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How Stories help us to (re)codify Q.R.M.?

Updated: Mar 8

Can Peppa Pig teach us about Quality & Risk Management, or should we scrutinise the tales of old more closely?


Christmas is a time for children with the ‘World of Peppa Pig’ getting a rather unexpected plug at a certain press conference recently. This blog asks if much older stories can be beneficial and may even serve us well as thinking tools for the ‘Knowledge Economy’?

‘The Emperors’ New Clothes’ -

I shared this picture a few weeks ago when delivering a Critical Thinking Programme for the IBEC Engineering Skillnet. Participants are asked to identify the story depicted in order to highlight the dangers of ‘collective denial’ and the ‘halo effect’. On this occasion while there was strong cross-cultural recognition, only a few recalled the title correctly with a couple suggesting “the Kings Invisible Clothes”. Sometimes wrong answers are the most revealing. While stories can function well as memory aids, like the memories themselves stories are often more than they first seem. After all, the Emperor's clothes weren't merely ‘invisible’; they were completely non-existent. The very point of the story i.e. that we often fall prey to logical fallacies, and collectively, was one that many of us had slightly, but quite significantly, reconstructed.

Why this matters is that narrative, according to cognitive scientists, is the basis for our human intelligence. Hence, the stories that we choose to recall accurately and to re-tell (in whatever form) are key to how we perceive and understand the world. In fact, some can even give us the courage to ask ‘unaskable’ questions. This is as important now, a time of less face-to-face interaction, as ever given we rely heavily on specialists to make sense of a more inter-related and compelx reality. Therefore, it may even be a critical time to rescue some long-lost stories like this one. After all, an over-reliance on authority, even on ‘experts’, is one of the five top enemies of critical thinking.

The ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ of risk literacy -

Culture is rich in ‘how’s’ and is highly contextualised. Before we fill our baskets with children’s’ books inspired by animated series, it’s worth asking - does ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ teach us more than ‘Paw Patrol’? Fairy tales in their original format are often ‘tails’ (sic) of woe and danger but they are filtered for the understanding level of a child and (arguably), they are largely apolitical.

Parents also instinctively talk to children at just above their current level of language proficiency to encourage a stretch in their vocabulary. Yet curiously, what we hear as we listen to animated pups as they rescue dolphins via walkie-talkie sound suspiciously like fully- trained first responders.

“Little Red Riding Hood”, in contrast, is as brave as an adult but speaks still with the voice of a child. Originally French, the version we’re most familiar with is by the Brothers Grimm. Indeed, this is a grim tale of the danger we face (and expose others to) when we don’t take due care, stay on well-trodden paths or pay close attention to what was once safe and now poses risk. This nuanced account delivers the message well that it is a certain mindset and not technology which saves the day. It also credits the child for making key distinctions, independently, and asking good question (and for help) in a timely manner. In fact, we’d be hard-pressed to find a better primer in risk assessment (including visual inspection) for clever kids or adults.

‘Three bags full’ of imagination for innovation -

Media and movies today don’t seem to portray children as such or, indeed, present schools as good places for them. “Sonic the Hedgehog” self-narrates his movie (again, with an adult voice) and declares his paradise island as a school-free zone. Hollywood may think that schools are ‘old-school’, but might we still need the older singsong rhymes we hear there?

Like the ‘Sonic ‘and ‘Paw Patrol’ films, nursery rhymes feature anthropocentric animals. However, the purpose of modern versus older rhymes differs. ‘The wheels on the bus’ might ‘go round and round’ but they don’t run off the vehicle altogether, turn into doughnuts and jump over the moon. To participate, children at least create a long list of passengers, but they’re encouraged to include the usual suspects and it’s not very imaginative.

‘Sonic’ doesn’t even need a bus as he can “run across the island in less than two seconds”. If not, he’d probably have the latest in high-speed trains. What we miss, however, is that the original nursery rhymes are themselves a slow yet sophisticated technology that we’ve usefully inherited. The likes of “Hey Diddle Diddle” are tools that embed creativity, both fuelled by it and creating a mode of associative thinking.

