Generating understanding. Narrative, complexity and communications - changing organisations by understanding them. Understanding cultures and spaces. Revealing emergent patterns in large volumes of qualitative data. Spotting the outliers and weak signals of impending changes.
I'm off to Colombia next week for the latest element of a great project to look at entrepreneurial attitudes across the country - this trip is to present some interim findings, develop some experimental interventions that we'll monitor in the next phase of the project.
I notice that friends in the UK's first reaction to a trip to Colombia*, as it was to Rwanda, as it was to Ethiopia before that, is "is it safe?" Now while that's a sensible question for many places, it's usually fuelled by the underlying pattern of narrative that they've got about the country in question - which will usually have stopped at the point that the country fell out of the headlines at some point in the past.
If you haven't heard any micro-narratives or news pieces from a particular place, you'll assume nothing's changed since you last heard it mentioned - but Rwanda is now 20 years past when you last heard about it, Colombia probably 15 years since it was in the headlines. But without any evidence since, you're left with the narrative pattern that you had back then.
The same, of course, goes for meeting old friends that you haven't seen in years. "You mean you're not still living in that squat playing guitar? You've got a job in the City and kids? Who'd have thought it?"
And then, of course, the same goes for organisations - and the people we think know about us. If people aren't hearing little pieces from us on a regular basis (but not too frequent), they assume the organisation has stagnated at the point they last had contact. In that sense, a population's overall narrative of an organisation is the accretion of the micro-narratives it hears all the time - and if they're not gathering new material, then they've ossified...
*The second reaction to a trip to Colombia is usually "what's it like?"
To which I have no answer - the last visit was a week of meetings and presentations
Arriving at Bogota 11pm after long flights, picked up the next morning at 5am to fly to another city, present, meet, debate, fly back to Bogota and be deposited at the hotel at 10pm, for a similar trip to another city the next day. Rinse and repeat for the week.
And I fully expect next week to be just as hectic. We've got five cities to get through in five days! Don't expect any replies to email all week!
Monday reflections on a fascinating previous week, including a great all-day session on Thursday with EU DIGIT, weaving together outputs from a SenseMaker® project, the Cynefin framework, safe-to-fail experiments and some methods from the Cognitive Edge trainings. (It's always good to work with a good team lead by a leader who's willing to take calculated risks - I got to present results from the SenseMaker® project that hadn't been seen by anyone in advance of the session. That takes some guts!)
One of the elements that came through as part of conversations on Thursday as well as at a conference earlier in the week is something to which I don't yet have an answer.
If part of your job is preventing something happening - and you succeed - how do you let people know so that they value the role you play?
The risk is that they only notice the times you fail - and something unpleasant happens. They never see (or at least never understand) the times you succeed because we rarely notice an absence in our lives.
I don't notice the absence of electricity supply most of the time - and yet lots of work no doubt goes into maintaining it. I only notice when it fails.
For IT departments, it's the same. Successful, consistent operation of the network may take up large amounts of resource and planning, but don't expect any credit for it. On the other hand, if the network goes down, expect the phones to go crazy - and to be held accountable for the failure.
I don't have a good answer to how you get people to pay attention to successful standard delivery.
UK rail companies have graphs that show the percentage of "on-time arrival" of trains - but I regard them with a mixture of scepticism and boredom. "They would say that, wouldn't they?"
Fire brigades benefit from there being occasional fires that are highly publicised, but there prevention role (going round to schools, education campaigns, etc) are largely ignored.
Your thoughts - how do draw attention to your role in preventing problems?
A quick one this - I've just spotted Seth Godin's two-line blogpost today:
You can listen to what people say, sure. But you will be far more effective if you listen to what people do.
I like some of Seth's material - he's calmed down since the fervour of the early 00s and he doesn't pretend to have the underlying science of Gladwell, but he has some thought-provoking comments...
And this one reminded me of one of the things that someone once commented on when I was showing them SenseMaker® - that by collecting experiences instead of asking for answers to questions, we are avoiding what they called "The Starbucks problem".*
Apparently... Consumer research used to ask the question "How do you like your coffee?" to which most people answered that they liked their coffee black. But sales figures didn't correlate - clearly that wasn't the reality.
Respondents had no reason to lie, in fact they probably answered from real belief - that was how they thought they liked their coffee. (Just like I believe I'm always kind to small puppies and professional in all my business dealings.) Our behaviour, however, doesn't always match our beliefs.
