By David M. Boje, Jan 9 2007; Revised Dec 14 2007


"David Boje taught me the value of stories in an organization. Stories are the “oil” that makes the gears work." - Stew Leonard Jr.

"How do you get your message heard in an organization with thousands of people? David Boje taught me the value of telling stories at Stew Leonard’s!"

Let me introduce myself. I am David Michael Boje. My story: I have been teaching and studying storytelling for 30 years. My dad's side of the family his roots back to Denmark, my mother's side, back to Scotland. There are Native roots, by marriage, on my mother's and dad's side. So there are Boje's raised on reservations. Over the years, I have come to see the importance of story in organization change and practice. My early work, such as the 1991 Administrative Science Qurertly article was about how storytelling is part of the practice of leadership and change. In that piece I developed the theory of Storytelling Organization. Stories are the preferred sensemaking modality in those organizations (1991: 106). Over the years, and especially in the last few years, I have come to realize that story is in either a subordinate relation to narrative, in a dialectic relation of interpenetration, or in a dialogic relationship. Before getting into story theory, let me introduce you to story practice of Stew Leonard Jr.

Stew Leonard Jr. (of Stew Leonard's Dairy) took two Ph.D. seminars on storytellling when I was at UCLA, and he was in the MBA program. Here are few more of Stew Jr.'s ideas on stories. "Here’s a few ideas" (Stew Jr. told me) Pick anyone you like or mix and match."

“If there’s no story, it’s too complicated to explain to over 2,000 team members”

"If you hear a story being told in the company cafeteria by a front line worker, promote the manager that initiated that story!"

“Our company is made up of lots of stories. We’ve found that “stories” get told and retold and become the fabric of an organization. “Policies” lay unread in the company handbook or training manual”

STORY CONSULTING - Once upon a time, storytelling communities did not need story consultants to point train them in story competencies. The community of storytellers was quite competent at storytelling and storylistening. They knew elucidation of elaborating narration was quite unnecessary. Everyone had been socialized in organizations to attend to basic story competencies.

During the last decade hundreds of story consultants have entered the marketplace. Indeed, storytelling has become one of the preferred methodology of organizational change consulting. The list of top-seller books on Amazon in Organization Change contains more and more entries each year that are all about story change consulting methods. I want to develop a different model of story change, one I call Living Story Change. Living Story is something my colleagues (Jo Tyler, Grace Ann Rosile, Ken Baskin, Carolyn Gardner, and Theodore Taptiklis) have been writing about. We mean our theory of and practice of Living Story to be different from what is currently highly popular and readily available in the marketplace, that turns Living Story into Dead Story (more accurately into Dead Narrative). There are three dominant approaches, John Kotter's N-step, David Cooperrider's Appricaitve Inquiry, and Steve Denning's Sp;ringboard. They each turn what could be Living Story into Deadening Narrative. They each promise Large Scale Organization Change based upon 'new paradigm' of either open systems or complexity, and deliver closed, mechanistic, functional reinventions of top-down, managerialist bureaucracy. That is why they are so very popular: They say the same thing, "Get you quick-fix, top-down, way to turn dyanmic change into a linear model of change that you the CEO can control and administrer." Let me introduce you to the ways Living Story is not the same as Dead Narrative, by looking at Kotter, Cooperrider, and Denning's story change consulting.

N-STEPPING - Take for example story change consulting of John Kotter. Kotter's (1996) book Leading Change, is an 8-step linear model of organization change. It is what David Collins (1998) calls an n-step model (where n is the number of steps). N-step models of change are a linear and functionalist narrative, with beginning steps, middle steps, and end steps. The steps are followed in a linear sequence, as in lock-stepping an organization through change. The change narrative fits a very managerialist mindset.

Managerialism is the view from the top, the manager's (owners & executive's) view. It is a top-down logic, a one logic that becomes the logic of change.

Collin’s (1998: 83) critique would still apply to contemporary best-selling Story Change Consulting books:

“A failure to analyze social factors in any real depth, treating problems of organization and change as if they involved the combination of molecules or cookery ingredients rather than skilled interactions of humans” (p. 83).

The story change n-step recipe guides include (Collins, 1998: 85):

1.     A rational analysis of organizational change

2.     A sequential approach to planning and managing change

3.     A prescription that is up-beat

The rhetoric of the n-step organization change model, promises that bureaucracy will end, that a new more complexity from of organization will get implemented. It promises that a closed, mechanistic system will become an open, organic system. But, it does not work, and if n-step did work, the landscape of capitalist economies would not be overpopulated with bureaucracy, with top-down, monologic systems thinking. What does happen is one mechanistic bureaucratic, closed system framework is relabeled, but its still just as bureaucratic, just as closed, just as mechanistic as it was, and probably more so.

From the critique developed so far it should be apparent that the n-step guides for change should be regarded as inadequate accounts of change since they are completely ignorant or dismissive of many crucial features of organizations and organizational change (Collins, 1998: 86).

Kotter's new books with Cohen (see Organization Change top-selling book list) use the same n-step model. What Kotter is most dismissive of is any kind of Living Story. Last time I looked, Kotter and Cohen, has three of the top 20 books on organization change. The only thing that changed is the n-step narrative, is now supported by so-called 'stories' of how hundreds of organizations are successful implementors of the steps. But these are not liberating stories, they are deadly control narratives.

