Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Where is the participation in PNI?

Here's a thought. I saw a reference to participatory narrative inquiry recently that said it's participatory because during the return phase of a PNI project, stories return to the community.

I thought: that's true, but the return phase isn't the only place a PNI project can be participatory. There is a place for participation in every phase of a PNI project. So it seemed like an interesting exercise to explore those places. Let's try it and see what happens.

Story collection

Some might say the story collection phase of PNI is participatory because people tell stories in it. But that doesn't work; you could say the same thing about narrative inquiry, and maybe about traditional qualitative research as well. If you call your method participatory, you can't say things about it that are equally true of methods that don't call themselves participatory. So story collection cannot be in itself participatory.

Story collection is participatory when people can hear (or read) other people's stories as they talk (or write), so that at least some people are responding not to questions but to stories. This is typically done in a face-to-face group session, but it can also be handled in a facilitated chat, or even a web form on which people can respond to other people's stories as well as answer questions. In any of these cases, people are participating in a conversation with other people, not just with an interviewer.

Story collection can also be participatory when people have a chance to truly reflect on the stories they tell, and not just answer questions other people want the answers to. If people come out of telling a story and say "I got something out of that" or "I never thought about it that way before," the story collection has been (at least a little bit) participatory. But be careful: whether answering questions is participatory can be seen only in retrospect. You can't say a story collection has been participatory until you've gathered reactions to what the storytelling has been like for the people who experienced it. They get to say whether it was participatory. You don't.

If you are collecting stories for PNI and you don't have either of those factors in your project (people responding to other people's stories, people saying they reflected productively on their stories), you don't have participation in that part of your PNI project. It doesn't have to mean your entire project is not participatory. There are other places for participation to come in.


I think of sensemaking as the primary way in which people participate in PNI projects because the best results come out when people get a chance to work with their own stories. But not every project can involve all or even most of the people who told the stories. Sometimes the people who told the stories aren't willing or able to participate in sensemaking. This happens when stories are collected from visitors or employees or customers who aren't willing or able to give up more than a few minutes of their time.

Of course, sometimes the storytellers do care and would participate, but the project funders don't want to extend the umbrella of participation in sensemaking. They'd rather their group of experts or people-in-charge make sense of what's in the stories the project collected. Whoever's doing the project can also set limits on participation, because of how they want to frame or report the research, or because they don't feel capable of facilitating such a group.

Do you recognize these three groups: the participants, funders, and project organizers? I've mentioned them before. They are described in one of my favorite passages on participatory action research. It's from a 1998 paper by Yoland Wadsworth and goes like this:
In typical research there might be one or more ‘researchers’, there might be people who are ‘researched’, and there might be people who are ‘researched for’ - such as those who are to be informed or influenced by findings, or, at a more fundamental level, those who have a problem on which the research is to cast light. 
Even though the three groups are considered "co-researchers" in participatory action research (and in participatory narrative inquiry), there are still differences between them in practice. They may have  different views on what the project should be, and they may have different sorts of influence on how the project goes. Any of the three groups can limit the amount of participation you can include in a PNI project, whether their part lies in allowing participation to happen, facilitating participation, or simply showing up. It's like the saying "it takes two to tango" except with three groups.


The return of stories to the community can take many forms. People might read stories in a report or newsletter, or they might talk about a story collection or sensemaking session they attended, or they might discuss the project's outcomes, or they might just talk (or think) about the story they told.

In an ideal return phase, lots of interested people keep talking about the stories and the project for years afterward. This doesn't always happen, for the same reasons cited above. Sometimes the funders want to keep the project's results to themselves. Sometimes the facilitator is too busy or wants to move on. Sometimes the information is made available but nobody cares to pick up on it. There is never no return phase, even if it's limited to random fleeting thoughts about "that survey I took last month." But if a project wants to support the return phase its three dance partners have to be willing and able to keep things going.


Now we turn to the optional phases of PNI. I always like to put these after the essential parts to remind myself that a PNI project can turn out perfectly well without any of the optional parts.

How can people participate in a PNI project's planning phase? In lots of ways. They might be part of a pilot story collection. The could be part of some initial testing-the-waters sensemaking. They might give feedback on early project plans and question designs. How much of the planning process to open up to participation is something the project organizers and funders have to decide early on. Too little participation in the planning phase can cause a project to miss the mark, for example by collecting stories in a way that people don't respond well to. I've seen quite a few projects fail to meet their potential by putting too little attention into participation during planning.


Narrative catalysis seems like the least likely place to find participation in a PNI project. At least the way I've learned to do it, it looks like me in my office staring at a computer screen for dozens of hours. I suspect it looks that way for most other people who do it (I think at least a few other people do this...) But having one expert create catalytic materials is not the only way to do catalysis. There are definitely benefits to having a naive outsider explore avenues others would abandon, and say things that cannot be said, but if people are willing to be surprised by their own stories, I think a group of people can do catalysis as well as or even better than an expert outsider.

If I was asked to facilitate a group catalysis session, here's how I would do it. First and foremost, I would attempt to retain all of the catalysis principles (separate statements, provide provoking perspectives, maintain mischief, explore exhaustively, prepare for participation). How? I would embody each of these things in group processes. For example, to maintain mischief I would give some people or groups a "red team" or "devil's advocate" role, and ask them to use the stories and other collected material to tear apart assumptions. To explore exhaustively, I would ask people to choose beforehand which graphs they would create, and then stick to the plan. And so on.