So instead, a question like "How did you take your last coffee?" shifts from opinion/belief to reality in context. And the figures then match. (Similarly, "how did you treat the last small puppy you met?" might reveal something other than kindness. I'm sure that a regular assessment of my real experiences in businesses would reveal fewer professional moments than the ubiquity I'd prefer...)
For me, this is where SenseMaker® kicks in so beautifully. Start with an experience, then ask them questions about the experience - never diverging from that moment to the point they might fall back into opinion...
So. Rather than, "how difficult is it to design a SenseMaker® project?", how about "what was your last project like?" - and mine was bloomin' easy and straightforward!
*This may well be apocryphal - any resemblance to actual Starbucks problems is purely coincidental and should be treated with suspicion and approached only from a safe distance.**
**Although approaching from a safe distance is rarely the problem - the problem usually starts well into the approach when "a safe distance" is now a distant memory and the approachee is actually now dangerously close.
The other week I was out in Kigali, Rwanda again - looking at the frameworks and practicalities around the upcoming three-year programme working with young girls across the country. SenseMaker® will be a big part of the evaluation and we'll be exploring how to use it for continuous monitoring at the same time.
But this post is about something slightly different. A year ago, my first visit to Kigali started with working with Jamal Khadar of 2CV and six young women who were forming the core of the Girl Reseach Unit (picture from last week below).
Last year, Jamal had just spent some time working on qualitative and quantitative research with them - and then we spent half a day on SenseMaker® and narrative research before they hit the field for the first time. (Which was also the field debut of the SenseMaker® Collector for iPad app)
They're naturals - the material they gather is fantastic, often taboo material that hasn't emerged in standard research.
But last week I learnt something else - they've continued to develop their research skills since, working first with Jamal and then with Emily Julian at 2CV after Jamal returned to the UK. They decided to aim to become fully certified/qualified/accredited by the Market Research Society and are currently preparing papers and projects for accreditation.
But - and this is the fantastic thing - they've already been singled out for their expertise. In this year's Market Research Society Awards in December 2013, the Girl Research Unit and 2CV were singled out for the President's Medal:
MRS President's Medal
2CV and Girl Hub Rwanda funded by Nike Foundation and the UK Department for International Development
It's a fabulous achievement - to both the girls' ability and work and also to the 2CV team's mentoring skills. Kudos all round!
Forgive the personal question that titles this post. I am, however, genuinely interested. I’m presuming that you’re reading this because you’ve got at least a passing interest in what I’m doing/thinking. But let’s go a little deeper than that - why are you interested?
I ask because in the light of recent events, I find myself somewhat reticent to share some things that I think could be helpful to friends and colleagues who are using SenseMaker® and running projects using narrative research. It reminds me of something that happened very early on in Narrate’s history. I’d run an open workshop with a group of London communicators, sharing thoughts on narratives and experimenting with story-based exercises. At the end of the session, a couple of people came up and introduced themselves as a company who were directly competitive and thanking me for the session.
A few months later, I was talking to a prospect about a potential project and they responded “but isn’t that a copy of XXX’s tool?” The practitioners had lifted the exercise wholesale, slightly modified the name and were claiming it as their own work. I was sanguine, and after some thought decided that this was not enough of a reason to not share exercises in open sessions. It all built the market, I believed that part of Narrate’s USP was the perspective I brought to the work - and that at worst it meant that I had a spur to continue to be innovative and coming up with the next thing to keep ahead of the magpies.
It’s a strategy that’s stood me very well for over a decade since then - and I’ve been happy to share my experiences and practice with SenseMaker® and other tools since. It’s built some great partnerships, created exciting new products and generated enough money to pay the bills!
In the past year, however, I’ve found a few things that have made me consider whether giving advice in this open forum is such a smart move. Recent events in the past year make me wonder if I'm naïve in some of the relationships I have built. My name and advice has been taken on board without due consideration - and I feel the transparency and openness has not been reciprocated and, on occasion, actively contravened - approaching my clients, etc.
I say this, not to accuse, but to give voice to a disquiet I have in sharing some of the practice I’ve developed - I want to talk about some elements I’ve found really useful in SenseMaker® - but I find I’m reluctant to share and that I am disappointed to find myself being guarded and considering my words and thoughts more carefully.
[I’m posting this at the start of a very busy two weeks, so I may not be as fast as I would like to blog again or respond to comments - silence should not be taken as anything other more meaningful than “busy"!]