Posts categorized “Stories”.

More fun with pen and paper sense-making

A pen and paper signification framework

A pen and paper signification framework

Opening day of a new Leadership 2020 cohort yesterday: 35 emerging, experienced and legacy leaders from the human services sector in British Columbia and now our fifth blended cohort with folks from the Ministry for children and Family Development and community sector agencies.  They are beginning a 10 month journey together with this five day residential.

Yesterday we began with a short World Cafe in the evening before dinner.  This is designed to have people get to know each other and just download a little, all the opinions and ideas and stuff they just want to say.  It’s a threshold ritual for me, providing a place for downloading – the kind of talk you do to establish your status and position rather than really listening to one another.  Every group goes through this, and so it’s good to give a container to let it happen and to make it at least a little productive as well.

The question we asked for a couple of rounds was about the stories people are seeing that gives them a clue about the kind of future the community services sector will experience.  It’s about tapping their sense of why they stay in the work, why they are interested in developing their leadership and why they see themselves staying in the sector.  After 45 minutes or so of mixing and matching, we have them stop and reflect on what they have been hearing, to drop into a few minutes of silence and answer the question “What are you here to learn that will help us all develop?”  They are asked to write that on a post it so we can see what is top of mind in the group and so we can use the data to structure the invitation to storytellers and the harvesting frameworks for the Collective Story Harvest later in the week.

This is also the first Leadership 2020 that is getting the benefit (!) of everything I learned at the Cynefin workshops in London last month.  One thing I’m committed to doing is providing multiple ways that data from various processes can be harvested using basic sense-making practices. As a result I’m challenging myself and the groups I work with to do more than just theme post its.  In this case, I have everyone draw a small triangle on their post it, then write the answer to the question and then signify on the little triangle, where that learning objective lived in the tension between stuff that will help me “in my personal life, do my job or make change.”  As always it is important when you do this that YOU DO NOT GIVE EXAMPLES, but merely name the three triangle points and invite people where to place the dot to signify the data.  After that they cam and put the post its on the big triangle.

With this simple hack we now have data to work with in multiple ways.  We have a quick idea of the cohort (interesting that people are not here JUST to do their jobs better) and a good indicator that folks see their leadership as being more than just a professional duty or a personal luxury.  And it’s interesting too that not everyone is high on making change.  Also what’s interesting is the little clusters of outliers because that tells us something about a lack of actual workplace leadership practice (turns out it has to do with confidence).

Today at lunch time we will be taking the post its and reclassifying them based on themes to help discover five or six  learning themes that we can build into the collective story harvest process on Thursday.  This has been our standard practice to ensure that what we are offering in the program is responsive to the needs of the participants.  The advantage of having the marks on the post-its themselves is that we can always return the notes to this signification framework because the data contains the meaning making meta data. Visualizing the data this way helps the groups to see that connection and helps us work with.

A simple advanced harvesting practice!

UPDATE: By the way, the cluster in the lower right, about “Making change” reveals a lot about the view in the room about how change is made.  Roughly speaking these post-its point to personal resilience, learning, patience and health, becoming good at collaboration and leading people to a common vision.  Interesting…

Dealing with your slaves and seeing the world

In a complex and interconnected world it is hard to be an activist against things.  One of the easiest ways that your opponents can neutralize your opposition to things like oil and slavery is to say “we” you depend on oil and slaves, so that makes you a hypocrite.”

So this is tricky – solving global problems of labour, energy, economics and justice are the very definition of complex problems.  There is no simple solution, there is a frustrating degree of progress and even large shifts in public consciousness (think land mines or climate change) are met with initial enthusiasm but later are eroded by commercial or power interests that have a stake in the status quo and way more influence than activists.

So what to do?

Consider the slavery question.  All of us in North America depend on slave labour to support our lifestyles.  As with the issues of oil dependance, our very existence creates an impact that is measurable, real and negative against our social justice agenda.  Affordability usually is usually the result of slave labour.  Real slave labour.

So how does one deal with this?

First it’s important to remember that you are part of the problem.  To quote Adam Kahane:

Bill Torbert of Boston College once said to me that the 1960s slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be, “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for change the way things are — except from the outside, by persuasion or force.

