This article compares two prominent managerial models – those of Snowden and Weick – that use narrative as a sensemaking response to complexity. After presenting an overview to their approach to narrative and complexity, we then analyze their stylistic differences as a precursor to identifying eight features of the more substantial likeness of their models. In the conclusion we distill the essential features of narrative and complexity that their concepts entail and show that individual behavior, interpersonal communication, participation, and management by exception are their hallmarks.
This special issue is based on the premises that a good narrative is a complex one and that complexity is best understood with a narrative. Consistent with these premises, we define ‘narratives’ as a type of communication that happens in conversation, is composed of discourse, appears in a sequence, and is interpreted retrospectively (Boje, 2002; Putnam & Fairhurst, 2001; Czarniawska, 1998; Weick, 1979; Barthes, 1977). ‘Complexity’ can be defined as nonlinear relations, driven by small forces that result in the emergence of sudden changes that produce unexpected outcomes (Morowitz, 2002; Taylor, 2001). Our question is: How do these two ideas come together? The subject of this article is the work of the two authors, Snowden and Weick (and their research teams), and how they both addresses the communicative implications of complexity and narrative.
The differences between Snowden and Weick
The two most well-known and comprehensively developed models using narrative analysis for responding to complexity in organizations are that of Weick and his associates, at the University of Michigan (Weick, et al, 2005; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001), and that of Snowden and his work with Kurtz (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003) at the Cynefin Centre for Organizational Complexity. Remarkably, these two authors virtually ignore each other’s work despite the major overlap between their premises and practices. The sole written cross-reference between the two is Snowden’s criticism of Weick’s use of High Reli-ability Organizations (HROs), that is, organizations such as aircraft carriers and nuclear power plants that require acute mindfulness if they are to avoid situations in which small errors build upon one another to precipitate a catastrophic breakdown. Snowden believes that HROs are too anomalous to be useful as a comparison for mainstream organizational practice (Snowden, 2003).
These two authors also differ in that whereas Weick, a university scholar, developed his theory before focusing on its applications, Snowden, who originally developed his work within IBM, constructed applied methods including tools and practices for analyzing narrative complexity, e.g., ‘Story Circles’ and ‘Knowledge Disclosure Points’ (KDPs) – in concert with his research program.
These authors’ ideas also differ in origins. Snowden’s Cynefin group anchors its program in literary and science-fiction references (Snowden, 2000a), as seen in its very name, ‘Cynefin’ (pronounced cyn-ev-in), a Welsh term that, as a noun, roughly means ‘habitat’ and as an adjective roughly means ‘acquainted’ or ‘familiar’. The term more specifically means one’s environment, or place of comfort or birth (Snowden, 2003a). The theme of the Cynefin model is that the ability to respond to complexity requires a sense of place, which enables one to advance diverse views and to imagine narratives about what happened, what could have happened, and how to act differently in the future.
Weick’s theories, on the other hand, reflect his education as a social psychologist and include such topics as threat-rigidity, commitment-de- commitment, doubt-self-fulfilling prophecies, and dissonance-assurance. In his recent works Weick (1995, 2001) uses these ideas to develop the concept of ‘ sensemaking’.
Weick and Snowden also differ on the grammar of the central theme ofboth their ideas about sensemaking. ‘Sensemaking’, as Weick fuses the term, is a neologism (invented word) meant to convey the idea that the term is so all-encompassing that it deserves being distinguished as a new usage about a new concept. Snowden, meanwhile, uses the compound term ‘sense-making’ to represent the same family of ideas. Snowden’s more conventional term aims to describe a whole set ofprocesses that have brand names, such as the previously mentioned Story Circles and KDPs and to use narrative theory to understand the complexity of organizational environments.
Another significant difference is the type of evidence they use for their respective programs. Snowden presents his ideas to workshop participants, and then uses an interpretation of their responses as evidence for his concepts in his articles about narrative and complexity. Weick’s evidence comes from his field studies of jazz orchestras, firefighters, and the aforementioned aircraft carriers and power plants. This work is amplified, in an applied version, in his co-authored 2001 book with Katherine Sutcliffe on managing the unexpected in an age of complexity (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001).
These differences between Weick and Snowden’s ideas are differences in style – that is, they differ in their historical, cultural, and pedagogical approaches to complexity. Yet our reading of Weick and Snowden’s treatment of complexity and narrative shows that there is considerable overlap on the substance of their thinking. The purpose of this article is to list and interpret these points of likeness. To set up this listing, we will review their common approach to narrative and complexity.
The similarities between Snowden and Weick
Weick and Snowden commonly assert that the complexity and ambiguity of the environments that individuals face are best understood when language, including the richness of metaphor and the flexibility of the story, is invoked as a sensemaking device (Weick & Browning, 1986; Snowden, 1999). For Weick, ‘sensemaking’ defines organizational action as an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs (e.g., Weick, et al, 2005). Accordingly, organizations become interpretation systems of participants who, through the back and forth of their own understandings, provide meanings for each other via their everyday interactions.
