Sunday, September 02, 2007

Organizational Theory; Using Story as Strategy; Story Deconstruction Method; Narrative Therapy

For two years I worked as an editorial assistant for Dale Fitzgibbons and the Journal of Management Education (Sage). During that time I learned that there are some radicals operating in the midst of the very conservative and traditional business departments. They operate under the loose disciplinary title of "Organizational Theory" and generally favor the qualitative (without forgoing important quantitative facts) method. They were very important in opening up my understanding of the functions of organizations in the re-production of social structures and pushing me to understand how narratives operate on so many levels in the world (should be obvious--but the obvious sometimes escapes our notice). Since my film studies and writing students have been thinking about narrative (story) structure in the films we have been watching and in the papers/responses they are writing...


"Using Story as Strategy"
Interview with David Barry, Ph.D. by Helen McKay
Australian Storytelling

Helen: How did you get interested in story as a communication tool?
David: I am attracted to their transformative power. I believe we live our lives by the stories we tell ourselves and tell others. Change the story and life changes. This is a view I picked up several years ago from David Epston, co-founder with Michael White (in Adelaide) of narrative therapy. As an organisational change consultant and change management lecturer, I find the approach immensely appealing. Organisations often seem to run on a few core narratives. Epston & White's narrative change methods offer profound ways for organizations to restory themselves.

Helen: In which areas of business life do you see story as an effective strategy? (apart from the advertising industry). Do you see a company benefitting from hearing the stories staff may tell of their role in and perception of, the company? And how?

David: Stories are a double-edged sword. Because they are so fundamentally a part of what it means to be human, they have a great deal of power (especially when fashioned by an expert teller). In organisations, this power is often used to seduce, to lull dreamy employees into thinking they're part of some great cause. I think of many global companies which spin a tale of the corporate family:
'Come join our team. Work hard and we will give you the kind of family life you couldn't find elsewhere.' It is a hypnotic and convincing narrative 'we work hard right up to when we're given our severence notice (which is always such a shock. 'You wouldn't fire your brother or mother. Why are you firing me?').

On the other hand, stories have the power to release and change; if new story elements can be introduced into a problem-saturated narrative, remarkable things can happen. Where do these new story elements come from? I find the best ones come from that which was previously silenced - the forgotten story remnants left on the company cutting board.

If these elements - these points of difference - can be given life and turned into what literary theorist, Charles Baxter, calls a counterpoint narrative, there's a good chance that existing, but dysfunctional company stories can be changed. So in this way, getting staff to engage in storywork can be very beneficial.

I suppose what I'm saying here is that storytelling rights should be given to everyone in an organisation, and not just the PR group or the top executives. I think this makes for less insular and more adaptive organizational functioning.

Helen: Can you see the stories told by people chosen at random in the electorate, about the political party governing a country, effectively assisting in the planning of future policy strategies? And how?

David: I would guess that they could help, especially if they were listened to in an open way (much easier said than done however). Perhaps what Bakhtin called - dialogue' could happen. Instead of me telling you my - mono-logic' and you telling me yours, a dia-logic - one informed by our careful listening and taking in of each other's story - could be created. An interesting possibility.

Helen: We use some traditional stories as ways to introduce discussion points for our seminars, have you any stories of instances where you have had success in this way?

David: If, by traditional stories, you mean ancestral or culturally historic ones, then no. However, I often use stories in the classroom to illustrate themes I can't get at any other way. One I like to tell concerns ways of learning. A well known marine biologist had just started working with an eager graduate student. The student, anxiously awaiting all those pearls of wisdom, was stunned when the biologist said 'Here's a fish and there's a tablet. Write down whatever you see and I'll be back in a few hours.'

'See?' said the student. 'What's there to see? That's one dead fish.'

With time however, the student noted how the scales lay and made some guesses about their functions. He did the same with the rest of the fish. Later, the biologist came back and congratulated the student. He then left again, saying he'd be back in a few days. The fish turned ripe (what's that saying about guests and fish after three days?) and the student had filled the tablet with notes. As it turned out, many of his conclusions accorded with what other expert biologists had written. The course of his studies for the next few years was set. The story works well. Most students after hearing it stop looking to me for all the answers and begin studying their own organizational - fish,' notebooks in hand.

Helen: You are interested in story as it can be used in therapy. Care to comment?

David: I think my answers to your first two questions capture my views on this. I would add that from where I stand in the organizational research community, we are just beginning to take the narrative turn - moving away from the logico-scientific view towards a storied one. This is both exciting and threatening.

A number of very heated debates are now springing up between leading theorists and speakers. Some are saying that all we've learned about management over the last hundred years is simply artful rhetoric. And of course others are denouncing such views as poppycock. The field is more interesting than it has been in years.

