Story Thinking - Book review
1 September 2021
Dr. Moria Levy
"Story Thinking: Transforming Organizations for the Fourth Industrial Revolution" is a captivating book authored by John Lewis, a social organizational psychologist specializing in knowledge management. Published in 2019, the book presents Lewis' teachings and introduces his developed model, Story Thinking. This model is designed to foster problem-solving processes, change management, learning, leadership, and development within organizations. The book offers intriguing insights and various applications of the Story Thinking model.
The book covers the following topics:
- The Story Thinking Model
- Development of the organization based on the Story Thinking model
- Changing perceptions of thinking
- Continuous improvement
- Learning through feedback
- Policy formulation
Initially, I had some reservations about reading the book due to the term "story," which led me to expect a different topic. However, knowing the author personally, I decided to give it a chance. To my pleasant surprise, the book exceeded my expectations and provided a holistic perspective on organizations and their behavior. It delves into various applications, including the education sector, while summarizing key concepts and omitting examples. I highly recommend investing time in reading this book.
P.S. The book includes an appendix discussing the implications of the Story Thinking model on 30 recognized management models.
The Story Thinking Model
The concept behind the Story Thinking Model revolves around the resemblance between a story and our thought processes. Just as a story unfolds with a life situation, develops a plot that we explore, resolve, and eventually return to an improved routine, our thinking follows a similar progression. The model consists of six stages:
1. Automation: This stage marks the beginning and end of the cycle, representing the work routine.
2. Disruption: It encompasses unexpected events or opportunities that deviate from the norm.
3. Inquiry: Asking pertinent questions becomes crucial during this stage, enabling effective discovery and guiding action.
4. Ideas: This stage involves exploring different courses of action and posing "what if" questions to stimulate innovative thinking. It culminates in identifying a desired direction and developing an action plan.
5. Expectations: Progress is made from a conceptual action plan to tangible deliverables and solutions.
6. Confirmation: The solution is tested to assess its effectiveness in meeting the identified need. Sometimes, this stage prompts a revisit to expectations, ideas, or further exploration. Ultimately, the cycle concludes by returning to an enhanced routine.
It is worth considering that in life, there are instances where the lower semicircle of the cycle is fulfilled—automation, disruption, and confirmation enable a return to the status quo without significant change. The key lies in striking a balance between these two types of progress, aligning with the dual systems described by Kahneman in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" (System 1 - Lower Semicircle; System 2 - Full Circle). This summary captures the essence of the book. - M.L.
Development of the organization based on the Story Thinking model
Changing perceptions of thinking
Upon closer examination of the Story Thinking model, it becomes evident that there are three distinct categories of actions:
1. Reactivity: This category encompasses automation and interference. In these situations, individuals do not initiate actions but instead react to circumstances that arise.
2. Questioning: Inquiry and ideas are the actions associated with this category. Questions are posed to understand and analyze the disorder, opportunity, or situation or propose potential guidelines.
3. Reflections: Expectations and confirmation are the primary actions within this category. Here, the focus lies on examining the direction of movement and finding a suitable solution.
Lewis introduces a common organizational concept in which individuals perceive actions through the binary lens of being either an employee or a non-employee. However, based on the model and these action categories, Lewis proposes expanding the concept to encompass three possibilities:
• Works: This corresponds to the stages of confirmation and automation.
• Can work: This pertains to the stages of ideas and expectations.
• Will not work: This applies to the stages of interference and investigation.
The semantics employed in this context plays a crucial role. "Can work" represents a mental state that Lewis argues is achievable. It allows for confidence in embracing changes and motivating the organization, moving beyond the constraints of traditional "employee" situations. Similarly, "will not work" diverges from the conventional notion of "not working." The underlying idea behind this shift lies in acknowledging that even if certain situations continue to function effectively, we must recognize that they will not remain viable indefinitely. They are no longer suitable for our needs, and it becomes our responsibility to initiate the necessary change.
Another intriguing point emphasized by Lewis is the inherent tension between the opposing pairs within the model: affirmation-inquiry, automation-ideas, and disruption-expectations. Each team contrasts the present reality and potential future reality. Maintaining a healthy emotional tension allows us to acknowledge the truthfulness of the present while actively seeking a more promising truth for the future through the complementary phase.
