Friday, August 12, 2005

Patterns and story telling

As I said last time I’ve been flying a lot, and that’s given me time to read. The book that I’ve been reading most is “Story Telling in Organizations: Why Storytelling is transforming 21st century organizations and management” by Larry Prusak, John Seely Brown, Stephen Denning and Katalina Groh.

Prusak is best know for his work on Knowledge Management and this is how he came to story telling. I’ve been reading John Seely Brown for a few years now and I highly recommend any of his writing. Stephen Denning I came across a couple of years ago in his “The Springboard” which is also about story telling in organizations. Katalina Groh is a film market who is new to me.

So, picking up from where I left off last time, according to Larry Prusak, story telling is what Louis Gerstner did when he took over IBM, Prusak goes on to suggests that this is what many leader actually do. They tells stories: how the company has failed, how they are going to fix it, what the new company will look like.

Go back to what I said last time about moving house and the need to take uncertainty out of the future. We don’t really want to move house, we like it where we are, only when we can see the story of our new lives, in our new house does the future look less scary. Only then can we start to think about letting go of our past.

Groh makes this point, how we need to let go of our past, let go of control so we can experience the future. Its something I’ve written about before (see the Need to Unlearn) but Groh weaves it in with story telling.

Now to pick up one of my regular themes: Patterns.

I think there is a link between Patterns (Alexander, Coplien, Vlissides, PLoPs, etc.) and stories. I’ve been pointing this out to anyone who will listen for a while now, and I’ve been basing this on what Denning wrote in “The Springboard” but having read “Storytelling in Organizations” I’m more convinced than every.

I intend to write more about his in future - probably in the prelude to some pattern paper, most likely for EuroPLoP 2006 but I’ll preview my reasoning here.

Patterns are really stories. If you look at the work of Alexander, Rising and even my own recent stuff you find that the patterns start with a short example - actually a story. This serves to set the scene. Prepares the reader. Then the pattern goes on to explore this subject more completely, analysing it, extracting the forces and context, describing the problem and how it was solved. Then they describe what happened afterward, maybe by revisiting the story or by telling some more.

My patterns still have an explicit formalism. As much as I’d like you to be able to read them without the section signposts I’m not a good enough writer. Also, I like the way the section heading tell you what the pattern is doing. Alexander, Rising and others are more experienced writers who write in a more prose like style.
If you read the work of Dick Gabriel he talks of patterns and poetry - poetry is just special form of story telling.

Both Patterns and Stories are about communicating knowledge. They communicate not just information but the context in which it was used and the action that took place around it. Anyone familiar with my writings and presentations knows I think knowledge must involve action. In the case of stories and patterns there is action embedded. Neither of them is happy to say “75% of successful companies segment their market” but both of them would say “By segmenting their market SuperShopper was able to better serve their cost conscious customers and quality conscious customers” - and both add that research shows this is common for 75% of all firms as an after thought.

Both Patterns and Stories are about change. Patterns show how forces are resolved and brought into balance, stories show how a problem was overcome

In both mediums less is more, there is a value to brevity. This allows the message to be communicated quickly and for the reader to see themselves in the story. OK, for patterns I’m going out on a limb a bit by saying this. Many people want patterns to include all the relevant information but I increasingly think brevity is an asset.
Good patterns and good stories pull the reader in, the reader can imagine themselves there. That’s why good patterns aren’t news, they name and explore something you already know.

Both are rooted in practice. John Seely-Brown and Stephen Denning make this point and it is critical to pattern writing where the “rule of three examples” is used a test. As such both are less concerned with original ideas and more concerned with what people do.

Good stories should stimulate your own thought processes and stories. In this way the story and the pattern are part of a gift culture. This is obvious to anyone who has ever taken part in a PLoP conference.

Something else which is less obvious. Patterns are of the greatest benefit to the writer. I’ve only come to realise this recently but my friend Klaus Marquardt tells me he’s been arguing this for a while so I’ve probably picked it up from him.

How does this fit with stories? Several of the writers in this book make the point that the most effective stories are the ones which connect with the listener. The listener can associate with the story and see themselves there; perhaps the story connects with something that happened to them or their family, perhaps the story tells them about something they would like to happy, perhaphs it describes their house, their software or their company.

This is why less is more. Too much detail in a story - or a pattern - makes it too specific. It ceases to be a story or a pattern and instead becomes a description of something that happened. Put it another way: it becomes just information “We went there, took a left, went there, drove a few miles” and in so doing looses the capacity to communicate actions.

Now one place where maybe the story and the pattern parallel fails is the element of story telling. Stephen Denning makes the point that it is the telling of the story that makes it powerful, not the content. I’ve yet to work out where this fits in with patterns but one explanation is that patterns are too focused on the story not the telling. And that might be why so few people actually read and use patterns.

As I say, don’t take that as truth, I’m still thinking that one through.

Bottom line: I'm increasingly conviced patterns are a form of story telling, the authors of this new books would learn a lot from getting to know the patterns community.