Putting the ‘cat and the fiddle’ together is an example of ‘conceptual blending’ (another is the phrase ‘Irish twins’) and random association structure will drive ‘artificial life’ and, often indeed, innovation itself. ‘Big Data’ can help to make unlikely connections and find ‘adjacent possibles’ but it also takes perseverance and, again, nursery rhymes can help. For example, “Itsy Bitsy Spider” is a fable for resilience. In celebrating steady effort over quick results, it serves us up a useful lesson in ‘continuous improvement’.

Kids play and contextual judgement -

Lego makes regular appearances at creativity workshops for adults. Multinationals like MSD also partner with gamers to foster early interest in science e.g. by ’minecraft-ing’ the periodic elements. However, could overly- themed events and clothes for kids run the danger of curating them into little emperors?

Life, after all, is a dress rehearsal full of setbacks and mistakes or what is called in cognitive terms - ‘coherent heterogeneity’. Standardisation is a handrail to steady us and not a guarantee that things don’t or won’t go wrong. When they do, we often see more clearly which differences really make a difference.

It’s fascinating to watch children at play in how naturally they create their own rules. They don’t simply mimic the real world but use toys to invent scenario’s where they practise the skills needed for the future. While Lego is increasingly about ‘mastery’ and building to formula, free play is far more contextual. By constructing (often unlikely) events, we can learn to self-regulate, empathise and imaginatively speculate; some of the very skills needed most to cope well with unexpected change.

A Netflix ‘tragedy-on-demand’? -

Our love of “reality” tv and hyper-realistic games drives plenty of innovation too in hi.-tech. industry. The actual reality of knowledge work, however, is increasingly remote, intangible and abstract. Our gradually evolving brains are challenged to handle these “unkind” learning environment where patterns don’t repeat faithfully. While A.I. can help e.g. with operator training, most of the ‘how’s’ of Industry 4.0 are hidden away. Algorithmic jewels are locked behind firewalls and processes, often hooded, have more but less visible inputs/parameters to control. As medicine and devices evolve to become more personalised and participative, the plot thickens with the patient becoming one such 'input'. Soon their ‘bounded rationality’ will come into even closer contact with and place immense challenges on the real-world of quality management.

Stories, however, are luminous and while Shakespeare does tragedy better than ABBA, Netflix is catching up fast. In its recent tale of a high-tech “Start Up”, something is indeed rotten in the State of ‘Silicon Miami’. Here, the “quality of mercy is strained” taking a back-seat to a frenzied chase for quantity i.e. user numbers on a platform. This modern tale of viruses, malware and epic ‘data integrity’ fails serves us well a parable for the importance of human virtue in maintaining quality.

For all its talent and energy, the “Start-Up” illustrates that when the endgame is to construct a utopian world, even with the best intent, we tend to tell ourselves almost any story to ‘justify’ the means. This series and the knowledge economy demands that high-stakes decisions be made under time pressure and in complex, sometimes even contradictory, situations. Therefore, we should give thanks that our biggest appetite of all is still for the ‘why’ of stories.

Industry can benefit hugely by the creation of simulated scenarios just like in medicine where these assist in developing clinical diagnosis skills. It turns out that fictional stories work better than ‘case studies’ for this purpose. The latter are prone to ‘outcome-bias’ as, it has been suggested, are F.M.E.A.’s. Knowing how a story already turns out before investigating the ‘Why’ may cloud reasoning significantly. It seems, however, that deliberatively practising how we decision-make in fact-based simulations is how we best learn to decision-take around tricky technical and ethical questions.

A final chapter -

Quality systems are their own worlds within worlds. When we prioritise any system over the people it’s designed to protect, we are prone to see only what we want to see like in the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’. The good news, however, is that quality systems are also much like story engines; ones we can recodify, upgrade and overhaul; time and time again.

Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year from Think4Purpose to all our hard-working and talented STEM professionals.


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