How Stories Go Bad

11 Dec

In my last article, I argued and highlighted the research which suggests that if you stick to statistics and ignore qualitative stories you miss the context. Alternatively, if you use only a story and miss the statistics, you will likely over weight local conditions. In this article I’m discussing how stories can go wrong in situations where there isn’t time to integrate local context with global statistics. In other words, stories as a method of communication which lead to action; “what’s going on and what do I need to do” scenarios.

There are many definitions of the noun “story”. Below are some of the definitions which can be found on Google-

“A particular person’s representation of the facts of a matter” This is what I think we face

“A situation viewed in terms of the information known about it or its similarity to another” This is what I think we know and how it resembles what we’ve experienced before

“The facts about the present situation” This is what we know

I’ll be drawing largely from these definitions throughout this article.

In my last blog I began describing stories as a method of transferring knowledge, insight and perspective between two or more people. Stories take place in a context and a situation, and what follows is a human experience of a context and situation. From this angle, stories are a mechanism for seeing a situation through the eyes and emotions of another person. The “shadowing” of another person’s experience, sense making and decision making via a story is a potentially powerful way of updating knowledge and generating insight. And to do so without having experienced a situation first hand.

Society relies on stories to pass on crucial knowledge and experience in some of our most critical environments. For example, handover’s in hospitals, as shifts change, as a patient moves between wards or between professional groups. Professionals in these situations need to know, what is the story? And in these type of situations occur the inherent problem with stories, they can be subjective experiences. A story is how a person made sense of a situation. Unless the person listening to the story shares the sense making then misunderstandings, with potentially serious consequences, can occur.

For example, Tetlock and Gardner (2015) in their recent work on forecasting discussed how even at the highest levels of the intelligence community a critically important word such as “significant” can generate different meanings for different individuals. This is because each word we speak has a reservoir of potential meanings. The meaning of a word such as “significant” can potentially generate different actions, assign different priorities, resources and attention. This leads to unwanted outcomes. The word “significant”, in the Tetlock et al example, is used with a tacit belief that everyone in the room makes sense of the word in exactly the same way. If the belief that the word significant is obvious, and shared, then any deviating belief completely deconstructs the intention of the story.

With the above in mind, when someone tells you a story, particularly one which is meant to generate action, your own sense making will tacitly analyse the story. A mixture of your own experiences, training, goals and mood will decide what the most important parts of the story are. This sense making process will generate what requires attention, what can be ignored and the meaning of specific words. If the sense making process differs between two individuals then the outcomes can be unwanted at best and catastrophic at worst. I’ll briefly cover some examples

Within the UK health service there is a need for multi-disciplinary teams to deliver seamless care. In theory this sounds like a good idea. In practice, the reality is that different disciplines communicate situations in different ways. Different disciplines tell different types of stories. Last year (2014) I researched decision making in a hospital based multi-disciplinary team which performed exceptionally well. Basically, the story telling, as patients moved from one disciplinary professional to another, was calibrated. Words, priorities and attention were all shared. Problems occurred when temporary staff became involved. Naturally, temporary staff didn’t share the same sense making framework and so needed more supervision. More supervision ate up time, and as time pressures increased, the effectiveness of the multi-disciplinary team was compromised.

As many organizations look to slim down their cost base, they turn to free lancers and consultants to fill the gaps. These are situations where the story telling needs to be calibrated. Free lancers and consultants do not share the organizational culture and history. As a result, these groups are likely to use different sense making frameworks when they are provided with the context to support a task. The above situation exists on the same spectrum as the hospital temporary staff. There is basic technical competence but the contextual understanding, the shared sense making, can be lacking.

It is best to assume very little when telling a story which will inform action. The challenge is to tell better stories and to improve interrogation of stories. Fortunately there is a simple, tried and tested method for framing the intention of a story. It was designed by, and is used by, Weick and Sutcliffe (2007) in their research into High Reliability Organisations. The method takes the form of a script with which to frame and communicate stories designed to generate action-

This is what I think we face

This is what I think we should do

These are the reasons why I think we should do it

This is what we need to keep an eye on (in case the situation changes)

Now talk to me. What could go wrong?

If someone is telling you a story, in a context where sense making is unlikely to be shared, always look for words which have the greatest potential for misunderstanding. For example “do it fast” could mean within a day to the storyteller, and within two hours to the listener. Two hours could be unacceptably fast, bordering on the negligent, to the story teller. If things went wrong in this situation, the listener would respond “I did what I was told”. It’s always better to enquire “what do you mean by fast?” than assume. If you’re telling the story, provide an example which illustrates the meaning of fast, within context.


Tetlock, P. E. & Gardner, D. (2015). Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. New York: Crown

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Link to the original article on the multi-disciplinary team research


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