A reflection from the Cynefin™ Retreat on the Aran Islands in Ireland

The Aran Island Cynefin™ Retreat on narrative was a resounding success. It was a small and intimate group which suited the remote, but spectacular setting. Besides stimulating input from the faculty, we also visited the wild cliffs and ancient structures around the island, spent an evening with a traditional story-teller who entertained with stories about Fairies and other mythical creatures and watched the decades-old documentary: Man of Aran to embed ourselves even further into the rich stories of the island.

Yiannis Gabriel did an excellent job of framing the three days by introducing a generative metaphor: seeing narratives as part of Narrative Ecologies e.g. temperate zones with many narratives competing and interacting with each other; monocultures where a single narrative dominates; deserts with very few identifiable narratives. This soon led to conversations around culture and the metaphor of how a gardener tends and nurtures an ecology vs designing and engineering metaphors.

Mo Costandi followed with a session on the brain and how many of the stories we construct and tell ourselves are mostly false. In many ways our biases determine what we remember, and therefore the stories we construct. This obviously has big implications for not only research processes, but also legal processes that rely on eye witness accounts.

Mary Condren explored how particular narratives or discourses can have profound influence on all aspects of our lives, especially if the meaning of those narratives are determined by those in power: the narrative she chose to focus on was of sacrifice. She highlighted how it is used to legitimise atrocities like war and also underlie issues like gender inequality.  

The learnings from this retreat are too many and varied to convey in a few short paragraphs.  If you feel like you have missed out, make sure not to miss the next 2 opportunities:

***Please note that Tasmania Retreat has been cancelled, and the agenda has moved to the Cynefin Retreat in Snowdonia.


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Bringing the human element and complexity thinking to rebuilding resilience in Puerto Rico

Cognitive Edge, through the Cynefin Centre, is part of an exciting project team funded by a United States National Science Foundation grant. This project focuses on the rebuilding of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and provides us with an opportunity to collaborate on the real-time decisions being made around the reconstruction.

We will focus on bringing the transdisciplinary human element and complexity thinking to a fascinating mix of disciplines, ranging from hydrological, electrical and mechanical engineering, meteorology, climatology, and social ecology to data science and social science. The 3-year project will focus on understanding the impact of the interdependencies of critical infrastructure systems, such as the power and water networks, when exposed to weather extremes, and how those interdependencies cause failures of physical assets, leading to dramatic impacts on the health and socio-economic wellbeing of communities in those regions.

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Zhen Goh, from Cognitive Edge, in discussion at the project workshop.

The first field trip to visit the site was held in mid-January 2019. The University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez, our local partner, hosted a week-long engagement where we were given the opportunity to hear from local government and local community leaders. It was also an important session for the different disciplines to discuss the development of a truly interdisciplinary definition of resilience. The development of a white paper to contemplate how an integrated definition of Resilience looks through multiple disciplinary lenses is now underway. SenseMaker® is being deployed to collect narrative input on how citizens and institutions experienced Maria.

SenseMaker® will also be utilised at a later stage in the research to provide decision augmentation around new recommendations that come out of our research. This grant falls under the Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes (CRISP 2.0) arm, with an aim to “Enhance the Resilience of Islanded Communities”. Working through our partner, New York University, this is a three-year grant with an interdisciplinary mix of academics from New York University, City College New York, Arizona State University, University of Puerto Rico, Brookhaven Laboratories and Sandia National Laboratories.

Check out the project website at http://eric21.org

Read more about this project (in Spanish): RUM en millonario proyecto de la NSF para resiliencia de la isla


Contact us if you are interested to learn more about our work, and how we could partner with you.



