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Brenda Dervin recently made a few points in her masterclass that have stuck in my mind. Like: when it comes to sensemaking, what matters is the moment of action. There is no reality, only reality-making.
It seems that taking a sensemaking approach requires getting into a sensemaking mindset.
How about this zen koan to help you get into a sensemaking mindset….
- Q: How long should you stay at something?
- A: However long it takes to get what you came for.
- Q: How do you decide what you came for?
- A: You don’t, you discover it.
- Q: How do you discover it?
- A: You notice what isn’t there anymore when you feel like leaving.
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I was on a conference call on the weekend discussing Steve Denning’s book, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, with the CP Square guys. In chapter 7 Steve makes a clear distinction between CoPs and Networks where the latter consists of a group of people who link together for mutual benefit, such as an alumni. While a community of practice is a group with formed for the purpose of improving member practice. Now, if you take extreme examples like your LinkedIn contacts (a network) and Shell’s Turbodudes (a CoP of geologists interested in turbidites) the difference between the two forms of organising are clear. But when we consider the middle ground it seems that the organising structure is in the eye of the beholder. For example, ask a handful of people who participate in ActKM, some will say it is a network while others will swear it is a community of practice.
I would like to propose that the way we perceive the group type as either a network or a CoP depends on whether people have heard and retell the group’s foundational stories. I know many of the ActKM stories because I was there from the start. I can tell you the one about the KMCI debacle which helped get ActKM started, the one about how the listserver system went haywire and we introduced moderation and the one about the YahooGroups being deleted. So I see ActKM as a CoP. I’m also a member of CP Square but I don’t know that group’s stories and consequently I see it more as a network than a community. I would like to change my perception in that case.
This is merely an observation. Does it hold true in your experience?
I was reminded earlier this week of an event in 2000 when I was working for SMS consulting that demonstrated the dramatic and adverse impact that inappropriate management can have on a community of practice.
A small group of consultants interested in knowledge management had started meeting regularly and over several years the group had expanded to include members in all other SMS offices. While the company provided support in terms of facilities, beverages, food and permission, we were for a long time just tolerated rather than valued. When the company realised that knowledge management had business potential and that their little CoP had developed methodologies, presentations, business development materials and had in fact completed a few projects, they decided to take this KM stuff seriously. So, they appointed a manager to ‘oversee’ the activities of the group. At his first meeting, the manager advised us to stop developing these materials and our new priorities were to be the development of a business case to justify our continued existence and a document development schedule. We were thrilled – NOT! As soon as we started making a difference we were to be diverted from work that contributed to our practice of KM. The next week most of the group didn’t turn up - same the week after. Fortunately, after a ‘either he goes or we go’ chat with the regional director, the new ‘oversight’ arrangements were removed.
This experience is evidence of an APQC finding that “management can hamper or kill a community, but it cannot make it thrive”. It demonstrates that management intervention needs to be carefully handled and that there is always a delicate balance between member value and organisational value.
1. ‘Building and Sustaining Communities of Practice’ APQC Report, 2001, p9.
I’ve always has an admiration for anyone who can display complex information simply. This is why Edward Tufte’s books, like Envisioning Information, are among my favourites.
Nerida Hart sent me this link which I think you’ll find impressive: http://www.gapminder.org/
Nerida, when are you going to get a blog so I can link to this cool information you send me?
Everyone can benefit from finding and telling better stories. Don’t be confused in thinking, however, that telling stories means regaling an audience with your latest adventure tale. In business it doesn’t need to be so grand. Telling stories is simply conveying your ideas, values, intentions by retelling something that happened that illustrates your points. Let me give you an example.
When I joined IBM in 1999, my first job was to organise a seminar on knowledge management (KM). After some searching, I discovered Dave Snowden, a colleague in the UK, who had a reputation as an entertaining speaker with a radical and refreshing perspective on KM. As luck would have it, he was planning to visit Australia the next February so we organised a seminar, in Old Parliament House in Canberra. It was a tremendous success. It was my first exposure to narrative techniques and complexity theory and it started me on a new and exciting career path.
This story of how I met Dave is an example of how you can introduce yourself using a simple anecdote rather than listing your interests and achievements. One short anecdote can be more effective than retelling your entire life history. My anecdote has a number of features worth noting:
- There is a main character—me—who is on a journey. I’m seeking a speaker, I find a speaker, he speaks, and it sets me off on a new career path. The journey transforms me. People like to hear about someone else’s journey. It’s how we learn without having to experience something first-hand.
