The application of a ManyStory Approach to learning and development is very fruitful, as I hope many of the chapters in the book (eg on coaching, change, and teams) have already made clear. The very process of helping people enrich their understanding and appreciate more, different perspectives, is by its nature educative.
The ManyStory Approach has also informed some of my training programmes very directly, and I think there is huge scope for more work of this type. At the end of this post, I include three stories that exemplify programmes that take a ManyStory Approach.
An Engaging Approach
One of the reasons I started to pay so much attention to the whole notion of story was that people would often tell me that was what they remembered from my training workshops: I had told an anecdote that had resonated, lived with them, and in some way helped. I think that is quite commonplace but perhaps we don’t look deeply enough into why that is. My thesis is that stories are integral to the way in which we construct and remember meaning.
Given that, a ManyStory Approach to developing learning and understanding suddenly becomes very compelling. Rather than my telling anecdotes, I now work to help people to construct stories that carry meaning for them, and help them to achieve desired outcomes. Sometimes, I also bring external theoretical knowledge to bear. But I tend to frame that as a story too: one that offers a description that can be interrogated in the light of participants’ experience and understanding, and either enriched or discarded. That helps both to make theoretical models relevant, and also memorable: if people own them because they have re-storied them into their own understanding, they are much more powerful and useful.
A richer understanding?
I also use a ManyStory understanding to make sense of much that happens to me in the world of learning and development.
For example, many years ago, I was heavily involved in running week-long outdoor development programmes for a number of organisations. We would take groups of leaders, and sometimes intact teams, down to a centre in Dartmoor and put them through an array of physical challenges, which required problem solving, team work and so forth. These were reviewed and genuine learning resulted.
However, there was also something else going on: through the rigour of the course, which included dormitory accommodation rather than private en suite rooms and so on, a more intimate quality of relationship was often forged, which meant that the feedback participants gave each other was both more honest and better received. On the third day, participants went for a run before breakfast, which included various unpleasant obstacles: crawling through a stream under a bridge and so forth. Most took this in good part, but I still remember one participant who demanded at breakfast: ‘What was the Learning Objective for that exercise?’
It was a reasonable question, though it threw me at the time. As I recall, I ummed and erred a bit, and then his colleagues told him not to be in such a grump, as they had all found it a great way to wake up and start the day.
With hindsight, I would say that this person clearly had a story about training courses that was founded on one particular understanding of how they should be designed and run, and that our programme operated according to a different set of assumptions and beliefs.
That participant benefitted far less from the programme than most of his peers. My analysis of that is that his story of what training should be like, and his constant evaluation of the programme as failing to meet those expectations, got in the way of his immersing himself in the experience and learning in some unfamiliar ways. I wonder if his story would be that he was not taken in by the kind of snake oil we had on offer…
Were I to be in a similar situation now, I would make the time to have the conversation about stories and see if that helped. I have, of course, no way of knowing whether it would have done in that particular case: but at least I would have felt I handled it better.
Three Examples from Practice
1 The Story of the Unpromotable Managers
After the management assessment centre, the unsuccessful candidates, who had been identified as not having potential for promotion, were sent on a series of workshops to address their deficiencies - or as they saw it, to lick their wounds... While many of them were convinced the assessment centre had not been fair, we looked at the story they needed to be able to tell back into the organisation, to get their careers moving forward again. Part of that story clearly had to be how they had worked to overcome the shortfalls identified by the centre. We did not need to debate how accurate the assessment was: we simply had to recognise the need to collect evidence to prove that the perceived weakness was a weakness no longer (whether it had ever been was not an issue worth pursuing in their organisation). That led to each participant working to prove that he or she was capable of demonstrating strengths in those areas; and over the course of several months, they supported each other in developing that evidence using real work projects, and meeting as action learning sets to drive them forward and check that the learning was both applied and captured. By the end of the series of workshops, all had a good story to tell - and the organisation heard them, so that many are now promoted. For what it’s worth, my story about that is that some of them demonstrated strengths they already had which the Assessment Centre had missed, but others developed new skills though the process.
2 Unpacking Your Chair Programme
This is a programme for newly-promoted university professors. The idea is to give them a chance to reflect on their career and their aspirations, and work out what kind of professorial chair they wish to create for themselves. Sometimes, an academic has been so focused (in career terms) on gaining a professorship that once that is achieved, there is no plan beyond that. In the worst cases, that has sometimes led to a long period of stagnation. Neither universities nor individuals can afford that any longer.
This programme, then was designed to help newly-promoted professors to re-visit their stories to date, and to write their future ones. We create the space, and provide structured stimulation in the form of exercises, guest speakers, discussions and reflection, for them to develop their narrative about themselves over the course of several modules over an academic year. The programme concludes with participants developing a creative way to tell their stories to the sponsoring senior academics.
It has run several times in a number of Universities, with great success, including winning a Times Higher Education Award for outstanding contribution to Leadership Development in 2012.
3 The Futures Programme
This is another University programme, which has been run successfully at four universities, and is still running at three of them. It is for early career academics and professional services staff. Again, it is designed to help them to articulate their story of themselves, but also to enrich and inform their story of the university and the Higher Education environment in which they are working.
Participants regularly comment on how stimulating they find it, as they are not being told what to think, but rather encouraged to develop rich personal accounts of their understanding. Thus, for example, we may invite guest speakers from quite different backgrounds (from film directors to police officers) to stimulate and provoke thought.
We also invite senior academics and others to share their own stories, often in a very personal way, to demonstrate the richness and variety of ways in which roles in Higher Education may be successfully developed.
As always, I am interested in your thoughts, questions and experiences, so please leave a comment to start the discussion.