Kotter’s second book (with Deloitte’s consultant Dan Cohen), The Heart of Change ( 2002) uses the 1996 8-step approach to change that now is said to work in 130 organizations. The book is based on 400 interviews conducted by Deloitte Consulting. Stories lead people to see and feel the change, and to push them through the change (p. 8). They provide 34 story change examples. Their advice is “never underestimate the power of a good story.” The 34 stories are organized to present the 8-stage model of change. The stories are said to win employee’s hearts, which is said to be the biggest problem in changing their behavior. Their method is summarized by the phase, “see-feel-change ”instead of the traditional “analysis-think-change” as a way for the organization to overcome any resistance to change in their midst, until in the end, we see-we feel-we change. The see-feel-change story tactic leads to an emotional-“afterglow” where the same story is told again and again (p. 12), until others tell similar stories (p. 52).  The advice is to make stories vivid, unambiguous, and memorable demonstration of the values or norms (p. 80, 122, 129, 174).

What is BME Narrative?

The upstart profession of story consulting began to specialize in something I call BME (beginning, middle, & end) narrative coherence. BME stands for beginning, middle, and end. Not a new invention, well known since Aristotle (350 BCE) in his renditions of the Poetics of BME, how each proper story must have narrative sequence of beginning, middle, and end, and thereby be a whole narrative with a plot sequence of events, characters, themes, dialogue, rhythm, and spectacle.

The field of narrative studies emerged from Aristotle’s (350 BCE: section 1450b: lines 1-20: pp. 232-233) conception that narratives must be coherently plotted, with beginning, middle, and end (hereafter, BME).  "We have laid it down that a tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete in itself, as a whole of some magnitude... Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end" (1450b: 25-30: p. 233).

As Aristotle's mimetic of BME of linear, whole, representation becomes adopted by Russian Formalism, and other traditional narratologies, a double-move occurs. Story becomes relegated in the first move to a mere chronology of event. In the second move, narrative self-deconstructs its initial duality (the hierarchy of narrative over story), in order to double back to efface supposed underlying order of event (Culler, 1981: 171).

What is the Difference Between Narrative and Story?

Many authors see no difference whatsoever. They accept Aristotle, or reinvent him, and see no difference. I prefer to follow Bakhtin, Derrida, Calvino and my own Nartive storytelling roots, and theorize a very important difference between narrative and story. And in that difference is a very important lesson about change. Linear change is a systems thinking that needs to wake up! There are non-linear change approaches that are dialectic and dialogical. The dialectic I have in mind is between narrative order (control) and living story differences (disorder). The dialogic I have in mind is a multiplicity of types of narratives and types of stories that consummate the essence of self-organization, emergence, and complexity. To see the dialectic and dialogic, you need to move out systems thinking into complexity thinking, and notice the dance of narrative and story.

The Dance of Narrative Noticing and Story Noticing - For Mikhail Bakhtin (1973: 12), “narrative genres are always enclosed in a solid and unshakable monological framework.” Narrative dances with a more dialogic manner of story. Story, for Bakhtin, is decidedly more dialogical than narrative, for example in the “polyphonic manner of the story” (Bakhtin, 1973: 60). And the two (narrative & story) are dialogical with each other. Jacque Derrida also treats story and narrative as quite different.

Each “story” (and each occurrence of the word “story,” (of itself), each story in the story) is part of the other, makes the other part (of itself), is at once larger and smaller than itself, includes itself without including (or comprehending) itself, identifies itself with itself even as it remains utterly different from its homonym. (Derrida, 1979: 99-100).

Derrida is more radical than Bakhtin, viewing narrative as an instrument of torture, and the way it is used in story consulting (particularly in Reengineering Knowledge Management work), it is the torture of the Inquisition: 

… The question-of-narrative covers with a certain modesty a demand for narrative, a violent putting-to-the-question an instrument of torture working to wring the narrative out of one as if it were a terrible secret in ways that can go from the most archaic police methods to refinements for making (and even letting) one talk that are unsurpassed in neutrality and politeness, that are most respectfully medical, psychiatric, and even psychoanalytic. (Derrida, 1979: 94).

Story Consulting, that passes for Knowledge Management is a wringing of Living Story out of the Knowledge Workers, so it can be passed about as a tortured until death, Narrative Text. Finally, Italo Calvino (1979: 109) imagines stories in relation to a space full of stories:

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell… A space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first.

For Calvino, story necessarily opposes itself in a web of stories.

My main thesis, in this book, is that none of these approaches to narrative and story differences appear in the ‘story change consulting’ work. We think that it is because of the way the managerialist writers shun any kind of dialectic relationship of narrative and story as agencies of change. Let's look next at Appreciative Inquiry.

Depreciative Inquiry - "Depreciative Inquiry" is a term, my friend and colleague, Cliff Oswick, came up with, while we were being indoctrinated in "Appreciative Inquiry" at conference on narrative hosted by Jeffery Ford (May, 1999, Ohio State), where I delivered a paper titled, "Narratology and the Death of Stories." Cliff turned to me, and said, "instead of Appreciative Inquiry, we need to start a method called Depreciative Inquiry!" Take a look at the contemporary list of top 100 best-selling books on Organization Change and you will find several that are on Appreciative Inquiry. For example the book by David Cooperrider and Diane Whittney (2005), promises a 'Positive Revolution' will occur from doing 'Appreicative Inquiry.' And the basis of this 'Positive Revolution' is the 'appreciative story' (actually a narrative), that is attained in the 'appreicative interview,' and retold at the 'appreciative summit' workshop in order to build a 'positive core.'

In Cooperrider and Whitney’s (2005) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change, what does ‘positive revolution mean? The words ‘resist’ or ‘resistance’ does not appear anywhere in the book.  Instead the reader is asked a series of questions:

“Are you ready for a positive approach to change? Are you tired of the same old discussions of what’s not working, how hard it is to overcome, and who’s to blame? Do you have hopes and dreams for your organization? Would you like to see engagement, commitment, and enthusiasm rise along with revenues and profits? Are you searching for a process to open communication, unleash human potential, and create a truly learning organization? If your answer to any of these questions is yeas, you are ready to accept the invitation to the positive revolution, to embrace Appreciative Inquiry, and to benefit form a positive approach to change management” (Cooperrider & Whitney, p. 6).

