A Design Narrative for Three Days


Last week I worked with my partner Teresa Posakony, three good people from The Athena Group — Faith Trimble, Paul Horton, Steve Byers, and one “apprentice,” Ali Kingfisher who has worked many years in government, who is already a gifted host. Our offering together was a 3-day, The Art of Participative Leadership: Building Cultures of Innovation and Collective Impact.

Our process for working together as a team includes phone calls leading up to the event. We plan together. We encourage invitations together. We take care of logistics. This prepares us for what is usually a day or a day and a half of specific design for the event, which in this case was attended by 52 people not including our team.

In design, there are many choices of what to offer. There are methods — Circle, World Cafe, and Open Space Technology are musts. There are models — likely 25 that we’d like to offer. We don’t make it to all of them — maybe three at the plenary level and another 10-12 at the small group level. Though there is a kind of template of design at play, each event turns out a bit differently. It means that design is not a cookie-cutting process. It’s not replication of what was done before. It is an emergent design.

Part of what I feel helps in that process is a design narrative. It’s not the details of specific timing of exercises. It is the overarching story of what we are doing and when we are doing it. Without it, I find that participants (and hosting teams for that matter) can get confused about where we are in the process. A lot of it can jumble together in a way that leaves people quite confused about what they are taking back home with them.

The above photo is the design narrative I offered with our team this time. The tree days are roughly in columns. I divided each day into a morning and an afternoon.

Greetings — Our first job is to say hello to each other. I often will tell people that we don’t need to solve anything just yet. It is usually relieving to people. There are of course many ways to say hello. At this gathering, we included partner conversations on seven questions, each taking 2 minutes. We also included a big circle to share name, organization, and the object that people brought with them as symbol of what is important to them. We included triad conversations to begin to notice stuck points and stories that we carry about how change happens. With the intention of greeting, of saying hello, each of these took us well beyond a business card level of introduction.

Frameworks — The frameworks clarify some of the context for how we are exploring. This was a gathering about participative leadership and building cultures of innovation and collective impact. It was not about motorcycle repair. The frameworks we offered pointed people to a systems level of awareness and a new kind of leadership. In this design we used 2-Loops, a model for working with emergence, and Cynefin, a way of working with complexity. We invited people to a World Cafe to help make sense of those frameworks.

Building Capacity — The job here is to develop inner capacity and ability. The premise is that the level of shift in the world, and in our organizations, requires most of us to have more capacity. To listen. To engage. To be in unknowns. To figure it out together. To still ourselves so as not to work simply from stress. How cool to have deliberate time to do this.

Exploring — This is the time to turn to one another with our specific questions and issues to explore. We used Open Space Technology to do this. Some people started into projects. However, many stayed conceptual, which was the intent. “How can art be used in more mainstream places to promote clarity and change?” was one that I participated in.

Planning and Application — The last day is definitely a time to move energy to converging. What are you going to do with this when you get back to your office or community? The previous days support a lot of diverging, thinking that we don’t normally make time for or can’t make time for. Planning and application highlights taking responsibility for learning and harvesting.

Commitments — The last stage is clarifying commitments. This is very much about witnessing one another. For some it is in specific projects. For some it is in personal insights or practices. In this gathering we did so through a Pro-Action Cafe, and an intention-setting exercise that I modified for this group. It was a chance to return people to what they started with in their greetings to gather, but to notice what had changed.

That’s it. Just six steps. Not 60. There were of course many things that happened, but having this design narrative helps clarify context for the good work that we can relax ourselves into.

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