Storytelling at the Gemba:


In today’s post, I am looking at storytelling. We are sometimes referred to as Homo Narrans or humans who tell stories. Storytelling, oral or otherwise, is part of our culture, and part of who we are. Joseph Campbell, the American literary professor, talks about the universal nature of all stories in his famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Campbell’s thesis, like those of the ancients—and as put forth also, but in different ways, by Freud, Jung, and others—is that by entering and transforming the personal psyche, the surrounding culture, the life of the family, one’s relational work, and other matters of life can be transformed too. Campbell’s ideas have been distilled into the famous Hero’s Journey. Loosely put, this story structure describes a hero who starts off as ordinary, faces adversities, goes through a transformation, and in the end becomes triumphant. I am inspired by Campbell’s work, but I am looking at the ideas I learned in Cybernetics.


One of the most important ideas in Cybernetics is that of variety, a brainchild of the brilliant Ross Ashby. Ashby described variety as:

Given a set of elements, its variety is the number of elements that can be distinguished.

For example, if we consider a set of elements in {g b c g g c}, the variety is 3. Another easy example to consider is that of a light switch. A light switch has a variety of two (ON or OFF). Ashby created his most famous Law of Requisite Variety from this simple idea. The Law of Requisite Variety can be simply stated as “only variety can destroy variety.” If the regulatory agency of a system does not have the requisite variety to match the variety of its environment, it will not be able to adapt and survive. Ashby explained this using the example of a fencer:

If a fencer faces an opponent who has various modes of attack available, the fencer must be provided with at least an equal number of modes of defense if the outcome is to have the single value: attacked parried.

How does this come into play with stories? Stories are interesting only if there are conflicts. The villain is shown to have more variety than the hero. This puts the villain in control of the situation because to be in control means to have the appropriate amount of variety over the situation. The hero has to somehow overcome the lack of variety he has. In a superhero movie, if the superhero has more variety than the supervillain, then the story is not at all interesting. Per the Hero’s Journey structure, the superhero has to face adversities to make the story more interesting. This brings up the idea of variety engineering, proposed by another brilliant mind, Stafford Beer.

We can depict the varieties as below. The supervillain has much more variety than the superhero. This is shown by the larger font size for “v” depicting the variety. We can see that the variety of the supervillain is much more (>>) than that of the superhero. This is the major adversity that the superhero must overcome. This conflict makes the story interesting.


As Stafford Beer might say, the superhero has to find ways to attenuate or reduce the variety of the supervillain, and at the same time find ways to amplify his own variety. This allows him to have the requisite variety to overcome the supervillain. The squiggly line towards right in the schematic below shows the attenuation of the variety coming from the supervillain, while the curved line with the triangle on it shows the amplification of the variety from the superhero. In the below schematic, the varieties are shown to match, as indicated by the same font size for “v” in the middle. This also is an important part of the story since the final fight should not be easy for the superhero. Now we have a good superhero story. The attenuation of the variety may be achieved by not getting scared by the antics shown by the villain. The amplification may be achieved by the use of valuable information that the villain does not have access to, or by coming up with a plan that allows the hero to use his special skill.


The same structure can be seen across many of the blockbuster movies or TV shows. The interesting part is always how the variety engineering is done, and how the requisite variety is achieved by the hero, whether it is a Marvel superhero movie or “The Last Kingdom” or “Rick and Morty.”

Role of the Observer:

Ross Ashby gives further insight into this. He brings in the importance of the observer. He noted:

If two observers differ in the distinctions they can make, then they will differ in their estimates of the variety.

An easy example is to consider the set, {b a c c C a B a}. Depending on the observer, the variety of the set can be said as 3 (3 letters) or 5 (3 lowercase letters and 2 uppercase letters). The idea is easily illustrated in a Sherlock Holmes story, where the same crime scene is witnessed by Holmes and Watson. Holmes is able to make more distinctions than Watson, allowing him to achieve the requisite variety needed to solve the crime. One of the most important definitions of information in the light of distinctions come from Gregory Bateson, who described information as the difference that makes the difference. Bateson noted:

What gets onto the map, in fact, is difference, be it a difference in altitude, a difference in vegetation, a difference in population structure, difference in surface, or whatever. Differences are the things that get onto a map.

Bateson’s idea of difference that makes a difference was possibly introduced as part of an Alfred Korzybski lecture. And of course, the observer determines which differences are meaningful to be selected, and which selected differences must be further amplified. Uncertainty can be described as the lack of useful information. With this idea, the observer can reduce uncertainty by making useful distinctions.

Abstractions, an act of attenuating variety, allow an observer to identify that two things are similar, or that the two same things are different. There is no contradiction here because abstractions are not equivalencies. All we have and can have access to are abstractions. Thus, two observers can come to two different conclusions while witnessing the same phenomenon. Both may have some access to the same phenomenon but not to each other’s abstractions. This is exemplified in the Alfred Korzybski’s quote – “The map is not the territory” or the Alan Watts’ quote – “The menu is not the meal.”

We can use a great piece of advice from the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer to further understand variety and uncertainty:

“Reality” always stands in a horizon of desired or feared or, at any rate, still undecided future possibilities. Hence it is always the case that mutually exclusive expectations are aroused, not all of which can be fulfilled. The undecidedness of the future permits such a superfluity of expectations that reality necessarily lags behind them.

From the observer’s standpoint, we realize that the most powerful tool to manage variety becomes the control of information. If one is able to not allow or hinder the other person’s ability to make distinctions, he can control the narrative and be in charge. We see this played out in real life too often.

People Principle:

Another important idea that comes from all of this is that the requisite variety always come from the people on the front, in the midst of facing adversities. We can notate this as:

People Principle: In any organization, the requisite variety always come from the people.

The organizational structures lack the variety needed. The requisite variety is provided as needed by the front-end employees, if they are able to.

Final Words:

“Story can mend, and story can heal.” (Joseph Campbell – The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

We are storytellers. We live and live on in stories. Make yours a good one.

I will finish with excellent advice on tackling writer’s block from one of my favorite storytellers, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). He puts a nice “Go to the Gemba” touch:

Yes, I get dry spells. Sometimes I can’t turn out a thing for three months. When one of those spells comes on, I quit trying to work and go out and see something of life. You can’t write a story that’s got any life in it by sitting at a writing table and thinking. You’ve got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people, and feel the rush and throb of real life–that’s the stimulant for a story writer.

For those interested, I have shared some of my really short stories or Flash fiction here.

I also welcome the readers to check out the following posts that are applicable to the topic on hand:

Purpose of a System in Light of VSM:

Exploring The Ashby Space:

OODA Loop at the Gemba: (OODA loop also looks at how preventing the adversary to generate new useful information puts you in control)

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Hermeneutics at the Gemba:

5 thoughts on “Storytelling at the Gemba:

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