The 3 Levels of Narrative: Co-Created Stories

We use stories in many ways: to share our thinking, to shape new thinking, to build consensus, to explore new ideas, to establish commonality of value and purpose. Stories written within our communities, products of debate and discussion, co-created stories that are more than the sum of their parts. I’ve been exploring the 3 Levels of Narrative over the last week or so: a framework for using stories in organisations to lead, to learn, to drive change.

The 3 levels of narrative - co-created stories

The model recognises three levels of narrative: personal, co-created and organisational. Personal stories are our narrative of learning and change over time: they are iterative and evolutionary, but form the foundation of much true learning. Co-created stories, which we will explore further today, are the ones we write in our communities: they are built out of our personal narratives, combined and filtered through the community. Organisational narrative should be a meta narrative, build upon the personal and co-created elements.

The 3 levels of narrative

The purpose of the co-created narrative is not to drive consensus: rather it’s a record of difference and dissent. It’s a news story written by the community, or by looking into and listening to the community, which reflects what is considered important at this time.

In common with all co-created and community moderated narratives (such as Wikipedia), it’s only valid in the moment: it’s not a definitive story that will last for ever, but rather todays version of an evolutionary story. One that will continue to evolve as the different co-creators learn and change. Much as the news is renewed every day, reflecting our current interests and priorities. Co-created stories are not facts: they are interpretations of reality written anew everytime. The trick is to realise that organisational stories are not fact either, even if they pass themselves off as such.

There are many ways to capture the co-created narrative of the community: we can ask them to write it, we can ask other communities to write it, we can capture it for them, or facilitate someone else to do so. We can change the stance, the language, the location, the tone of voice and the perspective of the story. These are the tools and approaches at our disposal, each one resulting in a different type of story, a different kind of narrative, but all with one thing in common.

Change Curve - Dynamic Change - Narrative and Stories

Co-created narratives are owned by the community themselves: in Social Learning terms, the organisation has permission to be in the conversation, but it cannot own the story. This has all sorts of implications: for how we set the conversations up, to where we have them, to what happens with the story once it’s written. The rule of thumb is this: if it’s a co-created story, you’re only half in control. You can frame it, but you can’t own it. The benefit? You get to hear the voices you couldn’t hear before, speaking with an honest truth. The downside? You might not like everything they say.

I was talking to someone yesterday about a co-creative approach to training customer service: in their model, they have a process for dealing with awkward conversations, and the thrust of the training is to train you in and accredit you on that process. Success is in repetition and mastery.

In an approach using co-created stores, we would still follow the formal approach, but talk about the implementation, share other ideas, prototype and rehearse new behaviours and write our shared story about what to do. And that story may differ between groups. It will still be framed by what the organisation wants, but it will include what the community says. So you end up with variety in behaviours, in thinking and in action, but within a set of parameters that keep it safe, or safe enough.

The person i was speaking to liked the idea, but was worried that people may not ultimately follow the process: and they are dead right. They may not. The trick is to realise that they don’t follow it now anyway. Because process never gave excellence, and just because we can’t hear what they are doing, doesn’t mean they are doing what we want. In essence, people are already deviating, we just don’’t have the benefit of hearing how and why. That’s why, under a Social approach, using co-created narrative, we win: we get to hear the stories that go unheard, the wisdom on the community. We may still not like it, but we do at least have a foundation.

We can either rewrite the organisational story to reflect the truth on the ground, or we can work with the group to rehearse, prototype and adopt new behaviours, but crucially we do it together. So no one side gets to own the whole story.

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The Story

I’ve been writing the last few days around the Levels of Narrative: how we can use personal, co-created and organisational narratives in learning design, leadership and organisational change. Today, i heard about a great project using aspects of this in education: a media literacy project in the Netherlands that uses cross media elements, a unifying narrative, multiple dialogue feeds and community contribution to create a week long story where students learn about media.

Elements of a story

The core story is communicated in video, but key characters have Twitter feeds (monitored, with a set script, but able to interact), and are supplemented by other media (a newspaper, website etc). There’s also a game where you can ‘solve’ parts of the story and answer questions. The narrative is linear, but gives the appearance that your interaction is contributing to the direction.

I love the experimental nature of it, the way it crosses live and recorded action with the co-created narrative from the community. In terms of a Learning Methodology, it’s about space for exploration, and space for reflection. In terms of storytelling, it’s a formal story with co-created elements.