- I tell the listener from the outset when this event happened. A clear date helps the listener identify that I’m telling a story and the precise dates indicate that it is likely to be true. The story loses its impact if it starts by saying, “A few years back, when I joined IBM, my first job …”
- It’s conversational. This is how I would tell it if someone asked, “So, how did you get into storytelling?” Conversational stories tend to be simple, without embellishment, telling the listener what happened.
There are many ways to use stories to communicate more effectively. Become aware of the anecdotes all around you and think, “How could these stories be improved? What can we learn from them?” Create and add to your own “library” of significant stories. The first step in retelling them is to know the message you want to convey. Then you need to find the most relevant anecdote among your collection, or recount the memory of another revealing event as a new anecdote.
Our minds are filled with stories but our memories are poles apart from library catalogues waiting to be searched. Rather, our memories need stimulation to remember the stories we know. Here are three ways to help remember stories:
- Convene an anecdote circle, because hearing other people’s stories instantly conjures up our own tales. An anecdote circle is a group of people who meet for an hour or so to discuss a topic of interest. Instead of everyone providing their opinions, the group concentrates on retelling illustrative examples, anecdotes and experiences. You’ll be amazed at how many of your own stories you will remember. Write them down.
- Draw a timeline on a whiteboard and mark the important events. This works best when you’re with a small group of people who have experienced that time together. Simply start a conversation about the events, recounting what people remember happening. To be effective, people must give specific and detailed accounts using real names, real places, real dates, otherwise the result will be abstract generalisations that are difficult to translate into effective stories for retelling.
- Learn to ask anecdote-eliciting questions like, “Tell me when you’ve felt great about your work. What happened?” Avoid story-phobic questions such as, “Why do we do things this way?” or “What is the best approach to this problem?” This type of question results in people justifying their actions using analysis, facts and logic—not stories. Anecdotes flow when we help people remember a particular time, when they can picture a specific situation. “When” and “where” questions are most effective.
Presenting your stories
Regardless of the number of people listening to your story, you should present it conversationally as if you were speaking to a single person. Avoid announcing that you have a great story to tell. Simply launch into the retelling with, perhaps, an introductory remark like, “That reminds me of when …” or “This example illustrates that point.” Better still, when someone asks a question like, “How did you get into storytelling, Shawn?” immediately start your anecdote: “When I joined IBM in 1999 …”
At the end of the story avoid telling the listeners what they should have gleaned from the story. Avoid saying things like, “The moral of the story then is …” or “The key points I want you to take away from that story are …” The power of storytelling comes from the story being told twice, once by the storyteller and once by the story-listener. If you tell the listener what they should have heard, you steal their opportunity to re-create the story for themselves. It’s this story re-creation that inspires people to take action, change behaviour and self-reflect.
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Then you’ve gotta make it to the Naked Facilitator Conference to be held in Geelong this year November 28–1st December. There are some great people going to be there like: Bob Dick, Viv McWaters, Johnnie Moore, Izzy Gessel, Andrew Rixon. Hmmm.
Be an early bird and get in before 1st September!
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Dave Snowden has officially started blogging. I’d keep an eye on this site as Dave is renowned for his unique style and new perspectives on complexity and organisational issues.
I remember a great story told by Margaret Wheatley about how the US Federal Aviation Authority successfully landed all the planes in US airspace on September 11. I was searching around for it today and found it. Here is it:
On September 11th, as we all know, every plane was grounded. It took four hours for them to clear the skies, and during that time, they had to continue to assess whether terrorists were controlling any other plane. There was one incident in Alaska where the pilot was Korean and was giving the wrong code, so they thought he was in trouble, but he wasn't. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had to land 5,000 planes. Never been done before. No preparation, no simulations, no training. The person who was head of the FAA, was new to the job; it was his first day on the job, and I remember that he said, “In the interview for this job I asked, ”Will I have complete authority to make decisions?” and they said, “Yes.” He never thought that his very first day would be one where he was going to buy the farm on if it didn't work. He gave the order. Several airlines, like Delta, had already asked all their planes to land. Many of the planes had to land at small airports. Small airports have air traffic controllers, rulebooks, and well-trained people, but there was no rulebook that covered this kind of circumstance, so they had to invent or disregard procedures. Everyone was being asked to be courageous by going against the book. And they all did it very well. It was a monumental task.
