Storytelling for Problem Solving
and Better Decision Making

Account of a NetIKX meeting with Ron Donaldson, 22 March 2016,
by Conrad Taylor

Ron Donaldson describes himself as a Knowledge Ecologist

Ron Donaldson describes himself as a Knowledge Ecologist. Photo Conrad Taylor.

I’ve known Ron for a few years. We have attended several of David Gurteen’s ‘Knowledge Café’ events together, and we are both engaged with the Cognitive Edge network run by Dave Snowden. 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 methods, and also the ‘TRIZ’ methods and models for inventive problem-solving developed in the Soviet Union by Genrich Altshuler.

Ron describes himself as a ‘knowledge ecologist’. In fact 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, where he worked first on systems analysis, process modelling, then on to knowledge management.

How Ron encountered ‘knowledge management’

In around 1998, Dave Snowden came to run workshops at English Nature. Dave was then a director in the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management and was developing his ‘Cynefin framework’ for understanding complexity in organisational situations, and a set of working methods for engaging people in problem solving. Exposute to these ideas and methods turned Ron’s interest towards the power of storytelling, and knowledge management, and ten years later this interest pulled him away from English Nature into self-employment, shortly after it was amalgamated with the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service to become ‘Natural England’.

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. Particularly 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.

Work with Friends of the Earth: the ‘Bee Cause’

Through Ron Young of Knowledge Associates, he got some work with Friends of the Earth. Their concern at the time was to see what lessons they could learn from their campaign ‘The Bee Cause’. Ron suggested running a series of workshops in which those who had been involved with the campaign would tell their stories about it, but which would also involve those who were coming new to the campaign, or were even just on the fringes of it.

One of the ways the Bee Cause campaign captured the imagination of the public, and the press in particular, was how activists dressed up in bee costumes, and would run up to politicians appearing in public, holding up placards saying ‘I support the bees!’ What came out in the workshops was that this activity was never in the original plan for the campaign, but shortly before a meeting with an MP, a couple of old bee costumes had been found in the back of a cupboard. A couple of the activists put these on, and during the meeting with the MP they came up to the platform and put their arms around him; and the press photographs went worldwide. So they repeated that action on other occasions, which was a bit embarrassing for the politicians subjected to this bee-haviour, but they went along with it.

Ron commented that what this story illustrates is the benefits of taking advantage of what is happening in the moment, as opposed to merely sticking to a predetermined plan. (Dave Snowden calls this ‘anticipatory awareness of the present’, said Ron.)

Work with Surrey Wildlife Trust

Ron also now works with the Surrey Wildlife Trust and Surrey Nature Partnership, who invited him to come down and explain the power of storytelling to them. The Partnership explained that they were trying to promote the concept of ‘Natural Capital’, which is giving value to what the natural environment gives to human society, for example in terms of clean air and water, physical and mental well being, flood protection etc. In Surrey they aspired to be the first county doing something about promoting this appreciation. But how to do it?

The workshop sessions which they organised brought together people with very different perspectives: not just environmentalists, but also officials managing brownfield sites with an eye to housing development, Council officers and so on. Ron asked them to tell their stories about what their connection was with nature and what was going on with respect to nature at that time in Surrey, and how they thought that might be improved.

Within just one afternoon workshop, they began to realise that they had similar aspirations, and could start to agree what the actions might be, and how they might work together. One of the leaders remarked that it would have taken them at least six months trying to negotiate with all these parties on a one-by-one basis; even then, nothing might have come from it. But this one afternoon changed the basis for future working.

The next engagement Ron had through this work was the Surrey Countryside and Rural Enterprise Conference ‘Shaping the Future of Rural Surrey’, held at the H. G. Wells events centre in Woking, and organised by the Surrey Nature Partnership which brings together several interests within Surrey County Council including business growth and public health, plus youth and nature groups, the Country Land and Business Association and Surrey University as well as SWT.

There were almost a hundred people at the meeting, and Ron admitted to having been terrified! But the event was a success, essentially because the later sharings and discussions were conducted in small round-table groups. This is similar to how David Gurteen conducts his ‘knowledge café’ meetings: it means everyone gets a chance to share their ideas and have their own voice heard. He led the table groups through a number of exercises, including an instance of ‘Future Backwards’ which Ron later introduced as an exercise for the NetIKX group (see below).

Finally, there was about 20 minutes left. Rather than having some kind of delegated report-back from the table groups, as many might do, Ron improvised another Gurteen-like feature: he asked the groups to reflect on the process they had experienced and what they had learned from it; then half way through, asked half the people at each table to move to the next table and continue the same discussion.

