Friday, November 27, 2015

Back to Narratopia

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and I'm thankful today that I can announce the initial public release of Narratopia, the conversational story game. You can buy a copy at

Now I'll tell those who are interested what has been happening with Narratopia over the past several months. As you might remember, I introduced an early version of the game back in February. I asked for volunteers to play the game and report back. Ten people got copies of the game, and six sent feedback. Some sent more and some sent less, but every word was useful. I've also played the game more at home and with relatives and friends. By the time NarraFirma was released, I was ready to get back to working on Narratopia. Here is what I learned and changed.

The graphics and presentation

When I first started working on Narratopia, I went looking for public domain pictures of people telling each other stories. I didn't want to use contemporary clip art, because I wanted to reference the way people did things in the past. I ended up choosing two paintings (out of about a dozen candidates): one of three men (called "The Hunters"), and another of three women (called "The Gossips"). The card backs looked like this.

Early Narratopia card backs
Reactions to the images among play testers were mixed. Some people said they liked the pictures and were reminded of times past. But other people said the pictures made them feel like they were in a museum, or like they were expected to do something related to fine art or Shakespearean theatre. That was not the impression I wanted to give.

A few people pointed out the mismatch between the fronts of the cards, which had modern fonts and backgrounds, and the backs of the cards, which were more historical in style. (That's obvious in retrospect. I didn't know what I meant to say, yet.)

Early Narratopia card backs and fronts (mismatched, right?)

People suggested that I make the game's style either completely modern or completely historical.

New Narratopia box art
This was a big decision. I thought (for months) about what I wanted the game's graphics to say. What exactly did I mean by "Narratopia"? What kind of utopia was I talking about? I tried out some images of stories having their own "land," but that wasn't what I meant. What I meant by Narratopia was people living in a world where everybody shares stories every day, not just for a few minutes, like we do, but for hours a day. Like people did a long time ago. A long, long time ago. The problem wasn't that my "paintings" images were too old. They were too young. I had to go further back.

So I started looking at petroglyphs and cave paintings. There was quite a symbolic language back then, with waves and spirals and so on; and some of those meanings have not changed in thousands of years. I drew (about 50 versions of) a petroglyph-style image of people telling stories around a campfire (which you see here on the game's new box front).

Obviously this image isn't scratched onto any rock anywhere, but its elements can be found in real petroglyphs, and the whole thing is inspired by the styles you find in prehistoric art. I "etched" the drawing into a photograph of a rock I took a few years ago. (I put the pine cones there as a joke about how looking at nature could be as interesting as looking at television.) I think (I hope) this creates an image of someone stumbling over an ancient, forgotten treasure.

Next I replaced all of the game's symbolism with images either taken directly (traced) from (photos of) petroglyphs or inspired by them. I also changed the fonts to be more evocative of times long past. And I made the card fronts and backs more consistent. All of the graphics have a stone background, which connects them together better. Some of the icons are "etched" into the rock (like the spiral on the back of the question card) and some are in black (like the spiral on the front). That was inspired by the many instances I found of petroglyphs copied (by anthropologists) and shown in solid black, almost like rubbings. The image is (supposed to be) of something that was lost and now is found.

Redesigned Narratopia card backs and fronts
(Note that I changed the "Link" card to "Connection," which is just simpler.)

I'm pretty happy with the game's new look. I think it gives the game a coherence it didn't have before. I also think it more clearly puts forth the message of going back in time. It's a good sign that I was embarrassed to show the old images to you here (and I couldn't get rid of the old web site fast enough). Of course it's also possible that I'll feel that way about these images years from now, but I hope not (too much).

Notice also the new tag line: the conversational story game. That phrase went through many iterations as well. I've been telling people about this game for almost a year now, and I usually get one of these reactions:
  • It's for role playing, like Dungeons and Dragons
  • It's for improvisation, like stand-up comedy practice
  • It's for learning how to express yourself, like a public speaking course
  • It's for family and team meetings, to have a deeper conversation
Of all of the perceptions I heard, I liked the last one best. I started thinking about those "dinner table games" you are supposed to keep on your table and draw topics from to discuss while you eat. Narratopia is actually a lot like those games, because it is about enhancing a conversation you might already have, making it better and more interesting. So putting the game in the genre of conversational games seems like the best way of setting expectations that are in line with what the game is actually about. Since I started using the new tag line, I only get the one reaction: "Oh, it's for improving your conversations." I'm okay with that.

The gameplay

I'm happy to say that some of my early ideas for gameplay were just awful, and that I'm perfectly embarrassed about them now. (Another good sign.)

Early "game starters"
When I first started working on Narratopia, I knew that I wanted people to connect their stories together into a tree or web of some kind, because that's what people do in conversation. But I couldn't figure out how I wanted people to start telling stories. I spent a long time drawing up a grand list of hundreds of proverbs that I thought would remind people of stories to tell, like "Green with envy" and "Burning bridges" and "Don't judge a book by its cover." In the first versions, this list took up half of the instructions.