The most critical of the five principles for participatory catalysis work is, I think, providing provoking perspectives. For this one it would be important to make sure that all pairs or trios of competing perspectives come from the same people. In other words, it would not work to say "we'll make up a set of competing perspectives by getting one from each person in the group."

First, that might turn the catalysis session into a shouting match, which is not the point of catalysis. The point is to prepare thought-provoking materials for sensemaking. Catalysis cannot replace sensemaking, because it's what you do with the materials you create that matters most. Nor can catalysis be interleaved with sensemaking, because every bit of sensemaking will affect the catalysis that comes after it, which will affect the next bit of sensemaking, and so on. No, the creation of catalytic materials has to be a distinct phase that requires different rules.

Second, it is the practice of stretching one mind to find competing interpretations that makes catalysis work. In fact, you could argue that spreading out the work of catalysis among participants in a project could be the best intervention of all, if you can get people to put the time in. Doing this work for years has certainly changed my habitual response to apparent facts. Everything bounces around in here. As is usually the case, the expert doing the work gets more benefit from the work than the people for whom the work was done.

If you're interested in exploring participatory catalysis, let me know. I would love to find a bunch of willing participants who would like to play with the idea.


Finally we get to the part of PNI that is the most participatory of all, because it is geared toward changing the stories people tell themselves. When you slot in narrative therapy or appreciative inquiry or participatory theatre, you're asking people to rise to a higher level of participation than in other phases of PNI.

When people tell a story, they participate at what I call a "micro-participation" level, especially if they tell the story in a simplified form such as on a web form. When people participate in sensemaking or catalysis, the participation is higher, but it's still anchored in a space of discovery and exploration. Being asked to actively change the way you look at things, as you do when you participate in any of the "slotted in" methods I mentioned above, is the highest degree of participation. Sure, some change might emerge at the end of sensemaking, and often it does. But its potential for transformation is lower. That's why I think PNI works well as a ground-truthing preparation for a number of methods that ask people to change the way they think. It's a way to prepare to change by orienting yourself in the past and present.

Of course, intervention in PNI does not have to require any of those more elaborate and more participatory methods. It can be as simple as twenty stories appearing in a weekly newsletter. Or it can be a campaign commercial. Or it can be a report on sensemaking made available on a web site and open to comment. Some of these options can be as micro-participatory as the telling of isolated stories, or even more so. So I would say that participation in the intervention phase is not the highest, but has the highest range of possibility. That works, because intervention is an optional phase to begin with.


The main conclusion I can draw from this exploration is that PNI can be (maybe has to be) participatory in as many ways as there are PNI projects. The precise shape of participation in a PNI project has to depend on the precise needs and goals of the project. I can imagine two projects that are tempted to call each other "not very participatory" because their participation shapes are so different. I like that idea. It means that PNI is not a key; it's a skeleton key. Or it's a key that changes its shape as it approaches each door. This is fitting, because every door in PNI is a different door.

Okay, so here's a bouncing-around thought: could participation damage PNI? Can a PNI project be too participatory? Yes, but not in general; in specific places. There are spots along the shape of the key that can damage the ... the lock or the door or something.

I can think of two times when I've seen too much participation damage PNI projects: during the planning phase, and during the start of participatory workshops. These are both times when nascent plans are fragile and need to be put into practice, not examined. These are "stop talking about it, just do it" moments. Having too much participation at times like these would be like giving the chickens the run of the garden when the first seedling leaves are poking their heads out of the soil. The result would be no garden at all, just an empty plot.

I've never actually seen this happen in a PNI project, mind you, because the usual problem is people not including enough participation in the planning phase. But I can imagine a project that dies an early death because people ask for so much feedback at the start that nothing ends up solidifying. I do remember asking people for feedback up front in a few early workshops and feeling like it was a bad idea to "talk about how the sausage is made" instead of just getting people going on tasks. Not only did the energy in the room plummet, but people thought I was stupid for asking, and the discussion trailed off into not-very-productive debates over "pedagogy" and "facilitation design." Some people just got bored and left.

So it's entirely appropriate, I think, for the participation in a participatory method to rely heavily on some spots of non-participation to work. They are the spots of yang in the yin that keep the wheel turning. Right? Make sense?

Okay, I'm done musing for now. It was fun. Thanks for reading, and I'm interested in your thoughts, as always.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Progress on NarraFirma

Hey folks. I wonder if people might have wondered what happened to NarraFirma. Here's an update.

After the software's initial release last October, we found ourselves pretty busy for a while. My husband got busy looking for a job, and now he's hard at work keeping the job he found. I experienced an uptick both in small paying projects and in general interest in PNI. These were good problems to have, but they meant that NarraFirma got less attention for a while.

However, in the past month I've finally been able to put some serious time into the software. As you may know, Paul wrote most of the code, so I've been learning to work with it, starting at the edges and working my way in. I've been fixing bugs, adding little features, and working on clarity and usability. I've also learned the long and convoluted process for putting out new releases for the Node.js and WordPress versions of the software (well, it's only the WordPress part that's convoluted).

Now that I'm getting up to speed, I hope to keep putting out new releases as often as I can. If you have installed the NarraFirma WordPress plugin, you will get upgrade notices from time to time. If you're using the Node.js version, I recommend that you check either the releases page on GitHub or the NarraFirma web site blog.

