Gary Klein, Ph.D., is Chief Scientist
oF Klein Associates Inc., a company he
founded in 1978 to better understand how
to improve decision making in individuals
and teams. The company has 30 employees
working on projects for both government
and commercial clients. Dr. Klein is one
of the founders of the field of naturalistic
decision making. His work on recognitional
decision making has been influential for
the design of new systems and interfaces,
and for the development of decision training
programs. He has extended his work on
decision making to describe problem detection,
option generation, sense making, and planning.
In order to perform research on decision
making in field settings, Dr. Klein and
his colleagues have developed new methods
of Cognitive Task Analysis. Klein Associates
has used Cognitive Task Analysis methods
to study decision making in more than
60 domains, including firefighting, command
and control, software troubleshooting,
healthcare, and consumer purchasing. Dr.
Klein has presented workshops on Cognitive
Task Analysis to more than 300 professionals
in the U.S. and abroad, and has presented
seminars on naturalistic decision making
to a wide variety of groups such as the
Smithsonian Associates program.
As a researcher and storyteller, you preach
about the power of stories as learning tools.
How can project managers harness this power in
their work every day?
To start, we need to stress the importance of
intuition -- following your hunch, trusting your
years of experience to lead you in the right direction.
Intuition, in and of itself, is extremely undervalued.
Why? Because it’s fallible. It’s only
a first step; it needs to be checked by analysis.
But we have lots of tools and mechanisms for strengthening
our analytical capacities, and we don’t
have a similar repertoire for strengthening our
How then, do we use stories
to strengthen and apply our intuitions?
We use stories when we make recognitional decisions.
Most of our decisions are based on recognition.
We use stories to map situations and say, “I’ve
seen that before.” In this way, I can call
up incidents that I’ve seen myself, or that
other people have told me they’ve seen.
Then I can use the stories to evaluate my intuition.
We also use stories to make sense of events. We
start with basic scripts, we build onto them with
the knowledge we’ve collected, and we turn
them into stories.
Can you give an
Sure, I have an example in the form of a story:
A friend of mine was a highly experienced Colonel
in the Marines. He was part of an exercise at
Camp Pendleton called "Hunter-Warrior." Marines
-- noncommissioned officers -- would go out in
the field as forward observers to look for enemy
tanks and equipment. They would radio back what
they saw so that those tanks and other targets
could be attacked.
My friend wasn't part of the exercise, but he
got permission to go along. At one point, the
unit spotted a tank. The non-commissioned officer
in charge of the unit saw the tank once it was
in plain view and sent back to headquarters the
message, "I see a tank," along with the grid coordinates.
My friend was thinking, "Anybody could see the
tank by now, because it was out in the open."
So he watched it closely as it came down the valley,
and then took a defensive position. He said to
himself, "There is never just one tank. Nobody
ever goes out all by himself. There has got to
be at least one more tank."
can help sharpen our intuitions by helping
us with sense making, with anticipating
a result, and with decision making.
He kept watching, but he didn't see another tank
come down the valley. So he realized that the
second tank must already be in position. He started
looking in the shadows to see where the other
tank would be positioned to support the first
one, and he found it. He said to himself, "Tanks
usually travel in platoons of four. If there are
two tanks, maybe there is another one or two."
He looked deeper into the shadows and found the
Then he thought, "These guys are just sitting
there, and the position they've taken up is a
defensive position. So, what are they defending?"
He decided that there might be a command post,
and he looked in the likely places for a command
post. Then it got a little windy, and he noticed
the glint of an antenna. Instantly, he found the
It was interesting to compare what my friend could
see versus the non-commissioned officer, because
the NCO was only reporting the tanks when they
came into plain view. My friend wasn't just reporting
what he was seeing. He was going beyond. He was
looking for things.
He was building
a story based on his prior experiences.
Exactly. He was looking for things, because he
had a storytelling technique that told him what
to look for. That's how this story-building activity
helped him to make sense and to build a better
account of this situation. Stories can help sharpen
our intuitions by helping us with sense making,
with anticipating a result, and with decision
Are there key questions that
we ask ourselves when we create these stories?
Sure, for example, "What's the logic of this story?"
Or, "How does this story work?" This is an important
question, because a story works in a couple of
One, it works sort of like an efficient experiment.
When we conduct a standard experiment, we typically
manipulate one variable. That's the independent
variable, and we measure changes in the dependent
variable. Our research tends to only look at one
or two variables at a time, which is unfortunate,
because it is like looking at the world through
a soda straw. We can't see all of the variables
and how they are interacting.
When we build a story, we take into account several
independent variables at a time. A story shows
all of those variables as they interact. What
we lose is the ability to control the independent
variables, because we can't set up the values.
But what we gain is the sense of how these are
interacting and working together. That's a source
So a story is a basis
It's a natural experiment that we use to our advantage;
then we compile these experiments, accumulate
them, and try to learn from them. That's just
one of three aspects of the logic of stories.
And the second aspect?
The second aspect has to do with mental simulations.
During a mental simulation, you are constructing
a story in your head. You say to yourself, "I
know how this starts. Let me work out the continuation."
Or you also might say, "I know how this ends.
Let me work out the beginning." Or there also
might be a situation where you say, "I know both
how it starts and how it ends. Let me work out
Can you give an example
of a mental simulation?
Sure, and I can use one based on a story from
ASK. You remember there was a story in
ASK 13 by Tom Rivellini? He talked about
the airbags on Pathfinder. We got to see that
great picture of the Mars landscape, the equipment
looking great, a picture of him looking at the
airbags, and we heard how everyone did their jobs.
We all know that it worked. But he said, "It wasn't
that simple. It wasn't trivial to get those airbags
configured so that they would do their job. Here
is what really happened..."