One of the principles for a positive revolution, “what we discover (the data) becomes the linguistic material, the stories, out of which the future is conceived…” (Cooperrider & Whitney, p. 51). Another principle of the positive revolution is accelerating learning means “analysis of the importance positive inner dialogue to personal and relational well-being” (p. 53).  The positive revolution is something AI seeks to spread around the world (p. 39)

The book has six references to ‘negative’ (pp. 4, 5, 22, 35, 41, 59). For example “a goal of creating a narrative-rich culture with a ration of five stories of positive performance and success to every negative one…” (p. 4), and to ask open-ended questions in company salary surveys that have the ration of positive to negative comments tracked (p. 5), and “people constructively appropriate the power of the positive core and simply let go of negative accounts” (p. 35). The characterization of resistance is couched, for example, a “long-term employee of an organization mired in deficit discourse shared the following with dismay: ‘I have ulcers because of this negative thinking and talking…” (p. 59).

The word “positive” occurs in 60 sentences in their book (10 positives to each occurrence of the word ‘negative).  The revolution is positive (pp. 1, 3, 5), change is positive (pp. 2, 6), positive revolutionaries are said to create organizations full of voice (p. 4).  Postive social science vision of Maslow (p. 7), “AI involves the art and practice of asking unconditionally positive questions that strengthen a system’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and heighten positive potential” (p. 8). Enhancing the “positive core” of the organization is said to “liberate the human spirit” and it “enhances its collective wisdom” (p. 10). AI begins with a rigorous, organization-wide discovery and analysis of the positive core (p. 12), of what works well (p. 14), then magnifying the positive core in newly expressed dream and destiny (p. 16), which is done in systemwide dialogue and learning through appreciative interviewing (pp. 25, 39).

In terms of story, the future is said to “emerge out of grounded examples from an organization’s positive past” as “good news stares are used to craft possibility propositions” (p. 29). In a self-deconstruction, the authors “call it a path of positive protest or a strategy of positive subversion” (p. 35).

Is AI top-down, unitary systems change model?  At the AI Summit is a meeting process for “discovering and developing the organization’s positive core and designing it into strategic business processes” (p. 38). The organization does not have to “deal with the negative anymore” since AI has a “positive foundation of strength to build on in addressing those problems” (p.41). “Leadership must be present throughout the process, asking powerful, positive, value-based questions, expecting the best” (p. 46). The leaders become “servant leader and the role this positive effect plays” is “creating healthy organizations” (p. 52). “Freedom to Be Positive [that] AI opens the way for people to be free to be positive” (p. 59).

From a dialectic viewpoint, Appreciative Inquiry confuses ‘negation’ and ‘negative thinking.’  Critical negation of a narrative, to replace it with another narrative, to deconstruct a dominant narrative hegemony à is not the same thing as ‘negative thinking.’  Herbert Marcuse (1969) in One-Dimensional Man was critical of the limitation on dialectic imposed by the positive thinking movement (e.g. Dale Carnegie). There is a link, according to Marcuse (1969: 96) “between the grammatical, logical and ontological ‘subject’ … the contents [of’ which are suppressed in the functional language, barred from expression and communication.” 

When critical consciousness is suspended, it becomes a closed universe of systems thinking, and its “petrified structure” is realized (Marcuse, 1969: 100 cites narrative structuralist, Roland Barthes, the inspiration for Czarniawska’s 2004 book, where petrified narrative is seen as the path to strong organization cultures).   Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005) invokes the same petrified structure of hypnotic nouns “affirmative topics,” “appreciative organizations,” “appreciative inquiry,” “cooperation circles,” “positive revolution,” “positive core” and so forth.

Appreciative Inquiry is an authoritarian attack on dialectic as a productive apparatus of change. Appreciative Inquiry reduces freedom of speech and thought in the administered world (Marcuse, 1969: 253).

Living story is repulsion to Appreciative Inquiry’s narrative positivity. In counterstory after counterstory, the self-reflexive consciousness distinguishes itself in Living Story as having being apart from the Narrative sense-certainty and perception control of Appreciative Inquiry. The differences in story are vanished by narrative positivity, but are nevertheless still present as differences, as negative story flux.

As Appreciative Inquiry does its acts of narrative control over negative thinking, the sensuous world and the perceptual world are preserved in retrospective filters where the appearance of being positive becomes the thesis to the antithesis of Living Story differences in the flux of being. Alienation occurs as the individual becomes what Hegel (1807/1977: 105) calls “double object.”  The ‘I’ of self-consciousness can notice the difference of positivity-appearance, and critical story of what is behind sense-certainty and perception. A negative is behind the Positivity Narrative, a negative that is alienated from Living Story, a negative object of self, opposed to the role played by the first object of self.

Springboard Narratives - Steve Denning's (2000, 2005, 2007) books on story change consulting have yet to be as popular as those of Kotter (& Cohen) or Cooperrider (& Whitney). Denning's books do not appear in the top 100 top-selling Organization Change books. Yet, Denning has a clear following, of over 5,000 story consulting applying his story change methodology.