Later, they realized that the reason they succeeded was the strength of their relationships. They trusted each other as they were communicating across the country. There was a real esprit décor; they were smart. They could make new policies. They could make up rules that worked in the moment. So after Sept. 11, as any good organization would do, the FAA wanted to learn why this had worked so well. But of course, being a federal agency, they wanted to learn what worked so they could put it into a rulebook. After its research, the FAA did something extraordinarily brave. They decided not to write a rulebook about the incident; they understood that what had made it work was people's intelligence, dedication, and relationships. That's a lesson we all need to learn right now. The only way through an uncertain time is to have a certainty about your values, your purpose, and a certainty about each other. We call it trust, but it's even more than that. It's knowing, as my friend's daughter who plays rugby says, “When you're moving a ball down the field, you can’t see the people right behind you, but you may need to pass the ball to them, so they just keep signaling to you and they just keep staying with you, with you, with you.”
Andrew says we should be more comfortable with not knowing and I have to admit I don’t entirely know what he means. :-) This post over at Fast Company starts with a nice Einstein quote. I wish people would cite where these quotes were written, said, etc. Does anyone know where this quote comes from?
"The difference between what the most and the least learned people know is inexpressibly trivial in relation to that which is unknown." -- Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
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Free Access to the public from July 4th to August 4th, in celebration of Project Gutenberg's 35th Birthday
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Ford Harding has written two useful articles on using anecdotes to overcome common selling challenges. In Harding case he’s focussed on professional firms but the suggestions hold true for anyone wishing to improve their sales. The first article describes some ways to use anecdote in a sales environment. Here are the article headings.
- Create Tangible Value
- Demonstrate The Value Of Process Benefits
- Use As An Indirect Probe
- Politely Disagree With Your Client
- Demonstrate Your Personal Strengths
Harding article is full of anecdotes (it would be silly without them). Here’s one that caught my eye under the heading of ‘Create Tangible Value’ which illustrates the value of experience to a prospective client.
What we bring is experience in data center consolidation. Most people get involved in these issues only once every 10 years or so, but we do every day.
For example, we recently completed a consolidation analysis for a large insurance company which had plans to consolidate the small data center run by its non-insurance subsidiary into its main center. The analysis showed a three-year payback.
The head of the subsidiary brought us in to evaluate the consolidation because the center was so critical to his operations. We went through a step-by-step review of what it would cost to consolidate and run the center. Because of our experience, we were aware of many costs that hadn't been taken into account in the original analysis, and showed that the consolidation would cost four times the original estimate and had an actual payback of over six years. The consolidation was scrapped.
We weren't any smarter than the people who did the original analysis; we just had more experience.
I think a couple of improvements could be made that would increase its impact.
Find out the exact date the consolidation occurred and give that date. Rather than saying “we recently completed …”, say “In February last year we completed…” An exact date let’s the listener know that this is a real account of what happened not just a generalised version.
Find out who did the consolidation analysis and use their name and role. We like to hear how the protagonist achieved their goals.
Harding should have taken his own advice because in his second article he says, “Perhaps the single most common weakness of anecdotes is the absence of the character.”
The second article has many good points. Here is the outline version of Harding’s guidelines. There’s only one point that made me a little uneasy—see the point in red.
- Make It Relevant
- Select An Anecdote With Which The Listener Can Relate
- Emphasize The Similarities
- Every Good Story Has A Plot, Character, Action, And Outcome
- Use Only One Plot Per Anecdote
- Use A Character With Whom Your Prospect Identifies
- Tailor Your Character To Your Listener
Regarding the character in the anecdote, Harding suggests the following:
Each time you tell an anecdote, consider reformulating it to make it more relevant to the current listener by changing the character. If I'm speaking to the CEO, I would like to have a CEO or other line manager as the hero. If I'm speaking to the head of human resources, I would like the human resources professional as the hero. We work with many people in a client organization, allowing us some leeway in the choice of character for different versions of an anecdote.
This is the beginning of a slippery slope. It’s vital that the anecdotes you tell actually retell what happened as far as you know it. It’s important not to change the characters simply to suit the situation.
Here are the rest of Harding’s guidelines.
- Describe Actions
- A Good Story Must Have A Clear Outcome
- Practice Your Stories
The Guardian has pulled together some statistics suggesting that for every 100 people online only 1 person will create content and 10 will “interact” with it. The other 89 will just view it.
