Plucky terrier tells story

June 22, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Photo by LalidaHistorians and journalists have something in common: they reconstruct events by following the actions of characters, whether the character is Alexander the Great or Joe Smith, citizen. A historian studies a character or set of characters; builds a portrayal of the character’s personality and physique; attempts to tell the narrative of the character; explores motivations, themes and emotions; will attempt to describe what happened and why. Often historical narratives will pitch protagonist and antagonist together in a gripping yarn: Cleopatra against Octavian, Ulysses S. Grant against Robert E. Lee.

Similarly, a journalist tries to reconstruct and explain events or compile a narrative after the compilation of facts. And there might be one or more plausible narratives the journalist can tell and often the most popular one becomes the dominant narrative.

Take the story of plucky little terrier, George. The following story appeared in a Wellington, New Zealand newspaper:

A plucky Jack Russell terrier named George saved five children from two marauding pit bulls…. George was playing with the group of children as they returned home from buying sweets.” By this stage of the story, George has been anthropomorphized. Then…

“Two pit bulls appeared and lunged toward them.” Then there is a quote from one of the children: “‘George tried to protect us by barking and rushing at them, but they started to bite him.’ The child interprets the dog’s actions as trying to protect the group of children. And then the ending: “We ran off crying, and some people saw what was happening and rescued George.”

So this is an emotive story of a brave, plucky little dog valiantly protecting small, frightened children against two snarling pit bulls. As the article in Scientific American points out, this may indeed be what happened. But then again, based solely on facts, perhaps this is what happened:

“The pit bulls appeared and moved in on the group; the terrier rushed at them; the pit bulls focused their attention on the terrier; the kids ran away. In other words, the same reported facts could have led to a story that carried the headline “Five Frightened Kids Flee as Tiny Dog Is Attacked.

Two versions of reality told from two different perspectives – the perspective of frightened children and a beloved dog and the perspective perhaps of an eyewitness who didn’t tell a story centred on a little dog’s actions.

This is why encouraging organisational stories is an important means of uncovering organisational reality. Employees will tell anecdotes about events that happened in an organisation and these anecdotes reveal the pattern of the organisation – its culture, values, employee experiences and so on. You may find a plucky little George story – an employee who bucked the system and pitted himself against bureaucracy. But that same story could be told from another perspective – said employee just didn’t suit the organisational culture and was a “stirrer”. Either way, allowing people to tell their stories in their own words helps colleagues to learn from others’ experiences.

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Entry filed under: Knowledge Management, Narratives.

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