Hierarchy of explaination or why narrative is becoming more important

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 9, 2007
Filed in Anecdotes

In 1805 William Clark notes in his expedition journal that the Mandans [a Native American tribe] believed that buffalos could be attracted to close-by hunting grounds by performing the buffalo dance. According to Clark, the hunters thought they could further increase their chances by having sexual relations with a woman who had been with a more powerful man. A bevy of buffalo appeared after three days of dancing.

Last week I spent a week with my parents at their home at Jervis Bay. My father was telling me how he had some problems with a tank of petrol recently. He had to drain his little Datsun truck of all its fuel. When I asked where he got the bad gas he said it was one of two places. “One of the service stations was being refuelled by a tanker and was probably churning up all the rubbish in the underground tanks and I happened to fill up when all that muck was floating around,” he said. “I will never fill up again if I see a tanker parked at the service station.”

You might have read the buffalo dance example and thought, “What a quaint belief. How could people believe that dancing and sexual relations improve a buffalo hunting season?” I hoping that when you read the second example you concluded what I did—we create rules of thumb for ourselves all the time based on stories we tell ourselves. The fact is, we’re all obsessed with explaining why things happen. How many have you sat in front of the TV and are assailed with pictures of car crashes on the news and you think to yourself, “He Must have been speeding, and he was probably drinking.” We need very few facts to create a plausible story.

So what happened here?


See, you are doing it again.

As I have hinted, the key to whether we adopt a story is based on its plausibility. If, based on our experiences and knowledge, the story seems plausible we’ll go with it. Closely linked to the idea of plausibility is that of trust because while a story might be plausible we need to know whether the source is trustworthy (do you trust the picture of the car in the telephone wires? Is it a setup?). Trust is a big topic which is not the point of this post but let me just say that we normally trust ourselves and what we see. Seeing is believing, right? As a side-bar, isn’t it interesting how we don’t explore all the possible stories and compare which one suits the situation the best through a rational, reductionist approach. As Gary Klein points out in Sources of Power, we grab the first thing that pops into our minds and if it is plausible then it’s good enough. A classic satisficing strategy.

OK, so here’s what I mean by a hierarchy of explanation. First, I would like to suggest that some explanatory techniques are more resource intensive than others (hence a hierarchy). The most resource intensive approach for explaining what happened is ‘the scientific method’. We know this method works (of course you need to apply the right science to the right type of problem). It is a marvellous technique if you have the time and resources to develop hypotheses, craft double-blind experiments, investigate statistically significant populations and are able to wait months, no years, for the results to be published in a peer reviewed journal. OK, I might be overstating things.

Another explanatory approach is religion. It is also resource intensive requiring prayer, regular meetings, reading and understanding key texts, and a myriad of other rituals. For many, religious explanation is sufficient to understand the phenomena we encounter. I think religion is slightly less resource intensive than the scientific method but still highly resource intensive..

After scientific method and religion there is a significant drop in resource requirements for the next method people use to explain the world around them: stories. Of course scientific and religious approaches both have narrative characteristics but what I’m talking about here is the stories we create in our mind to explain what we experience. For example, we see the boss coming out of a colleague’s office: “So it looks like Doris got the promotion. She deserves it. I must remember to go to all the social events this year.” We build mini stories and from these stories we deduce rules of thumbs and make decisions. We also hear stories from others. It’s a good way to experience an event without being there. Our stories and the ones we hear guide our actions.

