I’ve been #WorkingOutLoud for a few days around a paper i’m writing on ‘Black Swans and the Limits of Hierarchy’. Please note that this is a very early stage #WorkingOutLoud post and, as such, not that good yet… feel free to skip this one as i find clarity in my thinking. We’ve looked at how we operate in Known Frames, using Known Scripts to understand behaviour and ‘make sense’ of the situation. We’ve introduced the idea of Category errors: where situations are misdiagnosed, as well as the ways that subversive Unknown Scripts have power and can take us into Unknown Frames. The consequence is this: leaders, using their formal authority, can end up framed in the wrong problem space, and once we have set a frame, it’s hard to break out of it. Meanwhile the situation is evolving out from under our feet. Today, i want to introduce the notion of ‘Narrative Loops’, a mechanism by which we can keep the problem space open for longer. This will go alongside the piece i will write next, which will explore how Social Power (the connected energy of both formal and social systems, captured in dialogue) can disrupt asymmetric power and bridge the gap between Known and Unknown frames.
Within a formal system, decisions are made, rooted in the hierarchical structure of teams. Simulations can allow us to train for operational outcomes e.g. we can train for specific competencies. But strength within a system may not come from defined operational outcomes, especially when our assessment of ‘winning’ may be wrong (an assessment of success in a Known Frame may prove to be spurious in an Unknown one). This is the challenge of Asymmetric power: it drains our capability, sometimes without us even realising it.
True strength within a team comes from understanding not just the decision that was made, but how the decision came to be made at all. Using narrative approaches, which i explore in this previous work, can allow us to capture multiple ‘stories’ of how the situation was perceived and analysed.
This is significant because the challenge of Black Swan events lies in the ability of the formal system to recognise when they are even at play. Formal systems like Known Frames: indeed, formal systems are inherently conceived within Known Frames. Systems where power and authority is codified into hierarchy and gradients of power may be responsive, but only within limits. The things that make them safe and robust can be a weakness if they are subverted by Unknown Scripts that are misread.
Scripts change (be they Known or Unknown) at Trigger points: so our point of intervention is clear. We need to introduce ambiguity around Trigger points, to keep the frame of classification open for longer. But we need to do that without slowing the ability of the system to introduce a rapid kinetic response. In other words, we need both decisive action, plus scaffolded ambiguity.
Personal narratives of action can allow team members to comment and respond: when formal systems fail (as in the Challenges shuttle disaster), it’s often because, once framed, there is low permission or no permission to question the frame. Simply using narratives can help us make the lived frame both explicit and open to scrutiny.