What NarraFirma needs now is more users and more feedback. If you've been thinking about using the software, please try it and tell me what you think. (By the way, we recently discovered Bitnami "application stacks," which you can use to install WordPress locally with just a few clicks. A few more and you've got a working copy of NarraFirma. Good stuff. More instructions here.)

If you are using NarraFirma, I would be very grateful if you would send me a note and tell me what your experience has been like so far (cfkurtz at cfkurtz dot com). I'm eager to hear what people like and don't like in what we have built, and I want to know what people would like to see in the future.

I would also like to use this opportunity to thank several people who have been helping out with testing and feedback so far. M, P, S, J, G, M, and B, thank you so much. You have helped us to make NarraFirma better!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Connection Language: Dialogue, Methods, Collaboration

A few of you might remember that when I posted my observations from the NCDD conference in October 2014, I mentioned the idea of a "connection language" to interpolate between different dialogue methods.

I've been playing with that idea ever since. I've told about a dozen people about it and gathered feedback. Based on that, I've been working up an elevator pitch to work towards an eventual real project. (Okay, an elevator in a really tall building.) I've been passing this pitch document around in email, but the other day I thought: the blog is hungry, so why not feed it this thing? So here it is. See what you think.

The need

These are some things I’ve noticed over the past several years, as a person who has been developing and promoting a dialogue-based method (participatory narrative inquiry).

People who are interested in dialogue can turn to a large number of useful methods, in the dozens (or hundreds, depending on how you divide them up).

Several excellent lists and frameworks have been built to help people make sense of all these methods. These include the NCDD’s Engagement Streams Framework, participedia.net, The Change Handbook, Liberating Structures, the Group Works Deck, Tom Atlee's Multi-Process Public Participation Programs, and others. People use these lists and value them.

The number of dialogue methods keeps growing.

I have noticed from conversations with people that:
  • People seem to “shop” for dialogue methods, choose a small number, pay attention to them, and ignore all others.
  • People sometimes act tribally about the methods they have chosen, promoting them as best, acting as if people who also use those methods are on their “team.”
  • When I tell people about the method I work on/with (participatory narrative inquiry, or PNI), I find that there is a U-shaped reaction based on how much experience people have in dialogic practice.
    • People who are unaware of dialogue want to hear about PNI (and PNI only).
    • People who have some (but not that much) experience with dialogue don’t want to hear about yet another method, say they’ve already heard of Appreciative Inquiry (or some other story-based method), and get too busy to talk to me.
    • People with lots of experience want to know how PNI relates to other methods. They want to learn about it so they can consider incorporating some of its ideas into their practice.
  • When people ask me about PNI, they are often surprised when I point them to literature in overlapping fields like participatory theatre and narrative therapy. They find it unique and novel.
My guess is that all of these things relate to Dunbar’s number, that is, the number of relationships people can keep track of. We can be aware of 100-150 methods (our village), but we can be familiar with only about 10-15 (our family). These behaviors – the ignoring, the tribalism, the U-shaped curve of attention, the surprise – all have to do with cognitive limits.

The sociologist Harrison White posits three “species” of interaction among people: selection (choosing among options), mobilization (gaining influence), and commitment (getting things done). When I look at how people use dialogue methods, I see a lot of selection (shopping) and mobilization (tribalism) going on, but very little commitment (making things happen).

I think the world of dialogue needs more commitment interaction.

My concern is that we may be reaching a point where the very instruments we use to bridge differences have developed differences that need to be bridged.

Many dialogue methods are more complementary and synergistic than people (especially newcomers to dialogue) realize.

The most experienced practitioners of dialogue don’t shop for methods, and they don’t promote methods. They grow their own solutions, unique to each need, based on what they learn from all over. Harrison White would say that they work entirely at the commitment level.

In my experience, dialogue is more effective when people know why they are using what they are using, learn from many sources, and can craft unique solutions for unique needs. I would like to see more people doing this.

It should be possible to help more people get to the point of understanding how to grow their own solutions.

I’m surprised how hard it is to find out how different methods are related. The people who developed the methods usually know about relationships among methods, but there is little for the practitioner to find on the subject.

Maybe better information on how dialogue methods are and can be related would help people move beyond the current state of affairs. Maybe it would help people make more informed choices, do less “campaigning” for their favorite methods, listen to people who use different methods more carefully, and create better solutions for their needs.

Based on all of this, I’ve been pondering this question: how can we, as developers of dialogue methods, help people use the synergies they need to make our methods work for them?

I think it’s time to take the next step beyond lists to a networked model that helps people find “yes and” synergies among relevant methods. 

Here’s how I think we could do that. (I don’t know who “we” are at this point. It could be anybody.)

The idea

Christopher Alexander is rightly revered for his idea of a pattern language, a structured way to talk about patterns in – anything.
"... the elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice."
You could say that dialogue methods are like patterns, because they present solutions for common problems. In fact, the Group Works Deck treats them exactly as such. [Edit: This isn't exactly correct. Tree Bressen, one of the originators of the Group Works Deck, says that it represents "underlying patterns and similarities" that make up dialogue methods (not the methods themselves).]

I think we could take the idea of a pattern language and apply it to relationships between methods. I’ve been calling this idea a connection language.

By creating a web of pairwise connection patterns, we could build a learning network people could “walk around on” to better understand how dialogue methods are related and to find the best combinations of solutions for their needs. Because a connection language would create explicit relationships between methods, people would be able to move beyond shopping and tribalism. They would be able to move into a more effective, committed use of the available methods for their unique needs.

