posted 20 Nov 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 4
A tale of the unexpected
The journey of a white paper
Between October 2000 and February 2001, the UK government’s Department of Trade and Industry set about putting together a major policy document, its ‘Opportunity for All’ competitiveness white paper. Pat Langford describes how the department used storytelling to capture and evaluate the processes involved in the formation of the paper, with the ultimate aim of providing future project teams with a survival kit to help them avoid some of the more common mistakes and pitfalls.
In February 2001, the UK government’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) completed an exercise involving the development and publication of a major policy document. As part of the evaluation for this project, we decided to use a storytelling process for capturing and transferring some of the lessons learnt during the time it took to go from idea to delivery. Through the evaluation, we also wanted to contribute to the development of a relatively simple and robust model for storytelling that could be applied to other projects within the DTI, and to transfer some of the skills required to support the application of this model in the future.
The white paper was a major policy statement on the enterprise, skills and innovation in the UK. In general, white papers of this kind are published infrequently – every two years at most. Although there are certain basic common features in the production of all white papers, there is also a significant degree of variation in how the process is approached. In part, this derives from the different teams of staff and ministers involved in the nature of the policy proposals, as well as the contextual environment in which the paper is to be published.
A number of difficulties for evaluation and transfer of learning follow from these general characteristics. There is no wrong or right way to put together a white paper, because every one will be different. Many elements of the process are non-standardised and need to be developed on an ad hoc basis. There is rarely the opportunity to select the team of people involved in a white paper on the basis of their previous experience of carrying out similar exercises, as most will invariably have moved on to other responsibilities. The relative infrequency of white paper exercises means that preserving the learning in a living and accessible form is problematic. There is also a danger that learning that is context-dependent will be obsolete by the time of the next white paper because the broader context has changed.
The background to the project
The majority of work on the white paper took place between October 2000 and February 2001. During that period, the process involved a number of different tasks, including the development of new policy proposals, the preparation of a text, clearance with ministers and more widely within government, and arrangements for publication and launch.
The work was carried out by a wide variety of people. These included a core team of about ten people within the DTI’s Strategy and Competitiveness Unit who co-ordinated the work; a larger network of around 30 policy specialists elsewhere in the DTI; specialist staff involved in the production process and the press launch; ministers and their direct support staff (including special advisers); and a team within the Department for Education and Employment that led on certain aspects of the work. We therefore had a potential field of between 40 and 50 people we would want to involve in the storytelling process.
The DTI had no previous experience of the storytelling approach. However, there were a number of other knowledge management projects in progress within the department that were co-ordinated by the DTI’s Knowledge and Modernisation Unit (KMU) and KMU team members willingly agreed to contribute to the team of people carrying out the evaluation.
Attractions of the storytelling approach
A number of benefits presented by the storytelling approach were immediately obvious to us:
- Relevance – storytelling puts learning into context through specific examples that also demonstrate some of the outcomes. Knowledge plus context plus benefits equals greater relevance and therefore a greater probability of effective learning;
- Flexibility – storytelling provides some key learning points, but preserves flexibility around their application. The lack of structure to a white paper process and the impact of unique factors mean that any manual attempting to set out how to do it would be re-written each time the process is repeated. The storytelling approach avoids this dead end;
- Richness – stories have the potential to transfer both tacit and codified knowledge and are much more likely to convey the subtle understandings that would rarely survive if the information was gathered via a questionnaire or disseminated via a procedure manual;
- Transferability – storytelling is a natural form of human communication. If the stories are good (particularly if they fit the culture), they will spread by word of mouth with little further effort and will hang around for far longer in the corporate memory.
Our initial assumption was that we would develop around six or seven stories that captured some of the main learning points from the white paper. These stories would then be promulgated via various routes.
The evaluation process
We agreed that the main body of the work involved in the evaluation would be carried out by a team of DTI staff members, some of whom had been directly involved in the white paper’s production and most of whom would have had facilitation training. We recognised, however, that we would require professional consultancy to help train the team and provide expert support for its work at critical stages of the process.
