Anecdotes and government-policy

It started out as a comment on satire, but quietly explores some much more serious themes: this particular Twitter back-and-forth between Stephen Bounds and Shawn Callahan (via his Anecdote persona) is another one that definitely deserves a more permanent place!

It starts with Stephen pointing to a post on satire-website ‘The Daily Mash‘:

  • smbounds: UK Govt policy to be anecdote-based [satire] http://t.co/S1wXMf2Ouy < Sorry Shawn, couldn’t help but think of @anecdote when I read this :)
  • anecdote: Excellent! : UK Govt policy to be anecdote-based http://t.co/jQ6PQPxhpw

Fun indeed. Yet that’s when – as usual – Stephen and Shawn start to think about the implications:

  • smbounds: more seriously: it must sometimes be a challenge to explain that stories can be just as important, if not more, than a policy doc
  • anecdote: the trap some fall into is thinking that on one hand there is the story and the other are the facts. Best stories combine both.

Perhaps even more important here is a cross-link to one of Shawn’s key themes about story, that anecdotes tend to work best – are most memorable – when they include some kind of unexpected twist: the exceptions, the uncertainties, the special-cases, and so on. In short, stories help us to identify facts that don’t fit the current frame of theories and assumptions. If we start from a classic ‘requirements-document’ approach, what we’d often get is only the facts that do fit the assumptions – or worse, just a mess of politicised ‘yes-men’ groupthink – which is likely to leave the policy (or whatever) wide open to ‘unexpected’ failure. Not a good idea: we need the help of story and anecdote to help us avoid that trap.

  • anecdote: you’re right. Some people get it and others don’t. But more and more are learning.
  • smbounds: Thought exp: If you captured stories at a hospital and resolved any systems issues arising; better or worse outcomes than metrics?
  • anecdote: also, stories inspire action because they engage emotionally. Metrics alone are cold and uninspiring.

Another point that a lot of people seem to miss is that whilst numbers and suchlike should indeed be real facts, feelings and emotions are facts too – a different kind of facts, but still facts. For example, as Shawn and others have explained elsewhere, almost the only way to make a strategy meaningful is through story, because that’s how we engage the fact of emotion within the context.

  • smbounds: that’s what I would say. But how do you convince a politician or government administrator that is true?
  • anecdote: ask him how the metrics thing is working out, show the cynefin framework and tell some stories of how a story approach works.

True, the Cynefin framework might be a useful approach, but it does tend to carry quite a lot of overhead – such as often first having to explain Cynefin’s concept of complexity before we can get to the point about the limitations of metrics. (No surprise that I’d suggest my own SCAN framework as an alternative, but it’s probable the same concerns would apply… :-) ) Perhaps better would be to point to somewhere like Simon Guilfoyle’s ‘Inspector Guilfoyle‘ or the equally-idiosyncratic ‘SystemsThinkingForGirls‘, and leverage their irony and humour to get the point across.

  • smbounds: I spot a bootstrap problem: “What you are saying makes sense. But using metrics is less risky for my public service career…”
  • anecdote: true, true. It’s not either/or but use both. We use metrics to guide narrative enquiry.

Again, Simon Guilfoyle might be able to help there

Yet the key point, perhaps, is that whilst relying solely on arbitrarily-chosen anecdotes – as in the original satire – would be a really bad idea (but not uncommon, it seems…), there is a very real and very necessary role for anecdote in development of policy and strategy. Which, as Steven sums up:

  • smbounds: Thanks @anecdote. You have given me hope :)
  • anecdote: Good luck with it Stephen.

Hope this has been useful, anyway: comments, anyone?

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