This next bit is from my reviw of Denning's (2000) book, Springboard Story, for Academy of Management Review (Boje, 2006). The coaching advice is to have CEOs (actually their staff members), construct “springboard” stories, “a story that enables a leap in understanding by the audience so as to grasp how an organization or community or complex system may change” (2000: xviii). The characteristics: (1) story from perspective of single protagonist in prototypical business predicament; (2) explicit story familiar to the audience; (3) stimulates their imagination; (4) must have a positive or happy ending (xix, 124, 126, &198). Springboard story model is quite up front about exploiting tacit knowledge, so for example, listeners will reinvent the knowledge in their own local contexts (Denning, 2002: x). The book contains six main stories he used with consulting to the World Bank, about Zambia, Yemen, something from fellow consultant John Kotter, Central Africa Republic, a prayer by Seth Weaver Kahan, and the Pakistan government. There are some inconsistencies in the advice. For example, one criteria Denning (p. xvi, footnote 5) chooses is ironic, given that he invokes Bakhtin (1973) Problems with Dostoevsky’s Poetics, in particular the idea of polyphony. What is ironic is the list is monological, mono phonic, & happy ending features in Denning are ones that neither Bakhtin nor Dostoevsky endorsed. Two more ironies: first, Springboard stories do not posses such fuzzy qualitative relationships; second, Descartes' Cartesian philosophy dualizes not only mind/body, but the ideal inner world of storyteller from the outer world of storytelling organization. Besides a strange reading of Bakhtin, the book gets its main inspiration from Descartes (see pp. 3, 109-113); i.e. resulting in the rather curious idea of plotting narratives into multi-dimensional non-linear spatiality equations (Denning, 2000: pp. 112-113). Yet, Denning ends with a testable research idea: “The fact that narratives are not mathematically precise, and in fact are full of fuzzy qualitative relationships, seems to be a key to their success in enabling us to cope with complexity” (p. 113). What has happened since I did that review?

Denning’s latest book (2007, The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative) is a follow-up to the 2005 (The Leader’s Guide to storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative).   Denning’s topic is change on 124 pages of the 2005 book. Once again ‘springboard story’ is the vehicle for change: “If the company is facing a major change, springboard stories will be need to spark the change” (p. 111).  It is a decidedly managerialist orientation to narrative: “leaders using narrative to inculcate a positive set of corporate values and beliefs in the hearts and minds of employees” (2005: p. 10) or “plugging into an archetypal narrative patter-the hero’s journey” (p. 57) or using “narrative archetype-the story of David and Goliath” (p. 80) or getting people to work together, using “narrative to Get Things Done Collaboratively [since] Stories are the language of communities…” (p. 149) or using “narrative tools that would help me deal with, control, and tame the grapevine” (p. 203). The book includes 24 references to narrative tool, including: “The leader who has mastered the narrative tool kit helps high-performance teams or communities establish compelling objectives and actively shape the expectations of those who use the group’s…” (P. 156).

Denning’s (2005) book (The Leader’s Guide to storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative) tells his story of leaving World Bank to pursue a career in story consulting.

“On my return from Jonesborough, I educated myself on the principles of traditional storytelling. More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle, in his Poetics, said stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They should include complex characters as well as a plot that incorporates a reversal of fortune and a lesson learned ... (Denning, 2005: 7).

My assessment is that Denning has not moved beyond Aristotle Poetics, in applying Springboard Narratives as a model of change recipes.

Denning (2005) derives his insight to change from “Noel Tichy [who] writes about the importance of preparing an organization for change … by taking them there first in their imagination” (as cited, Denning, p. 11). Denning says, “Here is a place where storytelling, perhaps the most powerful route to people’s imagination, could prove indispensable” (p. 11). Such a change story, for Denning, “must conjure up a direction for getting there---without being too precise” (p. 11).  The second feature is for the stories to counteract more negative stories that circulate “like viruses within an organization and threatened to infect the entire body” (p. 11). Denning gives Dave Snowden of IBM credit for pointing out how negative stories circulate like a virus.  Third, Denning says “eliciting knowledge stories can be difficult, particularly for stories that involve intimate or pejorative details” (p.194), he therefore recommends Snowden’s strategy of using story as a ‘stalking horse’ to help managers indirectly understand their “counterproductive management practices” (p. 194).

Denning’s (2007) book cultivates what he calls “Narrative Intelligence Stories” (p. 43, caps original), where emotions have a narrative character (p. 44), are authentic truthfulness (p. 50), and narrative stands for different patterns of stories (p. 45).  There seems to be confusion of what is a story and what is a narrative: “…Although no single story may encompass of the many narratives that any given person can use to make sense of his or her life, some stories are larger and more…” (p. 89). Understanding stories requires narrative intelligence (p. 91).  Cultivating narrative intelligence includes ‘brand narrative’ linked to wit and characters of founders such as Herb Kelleher (122).

In sum the best selling Organization Change books, adn the Denning books on Story Change, turn Living Story into a Dead Narrative tool, a reified object that replicates managerialist and systems thinking, while promising to be complexity thinking. The result is the dominant approachs in story change consulting are neither dialectic or dialogic. What little narrative work there is is not even as complex as Aristotle (who we saw above noted the difference of narrative coherence and the plurality of story). There is a lot of nuanced narrative work out there, but it is only given lip service (listed in the references, but not in the main text). The upshot is to perpetuate the hegemony of Narrative Deadness over Living Story.

How did the Hegemony of Narrative over Story come about? Over time, since modernity, and particular with the industrial revolution, the community that nurtured story competencies died out. That is what Walter Benjamin's (1936) fantastic essay on storytelling is about. There reason storytelling competencies died out, and became just narrative order. It is because of the division of labor, the hierarchy of managerial surveillence, and the norm that management did not want people spending work time telling stories. Then came the narrative novel, the TV, and computer-information age, and all of a sudden, as if out of nowhere, story consulting began to train organizations in story competencies. Some were marketers, others swore allegiance to MIS, and hardly any were folklorist or anthropologists. Many were knowledge reengineers or consultants seeing story as a new fad, a new bandwagon, a way to recontemporalize their consulting practice.

The main point to make is BME linear, sequential, whole narrative became the basis for Story Consulting (more accurate would be to call it Narrative Consulting, finding a BME narrative to fashion the change after). Even Aristotle, however, treated narrative coherence, as unlike epic-story, which is "made up of a plurality of actions" including simultaneous episodes of diverse kinds of stories (Aristotle, 1462b, # 7: p. 265).