Photo credits: https://www.uprm.edu/portada/2019/01/18/rum-en-millonario-proyecto-de-la-nsf-para-resiliencia-de-la-isla/

Cynefin St David’s Day 2019 (1 of 5)

An email came in yesterday from our new CEO Marion asking if I could explain why I had changed simple to obvious within the Cynefin framework, why I called it simple in the first place, had I thought of any other words and did it change anything to do with the dynamics. I was about to reply something along the lines of its all in the history of Cynefin article when I realised I hadn’t checked that in a long time and those questions are not answered. I’ve needed to do an update for some time so lets seize the day. I may make this an annual event by the way as there is always something new as the framework evolves. I’ve also posted on the liminal aspect before but there is no harm in a general update and I’ll also pick up on some other questions about disorder and constraints.

As many people will know the first version of Cynefin in its current form came in Complex Acts of Knowing which is now one of the top ten most cited papers in the Knowledge Management field. In that article I used known and knowable for the ordered domains and complex and chaotic for the unordered ones. That persisted for some time but I was never happy because it confused ontology (the nature of things) with epistemology (how we know things). So I changed it to simple and complicated which conformed more with use by Cilliers and others (but not Stacy who uses the words very differently). The focus of the domain name was on the nature of the system, and the action phrases (probe-sense-respond) referenced how you acted and how you gained knowledge). The philosopher in my was a lot happier now and each domain had its own particular relationship between cause and effect. In the ordered domains there is a known or knowable relationship between cause and effect, the complex domain there probably isn’t one and even if there is we will only know it with the benefit of hindsight and in chaos there is no relationship at all the system is in a sense random. That worked for some time and some of my co-authors remain wedded to it. My recent chapter in the handbook of systems thinking in health care uses simple not obvious as my co-author Prof Mark is pretty much wedded to it.

So why change to the use of obvious? Well, several reasons but the main ones were that ’simple’ doesn’t really describe the relationship between cause and effect and we can in effect be simple in each of the domains. I don’t love ambiguous language so after some thought I came up with obvious, as the relationship between cause and effect is not only known or easily knowable, but it is also self-evident to any reasonable person. In .the complex domain its simple to trigger safe-to-fail experiments around any coherent hypothesis, in chaos, simplicity is about acting to create some type of constraint or patter. In the complicated domain it is a simply matter of delegation to the appropriate expert. As to the dynamics, nothing changes, its just a better name for the domain.

The other common question is the link to the wider typology of constraints I have been working on. I think I’ll make that a separate post and also deal with liminal in another. Open to other questions on the subject and the banner picture is the view over Snowdonia from the northern descent of Y Garn in snow, with crampons. The Glyders of which Y Garn is a part is a key part of my own Cynefin.

Patience is virtue of necessity

Around five years ago I spent a difficult and unplanned night in Toronto airport. I didn’t enjoy it but in part survived by using the experience as an opportunity to study crisis management as a sort of amateur in situ ethnographer. You can find the sequence of posts I wrote about the experience starting here.

Now I’ve had delays since, but none as bad, until that is yesterday which was easily the worst ever; as in Toronto I survived by a mixture of patience and keeping myself going by observing the process. In effect I had a chance to experience in part the isolation and stress that is a daily occurrence for refugees and others at airports around the world; I knew it would end, for many it doesn’t. I’m interrupting my sequence of posts on wellbeing to tell the tale.

So to provide the context. I was asked to speak at a major event on Patient Safety, working on our micro-narrative work and elaborating the vector theory of change. The British Foreign Secretary (former Health Minister), Don Berwick (who I have long wanted to meet) and various other members of the great and good in the field were also on the platform so I was looking forward to it. The location was Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and I got online access to a web site to load data. That involved a whole section on travel and another to input data for a visa. I completed that, sent a few chasing emails and a week ago went onto the web site to find two pdf files: one a ticket with Saudia and the other an Arabic text with the name “visa”. Now I haven’t visited Saudi since a brief visit in the 80s when the context meant local arrangements were made so I had no experience. I assumed that the visa file was just that – I was speaking at a government event, the Saudis hosting an international accent and so on. But assumptions are dangerous.

So firstly, the sequence of events.

