Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Narratopia in Dutch!

Narratopia is now available in Dutch, in both boxed (ready to play) and print-and-play versions. The game was translated by Annemijn van Garderen with help from her dad, Harold. Many thanks to both of them for making it happen.

If you are interested in helping me translate Narratopia to a language you know well, send me an email and I'll tell you what the process entails.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Mail bag: Dimensional axes for sensemaking

I get emails pretty regularly from people looking for a bit of focused advice on some aspect of PNI work they are doing. I almost always respond (though usually not immediately). It occurred to me the other day that most of these responses would make good blog posts. So: this is the start of a new series based on questions I get in emails and answers I give back (anonymized, of course). If you have a question about PNI, send it along, and I'll do my best to answer it.

Question: How should I help people who struggle to come up with good axes to use in the Landscape sensemaking exercise? Is there a list of universally useful axes I can use to generate good group discussions?


I have not found it useful to come up with a universal list of axes or axis pairs for all stories, or even all stories within a context, because each set of stories is unique to circumstance and culture. That's because no axis will work if it's not already in the stories. There has to be interesting variation in the stories along each dimension, or the exercise will founder and people will end up bored and disappointed.

Reading as many of the stories as you can (ideally in a small group) as you plan your workshop is the best way to help good axes "bubble up." After you've read enough stories, you should be able to fill in the blank in at least one of these sentences:

As I read these stories I noticed that in some of them...
... people were more ____ than in others
... people felt more ____ than in others
... people behaved more _____ than in others
... the situation was more ____ than in others
... there was more ___ than in others

And so on. I've found that if you've spent enough time with the stories you plan to use in your session, this tends to happen by itself.

As to helping people come up with axes to use in the workshop itself, I've tried a variety of solutions. Which solution works best depends on the time you have, the people you have, and what came before the exercise.

First, if you have only a short time (like 20 minutes), there is not enough time to give people any choice at all, no matter what they are like.

If you have more time, what people are like is your next bottleneck. I've worked with some people -- for example, students -- who were ready for anything and could come up with one creative idea after another. I've also seen people who wouldn't take one baby step into anything uncertain or strange, and people who wanted to be creative but could only come up with familiar, simplistic things.

The next thing that matters is how much exposure to the stories people have had before they get to the landscape exercise. If placing stories on a landscape is their first look at the stories, people will need pre-packaged axes. If they have had a good chance to "be with" the stories before they ever get to mapping -- for example if they've already done a nice long "contact" exercise working directly with the stories -- they will be more aware of which axes work for the stories they are working with.

So your "creativity budget" (let's call it) depends on three things: time, previous experience, and openness to new things. I have used all of these options, depending on the budget I have to work with.
  1. Present one fixed set of two axes that are safely orthogonal and are present in the stories. Don't even mention options. Just make the axes part of the exercise.
  2. Give people three or four pre-selected axis sets to choose from -- but only in pairs. This is a middle-ground option that gives people some choice but keeps them from getting disappointed.
  3. Give people several single axes (say 6 to 10) and ask them to make a case for (propose, defend) a set of two axes they want to use. They can do this within their group, with the whole room, or with the facilitator only. This can add an interesting wrinkle to the exercise, because people will end up answering the question "what do you think you will see?" - and then they might be surprised by what they do see later on.
  4. Give people a list of single axes and let them choose a pair of axes (without making a case for it). I would not use this option without a bit of hovering and being ready to quietly suggest a change if I see a combination that I think will not turn out well.
  5. The option that requires the biggest creativity budget is to give people a list of axes to pair up - but also say that they can come up with their own axes if they want to. I would not generally use this option for the whole room unless I was sure that they would be exceptionally energetic and open to challenge. Instead, I've found that this is a good option to "whisper" to a group that seems to be far ahead of the others, in terms of coming up with creative ideas.
No matter which of these options I choose, I never show up with no axes prepared. Most people find it really hard to come up with useful axes, even after they have been exposed to the stories. I don't know why. Maybe they don't have as much time to think deeply about it as the session planners do. Maybe it's something only some people can do. I do know that in any room you will find one or a few people who find coming up with good axes easy -- but you're right, most people do get stuck on this. That's why I always show up with some axes in hand. It's easier to say "you can ignore this list if you want to" than to ask people to do something they can't, even if you are ready to help.

