Story collections as culture data

In his address, “How leaders change culture through small actions,” for Academi Wales, the public center in Wales for leadership and management excellence, Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge describes how he gathers narrative data from patients and nurses in hospitals to develop what he calls a human sensor network. He refers to two sets of stories that emerge as The Patient’s Journey and The Nurse’s Journey.

I’ve excerpted the clip from his talk above because it might help school leaders who are beginning to gather stories envision potential collections that could emerge at their schools to promote deeper understanding of different stakeholders’ experiences. In the 2017-18 school year, I began to pilot Cognitive Edge’s Sensemaker software at Rangeview High School, where I collected a few hundred stories from students and teachers using the Culture SCAN survey. Since I was piloting the work, I would inevitably focus on how to introduce the survey to different groups of respondents, which involved thinking through how I would support them as they coded their stories using triangles and a sliding digital ball (pictured below).

triangle gif
After writing and giving the story a title, a respondent interprets the story by moving a ball inside a triangle to illustrate qualities evident in their story.

A few times in the 2017-18 school year I had a chance to put stories together in collections to share them with colleagues and students. To do so, I would read through the data and look for multiple stories about the same general topics, then curate small collections that included an even balance of both negative and positive experiences. My cleanest examples were two sets of stories about broad categories: student conduct and school leadership. With these small collections in hand, I facilitated the next part of the process, which was to put the stories back in front of teachers, students, deans, and school leaders. As they read, I asked them (while pointing at the stories coded as positive by respondents), “How do we get more like this? And, (pointing at the negative stories),  as determined by respondents), “How do we get fewer like this?” On each occasion, because I was piloting a process, I was probably more attuned to how I was facilitating than I was to how people were responding. Still, despite being a little self-conscious about introducing this novel process, I was able to gauge how all of the different groups became engrossed in reading the stories I presented to them. Just as engrossing as reading the stories were the conversations about how we could create conditions that would lead to more positive and fewer negative stories at our school.

Hearing Snowden talk about the work he’s done in hospital systems, I’m struck by his use of the word “empowerment.” I think the engagement I see when teachers read the stories written by students, and by their colleagues, is a sign that this process of collecting, curating, and redistributing stories might lead to a greater sense of empowerment across our system. Certainly, when I challenge teachers with the task of imagining a few ways they, in their current roles, might take actions that would amplify the positive and dampen the negative in their workplace, the room buzzes and they immediately have ideas they can act on.

The notion of empowerment also reminds me that an important next step in this work for me is to invite others into to process of creating story collections. To help others see the potential in this process without burying them in spreadsheets full of stories I’ve done this on my own to this point, but I think there it will empower other leaders to see a “human sensor network” in its raw .csv file-view, and in the populated triangles that the associated Sensemaker Explorer app produces. While I’ve been delivering short collections of stories in an easy to read format, I want to empower others with the abstract nature of pages and pages of stories, despite their messiness and occasional mundanity. (Among some moving stories and occasional rough ones, our budding human sensor has also revealed less powerful stories like this: “I came to work last week and there was no paper in the copy room.”)

It is my hope that by inviting others into the spreadsheets of data this work generates, and into the process of creating collections, we can think together about the collections we want to stitch together that can support a better understanding of a school. In the way Snowden puts together The Patient’s Journey and The Nurse’s Journey, I can imagine a freshman’s journey, a new teacher’s journey, or department chair’s journey. I’m anxious to see where this work will go next but my hunch is that empowerment will come from inviting others into this process and asking them what potential they see.

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