  1. Thursday night I was due at the opera (a brilliant performance of The Monstrous Child) which would mean I got home just after midnight. But with the flight to Jeddah leaving at 1230 that was fine. I would have the morning to pack and drive up to the airport at some leisure. Unfortunately, after I had left home an important meeting came up and the only option was 0830 in London on Friday. Had I known two hours earlier I would have booked a hotel but it was too late.Net result a return home midnight 50 as a result of a delayed train and then an hour packing before getting an 0631 train to London so I had four hours sleep.
  2. The meeting went well and I made the airport with plenty of time and went to the gate early; I’d checked in on-line but played safe. At the gate my boarding pass was not accepted as there was no visa so I stepped to the side and showed another agent the ‘visa’ pdf.  She didn’t speak or read Arabic but another passenger said the word visa was by one of the numbers so she typed that into the screen.  It came up with some error message (not valid I think but my memory is hazy) but she waved me onto the plane and although I was slightly worried I assumed she knew what she was doing; I know airlines are a bit paranoid as they are fined heavily if they let people fly without proper documentation.
  3. Aside from being alcohol-free and a slightly tired configuration, business class in Saudia was good, the service was excellent and the food good. I got three hours sleep which helped and left the plane on time at 2115 and headed for immigration. Again the visa question and I handed over the pdf form. Now things started to go wrong; it wasn’t accepted and I was taken to a secondary area. I was joined by there by another speaker who had changed his passport but had a full visa. He was cleared quickly and said he would tell the conference desk I was having problems. Shortly after than I learnt that the document was a letter which I was meant to take to the Saudi Embassy in London to get a visa – something that as far as I know I wasn’t told I needed to do. But OK they were going to see if they could process me. They took fingerprints, got details of occupation and other details and sent to the first of a series of plastic chairs I was about to get familiar with.  I emailed my contacts and sort of assumed the conference desk would be taking some action. I was worried I wouldn’t get enough sleep with the delay but I assumed it would work out.
  4. Approaching midnight a more senior official came over and took me to another area. He said that they would not issue a visa as their superiors had rejected the idea. There was no appeal and I would be put on a plane back to London as soon as possible. I pointed out I was at a government event etc. but he was implacable. I was told to take a seat and wait.
  5. So I sat, and I sat and I sat. I didn’t want to try and sleep as the area was open and theft a possibility, also I was assuming someone would come and tell me something. There was a toilet (not the best but beggars can’t be choosers) but no refreshments to buy, no water and only those hard plastic chairs. Around 0200 I stood up and found a power socket that I used to recharge the phone while listing to episodes of the Archers (being British was a matter of security now) and a Welsh Rugby Podcast then went to sit down again. By now it was cold and I was increasingly thirsty. Other people came and went to the same area, all had their passports returned and were admitted to the country but no one talked to me and attempts to ask questions were just ignored.
  6. At 0500 I managed to attract someone in a Saudia uniform as they walked past. He spoke English and knew the case. He told me that he had arranged for me to be on the 1320 flight back Saturday and had printed the boarding past hours before. He rushed off and returned to show it to me. He then said that the Immigration guys would move me to the lounge before then but were waiting for a shift change at 0600. So at least an end was in sight.
  7. It wasn’t 0600, but at 0700 an immigration officer came to me and escorted me to the lounge. It was all pretty direct and to be honest I felt like a criminal which I think was the intent.  My passport and boarding past were retained and I was told I would be collected before the flight.  So I had a chance to have a drink, some food and take a cold cure or two (that had been making it worse).
  8. At 1130 I was collected and again escorted to the gate where I was handed over to Saudia staff with my passport and boarding pass finally returned.  Having been marched by the queue of people waiting to board by a gentleman in uniform I was an object of some curiosity but by then I was past caring.   We finally got on the plane and I settled down.   The staff were very good but obviously knew what had happened, they got me food and generally looked after me.   Finally I got some sleep
  9. When I landed at Heathrow I was called before I left the plane and yet again escorted through to passport control.  Nothing like being marked out!  I asked why I needed an escort and she said if was a request from the authorities.  She had been in charge of the gate when I embarked and wanted to know how I had got on board (she wasn’t the one ).  I went through that, left her with the ‘visa’ document for her internal investigations and miracle of miracles the automatic passport gates let me through.  Given the fines the airline will have had I suspect there is an investigation ongoing.  From there three trains and a short drive and I got home at 2020 in the same clothes I had on when I left at 0600 the previous day.