And a follow-up question: Having said that, have you found some patterns that seem to recur and thus might be reliable to use across projects?

My answer:

Yes, I have found that some patterns recur across projects. But recurrence on its own doesn't make them reliable for use, because the meaning of the recurrence may not be the same. Every situation, and every set of stories, is unique.

It's like the difference between analogous and homologous structures in biology. Analogous structures look the same, but come from different ancestry. Homologous structures may look different but share a common origin. The wings of a bat and of a bird are analogous. The ears of a German Shepherd and of a Pekinese are homologous. In the same way that you can't understand a bat wing by looking at a bird wing, you can't understand one story collection by looking at a theme from another story collection, even if the two collections cover the same topic.

To give a real-life example: I've done three or four projects on work-life balance. In one of them, the issue of mastery came up as important - that is, whether people mastered the balance between work and life. Sensemaking around that topic was energizing for that organization.

However, in at least two other projects I can remember, work-life balance was not about mastery but about power - of one group over another. In those organizations, asking people to talk about mastery would have derailed the sensemaking -- because mastery doesn't matter when you're powerless to change your situation.

So, the same dimension can be empowering to one group, irrelevant to another, and disempowering to a third -- even if all three groups are looking at stories collected on the same topic -- as long as the stories were collected from three different populations.

Thanks again to the person who asked the question.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Here I am talking about NarraFirma

I finally managed to update the NarraFirma introduction video. I'm sure I'll hate it in a year's time, but for now, this is as good as it's going to get. If you have any questions about NarraFirma, be sure to send them along.

Friday, December 8, 2017

NarraFirma 1.0

I am finally ready to announce the release of NarraFirma 1.0. I've been working on it since the summer. I was able to give the software a nice solid overhaul in functionality and usability. The blog post on the NarraFirma web site describes the changes in detail. I'll summarize just a few of the major changes here.

More graphs. Because we were not able to finish all the graphs we had planned for NarraFirma in the time we had to work on it before, my first priority on returning to the software was to finish its graphing aspect. Now it generates all of the graphs I have been used to relying on in my work on narrative catalysis for clients over the past 15+ years, and I don't need to supplement it (as I did before) with NarraCat or a spreadsheet. This includes all question combinations and what I call "data integrity" graphs (overall compilations of data, to look for systemic problems such as biases).

More testing. You can't see this in the software, but I used some of the time I had to import something like eight data sets from old (pre-NarraFirma) projects and compared graphs and statistical results to what I had calculated using other means. I did find one bug in the chi-squared test that was preventing some significant results from appearing, but nothing else was wrong. (I also found and fixed many little bugs that irritated me as I went about playing with data and projects.)

More options. NarraFirma is now much less "hard coded" than it was. I added many options for changing the way things look - story forms, story cards, catalysis reports, and so on - both by including custom CSS specifications and by opening previously fixed texts to user manipulation. For example, it is now possible to create a story form that has no English text in it anywhere. The application is still not multi-lingual - the NarraFirma interface remains in English only - but it is closer than it was to that goal. Importing data is also much improved, with better error reporting and more information about how to successfully import data collected elsewhere.

Better appearance and ease of use. I took a critical look at NarraFirma's appearance, and I changed lots of little things (colors, placements, spacings, etc) that had come to grate on me over time. I think the new look is cleaner and more professional looking. I also fixed many little irritating and/or confusing aspects of using the software, and I hope this will reduce the learning curve and make the experience of using NarraFirma more pleasant.