The basic idea of the connection language is simple. In Alexander’s terms, a connection language ought to ask, “What problems can these methods address, and what solutions can they provide, together?” The answer to that question is a connection pattern. Through a dialogic process, two or more people who represent paired methods work together to describe how the two methods are similar, different, and complementary, and how the methods can be (and have been) used together. A collection of these connection patterns creates a connection language.

Alexander and his co-authors called their book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. As I see it, dialogue is the town we are building together; our methods are the buildings; and collaboration is how we are building them (and how we are connecting them). (I had "approaches" in the place of "methods," but methods seem more like buildings. "Approach" is too nebulous a word. But it could be the right word anyway.)

The process

The process of connection pattern creation, to be carried out by two people or groups who volunteer to represent each method, might have a structure something like this.
  1. Reflect. The two people/groups send each other a few brief but essential documents to review. Each person reads and highlights words, phrases, and sentences that stand out as resonating (yes we do that too), contrasting (that’s different), or just interesting (you do that?).
  2. Share. The two people/groups have a physical or online meeting to talk about the words and phrases they highlighted in each other's documents. They use these markings as a means to explore how the two methods are similar, different, complementary, and synergistic.
  3. Build. As the people emerge from their discussion, they create a first draft of a connection pattern (see below for its structure).
  4. Refine. As they improve the pattern, the people open it up to others, to add more detail and to test its utility.
The pattern

A connection pattern might have a structure something like this.
  • Introduction. The pattern starts with a brief introduction to each method that explains its purpose (why it exists), its origin and context of development (where it came from), its core concepts (the ideas it relies on), its practical uses (what it's good for), and its limitations (what it's not meant to do). Note that this part of the pattern only has to be written once for each method. However, the parallel structure keeps methods from veering off into their own ways of describing themselves, and it helps people compare methods on equal terms.
  • Table. Next there is a table that links the two methods together. This is the crux of the pattern. The columns have the titles "Similar" and "Contrasting". The rows cover goals, history, concepts, and techniques. In the cells are brief summaries of ways in which the two methods are similar and different/complementary in each area. (See the example table below.)
  • Dictionary. The major terms unique to each method are defined in language that makes sense to people who know only about the other method.
  • Diagram. An optional diagram shows how the two methods are related visually. The exact form of this diagram emerges out of the discussion between the two people/groups representing the methods.
  • Case studies. These are real or imagined stories about the two methods being used together. Ideas are suggested and experiments are described where the methods are used in various ways (e.g., sequentially, with ideas from one influencing the other, with phases interleaved together, etc).
The language

I envision the connection language being built on a web site, with a semantic wiki (a wiki with forms) providing structure. I would also like to see opportunities for practitioners to have conversations and ask questions about using dialogue methods together.

The obvious difficulty in building such a site is that if there are 100 methods there would be 5000 pairs of methods. My feeling is that the people who choose to represent a method (its developers, people who use it a lot, people who champion it) would take on the responsibility of choosing some number of connections they think are the most useful. Some combinations would “cry out” to be examined more than others, and I expect that eventually a critical mass would emerge.

Along with lists of links on each page, I envision a visual navigation system that looks something like visuwords.com, where clicking on the lines between methods leads to viewing the relevant connection patterns. We might even be able to annotate the visual diagram with summaries like “whole system in the room” (similarity) or “big versus small groups” (difference) or “gather stories first, then brainstorm lists” (complementarities).

My original idea for making the connection language happen was to gather a task force of people who think this is a good idea, and get each of them to contribute a small amount of time and money to get the site going. (It would cost a little to host the site.) However, I’ve been thinking lately that the idea might be better supported by some collective entity that is already helping people with dialogue. The project would reach more people that way, and it might gather more contributors than I can gather on my own.

If anybody has ideas about how such a project could come to pass, please let me know. I don’t have any need to “own” the idea, and even though I’d like to get some credit, I’m happy to share the idea and project with anybody who thinks it’s worth pursuing.

An example

To test some of the ideas I describe above, I worked with Stephen Sillett of Aiding Dramatic Change in Development to create a first-draft table for a connection pattern between Participatory Narrative Inquiry and Socio-Drama Topography. SDT is a large-group facilitation process that draws on participatory theatre, sensemaking, and narrative to create "deep, open, and strategically relevant conversations." SDT is "designed to reduce barriers to participation faced by marginalized communities, including those relating to varying levels of literacy."

I include this table (with permission) as an illustration of the kind of resource that might come out of the connection language process.

Interaction among levels. Both methods create interactions between micro, meso, and macro levels.

Bottom-up. Both methods attempt to drop down below the meso layer and include participants at the micro level.

Pre-decision. Both methods focus on exploration, listening, and sharing in advance of decision making, not on decision making itself.
Reality vs imagination. SDT, on a spectrum from representations of reality to aesthetic resonance (imagination), lies more in aesthetic/performative and less in reality. PNI starts in reality and moves partly into imagination (but not that far).

Scope. SDT focuses on building strategic capacity. SDT is a large group process that makes sense in relation to a defined theme/context in which it is strategically deployed. The journey within the workshop has been designed upfront to get the most out of the 3 days (people are being asked to make a big commitment of time). In contrast, PNI is not focused on capacity; it is focused on helping people make better decisions (large or small). Though PNI projects can be large and can build capacity, PNI more typically “scales down” to fit into the available opportunities for story work, which range in time and mode of interaction.

