Your Stories: See the Simple in the Complex

We swim in a sea of noise. Images, words, sounds, and stories bombard us. Marketing tries to seduce us on city busses, bill boards, and buildings. News jumps from the black and white local newspapers. The 24-hour, almost unlimited, channels bring us news, shopping, stories, sports, and everything in between. Music, news, and talk radio keep us company wherever we go.

In the midst of all that, we have our own stories to tell. We have important stories we need to hear. But how can our stories compete with all the noise? We need compelling narratives to capture the imagination and reveal deeper meaning, so ours stand out from the noise. We need to be prepared to understand the deeper meaning in the stories we hear. How can we sift through the noise to find the compelling stories of our time? How can we create narratives to capture the attention and imagination of others? 

Miles and miles of text have been written to answer those questions, but it’s simpler than that. Maybe the simple answer lies in the ways we reveal and explore the complexity that is inherent in human existence. Perhaps, that is what sets great books apart from the merely good ones. Has Saturday Night Live remained popular after more than 40 years because it captures the complexity of life in simple stories? Do the great speeches in history get remembered because they provide a touchpoint for clarity, while they also reveal the complexity of life?

Maybe these classic stories and tales are remembered because each narrative, in its own way, points to complexities that are common to us all. While they point to the complexity, the narratives help us find simplicity—through humor, pathos, or poetry. They show us how their story is like our own. As we identify our own questions, challenges, and celebrations in the stories of others, we recognize we are not alone in the world. We may even be compelled to action.

Human systems dynamics (HSD) helps us see patterns around us, make sense of those patterns, and then move into our next wise actions. We can use what we know about human systems to make sense of the deepest meanings of the narratives that tell our stories. Consider the following examples and see how HSD offers a path to understanding and action through the complexity the author has described.

  • Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
    Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England during the second World War, spoke these words in August of 1940. In just one sentence he 1) honors the sacrifices and efforts of the British military, reminding us of sacrifices that were made to protect others and preserve a way of life (What?). Next, he points to what that means to the lives of those who were being protected (So what?). Finally, without making specific suggestions, he opens the door for individuals to find their own ways to express gratitude (Now what?).
    (In HSD, we have a name for that iterative cycle of seeing, making sense of what is seen, and taking action, based on what we see in the story. We call that cycle Adaptive Action.)
  • “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.”
    Madeleine Albright, American politician and diplomat, learned to generate a voice that others would listen to. She has used her voice around the world to advance the principles of democracy. People hear her compelling messages because she reflected our own frustration in the struggle to be heard. She is able to draw us into a shared space of inquiry and understanding.
    (In HSD, we call that Generative Engagement, creating patterns of reciprocal, authentic engagement that contribute to justice at all levels.)
  • “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
    Nelson Mandela, activist and former president of South Africa, took an idea as complex and seemingly impossible as changing the world. He focused on that idea to create a clarity about the essential experience that makes global change possible. His quote cuts through and shines a light on an answer that almost all readers have experienced—some form of education. Those who hear this statement can recognize that they, too, can change the world. At the same time, they can also recognize their role in ensuring education to all to prepare them to change the world, as well.
    (In HSD, we say a statement like that points to or declares a “difference that makes a difference.” Difference is one of the conditions that shape patterns. In this case, for instance, education is the difference that helps to shape patterns of creativity and change.)
  • “When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves.”
    Viktor E. Frankl, twentieth-century philosopher and survivor of Nazi concentration camps shows how we all bump up against complex challenges that leave us feeling helpless and hopeless. In the same breath, he gives us another option. That option is to find a way to change ourselves, building resilience as we adapt to the challenge we face.
    (In HSD, we talk about Adaptive Capacity as the ability to shift and adapt in the face of complex situations that may constrain us from action. Because we have adaptive capacity, we do believe that nothing is intractable.)
  • “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
    Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat, activist and wife of the US president from 1933-1945, understood the power of memory and imagination in navigating complex human systems. She knew that people who believe in their dreams experience tension that emerges between the present and their desired future. She reminds us that we can create the future we want if we believe in our dreams.
    (In HSD, we talk about tension that emerges where we realize the difference between where we are and where we dream of being. That tension acts as a driving force that moves human systems forward.)

What can we learn about creating powerful narratives that help us capture the imaginations and intentions of our readers and our listeners? In organizations and communities, we create stories to help shape the culture we want. We use narratives that help people both understand the need for change and understand their roles in that change. We search for the best narratives to market our goods and services. We struggle to be heard above the din in this sea of words.

We can, in fact, find ways to leverage the complexity that is common across human systems. We can build on what we understand about the patterns we share. We can use the Adaptive Action cycle to build the arc that turns our individual stories into one coherent narrative. We can step into the complexity of reality to explore patterns and tensions that create our stories.

Royce Holladay

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