It wasn't long before I realized this wasn't necessary. Asking people to simply look back and think of something that has happened to them lately is all the "start" people need. In fact, my list of "game starters" seemed to intimidate people and move the game into the performance and improvisation space, which was not where I wanted it to be. Making the first story topic simpler, almost unimportant, presented less of an obstacle and gave the rest of the game - the connecting together - the attention I wanted it to have.

The other big issue was about winning. I knew I wanted the game to have some sort of challenge, some way to win. But I didn't want to have people rate the quality of stories, because the game would lose its conversational element and become nothing but a sequence of performances. (There's nothing wrong with performances, but there are already dozens of story games about performing.)

The awful guess-the-favorite rules
So I went through several schemes before settling on a "guessing game" scenario. One player would tell a story; other players would ask questions; the player who told the story would choose their favorite question; and whoever asked the question would get a point. Players would win by knowing the other players well, or by listening well to the stories, or both. That was how the game went out in February. I wasn't happy with the guessing scheme, but I didn't know what else to do. I didn't want the game to be insipid, but I didn't want it to turn into a hundred other games with a storytelling dynamic where people are judged for the quality of their performances. This was probably the weakest point of the game in the beginning.

The result? Everyone hated the guessing game. Some people just ignored the point system, because it was so useless. People proposed other systems, but they were all too close (in my mind) to quality-of-performance ratings.

I was stuck on this point for months, until my sister played the game with my parents and another sister. Afterwards she described the game to me over the phone, and I was able to grill her in detail about what happened and how she felt. She told me that while the other people were telling stories, she kept wanting to give them something, to show them that she appreciated the things they were saying. She wanted a way to respond.

This was a revelation. I had been thinking about scoring as an objective measurement. But conversational story sharing is not about objective measurement; it's about subjective reactions. I didn't need a scoring system; I needed a response system.

So I thought of making "tokens of appreciation" people could give each other. My first set looked like this:

Tokens (first try)

This worked, sort of, but it still felt like something was missing. One day I realized what it was. My first tokens were about the nouns of the interaction (the stories, the questions, the connections), not the verbs of the interaction (what was happening). I changed the token names to these:

Tokens (second try)
This works much better. Giving each other the tokens now feels like having little celebrations. It's like telling those "wasn't it great when" stories on your way home from the big game or the family gathering. The tokens represent stories as they ripple out into widening circles.

By the way, in the array of tokens shown here, the last three are traced directly from photographs of petroglyphs. The spiral turtle (blue) is a combination of turtle and spiral petroglyphs. The heart (purple) is inspired by a tattoo design (and a rock album, and a 1935 movie) I found when searching for petroglyphs of hearts.

Let's get back to gameplay. Now a turn in the game has three parts:
  1. The player who is taking their turn tells a story. Unless it's the first story of the game, they connect their story to another story somebody has already told.
  2. Everyone else asks questions about the story, and the storyteller responds.
  3. Everyone gives each other tokens to represent their view of what just happened.
The nice thing about this structure is that each turn is itself a story. The turn begins with the telling of a story, gets more complicated when people exchange questions and answers, and resolves itself as people reflect on what happened.

Wooden tokens
As to the physical form of the tokens, at first I wanted them to be some kind of coins or chits or other little objects that might seem of value. One of the play testers, Ron Donaldson, took my token images (the first ones, without the petroglyphs) and pasted them onto little pieces of wood. He said the players in his game enjoyed having something substantial to give each other. I thought this was a great idea.

TheGameCrafter had lots of options I could use to make physical tokens. They had little plastic shapes, and thick cardboard coins, and even little wooden sticks. But I soon discovered that most of the options for tokens required two things: the price would have to go up, and the game's players would have to do something to use the tokens. They would have to separate cardboard coins from a backing/printing sheet, or they would have to put stickers onto the little sticks of wood. Worse, either of these options required that I move up to a bigger box, which increased the cost even more.

There was one other option I could use: micro cards, which are half-size, quarter-area playing cards. They are just like normal-sized cards in feel (so they're familiar); they fit nicely into the same box I needed for the cards; and they don't require people to do anything to make them usable. I've played with the micro-cards a few times now. They do slip around a little, but they're nice to hold. They're kind of cute, like baby cards, and passing them around does feel like giving each other little gifts. I can see having something more substantial in the future, but for now these are fine.

Ron Donaldson (who suggested the little wooden sticks) also made another excellent observation. At the end of the game, you can arrange your tokens into little bar graphs, like the one below (and the one above, with the wooden sticks). The patterns you see from player to player are revealing. For example, when we play the game in my family, my son always gets more "You surprised me" and "You made me laugh" tokens than anyone else.

Bar graph of token cards
Making the bar graphs creates another level of story within the game. The larger story starts with the reading of the instructions and the distribution of the cards (that's the orientation), continues through the complication of the turn-taking, and comes to a resolution when the bar graphs are compared.

Thus the game is a story made of stories about stories. I'm actually a little bit angry at myself for not having understood much sooner that a game about story sharing would have to be a story made of stories. It's so obvious in retrospect.