Now looking back on this there were mutual sins of omission by myself and the conference organisers. They should have made the visa process clear and given me instructions rather than assuming I could read Arabic; I should have realised it might need more than a letter and checked. The sin of commission was by the airline. They should not have allowed me to board. That would have been unfortunate but there was time still to sort a visa or arrange to present online. Also, I would also have been able to make a rugby match at the Arms Park and be online to grab some tickets for the Ring Cycle in Berlin this September – both of which I missed.

But the fact that the main damage to me was loss of sleep, some stress and a cold re-triggered puts this into perspective, as does the fact that I could be worried about rugby and opera. For me the experience was unpleasant but I was pretty sure I would come out of it restored to normal life. For many people this type of experience is ongoing with no prospect of end. Not only that they have to do it while trying to care for children and other dependents. All be it briefly I experienced what it was like to in an ethnic minority, subject to a process I didn’t understand and couldn’t influence. Physically no one cared or was interested. It was summed up a bit by the reason for my not being taken to the lounge until shift change. They wanted one person to be responsible for taking me there and onto the plane so it was a lot easier for them to leave me there, uninformed and unwatered, for eight hours so that the shift change would make things more convenient for them.

But the airline is culpable here as well. Aside from the fact they shouldn’t have let me on, when they knew I was there they could have done something to help but chose not to. But that is just customer care. The real value for me was the learning. Interestingly when my daughter contacted me in the morning after she woke up her first reaction, like mine, was to say study what is happening to you; taking such an act is a matter of giving oneself agency, as is writing this up for the record and to aid reflection.


Opening photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash
Banner Photo by mohammad alashri also on Unsplash

A Retreat on narrative – where better to meet than in Ireland

Picture2The location of the Cynefin Retreat about Narrative in Organisations (Ireland, 18-21 March 2019) is specially chosen for its unique landscape and naturally rugged beauty. This is so as to facilitate learning, sense-making, the blending of art and science, and also to loosen constraints on the imagination with a view to releasing artistic creativity and ‘joining the dots’ of our previous experiences with insights gained at the Retreat.

Ireland is renowned for its storytelling and folklore. Long before there were books and literature, the filíochtaí (poets) and seanchaí’s (storytellers) of Ireland wandered the country and passed stories of history and folklore from town to town, and generation to generation.  

Although we are in the age of information with so much of it at our fingertips via the internet, storytelling is still alive and well in Ireland with many storytelling festivals being hosted each year throughout the country, from Cape Clear in Cork to Tory Island in Donegal (and many nooks and crannies in between). Our storytelling heritage is carried on to this day by modern-day seanchaí’s who tell stories that have been passed down through the centuries…

One famous file (poet) from the 18th century was Antoine Ó Raifteiri (Raftery), whom many of us taught in Irish schools will remember for his poem ‘Mise Raifteirí an file’. Liam Clancy recites a beautiful rendition of one of Raifteiri’s poems ‘Mary Hynes’, which can be heard here. It is worth listening to with your eyes closed and your imagination ready to take flight…

A modern-day seanchaí is Eddie Lenihan, who tells stories about ‘The Other Crowd’, ’The Good People’ and ’The Wee Folk’, all descriptions used by Irish people to describe fairies. Eddie is a great storyteller and his ability to bring mythology and folklore to life are widely lauded. Eddie will give participants at the Cynefin Retreat much to ponder on as they go about their escapades and enquires during the week. Lets just say that they might have an appreciation for all that we cannot see, including ‘the other crowd’, following on from Eddie’s stories.  Eddie researches the sources of his stories thoroughly and only tells ones he believes to be true…   