Depth. If completely extractive work (e.g., survey-based research) is on one end of a spectrum (call it 1) and fully immersive experiences are at the other end (call it 10), SDT has its center at about 7, and PNI has its center at about 5. PNI attempts to create a bridge between shallow and deep exploration by ranging across the spectrum within one project (from shallow, wide story collection to deep, local sensemaking). SDT bridges a similar gap by gradually drawing (the same) people closer to a deeper experience.
Participation. Both SDT and PNI have sought since their beginnings to enable participants to be the drivers of sensemaking and meaning making.
Context of development. PNI arose in corporations centered on decision making. This is one reason it works with minimal participation, grudging permission to include everyone, and short time frames.  SDT arose in opening up youth to participate in forum theatre in communities. This is one reason it builds on creativity and passion in its participants.

Parent fields. SDT is arts-based; PNI is research-based.
Ground truth. Both methods focus on depth of insight, ground truth, and personal experiences.

Play. Both methods use the power of play, “the partial suspension of the rules of the real,” to help people create positive change.

Adaptation. Both SDT and PNI are processes whose design is adapted to particular themes and contexts.

Performance. SDT has a strong performative component. PNI can include performative elements, and has some weaker manifestations of performance (e.g., during sensemaking), but performance is not the core of PNI.

Geography. Having a common geographical area is central to SDT. It is not important to PNI.

Dialogue. Both processes are dialogical; but SDT is intentionally dialogical (using aspects of Bohm dialogue), while PNI relies on the innately dialogical social structures of story sharing.

Cycles. In SDT, much attention is paid to cycles during which the project is tested and matures. In PNI there is less attention to longer-term cycles. PNI projects do sometimes feed in to later projects, but there is less of a long-term expectation of continuity.

Participation. PNI runs on "micro-participation," emphasizing breadth over depth (at least at first, during story collection). SDT runs on "macro-participation," emphasizing depth over breadth. PNI “makes do” with whatever participation/permission it can gather; SDT gathers the participation/permission it needs.

Locality. SDT is "hyperlocal." PNI can be hyperlocal, but it can also be broad and shallow.
Landscapes. Both SDT and PNI include the group creation of a physical map or landscape.  (But see the “Landscapes” difference.)
Numbers of people. SDT works in large groups of 20 or more, attempting to get “the whole system in the room.” PNI works with varied levels of participation and group sizes; typically many people tell stories (possibly hundreds), but fewer work with stories in groups (anywhere from several to 50). In PNI the stories represent the people who are not present (sometimes because they are not willing or able to be present, sometimes because others don’t want them to be present).

Non-verbal communication. SDT has strong elements of non-verbal communication. PNI does include a little non-verbal communication during sensemaking (the creation of physical artifacts), but this is not a core of the practice.

Landscapes. In SDT, creating a landscape is at the core of the method. In PNI, creating a landscape is one of several possible sensemaking exercises. In SDT the landscape is gegraphical and conceptual combined. In PNI the landscape is not usually geographical.

Space. SDT, because it makes use of physical space in its processes, places great emphasis on the physical space in which engagement occurs. PNI needs space for its activities, but has lesser requirements for the quality of the space (because it is not used in the same way).

Training. SDT, because it is a large-group process that typically takes on large, long-term projects, has greater training needs than PNI. To address these needs, SDT seeks to train up local staff for greater sustainability. PNI tends to start with small projects and grow in ambition over time as practitioners become more skilled. On large, ambitious PNI projects, helpers may be trained, but this is not common.


The connection language idea is still in its infancy. I’m eager to connect with people who want to make it happen. I’m open to many ideas about how it should develop and where it should end up. I think it’s an idea the world needs. What do you think?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Course developments

I have succeeded. My original design for the possible on-line PNI course I talked about a few months ago now looks unbearably stupid. Progress!

And how are you? Well, I hope.

So what happened was, just as I was working on that blog post in December, I was approached by a Ph.D. student who wanted to do what is called a "practicum course" with me on PNI. We're working our way through the course, and she's doing a bang-up job on her first PNI project. So far it's going better than any previous attempt to pass on what I know (maybe because I've tried to do this a few times already and learned a lot about what not to do).

The best part of it is that because "my" student is also an experienced teacher, she is helping me think through the course design in terms of what will best help people learn to do PNI. Also, I've been talking to a few people who wrote after that first blog post, about what kind of course they would like to see.

