Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Conference report, part three: Sticker stories

This is the third in a series of blog posts about two conferences I attended this fall (NCDD and NYSDRA). I started by describing the Red-Blue Dictionary and the exercise I designed for it (which I call "Ground Truthing with Stories"). Then I described a new conferences-and-meetings variant of the "Twice told stories" exercise, called "Bubble up stories," I designed for a NCDD plenary session.
Now I'll talk about another exercise I designed for a session on story work at the NCDD conference.

Story with a thousand faces

I told you in the first post of this series that I organized three separate collaborations for the NCDD conference. This one was with about ten people active in the story field. We started talking last spring with an eye towards crashing the NCDD party with our own mini-conference on story work, like a distant echo of the famous Golden Fleece meetings of the early aughts.

Of the group only three of us - Annette Simmons, Madelyn Blair, and myself - ended up being able to go to the conference, though everyone else sent their regrets. So we put together a group session and proposed it. This was the blurb in the conference program:
You already know when people tell and listen to stories, bridges are built across divides. Just as knowing language doesn’t make us all poets, knowing story doesn’t mean we see the universe of diverse approaches inside the idea of story for dialogue. Join us and experience several dazzling story exercises led by a team of world-famous masters in the story field. From telling to listening, we’ll circumscribe the space, and you’ll leave the session with specific techniques and methods to harness the power of story immediately. Who says you can’t become a poet?
We had 90 minutes to work with. Setting aside some time for introductions and wrap-up, we decided to take 20 minutes each to introduce people to some aspect of story work. Most of all we wanted to demonstrate the diversity of story work, so we chose activities that would complement each other, thus:
  1. I helped people experience the emergence of sensemaking as they worked with a body of previously collected stories. 
  2. Annette told a fascinating in-the-trenches story about the power of stories to set context and bring people together around issues of concern. 
  3. Madelyn led the group in a unique story construction exercise that upended their expectations as they worked through a fictional story together. 
Obviously this would all have to happen at lightning speed! But our hope was to light a fire under people and encourage them to explore the wondrous variety of opportunities open to them in story work. We agreed that people in general are more limited by what they think story can do for them (which is often one idea, or one name of one approach) than by what they can actually do with story.

We expected 30 people at the session, so we were surprised when close to 60 people showed up. People spilled out from our large room into the hallway, and I ran out of materials, even though I thought I had prepared way too many. I don't know what Annette and Madelyn thought about this, but I was surprised by the turnout. A long time ago, when I used to say to people "I work with stories," people usually said, "Really, what's that?" But in the past several years the typical response has changed to, "Oh yeah, I've heard about that, it's called X," where X is some name of some limited approach or definition of story work. So I expected that not very many people at the NCDD conference would want to hear more about stories. I was wrong, and I think that's a good sign for the world of story work.

Anyway, I'm not going to describe what Annette and Madelyn did in their parts of our session - ask them, because both of their segments were amazing - but I will tell you what I did, because another new exercise has come out of it.

Sticker stories

This is a lightning-fast variant on the landscape sensemaking exercise. It's for when you want to get people working with a body of collected stories, but you have only a little bit of their time and attention to work with. I facilitated the exercise in 20 minutes, but I've doubled that time in the exercise description (because 20 minutes was really too fast).

Here's how you do the sticker stories exercise (full instructions here, in PDF and DOCX). Before the exercise, prepare sticky-label sheets (2x4 inch labels work well) with eight stories per sheet. Prepare 48 stories in total for groups of six people each. For the NCDD exercise, I gathered 48 stories about "bridging divides" (the theme of the conference) from the NCDD mailing list going back about ten years. Edit your stories down to fit into the spaces on the sticky-label sheets.

Just before you're ready to start, place large sheets of paper on walls or tables and label them with questions that define dimensions, such as "How much trust was there in the story?" or "Did people listen to each other?"

Ask people to form groups of six people each. Then hand out your pre-printed stories, one sheet per person. Ask each person, working alone, to:
  1. Choose 4-6 stories that seem the most relevant and worthy of sharing with everyone else in the room.
  2. Place those 4-6 stories on the labeled space where they seem to fit.
When all the stories have been placed, ask groups to talk together about what they see in the space they have filled with stories. Ask them to circle gaps (why are there no stories here?) and clusters (what is the common theme among these stories?). Ask them to annotate their landscape to reflect what they see in the stories on it.

