Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New ideas for emergent constructs

One of my favorite narrative exercises is what I call the derivation of emergent constructs (and some call archetype construction or two-stage emergence). This is a technique for producing representations of shared understandings about aspects of told stories.

In the emergent constructs exercise, people either tell stories or talk about previously told stories (or some combination), and while doing this note down narrative elements. These elements are used to build larger constructions of meaning. For example, people might list characters, actors or players in a story, then cluster and recluster these to produce personifications. Taken together with themes, values, situations and other constructs, personifications create a collective understanding of meaning.

I've been making a few changes to how I suggest people do this exercise in the past few years, based on my observations on what works and doesn't in various contexts. I'm going to put this in the new version of Working with Stories (as part of improving all of my exercise descriptions), but I thought I'd write about the specific changes here, partly to get feedback on these ideas.

Questions work better than labels

One aspect of the emergent constructs exercise that I've been moving past lately is giving people one-word categories for the things they are supposed to extract from their stories. For example, I used to ask people to enumerate characters, issues, behaviors and circumstances in stories. But I've come to believe this produces overly static and narrow responses. Lately I'm finding these questions work better:
  • Who is doing things in this story?
  • What is this story about?
  • What matters to the people in this story?
  • What is going on in this story?
These are for characters, issues, influences (which lead to values) and states of affairs (which lead to situations), respectively. The instruction is: As you listen to each story, whenever the question has a new answer, write it down.

You can give names to the answers later, after they have been produced. But labeling them beforehand seems to produce self-censorship: is this a bona fide character? Could I call this an issue? And so on. Labels also place the emphasis on the "things" in the stories rather than changes and movements within them.

Expertise, emotion and intellect

Another thing I'm finding is that one set of element-gathering questions doesn't work well for all groups. Two dimensions of context determine which questions work best for any group.
  1. Emotion-oriented versus intellect-oriented. Are your storytellers close to their emotions on this issue, or is it an issue about which you can expect them to be more intellectual and distanced? Is it something that engages their hearts or their minds?
  2. Expert versus novice. How familiar are your storytellers with technical language and complicated concepts in the subject matter they will be talking about? Is it something about which they can speak with confidence or something they have little to do with?
These two dimensions can combine in four ways.
  1. Emotion-oriented novices. The storytellers are novices in the subject matter you are asking them about, and they feel that the subject matter is  primarily emotional. Asking the CEOs of giant corporations about child care or nursing is likely to fit here.
  2. Intellect-oriented novices. The storytellers are novices in the subject matter, and it is something they see as an intellectual matter. Interviewing stay-at-home parents about particle physics or running giant corporations might fit into this category. 
  3. Emotion-oriented experts. The storytellers are experts in an area that is associated with emotion. Interviewing artists or performers or care-givers or stay-at-home parents about their work would fit into this category.
  4. Intellect-oriented experts. The storytellers are experts in an area not normally associated with emotions. Engineers or professors or managers talking about their work are a classic case here.
For novices of all kinds, what works is to keep it simple. Don't use categories or jargon, because novices will get nervous, apply their scant understanding poorly, jump to conclusions, and arrive at the wrong places. Whether you expect emotional or intellectual orientation, give novices the simplest questions you can come up with, like those above. One virtue of questions like "Who is doing things in this story?" is that they don't push people toward or away from emotion. These are broad, open questions that people can shape to meet their own perspectives and needs.

For experts, categories and jargon are a help, not a hindrance. Experts expect and depend on categories and labels, because they know what they mean and how to apply them. (Make sure you know what the categories and labels mean before you use them, however.) For emotion-oriented experts, categories should showcase emotion, while for intellect-oriented experts categories should abstract and intellectualize it.

So for example if I was asking a group of artists to pull elements out of their stories, I might ask questions like these.
  • Characters: Whose behavior creates meaningful events that impact the experiences people have in this story?
  • Issues: When the people in this story experience peaks of emotion such as anger or joy or fear or relief, what issues drive that intensity?
  • Influences: What influences motivate the people in this story to behave the way they do?
  • States of affairs: In what contexts, ranging from crisis to calm to elation, do the people in this story find themselves?
Notice in these questions how the emphasis is on the people in the story and their emotions within it. Words like experiences, anger, motivate, and crises all signal a closeness to the rawness of personal experience.

If I was working with intellect-oriented experts I would instead ask questions more like these.
  • Characters: What people, forces or factors move the plot of this story along?
  • Issues: What subjects or issues arise as this story unfolds?
  • Influences: What influences explain the behavior of the actors in this story?
  • States of affairs: What states of affairs take place in this story?
Here the emphasis is on the story, not on the people. Words like move, arise, explain, and take place signal emotional safety and attention to cognitive aspects of the story. In fact, these intellect-oriented questions are not that much different from one-word categories, which fits with the history of the technique's development: we started working on this method in workshops full of intellect-oriented experts, for whom these worked well.

Attribute questions

The second stage of emergent construct derivation entails having people describe their clusters of gathered elements with attributes. To elicit attributes about clusters we have always used questions, and those still work. However, I have found, again, that the best questions vary by storytelling group. Attribute questions that work well for novices don't work as well for experts, and attribute questions that draw out excellent attributes with one group will fail to produce useful attributes with the other.

With a group of novices in the subject matter, the best attribute questions are very simple, and are the same for all types of construct.
  • Look at this cluster of things. What's good about it? What's bad? 
That's very simple, nothing to parse, no jargon, no complexity. People are free to add their own interpretations, because the question is broad and flexible.