Here are some stats from the article:
each day at YouTube there are 100 million downloads and 65,000 uploads
50% of all Wikipedia article edits are done by 0.7% of users, and more than 70% of all articles have been written by just 1.8% of all users
in Yahoo Groups, the discussion lists, 1% of the user population might start a group; 10% of the user population might participate actively, and actually author content, whether starting a thread or responding to a thread-in-progress; 100% of the user population benefits from the activities of the above groups
My own research with Trish Milne shows a similar ratio. In our survey of ActKM members (a mostly online knowledge management community of practice) 78% said they’ve never contributed to the online discussion yet were regular readers. The regular posters on ActKM would account for about 1–5% of the membership.
The important message for me is this: look after your content creators because it’s tough building online communities and you must encourage those people who contribute.
[thanks to Nerida Hart for the pointer]
Milne, P. & Callahan, S. D. 2006. ActKM: the story of a community. Journal of Knowledge Management, 10(1): 108-118.
Professor Gervaise Germaine from the Free University of Munsterburg provides a lucid description of the difference between data, information and knowledge in this short video clip. The new knowledge transfer device is a obvious breakthrough (I suspect further design will be required on the device’s styling).
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Last week, I was sitting in a hotel room in Sydney with Shawn and Andrew following a workshop by Brenda Dervin: sense-maker extraordinaire. The workshop re-confirmed our conviction that sensemaking really does matter and that it is time to expand our little company …
We would love to work with
- someone passionate about people; you love working with people, you’re interested in how people work in organisations; and you share our desire to restore humanity to the forefront of organising and organisations.
- a person with 5 or more years working experience; it would be good if you had a degree in a people-related discipline (for example, organisational psychology, anthropology, HR); and some consulting experience is desirable (though definitely not essential).
- someone who will enthusiastically embrace the Anecdote operating principles of: do good things; look after each other; and have a go.
- people who are comfortable in conversation and with whom others naturally share their stories; we’re looking for people who are interested in Anecdote’s work and learning about it; not necessarily people who are already experienced in this field.
- a person with a great attitude to work, to life. This is far more important than skills.
What we will do for you
- We will train you in all our techniques such as narrative collection, sensemaking, intervention design, storytelling, social network analysis, communities of practice development, and fostering knowledge transfer.
- Provide a diversity of project types and activities that will stretch you and help you learn at a cracking pace.
- Good coffee and great conversations.
What you will be doing at Anecdote
- Helping to develop and refine our sensemaking approaches based on our work in organisations, big and small, public and private sector.
- You definitely won’t be making Shawn’s coffee
- Project activities including interviewing, focus group facilitation, research, presentations, and logistics.
- Meeting and working with outstanding people who form part of the Anecdote global network of collaborators.
Is this you? Are you interested?
Send a 3 page pdf that conveys your outstanding attributes and why you should be part of the Anecdote team to firstname.lastname@example.org
We will close the call for submissions on the 15 August 2006.
You will need to live in either Canberra or Melbourne for this job.
As you would expect, Anecdote provides a collegiate working environment. We’re a small, close-knit team that collaborates without ego or arrogance. Have a browse through our website and get a feel for the company you will be joining. Our perspectives, priorities and thoughts are published here and we think they provide insight into Anecdote’s philosophy.
Feel free to pass this post onto someone you think might be interested.
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The “story spine” is a natural sensemaking device. Yesterday, one of my good friends Viv was telling me about a workshop experience she went through with a very polarized community where there was alot of conflict and turmoil in the room. As a way to get the group working towards a vision she introduced the story spine approach for story telling. Viv found the story spine really powerful, not to mention cathartic.
The story spine follows a pattern like:
Once upon a time...
But one day...
Because of that... (repeat three times or as often as necessary) Until finally...
Ever since then...
And the moral of the story is...(optional)
Once participants have been introduced to the story spine you can then invite them to tell a story using the story spine framework.
With my new found appreciation of Brenda Dervin’s sensemaking work it makes sense why the story spine is a fantastic sensemaking device. As Brenda explains, her work around sensemaking builds on the metaphor of a person finding themselves in a certain situation where to get to the place they want to be they have to cross a bridge. Taking a sensemaking lens to the situation, gap and outcome results in particular sensemaking questions like: “What brought you to this point?”, “What questions or muddles do you have?” and “What helps have you had?”. It appears, that in one fell swoop, the story spine brings this all into focus. “Once upon a time” helps to locate the situation. “But one day…” helps to locate the gap. “Ever since then…” brings the outcome to fruition.
