Storytelling For Problem Solving & Better Decision Making

Conrad Taylor writes:

On 22 March 2016, Ron Donaldson came to speak on the topic ‘Storytelling for Problem Solving and Better Decision Making’. This attracted nearly forty people, a larger than usual NetIKX attendance.

The focus of Ron’s work is helping organisations and groups of people to solve problems and improve understanding. He is eclectic in the workshop exercise methods he uses, drawing on Cognitive Edge methods, Participatory Narrative Inquiry (https://narrafirma.com/home/participatory-narrative-inquiry/) methods, and also the ‘TRIZ’ methods (www.triz.co.uk) and models for inventive problem-solving developed in the Soviet Union by Genrich Altshuler.

Ron describes himself as a ‘knowledge ecologist’. He has a degree in Ecology and Geology and a professional interest in ecological thinking and nature conservation, having worked for 21 years at English Nature, first on systems analysis and process modelling, then on knowledge management.

In around 1998, a workshop was run at English Nature by Dave Snowden, later the founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cognitive Edge, but then a director in the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management. Snowden was then developing a framework for understanding complexity in organisational situations and a set of working methods for engaging people in problem solving. Exposure to these ideas and methods turned Ron’s interest towards the power of storytelling and knowledge management. Ten years later this interest pulled him away from English Nature into self-employment.

Ron explained that he has difficulty with the term ‘knowledge management’ – does ‘knowledge’ mean everything an organisation knows? Is it what’s left after you have pigeonholed some stuff as data and some as information? If knowledge is the stuff that is in people’s heads, as many would say, can it be managed? This is part of what turned him towards describing himself as a ‘knowledge ecologist’ instead: because one can at least aspire to manage the conditions/environment and community practices within which people know and learn things, and share what they know. Also, because ecology de-emphasises the individual and focuses on systems and interaction, it tends to subvert ‘business as usual’ in search of better and more communitarian ways of doing things: dampening ‘ego’ and amplifying ‘eco’.

Since 2008 Ron has been working freelance. In the last three years this has taken him into a series of local engagements, which he used to illustrate to the meeting the power of storytelling in solving problems and making better informed decisions. He had chosen examples from work around environmental issues, work with public services, and work with health.

Ron then went on to explain his various methods, including storytelling, small-group discussion (with half of each group moving on after a fixed time – rather like David Gurteen’s Knowledge Cafés) and techniques such as ‘Future Backwards’, which Ron later used as an exercise for the NetIKX group (see below).

Ron emphasised that he felt that he simply guides the process, facilitating without directly engaging with the subject matter. In fact, Ron has made this something of a guiding principle for himself: not to engage much with the content, simply make sure that people are participating, create the starting conditions, context and activities to support that, and reduce the opportunity for individuals to take over the conversation.

In a project that involved getting data shared between different local firefighting forces (even the hoses of one force would not couple with those of another), Ron suggested that they organise a workshop and invite people from all the local forces plus anyone connected with data and information externally, whether they collected it, processed it or used it. In this case the very fact that people were talking led to positive developments, both in practice and in the development of a ‘Knowledge Network’ across the fire services. Here Ron used an exercise called the Anecdote Circle, which has its origins with Shawn Callahan and colleagues in the Anecdote consultancy (http://www.anecdote.com/) in Australia. The Anecdote consultancy’s own guide to how to run an anecdote circle is at http://www.anecdote.com/pdfs/papers/Ultimate_Guide_to_ACs_v1.0.pdf. However, Ron went on to describe how he implements this approach.

Ron then gave another example. Steve Dale has been working with a project called the Better Policing Collaborative, which unites five universities and five police forces in a search for priorities in innovation in policing, which should lead to lower crime rates and a safer community. Steve and Ron worked together to facilitate a workshop at Birmingham University, getting police to tell their stories. Again, this was an application of Ron’s approach to the Anecdote Circles method.