Recall that in Aristotle's Poetics, there are six elements: plot, character, dialogue, theme, rhythm, and spectacle. And, in that order of importance, and no other. Over the last two millennia, this ordering is reversed, and now spectacle, and complexity of rhythm are more important in real life than plot and character, but you would never know that by looking at contemporary story consulting, at the BME narrative tool resurrected from Aristotle’s grave, and sold like it was brand spanking new.

Let me restart this introduction and make five assumptions based on the work of Abbott (1988) who has assessed the full extent to which linear thinking dominates social science. I will translate his assumptions into the language of story and narrative.

·       Stories are not always or usually fixed BME entities. Stories never end, have no beginning, take off in the middle, refer to other stories.

·       Stories are not always or usually monotonic causal BME depictions, because the complexity patterns of storytelling are anything but linear.

·       Stories are not always or usually univocal and are more likely to be polyphonic in meaning

·       Story sequence effects are not always or usually BME, but as in the play called Tamara a networking of fragmented storylisteners (audience turned from passive spectator to active participant in Being) in search of many Bs, many Ms, and many Es.

·       Storytellers are not always, or usually independent, and do answer other storytellers with competencies surviving in storytelling community.

Tamara, is a play written by John Kriznac, one where there are no seats for the audience, and on about 10 stages (rooms), the actors gather, split off, go to other rooms, and are chased by a fragmenting, networking audience, trying to sense-make what is going on. It is to me the absolutely epitome of what is wrong with story consulting. It is the basis of how my theory of Storytelling Organization in 1995 (See Boje Academy of Management Journal article).

In the most recent work I am doing (the 2008 Sage book, Storytelling Organizaiton), I look at a dialectic and a dialogic interplay of story and narrative. This allows me to theorize multiple ways of sensemaking that interact. Here is a list of eight ways of story sensemaking:

Table 1: Key Types of Sensemaking Stories and Narratives (adapted Boje, 2008, introduction)

1.     Ante = Antenarrative is bet and a pre-story, and is about dynamics of change; antenarratives can be clustering of fragments or transformation of one sensemaking into another

2.     BME = Beginning, Middle and End progressive sequencing of retrospective five-senses wholeness imposed coherency

§       Yin and Yang of Tao = idea that managerial control does not exist without the uncontrollable, which tends to be narrative hegemonic control over story

3.     Emotive-Ethical = embodied memory that provokes present ethical inquiry, and answerability

4.     Fragmentation = narrative fragments that are terse, interrupted, nonlinear and moving, rearranging

5.     Horsesense = The embodied telling and listening in the social moment of answering

6.     Polypi = dialogism of four types of dialogisms:

1.     P = Polyphonic dialogism of multiple voices in interactive moment of the event horizon

2.     S = Stylistic dialogism of types of telling (orality, textuality & visuality) that juxtapose

3.     C = Chronotopic dialogism of varied ways of narrating temporality and spatiality that interplay

4.     A = Architectonic dialogism, the interanimation vibrations of cognitive, aesthetic, and ethical social or societal discourses

7.     Tamara = landscape of spacetime distribution of rooms or hallways in which storytelling and narrating is moving; Narrative meaning depends upon what rooms you have been to, or not, & what was enacted therein, and where your experience is in the present.

8.     Dialectics = Diversity of transcendental of a priori conceptions of spatiality and temporality (see chronotope) to retrospective sensory (see BME), and/or I-we, even Hegelian dialectics (thesis, antithesis, synthesis); can be debate among fragment tellers, but is always about tracing transformations across the social field of Being

Story consulting, most of it, to be specific, does not understand complexity and its fundamental relation to storytelling. BME is evidence of that. The story consulting methods assume such narrative coherence, and an ease of story control by executive elites, and there is no real appreciation of story sensemaking or story complexity.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel develops a dialectic approach that was modified by Karl Marx to form the basis of Critical Theory.  Why Hegel

Hegel’s work, for us, is a mix of existentialism, of nothingness and sense-certainty in a historical project. Essential to Hegel’s existential project are two negations. First, a negation that negates the former, changing independent elements into a moment. Second, a negation that is the reversal of direction, making the vanished negation possible.

Hegel makes a yet unnoticed contribution to Weickian sensemaking.  Hegel’s ongoing dialectic is between three varieties of sensemaking in several Notional shadows:

1.     Sense-certainty – where representation is dialectically flawed unless it addresses the inadequacy of appearance. For Hegel, sense-certainty is a kind of knowledge that proves to be the “most abstract and poorest truth” (p. 58).  One begins to notice the negation of sense-certainty in instances of countless difference, that there is this ‘Now’ and other ‘Nows’, this ‘Here, and other ‘Heres’ (p. 60). A Now and Here proves to be what something contrary to its sensuous content.  “In the dialectic of sense-certainty, Seeing and Hearing have been lost to consciousness” (p. 79, caps, original).

2.     Perception – also dialectically-flawed when properties are distinguished, without discerning their mysterious integration by conscious mind (gestalt). Perception does not just happen; there is an “Act of perceiving” (p. 67, cap & italics, original). Perception is a constant negation, between Act of perceiving, and act of Negation. Some properties are positive and others negative, and these interpenetrate (p. 68). We fill in the blanks, such as, a grain of salt having color, taste, form, and gravity (any element missing, gets filled in, as a missing property in a community of properties (perceived self-identity of elements we accept responsibility to assemble).

3.     Understanding – also dialectically-flawed when patters are not assessed to discern underlying laws. But instead of one universal, for Hegel there is a “plurality of the diverse universals” of the kind of being-for-self and being-for-another (p. 80, italics, original). The unity of a universal is opposed by another moment in which there is a plurality of universals. “Understanding, looks through this mediating play of forces into the true background of Things” (p. 86, italics, caps, original).

