Stories of Difference

Formal systems are good at hearing known stories, accepted wisdom, whilst what they may need to hear are hidden stories. Stories of dissent, stories of challenge, stories that provide overlays of contextual meaning, stories of unfairness or confusion. Unfinished stories. Within any organisation, it’s easy to build formal narratives using dominant power, but those narratives sit within the confirmation bias of the group: they may be valid, but may lack authenticity, or simply be part of a wider meta narrative that is not visible to the formal power alone.


One technique for cutting diagonal stories through an organisation is to curate stories of difference: garnered through interview, through the formation of new and diversified social ties, these are stories that aim not for shared understanding and common consent, but rather to understand our shared differences and a broad perspective of our challenge.

Stories of difference chart the fragmented truth of our organisation: they may not be pretty, but they help provide perspective. And you can go further, by encouraging response stories, providing further frames to engage in the dialogue, progressively less formal.

Stories are powerful, but we need to hear diversified voices: not simply stories of power, but stories of subversion and difference.

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Diagonal Storytelling

I’m working on the Social Learning design for an organisation today, and thinking about diagonal storytelling. Organisations can tend to be good at vertical stories (usually cascaded down within the formal system), and horizontal stories (often tacit, tribal, flowing out through closed trust networks), but lack really structured and integrated opportunities for diagonal dialogue. This is about cutting through the hierarchy, to create new storytelling, co-creative, and story listening, spaces and opportunities, all of which help the organisation to become more Socially Dynamic.

Diagonal Storytelling

How do they do this? By sharing reality, across the lines. One fascinating aspect of the Landscape of Trust research is an apparent effect of trust flowing horizontally, not vertically, so to build broader, stronger, trust networks, techniques like diagonal storytelling can help to cut through the noise.

In terms of approach, we can use an active Storyteller role, someone tasked to seek out and surface stories, and we can design structured co-creative spaces for those stories to be shared within. For example, asking a diagonal group to write a story about ‘our future competitors’, or ‘how we are innovative’, can surface a variety of views, all of which may fall outside the view of any one individual within the hierarchy.

For diagonal stories to be written, we need to develop strong Social Leadership, so that individuals, at every level, can engage outside their formal power. And so that those same individuals can award social recognition and respect to the people, wherever they sit in the formal system, who contribute the most.

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#WorkingOutLoud on Experimentation in ‘The Trust Sketchbook’

I thought i’d share another illustration from The Trust Sketchbook today: this one looking at the role of ‘trust’ in experimentation, and hence the ability of an organisation to become Socially Dynamic. I completed six pages today, so good progress with the colouring.

The Trust Sketchbook illustration

The Trust Sketchbook will be a co-created exploration of how trust is held, how it flows, and what we can do to encourage it!

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#WorkingOutLoud on ’The Trust Sketchbook’

I started colouring ‘The Trust Sketchbook’ today: it’s a guided journey through the ’Landscape of Trust’, and will become a 28 page book that can be used by individuals or teams to explore how trust flows, and what it really means. I thought i’d share a few of the final illustrations here. I am aiming to complete it tomorrow, although that may be a little optimistic, but it’s overdue (sorry) and nearly done!

The 12 Aspects of Trust illustration

The 12 Aspects of Trust’ illustration.

A co-created journey through trust

The Trust Sketchbook is a co-created journey through trust.

Technology and Trust

Exploring ‘Technology and trust’.

The Trust Sketchbook is an artistic project, running alongside the Landscape of Trust research work, which you can read about here.

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The Next Step

The gap between ‘safety’, and ‘risk’ is quite small, although different for every person to comprehend. I was driven back to this thought time and again this week, across a number of different conversations that relate to ‘The Fear’ that i wrote about recently. Organisations want the good stuff: social collaboration, innovation, agility, but they are terrified of the other stuff (people expressing dissent, new opinions that don’t easily fit, subverting established power). This fear is sometimes catalogued as ‘moderation’, or a fear of bad people doing bad things, but, in reality, it’s often a fear of good people doing good things, but beyond our control or ownership.