The exercises Snowden uses in the Cynefin project emphasize contextualizing to generate collective ‘sense-making’ as a consequence of discourse. These workshop discussions emphasize diversity and concreteness by using narrative methods that allow specific patterns to emerge in understanding the story of a project or event. A consistent theme of Weick’s theory development from the very beginning is that complex environments must be matched with equally complex processing mechanisms. The capacity of the narrative to vary in punctuation (when they begin and end), pace (what is the speed and variation between sequences), and participant composition (casts can range from one person, to few, to ensembles) means the narrative is a communicative form that is frequently consistent with organizational complexity (Luhman & Boje, 2001; Polster, 1987).
Snowden’s strategy for sense-making is to lay out an understanding of language depending on the specificity of the environment. Snowden, like the narratologist Walter Fisher (1984) before him, worries that experts’ language is so restricted and abstract that it too easily remains about the problem, but far above it. Weick and Snowden jointly emphasize the role of language in sensemaking about complexity and especially the role of the communicator to create meaningful messages that are informative, comprehensive, and not oversimplified (Snowden, 1999). Stories can complexify meanings in a way that linguistic statements cannot (Snowden, 1999). For Weick, interpersonal processes play out as actors know who they are by what they say to others and how others respond to them. He observes, “People verbalize their interpretations and the processes they use to generate them” (Weick, 1995: 8). A distinctive feature of sensemaking, and one that also distinguishes it from interpretation, is the way action and organization collaborate to make up the structure. Weick sees communication as a type of action because generating discourse is an act ofperformance and production. “ Sensemaking is about authoring as well as reading” (Weick, 1995: 7).
This view of narrative as a special answer to complexity is further laid out in the writings by Snowden, Weick, and associates. In common, they propose a set of conditions, a set of useful practices, including the kinds of structures necessary to adapt to complexity successfully. We have identified eight major statements that capture these commonalities:
In the conclusion, we summarize these eight points and examine what their likeness means for understanding narratives and complexity.
In this final section we will distill and elaborate on these eight comparisons and show how the programs of Snowden and Weick – originating with two separate research teams on two separate continents – reach much the same conclusion about the nature of complexity and the value of narrative as a response to it. Freud was fond of saying that it is more efficient to analyze two cases than just one, just as it is easier to crack two walnuts in your hand than one alone (Gay, 1988). The study of organizations has built on this notion by using the geographical survey term ‘triangulation’, which refers to using two points to identify an unknown third. These eight points suggest the following conclusions.
First, complex narratives are about individual behavior. While the organizations Snowden and Weick describe are complex systems, they see local behavior – self-organization – as the key response to nonlinear conditions. Whether it is Weick’s X-ray technicians arriving at a diagnosis for the Battered Child Syndrome or Snowden’s kindergarten teachers shaping chaotic behavior, they place the person at the center of the interpretation. The advantage of focusing on the person is this: the more self-organizing, rather than controlled, the behavior, the more likely that the right solution has a life somewhere in the system. If the communication practices among self-organizers are in fact vulnerable and attentive to the margins, their use will result in the best self-organized solution evolving to a dominant position, which is how individual action becomes a role model for others to emulate. Those influenced by the role- modeling, in turn, may become a force for an idea or a project, and so on.
Second, narratives focus on “who said what to whom with what effect.” One thing that adds to the complexity of “who said what to whom with what effect” is point of view. Who is making the interpretation of the complexity of the environment? The ability to interpret complex environments rises and falls on such things as subtle cues, the ability to pick up human and technical details, fantasies, and alternative histories. It rises and falls on who showed up ten minutes early or ten minutes late. Communication under conditions of complexity takes the form of facts, ideas, theories, and ideologies that amalgamate into a narrative.
Third, participation and management by exception are concepts that provide an alternative to the dominant model of managerial control. While they do not use these terms directly, Weick and Snowden affirm the concepts of participation and management by exception as managerial approaches to complexity. Those in charge of hierarchies are obligated to take control of the sudden change that complexity stimulates because that is what Western cultures expect. The idea of management is, in fact, usually understood as the engineering of social control (Tsoukas, 1994). Yet Snowden and Weick’s models direct us toward developing enough trust that we can empower people to participate in local complex conditions, including the right to respond instantly. If complex change can begin with small, local forces, then having the ears and eyes of observers acting on these forces follows as a strategy. The paradox of ‘letting go’ and remaining involved is one of the hardest complexity responses for a manager to learn. In French, lâcher prise means ‘letting go’, which is contrary to control, but it is a purposeful absence of control. Weick and Snowden provide an original approach to management as control because they equalize control and ‘letting go’ in importance. In this vein they embrace a classic axiom of management, namely, J. D. Thompson’s (1967) notion, in his book Organizations in Action, that contends that management is best when it limits itself to managing exceptions. The normal state of affairs is to let go; the exception is to manage.
In conclusion, these diverse approaches to the same topic amplify their power and increase the credibility of both ideas. Weick and Snowden’s style differences are no small matter; one might do quite different things as a result of studying and knowing only one or the other of them, yet their common attention to how one diagnoses and responds to complexity advances the larger idea of complexity and narrative. Complexity, as an intellectual force, is in its ‘understanding phase’. Its larger aim is to answer the question, “What are the managerial consequences for viewing the world as an adaptive, dissipative, and, most importantly, a nonlinear system?” Narratives are useful for complexity because there are no hypotheses in complexity research; instead there are historical, technical, and simulation analyses of processes over time that result in unexpected outcomes.
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