For a group of emotion-oriented experts, I like attribute questions like these.
  • Characters to Personifications: What would this character's best friend say about them? What would their worst enemy say about them?
  • Issues to Themes: What would someone who has had good experiences with this issue say about it? What would someone who has had bad experiences with this issue say about it?
  • Influences to Values: What would someone who values this influence say about it? What would someone who doesn't value this influence say about it?
  • States of affairs to Situations: How would an optimist describe this state of affairs? How would a pessimist describe this state of affairs?
As above note the emphasis on feelings and people. Here you are essentially asking people to tell tiny stories about the emotional reactions of people to the element clusters. Not coincidentally, emotion-oriented experts tend to tell a lot of stories.

For a group of intellect-oriented experts, I like attribute questions like these.

  • Characters to Personifications: What are some of the positive traits of this character? What are some of their negative traits?
  • Issues to Themes: What are the positive aspects of this issue? What about negative aspects?
  • Influences to Values: What arguments for supporting this influence can you make? What arguments for removing it can you make?
  • States of affairs to Situations: What are the opportunities inherent in this state of affairs? What are its dangers?
As above note the emphasis on the cognitive aspects of the story, not on people or emotions. These are less stories than lists of attributes, which is fitting because you are asking people to bring their analytical minds to bear on the story elements.

When I look back on questions I've asked and seen other people ask in these workshops, I'd say it has been a combination of all three of these sets (simple, emotion-oriented, intellect-oriented), which probably explains why the results have not been as uniform as I would like. I think I've groped my way toward better questions in context, sometimes, but this has been a dawning realization that was slow in coming.

Mixed groups

What should you do if your group is mixed? What if you expect to find two or three of the types in it? This could be because you have a mixture of people from different backgrounds, or because the people in your group inhabit multiple worlds at once. I've been told by scientists that I'm "such an artist" and by artists that I'm "such a scientist" (can't win, can I) so you may have some such people in your group that defy easy classification. When you expect mixtures of any kind, you can do any of four things.
  1. Strengthen the weakest link. If you think the novices in your session will be intimidated out of participating, and you need diverse input, or you will have a majority of novices, you might want to bring the question complexity down to their level and deliberately put aside any increased depth you might get from expert reflection. Experts can answer simpler questions; you will just get more shallow reflection as a result.
  2. Create choose-your-own exercise details. You can offer people multiple sets of questions and give them the opportunity to choose any set they like. This is easier when people are deriving only one type of construct. Just let people self-select and merge their contributions, which should be compatible even if they answered slightly different questions to get to them. To do this you need some tolerance and patience on the part of the participants to absorb more instructions, and you need more time for them to do that.
  3. Bring just-in-time complexity. You can offer simple questions, but keep some more complex ones close at hand. If someone asks what you mean by the simple questions, you can either quickly evaluate which they would do best with, or simply give them both complex sets (emotion-oriented and intellect-oriented) and let them choose. Probably only the experts will ask. But do this on the side and quietly, so as not to intimidate the novices. If somebody asks in front of the whole group, pretend you don't have time to tell them and say you'll talk to them separately. It's better to tell ten people out of twenty the deeper questions on the side than it is to intimidate the other ten people out of contributing. (Once you've seen the glazed eyes that say "I'm biding my time until I get out of here" and realize what it means for your output, you'll learn to keep novices engaged.)
  4. Divide and customize. You can divide people into separate groups based on their orientation (emotion or intellect) and expertise and give the different groups different questions. That approach is helpful if you were going to divide the groups up anyway, perhaps to get through a lot of clustering quickly or to separate people in different positions of power. It does reduce diversity in what you create, however.
If you are just getting started running workshops, you can of course use single-word categories and simple questions throughout. It's not going to ruin construct creation. But if you want to improve the result of your constructions and give them more useful meaning to the participants, these fine tunings might be helpful to you.


Anonymous said...

Really interesting post Cynthia. Just on you section about questions are better than labels, I also noticed a problems with the labels and moved to questions but for another reason. I found that when you used labels people became mechanical and just wanted to churn through the stories to find characters etc. It seems like the antithesis to sensemaking. I wanted people to move more slowly and ponder the stories, which the questions help people to do.

BTW I can't seem to work out this comment ID thingy. It would be easier if I could just type my name.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

That is an excellent point, 1149.... (what, that's not your name?) Ah, Shawn. It's Shawn Callahan, everybody. (At least that's where the link led to.)

Yes, the labels do lead people to list-making. Of course I don't want people to move TOO slowly, because they over-intellectualize things - I want something more like free association - but I do want them to think about the stories as phenomena, as living changing things, not static storehouses of nouns to be mined.

Another reason is, I kept finding that I'd give people a list of things to find, and then they'd ask "what's a character?" and so on. And then I'd explain and they'd ask MORE questions about what I meant by THAT, and so on. They would want so much definition that I would finally give up and say, look, forget all that, just think about who is doing things. And that seemed to open a door. So I started switching to just giving people the questions first, and the names later, after they had finished the collecting.

You know, even after you've been doing this stuff for years and years, you still keep finding improvements. I'm constantly amazed by little mistakes or blindnesses that crept in early on and that I just never noticed. Recently I was designing some questions and I realized one question, one of my oldest ones, had never worked that well. I asked myself, why do I ask the question in that way? And the answer was, because I always have. If there is any signal that you need to look at things fresh, "because we always have" is a screamer.

Thanks for the input Shawn!