The proposed methodological implementation of the continuous improvement process is based on the model described above and consists of the following steps:
1. Identification of opportunities (interference): Lewis introduces ten problem prototypes that, when addressed effectively, can be transformed into opportunities. These prototypes encompass various challenges such as emergencies, risks, downsizing in business, audits, and more. Each problem is presented with its corresponding potential for opportunity.
2. Gaps analysis (investigation): Lewis suggests several comprehensive gap analysis approaches. These approaches include:
a) Maintaining a positive perspective on the given situation, even when faced with problems, and viewing them as opportunities for improvement.
b) Conducting a gap analysis that considers a combination of causes and factors rather than solely focusing on a single primary reason.
c) Incorporating a benchmark-based outlook from others into your aspirations.
3. Solution prediction (ideas): Lewis provides a tool for implementing solutions by examining the components and connections between them in this phase. The objective is to explore how these components can be implemented and combined to achieve the desired result and make a significant leap forward.
4. Solution development (expectations): Lewis offers a step-by-step approach to advance solution development from the conceptual stage to production. It is important to note that solutions are cyclical, each serving as an intermediate step toward the next improvement.
5. Evaluation of truthfulness (confirmation): At the confirmation stage, where we believe that the developed solution works, Lewis advises being mindful of both types of errors: instances where we perceive a problem that doesn't exist and cases in which we assume everything is functioning smoothly while an underlying issue remains hidden. Additionally, Lewis suggests considering which stage should be revisited (ignored, expectations, ideas, or questioned) if confirmation challenges our initial beliefs.
6. Maintenance of the existing (automation): Lewis presents a model for maintaining and enhancing existing skills through six phases. These phases begin with eliminating elements that are no longer required, followed by the automation of operations, simplification, strengthening motivation, providing support, offering assistance, training, and education.
By following these steps, organizations can implement continuous improvement practices and foster ongoing growth and development.
Learning through feedback
Learning through feedback is an integral part of the continuous improvement process. It operates in parallel with the confirmation phase of the story thinking model, serving as a reverse measurement along the model's axis. Feedback, in its expanded concept known as quad-loop learning, encompasses four distinct levels:
1. Feedback Compatibility with the existing situation: This level of feedback focuses on ensuring compatibility and alignment with existing processes. It addresses whether the current approach is practical and asks, "Isn't that so?" Considerations include behaviors, coding practices, discipline, potential distractions, emotional factors, and verifiable facts.
2. Constructive Feedback: This level of feedback aims to update and refine expectations. It answers the question, "How can we improve?" It encompasses actions, project beginnings, efforts, beliefs, guidance, and other relevant factors contributing to constructive progress.
3. Inventive Feedback: At this level, feedback stimulates new ideas and fosters creative thinking. It seeks to explore alternative approaches and asks, "Why not try something different?" This feedback involves challenging assumptions, encouraging creativity, designing innovative solutions, establishing effective governance frameworks, and engaging in transformative activities.
4. Perceptual Feedback: The fourth level of feedback prompts a re-evaluation of situations and encourages a fresh perspective. It poses the question, "For what purpose?" This feedback involves awakening new insights, nurturing curiosity, expanding exposure to diverse viewpoints, identifying patterns, and exploring previously unnoticed connections.
These four levels of feedback contribute to the learning process by providing valuable insights and perspectives for re-evaluating existing practices and strategies. They encourage continuous improvement by fostering adaptability, innovation, and a willingness to explore new possibilities.
In the context of feedback, the organization divides its time between on-the-job learning, which involves compatibility and constructive feedback, and dedicated learning, which requires pausing or temporarily halting work to explore new directions through inventive and perceptual feedback. Striking the right balance between work productivity and learning and creative and conceptual development is a crucial challenge for any organization.
Lewis introduces a developmental model comprising four levels: novice, expert, pioneer, and thought leader. Initially, many individuals aspire to become experts, and achieving this level is a significant accomplishment. It is possible to progress and become an expert while maintaining productivity on the job. However, to leap pioneering in the field, it becomes necessary to pause, reflect on existing knowledge, and take a step back to progress and develop in new ways. This establishment of a new position and subsequent adoption by others can occur while actively working, facilitating a seamless learning transition without compromising productivity and fostering inventive development.
