Story spines for sensemaking

Posted by  Andrew Rixon —July 21, 2006
Filed in Business storytelling

The “story spine” is a natural sensemaking device. Yesterday, one of my good friends Viv was telling me about a workshop experience she went through with a very polarized community where there was alot of conflict and turmoil in the room. As a way to get the group working towards a vision she introduced the story spine approach for story telling. Viv found the story spine really powerful, not to mention cathartic.

The story spine follows a pattern like:

Once upon a time…
But one day…
Because of that… (repeat three times or as often as necessary) Until finally…
Ever since then…
And the moral of the story is…(optional)

Once participants have been introduced to the story spine you can then invite them to tell a story using the story spine framework.

With my new found appreciation of Brenda Dervin’s sensemaking work it makes sense why the story spine is a fantastic sensemaking device. As Brenda explains, her work around sensemaking builds on the metaphor of a person finding themselves in a certain situation where to get to the place they want to be they have to cross a bridge. Taking a sensemaking lens to the situation, gap and outcome results in particular sensemaking questions like: “What brought you to this point?”, “What questions or muddles do you have?” and “What helps have you had?”. It appears, that in one fell swoop, the story spine brings this all into focus. “Once upon a time” helps to locate the situation. “But one day…” helps to locate the gap. “Ever since then…” brings the outcome to fruition.

About  Andrew Rixon


  1. Luke says:

    I’ve used a similar storyspine in futures thinking scenario planning exercises based on the plot and archetypes of the Hero’s Story (ex Donald Campbell and refined by Chris Vogler in “The Writer’s journey”. It’s not as simple as that of your storyspine but it’s not that much of a jump (up to 12 plot points but with some repeats). The archetypes really help to play out the roles in the story though (hero, villain, mentor, shapeshifter, etc)
    Luke Naismith

  2. Andrew Rixon says:

    Thanks Luke!
    Sounds great.
    Would you be able to provide us with an example of your story spine?

  3. Tim says:

    I know storytelling has been around for millenia, but the story spine is a specific exercise created by Kenn Adams while at Freestyle Repertory in New York. (Just giving credit where credit is due)

  4. Thanks Tim for pointing out one of the originators of the story spine exercise. For me I learned it from Viv McWaters a few year ago.

  5. Irene Hanraets says:

    Long ago I once used a kind of spinestory when I had to make a speech to a collegue who moved to another job in another organisation. I told a spinestory about her joblife and used almost the same spines.I never thaught about using it in my work. Thank you for this idea. I think it is usefull when you want to reflect together, upon a learning proces what’s moving over a longer period of time.
    By the way:
    My collegue, she liked it very much,and for me it was much fun to do.

  6. This book incorporates story telling in a theory of organizing:

Comments are closed.