Bold and creative: a lot of organisations could usefully prototype this approach.

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Unheard Wisdom

If we just listen in the spaces that we know, we will just hear what we’ve always heard: is your organisation brave enough to listen to the unheard wisdom?

Unheard Wisdom

Often organisations are obsessed with how to control the conversation, to own the story, but the cost of that can be that they never get to hear what’s truly being said. Think about the heard voices, voices that come through formal channels: permitted voices of consensus and agreement, often saying what we want to hear or allow them to say. Voices which operate under our control, sanctioned to say what it’s safe to hear.

Then think about unheard wisdom: voices with no permission, voices that are silenced through formal repression and moderation. Think about the tacit knowledge within the community that truly knows what it’s talking about, and whether we are in the right conversations to hear it. The claimed voices where there is no permission: voices of protest, or conscience. What do we miss if we fail to even listen to them? Voices that may carry great authenticity.

There are so many voices, it’s naive to think that only our formal ones have value, command respect. For the Social Leader, we need access to all these conversations, to listen with respect and form our own opinion. Preventing people hearing the story does not make it any less true.

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The 3 Levels of Narrative: Personal Narrative

When looking at how we can use stories in Organisations, we can consider three separate levels of narrative: in this article, i’m going to expand on the model i introduced the other day, which introduced those layers. The first level is ‘Personal’ narrative, the story of learning and change that we write over time. The second level is ‘Co-created’, the stories we write together in groups. It’s this co-created narrative that i talk about widely in Social Learning and Social Leadership, as well as the more recent Change framework. The third level is ‘Organisational’ narrative, the meta narrative written by the organisation itself: in agile organisations, this takes the personal and co-created into account, reflecting how it listens to it’s community.

3 Levels of Narrative - personal narrative

The importance of finding the space and time to write a personal narrative is that it’s our first reflective space, our first opportunity to consider what we have learnt, how we are changing, how we see other people change, what they are doing, what we can do differently, how it works out when we try, what we will take on board and do again next time, and so on. It is, in essence, a stream of consciousness: one which tracks what we feel, do and say and that shapes the stories we share.

This may sound either self indulgent or redundant, but it’s far from it: our personal narrative is the best way for us to lay out our markers in the sand, to chart our change over time. It’s easy to assume we constantly learn and adapt, but the reality is that many of us are trapped to large extent by our habitual responses. Writing our personal narrative over time allow us to see these patterns.

Change Curve - Dynamic Change - Narrative and Stories

In practice: what does this look like? We there are formal applications of this narrative framework, when we engineer a personal narrative layer into a Scaffolded Social Learning design, as well as informal application, where we are simply #WorkingOutLoud, sharing our backstage thinking as we go.

What is Social Learning?

You can read about Scaffolded Social Learning here, but in essence it’s an approach to learning design that weaves layers of co-creation and discussion around formal ‘broadcast’ elements. In the Scaffolded Social Model, we use Personal narratives to track an individuals learning over time, we use the Co-Created narrative to capture the discussions and ‘sense making’ activity of the community and, if we are agile, we continuously rewrite the Organisational narrative to reflect the conversations within the community.

For example: i recently shared a case study around Scaffolded Social Learning design that looked at how we may work with leaders to understand asymmetric competition. If the Organisation is agile, it will read all the narratives that these leaders write together, and it will adapt it’s own view of competition as a result. In essence, in an agile organisation, the story is co-written by the community, framed by the organisation. In a more lethargic organisation, the story is written by people in the hierarchy who think they know best, then broadcast to the team. That may be a good start, but it’s only ever half of the story.

Tacit and tribal knowledge

Look at Wikipedia: co-created and co-owned wisdom, the tacit knowledge of the community made visual. In the old world, we wrote the story then published it: in the new world, we publish, then continue to evolve, so what you read today is the most recent version of our unfolding understanding. But it will never be as complete as the story we rewrite tomorrow. That’s how most news sites work now: instead of publishing each day, they moved to publish a morning and evening edition, the abandoned paper publishing altogether an update constantly. Each story is written and rewritten, and typically each also includes space for comments, so the community can contribute too. Indeed, the rise of the citizen journalist is one of the defining features of the Social Age.

Within a typical learning programme that is designed according to the Scaffolded Social Learning model, we see the personal layer and the co-created community later of narrative in place.