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We are excited to announce our new workshop designed to help people find and tell organisational stories. Here is the description.
I recommend you download the brochure and see the detailed information. Feel free to pass it on to anyone you think might be interested in honing their innate storytelling skills.
Before a leader attempts to convince, share knowledge and even spark action, they should introduce themselves using a story.1 It creates context and builds trust. George Orwell understood this idea well. The first 4 paragraphs of Why I Write consist of a set of biographical anecdotes which helps the reader understand Orwell’s nature. He begins the essay:
From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.
Orwell could certainly write clear and simple stories—two important characteristics of organisational storytelling. It’s important to avoid rambling. He also had a clear understanding why the biographical introduction was necessary:
I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development.
A business audience also needs to understand the presenter’s motives. You could simply reveal your motives in a series of dot points but people are unlikely to ‘hear’ what you’re saying or believe a word of it. A simple and clear story enables the audience to build their own picture of what’s driving the presenter’s actions.
Orwell’s introductory story is probably too long for a business setting. There are at least three story-based introductions Orwell could have delivered if he was standing in front of 30 people announcing a new change initiative: the story of his early literary efforts; the one about the continuous story created and recreated in his mind as an adolescent; and the one about his discovery of the aesthetic of words in Paradise Lost. OK, so it’s unlikely these exact stories would work but these types of stories are perfect.
1. Denning, S. 2005. The Leader's Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
I’m re-reading Steve Denning’s The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling and having fun chasing down the footnotes and references. I thought I’d share with you some of the resources and examples I find by reading the book in detail. For example Tyco, a global business employing 250,000 people, include in their guide to ethical conduct illustrative anecdotes for each topic covered in the guide including:
- equal employment
- gifts, and
A Tyco employee can read the dot points and clearly defined guidelines then supplement their understanding by reading the anecdotes.
Here is one of the anecdotes for ‘Gifts’ with the heading ‘Bribes and Inappropriate Gifts Look Like …’:
Andreas, a project manager, is waiting for a permit for the expansion at his facility. An official at the local zoning board informs him that things could move more quickly if he paid an “express fee.”
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For centuries (until the 1950’s), scientists believed that the left side of our brains (the rational, analytical, logical side) was the crucial side; the side that made us human. All sorts of evidence was collected to support this view. Our organisations are often reflections of this type of thinking: obviously we needed all sorts of rules, systems and procedures to adequately control things. So, this is where the emphasis has been and the result is a system out of balance.
Increasingly our organisations are realising that numbers are not enough in an increasingly complex world. They are realising that the ‘bossy, know-it-all’ left brain approach, and its associated capabilites, are a necessary but insufficient condition for success. The language of complexity teaches us that complex problems cannot be ‘analysed and solved’ per se and that new approaches are required to supplement (not replace) our problem solving capabilities.
Apart from helping organisations to tackle complex problems, building the organisation’s right brain capabilities creates the conditions for insight and empowerment and can help create a richer and more rewarding work experience. Used in combination with traditional approaches, the techniques that we use such as business narrative, most significant change, social network analysis, storytelling, communities of practice (and others) can enhance the ability to tackle intractable problems, achieve meaningful change….and to help restore balance to the ways we think about and manage our organisations.
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Early next week we’ll be in Sydney. On monday, there is Brenda Dervin’s sensemaking workshop which I’m really looking forward to. On Tuesday we are running our free Social Network Analysis and Sensemaking seminar. Drop me a line if you’d like to come!
I’ve also recently updated my squidoo lens around Sensemaking approaches to social network mapping and analysis. Take a look. Let me know what you think.
To finish. A good sensemaking quote I like:
“We act our way into a belated understanding”
Filed in Knowledge.
Peering over the fence between disciplines has been a time honoured method for sparking revolutionary ideas. Remember Charles Darwin fruitful dalliance with economics which helped him understand the mechanism driving evolution—natural selection. Ironically, we now have the field of evolutionary economics—the economists are taking more than a peak at what evolutionary biologists are doing. Each new combination creates new ideas.
The maker of fancy speakers and headphones that cancel noise, Bose, have taken a leap into a new field and have developed a shock absorption system for cars based on technology they know well, high-voltage electrical coils and magnets. The authors of the research, David Hsu and Kwanghui Lim, call the ‘peaking’ process, knowledge bridging and suggest that:
knowledge bridging can help companies bring products to market faster and raise money more quickly.
all a firm has to do to become a knowledge bridger is hire the right people and give them the freedom to follow their curiosity.
