In this always informal, sometimes tongue-in-cheek paper, the author reports on his work bringing introductory complexity concepts to purveyors of social services. With an ethnographic tone he talks about some of the core problems practitioners try to contend with and how it is that complexity thinking allows them to see those problems in a different and potentially more useful way. The key to this commentary is the phrase “nonlinear dynamic systems,” the three concepts that are illustrated one at a time by examples from the author’s previous work. The serious subtext of the essay is this: The parallels between complexity and social service issues suggest a transformation blocked primarily by the thicket of regulations and hierarchical structures maintained by governments and funders. With political will for change at the top, a variety of new experiments in more effective and efficient social services could be tried.
Terms like ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ are pretty confusing for a person who grew up in linguistic anthropology, where both have been used in a variety of ways for a century or so. The author tries to clarify the terms with the following steps. First, investor Peter Lynch’s popular use of ‘story’ serves as an informal and accessible example to narrow the focus, and Weick’s concept of ‘sensemaking’ brings ‘story’ into the realm of organizational research and practice. Next we draw on the recent work on ‘living narrative’ by Ochs and Capps. Their five dimensions of narrative give sensemaking a more grounded and detailed meaning. Then concepts from discourse analysis allow us to evaluate sensemaking for its fit with ideas about an organization as a complex co-evolutionary system.