Reflection card back
Finally, I needed a name for the tokens (other than just "tokens"). I tried reactions, responses, echoes, ripples, and observations, but settled on reflections as the best way of describing what is happening. People are thinking about, pondering, considering what has just happened, and you could also say that they are looking into a reflecting mirror together. The word also lines up with the other types of cards: connections, questions, reflections. I'll concede that the language isn't exciting. But I think it's more important that the language be accurate, so people quickly understand what the game wants them to do. These words seem to work.

So where is the game's challenge? How do you win? Well, I do have it in the rules that players can count how many reflection cards they got in total, and whoever gets the most "wins." And there is a sort of winning in getting the most of any type of token ("I won surprise, you won thinking"). But I see those things as more of interesting outcomes than goals.

Narratopia game at the end, with story web and bar graphs
I've come to believe that this game is never going to be about winning in the conventional sense. It doesn't want to be. I always say that when you work on a project for long enough, when you think about it waking up and falling asleep for months or years, it begins to speak to you and tell you want it wants to be. I've had many long conversations with Narratopia, and I can tell you that the game does not want to be about winning in the conventional sense. I've told the game that this might mean it will never have widespread appeal, but I don't think the game cares.

The way you win at Narratopia, the way you "beat the game," is, when you look at the web of stories you've built, and you look at the bar graphs you've created, you feel like something has happened that was worth being part of. That's actually quite a satisfying, even fun, feeling. It's hard to describe, but it's real.

When my son and I play Settlers of Catan or Monopoly, or any other "clear winner" game, we often include "extra" players who don't exist, to make the game more interesting for us. The extra players don't really do anything; they just roll the dice and make boring choices (usually choices that favor us) so we can have a more complicated game. You couldn't do that in Narratopia. No matter how many extra players you made up, you'd still tell your own stories, because that's the way the game works. Narratopia does not draw its energy from the interaction of its game components. It draws its energy from the hidden connections among experiences that the game helps you discover. It is the discovery of those hidden connections - like an anthropology of relationship - that is the game's accomplishment.

This proposition will not be attractive to everyone. A lot of games "sweep you away" into a different world, a world where someone else's imagination provides the power, and you enjoy the ride. Narratopia asks more from its players than most games, but it gives them more in return. That's the challenge, to imbue the game with your own meaning, to discover your own connections. But it's not a challenge that is obvious from the outside. It's going to have to be one of those "you have to play it to understand it" games. I may not be happy with that, but the game is fine with it.

(Almost forgot: here's the updated video.)

What's on the cards

Now we get to some possibly boring details about the bulk of the game's content, which is what's written on the cards. I'll just run through the changes here quickly because (if anybody's left) you must be half asleep.

The number of cards. The number of unique cards in the game has gone up and down a few times. The version I sent out in January was slimmed down from my original set, because I thought people might find too many unique cards confusing. It had 24 cards of each type (question and connection), with two copies of each card. People did not like the repeated cards. Coming across the same cards again was not (as I supposed) reassuring. It was just annoying. So in this version there are 50 unique cards of each type. I've played the game both ways. Having more unique cards is better, because you are always interested in what you might get next.

Card difficulty. Because the list of card texts I sent out in February was a subset of my original list, I had chosen to keep most of my favorite cards, which happened to be some of the more complicated ones. People said they were daunted by the cards I included (like "What do you think ___ would think about this?") and wanted some simpler ones (like "When did ___?"). People said they sometimes found themselves unable to use any of the cards they held in their hands, and they were frustrated that the game asked them to do things they didn't feel capable of doing. I thought about this while I was expanding the number of cards. Now that there are 50 unique cards, I made sure that quite a few of the cards are simpler, both in language and in concept. Now people seem to find using the cards less of a stumbling block, easier to pick up and run with.

Old and new card fronts (simpler is better)
Card complexity. Originally the cards had lots of information on them: an icon, a title, a sentence, and a point score (for the stupid point system). As my testers told me, this was messy, complicated, and too much to take in. I got rid of the title and point score (which were mostly just me talking to myself). Now the cards have only two things on them: an icon and a sentence. Removing the extra information also allowed me to make the font much bigger, which is helpful in reading the card at a glance.

I also added a notepad to the game, because it seemed too amateurish to ask people to find paper to write their story names on. The notepad is simple, but the game feels more like a real game with it in the box.

What's next

At this point I think the game has found a good resting place, and I'm just making tiny tweaks that don't matter much. Now the game wants people to try it. I'm hoping to get feedback from new players in the months to come.

There are some further developments I'd like to consider in the future. The most obvious is to produce the game more cheaply. is a wonderful service for prototyping games, but once you get to really selling, the prices and shipping times become prohibitive. If I can put together some large bulk orders, the price might be cut in half. So there could be a Kickstarter in the future, but we'll see what happens. Everything depends on demand. Most of the things I produce end up being sleepers, spread very slowly by word of mouth. That's partly my fault, because I'd rather move on and produce more stuff than spend all my time telling everybody about the last thing I've made. But it's also in the nature of Narratopia being a niche game that lots of people won't understand up front, that it will spread (if it spreads) slowly. I'm okay with that.

