Patterns of voices from the Balkans – working with UNDP

Published by Tony Quinlan on

The past two days have been intense and productive – spend in Bratislava on a raft of narrative projects being run by UNDP, coordinated by a client and friend who is an extraordinarily capable project manager. (Praise I don’t give lightly – the ability to switch from detail to strategy to coaching instantly is highly enviable.)

UNDP Bratislava took an approach that is becoming increasingly popular – a two-day workshop of approaches and theory, at the end of which we had produced draft frameworks for a set of narrative pilot projects under a single licence for Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker® software. The projects themselves ranged dramatically – giving voice to Roma populations in Serbia, understanding problems of citizen engagement in Montenegro, exploring attitudes to Protected Areas of forestry, an internal UNDP project looking at business processes and a project around Chernobyl to look at social and economic differences as a legacy of the 1986 disaster.

(I recall the event particularly as a student in Durham. The then-girlfriend, now-wife of my best friend was studying Russian and on her year in-country when it happened. To a less-than-worldly-wise 21 year old, a nuclear reactor going off in the same country felt as though she was close by – I had little appreciation of the actual distances involved…)

The past couple of days, therefore, has been an interim stage – the first workshop and subsequent work was about getting narrative projects designed and collection started, this workshop was about starting to understand what the narrative was revealing and how to use it with different groups to engage and move to actions. I’m afraid that, while I’m always interested in new ideas and research, I’m much more focused on the actions that follow – “it’s great to learn this, but what do we do next as a result?” One of the many reasons I like using SenseMaker® is that, while it starts as a research tool in its initial stages, the real potential lies once we’ve gathered material – then it can morph into a monitoring system, knowledge-sharing facilitator, learning tool, innovation catalyst and much more. (Sorry – sounds like a sales pitch. The truth is I’m just an enthusiast and still exploring its potential…)

So, back to the UNDP projects. Inevitably, different projects were at different stages – while this made leading the workshop slightly more complex it also made it far more valuable. Everyone can learn from everyone else – chipping in to design/implementation decisions for story gathering for projects at that stage; uncovering meaning and results for projects with material already gathered; and how to engage populations and stakeholders for everyone.

After a walkthrough on SenseMaker® and other elements on Monday, yesterday was looking at the emergent picture from projects. No project produced results exactly as expected – some of the surprises were major (with radical consequences for local authorities and policy decisions), others were more subtle but fundamental in what they were showing. The process was highly interactive and full of diverse perspectives and dissent – in order to maximise what we might pick up (scanning capacity) and avoid groupthink too early or confirmation biases.

And only after we’d looked at patterns and discussed them (like the one here:)

UNDP Sensemaker story triad

…did we start to look at stories. And some of them were crackers…

And inevitably we got to the discussions of “but there’s nothing about issue X in that story – they’ve signified it wrongly”. The truth is that they see the world differently – and the text we have is only tip of their story iceberg. Proof once again that the meaning of a story is not solely in its content.

So, the projects all continue for the oncoming months, with people envigorated by the insights that are starting to emerge. Already, we’re having conversations about extensions into next year for some projects, while others we’ll be looking at how to hand the projects over to local participants to continue in the long run. Part of that process will be sensemaking with the participants themselves to check interpretation and develop experiments to improve situations. And – for instance for the Roma, sharing of stories as part of their cultural identity across geography.