One of the stories told concerned a man who had been arrested for shoplifting, somewhere in the West Midlands. It was his fourth offence, and this time he was going to be prosecuted. What social services knew (but the police didn’t) was that all the people in this person’s household had poor health. The Housing Association (HA – and they alone) knew that all the houses in that area were suffering badly from damp. What the hospital knew (but not the HA, nor the social service, nor the police) was that they were beginning to be inundated with admissions for major breathing difficulties and asthma. These connections had come to light only as the result of informal conversations between members of these groups, when they happened to be together at a conference. The way the story ended was that money was found from a health budget to pay the housing association to sort out the problems of damp; and it is hoped that as health improves, so will financial well-being, with a concomitant improvement in the crime statistics.

What Ron took away from that was that although the purpose of the exercise was to share stories between police, the story cast light on the advantages to society if stories could be shared between different agencies and departments.

Finally, Ron discussed some training courses run for a group of West Midlands nursing staff with responsibility for knowledge management.

One of the major health problems in Coventry, contributing to the pressure on services, is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Ron suggested that they should invite anyone engaging with COPD in the Coventry area to join a meeting using storytelling workshop methods. There has now been a series of such workshops, involving NHS staff, the various lung charities, staff from Coventry University, a chaplain who was involved with terminally ill sufferers at the hospital, and people suffering from COPD, including two women patients who had met in the hospital waiting room and were now supporting each other, as ‘buddies’, by sharing what they know.

Ron described what happens as the result of sharing stories as ‘mapping the narrative landscape’ for the subject you are dealing with. So, the participants at the workshop were asked to come up with ideas, and then cluster around the ideas that appealed to them the most.

What these COPD-focused workshops identified was that, as well as the various hospital-based and home visit services, it would also help to organise social events that people with COPD could attend and be made aware of knowledge available from the experts, who would also be there. So the meetings have been happening, on Monday afternoons in Coventry – people talking together, and playing Bingo, as well as talking to the specialists and the charities on a general or one-to-one basis.

Ron followed this observation with some stories about how COPD patients have been benefitting from the drop-in sessions, and how much they valued them.

The Coventry COPD drop-in project, known as RIPPLE (standing for ‘Respiratory Innovation Promoting a Positive Life’), has now been picked up by the innovation fund NESTA and mentioned in their recent report ‘At the Heart of Health – Realising the value of people and communities’. They cite RIPPLE as a great example of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), which is an approach that encourages people to discover their own assets and abilities and build what they want on that basis, rather than relying on the provision of services.

There is more at Ron’s Web site about the RIPPLE project (including a video) and NESTA’s reaction to it, here: https://rondon.wordpress.com/

Now the West Midlands has got the go-ahead to fund another six similar RIPPLE-based community projects, as well as the pilot for a similar initiative around diabetes.

Before the tea break, Ron briefed the meeting about the form of ‘Participatory Narrative Inquiry’ exercise that those attending were about to do, to gain some experience in table groups of a type of exercise evolved by the Cognitive Edge network, called ‘Future Backwards’. This is the same exercise that the fire service groups had undertaken. NetIKX members (and those who attended the meeting) can find out more about this in the fuller report on the NetIKX members’ website (www.netikx.org)

Ron brought the exercise to an end with about fifteen minutes to go, so that he could add some further information. He described how, in collaboration with Cynthia Kurtz, he has set up PNI2, the Participatory Narrative Inquiry Institute, as a membership organisation for people who use these methods (http://pni2.org).

Ron ended the afternoon by explaining more about the way he applies the various exercises and how he decides which technique to use in which circumstances. He emphasised, however, the importance of talking. Churchill’s comment that ‘To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’ seems to apply just as well to less dramatic situations than war!

Ron added that he always welcomes further conversations around these topics and would be grateful for referrals to any communities that might benefit from a similar approach, or gatherings wanting to hear some heart-warming stories. His contact details are:

Ron Donaldson, freelance knowledge ecologist

email:     ezrond@gmail.com
mobile:   07833 454211
twitter:   @rondon
website: https://rondon.wordpress.com/

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