My other idea about Narratopia's future is tentative but beguiling. The idea is to produce expansion packs for particular topic areas people want to talk about. They might be subjects like health care, family therapy, software development, product development, community development, and so on. I would write special cards of each type to fit the conversation more closely to the needs and concerns of whoever is playing the game. I would probably want to collaborate with people who know a lot about these areas. I have yet to really think this idea through. It's an idea for next year.

Another obvious idea is to translate the game. A Dutch translation is in the works already. If you'd like to help by translating the game into another language, let me know.

There's also some talk in my house about making an app, or a PC game, or some other thing to help people play the game across large distances (say for spread-out families or work teams). But having just come out of our last "it'll take three months" project, we've kept a lid on those discussions for now.

If you have any feedback for me about the game, whether you play it or just look at it online, please do send me an email (cfkurtz at cfkurtz dot com). I am eager to hear what you think. If you like the game, please give it a rating on the web site, and maybe a review. That would be helpful. And tell people.

One more parenthetical comment: if you want to comment on this blog, try not to do so as "Anonymous." For some strange reason, ever since my last post I started getting several spam comments a day. Maybe I hit an invisible spammer threshold or something. I tend to ignore these, though sometimes I read them just because they are unintentionally oracular (as is all spam). Here's one from today:
Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is great blog. An excellent read. I'll definitely be back.
Flattery will get you nowhere, spammer, and it's "It's." (Still, I added more "pics.") Anyway, just a heads up.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

We have made NarraFirma

We went now away with a fair wind for Brazil; and in about twelve days’ time we made land....  We kept on S. by E., in sight of the shore... and in three days came to an anchor off the bay of All Saints, the old place of my deliverance, from whence came both my good and evil fate. (The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe)
I am proud and excited to announce the first beta release of NarraFirma open source software for participatory narrative inquiry.

Solid ground

The NarraFirma software is a companion to my textbook Working with Stories in Your Community Or Organization. The software takes you through the six phases of PNI, from planning to return. The basic idea is to give people who've read the book a set of tools to bring the book's ideas into reality.

If you already know how to do PNI, NarraFirma can support you too, and probably in a way you've never been supported before. I know I'm eager to use it on my own projects for clients.

What's behind the name? "Terra Firma" means solid ground. The NarraFirma software provides solid ground for story work, in the same way that stories provide solid ground for decision making.  

NarraFirma has four major functions.
  1. It's a checklist. NarraFirma provides practical guidance as you work, with questions for you to answer, recommendations based on the conditions you describe, activities that help you make decisions, and just-in-time advice. 
  2. It's a journal. NarraFirma helps you keep careful records of what happened in your project along with your reflections about what it all means. There are two reasons to do this. First, you will thank yourself for it in future projects. Second, taking notes as you go helps you to remember to reflect as you go. You could say that NarraFirma tugs at your sleeve to remind you to keep learning and improving.
  3. It's a kiosk. NarraFirma helps you collect stories, on-line and/or off-line, based on story forms you design (with sample questions you can copy). Of course you can already collect stories using any of the many survey systems available. But collecting stories in NarraFirma means you never have to metaphorically take your clothes out of the washer and put them into the dryer. It's all in one package.
  4. It's a workstation. NarraFirma helps you discover, consider, explore, and interpret patterns in your data (stories and answers to questions about stories), creating catalytic material you can use in your sensemaking sessions. This is the same basic functionality I have designed before (lists, graphs, statistics), but in a new way that — I believe — makes the catalysis process easier to carry out, especially for a beginner.
Why would you want to use NarraFirma? Here are some features I think are most appealing.
  1. It's portable. NarraFirma is a web application that can be installed as a WordPress plugin or on a Node.js server. This means you can install the software wherever you want to use it, and you can control every aspect of its installation. You can even install NarraFirma on your local computer and use it without connecting to the internet. 
  2. It's a team player. We've spent a lot of time making sure small groups of people can collaborate in real time as they use NarraFirma. I wanted to do this because many of the projects I've worked on have been delayed by "document tag" — that is, people sending files back and forth. With NarraFirma you'll be able to do things like plan your project, write your questions, look at your data, and reflect on what you've learned, as a group. 
  3. It's an open book. NarraFirma is open source software. So if you have a question about how something works, you can just look at the source code and find out. If you need the software to do something it can't do, you can change it yourself or ask someone else to change it. You can even hire me/us to make the changes you need. We are willing to provide relatively low rates for improvements, as long as everybody gets them. 
  4. It works in the real world. One thing we wanted to build into NarraFirma was support for multiple projects, and within each project, multiple story forms, data sets, and catalysis reports. Why? Because I know that real-life projects aren't monolithic. Sometimes projects have sub-projects, and sometimes one project leads to another, and sometimes you have to start and stop and restart a project. I wanted to support that complexity at the infrastructure level.
Enough talk; here's the video

This three-minute video shows you what using NarraFirma is like.

