Stories, Feedback and Adapting to Change

3 Jul

This article has a simple aim- it attempts to demonstrate the link between the stories we tell ourselves, the role of feedback when we use these stories to make sense of situations, and how it’s not so much the initial story which counts, it’s more about how adaptable that story is.

When your mind is closed or fixed it becomes incredibly difficult to generate alternative stories about what could happen next, or in some extreme cases, any story at all, which manifests itself in stress, panic, anxiety and in some cases depression. When you are faced with a situation which means something to you, is challenging, new, novel or beyond anything encountered before, generating a plausible story creates action. How adaptive that story is, often separates success from failure, expert from novice.

The ability to adapt a story, to absorb new information, is crucial to creating an adaptive mind set. When Klein et al (1989) researched firefighter decision making they discovered that when facing a blaze, firefighters, instead of comparing a couple of viable options immediately generated a plausible story of how to tackle the fire. This story was generated from the firefighter’s extensive reservoir of experiences, allowing them to pattern a previous story to the current situation. The firefighters experienced this as intuition “knowing just what to do”, and found it difficult to articulate. Once the plausible story had been generated they would simulate the actions in their mind, looking for barriers and solutions, subtle cues and patterns which may turn out to present big risks. After the mental simulation they would have an adapted story, customised for the situation right now. As the firefighters tackled the blaze the process would be constantly repeated, the story was tacitly organic; they were prepared to let go of initial assumptions.

Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe (see 2007) found similar results when they studied smoke jumpers* during their work on sense making. The vast amounts of experience firefighters and smoke jumpers have, allow them to generate plausible stories which in turn generate the necessary fast actions, but do so in a way which is adaptable. I and colleagues discovered similar during a study of dementia specialists and how they meet patient and family needs-excellent patient care was frequently intuitive as opposed to just the following of procedures. In other words, the frame of mind is not fixed, it adapts to the environment.

Let’s contrast the above with the CEO I talked with from a previous article. To recap, this was the CEO of large UK organisation (total anonymity was agreed, so no more information than that) who had been forced into making sudden and drastic changes due to the restructuring of government funding. The CEO didn’t have the experience of managing rapid change, and by their own admission was not doing a good job. However, what was really causing this executive to reflect was the fact that the funding changes had been sign posted long ago. Instead of being proactive, and taking the opportunity to make some more subtle tweaks, they had simply explained it all away, imagining that it would soon blow over and the always lethal “things would soon get back to normal”. The CEO had been hoisted by their sense of stability; years of seemingly stable operating had left both the mind-set, and the business model, completely unprepared for changes in the environment.

There are many obvious differences between CEOs, smoke jumpers, firefighters, and dementia specialists. However, I’d like to focus on one difference in particular- to be successful in firefighting for example, you HAVE to adapt to the environment, and you have to adapt quickly. Each story which is generated is done so with an adaptive frame of mind, each action provides feedback and this feedback adapts the story further. The stakes are high in firefighting, cues and patterns are regular, and actions can be traced to outcomes; you get to know the environment. The quality of experience, and speed of feedback, produces intuitive decision makers in environments similar to firefighting who can quickly generate plausible stories and then keep on adapting these stories.

Contrast the above with our CEO, where cues and patterns did not HAVE to be acted on immediately, and there was plenty of time to explain changes away. Due to the distance between actions and feedback in our CEO example, it is easy to mistake cause and effect and let false assumptions take hold, such as “nothing has happened yet, so things will probably get back to normal soon”. However, the stakes are still high for a CEO; people can lose their jobs and economies can potentially collapse when an entire network turns toxic. The key difference between the firefighter and our CEO is the distance between action and feedback. Without such a loop in place, it’s far more difficult to extract lessons about the relationship between decisions and there effect on the environment.

Without the benefit of immediate feedback, which increases the quality, experience and relevance of what works and what doesn’t, life can become a bit of a guessing game. A period of success and stability can be taken as a signal that things are going in the right direction, there is no urgency, unlike firefighting, to focus on any subtle cues or patterns which may signal potential risks; adaption is not high on the agenda. As an alternative we could turn again to the Rudolph study (2009) and examine what her adaptive decision makers did.

An adaptive decision maker generates a plausible story which makes sense of the current situation, an expectation of how that situation could unfold and an action script of what to do next (Klein, 2009). Our adaptive decision maker then tests this plausible story, examining rigorously how they could be wrong, and searching for weak signals which may have large consequences. If an element of the initial story is contradicted in this search, then it gets adapted, not explained away; they create feedback loops.

In the conversation with our CEO I suggested there was nothing inherently wrong with their story “things will get back to normal”, it was a worldview which had been justified for the past 20 years they had been in post, and it was plausible. The problem was it was a story which no longer fitted the environment; it’s time had passed. The challenge was to assess the reasons why that story no longer fitted. In that gap between the story and the environment would be the feedback which could be used to adapt.

Experiment and tinker with stories, don’t simply dig in and defend them.

The articles below the cover the subject of the adaptive mind-set

What beliefs are generating your plausible story? This article takes a look at some of the basic psychology we use to justify actions, and argues that even though technology has developed beyond comprehension over the past few hundred years, perhaps our methods of making sense of information haven’t.

A look at how people and organisations make sense of, and respond to, risks

High Reliability Organisations (HROs) are organisations which are incredibly adaptive when it comes to recovering from shocks, surprises and unexpected events. I take a brief look at the work of Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe through the lens of the TV show, Prison Break.

There are few minds more adaptive than Breaking Bad’s Walter White. In this article I take a look at how the writers of the show created the mind of Walter and how you could apply similar methods to improve your own adaptive frame of mind.

A look at the 2015 UK election and another look at the outstanding work of Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe

There are strong links between the breaking of stability and the increase of innovation, but it goes against our nature. Innovation requires disruption, yet we like, and strive for, stability.

The role of trust in decision making and how it affects adaption. This is a summary of the field work I carried out in two very different environments- a clinical setting and a construction site.

Another article on trust-what does it mean in a work context when we say we trust somebody to get things done? In this article I take a look at some of my field work and draw a link between trusting someone and their ability to adapt and improvise independently.


Rudolph, J. (2003) Into the Big Muddy and Out Again. Error Persistence and Crisis Management in the Operating Room. Dissertation, Boston College

Summary of the above can be found in

Klein, G (2009) Streetlights and Shadows. Bradford Books (see Klein also for plausible stories)

Weick, K. Sutcliffe, K. (2007) Managing the Unexpected. Jossey-Bass (also for plausible stories)

*If you are wondering what a smoker jumper is, click below







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