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.
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.
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!
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:
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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