We're suckers for stories like that because, we
want to know the inside part of what happened.
He led us through it, including the emotional
ups and downs. We heard how he became discouraged
as attempt after attempt failed. The story got
us to the point where we asked, "How did he ever
get it to work?" He started with a story that
we all knew the ending to, but he said the interesting
part is how we got there.
is the third aspect to the logic of stories?
This aspect deals with how you make sense of a
situation by combining its components. You're
compiling the data, the events, and what you observed
into some sort of frame that holds it all together.
For example, the frame can be a map made up of
the details of various places that shows how they
connect. Or it could be something like a script
that shows all the people involved in something
and the part they play. Or it could be an outline
of a routine of some sort.
first, the data or the frame?
That's an interesting question, because the fact
is that neither of them comes first. You need
the data to tell you which frame is appropriate,
but you need the frame to tell you what counts
as data and which data to use. You create the
framework and compile the data simultaneously.
The story becomes a blend of the data and the
frame. As you work through the story, the frame
gets richer and richer, because you're deepening
the account. A story allows you to do both simultaneously:
Make the frame richer and identify new types of
It sounds like an extremely
effective way of evaluating and acquiring new
It is. The problem is that while stories are often
important, they're not sufficient. When I fly
in an airplane, I don't want my pilots' training
to have been only hearing stories about how to
take off and land.
I want them to have checklists. I want them to
follow procedures, because I know that people
forget things. But I don't want them to just know
procedures, which are designed for situations
that continuously repeat themselves, because sometimes
the procedures don't work for unique situations.
are times to follow procedures and times
not to, times to codify information and
times when you need the context that goes
So, you need the procedures, but a story
might help you know how to handle a situation
that they don't cover? And presumably as the world
becomes more dynamic, these situations become
Right. However, some organizations don't want
to buy into that. They think that they can come
up with procedures so exhaustive that there is
never a need to go beyond them.
Researchers who have looked at this have never
found that procedures alone are very successful.
Yet, it is often an organizational quest to write
them so they are. I can give you an example of
an incident where the organization refused to
believe in the power of stories. I got this from
Kim Vicente, a researcher at the University of
There was a crack nuclear power plant in Canada
where the controllers were really, really good.
All nuclear power plants are regularly inspected
and tested. A day came for one of the periodic
tests for this control room team.
These guys had always scored really high in the
past, but they had one flaw: They didn't always
follow the procedures. For this, they were always
reprimanded. They knew what they were doing, and
they knew when they could do shortcuts, but they
were tired of getting dinged for not following
all of the procedures. Before the next test, they
all banded together and made a pact. They said,
"Whatever comes, hell or high water, we are going
to follow the procedures."
So the test comes, and they're given a tough situation.
They're working on it, and they get into a loop.
They take action-A, which produces situation-B.
They respond to situation-B, which gets them to
C. They follow the procedures, and the procedures
get them right back where they started at situation-A.
They just look at each other like, "This is amazing!"
They follow the procedural loop around again and
again, and each time they end up right back at
the beginning. They are just loving the heck out
of this -- having a great time.
The controllers finally stop them. In the end,
the inspectors were so irritated that they wrote
them up anyway, this time for "malicious procedural
It's a funny story, but it shows that there are
times to follow procedures and times not to, times
to codify information and times when you need
the context that goes beyond codification.
So stories help with the practical knowledge
that goes beyond the checklists. What is another
storytelling tool that can be used in a dynamic
Another tool is having people swap their stories
in Lessons Learned sessions. The idea is that
your peers can teach you valuable information,
and you can teach them. Let me tell you another
story that shows what I mean:
We put on a workshop for fire fighters in Los
Angeles. We were talking to battalion commanders
and captains about how they could improve decision
making through the use of stories. I started by
saying, "The purpose of this workshop is to improve
decision-making skills." One of the fire fighters,
a captain, asked, "But will it help with things
like morale?" I answered that, "No, I don't see
it helping with morale."
I came back a couple of weeks later when we had
our next session. The same fire fighter said,
"Hey, you were wrong about stories not helping
morale." He told us the story of how he came to
Apparently, there was somebody in his company
who was a real loser. This guy was always messing
up, and they were constantly at each other's throats.
After we finished the last workshop, the captain
went back to his company. A few days later, the
company responded to a fire call. This same guy
in the company, again, does something really stupid.
(The routine at this point was that the guy did
something stupid, the captain goes over to him
after the incident and yells at him. He asks him,
"How many times have I told you not to do that?"
And then he writes him up.)
But this time, the captain had just come out of
the workshop. Instead of yelling at the guy, he
said "When you handled things that way, I was
kind of surprised. Can you explain your reasoning
to me so that I can understand what you were trying
to do? What was in your mind? Give me your story."
The firefighter explained what he was trying to
do and why, and the captain was amazed because
it made sense. Then they were able to have a dialogue
about how he'd handle other situations, and it
was the first time they'd ever had a real discussion.
part of the power of stories -- changing
the dynamic of situations with knowledge
The captain came back to our workshop and said,
"I used to think this guy had an attitude problem.
Now I realize that I was the attitude problem.
When I let him tell his story before chewing him
out, it changed the whole dynamic."
That's part of the power of stories -- changing
the dynamic of situations with knowledge and understanding.
That is what ASK Magazine is attempting
to do for the field of project management.
There are some great stories in the magazine.
Somehow you've been able to create a culture that
not only collects stories, but you're also sensitizing
people to those stories so that they are even
experiencing their world slightly differently.
That's what you want when people come out of a
storytelling workshop, or when they finish reading
the magazine. You are sensitizing people to the
value of stories, because they are an effective
vehicle for knowledge. You are helping to build
the culture of storytelling that we are both a