You can’t tell stories about complexity … but you must

by | 3 Jul 2021

A quick search on Twitter brings up these phrases from two tweets:

  • “Complex systems cannot be summarized by linear storytelling.”
  • “Complex systems defy causation, so linear stories that attempt to describe them are misconceived.”

These are common statements in the complexity and systems world. So should we drop stories? Yes and no.

Stories are how we see the world.

Stories aid memory and understanding. With a story, I get it quicker and retain it longer. They are innate and natural. We live our story because our path through life is linear.

Stop telling stories about how complex systems work

However, because of the nonlinear nature of complex systems, trying to tell linear stories about what happened or is going to happen will fail. They are misleading, or worse, dangerous. It is right that we should use alternatives to linear stories in these situations.

When can we use stories around complex systems?

The irony is that if we say we need to stop telling stories about how complex systems work, we haven’t stopped using stories, we’re just telling a different story:

Once upon a time, a person understood the world with linear stories, but one day something unexpected happened. They didn’t like it. But a mentor showed them a new way to look at things. They faced obstacles and setbacks, but in the end, they embraced a new way of acting in complexity. The end. (Except they kept learning!)

A classic “Hero’s Journey” of ignorance, then struggle, to a transformation in their life.

More and better stories

The effects of complex systems are emergent so we must avoid simplistic stories of how they work. However, stories of growth, understanding and success when dancing with systems and complexity are powerful to educate and inspire others.

If we want to bring more people into the fold of complexity and systems, we need more of those stories.

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