David Barry, Ph.D.
Management & Employment Relations Dept., University of Auckland; Private Bag 92019 Auckland, New Zealand

Interview Source

David Boje's and Robert Dennehy's classic textbook, Managing in the Postmodern World (3rd ed., 2000) is now available online. I was first introduced to this book while working with Dale Fitzgibbons editing the Journal of Management Education. It has a lot of wisdom for all of us trying to survive in increasingly Dilbert-like organizational systems.

I find the radical organizational theory perpsective to be a unique synthesis that helps round out my humanities understanding of the world. Here is their take on Postmodernism:

Brief Overview of What is Postmodernism?

People who do not tell stories well, listen to stories effectively and learn to deconstruct those stories with a skeptical ear will be more apt to be victims of … exploitation and power games. Stories have many interpretations. If one interpretation gets pasted over all the rest and becomes a dominant or the only political acceptable way to interpret events, we have ideology, domination, and disempowerment. Part of exploitation is to deny an interpretation, point of view, or experience, that differs from the dominant view. Rhetoric about healthy, happy, and terrific harmony and unity can mask just the opposite reality. A simple sounding moral or prescription about consensus or teamwork can mask deeper costs in terms of power and domination. (339)

Story Deconstruction Method

1. Duality Search. Make a list of any bipolar terms, any dichotomies that are used in the story. Include the term even if only one side is mentioned.
2. Reinterpret. A story is one interpretation of an event from one point of view. Write out an alternative interpretation using the same story particulars.
3. Rebel Voices. Deny the authority of the one voice. What voices are being expressed in this story? Which voices are subordinate or hierarchical to other voices?
4. Other Side of the Story. Stories always have two sides. What is the [other] side of the story (usually a marginalized, under-represented, or even silent) …?
5. Deny the Plot. Stories have plots, scripts, scenarios, recipes, and morals. Turn these around.
6. Find the Exception. What is the exception that breaks the rule, that does not fit the recipe, that escapes the scrictures of the principle? State the rule in a way that makes it seem extreme or absurd.
7. State What is Between the Lines. What is not said? What is the writing on the wall? Fill in the blanks. … What are you filling in? With what alternate way[s] could you fill it in? (340)

Boje, David M. and Robert F. Dennehy. Managing in the Postmodern World: America’s Revolution Against Exploitation. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1993.

Erickson, M.H. “The Use of Systems as an Integral Part of Hypnotherapy.” (1965) The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis. V. 4 NY: Irvington, 1980: 212-223.

The therapist’s task should not be a proselytizing of the patient with his own beliefs and understandings. ... What is needed is the development of a therapeutic situation permitting the patient to use his own thinking, his own understandings, his own emotions in the way that best fits him in his scheme of life. (223)

Erickson, M.H. and E.L. Rossi. Hypnotherapy: An Exploratory Casebook. NY: Irvington, 1979

Each psychotherapeutic encounter is unique and requires fresh creative effort on the part of both the therapist and the patient to discover the principles and means of achieving a therapeutic outcome. (234)

Freedman, Jill and Gene Combs. Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996.

We liked the way Erickson attended to and respected the experience of the people he worked with. He cultivated a kind of therapeutic relationship that de-emphathized the therapist’s professional, theoretical ideas and put a benevolent spotlight on people’s particular situations. (Freedman/Combs: 10) {MB—They are talking about the therapist Milton H. Erickson—see your notes on him)

It invites our attention to rather small, rather tight, recursive feedback loops when, instead, we want to be paying more attention to ideas and practices at play in the larger cultural context. The “systems” metaphor tempts us to look within families for complementary circuits and for collaborative causation of problems, rather than to work with family members to identify the negative influence of certain values, institutions, and practices in the larger culture on their lives and relationships, and to invite them to pull together in opposing those values, institutions, and practices. It encourages a position of neutrality or curiosity rather than one of advocacy or passion for particular values and against others. (Freedman/Combs: 13) {MB—they state that feminist critiques in therapy led them to reassess their reliance on the systems metaphor (similar to humanist thought, rather than neo-marxist system theory) and their later move past Erickson hypnotherapy methods}

In Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends (White & Epston, 1990), White reminds us how Bateson used the metaphor of “maps,” saying that all our knowledge of the world is carried in the form of various mental maps of “external” or “objective” reality, and that different maps lead to different interpretations of “reality.” No map includes every detail of the territory that it represents, and events that don’t make it onto a map don’t exist in that map’s world of meaning. (Freedman/Combs: 15) {MB—see citation for the referenced book, page 2)

