Storytelling, story fragments, and solving ill-structured organisational problems

Snowden, Nicholas Clarkson

September 2013

Thesis or dissertation

© 2013 Nicholas Clarkson Snowden. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

This thesis explores how storytelling, and in particular story fragments, are involved in our everyday practice of solving ill-structured organisational problems. Data was collected from one primary research site, with a degree of triangulation afforded by analysis of data from additional organisations. Deploying elements of an ethnographic research tradition, the data was assembled from observations, interviews and discussions with a range of problem solvers from the different establishments.

The research suggested that traditional storytelling can play an important role at different stages in the problem-solving process, helping to set the tone of problem-solving meetings, and more significantly, in planning and shaping solution narratives. Story fragments however, were more apparent when problem solvers were attempting to understand the problems they were facing, and provided a vehicle through which the fundamental nature of the problems being faced could be recognised. Of particular interest was the capacity of fragments to facilitate the identification of the existence of ill-structured problems and some of the key components that contributed to these situations. When fragments emerged, they were perceived to represent impactful stories and narratives, and as such, influenced the direction and content of problem-solving activities. While typically they materialised within a discourse without drawing attention, the research argues that noticing story fragments can enable a listener to benefit from the insight they provide, presenting opportunities to expose and explore alternative perspectives and solutions. This is not without its risks, and while story fragments can illuminate faint signs that an organisation needs to change, caution must be exercised before acting on the information they supply.

Finally, a model explaining the potential existence of three core stories within organisations is proposed, with the prospects of operationalizing the emerging theories being considered.

Business School, The University of Hull
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