This week’s article is the next in my Making Sense of Making Sense series.
Before I dig into it, though, a little personal news. I left my job of twelve years this week to strike out on my own, and so I’m available for hire. If you like the way I think – which I hope you do, from reading Roblog! – then I’m available for projects big and small on a consulting basis, so please do get in touch. My new strategy consultancy is called Orso, and you can read more about it on its website.
Now, onto this week’s post. Last time, I talked about the importance of narratives in sensemaking. This week, I talk about how to resolve conflicts in narratives and evolve them to meet with changing circumstances: it’s all about arguments.
This week’s article
Narratives are central to sense-making, but how do you update them in the face of new information? By arguing.
In the last article in this series, I wrote about the importance of narratives within sense-making. Narratives are useful in helping us to make sense of the world when they’re illuminating, coherent, credible, adequately complex, and biased towards action.
One particularly useful quality of narratives is their flexibility. They’re flexible in and of themselves; they’re not rigid, black-and-white, and specific, but instead can contain ambiguities and allusions. But they’re also flexible over time, evolving in each retelling, incorporating new information and adapting to meet new needs.
One of the ways that this evolution happens, throughout human life, is through arguments. Two or more competing narratives are set out, and participants in the argument – or a broader audience – decide which has more merits. But unstructured arguments aren’t very helpful. They tend to be resolved by who shouts the loudest, who’s the most charming and silver-tongued, or who’s backed up by the strongest force. Not much sense is made from a ding-dong or a rhetorical brawl.
Structured, good-faith arguments, though, are incredibly useful for sense-making. They do three things for us in particular: they strengthen our narratives, they allow us to use abductive reasoning, and they enable us to evolve our narratives over time.
Good arguments strengthen narratives. Arguments can be a dialectical process, something like Hegel’s “thesis–antithesis–synthesis” approach. First, an argument is set out. Then a second counter-argument is made that attacks the first argument’s weaknesses. Finally, a third argument combines the strength of the first two (which can itself then be subjected to further dialectical reasoning). Once an argument is resolved, you end up with a stronger narrative, a better explanation; arguments are stress-tests for narratives that galvanise and strengthen them.
Good arguments allow us to use abductive reasoning. It’s an annoyingly highfalutin’ term for something we do every day of our lives; a more useful name for it is “inferring the best explanation”, which it’s also sometimes called. Abductive reasoning means asking the question “given these events, what’s the most plausible explanation for how they happened?” Arguments provide a medium to make that decision, by comparing candidate narratives and deciding on the best.
Good arguments allow us to evolve narratives over time. If we have a narrative that explains some aspect of the world, it’s a certainty that the world will change at some point. Sometimes it will change gradually, sometimes suddenly; sometimes it will change a little, sometimes a lot. But that it will change is guaranteed. This is, in itself, an argument, a challenge to the narrative. The argument is resolved by updating the narrative to reflect the changed circumstances, and the narrative remains useful for longer.
One of the best examples of all of this – of abductive reasoning, of using arguments to create stronger narratives, and of evolving narratives over time – is the law, and in particular the common law approach used in the UK and the countries it influenced legally (by which I mean the countries it colonised).
At the heart of law is the question of abductive reasoning: what is the best explanation for these facts that we’ve observed? In common law jurisdictions, the best explanation is arrived at through an adversarial process, an argument in which one side’s case is set out, and then the other’s. A neutral judge then rules on which is “best”.
The standard for which is best varies by the type of trial; we naturally require a different level of certainty to jail someone for murder than we do to resolve a contractual dispute between two companies, for example. But the qualities of the best narratives don’t change. The best narratives are always coherent (they make sense, they hang together) and credible (they are consistent with the evidence and with a commonsensical view of the world).
Each side’s arguments are strengthened, too, by the examination and cross-examination of witnesses. The narratives aren’t static things, submitted at the start of the trial; they evolve throughout it, as evidence is discussed and different points are made and challenged.
Law’s perfection of the form of arguments is remarkable on the micro scale, within the context of a single case. But it’s far more remarkable on the macro scale. The common law demands three things of judges: that they rely on the precedents of the judges who have gone before them, that they obey consistent rules in making their decisions, and that they make new decisions when they encounter new situations. These three factors interact to create a legal system that’s predictable, that’s consistent and fair, and that avoids being static and brittle. It’s a pragmatic balance between consistency and flexibility, and it has arguments between competing narratives at its core.
Arguments, then, are the main way that narratives can be strengthened, and the main way that they can evolve to incorporate new information and adapt to changing circumstances. Sense-making is a social, narrative process, and so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call sense-making as a whole a process of arguing.
Just as law has evolved to be a general-purpose way of structuring and formalising arguments in order to resolve disputes, various tools have emerged that aim to structure and formalise the sense-making process. The next few articles in the series will look at some of these tools.
This week’s two interesting links
This week I started my own strategy consultancy. It’s called Orso, and it provides commercial, consumer and creative strategy for creative agencies and consumer brands. The website explains more.
I’m sure not everyone – not even a majority, in fact – of the people reading Roblog are into football, let alone in-depth tactical analysis of it. But this is a fascinating video even if you’re not that way inclined.
Fernando Diniz, the coach of Brazilian team Fluminense, has developed a radically new approach to tactics. Rejecting the systematic, shape-obsessed style of successful managers such as Pep Guardiola, Diniz’s approach appears to be chaotic. But it’s actually incredibly well-drilled – and successful.
It’s a footballing application of so many things I talk about on Roblog. Like Cynefin (the players are constantly trying to get the game out of the merely “complicated” domain and into something more complex and unpredictable for their opponents). Or the difference between competence and literacy (the players aren’t concerned with playing a role; they’re genuinely improvising). Or systems thinking vs. sensemaking (the players aren’t interested in the system and its boundaries, they’re interested in the relationships between themselves).