The good news and bad news is that it is impossible to influence change from outside the problem.  Such self-righteousness is easily dismissed.  In addition, it is very difficult to advocate an end to slavery while at the same time not being prepared to pay a lot more for your food and clothes.   Change must be made from within the problem.  And to do that you have to work with others who are part of the problem.

In general for large scale global neo-liberal problems, there are three players: governments, capital and markets.  All three of these create the conditions for problems and leverage is needed on all three to create the conditions for solutions, especially at the level of transformative change.  Consumers demand cheap products, capital creates the flow of materials to meet the need and governments  regulate to ensure that things happen (usually for those who have the best ability to keep governments in office).  The hardest of these to change is the market because market behaviour is completely emergent.  Think of the last time you saw a damaging industry collapse because the market changed overnight.  IN general shifts in demand are prompted by better products in the market – things that will help people do things in a better way, at a competitive price.  There is no question that there is a demand to end slavery, but the demand for cheap clothes outweighs it.

Markets can be influenced by capital and government.  Capital influences markets by controlling what is offered out there.  If you have billions of dollars, you can do things like buy up your cometeitors patents for clean energy for example, or in the case of companies like Wal-Mart, use you economy of scale to provide loss leader products that bring people into your store to buy cheap things at the expense of local manufacturing.  And if you are in government you can regulate to eliminate bad things in the market, such as slavery as a labour practice.  But if you also sign international agreements that allow the free flow of capital, you box yourself in to accepting slavery as a practice because capital will always seek the lowest expense climate.

So to affect change requires an engagement of all three.  It begins with a personal practice and commitment to a trajectory of social and economic justice.  It requires that personally I commit to “better.”  Will we ever have a world where slavery is abolished?  No.  Can I live my life without any dependance on slaves?  Doubtful, and certainly if I was to live that life I would be far from the ability to influence power in anyway.

So it is commitment to a trajectory rather than a finish line.   Complex problems are not “solvable.”  You have to get good with living with this uncertainty and get good at accepting the gift and the curse of emergence.

Second, people have to affect change with powerful narratives.  Governments have coercive power and large corporations have the power of manipulation using capital.  All people have are narrative power – the power of a better story.  Almost always this story “fails” against the coercive power of force and capital – think Occupy, Arab Spring, Idle No More and so on.  But while they failed to achieve their specific goals, these kinds of movement are very important.  It is important that citizens try and try again to advance the narrative of justice.  Because from time to time these narrative movements succeed.  Think gains like gay marriage and civil rights in North America.  Think about what happened in places like Estonia, Czechoslovakia and India and South Africa. When the narrative wins, that one time in 1000, things transform.

And it would be nice to know that any intervention we choose will have the system changing effect that we want, but we can’t have that certainty.  We need to work towards change from inside the place of the problem.

So, what is your experience in affecting change from inside the problem?  How do you work towards justice while recognizing your complicity in the very problems you are addressing?  How does a complexity-based world view and skill set enable good work to happen?

Hahopa rising


Yesterday was wonderful.  We spent the whole day around a fire on MacKenzie Beach listening to three stories and reflecting back what we learned.  Pawa’s father Moy and uncle Tim both told stories of growing up in a traditional family and village.  For me Tim’s story of getting stranded with his brother in a rowboat was powerful and contained all kinds of teachings about leadership, knowledge and practice.  In the afternoon we did the same with Admire’s story from Zimbabwe, the story of what is happening at Kufunda Village.  A full day of deeply listening to stories, harvesting lessons and teachings.  And then this morning, Tim’s story was reenacted.  Myself and Kelly, one of the participants here, re-enacted the story of Tim and his brother in a canoe alternately rowing and baling and having to switch roles while the waves pitch and roll.  Physically re-enacting the story, sitting in chairs and actually switching places as if we were in a canoe leant a depth to the story – teachings about balance and safety and working together.  Feeling it is a whole different kind of listening.

One of the things that is happening here is that we are beginning to experience a really different sense of time.  We are spending our days outside, blessed by constant sunshine that is a complete surprise at this time of year.  We are gathering around a fire on the beach or sometimes outside one of the cabins where we are staying.  Teachings are flowing in everything we do, from cooking to walking, to spending time alone.  Time is so slow here and we are finding ourselves going to bed at 8:00 after the sunsets and waking up early in the morning.  This is probably one of the most interesting teachings we are getting from the land itself, watching the tides come and go and the moon grow towards fullness, as we barbeque salmon on the fire and share the work of our little village.

