Storytelling and Leaders

As leaders a big part of our work is ensuring the know-why – fostering and sharing an understanding of work culture and values. This is a continuing, long-term co-creative process that does not happen overnight. An important part of this work is shaping and sharing stories, using the past as a shaper of the future to give meaning to events. As stories are told in the present, they become a partner in shaping the future.

To successfully change, it is important to understand the past as well as dream for the future. Storytelling as a method and tool has real power to foster dialogue, reveal culture and create a shared vision:

  • Storytelling makes complex situations and phenomena accessible and provides details that can be used to build action plans for change and improvement.
  • Stories reveal values and principles embedded in a culture that are often hidden from the naked eye.
  • Stories make visible driving forces for change that are not revealed when direct questions are asked.
  • Stories provides a platform for understanding different perspectives. It breaks down barriers and builds bridges of trust.
  • Stories highlight turning points that can be used to facilitate innovation and change.

Through storytelling and dialog, we strengthen structure, identity and culture. It is how we tell our story.

The difference between complex and complicated

We often think that complicated and complex are on a continuum, that complex is just a magnitude above complicated; or that they are synonyms. These are actually different, and one cannot address complex systems in the same way as complicated. Many improvement efforts fail by not seeing the difference and they throw resources at projects that are bound for failure because they are looking at the system the wrong way.

Complicated problems originate from causes that can be individually distinguished; they can be address­ed piece by­ piece; for each input to the system there is a proportionate output; the relevant systems can be controlled and the problems they present admit permanent solutions.

Complex problems result from networks of multiple interacting causes that cannot be individually distinguished and must be addressed as entire systems. In complex systems the same starting conditions can produce different outcomes, depending on interactions of the elements in the system. They cannot be addressed in a piecemeal way; they are such that small inputs may result in disproportionate effects; the problems they present cannot be solved once and for ever, but require to be systematically managed and typically any intervention merges into new problems as a result of the interventions dealing with them;  and the relevant systems cannot be controlled – the best one can do is to influence them, or learn to “dance with them” as Donella Meadows said.

Lets break down some ways these look and act different by looking at some of the key terminology.

Causality, the relationship between the thing that happens and the thing that causes it

Complicated Linear cause-and-effect pathways allow us to identify individual causes for observed effects.
ComplexBecause we are dealing with patterns arising from networks of multiple interacting (and interconnected) causes, there are no clearly distinguishable cause-and-effect pathways.

This challenges the usefulness of root cause analysis. Most common root cause analysis methodologies are based on cause-and-effect.

Linearity,  the relationships between elements of a process and the output

ComplicatedEvery input has a proportionate output
ComplexOutputs are not proportional or linearly related to inputs; small changes in one part of the system can cause sudden and unexpected outputs in other parts of the system or even system-wide reorganization.

Think on how many major changes, breakthroughs and transformations, fail.

Reducibility, breaking down the problem

ComplicatedWe can decompose the system into its structural parts and fully understand the functional relationships between these parts in a piecemeal way.
Complex The structural parts of the system are multi-functional — the same function can be performed by different structural parts.  These parts are also richly inter-related i.e. they change one another in unexpected ways as they interact.  We can therefore never fully understand these inter-relationships

This is the challenge for our problem solving methodologies, which mostly assume that a problem can be broken down into its constituent parts. Complex problems present as emergent patterns resulting from dynamic interactions between multiple non-linearly connected parts.  In these systems, we’re rarely able to distinguish the real problem, and even small and well-intentioned interventions may result in disproportionate and unintended consequences.


Complicated One structure-one function due to their environments being delimited i.e. governing constraints are in place that allows the system to interact only with selected or approved types of systems.  Functions can be delimited either by closing the system (no interaction) or closing its environment (limited or constrained interactions).

Complicated systems can be fully known as a result and are mappable.
Complex Complex systems are open systems, to the extent that it is often difficult to determine where the system ends and another start.   Complex systems are also nested they are part of larger scale complex systems, e.g. an organisation within an industry within an economy.  It is therefore impossible to separate the system from its context.

