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.