Purpose is beginning to arise amongst us. And as that happens, offerings are beginning to appear as well, offerings of space for future gatherings, offerings of resources and friendship and deep commitment.  We are still running the Indiegogo campaign so people from around the world are contributing there too, and you can join them.  Tomorrow we continue our living in open space, heading out for a walk in the woods and perhaps playing some lahal later after the sun goes down.

Collective story harvesting

In the Art of Hosting community over the past two years a group of practitioners have developed a tool called the Collective Story Harvest. I’ve used it several times and it’s a powerful and useful way to rapidly learn from the stories in the room.

Today comes news frim Mary Alice Arthur, one of the developers, about recent developments with the methodology.

I’m reporting in from the road again, this time from the airport in Chicago. I’ve had many opportunities to catch stories along the journey and this time, I’m here to report in on what’s been happening with the method of Collective Story Harvesting.

We’ve been playing with this method for over two years now, using it in trainings, with clients and in many other gatherings. Attached is the latest version of the document and it now includes:

    A group harvesting one story or set of stories together
    Many stories being harvested simultaneously
    A case study of CSH being used as the key focus for an organisational teambuilding
    Using CSH during a community of practice gathering — all of telling and harvesting stories
    How this method can support and work with other methods

A little “light bedside reading”, we are now weighing in at 19 pages. I have also been collecting all the harvesting arcs I’ve been hearing about to make a database of potential arcs or themes we can all draw on. If you have input to this list, please let me know. There’s a googledoc you can be invited to where your input can be collected.

The next level of CSH is about to happen. For some time now, I’ve had my eyes set on larger systemic stories that can be of benefit to us all. We — a group of dedicated Danes and two adopted Danes ;-) — are about to host a grand experiment as we attempt to harvest the story of Denmark going bankrupt in 1813 because we believe this story holds some keys for both Denmark and the world about how to deal with adversity.

If you’d like to be involved in an ongoing conversation about storytelling and the Art of Hosting, please join me on the Ning:

And for more about the power of story, have a look here:

Wishing you deep listening for your stories,

Mary Alice


Just about the most fun you can have getting paid

@geoffbrown3231 story boarding our #wihc2012

SItting here with Geoff Brown and Steven Wright at the World Indigenous Housing Conference here in Vancouver.  We are on the back end of what has been a terrific gig.

We were hired by the Aboriginal Housing Management Association of BC to facilitate dialogue at this 800 person international gathering.  The sponsor made dialogue a clear priority and after talking about intentions, we arrived on the design of three World Cafes: one in the plenary with everyone present and two in more focused breakout sessions.  The first cafe would look at stories of success, the second would think about how to build capacity to support success and the third was focused on institutional development.  each one built on the last.

The theme of the conference was “Sharing our Stories, Sharing our Successes.”  With that theme to play with, we knew the cafes needed to be about connecting people and ensuring that stories were central to the work.  Our first challenge was to think about how to harvest stories and connections quickly from 800 people.  We looked at several tech solutions and realized that we needed something simple, unobtrusive and accessible.  The ubiquitous tool at hand was the text equipped smart phone.  Almost everyone has one, and almost everyone can text.  Our basic problem was first how to gather text messages and second how to make meaning from them quickly.  Geoff, Steven and I were familiar with which makes a word cloud out of blocks of text, and which I have used in the past to get a visual and intuitive sense of what concepts and words are weighted highly.

So our question became, how can we combine smart phones, text messages and wordle?

Through our networks we found Luke Closs, a local developer/hackerwho put together a simple solution that he called “Text to Cloud.”  At the back end he connected Twillio to world using an interface that we could control with commands sent by text message.  groups of texts that come in can be tagged and sorted and then sent straight to Wordle for processing.  We also enabled the software to produce a CSV output that we can use for other purposes.  Luke was great, developing the tool right up to the moment that his daughter was born on Tuesday.  Of course, the tool is open source and you can find it on Github, download and install it and use it for yourself.

