I was reading a commentary on financial issues the other day that was extremely poorly-written. It wasn’t that the author couldn’t write. He had a great ability to evoke emotions. It wasn’t that his topic was bad. He was trying to explain why the economy was doing so poorly.
His problem was that he wanted it all to fit into a narrative.
We humans do that. Whatever problem we’re trying to work through, we want a narrative to explain it to us. Even in our personal lives, we have a deep desire for it “to just all make sense” — meaning that we can connect events in our life in some kind of greater meaning.
The problem is, many times when dealing with thousands or millions of independent agents each making the best decision they can, it doesn’t necessarily fit into any narrative at all. It just is.
I see flaw many times when people describe marketing to kids in college. Marketing is some great evil force out to control their mind. It has desires, needs, goals, and it reacts when things happen.
These are all not just examples of anthropomorphism — treating some random object as if it were a person. These are examples of trying to make some external system fit into some simpler narrative that we can understand and relate to. We try to make stories out of everything.
This is especially bad in business. Nobody wants to know that a random bunch of really smart people, executing adaptively in a certain context, created a unique machine that made a lot of money for a short period of time (usually until conditions changed and the team was unable to adapt) But everybody wants to read a gripping narrative about how Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or some other guy was able to beat adversity and champion a killer idea and maintain a vision until he was rewarded.
We love a narrative.
Business doesn’t work like that, though. Yes, you can sell books like that, but that’s not the way business works. In the startup community, we even have a name for these TV shows and books that glorify some hero working through adversity to make it happen — business porn. The idea is that the average reader comes by, takes a look for a few minutes, is suitably and superficially stimulated, then moves on to other things. Nothing of lasting value was exchanged. If anything, in many consumer’s minds, an unrealistic expectation was created of how things work.
One of the neat parts about helping technology teams is watching how really smart people solve problems. We tend to do this in narratives. One of the reasons user stories are so powerful is that they play into this natural tendency.
Narratives can be powerful tools for solving problems. But they also can create their own problems if used incorrectly. We need to be able to leverage our natural proclivity to narratives without being overcome by it.If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.