This is all reported in Knowledge at Wharton article called: In Biotech Startups, Knowledge Bridging Can Be the Key to Creativity. The article elaborates on Hsu and Lim’s research describing the ways Silicon Valley biotech companies created new patents and using this information to map the lineage of invention in the valley. Knowledge bridging was a noticeable trait of the successful companies and remarkably the only factor they could find that led to knowledge bridging was the act of hiring a variety of researchers. This reminds me of the Larry Prusak quip, when asked what someone should include in a knowledge strategy Larry suggested: hire smart people and let them talk. Perhaps we need to modify this to: hire a diverse bunch of smart people and let them talk.
The research paper that forms the background to this article is here.
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Design Observer has republished an article by Michael McDonough listing the top 10 things they never taught Michael in design school. Design is a fundamental capability in a complex world and I think you’ll find Michael’s list useful. Here are the bullet points. For the explanations I recommend you pop on over to Design Observer.
- Talent is one-third of the success equation.
- 95 percent of any creative profession is shit work.
- If everything is equally important, then nothing is very important.
- Don’t over-think a problem.
- Start with what you know; then remove the unknowns.
- Don’t forget your goal.
- When you throw your weight around, you usually fall off balance.
- The road to hell is paved with good intentions; or, no good deed goes unpunished.
- It all comes down to output.
- The rest of the world counts.
[via Daniel Pink]
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The authors, Christian Budtz and Klaus Fog, have written a book about finding and telling your company’s authentic stories. Here’s a snippet:
Does your company have an original story to tell? A story that is so honest, captivating and unique, that we are willing to pay a price premium to become part of it?
In line with the basic principles of psychology, storytelling is a way for companies to understand their values and personalities. The critical task, however, is to identify the story that makes your company different from the competition. Without this unique story to build from, your company is exposed to copycats and risks being forced to compete fiercely on price alone.
Yep, I agree. Especially the second paragraph. It’s what we do at Anecdote (here is a white paper I wrote about narrative and branding). As I was reading the article I was fighting a prejudice I have thinking that people into branding are only seeking the story that defines the company. So I was pleasantly surprised to read this sentence:
Little anecdotes, seemingly insignificant at first, may very well be the stories that most effectively show why your company is special.
Authenticity has become a popular sentiment in storytelling lately, and rightly so. Who tells a story affects its authenticity. Here are two perspectives on that point:
So where do you begin digging for stories that show the unique value of your product or company? A good place to start is to search for people within the company who have made extraordinary achievements.
One of the most credible sources for unique stories is to be found outside of your company: among your customers.
Do you think story listening is starting to take off in the US? This article suggests that finding stories is a key part of the process to effectively use narrative. At Anecdote we have a three step process:
- Prospecting. Everyone has stories to tell, but in many cases we are unaware of them. Prospecting involves creating a conducive environment for people to remember their stories. This might involve one-on-one interview techniques or group processes such as anecdote circles.
- Patterns. We can improve the way we tell our stories by understanding the story structures and patterns appropriate for the task.
- Performance. Effective story telling comes from a belief that the story is authentic. People judge authenticity on how the storyteller delivers their story.
What do you think of these three steps? Love to hear your thoughts.
I like this quote from Steve:
“The choice for leaders in business and organizations is not whether to be involved in storytelling—they can hardly do otherwise—but rather whether to use storytelling unwittingly and clumsily—or intelligently and skillfully.” (xvi)
Denning, S. 2005. The Leader's Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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Shawn’s series of posts on finding expertise has reminded me of one of my favourite quotes: an anthropologist’s description of an agricultural North American tribe from David Bohm’s book On Dialogue:
Dialogue provides shared meaning and empowers people. With the number of meetings in most organisations it is not unreasonable that we should expect high levels of shared meaning and empowerment…but this doesn’t appear to be the case. What is it that prevents our meetings from enabling us to engage in dialogue?
Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap tell the story of how Jack Hanley, the CEO of Monsanto, hired Howard Schneiderman, the Dean of Biological Sciences at the University of California, to head up Monsanto’s new life sciences business. As part of the job interview Hanley asked a question which was deliberately outside Schneiderman’s area of expertise:
“We’re about to make a big investment in a silicon plant in the United States. Is silicon the material of choice for the semiconductors of the future?”