The 3 levels of narrative

We also the notion of personal narrative in Social Leadership, the style of leadership we need in the Social Age: here it’s something we write over time and share with our community as part of our dedication to #WorkingOutLoud and sharing our learning back to the community. For Social Leaders, the most important aspects to consider are the stance of their narrative, the tone of voice that they take, and the ways they share the stories that they write.

The 3 layers of narrative also make an appearance when we consider the Dynamic Change framework: in this work i describe how an agile organisation will co-create and co-own the future state, drawing on the insight and thinking of their community. Within this framework the objective is to support everyone in writing their own version of that future state and working together to co-create a shared narrative. So the individual stories contribute to the overall Organisational level of the narrative.

The applications i’ve described above all form part of the ‘formal’ application: where we are using the levels of narrative within a framework, to help us achieve an overall goal. But we can also consider how personal narrative can be used outside this, in more social and ongoing ways.

The principles of Working Out Loud are simple: we let people see behind the scenes, not just showing our performance, but sharing the rehearsals. John Stepper has done some superb work around this, creating a simple framework to achieve this. In my language, we use personal narratives as we Work Out Loud (sometimes abbreviated to #WorkingOutLoud or #WOL on Twitter) not only to explain what we did, but to shape our thinking as we work out what we are going to do. It’s not just a documentary, passive storytelling approach, but rather part of our sense making and thinking process.

For me, this blog is my personal narrative and sense making space: i write it primarily to give my ideas shape, but also to air them to a wider audience (outside my own head) and see how they land. Sometimes well, sometimes less so, sometimes those thoughts fade without a trace. The ones that survive tend to iterate: we start with an idea, ill formed and embryonic, and share it in our personal narrative: if it’s strong enough, if we reflect and nurture it, it evolves and takes shape, over time, under the watchful eye of our community.

Of course, we don’t have to #WorkOutLoud to benefit from personal narratives: indeed, there are contexts when we wouldn’t want to and shouldn’t encourage others to either.

It’s only safe to share a personal narrative when we understand the permission we have (or choose the permission that we want to claim) and when we understand the nature of consequence and how much of it we want to take on.

Personal narrative is the first of the three layers, but by no means the least important: it’s the foundation for the other two. If we have no personal narrative, no format or space to capture it in, it’s hard to contribute effectively to the co-created narrative. And without a strong co-created narrative we can’t effectively write the meta narrative of the organisation. So we need to think about it in two contexts: firstly, how we design personal narrative into learning and, secondly, how we create spaces and permission to reflect, work out loud and share our story as we do so.

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Those Days

It’s one of those days when i’m too tired to write, but too stubborn not to. A day when i let circumstance dictate activity, and, hence, find myself writing at the end of the day instead of the start. On days i write first thing, i know i got the balance right. When writing comes second, it’s a bolt on, not central to the day.

Graffiti - in search of lost time

Writing is reflective, but not incidental: if we treat reflective time as incidental, then it’s easily dropped, and yet it’s so strangely valuable. Honestly, if we put a price tag on it, we probably couldn’t afford it, and yet we give it away every day, every week, every year. Do you have enough time to reflect? Do you give yourself a space and permission?

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The 3 Levels of Narrative

Across the writing on the Social Age, i talk about levels of narrative: personal, co-created and organisational, so i felt it was about time to capture and define them properly. The ways we use stories are many and varied, but this framework is intended to help us plan and execute in a structured and rigorous way. The levels of narrative are complimentary: the personal feeds into the co-created and, if we architect it right, the co-created and personal both inform the Organisational story.

The 3 levels of narrative

In the old world, organisations wrote stories and did them to people: in the Social Age, those stories should be co-created and co-owned. The organisation may frame them, may create a narrative space, but the detail, the story itself, should be collaborative. Why? Because everyone should have a voice if we want them to be invested in it’s success. Because every voice helps us with our ‘sense making’ process.

Change Curve - Dynamic Change Model - Co-Creating the story

Personal narrative is our story of learning and change over time: it’s about both formal and social learning opportunities, about what we take from them, what we do with that, how we execute it, protoype and experiment, rehearse and learn, and how we make our marks in the sand over time. The personal narrative is written by the individual, over time, and forms the first reflective space.