Enough video; here's the software

You can try NarraFirma right now. We have set up an example project on the NarraFirma web site (with made-up stories) that you can poke around in. Go ahead, take a look.

Where it came from

Believe it or not, NarraFirma is the tenth software tool I have built and/or designed to support participatory story work. If you ever meet my husband, thank him, because he talked me into moving a long description of that history to a page on the new NarraFirma web site. Here on the blog I'll just say: I've been working on these ideas for a while.

Even though I will spare you fifteen years of details, I do think I ought to tell you what's been happening lately. As you probably know, in the spring of 2014 I finished the third edition of my textbook on participatory narrative inquiry (four years after I started its expansion). I had originally intended to jump right back into writing and finish the second book (More Work with Stories), which would probably have only taken a few more months. But I just couldn’t face the idea of going back to more writing and editing and typesetting. So I took a break and stepped back to think.

Ever since I published the first edition of my book in 2008, many people have written to me about it. Lots of them have asked the same question: I love the book. I’ve soaked it in. I want to do this. What tools can I use?

I didn’t have a good answer to that question. I pointed people at NarraCat (my open source tool for narrative catalysis), but most people couldn’t understand it or even install it. I pointed people at spreadsheets and at doing things by hand, but people wanted something more powerful. All of the more powerful options I knew of were expensive, piecemeal, buggy, difficult to understand, or all of those things put together.

My husband’s consulting contract ended in July (of last year), and we had saved a little money. So he asked me: if you could do you anything in the world right now, what would it be? I knew the answer right away. I wanted to create something that would help a person who had read my book and wanted to do what was in it — who wanted to make PNI work for their community or organization  — succeed. I thought I knew how to do it, but I knew it would take time. So we took a deep breath and plunged in.

That was in August of 2014. We’ve been working on NarraFirma ever since. It took a lot longer than we expected, but today the software is finally ready to use. It has both of our ideas in it. It’s not iron-clad yet — we consider today the start of the beta-test phase — but it works as well as we can test it by ourselves. We are ready for the world to use it and help us improve it.

While we made NarraFirma, it rests on the shoulders of the giants who made WordPress, Node.js, D3, Mithril, TypeScript, JavaScript, Git, Eclipse, and the whole darn web. Thanks so much for making NarraFirma possible. We would also like to thank some people who gave us early feedback while we were still making our way through the deep waters of software development.

What comes next

Like Working with Stories, NarraFirma has been a labor of love. Paul and I thought about a lot of possibilities for making money on NarraFirma directly: hosting a service; charging for premium features; charging for support; running a Kickstarter campaign; and so on. But in the end we decided to stick to the way we've been doing things all along: charging for specific time and attention (consulting, special features) while keeping general information (and capacity) free for everyone to use (and help to improve).

The fact is, deep down, we believe that the transformational benefits PNI and NarraFirma bring should be available to every human being. We can't give everyone a computer, but we can give everyone our software. In return, we ask that those who can pay help with donations or payments (for consulting or features, when they need them). Those who can't pay can help with feedback, peer support, and word of mouth. We think that's a reasonable proposition to set before the world.

So, pointing in that direction, I have updated my web site with more specific consulting plans that I hope people will find attractive. NarraFirma will make my consulting practice more efficient, because we designed it to reduce some of the most time-consuming parts of the work I do for clients. By doing projects in NarraFirma, I can offer a lower rate and a quicker turnaround. I can also communicate with clients more easily, because we can use the software collaboratively. We can even share the catalysis process, so that clients can become independent of my help more quickly.

Here's what I would love to happen over the next few years.
  • Lots of people use NarraFirma for PNI projects, big and small. Projects start out small and non-critical, then move up to larger, more ambitious projects as the software is tested more completely.
  • People tell us what needs fixing, and they send us great ideas for improving the software.
  • People help each other use NarraFirma in forums and groups. A community grows.
  • Some of the people in the community improve NarraFirma. People fix bugs, add features, create templates, and write helpful guides.
  • From time to time, somebody supports the project with a donation or a grant.
  • Once in a while, somebody pays me/us to provide training or coaching, do some catalysis work, add a new feature to the software, or meet some other specific need.
  • In time, the software and its community grow into a strong resource many thousands of people can rely on to bring the benefits of PNI to their communities and organizations.
If you would like to help me do any of this, here are some things you can do.
  • Take a look at NarraFirma. Send  some feedback. 
  • Tell other people about NarraFirma. Tweet, blog, email, whatever. Spread the word.
  • Thank us for making NarraFirma, and help us keep working on it, by making a small donation. (It's not tax deductible, but it's karma boosting. By the way, if you were one of the people who sent a donation to support the book, I want to take this opportunity to thank you again. Your donations have been heartening, and they helped inspire us to keep going and make NarraFirma.) 
  • The next time you think you might like to use participatory narrative inquiry, consider using NarraFirma. When you do, ask questions on the support forum; submit bug reports; make suggestions.
  • If you know of any grants that might be a good fit for funding future NarraFirma development, let me know. If you would like to work together toward any grants, let me know.
  • If you're using NarraFirma and need some help, or want it to do something it can't do, consider hiring me/us to help you or to improve the software.
If you have any questions I haven't answered here, send me a note. I'm eager to talk about NarraFirma and what it can do for you.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

250 and thanks

Hey everybody. I wanted to tell you that I've sold 250 copies of Working with Stories. Hooray!