It is fitting that we have Eddie join us for the Cynefin Retreat (centred around ‘Narrative in Organisations and Society’) in Inis Mór, which is renowned for its storytelling and music. No doubt our thoughts will be embroidered by the stories of the faculty, seanchaí, our Inis Mór surrounds, and stories shared by attendees themselves.  In complexity speak, there is intrigue to discover what meaning will emerge over the week of the Retreat, and to see what that might look like…

As to what we will get out of it? The essence of a retreat is that it is an exploration from the perspective of multiple academic disciplines interacting with practice. So some of this depends on what people bring to the event. But we want to explore the nature of narrative as a constraint in organisations and society from the humanities and the sciences. A goal is to examine ways in which change can be stimulated; entrained patterns of needless difference reduced in their ability to dehumanise human interaction. How do people gain agency in their own forward narratives while respecting their past? At a very pragmatic level participants should come away with some new methods (and variations of old methods) that they can use in practice, at another level new ways of thinking about old and current problems. We’ll look (critically I suspect) at the role of AI in decision making and decision constraining. Lots and lots of possibilities. Be there! – Dave Snowden

“The Whistler Retreat is a game changer for me. It brings people together who have potential to make a real impact. You’re immersed in the retreat for 4 days. You’re with attendees for long enough to not just meet one or two attendees, but to do some serious mingling. Over the course of the week the diversity of professions and areas of interest are so widespread, you can’t but learn something new and become curious about an area you’ve not thought of before…

I found it really interesting. It’s a ‘joining of dots’ for want of a better description.  People discussing concepts raised by faculty, and giving their own spin on it, giving good metaphors or examples in practice.  It’s powerful stuff…” – Marion Kiely, 2018


Dave shares more about this Retreat in his blog –


Download the brochure, and register here!


As on previous retreats we do have a few limited places for people to take on roles in support of the retreat – at a discount. If you feel you have something to bring in that respect feel free to get in touch.


Opening picture is from  https://pixabay.com/photos/dolmen-new-stone-age-grave-ireland-456997/ (free usage).

Header image: Photo by Peter Aschoff on Unsplash (free usage).


Being labeled as ill …

One of the concerns I raised in yesterday’s post was the danger of assuming the need of a therapeutic approach in organisational, or for that matter individual wellbeing. I’ve long railed against the unthinking transfer of techniques and theories from one field into another. Models of childhood development assume that the organisation is childlike, therapeutic techniques assume that there is a patient in need of therapy. All of these assume that there is an object requiring the intervention of an expert in order be a subject and its a framing of the problem that I find troubling. Highly structured processes in effect, infantilise management by removing contextual judgement and characterise the adoption of sick stigma, unSAFe and so on. Similarly the assumption that the organisation needs therapy is a strong temptation for the OD department and too many OD consultants. It implies that the problem rests with the individual in question and not with anything systemic to the organisation as a whole. Using a wellbeing programme to cover up organisational perversion (in the sense in inauthenticity) is to my mind an attempt at coercive control.

A few decades back there was a fashion to set up all company sessions designed on the model of a mass evangelical mission. Employees were herded into tents or meeting halls and regaled with missions statements, admonitions to platitudinous value statements and subject to highly manipulative social processes designed to bring people to the mercy seat. Anyone rejecting the process was ostracised by those who had succumbed, made to feel an outlier. I’ve seen in modern times with workshops used to remove dissent, or rather make the dissenters guilty. All of these techniques rest on the privileging the position of the facilitator/consultant over the participants.

In fact the position is more frequently the misalignment of management behaviour with customer and work related needs resulting in dissonance within the system. The frequency of change initiatives, the imposition of rules and processes that people know will not work in all circumstances, changes in leadership, hypocrisy of leaders and so all are all part of the context or disposition state with which you are attempting an intervention. Changing the context and seeing what happens may be a lot more effective than trying to change the people based on a statement of how things should be.