For Hegel sense-certainty, perception, and understanding are different, and each can be deceptive. In the distinction Hegel makes of form and content, one emerges as the limits of the other. The unity of form unfolds into its diversity. The diversity of content reduces itself to unity. These may be looked upon as force and counterforce of change, as two moments of understanding. These are not considered by Hegel to be independent forces, but forces that interpenetrate, and their result is a process of movement, i.e. the inner being of change (p. 84). The succession of expression of narrative and story, is not just epistemology, their dance establishes something quite ontological. Differences of story (sides) come into being and vanish, sometimes leaving few traces.  Narratives are intertextual, answering and posing questions (that other narrative answer). There is for Hegel a diremption (a tearing apart or violent separation) of the forces of form and content, through a process of movement and change.  It is the Notions of Force that interpenetration in the opposition of for-self, and for-another, as well as Understanding as a unity becoming diversity and diversity becoming unity, in the moment by moment of unfoldment. And, these can be at the same time, with the two Forces present.

Instead of the antithesis remaining entirely and essentially only a moment, it seems, by its self-diremption into two wholly independent forces, to have withdrawn from the controlling unity (p. 84).

I shall assert that highly popular, even best-selling models of organization change are vanishing the story flux of difference in order to implement linear sequential step-by-step models of change, or models of change which simply banish the flux of story differences (the many sides to story in relation to other stories), while promoting managerialist narratives of positivity (defined as positive thinking), or narratives of extreme order.  Our theory of flux, sameness and difference, comes from Hegel.

It is this very flux, as a self-identical independence which is itself an enduring existence, in which, therefore, they are present as distinct members and parts existing on their own account. Being no longer has the significance of abstract being, nor has their pure essentiality the significance of abstract universality; on the contrary, there being is precisely that simple fluid substance of pure movement within itself (Hegel, 1807/1977: 107).

Indeed, in all three, despite guru-genuflections to complexity, social construction, and even ‘positive’ revolution, there is something quite linear, monological, and one-sided about these ‘story change consulting’ approaches. In n-step change methodologies such as John Kotter’s, the narrative account of change is a sequence of linear steps. David Cooperrider’s Appreciative Inquiry is a Positivity Narrative brought into being by acts of appreciative interviewing, and appreciative summits, where all negative (& critical) thinking is vanished.  Steven Denning’s brands a Springboard Narrative abstraction as the thesis of change method, to which, in our view, the flux of Living Story differences and movement becomes the antithesis.

For Hegel these can be in alternating moments, or interpenetrate at one time, in the dialectic interplay of being-for-self and being-for-another.

And this view of change is quite existential, almost a prelude to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. When story becomes narrative, it not longer is, since story has become the other: “what each thus is it immediately no longer is, since it is the other” (Hegel, p. 86). Story and narrative, then, are each only a moment of the expression of change.

A Now and Here is not superceded. We are aware, somewhat, of the plurality of Nows and Heres.  The expelled content of story in narrative forms of abstraction, are noticeable. A previous re-presentation of a narrative in the now and here, owes its way of know to a vanishing of the disappeared narrative. As Hegel puts it, “we ourselves directly refute what we mean to say” in sense-certainty (p. 60). It is just not possible for us to every say, or express in narrative or story, the sensuous being that we mean.

Change from a dialectic view is nothing more than a history of the plurality of Nows and Heres. Narrative expresses the most abstract generalities of the sameness of our experience of this plurality, where as story sees distinctions of this Here versus other Heres, and this Now and other Nows.  In both narrative and story, some things are not narratable, not yet storyable. “The sensuous This that is meant cannot be reach by language” (p. 66, caps in original).

Applied to narrative and story, narrative negates and opposes story, and story negates and opposes narrative. Narrative and story grow out of one another. Further stories are not indifferent to other stories, and narrative is not indifferent to other narratives, to counterstories and to counternarratives. Narrative scripts sameness, and story pursues difference, and as such are opposite change movements.

Narrative is in a life and death struggle with story. Narrativists seek to reduce story, to strip it of differences and sides, to become a limited narrative repertoire. Story struggles to expand narrative, to include more differences, more sides. The clash between the contingent immediacy in Being of story and the abstraction universal aim of narrative is a self-organizing dialectic dynamic of change, all but ignored by the ‘story change consulting’ gurus.  As such, guru consulting decreases the depth of intimacy, while increasing estrangement or alienation from the flux of change.


It is time for story-consulting practice to transcend what Abbott (1988) calls GLR (General Linear Reality) models, which I prefer to call BME.  GLR is defined as a “set of assumptions about how and why social events occurs” and these assumptions prevent seeing anything but BME everywhere (Abbott, 1988: 169). Story consultants (most of the ones that are published in the popular book press) treat organizations as if they obeyed the rules and assumptions of GLR/BME:

·       Stories are fixed BME entities (I disagree). Stories never end, never begin.

·       Stories have one BME causal meaning at a time (I disagree)

·       Stories are univocal BME meaning (I disagree). Stories are polyvocal meaning

·       Stories to BME is chronology (I disagree). Story does not depend upon past sequence of story history. Story can jump out of time and into the above and below, the transcendental and the reflexivity of why we are here, why we are who we are.

·       BME stories are collectable, addable, sortable, and totalizable because storytellers are independent of one another (I disagree). We live in a web of stories, without end. To collect one like a dead butterfly, is to kill story, to destroy the fabric of inter-story relationships, and destroy their dynamic complexity quality.

Having made this introduction let me give you Abbott (1988) original version of GLR assumptions:

·       Fixed entities with attributes

·       Monotonic causal flows

·       Univocal meaning

·       Absence of sequence effects

·       Casewise independence

Story consulting, by my estimation, is a strange rendition, pretending to be about story complexity of Storytelling Organization reality, but achieving tired old systems thinking that is unitary, monological, linear, and dangerous.  BME narrative, be it from Aristotle or contemporary story consultant, has no warrant to be a model of social complexity or social causality which is far from linear, not whole story to be found, and where story sequence history really does matter.  GLR combines with BME to be a powerful managerialist tool to ignore, and deny the realities of complexity.

