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Thoughts on Why?

Why? by Charles TillyJust because your careful, reasoned look at the future makes a decision or conclusion clear to you, doesn’t mean everyone else will “get” your reasoning. When you have grasped how things are changing, and decided what should be done that is new and different, you still have to explain your thinking to others.

It’s hard to make change without doing that, and there are some good ways of understanding what kinds of explanations might work. Charles Tilly’s Why? (2006) explains how we explain things, and is a good framing for people trying to get others to understand the basis for conclusions and decisions about the future.
Tilly describes four ways we answer the question Why? Let me use a story from my family to show what each one is about.
A couple of years ago, we decided to dismantle a wooden swing set in our backyard to make room for an addition to the house. At the time, one of our boys was about 7 years old, and he was the key stakeholder in this decision. He was the one who would ask Why?
As I used a crowbar to dismantle the swing set, while my son was out for the day, I tried out Tilly’s four kinds of explanations in my mind. Here they are with my thinking ab out what I would tell my son:
  • Conventions–Connect the decision to common practice, what others are doing, the social, business, societal norms. In my case I framed it as: “You’re a big boy now, big boys don’t play on swing sets”
  • Stories—Use a story to explain the situation, put the decision in a context familiar to the ones you are explaining it to. My approach: “Remember how we’ve been talking about building a climbing wall up to the tree house?”
  • Codes—Frame the decision as essential to legal requirements, social norms, rules, etc. My framing: “If this were a public park, the swing set would not meet safety requirements, and we’d be told to take it down”
  • Technical accounts—Explain the decision technically, with the technical details making the case for a change. My technical explanation: “The pressure treated wood has gotten splintered and rotted, and isn’t safe anymore”
In my work with Jennifer Jarratt, we’ve increasingly recognized the value and power of stories. This certainly carries over to explaining the reasoning behind changes that are often scary for people. But stories are not the only thing to reach for. Of the four kinds of explanations, your situation may dictate what you use and perhaps what combination you use. On my decision, I used the story approach, using it to show my son the promise of something better.
It’s critical to remember your audiences when you explore how best to explain things. What we’ve found over 20+ years helping people explore the future is that we often start our efforts with a technical group, one that’s happy and comfortable in having technical explanations for things. The problem arises when they see their stakeholders and ultimately the public as most easily swayed by a technical explanation. For a young boy, at least, the technical explanation would have failed, led to tears, in fact.
Of the four, I am tempted to say that conventions is the weakest, but we have to remember that lots of people, even lots of business executives, have times when they want to follow the norms, and not take big risks or strike out on their own. Conventions may be quite compelling to them. For a 7-year-old, saying “you are a big boy now” rings hollow. He felt like a little boy, and couldn’t imagine life without his swing set.
Codes are important too, because they tend to be fixed requirements. You are not usually in position to change them. But they are not sufficient explanations to really energize people to get them on board for doing something new. Our son didn’t, of course, care about codes, about the law, and so on. He just wanted to have a place to play.
In the end we built a great climbing wall up to the tree house. The decision made sense to the critical stakeholder. The future didn’t look scary or arbitrary.
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