Armed with Text to Cloud, we began our first cafe by inviting people to text in the name of their tribe of origin.  We created an instant wordle that showed who was in the room.  That immediately connected people together (and showed we were blessed with Crees!)./  Following that we had people enter into the cafe to start telling stories of successes with listeners paying attention to the factors that made those successes possible.  People gathered information on tablecloths and texted in wisdom and insights and by the end of the cafe we had 438 text messages to make meaning from.  We had a half hour to do something with all this.

So we sent it all to Wordle and discovered a theme: Building Homes, Building Communities and Building Nations.  There were six key areas we needed to think about for capacity building: governance, building, partnerships, community, education and ownership.  Steven whipped up a digital mind map which we projected on our screens.  We invited people at each table to choose one of the topics and dive into stories of capacity building.  In our third cafe, we thought about how institutions can support sustained capacity building.

By the end of the day we were soaking in flip chart paper, but we had some great high level meaning through the Text to Cloud output, the wordles and the developmental nature of the conversation.  We retreated to Steven’s room and started trying to figure out how to share what we had learned.  We realized early on that there was absolute gold on the flip charts, so we decided to create a presentation that combined what Geoff calls “vox pops” – short pithy and insightful comments – along with longer stories.  While Steven created a map to chart the highlights, Geoff and I prepared a slideshow that touches on the headlines.  Our plan this afternoon is to call the storytellers up to the stage to share their stories with the audience.  They are the true key notes.

This gig has been fun.  Our client has been fantastic, we’ve created new tools, connected people doing important work, pushed our own edges and done stuff we’ve never done before, and that we could never have done alone.  It was a superb co-creative experience and a great way to spend time with good friends.





Working with Cynefin to find questions


Working with a client tonight who is beginning a process of trying to find some questions for moving forward.  The client is a group of churches who are exploring how they might collaborate to undertake their joint mission together.  There are a number of factors at play, and the environment they are working in is diverse.

Tonight, with a few short hours, we’ll do a little story gathering.  We’ll begin by exploring an uncontextualized Cynefin framework and then invite small anecdote circles to form around the question of “What are the challenges and role of our Churches in this region, in this time?”  I’ll invite groups to explore this question using stories.  The idea is to gather anecdote fragments in each circle and then explore contextualizing a framework to give us a sense of the work that might lay before us, should people choose to work more collaboratively.  I am hoping that, despite a short time together, the exercise will open some inquires, especially in the complex space, that people might be interested in pursuing.

Power and listening

A great quote from a post by Mark Simon:

The more
power you have,
the more people will lis ten respectfully
to your story.
listening to some one’s story is a way
of empowering them, of validat ing
their intrinsic worth
as a human being.
~ Kay Pra nis

A very important principle for design work.

Why culture matters


Analyse this...!

Yesterday I had a chance to grab lunch with Dave Pollard in our local coffee shop on Bowen Island. One of the things we talked about was the supremacy of analysis in the world and why that is a problem when it comes to operating in complex domains.

I have been intentionally working a lot lately with Dave Snowdon et. al.’s Cynefin framework to support decision making in various domains. It is immensely helpful in making sense of the messy reality of context and exercises like anecdote circles and butterfly stamping are very powerful, portable and low tech processes.

Cynefin is also useful in that it warns us against a number of fatal category errors people make when trying to design solutions to problems. The most serious of these is remaining complacent in a simple context which has the effect of tipping the system to chaos. Nearly as infuriating and problematic to me is the applicability of analysis to complex domains.

Analysis has a dominant place in organizational and community life. It provides a sense of security that we can figure things out and operate in the space of the known. If we just analyse a situation enough we can identify all if the aspects if the problem and choose a solution. Of course in the complicated domain, where causes and effects can be known even though they are separated in time and space, analysis works beautifully. But in complex domains, characterized by emerged phenomenon, analysis tends to externalize and ignore that which it cannot account for with the result that solutions often remain dangerously blind to surprise and “black swan” events.

The Cyenfin framework advocates working with stories and social constructed meaning to sense and act in complex spaces. Where as analysis relies on objective data and meaning making models to create rules and tools, action in complex spaces uses stories and patterns to create principles and practices which help us to create small actions – probes in the system – that work in a nuanced way with emergence.