The Fear

The truth is that these are two sides of the same coin, and if you want to have the coin, you have to accept both faces. Sure: you can understand risk, you can frame it, you can influence it, but crucially you cannot make it entirely safe, because the very thing that you want is not ‘safe’. Ideas are not safe. Innovation is not safe. Learning is not safe. It’s about change: change in how we see the world, the generation of new stories, the evolution of old structures.

When faced with the gap between safety, and risk, it’s all too easy to err on the side of caution, but that may be to miss the point. The cliff edge that we stand upon is not stable: as the Social Age erodes many of our notions of organisation an control, it crumbles out from underneath us. We may fall into the abyss by trying to be too safe. True: we may also get into trouble if we blindly jump off the cliff, but there has to be a middle ground.

To change, we must learn how to change, and that means learning to learn, to prototype, to experiment, to explore, to accept risk and the fuel of change. And that change starts with you: the hardest change is to change ourselves.

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The Art of Science

I was speaking to a paediatric consultant earlier, and asked him whether he felt his work was art, or science, and whether he had felt this shift over time. Cognitively, we become adept at pattern matching, whilst sociologically, we learn to conform within frames, and strong at reading and understanding them. We internalise our expertise, so almost become expert, despite lacking the words to describe it. It’s somewhat like riding a bike: once you have learned, it’s remarkably hard to make yourself fall off. Your capability blinds you to the prior ignorance.

Neuro: not art nor science

As dancers get older, they may lose strength or stamina, but often compensate with economy of movement, and a nuanced ability to deliver story through detail, not brute force alone. Even something as physical as dance is, in it’s execution, an intellectual exercise, an exercise in beauty and thought.

Science is a process, a methodology, and a mindset: art is expression, context, and freedom. Together, they give us a cumulative capability: to become expert, to become masterful.

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Something strange is happening, but i’m unclear, as yet, what momentum it will build: as part of #WorkingOutLoud, i try to observe, analyse, and share the earliest stage reflections, so please take it in that spirit (and not an overtly political one) as i think about the NFL, the President, Social Justice, and the fickle power of symbols.


First <strong>a warning: there is some mild swearing in some quotes in the text, so skip points 16-20 if you don’t want to see that, and, secondly, i am not discussing a political view here, although the subject matter is political. Rather, it’s a commentary on society. I’ll start with a list:

  • ONE – Last year, an NFL player, named Colin Kaepernick, chose to kneel, instead of standing with his hand on his heart, for the National Anthem.
  • TWO – His stated reason was this: “I’m] not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”.
  • THREE – There was an uproar, both of support, and opposition, but it remained one story in a noisy world.
  • FOUR – At the start of this season, Kaepernick became a ‘free agent’, no team has signed him, and there is suspicion that he has been blacklisted.
  • FIVE – In wades the President: and at this point, we need to stop and think about power.

I wrote recently about types of power: individual, hierarchical, and networked (reputation based authority). Typically, when you reach the top, you have a lot of hierarchical power, although political systems, at least in liberal western democracies, tend to have a lot of checks and balances in place to ensure that you don’t have too much unhindered power. So we typically see a shift: when you are in opposition, seeking the position in the hierarchy, you deploy OPPOSITIONAL power: this is the type of power where you disagree with what is being said, and present broad policies on what you would do differently. But if you leave them sufficiently broad, you can gain a lot of support, without ever being specific.

The catch comes when you gain power and need to get things done: in all but the heaviest of landslides, you typically move to CONSENSUS power, even if unwillingly. Once you have power, you need to govern. To my observation, Trump has not done this. There may be two things at play here: firstly, a recognition that to move to consensus power may alienate a power base that is almost defined by opposition to the current hierarchy, and, secondly, because we may be seeing a new type of political system at play, so the old rules are redundant, or being rewritten. I’m unclear which and, i should stress, i am commenting on the power aspects of this, not positing a political view.

Indeed, one part of the whole system i find fascinating is less what Trump has done to gain power, but rather the seeming inability of the system around him to adapt. We hear outrage, denial, and hope, but no real change. That’s partly what makes me think we may be seeing the overturn of an entire system, even if the system does not realise it yet. Indeed, we may be seeing simply the first wave of change. What do i mean by that?

