For much of the past few years my facilitation and evaluation practice has been steadily merging together. When I FINALLY came across Cynthia’ Kurtz’s body of work, Participatory Narrative Inquiry a few years ago, I felt simultaneously validated and challenged. Validated in that the participatory facilitation work I have been doing since I stumbled on Open Space Technology in 1995 met the complexity work I have been in since 2005 and the developmental evaluation work I’ve been doing for the past ten years. Challenged in that it opened up new streams for my practice, and that has been gratifying.
Nowadays I regularly do story gathering as a part of all my projects. I use online tools like NarraFirma, Spryng or Sensemaker and sometimes pen and paper approaches. In a future blog post perhaps I’ll name some of the projects we’ve been doing with these tools and how they have contributed to our work.
Today in a conversation about getting started with stories, someone asked about how to get a bunch of perspectives from throughout to company on a new phase in a company’s evolution. I responded with a simple approach to PNI. You can use this to get started with a group.
- You want to begin by collecting stories, not running a workshop where everyone tells you what they think are the issues. That approach tends to get everyone prepared to advocate for their own position. So try this simple approach. Do a little questionnaire, using Google Forms for example. Ask participants to “share a story of something that happened lately that made you think: ‘we need to address this issue…'” Get everyone in the organization to enter one story, a few sentences. On the form then ask them a) how common do you think this is in our organization and b) what is one thing we could do to address that issue?
- Now you have a collection of grounded stories and a bunch of material you can use to host some more interesting strategic sessions. Convene some meetings and give people the stories to look at, maybe separated into common and rare, and have them look at the material and work together to create ways of addressing the issues.
- There are many things you can do with these stories, but the principle is “Use the harvest to convene the conversation.” From that the conversation can produce a harvest of things to try to address the issues you discover.
The advantage of this is that everyone’s voice gets in the mix, and everyone has a chance to interpret their own stories and then interpret what other people’s stories might mean. This generates massive engagement.
I really appreciate Cynthia’s clear writing on this and offer you this quote from work as a heuristic in your own planning and design:
In my experience, the greater the degree of participation the stronger the positive impact of any project that involves people and aims to improve some situation faced by those people. I have also noticed that some forms of participation are easier to manage than others. So I generally encourage people planning projects to think about taking one more step up the staircase of participation, wherever they find themselves now; but I order the steps so as to make the transition more feasible in practice.
If you are asking people to tell you stories, why not ask them what their stories mean?
If you already do that, why not ask people what the stories other people told mean?
If you already do that, why not ask people to build something with their stories? Why not ask them what that means?
If you already do that, why not ask people if they can see any trends in the stories that have been told?
If you already do that, why not ask people to design interventions based on the stories they have told and heard?
Then, why not ask people to help you plan new projects?
And so on. As you step up, keep watching your project to see if increasing participation is making it better. If it stops making the project better (for the people you are doing the project to help), stop increasing the participation. Wherever you find yourself is participatory enough. For now.