We ran a competitive tender exercise, which involved bids from nine quite different organisations. We made it clear that we were looking for consultants who could:
- Provide advice on planning and structuring the evaluation process;
- Offer initial training for the DTI evaluation team, focusing on the workshops and some one-to-one interviews;
- Give feedback and advice following the workshops (including attendance at one or more of the workshops);
- Coach the DTI evaluation team on the analysis of data collected in the workshops and interviews;
- Support the DTI evaluation team during the development of the stories.
After shortlisting five of the firms, we eventually selected an organisation called A Word in Edgeways, which would provide us with the services of two performance storytellers, Katy Cawkwell and Philippa Tipper. We were attracted by a number of aspects of their approach, not least the imaginative, flexible and strongly people-focused ideas they brought. For the purposes of this exercise we were less attracted by those organisations that relied on the use of IT and a more quantitative approach.
The core members of the team then had some initial half-day training sessions with the consultants, listening to ‘classical’ stories that conveyed powerful metaphorical messages. We also practised telling and constructing stories of our own. The techniques were then applied to four lunchtime workshops at which we aimed to harvest stories from a cross-section of people involved in the white paper. The structure of the workshops (attended on average by ten people with at least two facilitators) was as follows:
- We had asked participants to think in advance of one positive experience they could remember about the process, as well as one negative experience;
- For each workshop we produced a wall-mounted ‘timeline’, which showed the various stages of the white paper process and highlighted certain milestones and memorable events. In essence, this was the first visual skeleton of the unfolding story, which would be built upon in each workshop;
- Participants were invited to look at the timeline and then chose from a wide selection of laminated cards (which had been prepared by the consultants) a geological feature such as a mountain, volcano, cracked earth, iceberg, etc. Their choices were to represent what the process felt like at any particular point in time;
- The participants were asked to put Post-it notes onto the timeline describing their less positive experiences, and then to identify the kind of skill, behaviour or attribute which would have counteracted that experience. From a further selection of laminated cards, which had illustrations of different animals, the participants were asked to choose an animal that could be most closely associated with the skill, behaviour or attribute. For example, an eagle could be chosen to represent the need for a top-level view, while a mountain goat could be chosen to represent dogged determination to carry on going;
- We then asked participants to form pairs and to recount to one another their more positive experiences of the white paper process. They were then rotated so as to create new pairs and to retell what they had heard but as a third party observer. The next stage involved the participants retelling the story, again in a different pairing, but this time with complete licence to embellish the story or turn it into a metaphorical tale. The facilitators captured these creative tales;
- The workshops were supplemented by a number of one-to-one interviews, particularly for more senior staff.
Having run these four workshops, the evaluation team analysed all the data that had been gathered and was able to draw out a number of recurring themes. From this we were able to create one main story with some shorter ones embedded within it. Briefly, the main story described the journeys (and trials and tribulations) of a group of people who, acting on the orders of their Sultan, set out to build him a new palace in another part of the land. Our overall aim was to create a ‘survival pack’ for anyone undertaking a future white paper production process (or similar major project of this nature). The pack ultimately contained:
- The ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ storybook;
- An A3 map;
- An A5 version of the ‘Sultan’s Story’;
- A set of story postcards (including some bonus ‘dream’ stories);
- Eight skill cards, each containing a picture of an animal and a description of its skill (eg, the old elephant that can remember what has happened in the past);
- A CD Rom (containing all of the above in HTML format, as originally posted on the DTI intranet).
The story was carefully constructed so as to provide on every alternate page the actual lessons learnt that the metaphorical story sought to illustrate (see pullout box 1).
As well as producing the paper artefacts, we arranged for the storytellers to tell the tale to a group of about 30 people who had been involved in the white paper process and had attended the workshops. The story was greeted with considerable enthusiasm and was praised as a successful technique for extracting some quite difficult lessons learnt, without being in any way a personal criticism of any of the ‘players’. A number of other government departments have since expressed interest in employing storytelling as a method of project evaluation, and have benefited from the experiences we have shared with them.
The story was also published on the DTI’s intranet in a very creative fashion, using innovative techniques to display an interactive version of the map of the journey into which readers could click to read both the relevant piece of the story and the lessons learnt.
The overall idea behind the development of the story and the production of the survival kit is to help future white paper (or similar) teams to know what to expect and perhaps, on the basis that forewarned can mean forearmed, avoid some of the pitfalls encountered by the team that produced this evaluation.