Recursive Story Problematization

Recursive Story - processes which can be indefinitely repeatedly applied to their own output, as in BME. Two instances of the same entity, as in "recursive design of BME narrative. A recursive story is one that defines temporality partitions as a BME, which while administratively useful, is something quite horrific. Why? It leads to a linear reduction of all reality into the BME template. A recursive BME narrative inducts all manner of story sensemaking into the one definition of properly told tale. The recursive narrative BME pattern is thought to repeat itself, like a copy on a copy machine.

The modeling of social processes into BME narrative coherence has a certain story-sellability to the executive seeking control, especially story control. Story control into a linear, singular, and totalized whole BME is quite an attractive option to many different Bs (B1, B2, Bn), many different Ms (M1, M2, Mn), or many Es (E1, E2, En) or the horrific (B0, M0, E0). GLR can handle few substitutions for the singular, whole BME, and resists to the death that there is any polyphony (Bn, Mn, En), or the nothingness of (B0, M0, E0). I mean the factorial effect of just a few storytellers in many simultaneous Tamara rooms is quite astronomical to calculate!

Let us take the problematic assumptions of BME/GLR recursivity one by one.


BME denotes on way of thinking about what storytelling complexity is, and how it works in real life organizations. It’s all linear, done in storied wholes.  GLR is modeled empirically or if your prefer, quantitatively by this equation

y = Xb + u

Where y, b and u are vectors and ‘X’ is a matrix of now dimensions in which the rows in SPSS or SAS are usually cases, and the columns either independent or dependent variables (attributes).

In BME antecedent B variables are moderated by M variables to produce results in E variables. The dream of quantiods (a species who loves to quantify) is to render every social phenomenon as a linear equation. The passion of every BME narrative consultant is to teach executives two minute BME stories to story-control their social milieu, be it strategy story to consumer, a story why workers are so darn lazy, or a story of why executives deserve their pay.  GLR makes assumptions about causality that are quite unreasonable.  X(t) = X(t+1) b + u. Variables are embedded in BME time as unique entities report out on time. GLR underlie most panel and focus group studies of BME story, most interview story studies (with possible exception of life history, & phenomenological interview). The construction of an X matrix of storytellers (rows) and stories (columns) is what N-Vivo (formerly NUD*IST, before Google told them they are being picked up as X-rated spam sites). BME story is being overlaid upon the story complexity. The narrative as told by story consultant, or as Abbott (1988: 170) puts it, the GLR modeler, envisions “the situation as a school of fish (the cases) swimming in some regular pattern (the transformation) through a multidimensional lake (the variable or attribute space).” The transformation is imagined to be a simple BME linear one where stories are fixed entities (where story or narrative is the unit of analysis).  The fixed BME narrative units are collected, categorized, and assembled in the X matrix for theme analysis, and if you are a classic folklorist, for motif index classification. Story units are said to have attributes (variables of Poetic form). Story units are said to interact in causal time allow for control of the organization and its environment in story strategy. Story units are said to mean the same thing (to the horror of anthropologists) as they migrate from group to group in an organization, or from organization to environment (or vice versa). The causal meaning (always linear) of a story entity is said to depend on the location in the X matrix of attribute space (its variable content), since without it linear transformation would not make any sense at all.

The meaning of this is quite startling. It means that a story does not change in transmission. It can be tersely told, but the whole story is in the mind of the teller and listener. It means there can be no narrative history to a story entity, since the story is not changing, rearranging, or morphing at all. Symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists, anthropologists, and a good number of behavioral folklorists and everyone, I hope from communication studies is now saying, it cannot be so. I can only respond that to story consulting, BME is a very convincing narrative structure. When combined with this first assumption of GLR it is quite irresistible.

Now this brings me to this book, “LIVING Story Consulting.”

It is based upon critical postmodern, a combination (intersection) of Critical Theory and postmodern theory. Critical Theory (CT) is capitalized out of respect for the Frankfurt School, and its pioneers  Max Horkheimer, Thodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and some women they never seem to mention (See intro to a new book I edited, coming out in 2008, Critical Theory Ethics for Business and Public Administration). Yes, I skipped Habermas on purpose.

BME is good for something! Postmodern theory is never capitalized (Postmodern Theory) because it is in such disrepute, so many different brands of it, including some that adore BME, that well it’s just not done.  Postmodern narrative, plays with form, disrupts the traditional Arisotle BME form by juxtaposing many forms, many plot lines, many cubic lines. My brand of postmodern theory thinks that temporality and spatiality matter, and that stories are rarely linear, and when they are, put your hand on your wallet, because some narrative consulting is about to steal you blind.

CT reforms Marx and Weber, doing something different with Marxian dialectic causality and Weberian hermeneutic causality, especially when it comes to their “approach [to] social causality in terms of stories” being an alternative to the X variable matrix (Abbott, 1988: 171).  I think Abbott is right on when he demands more “complex stories in which attributes interact in unique ways” (p. 171). Story consulting based upon GLR philosophy is very rejecting of historical sociology, and in particular rejects the complex story, and everything we know about complexity science (which is not all that much).