At the end, Ron simply thanked people for their participation and had no intention of trying to up – there had just been too many people there. But one older lady stood as said that she had been to every public Surrey County Council meeting there had ever been, and she rated that event as the most participative and collaborative she had even attended. Yet Ron thought, he had just been guiding a process, moving people along (and in something of a panic at that!); it goes to show that you can facilitate such events well, even if you don’t engage with the subject matter directly yourself.

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 stating conditions, context and activities to support that, and reduce the opportunity for individuals to take over the conversation.

That day raised a huge amount of interest in what Surrey Nature Partnership was doing in respect of Natural Capital, and also led to Ron being invited to run a 45-minute workshop at the two day international ‘Natural Capital Initiative’ conference at the British Library, in November 2014. In fact for that event, with such a compressed time slot, Ron hardly said anything himself – other than to get them talking to each other.

Work with public service ‘blue light’ organisations:
the fire services

Ron has been working with the police and with the fire service, on broadly similar issues about knowledge sharing. The work with fire services started with Buckinghamshire, where they were having a lot of difficulty getting data shared between local forces. 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. The invitation got 75 positive responses; Ron suspects that the motivation was partly the pressure they were under to cut costs, perhaps engendering a willingness to work together more closely.

Three workshops got organised. One was held in Aylesbury, one at Moss Side in Manchester, and one in London. These workshops gathered in anecdotes, looked at the histories of information handling in the fire services, mapped out problems and came up with possible solutions.

The Moss Side event was interesting in part because of the history of the area. An inner city area to the south of Manchester, and not so far from its universities, Moss Side was plagued through the 1980s by violent warfare between drug gangs, and hooliganism from disaffected youth, and firefighting crews responding to incidents in the area were being attacked by youths throwing bottles, stones and bricks. The fire sevice confronted this by building their new fire station right in the middle of Moss Side – and then the firefighters set up a boxing club and gym in 2008 to engage with the local youth.

Using ANECDOTE CIRCLE techniques. For the Moss Side event, Ron got the participants to do an exercise called the Anecdote Circle, which has its origins with Shawn Callahan and colleagues in the Anecdote consultancy in Australia, with input from Dave Snowden, Sharon Derwent and others. In an Anecdote Circle, people are organised into small groups and the anecdotes are elicited with questions somewhat like, ‘Think of a time when you were frustrated because you couldn’t get information you needed to do your job.’ That provokes people to share anecdotes within the group. The Anecdote consultancy’s own guide to how to run an anecdote circle is at (Anecdote recommend harvesting the anecdotes by audio recording.)

In the Cognitive Edge version of Anecdote Circles which Ron employed, the person who tells an anecdote gets to give it a short title and writes it onto a Post-It note, card, or as is the CE preference, a hexagonal sticky note or card called a ‘hexie’. Around this are grouped other hexies or notes (ideally of a different colour) on which the other people in the circle note what they got from that story.

One of the participants at the Moss Side workshop, who is from Manchester University and co-ordinates information about wildfires, told the story of the Dark Peak wildfires. Dark Peak, within the Peak District, is covered with blanket bog, a layer of peat on top of which grows heather. At some time, Ron thought perhaps the early 1990s after a number of hot summers, these moors had dried out, and when a fire took hold, it burned right down into the peat and proved impossible for the local firefighters to extinguish; it burned day after day.

The local fire chief realised that this would require collaboration with neighbouring forces. The irony was, the forces had developed their practices on their own for so long, that not even the hoses of one force would couple with those of another! It’s a memorable story as a the perfect metaphor for a lack of interoperability.

Anyway, these three workshops allowed the participants to start to spot issues, to identify practices worth encouraging and others which should be discouraged, and to start to storyboard actions which could take the fire service along the desired direction of travel. The senior fire risk management analyst at Buckinghamshire, who co-ordinated these workshops, noted that the workshops helped to sketch a functional specification for what they dubbed a ‘Knowledge Network’; an initiative across the fire services, and coming from the bottom up. This initiative has managed to pull in significant interest from the SOCIAM group of universities, and the likes of IBM and Google.

Working with the police

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 the Anecdote Circles method, in the variant which uses hexies both to label the stories and to note what people took away from each story.

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 (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 started 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 that 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, that story cast light on the advantages to society if stories could be shared between different agencies and departments.