The main points of feedback I have received so far are:
  • People vary in the scale of PNI they want to use. One of the strengths of PNI is that it scales up or down depending on the context and purpose of each project. Thus a PNI project can range from five people spending a few hours together to ten thousand people interacting over years. Some people want to facilitate small-scale "here we are in a room" PNI projects; others want to tackle larger, deeper projects.
  • People vary in how much time they have to take a PNI course. Some will be tacking the hours on top of full-time work, while others will be able to do the course as part of their work or education.
  • People vary in how they learn best. Some will be fine with readings, but some need a more auditory and/or interactive experience.
  • People vary in how easily they can gather participants for a PNI project. Some people have easy access to a group they can draw stories from, while others will have difficulty finding the people they most want to talk to.
  • People vary in their confidence and comfort in various aspects of the work (planning, interviewing, facilitating groups, handling data). Some can look at concepts or session plans or data formats and run with them; others need to practice and find their way.
  • People vary in how easily they can come up with questions to ask. Some will have no trouble writing useful question sets; others will need considerable help figuring out what to ask and how.
  • People's schedules vary. Some will be able to fit fixed meeting times into their fluid schedules, but others will need ways to participate in the course only early in the morning, late at night, or on a fixed schedule (which may or may not match the fixed schedules of others).
  • People vary in what results they want to get from the course. Some people need to prove (to someone else) that they have achieved something by taking the course; others just need to satisfy themselves.
  • People vary in how much direction and freedom they want in a course. Some people want a lot of freedom to choose, while others want things to be spelled out and don't want to make decisions on their own.
  • People vary in what they want to understand about PNI. Some people just want to learn the practical elements, while others want to delve more deeply into the theory behind the approach.
That's a lot of variation! The best way I can see to accommodate all of these needs is to prepare two separate courses. I can also create more flexibility in the structure of each course. See how this plan sounds to you.

Basic "Just Do It"  Course

The basic PNI course will take place over five weeks. The maximum course time will be four hours per week, so the total time commitment is 20 hours. This course will focus on small-scale PNI at a practical level, without much emphasis on theory or custom work.

Students in the basic course will:
  • Choose some story-eliciting questions from a pre-written set
  • Choose from a few pre-written story forms with questions about stories
  • Carry out a story collection session with a pre-written session plan
  • Record the session and transcribe the stories
  • Use a standard word processor to prepare story cards
  • Carry out a sensemaking session with a pre-written session plan
  • Go through a simple return exercise using a pre-written agenda
Students in the basic course will not:
  • Delve deeply into the theory behind PNI
  • Set up or run a project planning meeting
  • Write their own questions
  • Design their own group sessions
  • Decide how they will collect stories (everyone will use the same method)
  • Use NarraFirma
  • Get into narrative catalysis
  • Think about intervention
  • Need to collect more than 30 stories
  • Need to involve more than 4 or 5 participants
I was going to write next that students will "learn how to" do things like collect stories and lead a sensemaking session. But really, learning to do these things isn't the point. You can learn how to do them by reading my book (and/or a combination of books about oral history, narrative inquiry, and facilitation). What this course will provide is the opportunity to do things -- collect stories, watch people tell each other stories, work with your collected stories, help other people work with stories -- with support and discussion along the way. The point of the course is to make sure that your first PNI project is a successful project.

To that end, the emphasis in the basic course will be to "Just Do It" without having to make difficult decisions. Using pre-written story forms and session plans will free people from the intricacies of custom projects. Students won't have to decide whom to include, how to collect stories, what questions to ask about stories, or what to do with the stories once they get them. All of these things will be prescribed by the course, in as simple a way as possible.

The schedule for the basic course will be something like this:
  • Week 1: Introduction to PNI, planning the project
  • Week 2: Collecting the stories
  • Week 3: Transcribing the stories, planning the sensemaking session
  • Week 4: Facilitating the sensemaking session
  • Week 5: Supporting return, wrapping up the project
You'll notice that I've given the story collection phase two weeks, or nearly half the time of the course. This is because story collection is the bottleneck of PNI. If you can't get enough stories, or you get opinions instead of stories, or your tape recorder breaks, the rest of your project can fall apart. Giving people two weeks to collect stories and process them builds in a safety buffer. People who didn't get enough good stories on their first try can try again before their sensemaking session.

Another critical component of the basic course is that I would like to get everyone to transcribe some stories. This task seems like something you'd want to hand off to an underling, but no matter who you are in the world, transcribing stories told in conversation can teach you a lot about stories and how they work.

Each week of the course will include:
  • Assigned readings (not more than 20 pages per week, usually from WWS)
  • Optional readings (not necessary, but available for those who want to spend more time; probably not from WWS)
  • A 30-minute live-call presentation (by me), with Q&A afterward, also available on video for those who can't make the call
  • An activity or task, depending on what part of the project is to be done that week (or what you might be catching up on)
  • A 60-minute video-call feedback session with me, also available on video
  • Ongoing online conversation via forum messages and an "always on" chat room (probably using Moodle) 
Compared with what I described in my last post, this schedule is lighter and much more flexible (due to my realization that people have, um, lives). Some people will be able to attend both the presentation and the feedback session, but those who cannot attend can catch up with both via video. I will also provide feedback via online conversations in the forum and in chat (though not every minute of every day, of course). There will be no study or project groups in the basic course.

Advanced "DIY" Course

The advanced PNI course will take place over twelve weeks. The maximum course time will again be four hours per week (making the course total 48 hours), but that will be an average, because some weeks will be busier than others.

Students in the advanced course will:
  • Hold a project planning meeting (even if it's just by themselves)
  • Use NarraFirma's questions to think through their project plans
  • Choose how they will collect stories
  • Write their own questions for and about stories
  • Test and improve their questions
  • Collect at least 60 stories in any way they choose (interviews, story sessions, online form, email, etc)
  • Enter their stories into NarraFirma
  • Prepare some catalytic material (at least a few graphs) to use during sensemaking
  • Design their own sensemaking session
  • Carry out the sensemaking session
  • Reflect on the session using the questions in NarraFirma
  • Choose, design, and carry out a small intervention (like distributing some stories in the community) as decided in their sensemaking session
  • Fill out all of the recording/reflection screens in NarraFirma to document the project and their learnings to use in the future
Students in the advanced course will not:
  • Use pre-written story forms (though they can draw question templates from NarraFirma) 
  • Need to collect more than 60 stories (though 80+ is best)
  • Need to involve more than 20 participants
In the advanced course, as in the basic course, students will collect stories, watch people tell each other stories, work with their collected stories, and help other people work with stories. The difference is that in the advanced course, students will be encouraged to make their own decisions, bring their creativity and skills to their varied project designs, and delve more deeply into what PNI can do.

