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!