Working with health services

Ron was asked to run some training for a group of West Midlands nursing staff with responsibility for knowledge management, after having met them at a knowledge conference at Henley. They explained that in Coventry they had an issue with a large number of people turning up at Accident and Emergency, and also great pressure on bed occupancy in the hospital. One of the major health problems locally, contributing to this 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 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 by sharing what they know as 'buddies'.

Ron described what happens as the result of sharing stories as ‘mapping the narrative landscape’ for the subject you are dealing with. From this basis, you can map the problem space, and following on from that, the solution space. So, at the workshop the team got the participants to come up with some ideas, and then cluster around the ideas that appealed to them the most.

Ron showed us a summary diagram, which takes the form of a kind of S-curve, starting low on the left with ‘how things are now’, and rising to the top right, the space of ‘where things could be’. The S-curve represents an imagined progression. To the left of this curve, arranged stepwise in sequence, you can write in labels to represent the barriers along the way; from each of these, an arrow should cross the curve and point to a label indicating the kind of action which might be taken to overcome that barrier.

At this point Ron offered us another metaphor, a Buddhist one. Imagine that we have within our head, a human riding an elephant. The rider wants to change direction, to head over to something seen on the horizon which is logical, which seems to make good sense. But until the elephant can be given something that appeals emotionally to it, it isn’t going to turn in that direction. Change happens when there is both a logical and an emotional impetus to action. Because the elephant is so large, that first step in the new direction is the hardest one to initiate. That’s why it’s so important correctly to identify those barriers especially the early ones, and anticipate the need to act against them.

What these COPD-focused workshops have identified was that as well as the various hospital-based and home visit services, it would also help to organise social events which people with COPD could attend and be made aware of knowledge available from the experts who would also be there. The first barrier identified for this was – to get permission to do it. People added their suggestions to the S-curve diagram; Ron said, ‘Why not have the drop-in sessions in a Wetherspoons pub?’ Those pubs are open in the morning now, they serve low cost coffee, they are accessibly in the town centre… however, not everyone liked the idea, and the chaplain offered his church hall instead. So the meetings have been happening, on Monday afternoons in Coventry – people talking together, and playing Bingo, and the specialists and the charities are there for general or one-to-one advice.

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

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 from 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:

Now the West Midlands has got the go-ahead to fund another six similar RIPPLE-based community projects, so earlier this month Ron was working with a group in Wolverhampton. And at the same time, with a friend at Coventry Cathedral, he facilitated workshops as part of an ‘Our Place’ funded project, to pilot a similar initiative around diabetes, with an emphasis on its impact within communities of South Asian descent, who have more of a genetic predisposition towards diabetes, with an often younger onset. One of the groups with whom they engaged suggested that above any other kind of intervention, they would favour a diabetes-oriented drop-in information stall at the local market.

Summing up, pre-break

In a summary as we approached the mid-way break, Ron hoped that by his presentation of this ‘scrapbook’ of examples we would see how encouraging the sharing of stories can unlock an understanding of often complex situations, tease out the issues and identify possible solutions to them. In the USA some people talk about ‘tracking and fanning’, which means monitoring the work that you are doing, tracking the impact of what is being achieved, and ‘fanning’ (encouraging) the activities responsible for the ones that you really want. The COPD example, and the fire service example, both show that though you start with the ideas and assets you have, winning your own success can encourage larger funds to come in to help.

The exercise: PNI through ‘Future Backwards’

We then took a tea-break, but just before that, Ron briefed us about the form of ‘Participatory Narrative Inquiry’ exercise we were about to do, to gain some experience in our table groups of a type of exercise evolved by the Cognitive Edge network, called ‘Future Backwards’. This is the same exercise which the fire service groups had undertaken.

At the NetIKX meeting we had six table groups. I don’t think it gives a correct explanation of ‘Future Backwards’ if I describe what happened in my table group, because we bent the rules slightly, so I shall stand back and draw upon my experience of two previous such exercises conducted by Dave Snowden and Tony Quinlan to explain how it goes, modified by my observation of how Ron implemented this at the London fire services meeting.

Bear in mind that this is an exercise which only really comes to life when you have a group of people from the same live situation who have experienced at least a goodly chunk of it together. NetIKX as a diffuse network can’t really provide that kind of concrete focus, so Ron’s suggestion that we use the topic of ‘knowledge sharing’ in the abstract was something I found weak in comparison to the issues and stories that would arise from within a particular institution. The key questions in a Future Backwards exercise are ‘What characterises the situation we are in now?’, ‘How did we get here?’ and ‘How might things evolve in the future?