On the bottom of the hierarchy, with the lowest resource requirements, is intuition, or if you are a bloke you might feel more comfortable if I call it ‘gut instinct’. Using intuition we take action without even constructing a story or evaluating options. We just know what to do and find it difficult to describe how we know this is right. Intuition comes from experience. It’s not a magical capability, while it might appear to be, and it is something that can be systematically developed. Check out Gary Klein’s book on the topic: Intuition at Work: Why Developing Your Gut Instincts Will Make You Better at What You Do. Or for a popular account read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

So my hierarchy of explanation, according to the resources required to undertake each method, is:

  • scientific method
  • religion
  • stories and rules of thumb
  • intuition

So why are stories and intuition becoming more important in a business context? You have heard this a million times so I will only give you the expurgated version. The pace of change is accelerating. Things are going faster, partly because we are now extremely well connected with a myriad of communications devices: email, Skype, instant messaging, mobile phone, sms, ipod, web (and this is just what’s sitting in front of me this morning as I type this note). More decisions are required in shorter periods of time and while it would be ideal to adopt the scientific method for everything, it’s impractical.

Consequently we need to better understand how and why narrative and intuition works. What are the limitations? When mustn’t we rely on anecdotal evidence and where is it OK? To pretend that the majority of business decisions are not made based on our stories, our experience, without hard evidence, is simply putting our heads in the sand and hoping it will go away. The evidence-based management wave is a good thing as long as EBM practitioners realise that there will be always be decisions made without hard facts and that is not a failing. If an organisation overly promotes EBM without recognising the efficacy and role of stories and intuition, decision makers will make decisions the best way they can given the circumstances and then put extra effort in making them look evidence-based.

So what can you do to better understand the role of stories and intuition in your organisation? Start by listening for stories—get attuned to what stories in a business context sound like. When you’re at a meeting listen for people saying things like: “Something like this happened to me last year. We had a difficult start to the project …” or “Six weeks ago I was responding to a client request …” These are the beginnings of stories. Once you have tuned in to stories start asking for stories in addition to the facts. Here are some questions. Next, read up on business narrative. I’ve put together this resource on the topic of business narrative which includes a range of resource links and book suggestions. But nothing beats experience, so I recommend you find a problem that is difficult to tackle using just the facts like culture change, knowledge retention or leadership development and experiment with some narrative techniques.

Our US readers might like to know that Shawn and Mark will be presenting our Narrative Techniques for Business workshop in Seattle and Boston this March 07. For the full details check out the workshop description

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Tina says:

    Great post, Shawn! I very much appreciate the lens on Squidoo, too.
    I’m going to put listening for stories into action today…so with that…
    “Shawn, can you tell me about a time when you were most excited about the collective learning that was occurring around your use of online tools such as blogging or social bookmarking?”
    – Tina

  2. About a two years ago I was doing a project for Telstra, helping their sales force improve effectivness. It was during this time that it occurred to me that blogging could be a useful way to bring two communities together (in this case, the salespeople and the technical support folk) and I wrote a short paper desribing the approach (https://www.anecdote.com.au/whitepapers.php?wpid=10). This was an exciting time. Thanks for asking Tina.

  3. I wonder if it would work the other way around, and have a bevy of beautiful women appear after three days ?

  4. Perhaps Frank, but wouldn’t it require you to ‘dance’ with the buffalos.

  5. Thanks Shawn! I think you’d enjoy reading Charles Tilly’s book, “Why?” – he discriminates between stories, technical accounts, conventions and codes.
    Where you look at the intuition end of the story spectrum, Tilly adds some insight into how stories fold into the formal infrastructure of an organisation.

  6. Thanks for the reference Patrick.

  7. Sambasiva says:

    Hey Shawn
    I have always wondered about the loss of intuitive capabilities, business narrative techniques in our leaders/managers who work in the so called “mature organizations”. I mean in the past 9 years, working for “maturing organizations” who place so much emphasis on establishing processes, best practices leading to templatizing every known piece of knowledge in the organizations, i have witnessed a whole bunch of executives who are clueless how to manage “soft issues” like people sensitivities, conflict management etc.
    And that brings me to the question, precisely at what point (in terms of timeframe, scale or complexity) do organizations stop this “process centric” approach and start emphasizing, let us say, a more “intuition-based, business narrative type of techniques” to manage large and complex projects that are threatening to fail ? And how does one train others to acquire this ability, if at all that is possible. If it is possible, isn’t that going against the very grain of intuitive decision making ??

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