I've been thinking of 250 as a significant number for years, mostly because my husband told me he'd read somewhere that the average non-fiction book sells 250 copies in its lifetime. When I told him about this the other day, he said he didn't remember saying anything about 250 copies, and he thought it must be higher than that. But I knew he had said something with the number 250 in it. (That's the way I remember things.)

So I looked it up and found this, from a widely-cited 2011 blog post called "The Ten Awful Truths about Book Publishing":
The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.
If the book was supposed to sell 250 copies a year, it's selling at an average rate, and that's good. However, that blog post was talking about all published books. The statistics for self-published books are different. Here are some estimates of average self-published book sales:
There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each.  
It’s estimated that the average self-published print book sells around 250 copies over its lifetime.
[T]he average number of [self-published] books sold is often said to be a figure like 100, 250, 500, or 650. ... That’s lifetime.
So the "250 copies in its lifetime" estimate was correct ... for self-published books. Measured against that average, Working with Stories is doing very well. I have no idea how long the book's "lifetime" will be, but I would hope that it will stay reasonably current for at least five years.

How is the book doing on making money? I paid my indexer $3000 to produce the index at the end of the book (after she very kindly cut her rate in half to help out). Adding up print and Kindle and PDF and direct sales, I've made about $2500 on book sales since last May. So in another few months, I might actually start to get some compensation for the two and a half person-years (I estimate) I spent writing the book! That's exciting.

Has the book been a success in helping people work with stories? To answer that question I need no calculator. I am sure of it, because of all the emails I have received over the past seven years. Ever since I wrote the book's first edition in 2008, I have regularly received emails thanking me for writing the book and telling me about the many ways in which people are making use of it. Money aside, that's exactly what I wanted to happen.

But that's enough about me. The main reason I wanted to write this blog post today was to thank you. If you bought a copy of the book, thank you. If you gave me feedback on the book, thank you. If you encouraged me to keep going, thank you. If you helped with the work the book is based on, thank you. If you hired me on a project so I could learn what I wrote in the book, thank you. If you talked to me about stories and story work, thank you. I couldn't have done it without all of you.

In honor of this milestone, I thought I'd show you a funny picture I made last year to promote the book (but decided it was too silly to use).

At my house, everybody reads Working with Stories.
Of course the photo is a joke, because when I took it the dog was still a puppy, and she could never have sat on the couch so close to the cat without chasing him. (I'm not sure she could now, either, though he enjoys the chasing as much as she does, now that she knows the rules.) So this is actually three pictures stuck together in Photoshop. But still, as you can see, the dog and cat enjoyed the book. (On second thought, maybe it was the treats I put on top of it...)

Anyway, thanks again for all your help. Here's looking forward to more good work in the future!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Into the archives again

Somebody once told me that somebody else said something interesting about me. "Keep your eye on her," they said, "She's a crackerjack." I've always wondered what that meant. Am I a confection or a conflagration? Can I be both? Is there a prize?

Here's a joke my dad used to tell. On the wedding day, as soon as the ceremony was over, the bridegroom rushed up to his father-in-law. "You told me that when I married your daughter I'd be getting a prize," said the bridegroom. "Where is it?"

So anyway, last week I realized that the clutter in my office had once again reached a post-apocalyptic level. I decided that on Monday I would stop and clean. Monday did not cooperate. It rained all day, which meant that my usual practice -- taking all the junk outside, vacuuming and dusting, then finding a new way to squeeze all the junk back in again -- wouldn't work. So I fell into looking through a stack of old notebooks. I found a bunch of interesting things I had forgotten about, and I thought, "I wonder if the readers of my blog might also find these things interesting, in an archaeological kind of way." So I scanned in some pages to show you. To anyone who is interested in my early work on sensemaking with the Cynefin and Confluence frameworks: here you go, have fun. To anyone who has no idea what I'm talking about: come back next time, because this is going to be boring.

Maybe I should explain about the notebooks. I've gone back and forth between the computer and paper notebooks since my college days, depending on whether I had a computer or not. When I started working for IBM's Institute for Knowledge Management in early 2001, I was asked to travel a lot, but I was not given a laptop to take with me. (My title was "Project Manager," which was no better or worse than my earlier title of "Senior Software Engineer" in IBM Research. When I left IBM Research I had to give back my IBM-supplied laptop, and as I recall, the IKM was under a "capital spending freeze" at the time.)

So I started carrying around paper notebooks. I did most of my thinking in them, and I had them with me for nearly every discussion and meeting. I have a series of nine of these notebooks, starting in May 2001 and stopping in late 2003 (when I stopped traveling because I had a child). I seem to have lost the April 2001 notebook, sadly. I may have put it into the "to file" pile, which fills up five boxes. I have lots of stuff on the computer, too, but these hand-written notes are somehow more interesting to look at, because they're more of-the-moment. I promise I've kept myself to a bare minimum, and have thought about what you might want to see, and not just what I feel like reminiscing about. Mostly.

