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Weaving a common context

By Dave Snowden  ·  August 4, 2014  ·  SenseMaker®, Reflections

Luckily I had my Yellow Fever vaccination certificate with me this morning or I might have had a problem getting through immigration at Brisbane.  It turns out a visit to Latin or Central America, even if you only went to a major city, creates this requirement.   I didn't know but thanks to a recent visit to West Africa I had one in the travel wallet.  Carrying all documents is one of the basic rules of frequent travel, as is a small pot of shower gel and a micro-fibre travel towel!  The former got me in, the latter enabled a quick (and free) shower before I headed into Brisbane for a much needed long black and two seminars on the use of SenseMaker® in Development and the social work sector.

Now I have a routine about these sort of presentations and I promised a couple of people to write it down, so here goes.  The most important thing in telling any story is to weave your audience into a shared context, which means you have to stay open as well.  For that reason I tend to talk and use the odd slide as I go rather than using a prepared slide set.  I then follow this sequence:

  1. I make the point that we have started to listen to peoples' narrative but we have forgotten the key issue is who owns the power of interpretation.  In controlled experiments for UNDP we demonstrated that expert interpretation of narrative did not match self-signification in the field.   This is not necessarily a bad thing as some gradient is important for learning, but too much is problematic and just an other form of post colonial imposition of meaning.
  2. I then build a series of statements of limitation about existing methods.   (i) People know what answer you want in a questionnaire so its subject to gifting or gaming, and it's also general, not contextual to a direct and particular experience.  (ii) Focus groups are fatally biased buy the facilitator within 15 minutes.  (iii) Conduct more than two to three interviews and your brain forms a hypothenuses and you only hear things that conform with that hypothesis thereafter. (iv) Longitudinal research means the researcher holds the power of interpretation and you are limited on volume and time.
  3. All of that gets me to human metadata and our use of balanced (positive or negative) triads engages the novelty receptive part of the brain as you don't know what the right answer is, its a form of ramification.  I normally illustrate this with employee satisfaction surveys which represent a common shared frustration.  I use the phrase a common grammar of meaning to indicate why we need to create the labels, without those we are just back to gathering narratives within allowing people to add meaning in a way that can speak to a wider audience.  At this point I demonstrate capture on the iPAD and explain it all again at least two or three times.   It's not uncommon to have people keep asking but how do you interpret the stories even after that.  Allowing people to tell you what their stories mean is not normal in qualitative research circles, certainly not as the primary quantitative interpretation.
  4. That can bring me to the big data issue.  A computer is limited as it is confined to the explicit and also assumes that the whole of the meaning is in the story itself, we find that people add meaning to their stories.  Which also gives us a problem with traditional researchers who come up with phrases like I've read the stories and you method does not work as they are not indexing their stories properly.  I satirise this a bit, but you would be amazed how common it is.  Challenging an established paradigm is not easy.
  5. I then move on to demonstrate realtime access to the data on the iPad and explain both impact based targets and more stories like this, few stories like that as a means of designing interventions.  More importantly its the way to engage more people in coming up with those interventions.  From there I use screen shots of fitness/attractor landscapes and if (and only if) the audience is open move onto anticipatory awareness.

The whole point here is that you have lived a journey, but your audience need to travel it as well.  You can't assume the end point.   I don't always get it right but the above sequence is pretty resilient and it worked well today.