Lewis depicts this developmental journey using the analogy of an S-shape and proposes two sub-models (refer to the book for the accompanying image). The sweeping model represents a gradual and steady progression. In contrast, the narrow model showcases instances where newcomers to the organization, armed with fresh perspectives, quickly challenge existing norms and propel the organization forward by asking insightful questions.
(photo from the book):
Within each quadrant of the model, specific types of learning occur:
1. The Novice: Learning predominantly takes place in the lower half of the story thinking cycle, focusing on acquiring existing knowledge within the organization.
2. The Expert: Learning encompasses information from the lower half of the cycle and extends to include the entire story thinking cycle, particularly in problem-solving.
3. The Pioneer: Learning occurs in the lower half of the cycle and incorporates learning from the entire process, viewing each disruption as an opportunity for growth.
4. The Thought Leader: This level integrates all learning methods, incorporating diverse approaches and perspectives.
By understanding and embracing these levels of specialization, organizations can cultivate a culture of continuous learning and development, enabling individuals to progress and contribute to innovative advancements.
Leading a learning organization is a significant responsibility that requires balancing direct learning and learning through discourse, knowledge acquisition, and personal development. It's essential to recognize that deepening understanding and influencing others are separate abilities that vary in success among individuals.
Within organizations, various types of learning take place, including after-action reviews (AAR), confrontations, team meetings, persuasion, education, facilitation, discussions, collaborations, and dialogues. These forms of learning are distinct and serve different purposes - AARs and confrontations focus on certainty, while team meetings and conversations foster curiosity.
Knowledge management plays a crucial role in fostering learning within organizations. Its effectiveness varies depending on the stage of the Story Thinking model it pertains to:
1. Automation: Business constitution tools, workflow tools, and dashboards are utilized.
2. Disruption: Tools for risk and decision management are employed.
3. Investigation: Discovery systems are leveraged.
4. Ideas: Conceptual and collaborative tools are used.
5. Expectations: Project management tools are employed.
6. Confirmation: Knowledge Systems (Answers) are implemented.
Lewis suggests using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) as cultural indicators to enhance further the development of a learning culture within the organization. These metrics cover various dimensions:
1. Automation: Organizational values, productivity, and customer focus.
2. Disruption: Stability, prioritization, and proactivity.
3. Inquiry: Analysis, objectivity, and curiosity.
4. Ideas: Creativity, planning, and practicality.
5. Expectations: Commitment, process, and timely delivery of deliverables.
6. Confirmation: Results, learning, and trust.
By focusing on these dimensions and aligning them with organizational goals, leaders can effectively cultivate a culture of continuous learning and drive the success of the learning organization.
Policy formulation is a crucial aspect of organizational activities, providing the guiding principles that direct decision-making and actions.
The process of policy formulation involves the following steps:
1. Transparency: To enhance policy formulation, Lewis introduces the "Option Outline" tool, which functions similarly to decision trees. This tool focuses on relevant branches and chosen alternatives at each stage. It promotes transparency by displaying all available options and guiding further exploration. Organizing related documents within this model makes policy development more organized and accessible.
2. Collaborativeness: Collaboration plays a vital role in policy development. Lewis dedicates an entire chapter to emphasizing its importance.
A good policy possesses three complementary qualities that may seem contradictory:
1. Simplicity: The policy should be easily understood.
2. Complexity: It should address the intricacies and complexities of the subject matter.
3. Elegance: The policy should be refined and well-crafted.
Simplicity and elegance are associated with automation, while complexity stimulates the generation of ideas.
While Lewis primarily focuses on government policies as the basis for creating new laws, these concepts also apply to organizational policies. It is essential to consider this broader context.
In conclusion, the book presents numerous ideas and a cohesive framework. Each theory holds its significance, and together they form a comprehensive foundation. I highly recommend reading, digesting, and revisiting the book to explore how these concepts can be applied. It is an endeavor that will undoubtedly prove worthwhile.