So to my mind wellbeing starts with a map, and only once you have the map do you decide on interventions; higher the agency of the subjects the more resilient the system and the fewer unintended consequences. This is of course 101 complexity theory but even those who pick up the language of complexity often fall back to more familiar forms of practice.

Tomorrow I’ll pick up on the mapping and intervention aspect of this



Opening picture is Sigmund Freud’s sofa taken by Robert Huffstutter used under a creative commons license
Banner picture sees me in a wellness situation

Becoming well?

I returned from two fruitful days in South Africa working on what we have temporarily named the new cognitive edge but suffering from a bad cold. It had started to come on during the defeat of England on Saturday (a small price to pay if that is karma) worsened on Sunday’s flight and degenerated into my being in a sorry state involving nose bleeds, headaches and an inability to concentrate for any length of time. It meant I missed out on the good meal, good company and good wine planned for Monday night and had to console myself with a take away pizza snatching sleep in short tranches between coughing fits. It seemed better yesterday but the overnight fight back compounded by crying babies and having to share one third of my seat with the overflowing occupant of the adjacent one resulted in my spending the day proved up with various cold cures watching the television and generally giving up on life. I was due to be part of an event on Wellbeing this evening but attendance would have represented irony going on masochism so I begged off but agreed to present by skype and then be carried around to be part of different groups discussions. It worked well and I thought it worth while to record the notes I made now. I’m not up to more than notes so bear with me. I will make it something more coherent in future posts.

I started a brief presentation with three stories of projects relating to stress. On in Singapore had shown that head teacher stress arose from their keeping the pain on Ministry control and monitoring way from their staff, they absorbed the problem. In another working with Blue Light services we demonstrated that mental breakdown came from the health and safety regulations not from the job itself. Finally I referenced three doctor friends of mine who don’t want to be operated on my anyone under the age of 50 as that point represents the shift in training from apprentice model learning in teams to role based atomisation of tasks. All of those stories have a common theme – well meaning attempts to improve things make things better.

I moved on from that to reference what I thought were three major errors in thinking about wellbeing:

  1. A focus on palliative solutions, putting people through wellbeing programmes to tick a box rather than deal with the wider issues resulting in stress.
  2. A focus on individual change rather than changing interactions and environmental factors
  3. Assuming a therapeutic approach which privileges the therapist as expert over the day to day interactions and supportive capability of people/

I developed that the growing body of work on vector theory of change which I am leading, the need to create temporary social constructs to replace many of the natural systems that re-engineering destroyed and the overawing requirement to give people agency.

More on those tomorrow, but that the limits of attention span at the moment. Hopefully a goodnights sleep will improve things in the morning.



Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

Narrative: paying the piper

One of my motivations in devising the Tricotocon approach to trans-disciplinary learning, which we will use in the coming narrative retreat, was to allow disputation between peers and subsequent reflection. Each of the three members of the faculty face peer review by two colleagues and then have to listen to the reflections on their exchange by a wider group – without the opportunity to correct or clarify. Those reflections themselves arise from conversation is smaller groups and the whole thing is designed to keep ideas open for as long as possible: avoiding premature convergence. By having three levels of fragmentation and synthesis we increase the chance of abductive learning – the coming together of insights from different backgrounds, sensing the plausibility of novel connections. It is a complex facilitation technique and as such is designed to facilitate emergence rather than engineer an outcome.

This difference is key to understanding the role of narrative in organisation and society. Over the last few months (and come to think of it years) I’ve sat through a lot of discussions in which well meaning people want to create a new narrative to replace something they dislike. Ironically to propose that is a form of neo-colonialism and, in the current political climate , well meaning narratives of political correctness (while in the opinion of the author of this blog are generally correct) are triggering an anti-story or stories in which the negative pattern or trope has already evolved to accommodate direct attack and moral criticism. We’ve had some appalling examples in the UK of people being chased down the street and told to speak English when in England and Turkish ethnic origin British Citizens told by their customers that they will be sent home post Brexit. Well meaning people gathering together to talk about why this is a bad thing and wanting to create an alternative, while noble, is unlikely to be effective.