“Well, if I had one day [to answer the question], I would call up the top biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whom I know, and would ask to be introduced in a telephone conference call to the top materials scientist at MIT. Then I’d pose the question to that person and ask him to think about. I’d tell him: ‘I’d be happy to give you $2,000 for an answer, and I’ll call you back tomorrow.’ I figured that guy would get on the telephone, and he would ask colleagues and in twenty-four hours, I could give Hanley a reasonable answer, although it wouldn’t be perfect.
He got the job.
This story illustrates a number of interesting expertise location features:
- Effective expertise locators often make the first connection geographically close to where the expertise might reside. In this case Schneiderman guessed that great material scientists worked at MIT so he chose to contact his biologist friend there. Dodds et. al. proved this tactic while re-running the 6 degrees of separation experiment.
- He then asked for a personal introduction and intuitively knew that the motivation to assist someone you’ve met for the first time might be low so he offers an incentive. Diminishing motivation as the seeker moves away from their personal network is another characteristic borne out by Dodds et. al. study.
- Within 24 hours he would hopefully have a trustworthy answer.
Dodds, P. S., Muhamad, R., & Watts, D. J. 2003. An experimental study of search in global social networks. Science, 301: 827-829.
Leonard, D. & Swap, W. 2005. Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Australian-wide survey on awareness and attitudes of story and narrative techniques in organisations
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Since our survey launch last week I have sure been busy. We’ve had a fantastic response rate and are collecting some interesting perspectives which we will be pulling together into a report which will be available after we’ve completed the analysis and write-up. Watch this space.
If you would like to participate and contribute to an Australian-wide benchmark around the awareness and attitudes of story and narrative techniques in organisations please feel free to join in by clicking this link. The survey should take you around 8–10 minutes to complete. We will be closing the survey July 21st.
We hope you can share your experiences with us!
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I noticed this call to bloggers on Technorati today and because I’m interested in how people conduct online surveys (we’re running one at the moment on awareness and attitudes to narrative in organisations) and thought, sure, I’ll help Technorati out, and, I wonder what cash reward I’ll get. So I did the survey and at the end was presented with this message:
We appreciate your efforts, but unfortunately you do not fit with the specific criteria we are pursuing for this project. Thank you for your time.
I’m sure the advertisement said I’d get a cash reward. Disappointing. The survey was managed by a company called Decipher. I think I’ll add this to my worst practices database as a reminder on what to avoid whenever I conduct an online survey.
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There are two common assumptions made in expertise location approaches which we should not be taken for granted:
- expertise resides with an individual; and
- once you’ve found the right person or group, that a conversation will elicit what you need to know.
Individual expertise is a concept deeply embedded in how we think about experts. It’s the lone genius who makes the breakthroughs, the stellar performer, the exceptional leader. Of course people do have individual expertise and this concept of expertise matters most in individual pursuits. But what about expertise that arises as the result of a group of people working together? Cognition in the Wild by Edwin Hutchins, for example, describes how navigators on a US Navy ship had developed a distributed expertise.
“The larger system has cognitive properties very different from those of any individual. In fact the cognitive properties of the navigation team are at least twice removed from the cognitive properties of the individual members of the team.” (p. 226)
So in seeking expertise we need to aware that it might reside as an emergent property of a group. A couple of questions come to mind: how do you identify and learn from group expertise? How do you know you should be seeking group expertise?
If conversation was all we needed to elicit expertise the world’s journalists would be the most skilled and talented individuals on the planet. Bill Bryson provides a neat example. The Reverend Robert Evans lives in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia. He’s also one of the world’s most successful super novae spotters. Bill devotes a whole chapter to how Robert spots these tiny specks of light in the sky. I can imagine Bill spending a couple of days with Robert talking about his techniques and experience. After interviewing Reverend Evans Bill can write an entertaining chapter but at best would be a novice super novae spotter.
Don’t get me wrong, these two assumptions are useful when the expertise you are seeking resides with an individual and the type of knowledge you need could be called ‘know what’ rather than ‘know how’. But the assumptions are not universally applicable. When thinking about developing approaches to finding expertise people would benefit from starting with an awareness that expertise can be contained in groups and expert knowledge is ‘sticky,’ especially if you are attempting to transfer know how (knowledge transfer is another large and complex topic).
Hutchins, E. 1995. Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bryson, B. 2004. A Short History of Nearly Everything. London: Black Swan.
Filed in Knowledge.
