A Brief Look at Storytelling and Problem-Solving

All the stories someone has told provided a basis for the stories they tell in the present. Moving into the future, the stories we think we might tell later affect the ones we tell now.

A Brief Look at Storytelling and Problem-Solving


I am interested in stories. In particular, I am interested in how stories lead to coordinated and cooperative activity among people (Maturana  & Verden-Zöller, 2008; Mingers, 1995) From this perspective, interest is placed not on what a story is but the pattern of action it unfolds into (Maturana & Varela, 1987). It is important to be clear that when I say the word “story,” I am not referring to tales, grand narratives, or even anything found in books. In the manner I am using the word, a story is anything we say about the world that declares the world or something in it to be a certain way. Examples include the identification and framing of a problem, an update on a project at work, and the description of an event, person, place, or anything else we may come across. The following will focus on problems.

Moving into Focus

When we tell stories, we draw into focus some things and exclude others through operations of distinction. As we distinguish something, we draw around it a boundary that separates what we are talking about from everything else. It is then “pulled” out of the background and into the foreground becoming something discrete and bounded we can discuss (Maturana, 1988; Maturana & Varela, 1987). For example, we may tell a story about the national wildfire problem currently manifesting itself in California. As a boundary is drawn around the problem some factors are excluded while others are included depending on how the boundary is drawn (Morin, 1992). Without question, each time a boundary is drawn and a line comes into being that separates “part of the problem” from “not part of the problem” something is left out. This is not to say an error is being made. Rather, if a boundary was never drawn, we would be left with a situation where we could never say anything because we cannot talk about the whole universe all at once (Welch & Stowell, 2012). The setting of boundaries, the first act of an operation of distinction, enables us to talk about something by pulling some thing out of everything else (Cilliers,  2002). While whatever is left out may surprise us later, we always have the opportunity to widen the boundaries we draw (Meadows, 2008; Morin, 1992).

As something is brought sharply into focus and pulled out of the field in which it exists, it is “brought forth” in a particular way. This the second act of an operation of distinction. With a boundary drawn around it, the issue of fires destroying homes, property, and resources may be cleaved from its environment in any number of ways. For example, the problem may be brought forth as an issue of overwhelmed suppression resources, a failure of centralized power grids, or a century of failed policy (Jensen & McPherson, 2008). In each instance, the problem is brought into focus in a particular way attached with a relational context of significance, use, history, and other elements (Maturana & Poerksen, 2011).

Simple and Composite Stories

The two-part operation of distinction is involved at least once in every story or there would be no story. Distinctions are the stuff of stories – they are its content and its focus. A story may talk about the wildfire problem as an issue of failed policy, provide a few examples, and leave it at that without any further decomposition. This can be referred to as a “simple” story. Alternatively, a story may bring the wildfire problem forth as an issue of failed policy and make further distinctions that decompose the problem in a “composite” story (Maturana  & Verden-Zöller, 2008; Segal, 2001). For example, a story might talk about how the present wildfire response system was born out of a military context and staffed with military personnel using former military equipment. Further yet, the same story might discuss the Big Blow Up of 1910 and unpack how wildfire became a national enemy, a view further supported by Smokey the Bear (Jensen & McPherson, 2008). Neither a simple or composite story is universally appropriate or better than one or the other. Simple and composite stories are correct or incorrect, sufficient or insufficient only in context (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003). For example, the simple version of the wildfire problem as failed policy may be appropriate at dinner with friends but not during a wildfire conference. In the context of problem-solving, importance is placed on how the story told allows us to engage with a problem.

