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.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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11 Responses to The 3 Levels of Narrative: Personal Narrative

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