The weeks in the advanced course will play out something like this:
  • Week 1: Introduction to PNI concepts and connections; introduction to NarraFirma; forming course, study, and project groups (see below)
  • Week 2: Hold a project planning meeting; fill out the planning sections in NarraFirma
  • Week 3: Design the story collection method and story form
  • Week 4: Do some pilot testing; refine the story form and collection method
  • Week 5-7: Collect stories, transcribe them, enter them into NarraFirma
  • Week 8-9: Design the sensemaking session; prepare catalytic materials using NarraFirma
  • Week 10: Facilitate the sensemaking session; have a post-session review; answer questions about the session in NarraFirma
  • Week 11: Design and carry out a small intervention (like distributing some stories, creating a simple narrative simulation, or bringing in some appreciative inquiry, narrative therapy, or participatory theater) (If people don't want to do interventions, they can do additional sensemaking sessions instead)
  • Week 12: Review the whole project; answer the return questions in NarraFirma
You'll notice the same generous amount of time given to story collection and working with the stories and other data (5 weeks out of 12). The bottleneck in this course is potentially even bigger than the one in the basic course, because people might be collecting stories in a variety of ways (interviews, group sessions, the internet). And people will have a variety of backgrounds when it comes to dealing with the technology required to create graphs. And the different types of questions used might lead people to different mixings of qualitative and quantitative work on their stories. So I want to keep the middle part of the course quite loose, to make sure everyone is ready to move on to sensemaking afterward.

A week in the advanced course will include:
  • Assigned readings (not more than 50 (?) pages per week, usually from WWS)
  • Optional readings (not necessary, but available for those who want to spend more time; probably not from WWS)
  • A 30-minute live-call presentation (by me), with Q&A afterward, also available on video for those who can't make the call
  • Some sort of activity or task, depending on where you are in your project (it does not have to be the same for every participant in every week, though people should probably try not to get too far out of synch)
  • Some form of study-group meeting (but when these happen will be up to the participants to decide)
  • A 90-minute video-call feedback session with me, per course group, also available on video
  • Ongoing online conversation via forum messages and an "always on" chat room (probably using Moodle)
I've dropped the whole on-Monday-we-will-do this schedule, which now seems perfectly stupid. Busy people can't commit to such a detailed schedule. So, usually the presentation will take place on Monday or Tuesday, and usually the feedback session will take place later in the week, possibly on Friday, but we'll figure out when to schedule these things as the course gets started.

You will notice that I added a definite live presentation to each week (in both courses). I don't want to disappoint people who learn best by listening and talking. I learn best by reading and writing, but making a course only I would enjoy seems pretty stupid. So a big part of the preparation for the basic and advanced courses, on my part, will be the creation of lots of presentations that essentially say what's in my book, for people who learn better that way.

In the advanced course we will have three categories of groups among participants:
  • Course groups: These groups will form due to the basic necessity that, if we have more than six people in the course, I won't be able to give everyone enough attention in the presentations and feedback sessions. They will only exist if we have more than six people in the course at a time, and they will be defined mostly by time zones and when people can fit meetings into their schedules.
  • Study groups: course participants will be encouraged to form groups to talk about their projects together. I won't tell them when to talk or how often to talk, but I will assume/hope that people are forming such groups, to deepen their learning with peer feedback. I expect that these will be anywhere from two to six people in size, and will depend on interests and schedules.
  • Project groups: some course participants will want to share their PNI  projects. They will work on their story forms and collection methods together; they will pool the stories and other data they collect; they might even hold joint sensemaking sessions. They might enter only one project into NarraFirma. Everyone will be free to join or not join a project group. I will make a rule that project groups cannot have more than three people in them; otherwise everyone might not get a chance to do everything.
Another thing I'm thinking about a lot lately is what people will want to receive at the end of the course. The Ph.D. student I'm helping right now is doing the course for credits that will be part of her official transcript. Most people won't be doing that, but I do think people will want to have some kind of certificate or proof that they took the course and passed it. (I had to force myself to take the scare quotes off "passed.") I'm hampered in being able to offer a certificate because I don't have a corporation with an official-sounding name. I'm just little-ol' me. I can imagine that people who get funding and/or permission to take the course might need some kind of official-looking result. Would a certificate saying "I passed Cynthia Kurtz's PNI course" be useful to people? Or would it be just be weird? (Maybe there's a "How to Create an Online Course" course. Of course there is.)

You know what? The longer I think about this new offering-to-the-world, the more I think I'm not ready to support it just yet, as in, within the next few months. I've got lots of projects (paid and otherwise) going on, and I still have some groundwork to do before I'm ready. I think the course wants to happen, and I think the world wants it to happen, but I also think it needs more time to mature into what it wants to be.