First movements. May 16, 2001. One of the first things in the first notebook (I can find) is this hint of movements-to-come on the Cynefin framework.

It says: "connectivity variety information flow maintain identity"
There are many, possibly hundreds, of drawings of movements that came after this one, but I'm pretty sure the idea of change over time playing out in space was in there from the very beginning. (Not the beginning; my beginning. Thoughts were had before I had thoughts.) This came even before the "bubble" model of Cynefin. (What does that thing on the left mean? I have no idea. You figure it out.)

First bubbles. May 16, 2001. This was, I believe, the very first drawing I ever made of the "neuronal" or "bubble" form of Cynefin.

First bubbles
It says: "spaces not axes"

I remember very well when this happened, for some reason (who knows why we remember some things and not others). We were at a hotel in New York City, at an IKM workshop. It was before the workshop started or in a break. We were in one of those huge hotel meeting rooms, in the front left corner of the room, in front of an easel with butcher paper on it. I was going on about how it didn't matter that you said something wasn't a 2x2 model when people could look at it and see that it was a 2x2 model. I said that if you lay out a space and give it dimensions, people will see it as a graph no matter what you call it. I said that if you want to talk about states, you need a diagram, not a space.

So Dave said, "What about this?" and drew the bubbles. I think I copied the drawing into my notebook right away. Did I like the bubbles? Not really. By then I was already enamored of my continuous-space model (which became Confluence), and everything else seemed worse. But I liked the bubbles more than the four quadrants.

Lots of domain names. May 18-24, 2001. These two pictures are just to show you that we were working through many possible domain names (not internet domains, just spaces on the model) for Cynefin at that time.

The top model says "understanding" and "known/knowable/retrospectively coherent/incoherent"; the bottom model says "community" and "bureaucratic/expert/shadow/temporary"
The top model says "system" and "hierarchical/complex+hierarchical/complex/chaotic"; the bottom model says "goals" and "formal/experimental/aspirational/crisis"

We played with the idea of having several models with different sets of domain names: for communication, culture, strategy, oh, lots of things. One file from that time lists 38 separate sets of domain descriptions. Why did we switch to using only one set of names? My best guess is it was a result of discussion and testing in workshops (of which there were at least a few more, if not several). But I don't actually remember.

Intermission. Here's a doodle to rest your mind.

First seeing eyes. May 18-24, 2001. This, I believe, is my very first drawing of my "seeing eye" diagram. (I'm not sure it's the first, because of that missing earlier notebook; but this may be the first, given its non-canonical form.)

As you can see, the pyramids weren't exactly pyramidal at first.

The chasm and disorder. May 18-24, 2001. This was a method we created to draw the bubbles, but later abandoned as too complicated. I liked it, because it incorporated a step-change transition between chaos and order (see the "chasm"?), which I had got very excited about including in the days before the May workshop. (Dave only embraced the chasm a year later, and I gained the right to tease him about it ever after.)

It says "chasm-separated" going to "permeable"; "simple (single?) model of management"; "bridge over chasm"; "thickening permeable"; "dominant line, usually thick, defines most important space (how?)"; "secondary line"; "(final?) connector, shows unknowns"
Note also the arrow pointing into the empty spot between the bubbles. I think it says, "Simple model of management." Or it could be "single." Anyway, that part was Dave's idea, and it evolved into the "disorder" domain.

Decision dialogue discourse discovery. May 18-24, 2001. As I said, we were playing with lots of names for things. I like this set.

It says: "decision; dialog; discourse; discovery"

Second seeing eyes. May 25, 2001. Here's the second set of seeing eyes, now falling into the familiar canonical pyramids. (All pictures after this one look the same, so I won't show any more.)

Another doodle. You must be tired, poor thing. Why not take a break? (Oh, all right. I just like my doodles.)

If you are (rules for interactions).
Early June, 2001. I just like this diagram because it sums up a lot of my/our thinking at the time.

It says: too much to type here.

For each quadrant (the bubbles were not yet a sure thing), I listed strengths (more like opportunities) and dangers. (I had a pretty involved (made-up) shorthand at the time, to write more faster. A circle with an arrow through it meant interaction; an up arrow meant increase; etc.) I think the boxed arrows represent things you should do in response, and they move you to another quadrant (or increase the intensity of the quadrant you are in, depending on where they go).

More on the middle. November 15, 2001. Here's another mention of the middle space. I don't think it had a name yet, but the idea was there.

It says: "In middle spaces - bureaucrats, experts, networks (?), crisis managers - want them to be in that space"

Then draw lines. November 15, 2001. This is in my notes from a meeting, and it may be the first mention of the method of creating the Cynefin framework in a sensemaking session. (I can't be sure any of the text things are the first mentions, because I'm not about to read nine notebooks full of barely-legible writing. Not even for you, dear reader.)