This was a highly worthwhile exercise, which exceeded all our expectations. And in the process we uncovered some very creative and imaginative thinkers in our midst whose talents had been thus far hidden. The most unlikely people can turn out to be the most wonderful storytellers. As well as being used since by other departments, the technique is one that members of the Knowledge and Modernisation Unit are glad to have in their repertoire. Clearly the real test will come when the next white paper process begins and we will see whether the survival kit is used to its full potential.
Pat Langford is the former head of knowledge management at the Department of Trade and Industry. Currently she is change manager for the Ministerial and Parliamentary Support Team at the DTI. She can be contacted at: email@example.com
Pullout box 1 – using story to provide real world advice
While still debating their next move, the palace folk were interrupted by the appearance of a large bull. The bull was heading straight for them and as they ran, the map was torn into three pieces.
“Time and tide wait for no man,” said the bull. “There’s a long way to go and a lot to find. The only way you can do it is to divide into three groups – one go by sea, the next go into the mountains and the third go into the marshes.”
On the facing page the ‘real world’ advice reads as:
It is easy to procrastinate early on and try to work everything out in advance before you do anything. Either an external motivation or determination arising within the group is needed to drive forward.
You have to allocate responsibilities to get the job done. Having a team in place with the right combination of skills to tackle the different tasks is vital for moving ahead quickly.
Pullout box 2 – an extract from the explanatory note contained in the survival kit
The survival kit is not a procedure manual, nor does it contain a detailed set of instructions as to how to produce a white paper. Instead, it is designed to help future teams examine the issues involved in producing a white paper in a creative way. The map and the story help you understand what happened this time, and the animal cards help focus on some of the underlying skills required. Future white papers will almost certainly be different from this one, so it would probably be a mistake to follow our map too closely. Instead, we hope that by focusing on some of the underlying issues – both for individuals and for the team – the stories and supporting material will help you learn from our experience and apply that learning to your own circumstances.
How you use the kit is up to you. In general, we’d recommend that the story be used in a group context as part of active learning, preferably in an oral medium, rather than at your desk or in writing. We’d also encourage you to work with the metaphors and images in the story and to add your own learning points to those we’ve suggested at various parts of the story. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Before you start…
You might want to use the kit as part of a training/team-building day at the start of the white paper process. For example, you could:
- Talk to a colleague about your favourite part of the story and discuss what you think the main lessons are for doing your white paper (hint: you don’t have to follow our morals – different people will have different interpretations);
- Think about the implications for the planning and project management process, comparing how it worked last time (as far as you can tell) and how it might work for your white paper;
- Try and identify the particular turning points during the story: how did they happen, who did what, and what effect did they have? In particular, try to identify what they correspond to in practice;
- Think about different ways of dealing with some of the problems described in the story. What would this mean in a real life context?
If this sort of approach works and you want to take things further, you could also…
- Re-tell the story from the perspective of different participants, perhaps through a role play in which each person takes a different role. How are these different perspectives reflected in your real white paper team and how can you ensure that they are all taken into account?
- Re-tell the story, distorting it so that it is much better (a perfect journey) or worse (a nightmare journey) than it is told in the original. Compare these new stories to the original. What are the implications in terms of how the situation might be dealt with for your white paper?
- Introduce new elements to the story and talk about how these might be dealt with if they happened;
- Encourage people to adopt their favourite animal (skill) cards and ask them to identify the part of the story where they would chose to ‘play’ that card. What this would mean in practice?
And while you’re in the thick of it…
You’ll be very busy during the white paper process, but you might find it helpful to:
- Keep playing the animal (skill) card game, particularly at critical points when no-one seems to know what’s going on or what to do. At a team meeting, sit round a table and work out which animal has the skills that the team needs (or make up your own animal). For example, is this the time to keep going (like the goat) or should you relieve the tension by seeing the funny side (like the monkey)?
- Use some of the metaphors and images from the story to help the team understand what’s happening. What could you do to help put the situation right and get back on track?
And when it’s all over…
You’ll also have learnt a lot doing your white paper. Why not compare how it worked this time to how it seemed for us? Why not write your own story? Add this to the survival kit and pass it on to future white paper teams or simply throw this kit away and put together your own one.