I just noticed this news item over at Harold Jarche’s blog describing how anthropologist Anne Irwin spent time collecting stories in the field with the Canadian Light Infantry battle group in Afghanistan. Here’s an except:
When they are out in the field and return from a patrol, the exhausted soldiers relax together in small, tightly-knit groups - Irwin calls them “nesting circles” - and recount the events of the day or the mission.
Each soldier contributes a story, an anecdote or even a joke, adding stock and spice into what becomes a collective stew of experiences, she said. They also playfully insult each other.
The storytelling not only helps forge the individual identity of each soldier, it builds interpersonal relationships that can have a bearing on how well the unit performs on the battlefield.
I was struck by two things which seem to be pre-requisites for storytelling among group: memorable experiences and down time together for recounting those experiences. While never as intense as battle conditions I’m certain we still have memorable experiences at work but I feel we are losing out down time to recount and as a result losing valuable informal learning.
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Nancy White points us to a beautifully simple intervention for reducing flaming in an online forum; pre-populate the text box where you write your message with the text: “Everyone needs a hug.” According to the intervention designer, Ramit Sethi, “this small step reduced flame postings by a huge number.”
Andy Crabtree has written a short article on how to use ethnography to design IT systems. It reminded me of the time, in 2004, when I’d first used ethnography to supplement our narrative techniques. I spent 3 days in a call centre. Our project was focussed on how graduate recruits view careers in the organisation. On day one I sat with the operators and watched them take calls and was taught how to do some of the basic tasks. During the morning there was quite a bit of activity involved in organising the team’s weekly meeting. It seemed that many favours had to be pulled to get other teams to watch their calls. Time was at a premium. During the morning I was definitely an outsider. Then we had the team meeting and everything changed.
The team leader started the meeting by confirming the agenda and asking everyone to give an update on their work. I decided to sit quietly and remain an observer. The meeting was scheduled for 1 hour. After 30 minutes the meeting was over—no one elaborated or said what they really thought because an outsider was in the room. “We’ve worked hard to get this meeting and we’re not going back on the floor until our 60 minutes are up”, the team leader said. The group started talking about their holidays and I knew I had to say something and be part of the group so I told the story about how we locked our cat in the house on the day we left for a 4 week holiday (Mrs Maggs was fine in the end). After telling this story I became more of an insider. The transformation was remarkable. The team started talking about work again and now there were telling stories of how they weren’t getting along with another team, what customers they had difficulties with and where they had challenges with their boss. I was a afforded a new level of trust.
More organisations should have a capability to conduct ethnographies to help them understand what is really happening and viewing the environment without breaking it down into its parts. Ethnography attempts to see the whole system. Crabtree says the following:
Fundamentally, ethnography says that the design of IT systems should be grounded in, and be responsive to, the interactions actually taking place during work, as design is inevitably intertwined with them. Even where design is intended to develop a completely new system, significant value may be gained from understanding the lively context of work, the professional relationships that inhabit it, the skills and competences that people exercise, and the bearing that these may have on work redesign, which is what systems design actually amounts to.
Professional work is messy and we need new techniques to make sense of what’s going on. In this case it’s an old technique in a new context. Some say ethnography is time consuming and costly. I’d say that the time spent really understanding what’s going on and engaging people in conversation about what’s discovered improves the chances effective (not efficient) progress being made.
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Today is an exciting day for us. Today, we launch an Australian wide research project.
As a company dedicated to story and narrative approaches in organisations we are launching an online survey investigating the awareness and attitudes of story and narrative techniques in organisations. We are hoping that this will help to provide an Australia-wide benchmark on story and narrative approaches.
If you would like to join us and contribute to this Australia-wide benchmark, send me an email at: email@example.com. I can then send you a link to our survey.
Filed in Expertise location.
It’s hard to know what your colleagues know unless you ask them. A simple method is to erect a pin board in your department, section or team where people can post questions. Include your name on your question and wait for an answer. You’ll be amazed of who knows what. Sounds simple so why don’t we do it?
In 1978 Ward Christensen and Randy Suess created the first computerised bulletin board and when the computerised version became popular in organisation the physical version seems to disappear. I say we bring them back. And if you want them to be used get the boss to post and answer questions. People need to know that posting is not seen as wasting time.
Ensure you place the pin board somewhere where people loiter a bit such as where you get your morning brew. And a new study suggests that if you place a big picture of two eyes at the top of the pin board people will be less likely to fool around and post inappropriately (perhaps a stretch but I found the idea amusing).
[Photo via Flickr]
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