To finish off the new version, I am now working on replacing the old (horrible) NarraFirma video with a better introduction to what the software can do for people.

You can try out the new version of NarraFirma by going to the web site and clicking on "Try it!" in the menu at the top of the page. Or you can look at the screenshots page on GitHub (scroll down past the file list) to get a guided tour. As before, NarraFirma works either with Node.js or as a WordPress plugin.

Now I'll answer a few questions I think people might have about NarraFirma.

What's in the future for NarraFirma? My plan is to keep using it on projects for clients (now without having to rely on any other software to fill in missing graphs). And as I have done with several previous software programs I've developed, I plan to keep improving NarraFirma as I use it, so that it will work better and better for me and for everyone else as well.

What's your business model for NarraFirma? You mean, how do I plan to be able to keep working on it? I plan to make money through a combination of back-end project consulting, coaching, and  bounties (commissions to add specific functionality people want to see in the software). In addition, if I do get that online training course going next year, NarraFirma is now in a much better place to support students. If you are interested in coaching, training, or consulting with respect to participatory narrative inquiry and/or NarraFirma, let me know. If I can get enough work helping people with PNI and NarraFirma, I can keep the software alive and growing. So we'll see how that goes.

What can I do to help NarraFirma survive? Well, obviously, you can hire me to do some coaching or consulting for your projects; but there are many other ways to contribute. If you use NarraFirma, you can spread the word about it; you can help other people use it by answering questions or making videos about it; you can contribute code (talk to me about that); you can report bugs and suggest improvements. Just writing me an email to tell me that you are using the software makes a difference. It's hard to keep working on something (especially without pay) when you aren't sure if it's being used. Every bit of feedback and support helps, whether there is money attached to it or not. (And here I would like to thank the NarraFirma users who have sent feedback, bug reports, and encouragement - you have made a huge difference.)

What's that about a training course? I wrote about my ideas for an online PNI course on this blog twice in recent years (most recently here). Several people have since encouraged me to keep developing those plans, so the idea remains on my mind. Updating the software has been one part of getting ready for such a course. However, I don't feel like I can concentrate on a course offering until I've got at least two of the three nearly-finished books off my mind; so that's next on my agenda. (That is, unless I am deluged with requests for the course to start soon. If you read my plans for an online course and want it to happen sooner rather than later, do tell me, because I'm still testing the waters on what could be a lucrative, career-sustaining venture ... or another rewarding-but-financially-disastrous project.)

That's all the news from here. I hope you are well, readers. I hope all your projects are succeeding. Let's keep in touch.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Here I am talking about stories and complexity

Hello everybody. You might be wondering what I've been up to lately. To begin with, I've been busy visiting relatives, getting sick (then better), and having relatives visit.

In October I attended my second NYSDRA (NY State Dispute Resolution Association) conference, where I showed another friendly group of people what it's like to make sense of stories. For that session I adapted the sticker stories exercise to demonstrate narrative sensemaking by using the same stories three times: first to explore one dimension of meaning (placing stories along a range); then to expand that range into a two-dimensional landscape; then to build story elements. I planned the reuse of stories to save time and to introduce people to a variety of ideas they could use. But I think there is promise in using the same stories in different ways not just to save time but to deepen the exploration of the topic, especially when you have a limited number of stories to work with. It's something to think about.

Finally, I've been doing a lot of heads-down coding and testing of NarraFirma. I've been working on it since sometime in July, and I'm just about ready to release a major version update. Watch this space for that announcement soon.

In the meantime, why not watch this video of me talking to Lex Hoogduin at GloComNet about stories, complexity, economics, and PNI. It's the first interview in their GloComNet Conversations series. I was happy to have the chance to meet with Lex on our visit to Amsterdam this summer.

Also of interest: Harold van Garderen's interview, the next in the series, goes into some detail on the utility of PNI in various domains. Thanks to Harold for setting up the interview with Lex.