Let me summarize our problems with the GLR model of BME narrative. The central subject of BME narrative in story consulting is the adventures of a few executives doing very few relevant events. Story entities are not fixed, and their attributes do change over time, so that BME is hardly an adequate caricature of social reality. Stories are not stable units with fixed social boundaries of temporal demarcation of temporal duration (what Bergson calls dureé). Organizing organization history into a BME linear narrative about a few central subjects (usually executives) in a plot of grand adventure, is only one sequence of events, one transformation, of many much more likely (Bn, Mn, En), including some with (B0, M0, E0). It is what Abbott (1988: 171) would call “colligation” the connection of isolated elements/attributes/entities by some strange narrative hypothesis, of which BME is all about linearity. This is a fundamental problem in historiography, and why Nietzsche invented genealogy which Foucault and Adorno, and most of CT (not Habermas) employs, and why I am a critical postmodernist story consultant.

Take as example in strategy that invention of Alfred Chandler’s historiography, the multidivisional form (MDF).  At any given moment the MDF is an entity with clear boundaries, a number of unambiguous attributes (size, rate of assets and their specificity, domination by certain kinds of executives, business units centralized yet having relative autonomy to adapt to different environments, etc.). Chandler’s X matrix is how he assembles his cases as rows and his variables (attributes) as columns to generalize MDF.  MDF strategy comes and goes, shaped by interfirm contagion and events like the factory for producing automobiles, the mall, and new technologies of chemical production. In open system thinking “the histories of individual firms will be seen to follow unique paths shaped by the contingencies of their environments” (Abbott, 1988: 171). And there you are, the BME strategy of MDF is one more contingency theory, and open system stuck in the input, throughput, output model, unable to adapt itself to complexity thinking. Just stuck! GLR of fixed entities has several flaws, errors of thinking. MDF become historically exaggeration of events, involving Pierre Dupont and William Crapo Durant, and other family tycoons, central subjects doing transformation from divisional to MDF forms, in a linear model of BME approach to narrative strategy.

MDF can emerge through merger and acquisition, “yet merger removes entities from the sample and replaces them with new one” with different names or different colligation with same name (p. 172). The X matrix (sample frame) falls apart, self-constructs  Demography does no better than MDF in trying to get outside GLR/BME. Look at the strategy discipline of population ecology, its love affair with demography, at the Stanford University. Population ecology models of have trouble knowing what to do with entities such as MDF that do not stay the same, that arise out of merger and acquisition, instead of birth and death in population domains.  Organization death is the usual dependent variable and “using a log-linear group of independent variables to predict them” the deaths (Abbott, 1988: 172). The problem is that people, entire processes, and units (divisions) are migrating from one demographic domain to another.  None of the organizations stay the same, but the BME strategy narrative lives on. The entities become radically different, in complexity terms, from the emergence of small changes. The espoused story of MDF or population ecology (& demography) fails to account for the enacted, living story (variability) of living participants, moving from cohort to cohort, thoroughly messing up the X matrix. 

BME as we shall explore in subsequent chapters is collective memory, of particular group (executives & their consultants) manufactured to ignore all collective memories of every other group (Halbwachs, 1950/1980). A genealogical method (see subsequent chapter) instead of historiography as some BME narrative concoction would get at this.


The monotonic, monologic, monovocal ‘causal flows’ is our second GLR/BME assumption.  In GLR terms it asserts, “causality flows either from big to small (from the contextual to the specific) or between attributes of equivalent ‘size’” (Abbott, 1988: 173).

In complexity science, a cause can flow from small to large, a minor attribute can prompt a major transformation, and instead of linear transformation there is emergence of pattern out of chaos (a pattern we may false interpret as noise). Open system theory, unlike complexity theory, makes assumptions about the constant relevance of variables at all times during a transformation of inputs into outputs, according to some deviation-amplifying or deviation-counteracting feedback loops (hopefully passing through some registration of the environment). 

For my mentor Mikhail Bakhtin (1987, 1990, 1991) such a theory is pretty absurd. Historical BME writing is one chronotope, and there are many others.  Chronotope is relativity of space and time in storytelling (particularly novels), in celebration of Einstein physics. Complexity science as some genealogy (not historiography) says “at ‘time t, x was important, while later, the conjuncture of things made y more important” (Abbott, 1988: 178).

3. Stories do not have one BME causal meaning at a time

Story consulting too readily turns all stroy experience into BME. This happens because often all story is asusmed to be BME. It happens becasue when interviewing, researchers or consultants, lead the subject into telling what happened at the origin, what when on in the middle, and what is the ending. You get what you ask for. Causal processes are not all that connected. We start in the middle. We do not often know any origin, just a swirl of forces of emergence, that we render into sense, impose some sense upon.

4. Stories are not univocal BME meaning, not polyvocal meaning

Polyvocal means many storytellers are plying meaning to events.

5. Stories do not always depend upon past sequence of story history that are BME

History can be a distortion of the events, making them seem like BME when they are not. The attributions of general linear realtiy model is very strong in our culuture.

6. BME stories that are collectable, addable, sortable, and totalizable only because storytellers are independent of one another

BME is easy to impose, easy to collect, too easy to assume because they are so easy to totalize. Yet, complexity science and more advanced story methods looks for patterns that just do not fit BME.

BME can be useful. A simple story does sell (there is storyselling as my colleagues Cheryl Lapp and Adrian Carr, term it). We can become tools of a simple narrative, called story. We become branded by narrative. Those of you who have been through the latest consulting craze, 'branding' know what I mean. However, to get at the process of complexity, a more complex understand of story process is needed.


The best-seller market caters to simplistic theories of change. Kotter's (et al) appeal is that it is anti-theory, anti-analysis, and anti-intellectual. Cooperrider (et al) is more scholarly, but seeks to limit inquiry to the positive side of analysis. Denning is charismatic, folding dead narratives into seductive tales of how to install change linearity, using narrative to manipulate change, to deaden story. None of these books draw upon narrative theory in any rigorous way. None of them lead an organization from systems thinking, from closed thinking, to open systems, and much less to complexity.

This book will never be a best seller because it uses words like dialogic and dialectic, develops philosophy, is all about complexity dynamics. That will never sell in a world bent on linear thinking!


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