… {MB—social constructionism’s} main premise is that the beliefs, values, institutions, customs, labels, laws, divisions of labor, and the like that make up our social realities are constructed by the members of a culture as they interact with one another from generation to generation and day to day. That is, societies construct the “lenses” through which their members interpret the world. The realities that each of us take for granted are the realities that our societies have surround us with since birth. These realities provide the beliefs, practices, words, and experiences from which we make up our lives, or, as we would say in postmodernist jargon, “constitute our selves.”
When we use both narrative and social constructionism as guiding metaphors for our work, we see how the stories that circulate in society constitute our lives and those of the people we work with. We also notice how the stories of individual lives can influence the constitution of whole cultures—not just the stories of people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but also those of people like Pocahontas, Annie Oakley, Helen Keller, and Tina Turner, as well as the stories of ordinary people whose name we have never heard. As we work with the people who come to see us, we think about the interaction between the stories that they are living out in their personal lives and the stories that are circulating in their cultures—both their local culture and the larger culture. We think about how cultural stories are influencing the way they interpret their daily experience and how their daily actions are influencing the stories that circulate in society. (Freedman/Combs: 16-17) {MB—see Weingarten: 289}

This conception of self is at odds with the skin-bound container with fixed contents (resources) that we had previously conceptualized. As we pondered the implications of this new “constitutionalist” metaphor of self, my (JF) taken-for-granted reality was so shaken up that I became motion-sick. I literally became nauseated. … If we were really to adapt these new ways of thinking and perceiving—which we wanted to do because of the kinds of therapy they support—we would become responsible for continually constituting ourselves as the people we wanted to be. We would have to examine taken-for-granted stories in our local culture, the contexts we moved in, the relationships we cultivated, and the like, so as to continually re-author and update our own stories. Morality and ethics would not be fixed things, but ongoing activities, requiring continuing maintenance and attention. (Freedman/Combs: 17)

Instead of seeing ourselves as mechanics who are working fix a broken machine or ecologists who are trying to understand and influence complex ecosystems, we experience ourselves as interested people—perhaps with an anthropological or biographical or journalistic bent—who are skilled at asking questions to bring forth the knowledge and experience that is carried in the stories of the people we work with. We think of ourselves as members of a subculture in collaborative interaction with other people to construct new realities. We now work to help people notice the influence of restrictive cultural stories in their lives and to expand and enrich their own life narratives. We strive to find ways to spread the news of individual triumphs—to circulate individual success stories so that they can keep our culture growing and flowing satisfying ways. (Freedman/Combs: 18)

What is important here … is that change, whether it be change of belief, relationship, feeling, or self-concept, involves a change in language. … Meanings are always somewhat indeterminate, and therefore mutable. … Meaning is not carried in a word by itself, but by the word in relation to its context, and no two contexts will be exactly the same. Thus the precise meaning of any word is always somewhat indeterminate, and potentially different; it is always something to be negotiated between two or more speakers or between a text and a reader. (Freedman/Combs: 29)

Rosenblatt, Paul. Metaphors of Family Systems. NY: Guilford Press, 1993.

{MB--Start a file of books that dissemble metaphoric constructions—exs. Lakoff, Morgan, Boje, Rigney…}

Weingarten, Kathy. “The Discourse of Intimacy: Adding a Social Constructionist and Feminist View.” Family Process 30 (1991): 285-305.

In the social constructionist view, the experience of self exists in the ongoing interchange with others … the self continually creates itself through narratives that include other people {MB—and other people’s narratives?} who are reciprocally woven into these narratives. (Weingarten: 289)

White, Michael. Re-Authoring Lives. Adelaide, Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications, 1995.

Is this work better defined as a world-view? Perhaps, but even that is not enough. Perhaps it’s an epistemology, a philosophy, a personal commitment, a politics, an ethics, a practice, a life, and so on. (White: 37)

White, Michael and David Epston. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. NY: Norton, 1990.

In arguing that all information is necessarily “news of difference,” and that it is the perception of difference that triggers all new responses in living systems, he demonstrated how the mapping of events through time is essential for the perception of difference, for the detection of change. (White & Epston: 2) {MB—Freedman and Combs, following this quote, state that: “An advantage that Michael White saw in the narrative metaphor was that a story is a map that extends through time” (2).}


Anonymous said...

Very informative, thanks. Will read around in your links.

J. David Zacko-Smith said...

You have an interesting blog! I thought I was the only one blogging about Social Constructionism!

Michael said...

Thanks J., liked yours "contextual musings" (both versions) as well...

Muhammad Ansori said...

I think this is unique strategy. I just see like this.

Mel said...

A valuable interview. Thanks for putting it out there. I am enjoying your blog - you write about the stuff you are thinking/reading/teaching/learning about. This is motivating and inspirational for me, someone at the beginning of a PhD journey. Thanks.