Most of the reason I'm writing so much about these courses here on my blog is to find out what you want me to do. I want to gather feedback on these ideas, so I can design the best courses I can. If you're still reading, you must be interested. Or you might be one of those people who skim everything, and you popped down here to see how it ends. In either case, if you have any reactions to or suggestions about what I've laid out here, I'm eager to hear them.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

It's a great big box of chocolates

I just now posted this review on Amazon.com. It's about David Hutchens' new book about stories in organizations, Circle of the 9 Muses: A Storytelling Field Guide for Innovators and Meaning Makers. I first heard about David's book project two years ago, and I've been an enthusiastic supporter ever since. I'm excited to see how well the book turned out. Five-star recommendation.

Here's the review:

Full disclosure: I work in the story field; I was one of the people David talked to while writing his book; I promised him I'd write a review.

Things I like most about "Circle of the 9 Muses":

1. It's a balanced look at the story universe.

If you start looking at what you can do with stories, you will find lots of information about what you can do by TELLING stories, usually to convince people to buy or do something. There's nothing wrong with that! But telling stories only scratches the surface of what you can do with stories. LISTENING to stories is just as amazing, if not more so, and it's not well represented in books and other information. I was excited to see that "Circle of the 9 Muses" gives storytelling and story listening/sharing roughly equal time. That makes the book uniquely useful if you want to learn about a wide range of possibilities in story work.

2. It draws on collective wisdom.

David is an experienced practitioner of story work, and he could have written a book using just what he knows. But he didn't do that. He reached out to dozens of people in the story field and drew from all of their experiences as well as his own. So what you're getting in this book is a unique distillation of LOTS of great ideas about doing things with stories. You could think of it as a story-work sampler. Of course, there are aspects of story work David doesn't cover. I would have liked to have seen exercises drawn from narrative therapy and participatory theatre, and lately I've been learning more about narrative coaching, where there is even more to discover. But those are small omissions, and this book will definitely get you started on the right foot.

3. It's a great big box of chocolates.

The most exciting thing about David's book, to me, is that every one of its eighteen chapters gives you real methods you can use right now. For the chapters with methods I know well, I can vouch that the steps David describes work well (and aren't hard to make work well). The chapters I don't have direct experience with I'd like to try. That's saying a lot, given that I've been working in this area for sixteen years. If the chapters in this book seem like they are worth trying, you're right: they are worth trying. Now you know how.

4. It's a great big box of CHOCOLATES.

I always say that story work is bigger on the inside than the outside. From the outside, it looks small, silly, useless, just another fad. But when you come inside, you can see a whole universe of meaning and relevance. David's book does an excellent job of drawing you inside the world of stories by communicating the excitement of story work - without promising that it will always be fast, easy, or perfect. In the process he lets out our most important secret: story work is important, ancient, and powerful.

In summary, I can definitely recommend "Circle of the 9 Muses" as an inspiring, practical, useful introduction to story work.

There were two things I didn't mention in my Amazon review, because I don't think people reading Amazon reviews would find them useful.

The first thing is that I was ever so slightly disappointed to see that David forgot to fix an issue with the "Twice-Told Stories" chapter. Evidently Paul Costello and I developed pretty much the same story exercise around the turn of the century. I knew nothing about this parallel work until I saw David's manuscript about a year ago. I had described the "twice-told stories" exercise in my book's first edition in 2008. Nobody ever told me that anything similar existed, or I would have been sure to mention it in my book revision.

I'm not surprised that we developed a similar exercise, because the exercise fits very well into the ways people naturally exchange stories. It did take my colleagues and me a year of research and testing to develop the exercise, and I assume something similar happened to Paul and his colleagues. The two exercises are not identical because our purposes were not identical, but they are close.

So why does Circle of the 9 Muses use my name for someone else's exercise? Apparently David talked to Paul first, but he also remembered reading about the exercise in my book, and he put the name of the exercise from one place together with its history from another place. I noticed this about a year ago and pointed it out to David. He told me he would change the chapter to say that Paul and I independently derived very similar exercises, and that the chapter name comes from my version. Apparently in the rush of publication he forgot to do that. I can understand that; I've done similar things myself. It takes a lot of careful attention to draw together the work of many people like David did. I don't think anybody could pull off a task like that without forgetting a few details.

I don't mind if people think Paul Costello was the only one to develop that particular exercise. I don't need to own it; story work belongs to everyone, and lots of similar ideas have been independently derived. My concern is that it might be confusing to my book readers to find another book with the same exercise attributed to someone else. I wouldn't want people to think I stole the exercise or lied about my work on it. I have added a mention of Paul's method to the errata page on my book's web site, just to make things clear.

The second thing I didn't say in my Amazon review is, even though I loved David's book, it did point out to me how terrible of a job we story workers have been doing on keeping up with each other. I should not be finding out about the work of other people in the same field by reading a book about it. I did want to participate in the Golden Fleece conferences when they were happening, but at the time I was a low-level employee/contractor at IBM and had no power to choose my own destinations. By the time I started my independent practice and could have participated in meet-ups (theoretically), the Golden Fleece was long gone. I did participate in some of the Worldwide Story Work phone-in sessions, but I don't believe those are still going on.

Lately some colleagues and I have been trying to create a community around PNI with the new PNI Institute. Our monthly Google hangouts are slowly gaining traction, and that's great, but I'm not sure if everyone who does any kind of story work wants to join us there (though you're welcome of course). In fact, our next hangout, on January 8th, is a repeat call about PNI as it relates to the world of story work. (Calls are always the second Friday of the month, at 10am New York time.)

How about a new discussion about bringing together people who do every kind of story work?