The Social Age sees some key transformative effects: collectivism at scale, outside of any formal system, and democratised storytelling at volume. These new stories, and modes of power, are very fluid and fast, and they sit in opposition to older systems that tend to be codified and slow. So the types of forces that catapult a new song to number one in the download charts are faster, and more fickle, than that which sweeps a president to power, and i suspect the socially moderated system that plays out so widely in the media will directly lead to an evolution of our political systems. For the better, or for the worse, i am not yet clear.

So back to the matter at hand: in a speech to his core base of supporters, Trump referred to Kaepernick, and the small number of others who had followed his lead, and said that they should be fired for their lack of respect for the military and the country. And this may have been a step too far:

  • SIX – Kaepernick took an iconic stand, reminiscent of the two athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the ‘black power’ salute on the Olympic podium in 1968. Smith and Carlos too were ostracised and never competed again.
  • SEVEN – BUT… it’s not 1968 any more Dorothy.
  • EIGHT – Oppositional power is fickle and interesting: your attempts to subvert it may reinforce it.
  • NINE – The oppositional force from a President not universally loved, appeared to trigger a strong counter force, possibly because it crossed a number of boundaries: freedom of expression, a popular #BlackLivesMatter narrative, and the tribal forces of sport.
  • TEN – The intent to prevent protest triggered widespread protest: last weekend, at games around the world, players knelt. Not all of them, and not with universal support, but with a new momentum.

Let me pause again, because now things get really interesting: Trump vs some African American NFL players is, in itself, a story, but a third narrative emerges, that is potentially the most interesting.

  • ELEVEN – A larger number of players remain standing, and link arms: so they protest, but don’t adhere to the stated ‘disrespectful’ behaviour. But, crucially, they are united in opposition.
    TWELVE – Large numbers of physically dominant athletes make good Twitter fodder
    THIRTEEN – The only muslim NFL owner joins his athletes on the field: a may who donated 700k dollars to the Trump campaign. He is a slight, small man, it’s a compelling image.
    FOURTEEN – Trump claims that standing and protesting is ok, but the narrative is loose: i’m unclear who will own it. I suspect that kneeling and standing with arms linked are the compelling oppositional narrative, and one that cannot be broken, certainly not by an old white billionaire.
    FIFTEEN – Trump tries a counter narrative that this is not about race relations, but it lands as it always does when someone says “i’m not racist, but…”

I talked about this recently in the piece on ‘nations’, referencing the socially moderated meaning imbued anew onto civil war statues, another narrative playing out in this space, and a compelling one. Trump may be right, that his intent was not to talk about race relations (his intent was to reinforce his own oppositional narrative of draining the swamp, or some such), but the trouble with stories is that they have a life of their own. Race relations may be more compelling as a story. And then, a final part:

  • SIXTEEN – Sports is about as tribal an activity as you can get. The players are socially moderated heroes, and, unlike most politicians, deploy precisely the same socially moderated power as Trump.
  • SEVENTEEN – Sports is inherently a spectator sport, politics is not
  • EIGHTEEN – Trump calls the players ‘sons of bitches’, and they respond, not with insults, but talking eloquently about their mothers.
  • NINETEEN – One of the mothers tweets ‘well i guess that makes me a proud bitch’. Not even the president can insult a mother, a lesson that should have been learnt through a previous mistake he made in this space.
  • TWENTY – The whole narrative plays out in episodes: what will happen next week. I suspect that this will give it tempo.

So what do we see? I fear that we may see escalation: i think that soon we will see confrontation in the stands. We will see widespread instances of supporters kneeling. We will see well publicised instances of violence, when a fight breaks out. I fear that someone will be killed in a protest. But i don’t think we will see widespread opposition to the core message: i don’t think players will be banned from protesting, because that would trigger a revolution. There are two stories playing out: one about inequality, and one about power. And however you feel about power, it’s socially risky to speak out about inequality, or at least, it is at a ball game. If you’re in the KKK, you can, but that’s not where football is played.

Ultimately, this may be a battle of imagery, but i think the tempo of weekly games may escalate it. At the very least, it’s the most fascinating example of new types of power, battling out against the backdrop of the new ecosystem of the Social Age.

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