notion of justice.  I cheered silently and then vocally at that point.  The closing comment was that we should not fall in love with our metaphors!

So a great morning, I learnt a lot and gathered a new friend and you can ask for little else from a conference.  I missed the afternoon and the closing session but made the drinks!  The downside, or maybe upside of missing the closing session is that I don't have a plastic yellow flower to wear around my neck ....