Unraveling Complexity Through Stories: A Human Approach to Impact Measurement

Inspire to Change
4 min readJun 14, 2023

By Nora F. Murphy Johnson, PhD

Imagine being able to visualize the world in all its intricate, interconnected detail — feeling the ripple effects of change, understanding the nonlinear cause-and-effect relationships, and truly appreciating the emergent behaviors of complex systems. While it might seem like a lofty dream, we have a powerful tool at our disposal that can help us do just that: stories.

Stories have been our companions since time immemorial, helping us make sense of the world, connect with others, and navigate the complexities of life. By leveraging stories in impact measurement, we can potentially navigate complex systems more effectively–while treating people and their narratives with respect and care.

Stories as a Tool Against Simplification

When freely offered and received with gratitude and curiosity, there are several ways that stories can help us avoid the traps that come with oversimplifying complex systems:

Embracing Systems Thinking: Stories help us understand systems from the perspective of those living within them. They reveal the interconnected factors that contribute to an individual’s experience, helping us to identify and understand the system’s dynamics.

Appreciating Interconnectedness: Through stories, we can discover subtle connections and relationships that might otherwise be overlooked. They illuminate the intertwined narratives that make up the fabric of complex systems.

Highlighting Emergence: Stories allow us to see patterns and behaviors that emerge from the interactions of many different factors. They bring to light the unique qualities of complex systems that may not be easily predictable or measurable.

Recognizing Nonlinearity: Stories help us appreciate the nonlinear relationships within complex systems. They illuminate how small changes can lead to significant effects and how large efforts can sometimes yield minimal impacts.

Understanding Adaptivity and Feedback Loops: Stories can provide insight into how systems adapt and evolve over time. They can reveal feedback loops and how changes in one part of the system can influence others.

Respecting Uncertainty: Stories remind us of the inherent uncertainties in complex systems. They reveal the diverse range of experiences and outcomes that can arise from similar starting points.

Acknowledging Scale: Stories can show how impacts and behaviors change with scale. They can provide insights into the diverse experiences of individuals and communities at different levels of a system.

Defining Boundaries Appropriately: Stories can help us better understand who or what should be included within our system boundaries. They reveal who is affected and how which can help us ensure our analyses are comprehensive and inclusive.

Recognizing System Dynamics: Through stories, we can better understand how systems change over time. They can reveal trends, shifts, and evolutions that might not be apparent from a snapshot perspective.

Respecting Resilience: Stories can showcase a system’s ability to recover from disturbances. They reveal the strategies and mechanisms that individuals and communities use to maintain their functionality in the face of change.

The Ethics of Story-based Evaluation

It’s vital to remember that the narratives we collect are more than mere data points. They’re the rich tapestry of lived experiences, individual perspectives, and real-world realities. Adopting a story-based approach is thus not merely a methodological choice — it’s a profound commitment to respect, value, and honor the narratives and, crucially, the individuals behind them.

This commitment demands responsible stewardship of these narratives. It means providing robust protection for individuals against potential retaliation or adverse consequences. It requires us to uphold confidentiality as a sacred trust, treat consent as an inviolable right, and prioritize the dignity and safety of individuals at all times. Any misuse of stories — whether for harmful, exploitative, or misrepresentative ends — constitutes a betrayal of this commitment and is unacceptable.

The Power of Stories for Transformation

The power of stories is transformative. They can illuminate the intricate workings of the complex systems we navigate. Treating these narratives — and their contributors — with the care, consideration, and respect they deserve allows us to glean profound insights into these systems. This, in turn, arms us with the knowledge to make better-informed, more empathetic, and profoundly human-centered decisions. These are decisions that do more than just measure impact — they resonate with the human experience in its breathtaking complexity and richness.

But In the end, our quest to understand and measure impact in a complex world isn’t just about intellectual comprehension — it’s about celebrating and valuing the human beings that bring this world to life. It’s about ensuring that in our pursuit of understanding the world’s complexities, we never lose sight of the human stories at its heart.

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