Stories and the Trouble with Compression

This post proceeds from the observation that there is a far-reaching desire to compress the big and complex into the small and simple, a concept similar to reductionism. The following will explain compression and argue it should be cautious, as compression can cause a loss of detail and meaning.

Stories and the Trouble with Compression


This post proceeds from the observation that there is a far-reaching desire to compress the big and complex into the small and simple, a concept similar to reductionism. The following will explain compression and argue it should be cautious, as compression can cause a loss of detail and meaning. Compression is not altogether impossible, as it is assumed here that anything being compressed has a boundary of incompressibility. Once this boundary is passed, something begins to be lost. Leading up to that boundary, a degree of compression is possible.

I began this week thinking about Force as it relates to organizational life. I thought about forcing ideas, people, physical and implied force, and the force that is part of operating in hierarchies. After pondering force for a while, I remembered the slide (below) on Compression from a talk I was fortunate to give at the Complexity Lounge a while back (a collection of videos on Vimeo and a live event well worth checking out). The quote on the slide suggests that we cannot make a complex system smaller than it is without losing some of its qualities. As the authors write, "Complex systems are incompressible."

The talk is available here. 

There may be a propensity to label the issue of compression a problem of modeling complex systems, but it is not the only place compression is an issue. For example, compression also relates to stories, whether they are about complex systems or not.


Compression exists throughout organizational life. Stories seem to be one of the areas where this is the most prevalent, specifically those between superiors and subordinates or between teams (time is of course another area where compression is important, but that is for another post). We often tell stories about complex events, problems, situations, etc. and they take a certain amount of time to tell. The amount of time correlates, in some instances, with the complexity of the "thing" the story is being told about. So, there are stories that are being told amongst members of one team or one organizational stratum that fit within certain time-sized containers. These stories are then communicated outside of the place where they originated. If memory serves me correctly the place where the story originates is similar to Nonaka's term "Ba" and the Japanese term "Gemba".

The story leaves its original location where it was crafted and sits attached to its context, which gives it its full meaning. This context helps the story make sense. Once it is grasped by the hands of someone who did not participate in the crafting of the story, there is a tendency to immediately place the story in a smaller box where it takes up less time, is easier to handle, and communicates with less effort to others further up the chain of command. All stories are to some degree incompressible due to the web of context around them, which is severed when it is placed into a smaller vessel. Stories are at the same time incompressible due to the complexity of what they are about and the meaning they express--they cannot be made smaller without risking that they become about something other than originally intended.

For example, stories about IT incidents and how the staff worked around them are incompressible. Briefings, a type of story, about incidents are also incompressible. In both cases, a speech writer could lend their expertise and perhaps compress the stories somewhat by eliminating extraneous words, but this is not without limits. There is still a certain amount of meaning taking up a defined amount of time that needs to be communicated by the story for it to have utility. Compressible to a small degree? Yes. Totally and freely compressible for the sake of efficiency? No. Stories are largely incompressible due to what they are trying to express, which unavoidably takes up a certain amount of time to communicate. The point is, the container can only become so small before the boundary of incompressibility is hit and the story is mutilated in some way. Thus, stories are considered to be ultimately incompressible.

Complexity is also important. The meaning held by the story may contain paradox, ambiguity, uncertainty, and events that just barely evade explanation. Complexity takes time to communicate, making for a longer story that further resists compression. Greater amounts of complexity also make for a more entangled story that takes longer to tell. For complexity to be communicated, a certain amount of time is needed as represented by its boundary of incompressibility.


There are very few people in the world who can compress something right to the boundary of incompressibility and not cross it. I have had the pleasure of working with exactly two people who can take a 300-word paragraph and bring it to 150 words without losing any meaning or context. It is a rare gift to be able to discern how small of a time container a story can fit into before too much context, detail, and meaning is lost.

This is not to say compression is not an important part of practice or that it should not be attempted - it just needs to be cautious. For example, lengthy reports may benefit from compression that brings them towards the boundary and produces a more easily readable and usable document. Moving beyond the boundary on the other hand may remove valuable findings or action items, for example. Caution must be exercised so there is no loss of value. Managers with years of expertise may compress stories to the size they need them to take action. A cautious compression means managers do so knowing they may lose context and certain details their team thinks are important to the story. This compression may be hazardous as meaning and details are lost as the story is forced into a smaller container, leading to surprises later as omitted portions of the story become relevant later on.