Co-creation is what happens within our communities: it’s about curation, storytelling, sharing, it’s about challenge and support, critique and cross linking. Our communities help us carry out this ‘sense making’, creating meaning out of the deluge of information and inputs. The co-created group narrative is co-written by everyone in the community: it’s shared and iterated rapidly. It reflects the best sense making effort in that moment, but not the best we will ever do. That’s the beauty of co-creation: it evolves as circumstance changes. It’s adaptive and dynamic, and that’s why, if we unleash the power of co-creation, we can become agile.

Facets of Co-Creation

Co-Creation is something we do in communities: it’s a core skill of the Social Age

The organisational narrative is a meta narrative: instead of being written and the top and pushed down, it should be an analysis and reporting on the personal and co-created narratives produced by the community itself. This is why i say in the Change framework that organisations have to be brave enough to relinquish control. If you maintain rigid control, you can’t truly co-create, and without co-creation, we are just broadcasting, which is a passive format.

Change Curve - Dynamic Change - Narrative and Stories

I’ll break each of these levels out further over time, helping to build an understanding and approach, as well as looking at the dynamics that can interfere with, or amplify the success of, this approach.

The concept will be familiar if you have read my other explorations of the Social Age, for example:

In Social Leadership we look at co-creation in terms of how a Social Leader forms or engages in various communities, taking a different role in each, and co-creates solutions. We look at how the Leader facilitates each of these voices to be heard, supporting Storytelling in each space.

In Social Learning we look at the co-creative approach to learning, making sense, together, of the formal elements and contextualising them to be relevant to us in our everyday reality. We write personal and co-created narratives to share learning back out into the tacit wisdom of the organisation.

In the Change work i talk about co-creating and co-owning the future state, using stories to break through the resistors to change and writing the future stage, the new organisational narrative, together.

By architecting our work in line with, or taking account of, the three levels of narrative, we can tie into the ways stories form, are shaped and amplified, ensuring we can gain momentum in our work.

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Are You Adapted?

The challenges of the Social Age require not targeted solutions, but rather holistic change: change in mindset, changes in technology, changes to how we work, new models of leadership, an evolution of learning, a permission to innovate, a relinquishing of control, a new type of authority, endemic storytelling and a trust in the people we hired to do the job.

Social Age - adapt or fail

It’s not simply a case of knocking out the old bathroom and fitting a trendy Victorian retro roll top bath: it’s a case of demolishing the house and building something fit for the times we live in.

It’s about transforming our organisations to be fit for the Social Age: in breadth and at depth.

Ecosystem of the Social Age 2015

A map of the Social Age

We cannot adapt our organisation by simply implementing some new technology, but neither can we change it by just developing the senior leaders. We can’t achieve momentum or amplification of change by simply revolutionising learning unless we revolutionise culture too. And we can’t revolutionise culture if we don’t have a fair social contract in place.

Holistic adaptation is a pattern of activity: it’s about curiosity, experimentation, innovation, permission, consequence and stories.

It’s about a permission to ask ‘why‘ and, having asked, to try something out. And learn from it. And share what you learnt. Then do it again.

Why change? Because organisations that fail to respond to the new ecosystem we inhabit will be increasingly less relevant and, crucially, less able to adapt. Failing to build a new foundation will result in an infrastructural inability to change in the future. If you keep patching things up, keep relying on outdated models of leading, learning, controlling and broadcasting, you will get diminishing returns in a diminishing business.

But to address the challenges, we may need new functions within the organisation: can HR hold the keys to this change? Can IT, Legal or Learning? Is it about Compliance? Or senior leadership? Or your graduates?

The challenge is, it’s all of these, and none of them. The existing vertical entities within the organisation are enigmatic: the root of the problem and the potential for it’s resolution. But to unlock their potential, we have to step outside the status quo.

The future is not about Leaders solving the problem of graduates leaving after three years. The solution lies in graduates and leaders finding a new space to work in to solve the problem of the organisation innovating throughout the next three years. Because if the organisation is unable to innovate, and to hear the voices of everyone as it does so, it won’t survive to year four.

It’s sometimes at that last sentence that I lose people: they get the challenge, but dismiss the fallibility of their organisation. After all, organisations are vast, they are robust, they have bricks and mortar, data centres and vision. They cannot fail.

And yet they do: and very few see it coming. This is not catastrophic failure of architecture and foreclosure. It’s failure of potential and momentum, which is almost worse.

An organisation that is failed may still be trading, but will be fully unable to adapt, unable to attract the best talent, and relying on mechanisms of control and formal authority to keep those who stay in line with outdated ways of thinking.

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