Creating alternative attractors, allowing contradictions between practice and prejudice to become visible, enabling empathetic connections. There are many ways to achieve change but its all about seeing what you can change, or rather where change is acceptable and in what form. In some ways this relates to my discussion of ethics and aesthetics over the Christmas period. Yes there are types of pattern and behaviour which simply have to be stopped, but underlying narratives of neglect manifesting in racist attitudes and fears are not the same thing as being a racist per se. I could give other examples but you get the point. We know from a range of material that we don’t see what we don’t expect to see. From that it’s an easy step to not setting what you don’t want to see – and that applies to the good guys as well as the bad guys.

The issue of narrative in organisations and society is not simply a matter of getting people to conform with the liberal values of the enlightenment, or worst still patronising those who don’t. We need to find new ways to deal with the emergent nature of reality, and we need to do so as a matter of urgency. The coming retreat will be one small contribution to that. As a part of the retreat we will also be engaging participants in the next generation of work on citizen engagement through self-enthography so attendance is a chance to get in on the ground floor.


Banner picture is by George Smyth and is published under a Creative Commons License and is typical of the scenery on the Aran Islands where we are holding the retreat
Opening (cropped) photo by Amandine Latour on Unsplash

Narrative: exploring the world

The first time I saw the Aran Islands was back in the 70s from the Cliffs of Mohr. I was part of a weekend house party organised by Mary Condren (one of the faculty or our retreat) on the west coast of Ireland. I still have find memories of the peat fire, collective cooking and debates on theology and politics ranging into the small hours over a few too many glasses of Black Bush; an ecumenical gesture for a group of Catholics if you believe the myths. But myths had reality in the Troubles and you ignored them at your peril. The famous choice given to the Catholic population of Ireland at the time of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland of “going to hell or to Connacht” comes to mind given the heavy population of the Islands in the 17th century. The islands were basically rocks in the Atlantic, but a mixture of seaweed and sand pegged to the rock through hard labour over the years permitted subsistence farming which included the sheep from which the famous aran knitwear comes (I still have a forty year old sweater that is as good as the day I bought it before boarding the ferry to return to Rossaveal. The islands are a centre for traditional Irish story telling and a major centre for the arts in general. the classic documentary Man of Aran contrasting with its role as Craggy Island in Father Ted from Hat Trick Productions who more recently produced the absolutely wonderful Derry Girls. I’ve visited as a tourist, as a pilgrim and I’ve also taken parties of people there for the old Institute of Knowledge Management in IBM. It is a very special location and fairly easy to get to.

In yesterday’s post I linked to a small part of the body of work I have posted on the subject of narrative over the decade or more in which I have been writing this blog. For the coming retreat we’ve managed (again as last year went well) and excellent faculty. Yiannis Gabriel is one of the big three in organisational narrative work and one of the most approachable and thoughtful academics I have had the pleasure to spend time with. Mo Costandi has brought cognitive neuroscience to the lay public through his Guardian blog. I had lunch with him last week by way of preparation and we talked widely, including coming up with a plan to debunk Neuroleadership so keep an eye out for that. Mary Condren and I were colleagues back in the 70s when she edited Movement and her subsequent work on the decline of matriarchal power in WesternCivilisation. She studied theology, sociology and social anthropology and was a research associate in Women’s Studies at Harvard University. Her doctoral thesis addressed the role of sacrifice and she is now looking at the question or mercy. All in all we have a fascinating and diverse faculty and we will be using a modified form of the Tricotocon (a cross between conference, seminar and un-conference) that we evolved over the three retreats held last year. The method means everyone is engaged at various levels prior to synthesis. As in the previous retreats we will also use the physical environment in which we are located as a part of the events – including the evenings where the local pubs will provide an option to hear native Irish spoken as a first language.