We were issued by Ron with a plentiful supply of hand-cut non-adhesive card ‘hexies’ and ‘Sharpie’ brand permanent markers. I do not know if there is some secret backhander which passes from the Sharpie company to Cognitive Edge network practitioners – given how destructive these permanent markers can be, I prefer to source Crayola kiddie markers with water-soluble ink! (Your local Early Learning Centre can oblige.)

About two-thirds of the way along the table, Ron placed a hexie labelled ‘Today’. The first step is, for the chosen situation, to share ideas about the characteristics of the situation and to label a hexie for each idea, clustering them around the ‘Today’ marker.

The next step – and the facilitator should announce this – is for the table group to think of what happened immediately preceding the current situation, and which can plausibly be said to be causal. Once hexies have been placed for these events – heading down the table – the process is repeated stepwise. In the case of the fire services workshop in London, one of these reconstructions of past history grew to several metres, largely because one of the participants had a long service record and excellent memory, and had also looked into the earlier history of the fire service practices of knowledge retention and documentation.

In the orthodox Cognitive Edge version of the exercise, the facilitator then places two hexies in the remaining third of the table devoted to future states. One is labelled Hell, the other Heaven. The table group should now first imagine the worst state that might evolve in the future (‘Hell’), and once that has been characterised with a cluster of hexies, the team imagines steps in the process which could plausibly lead from the present to that dire future state. The same process is then repeated for the ideal future state (‘Heaven’), and people are encouraged to free up their imaginations so that even miraculous inverventions are allowed, and once again step back to link to the Today state, or possibly some point before Today.

However, Ron said that in using this exercise he almost always omits the ‘Hell’ branch, which not only prolongs the exercise but can also make people feel pretty miserable. He also suggested that for some cultural groupings the ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ labels could be inappropriate.

To bring the exercise to an end, Ron then had each of the NetIKX table groups nominate one of their number as the narrator, and asked everyone else to move on to cluster round the next table while the narrator explained how his or her group had built out their Future Backwards array. We did this for two rounds.

Ron brought the exercise to an end with about fifteen minutes to go, so 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 (

Future Backwards or Anecdote Circle?

In his own practice, Ron starts work with groups using Future Backwards if the situation has a timeline inherent in it; but if the group gathers around a topic and there isn’t a shared or shareable history, the Anecdote Circle method can be better. Ron has sometimes started conferences off with a Future Backwards exercise (for example, an event around climate change), where an extra benefit can be that people who really know the story in some depth can lead, and people new to the subject can learn from hearing those stories. (Sometimes, the answer to a current problem can be found in how things used to be done.)

When Natural England was formed from a merger of three agencies, they conducted a Future Backwards in which each table group was formed of people from either English Nature, or the Countryside Agency, or the Rural Development Service. Thus the stories of the three bodies were charted by participants, and when they were shared across the whole group, it gave a better understanding of where the three bodies had come from: similar aspirations, but different ways of doing things.

More recently, Ron has started to build on Future Background exercise outcomes by inviting participants to focus in on the ‘Heaven’ ideas, drawing out the benefits sketched in that scenario. These can become attractors (guiding principles) to spur positive change. You can follow that up by asking what actions can be initiated that would be coherent with those desired benefits. Thus you can draw out an action plan based solidly on the group’s understanding of what an ideal future state would be.

Monitoring progress towards goals

The final step in the process is to identify how to track these activities, and monitor them to see if the desired benefits are beginning to emerge. In the case of the Coventry COPD work, the university participants prepared a ‘wellbeing index’ for those who were invited to come along to the church hall drop-in sessions. This included questions such as ‘How confident do you feel about managing your condition? How well do you understand how your medication works? How well do you feel you use your inhaler? How well do you understand what COPD is? How aware are you of the services that can help you? How socially included do you feel?’ – with a scale against each question. The questions were asked before they attended the drop-in sessions, and after some months of experiencing them, and when the data was aggregated and compared, it became evident that the process was leading to desired outcomes in terms of improved knowledge and confidence, and reduced isolation.

Ron said that compared to the qualitative evidence that comes up in people’s stories, he personally feels such quantitative measures are not as rich. Questionnaires can be expensive to administer and assess, and may also be ‘gamed’ (that is, the way in which people answer them may be influenced by their attitudes to the questionnaire process or the organisation, for instance) – but many policy-makers are more easily impressed by quantitative data, and that can help to unlock resources.

Ron has asked me to add that he would welcome any further conversations around these topics and would be greatful for any referrals to other 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
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mobile — 07833 454211
twitter — @rondon
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