Day 1: Why experts don’t get it, and other lessons

This is a brief recap of the first day of the workshop for the Fragments of Impact initiative (I blogged about it here). The aim of the day was to give the participants an introduction to complexity and narrative research with SenseMaker®. Although I have heard many of the things already in earlier events and trainings I participated in, the refresher was useful and there were interesting new aspects I could gather.

Here a few great things I picked up, mainly shared by Tony Quinlan who did the major part of the introduction. I’m paraphrasing here, reflecting the way I perceived the points and why I thought they were.

Many projects in development first pilot their ideas. Then they want to go to scale. Tony borrowed a metaphor from Giulio Quaggiotto (@gquaggiotto) who compared pilots with fish. You put them in a little water and they seem to swim just fine. Then what many projects do is to make a whale. A whale is obviously a totally different beast and will behave in a completely different way. Instead, projects should go for a shoal of fish. They are aligned with the lessons from the pilot but still flexible to adapt to changes in the contexts and new challenges.

In order to show the importance of our history and cultural background, Tony used a simple question: which one is the odd one out from: cow, chicken, grass. The answer largely depends on where you were raised. Psychological research has shown that Westerners choose grass as the odd one out as cows and chicken are both animals. They categorise. East Asians on the other hand choose chicken as the odd one out as cows eat grass. They think much more in relations and networks.

So the above gives already a strong indication that it might be difficult for experts to interpret stories from other people. Especially in multi-cultural settings (which we often find in development). Tony brought three more reasons why experts always get it wrong (i.e. why it is not advisable to interpret stories of others):

  • Metaphors: metaphors are extremely context dependent and difficult to understand if you are not part of the specific culture, region or even village. (Tony made an example related to Cricket and unfortunately I cannot reproduce it.)
  • Sarcasm: how would you detect from a text you read if it was meant the way it was written or not? Tony gave the example of a story he once collected in Pakistan that – reading only the text – would suggest that the person was pretty radical. Using other data collected with SenseMaker, Tony figured out quickly that the text was totally sarcastic.
  • Evolution of language: language changes within generations, if not years. Parents often don’t understand many nuances of the language of their teenage and older children. This makes it difficult for (mostly senior) researcher to interpret stories of others, especially from another generation.

Consequently, the approach used with SenseMaker is to let people interpret their own stories. Today, we will work on a signification framework that we will use over the next six months to collect stories.

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