Once people have finished finding features in their landscapes, ask them about the experience they have just had. What have they learned? What surprised them? Are there any stories they found particularly pivotal? What came up in the discussion? What are they curious to explore next?

Finally, if you had more than one group, ask people to compare the landscapes that were created. Because every group started with the same stories and the same dimensions, these comparisons can spark more discussions about points of view around the topic being considered.

That's it - simple and quick. This exercise is long on preparation and ridiculously short on implementation, but sometimes that is exactly the kind of exercise you need. When you have some stories and you need some quick sensemaking, this might fit right in. As always, if you use the exercise please let me know how it went so I can keep learning.

Next up: Exploring the spaces between methods with the Group Works cards

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Conference report, part two: Bubble up stories

This is the second in a series of blog posts about two conferences I attended this fall (NCDD and NYSDRA). I started by describing the Red-Blue Dictionary and the exercise I designed for it (which I call "Ground Truthing with Stories"). Now I'll talk about the exercise I designed for the first plenary session of the NCDD conference.

Day Two: Bubble up stories exercise

The goals of this exercise were: to get people sharing stories with each other; to demonstrate the benefits of story sharing; to collect some stories; and to motivate people to share more stories later in the conference. When the NCDD people told me that we'd have more than 300 people doing the exercise, and that it would be facilitated over a microphone on a podium, I realized we needed something very simple. So I went back to the staple exercise Neal Keller and I developed back in 2000, which I call "twice-told stories." It's my go-to recommendation for inexperienced or overwhelmed facilitators, because that's what we were when we developed it.

One thing people usually need at conferences and meetings is a little help reaching out to people they don't know already. The twice-told stories exercise doesn't have that in it, so I tweaked the exercise to work better in settings where it's necessary to shake things up a little. We ended up with a new exercise that does a bit more mixing of the story pot than the standard TTS exercise. I've called it the "bubble up stories" exercise, and it worked so well at the NCDD conference that we used it again at the NYSDRA conference a few weeks later.

The exercise assumes that people are already in groups of six to eight, sitting around tables, as at a conference or meeting. You start by asking the people at each table to place their first names in alphabetical order, then split the list in half. The first half of the group stays at the table, and the second half gets up and moves to the table with the next highest number (using giant table number sheets you placed on the tables before the exercise started). Once people have formed their new mixed groups, they split in half again, but in a way that's orthogonal to the original sorting. A geographical distinction, like whoever's closest to one wall of the room, is best.

Now you've got twice as many small groups as you have tables. For NCDD we had over 100 small groups; but you can do the exercise with as few as six. Each small group is now given the task to share stories around a topic (using questions you wrote beforehand), choosing one story to pass on, using a criterion you chose beforehand (I favor "choose the story everyone in the room most needs to hear"). This part is the same as in any twice-told stories exercise.

After stories are told and chosen, people return to their original tables. Then everyone retells the story their small group chose. Depending on how people's names work out, each table will have two (unlikely) or three (likely) or four (less likely) stories to retell. Some people retell stories they heard from other people. This is a good thing, because telling each other's stories is (within limits) a good way to connect.

So those stories get retold. Each table group is again tasked with choosing the one story everyone in the room most needs to hear. After they have chosen the story they want to retell, they turn over the sheet of paper with their table number on it to find a story form - a place to describe and name the story, along with some questions about it. Talking together to answer the questions helps people make sense of the story.

Finally, some number of groups (depending on how much time is left) tell their chosen story a third time to everyone in the room. After the exercise, you can pick up the story forms people filled out to learn more about the stories people chose.

I see this exercise as having four benefits:
  1. You can use it to collect stories. You can record only the stories people tell to the whole room, or you can record all the retellings at each table.
  2. You can use it to connect people, as an ice-breaker for a meeting.
  3. You can use it to demonstrate the value of story sharing to people you want to introduce to story work.
  4. You can use it to help people think together to make sense of a topic or a problem.
Instructions for the Bubble up Stories exercise are here. If you try it, please send me a note so I can keep improving it.

Next up: Sticker stories.