Tell the Bigger Story

Going beyond the surface of a story allows us to see more deeply into our shared humanity. The complexity of who we as individuals is greater than the ideas that threaten to divide us, HSD offers models and methods that  can help us step past the intractable polarity in today’s questions to find shared action.

Recently my friend and colleague, Mary Nations, shared a blog post from the Solutions Journalism Network. In “Complicating the Narratives,” author Amanda Ripley offers a perspective that can be helpful to those of us who explore complexity in human systems. In her post, Ms. Ripley talks about the need for journalists to write about controversial issues in new ways to reveal how “humans actually behave when they are polarized and suspicious.” The general arc of a story is no longer enough. Ms. Ripley’s blog and the research she cites argue for exploring the underlying dynamics of today’s conflicted and polarized landscape. She writes that this is how journalists can best share these complex narratives.

This post made me think about what HSD offers this conversation about shifting narratives. What can HSD add to create richer, more informative storytelling? Can we tell the story of what we see in ways that help our clients and communities see into the realities they face? Can we share our narratives in ways that ultimately lead to more effective solutions?

In HSD we use the Adaptive Action iterative cycle of What?, So what?, and Now what? as a framework for sharing the arc of a story. Ms. Ripley’s blog post offers deeper insights into ways HSD can help shape new narratives even more explicitly.

  • What? See the story as a flow of patterns to be understood, rather than as a series of problems to be solved.
  • So what? Go beyond describing the conflict into explaining dynamics that shape the complexity.
  • Now what? Tell the story in such a way that it moves the reader toward possible solutions.

Let’s briefly explore each of these ideas.


See the story as a flow of patterns to be understood, rather than as a series of problems to be solved. The complexity in a story emerges from the interactions of multiple forces. Those forces increase the number of differences to be understood. The forces also blur the lines of cause and effect. In a complex story, each actor brings his or her own perspective. To understand the complete story, you need a broader view that encompasses each actor’s story. When you tell the story by describing only individual stories or problems, you lose the richness of the complexity. The reader remains stuck in the mire of a seemingly intractable challenge.

On the other hand, you can step back and look at the patterns across the individual stories. When you do, your narrative can paint a picture that reveals those underlying dynamics. In uncovering the deeper complexity, you find what is similar across all the actors. You can explore differences that really matter across the larger story. You are able to name tensions that shape those patterns. You begin to identify constraints that influence the larger story.

We work with a client organization that is over 150 years old. It provides social services to youth and children. We have spent time helping them explore their own patterns and to look for the complexity in their system. They are implementing a new model of care. It is designed to help them see, understand, and influence patterns of behavior that result from personal  historical trauma. When they can see those patterns they can respond to the underlying trauma, rather than the current acting out. This organization is changing how they see and understand patterns of behavior and response rather than disconnected incidents among their clients.

So what?

Go beyond describing the conflict into explaining dynamics that shape the complexity. In the So what? phase of the Adaptive Action cycle, the focus is on making sense of the patterns you have identified. HSD models and methods help you describe what you see in ways that point to underlying dynamics. This space is not large enough to list how each does model/method does that, but here are four I find most useful:

  • The Landscape Diagram points to how system constraints in any given situation contribute to the tension that shapes a complex conflict or challenge.
  • Interdependent Pairs shows diametrically opposed positions as two ends of a single continuum. In looking at those continua, you see that most people are not stuck at the polar ends all the time. This helps you see sets of differences as more than “either/or” proposition. The difference is generative, so you can move toward a new and different answer, rather than toward compromise. You can look for a place where both parties can stand together.
  •  Four Truths clarifies the ways people see the world. It helps you consider whether an individual’s position is based on empirical data, personal beliefs, or shared perspectives. That understanding can help opposing sides look for some common ground without demonizing the other.
  • The Decision Map reflects three factors that shape an individual’s or team’s decisions and actions. When opposing sides have a better understanding of those factors for themselves and for others, you can open dialogue about finding a different path together.

These models and methods provide a way to make sense of underlying dynamics that shape the complexity in your story. They help you describe the complexity in your narrative, but they don’t make the complexity go away!

We work with healthcare organizations that use different models and methods to understand and talk about their most intractable challenges. The clients use them to explore the challenges of working across silos that are formed by issues such as organizational structures, background and experiences, formal training, and professional perspective. These clients look for ways to explain their challenges in balancing quality of care against increasing costs, so that legislators and funders can understand the complexity of those decisions. They work with communities to identify the deepest levels of what it means to provide “patient-centered” care and “community-based” care. These models and methods enrich their narrative in those conversations.

Now what?

Tell the story in such a way that it moves the reader toward the next wise action. In HSD when we look at patterns, we can find ways to influence those patterns to reduce tensions or change constraints. We understand the complexity of a situation in ways that help us take informed action. That’s why the models and methods are so important. Each model helps you “see” a deeper reality about your challenge. At the same time, it points to specific leverage points that you can use to move forward.

In our narratives about complex challenges or conflicts, we find that unbraiding the complexity can help others see a possible path for moving forward. When we share a compelling story about the factors that shape their complexity, we help our clients see a way to untangle the complexity that makes their challenges so intractable. Each narrative opens a door to possible wise action.

One of our clients is a large government agency that serves a widely dispersed, highly diverse population. Under a new administration and in current 21st century constraints, they recognize a need to build strong leadership across the whole organization. They want to establish a culture that will carry them forward inside the current initiatives and expectations. Like any human system, they were challenged by attempts to change their culture in this way. We conducted a series of interviews, and fed the information back to them as narrative of the complexity we saw. They are now able to see a path forward. Independently and in consultation, they use Adaptive Action and the HSD-based models and methods to find the next wise actions in their multiple complex challenges.

I sometimes forget the power of narrative. Ms. Ripley has opened another door that allows me to go even more deeply into this exploration. Opening the complexity to conversation and exploration informs individual and group decision and action. Ms. Ripley’s blog post shines a light on how that complexity can establish a much more true and useful conversation and narrative that moves us beyond the polar intractability that keeps us stuck. Thanks Ms. Ripley and to Mary Nations for sharing the link with me!

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