As to what we will get out of it? The essence of a retreat is that it is an exploration from the perspective of multiple academic disciplines interacting with practice. So some of this depends on what people bring to the event. But we want to explore the nature of narrative as a constraint in organisations and society from the humanities and the sciences. A goal is to examine ways in which change can be stimulated; entrained patterns of needless difference reduced in their ability to dehumanise human interaction. How do people gain agency in their own forward narratives while respecting their past? At a very pragmatic level participants should come away with some new methods (and variations of old methods) that they can use in practice, at another level new ways of thinking about old and current problems. We’ll look (critically I suspect) at the role of AI in decision making and decision constraining. Lots and lots of possibilities. Be there!

As on previous retreats we do have a few limited places for people to take on roles in support of the retreat – at a discount. If you feel you have something to bring in that respect feel free to get in touch.

Banner picture is by Byron Howes and shows the Inismore Coastline from Dún Aonghasa prehistoric stone fort and the plan is to visit at some stage during the retreat. The picture is used under a creative commons license.

The opening picture is of the Buddha’s begging bowl which survived the Taliban’s destruction of artefacts in Kabul museum.

Narrative: picking up the scallop shell

Narrative has been an ever-present aspect my work over many decades now. I was lucky in that I initially entered the field in the pursuit of knowledge. Firstly when young through reading, listening and speaking; but then in the early days of IBM when I was trying to find ways to map knowledge in organisations. I didn’t enter the field by seeking to communicate, but instead to discover. From that a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. Back in 2016 I wrote a post suggesting that narrative management might be better titled narrative manipulation. Earlier in a book chapter Gary and I contrasted art-ludditism with techno-fetishm which managed to irritate at least one of its targets. Mind you my attempt to legitimise different types of story wasn’t received well by some. My work with Boisot, originally developed on paper table cloths in Stiges remains important as does the work on archetypes. Overall one constant theme has been the ability of narrative to convey meaning through essential ambiguity and their role in creating meaning and also truth. Then if you want a general positioning on narrative, based on by entry for the Sage Handbook on Action Research, I updated by thinking in a post last September. Overall a search on the word on the blog will keep you occupied for hours, as I discovered to my cost this morning.

The Sage handbook entry is important as it tried to show that the field of narrative is far more than story telling. In modern times the whole concept of story telling has taken in a new and twisted meaning; something I addressed when I asked if we had ever not been a post-fact based society. The fact that we weave our lives between the abstract and the concrete is both a strength and a weakness. A quick pre-opera brainstorm with my anthropologist daughter over a drink threw out a whole range of questions and topics around the idea of narrative:

  • Tropes or memes?
  • Truth and validation
  • Territorialisation
  • Mobilisation 
  • Story telling as lotus eating
  • Gaining a voice
  • Performance and permanence
  • Writing as sterilisation of the oral tradition
  • Assemblages
  • Inter-generational meaning
  • Narratives of conflict and of peace

The conversation could have gone on all night but we had to move onto opera, a multi-faceted form of story telling in its own right.

So why am I telling you this? Well, our first retreat of the year will be on the role of narrative in the organisation and society. While the ability of narrative to shape society has always been there – the Tudors had the best propagandist of all time in Shakespeare – the rapid and near instantaneous connection of micro-narratives, rumours and the like in the modern world at times seems to be the equivalent of a million butterflies flapping their wings in unison, or possibly a trillion butterfly bots …

We live in turbulent times, hence by opening picture, and understanding the role of narrative will be key – more on that tomorrow.

The reference to the scallop shell is the first of several references I will make to the idea of pilgrimage – it is the iconic image of the Camino de Santiago and I have one gifted to me by a current pilgrim here in the study at home.

Header picture by NASA
Banner picture by Jessica Knowlden
Both on Unsplash