The Present, History, and Future of Stories

Any story told in the present is affected by all of the stories someone has told and all the ones they think they might tell in the future (Thompson, 2007; Yáñez & Maturana, 2013). Of course, all the stories someone has told provided a basis for the stories they tell in the present. This historic concept is easy to grasp. Moving into the future, the stories we think we might tell later affect the ones we tell now. For example, if we think we might in the future tell a story where the meaning of the home has changed drastically, we may tell in the present a story about how we might start designing homes that are intended to burn and do so without releasing harmful chemicals. For another example, if we expect the nation’s fire activity to revert back to the beginning of the colonial era through purposeful thinning, we may tell a story in the present about the need to make considerable funds and personnel available for fuel treatments (Jensen & McPherson, 2008). There is an interesting link here between our ability to imagine futures and the content of stories in the present.

Stories Told in Groups

When we tell stories in our own groups much of what we say does not need to be explained because we share a common language. More precisely, we share the common meaning of language where words, gestures, references, symbols, and facial expressions mean something other than themselves (Maturana, 1988; Mingers, 1995). In other words, the meaning is not in the word, gesture, reference, or expression. Rather, the meaning is found distributed among the group of friends who all know what meaning various linguistic expressions hold. When we try and tell a story to a group of people who are not our close friends of family who we share these spaces known as “consensual domains,” we have to work with those that are already there. In many cases, we arrive empty-handed without knowing what already means what. If we are trying to tell a new story not already heard or held as true by the group, we may find ourselves trying to establish common meaning by continually entering into submission new distinctions that we then negotiate the meaning of. Once a consensual domain exists, we are able to coordinate our activities with other people. Without one, there is no common meaning that can enable coordinated activity.    

Stories, Action, and Problems

Inside and outside of the context of problem-solving the stories we tell chart a course for action. At the level of national strategy, it can be imagined that the story told about the wildfire problem gives way to the solution pathway the problem-solving strategy will follow. For example,  if the wildfire problem is distinguished as an issue of overwhelmed suppression resources an increase in those resources is likely to follow (Dorst, 2015).

What has been presented here as a distinction is similar in many ways to the idea of a frame: “An organizational principle or a coherent set of statements that are useful to think with” (Dorst, 2015, p.63). As an approach to a problem, a frame precedes the devising of a solution pathway that flows from the frame. While the frame creation process is intentional and involves the use of metaphor, I will argue that distinctions are our first (generally unrecognized and unintentional) layer in problem identification (boundary drawing) and problem framing (talking about the problem identified in a particular way). From this angle, distinctions are frames as they act the same way though they are generally non-deliberate and unrecognized The process found in Dorst's book Frame Innovation: Create New Thinking by Design offers us the opportunity to revisit and revise the distinctions we have already made that guide our independent and collective action. In other words, the frame creation process helps us to change the stories we tell about a problem and by consequence how we try and solve it by making distinctions explicit and seeking to change what they are. In other words, the frame creation process (pictured below) changes how we bring problems forth - at the very least.  


Discussed in the above was a perspective on stories derived from the work of biologist turned philosopher Humberto Maturana that draws attention to the  fundamental role storytelling plays in how we make sense of the world so we can act in it. As one of our most fundamental mechanisms of sense-making, stories create a world that we understand and can therefore effectively act in (Snowden, 2008). Far from being limited to the context of the present, the stories we tell are told in a "'thick" here-and-now"(Di Paolo, Buhrmann, & Barandiaran, 2017, p.233) that stretches back into the collection of stories we have already told and into the future of all those we think we may or may not eventually tell. This stretching into the past and into the future affects the nature of the stories we tell here and now. As stories are linked to problem-solving, this influences how we draw boundaries around and bring forth problems and ultimately how we work to solve them. Given the prospective component of storytelling, the futures we are able to imagine act as a constraint on the stories we tell in the present.

Finally,  the above draws to a close by connecting this unique version of storytelling with the work of Dorst (2015) who delivers a tested process for engaging with problems in new ways. While this connection opens up several new avenues for exploration, perhaps the most important is the need to begin carefully examining the stories we tell about problems in terms of the boundaries we draw and the context we attach to them. From here, it seems that the visualization of stories in terms of distinctions and the action they entail may offer deeper insight into the problem-solving process.


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