In this respect culture matters. The stories that are told and the practices thy are used to make sense of those stories is the method for acting in complex space. This distinction us helpful for me working with indigenous communities where program management may rely on analytical tools (and culture is stamped out in the process) but practices need to be grounded in culturally based responses. Using stories and social meaning making restores culture to its traditional role of helping groups of humans move together in complex domains while using analysis more appropriately.

Simple instructions for building a question

I am preparing some questions tonight for an exercise I am running, and I rediscovered this elegant and simple process for constructing questions that elicit stories, courtesy of the Ultimate Guide to Anecdote Circles.

Build the question.

People remember events when they can picture an image reminding them of a specific situation. Combine this idea with the suggestion of adding emotion and you have the two building blocks to create good questions.

First start with an image-building phrase:

  • “Think about…”
  • “Imagine…”
  • “If…”
  • “Consider…”

For example, ”Think about a time when you were given advice by your manager.”

Add an additional sentence or two to enhance the image:

“This might have been done formally in the office or perhaps outside the formal environment.”

Then add the open question with the emotive words:

“When have you been annoyed, ecstatic or perhaps just surprised by what you were told?”

Notice there is a spectrum of emotions, which increases the chances of a memory being triggered by the question.

Simply asking people to tell stories rarely results in stories being told. In fact people are often confused when you ask for stories, thinking they might have to concoct an event or perhaps demonstrate Hemingway-level storytelling. Consequently, we suggest you avoid the term ‘story’ and use terms like: examples, illustrations, experiences.

So simple and results in great questions.

A better metaphor for American debate

Stories that run deep within a culture arise out of the basic and unquestioned metaphors and archetypes that provide the foundation for a culture.  This is true in all kinds of communities, including nation-states and villages, organizations and families.  You can discover some of those foundational metaphors in your own communities by asking yourself “We are a community and that means…”

As someone who has been working with the cultural narratives of the United States over the past few years, Rob Paterson has cast his eye on the way out of the rhetorical tennis match that passes for conversation on immigration in the US.  In this great post, he finds a better metaphor for the conversation about immigration in the United States:

For our debates about immigration and all important aspects of life today are rooted in beliefs and not in knowledge. Two great tribes struggle for power. Their ideology affects everything.

“Secure the Border” is a cultural and tribal battle cry as is “Racists”.

Neither side can hear the truth in the other. Both sides make the other angry. The result is that America is splitting apart. Civic discourse is dying and it is nearly impossible to get anything done anymore.

So how do we escape this trap?

I think that we need to change the rules of the game entirely. What might help is to shift the underlying metaphor.

The metaphor we use today is “Fortress America”.

In the Fortress you are in or out. There is a wall. All that matters is the wall. You make it perfect or you leave holes in it. Motive or the circumstances for people outside the wall or inside the wall mean nothing. This is a mechanical and a simple model that is not suited to a complex and organic problem.

Being simple, such a metaphor insists on a right or a wrong answer and so can never produce what is demanded in a complex problem.

It is like 14th century Catholicism when confronted by Galileo. Facts mean nothing. Only dogma and tribal loyalty count.

You can’t argue with dogma. Facts mean nothing.

Competing dogmas can only fight.

Don’t we have to find another way of seeing the issue that does not trigger a tribal response?

I think that a better metaphor might allow this. I think that a better metaphor might enable us to keep our tribal beliefs but to agree with others about things that do not need beliefs to understand and agree on.

A better metaphor is our body and our immune system. It represents the dynamic reality of America and Immigration much better than a wall. It can show us ways of seeing our response that are not in the realm of ethics but in the realm of system dynamics.

For our body, like all real systems has not a sealed but a porous border. It has open portals such as our nose and mouth and a porous skin.

The most important line of defence that we have is inside the body is our immune system. It is our immune system that regulates our body and that reacts to “newcomers”. It is our immune system that allows the familiar and rejects the unknown.

The healthier it is, the more it can defend you against real threats and the less it will overreact to small threats or even to good things.  A Balanced immune system will protect you from flu and will not over react and kill you from toxic shock if you eat a peanut.

The Immune System is also affected by the scale and the power of the newcomer. Large scale and sudden intrusions will cause a reaction. Small and slow will tend not to.

Newcomers who want to enter our body have their own dynamics too. They have pathways, life cycles, reasons to get inside and reasons to leave where they were.

Our bodies are a dynamic system that interacts inside and with the outside. So is America.