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,, 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, 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 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?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What if I gave a PNI course?

Now that NarraFirma is out there and usable, there's an idea for a next step that I've been playing with in my mind. I don't know whether it would work. I don't know if I should put any more time into it. So I'm asking you.

What if I gave a course in doing PNI?

Let me explain what the course would be like. Most importantly to me, every student would end the course having done a real PNI project. I'm not interested in lecturing. I want people to get out there and start making their first mistakes with lots of help. That means the course has to take place over time. I'm thinking about a month. That means it has to be online.

Also, I think it's important that people work together in groups, because PNI is almost always a collaborative experience. Collaboration would happen at two levels. Study groups would consist of 4-6 people who discuss concepts and provide peer support. Optional project groups would consist of 2-3 people who would share a project. Project groups might be co-located (and maybe facilitate sessions together), or they might simply merge their stories on the same topic collected in two different places, so nobody has to collect all of their project's stories alone. Real PNI projects need at least 80 stories to work well, so sharing projects is a good way to spread the work around.

Each week of the four-week course would feature one or two phases of PNI: planning; collection; catalysis and sensemaking; intervention and return.

The agenda for each week would look like this:
  • Monday: assigned readings (from WWS and other sources), plus a video-call study-group discussion about the readings. (Probably a lecture or video as well, for those who learn better by hearing/watching.)
  • Tuesday: a "preparation for action" activity, such as writing draft questions or preparing catalytic material.
  • Wednesday: a video-call feedback session, with me, where we go over plans and preparations for action.
  • Thursday: an action, like collecting stories or holding a sensemaking session.
  • Friday: another study-group discussion about what happened during the actions, then a review session, with me, about the actions.
All of the discussion sessions, with or without me, would be held per study group, so people would never be on a call with more than five other students. If the sessions are 90 minutes long, that will make sure each person gets 15 minutes to focus on only their project (longer if people are sharing projects). This puts a limit on how many people can take the course at once: 18, because I think I can be useful in three feedback or review sessions in a day, and no more. Time zones might be an issue, so we will set up the study groups primarily by geography.

Another rule will be that everyone will use NarraFirma, because some of the activities will involve using it to plan and carry out projects. Included in the course fee will be an account on a server I set up (okay, my husband sets up).

People who take the course will be responsible for: reading the assigned readings; participating in the discussions; doing the course activities; and most crucially, getting people to tell stories and attend sensemaking sessions. Nobody is allowed to take the course in theory. They must have a real project they want to do. It has to be a small project, given the time frames involved, but it must be real.

How much time would this take? It would really depend on how much time people want to put into it. I can imagine it taking 8 hours per week, as a minimum, but I could also imagine it taking 20 or even 30 hours a week, if people want to do more ambitious projects during the month.

There would also be an online-discussion component to the course, with a forum where everyone on the course (up to 18 people at a time) could talk with each other (and me) in text format. I wouldn't promise to spend huge amounts of time on the course forum, because, as you know if you've been reading this blog, I tend to write too much and get in over my head. But I would promise to keep an eye on the forums and respond as much as is reasonable.

So what do you think? Is this something you think people might want to do? Is it something you might want to do? And what do you think would be a fair price to participate in such a course? I'm thinking US$800 per student would be reasonable. What do you think?

If you think I should do this, please tell me via comment or email (cfkurtz at cfkurtz dot com) so I know what people think. And if you have any suggestions that might improve the course, I'm all ears. I'm considering having the first course in March of 2016. Probably six people (one study group) is a reasonable minimum. Let's see what happens.

Edit: The next day I thought: maybe people would like to see more. So here's more. This is what I have (so far) for a detailed schedule. I expect this would improve over time. The readings in particular would probably change as I spend more time choosing the best things to read.

Week 1: PNI and Project planning
  • Lecture/video: what is PNI, where did it come from, what are its strengths and limitations
  • Reading: WWS, Intro to PNI Chapter and Planning Chapter; also NarraFirma web site (to start getting familiar with the software)
  • Optional reading: "what is participatory action research" and something similar on narrative inquiry, maybe this
  • Discussion: talk about project they want to do, start playing around with NarraFirma
  • Preparation: do the planning steps in NarraFirma, including telling some project stories and creating story elements from them
  • Consultation: talk about projects they want to do, ask questions about PNI and NarraFirma
  • Action: collect a small number (say 10) pilot stories, without questions, to start getting practice gathering stories
  • Discussion: talk about what happened during pilot collection
  • Review: talk about problems so far, ask questions
Week 2: Story collection
  • Lecture/video: About conversational storytelling; how to elicit stories; how to facilitate people telling stories together
  • Reading: WWS, some parts of Story collection chapter
  • Optional reading: oral history guidelines - something like this
  • Discussion: talk about method of story collection, talk about what questions to ask
  • Preparation: write elicitation and interpretation questions in NarraFirma (can use some of the "template" questions in NarraFirma)
  • Consultation: talk about which is the best method of story collection for each project; go over question sets; talk about entering stories into NarraFirma; ask questions
  • Action: Collect 60-80 stories (this week's action part may take much more time than any other), using interviews, group sessions, internet, whatever works for each project group
  • Discussion: Talk about what went right and wrong during story collection
  • Review: talk about story collections, problems, offer help to people who didn't get enough stories (they can gather more over the weekend)
Week 3: Catalysis + Sensemaking
  • Lecture/video: what catalysis is for, where it came from, why do it; where sensemaking comes from, stages of sensemaking, outcomes
  • Reading: WWS, some portion of Catalysis chapter, some portion of Sensemaking chapter
  • Optional reading: something on mixed-methods analysis, like this; something on sensemaking, like this; something on group facilitation methods, like open space, future search, dynamic facilitation, art of hosting - just to be aware of the similarities
  • Discussion: talk about stories collected, problems during collection, catalysis process, sensemaking process
  • Preparation: prepare brief catalysis report to be used in sensemaking session (with interpretations and ideas) [because projects will only be using something like 4 or 5 questions, the report will be short and relatively easy to create]; fill out "sensemaking session plan" part of NarraFirma (using templates)
  • Consultation: talk about catalysis reports; talk about sensemaking session plans
  • Action: Carry out sensemaking session with people from community (usually 2 hrs max, but motivated people can do more); fill out sensemaking session record in NarraFirma
  • Discussion: talk about what happened during sensemaking
  • Review: ask questions about what happened during sensemaking
Week 4: Intervention + Return
  • Lecture/video: what I mean by intervention and return, where they came from, why they matter
  • Reading: WWS, parts of intervention and return chapters
  • Optional reading: something on narrative therapy, like this; something on participatory theatre, like this; quick overview of digital storytelling, other options
  • Preparation: fill out parts of NarraFirma related to intervention (project outcomes, intervention plans); fill out intervention plan part
  • Consultation: talk about intervention plans
  • Action: carry out small (1-2 hr) intervention in community; talk to a few to several participants about the project (to gather feedback); fill out "reflect on project" part of NarraFirma return section
  • Discussion: trade experiences on what happened in this part
  • Review: talk about what happened in this phase; talk about whole projects; end course
Sound good? Suggestions to make it better? Let me know.

Second edit: Somebody suggested that this schedule might be too much for people who are already working full-time. What do you think of spreading the schedule out over six weeks, so that each week was dedicated to only one PNI phase? More doable? What about eight weeks? Too long? What works?

Third and more important edit: I've written more about this in an update here. Read that next!