The one winged butterfly

by Victoria Ward on September 13, 2010

I thought it might be interesting to share bits from my fieldnotes of preparation for the keynote speech.

In early 2002 Sparknow started out on a five year partnership (their description of the relationship) with the Swiss Agency for Development & Cooperation (SDC).

To use their own language, one of the earliest working sessions with the SDC had in it a ‘moment fort’ which I have carried with me since.

(A small detour here, to say that we discovered at that time that French, of the four official languages of the SDC, was generally the default language for telling stories, regarded as more elastic, more vivid, and more dancing than German, Italian or English.)

We had asked two trios each to use the project experiences of one of the trio to map the unfolding long story of a project, tracing back to before the formal start and forwards to after the official finish.  We used a kind of worksheet we’ve come to call a narrative grid (probably the grid part because it sounds rather rigorous and handily unstoried):

(For fun, instead of trying to draw this in word, or powerpoint or omnigraffle or something, I decided to draw it on the window of my office, so you can also see a tiny bit of my view, treetops & clouds today.)

Perhaps because in French, certainly to our surprise, each group spontaneously conjured a metaphor to summarise the storyline they’d traced.

One group described the role of storytelling ‘sous l’arbre palabre’ or under the palaver tree, the glue of companionship and exchange in informal settings in the field.

The other fell on the notion of the ‘one winged butterfly’: the storytelling is rich and vivid and expressive, in both the formal and the informal settings of the organisation until the formal processes of project management and evaluation kick in. The institutionalisation of procedure, they felt, rips the other wing from the butterfly.

This led to an early shared ambition to develop a story system to put the other wing on the butterfly.

Now of course, the metaphor is mistaken. Butterflies have four wings, not two, but I don’t think that to stickle about it detracts from the vividness of the image in the mind’s eye.

Some years later, butterflies came up again, this time in conversation with a colleague. I don’t recall the precise time, place or task, but I do remember Matthew saying:

The trouble is, stories are like butterflies.

Alive they are delicate, beautiful, a sign of a healthy ecology.

Dead, they are simply a collection of dead things, doused in formaldehyde, pinned in a display case, and shown off.

Our job is create the conditions for breeding butterflies, while are clients are asking for collections in display cases.

I expect he was a little less lyrical than that, but not much. Matthew has a good way with words.

The organisational story movement in Asia Pacific is both only just beginning and, in circular time, has been here over millennia, woven through many cultures, for ever. This is a beautiful paradox, and I’d venture that if any place on earth has the variety, the tradition, the openness to innovation, to put the other wing on the butterfly, and foster an ecology of organisational story systems, it is this region, here and now. In the opening words of Corporania, our first serious experiment in organisational story telling:

‘Once upon a time. It might be tomorrow.’

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