This makes modeling an issue of replicating the system, it cannot be reduced. We cannot transform complex systems into complicated ones by spending more time and resources on collecting more data or developing better maps.

Some ideas for moving forward

Once you understand that you are in a complex system instead of a complicated process you can start looking for ways to deal with it. These are areas we need to increase capabilities with as quality professionals.

  • Methodologies and best practices to decouple parts of a larger system so they are not so interdependent and build in redundancy to reduce the chance of large-scale failures.
  • Use storytelling and counterfactuals. Stories can give great insight because the storyteller’s reflections are not limited by available data.
  • Ensure our decision making captures different analytical perspectives.
  • Understand our levers

WCQI Day 3 – Afternoon

Afternoon Keynote – Cheryl Cran on NextMapping

Future of work thought leadership….People First, Digital Second

Digital second is an interesting keynote theme (2 out of 4) and I appreciate the discussion on equitable futures and moving companies away from autocracy. Not sure anyone who speaks at large corporations is really all that committed to the concept. And I didn’t feel much more than lip service to the concept in this keynote.

Stressing reverse mentoring is good, something that all of us need to be building the tools to do better. Building it into technology integration is good.

Basic sum-up is that Change Leadership Traits are:

  • Relational vs transactional
  • Focus on ‘people’ first
  • Highly adaptable to people
  • and situations
  • Coach approach
  • Creative solutions
  • Future focused
  • Transparent
  • Empowering

In short, any talk that thinks having a clip from “In Good Company” is a good idea for teaching agile thinking is problematic.

“Storytelling: The Forgotten Change Management Tool ” by Keith Houser

Storytelling is one of the critical jobs of a quality professional, and this was a great presentation. Another flip session with pre-work that a lot of folks didn’t do.

I’m going to let Keith’s template speak for itself:

This was marked basic. And unlike a lot of stuff marked intermediate this felt like truly a best practice, pushing the envelope in many ways. Sure I apply these principles, but the discipline here is impressive.

How we tell our story

“If it Isn’t Written Down, then it Didn’t Happen” is a guiding principle of the quality profession.

There are four major types of writing in quality: instructional, informational, persuasive and transactional. When evaluated against the three major document types instructional is a functional document, informational is a report and transactional is a record. This is not to say that all transactional business writing should be considered a record, the traditional argument against emails in quality systems for example.

It is important to understand these differences as they require differences in writing style, format and grammar. An SOP (instructional/functional) is very different that an informational/report). When building your writing competencies it is important to remember these are different (with a common foundation).

We utilize reports in our quality systems (and everywhere else) to act, to communicate information, to capture work completed, to record incidents, to finalize projects and recommendations, and to act as an archive. A well written report allows the reader to easily grasp the content and, if applicable, make informed decision. Report writing is a cornerstone of a CAPA system (from incident identification to root cause through CAPA completion and effectiveness review), validation, risk management and so much more.

In short, reports are our stories, they form the narrative. And how we tell that narrative determines how we think of an issue, and how we will continue to thing of it in the future.

We tend to mix and match two modes in our report writing — Story thought and system:

  • Story thought emphasizes subjective human experience, the primacy of individual actors, narrative and social ordering, messiness, edge cases, content, and above all meaning.
  • System thought emphasizes 3rd-person descriptions of phenomena from a neutral perspective, the interchangeability of actors and details, categorical or logical ordering, measurements, flow, form, and above all coherence.

We tend to lean more heavily on system thought in quality,the roots of the discipline and the configuration of our organizations make us predisposed to the system thought mode. This means that over time, best practices accumulate that favor system thought, and many of our our partners (regulatory agencies, standard setting bodies, etc) favor the measurable and the reducible. However, by favoring the system thought mode we are at jeopardy of missing how human beings function in our organizations and how our organizations need to deal with society. And we make mistakes. Me make bad decisions. We fail to deal with the truly complicated problems.

It is time to learn how to utilize story though more in quality.