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Fostering Community Learning via Transformed Narratives



The idea for this Pattern emerged from work done around 2000 with colleagues at IBM Research (including Cynthia Kurtz, Carl Tait, Frank Elio, Debbie Lawrence, Neil Keller, Andrew Gordon), Lotus (including Dan Gruen, Paul Moody, Michael Muller), and at the IBM Knowledge Institute(including Dave Snowden, Larry Prusak, Sharon Darwent & Fiona Incledon) on the business uses of stories and storytelling. However, the essence of the idea is not that new. The British Navy uses a cartoon of a silly Admiral doing something to be avoided. Apparently, there was a process to collect anonymous stories of “mistakes” that people had made. Rather than being ascribed to the actual person, they were “ascribed” in the cartoon to the fictional Admiral. The point was to help insure that others would not make the same mistake. Mullah Nasreddin stories predate that practice by centuries. This fictional character often was reputed to have done silly things but in a way that made a point for others to learn from.

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Created by John C. Thomas April, 2018.



Stories are memorable and motivating. One popular type of story is the “Cautionary Tale” which describes what happens when a person makes a significant kind of error. Stories of this type can be valuable ways for a community as a whole to learn from the errors of one person thus preventing others in the community from making the same mistake. However, many communities also punish people for making errors. One solution is to alter the story of what actually happened slightly so that the community learns from the mistakes of individuals without the individual suffering from an unrecoverable loss of status.


Groups across many contemporary cultures and throughout history have tended to tell, learn, and repeat stories as a way of codifying what is desirable and acceptable behavior, understanding the world, and communicating important lessons learned across generations. One such type of story is the “Cautionary Tale.” Many of Aesop’s Fables, for example, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and The Dog and its Reflection fall into this category. Such stories are potentially excellent ways to teach a lesson in a memorable way. For example, The Dog and its Reflection cautions that one may be so obsessed with greed that they will lose even what they already have in the attempt to grasp for more.

While Aesop’s Fables and other folk stories make very general points about values and “right action,” stories also serve an important way for a very local community to learn from the mistakes of individuals so that these same mistakes are not made over and over.

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In communities, families, and organizations there are often negative sanctions applied to members who make mistakes. This sets up a dilemma. For the group as a whole to learn optimally, it is best to be able to learn from the experiences of every other member. On the other hand, the member who freely shares stories of his or her mistakes may find themselves punished and the “cautionary tale” repeated in the community then becomes a lesson about how not to admit mistakes, or not to be discovered, or how to shift blame to someone else. Rather than learning as a community and having such learning experiences increase social capital, such a practice instead reinforces self-serving denials and lies. The process is unpleasant and the group loses opportunities to learn from each other. While giving appropriately structured feedback can help, it is not a complete solution. Indeed, a culture that celebrates self-serving lies may quickly devolve into a “race to the bottom” with everyone mistrusting everyone else. The group as a whole is incapable of improving actual performance and so are its members.



  • Life is too complex, changing, and chaotic to describe completely in empirically falsifiable scientific statements.
  • Learning from the stories of others who have made mistakes can prevent everyone else from making the same mistake.
  • Humans are social creatures who tend to reward those who do well and punish those who do not do well.
  • Since people avoid punishment, if the punishment for admitting and relating mistakes is more severe than the reward for knowledge sharing, people will tend not to admit mistakes.
  • Once it becomes known in a culture that admitting mistakes leads to punishment, then it becomes even less likely for people to admit their mistakes.
  • The details of a story that are most important for the group to learn are often different from the details needed to mete out punishment.


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When someone in the community makes a mistake that might teach a valuable lesson but could also result in loss of face, there are alternatives in the presentation of the story that allow for the community to learn the lesson but also protect the person involved from social ostracism. This may be done by “projecting” the story onto a fictional character such as Mullah Nasreddin. Another method is to slightly alter the story flow. For instance, instead of a story that says, “I did X and this terrible thing occurred” once could alter the story to: “I almost did X and if I had, this terrible thing would have occurred.” Or, one might say, “I did X and this really bad thing happened. Good thing we noticed right away because otherwise, this much worse thing, X! would have happened.” Another alternative: “Our team did X. This put us in a terrible position vis a vis our crucial customer Y. Luckily, we had a contingency plan in place and were able to immediately repair our relation with customer Y. Of course, next time, we will know not to do X in the first place.”

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  1. At once point, IBM was trying to save money and suggested that employees only use sardine class airline tickets. I overheard an IBM executive relate the following story. “I was high enough in the hierarchy that IBM made an exception for me. I could have gotten the first class ticket but I decided to take the sardine class ticket anyway. As I boarded that plane, I could see a dozen people in my own organization sitting in steerage. I was really glad to be able to sit down in my teeny seat along with everyone else.” This may have actually been true. On the other hand, it’s also possible that he only wished he had done this and altered what really happened to avoid opprobrium but still get the message across.

Resulting Context:

The altered story allows the team, family, culture or other group to learn from the mistake while protecting the person who made the mistake. As a result, people are more willing to admit to mistakes.

Needless to say, these kinds of alterations are not ethically done so as to avoid punishment for criminal behavior. Even apart from criminal behavior, there are certainly cases where the public has the right to know about actions that reveal a person’s character and this may outweigh concerns for ensuring that the community focuses on learning.


Pan, Y., Roedl, D., Blevis, E., & Thomas, J. (2015). Fashion Thinking: Fashion Practices and Sustainable Interaction Design. International Journal of Design, 9(1), 53-66.

Thomas, J. C. (2012). Patterns for emergent global intelligence. In Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience By Design J. Carroll (Ed.), New York: Springer.

Darwent, S., Incledon, F., Keller, N., Kurtz, C., Snowden, D., Thomas, J.(2002) YOR920000749US2 Story-based organizational assessment and effect system (granted).

Thomas, J. C., Kellogg, W.A., and Erickson, T. (2001) The Knowledge Management puzzle: Human and social factors in knowledge management. IBM Systems Journal, 40(4), 863-884.

Thomas, J. C. (1999) Narrative technology and the new millennium. Knowledge Management Journal, 2(9), 14-17.



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