It says: "hexagons on grid dimensions between extremes; then draw lines to create cynefin. this is new?"

Note how I say "This is new?" I think this could only mean that I hadn't heard it before. I'm not surprised, because that sort of thing happened often. As with the bubbles, I would point out a flaw in something, or make a suggestion, and then a few weeks later Dave would suddenly come out with something new. It worked the other way around too. That's how people collaborate.

[Edit (excuse me, thought of this the next morning): The boundaries and spaces of Cynefin and of Confluence have to do with the nature of innovation, creativity, and problem solving. Dave always maintained that people need constraints to be creative. He said they had to be "starved" to innovate. "Necessity is the mother of invention" and all that. I always disagreed with this. As an asthmatic and a claustrophobic, I panic when I am starved of options; I feel like I'm running out of air. For me, creativity and innovation require freedom, the loosening of constraints, and abundance. Most of the negotiations between Cynefin and Confluence, and their eventual separation, came from these two different views. (This is one reason I always say the world needs not one but many models.)

All these years later, I think we were both wrong. I now believe that creativity, like happiness, is a decision. It's a way of life, a habit, a practice. It has nothing to do with conditions. It just feels like it does when you forget you've made a choice.]

Doodle time. Here you go. Relax.

The chasm returns. Sometime between May and September 2002. Here's a picture of the chaos-order chasm again. I know this was during a discussion with Dave, because his version of it is right underneath this picture, on the same page.

It says: "order; complexity; chaotic"

Notice how it says "cx" inside the chasm. That was my shorthand for complexity. It's strange that I would think to put complexity in there. Maybe it had to do with people talking about the "edge of chaos"? I don't think that way now. I think of complexity and chaos as orthogonal. Who knows.

Just crazy stuff. Late 2002. We're almost at the end now. Here are some sort of Cynefin-on-the-moon doodles.

It says: "buried by revealed by erosion; tunnel; pod; spewing through a crack; stable agreement; catapult"

This was an idea about Cynefin unfurling, for some reason.

The Cynefin multiverse
Fable form. January 2003. Here are some of my notes from the research project where I took apart something like 100 folk tales to figure out how we could use their structures to help people build their own stories.

It says: "wise coalition; unwise coalition; deliverance or good luck (happy story); abandonment or bad luck (sad story); suspense; trial (general); trial (perseverance); trial (faith); good example; bad example; opportunity lost, folly; deception; journey (growth, learning from mistakes); simpler form; contrast (bad/good/bad); contrast (good/bad); paradox"

I had made up a sort of visual language to describe folk tales, and I used it to understand their parts and how they fit together. We were already using a story template in the story construction exercise, but this research made it possible to expand the possibilities of story construction enormously. I even created a prototype of a story construction software tool, for people to make sense of events by building folk tales out of their collected stories.

Let's have a doodle. Ah, that's nice.

The middle space named. January 2003. Here's a little snippet that shows how our thinking on the disorder domain was moving along.

It says "can only be seen from above; disorder; who really knows what is here"

I think this may be around when Dave came up with the name "disorder" for the space. "Unorder" was my word, and "disorder" was his.

Movements again. April 2003. This is when we got very heavily into nailing down the movements among Cynefin domains for the IBM Systems Journal paper. 

It says: "high risk: release, wandering, despair, collapse; mid-risk: stimulation; oscillation; fragility; S curves; illusion; crisis managment; low risk: (you figure that part out); life cycles"

By the way, a lot of people think that paper was written in 2003 because it was published in 2003. But its first draft was written in December of 2001. For a while the paper was very long, because we dumped a lot of current thinking into it (well, actually I did most of the dumping). Looking back now, it looks like the paper sat unchanged from April to December of 2002. Then we came back to the paper and added the stuff about unorder and disorder; the sections on movements; and the section on the workshop technique where the model is derived. Because the ISJ wanted a short paper, we had to remove about 75% of the previous content, some of which I reused in other writings later on. Also, incidentally, because the ISJ reviewers objected to our use of the term "model," we changed the name of the thing to a "framework." I don't think it matters much.

Okay folks, that's all the pictures I thought you would like to see. Hope you had fun looking through the notebooks with me. I'll leave you with a final doodle, which captures my thoughts about complexity, and about collaboration.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Let's talk

Over at the PNI Institute, we are holding our very first "Hangout" this Friday, July 5, at:
  • California 7 00
  • New York 10 00
  • London 15 00
  • Amsterdam/South Africa 16 00
  • Melbourne 24 00
Our hangouts will be:
  • Social: Connecting; networking; talking about what's going on in the world
  • Practical: Helping each other solve problems and seek opportunities
  • Collaborative: Discovering new ways we can work together
  • Aspirational: Advancing the field by exploring new ideas
To avoid the inevitable problems using Skype with more than a few people, we will be using our new Mumble server. For details on how to connect, and to read more about what we plan to talk about in this and future hangouts, see my announcement post on

If you can't make this hangout, we will be holding more, so keep it in mind!