How to facilitate an anecdote circle
People's experiences, examples and events provide important source material for developing an Information and Knowledge Strategy. By collecting people's examples of how they get their job done you can get an idea of the knowledge they use, the barriers they face, and what's the culture is like in your region. This type of insight is difficult to get using tools such as surveys alone.
This How To Guide describes how to facilitate an anecdote circle to capture a group's examples of how they get things done.
High level facilitation skills are required to facilitate this technique. Ideally the facilitator will have participated in an anecdote circle and feel comfortable asking open questions in a small group.
This technique is designed to elicit people's examples and direct experiences. The objective is to get specific examples rather than opinions, arguments or points of view.
Allow a maximum of two hours for each anecdote circle activity. During this time organise for the group to mingle (over coffee / biscuits) for the 15 minutes before commencement of the discussion. Then allow 90 minutes for each Anecdote circle.
Small 'peer' groups of between 6-12 participants in each group are ideal. Smaller groups are preferable i.e. it is better to have 2 groups of 6 than 1 group of 12.
Purpose of the Project
To develop a Information and Knowledge Strategy that helps the organisation identify how to best use its information and knowledge resources to achieve better NRM outcomes.
Overview of Process
The anecdote circle workshops are not about solving problems. Rather they are about hearing how people experience a range of issues around the topic.
First briefly review the previous workshop (Stage 1 of Strategy process) and surveys (Stage 2 of Strategy process).
Let’s begin. Let’s find out some more about each other by going around the table. Tell us about yourself—your organisation, your role, where you are located and how long you’ve been involved with NRM.
Refer them to the guidelines on the whiteboard. These are the key messages:
- 1st or 2nd hand examples
- Focus is on your experiences rather than opinions – experiences are more informative, more powerful
- Much more interested in ‘I remember when’ than ‘I think’. If you say ‘I think’ I will ask for an example
- Give an anecdote based on your experience – contrast between anecdote and opinion
- no right of wrong answers and if your experience differs from others in the session please tell us about how it has worked for you.
- Use analogy of a bus ride – if we all travelled here by bus today and there was an accident in front of the bus and the police lined us all up and asked what had happened we would all give different statements. None of us would be lying, we would just have different perspectives.
- No judging people’s stories
- No analysing them either – remember we are here to listen to each other’s experiences, not to deconstruct them.
- These are like a dinner party (without the wine). The only thing different is we try to let people finish their story before relating your’s.
- We are interested in hearing both the negative and the positive anecdotes you have to share.
We are tape recording the session so we don’t miss any of your comments. We’ll be on a first name basis, and in later reports there will not be any names attached to comments. You may be assured of anonymity – test if they have any questions about recording
Chatham House Rules
We want to generate a spirit of information sharing, but with appropriate respect for the story teller by retaining their anonymity and the identities of any actors they may identify in their story. In this light we look to adopt Chatham House rules for our conversation today. “Participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”.
Our role here is to listen and sometimes, ask questions. I won’t be participating in the conversation but I hope that you feel free to share your experiences and stories with one another.
We’ll be looking to cover three major themes and throughout the session you may find us moving the discussion from one theme to the next.
There is a tendency in these discussions for some people to talk a lot and some people not to say much. It is important for us to provide the opportunity to hear from each of you today, all of your experiences are valuable and important. So if one of you is sharing a lot, I may ask you to let others have the opportunity of sharing their experiences.
Explaining what’s next
Explain the process of how the anecdote being collected are used to the participants:
- Anecdotes will be extracted from transcripts
- A sensemaking workshop will be held to identify the themes and values evident from the body of narrative
- The sensemaking workshop will include a range of people related to the project, stakeholders, and might include people who have participated in the anecdote circles
2. Facilitate the anecdote circle
Finally it has arrived, the time to ‘set sail’ and invite participants to share their experiences, anecdotes and examples around the themes of information management and knowledge sharing. In some ways, asking the anecdote-eliciting questions can be like dropping a stone into a lake – calm, clear, blue lake. Once the stone hits there’s a splash, and then ripples, which make their way outwards. Finally the ripples reach the shore.
Turn on the voice recorder and ask the story questions. Asking the story questions creates the splash. People become tuned in. Often there is silence, as people wonder who might go first. Finally the ripples reach the shore and someone pipes up and says, “Alright, if I have to, I’ll go first... There was a time..."
The Anecdote Circles - Facilitator's Guide will help you to successfully facilitate the anecdote circle, including how to get the anecdote circle back on track if things don't go to plan. See our tips for some further ideas.
The story questions
The following questions are used to elicit experiences. Ask one question at a time, and avoid moving to the next question until the discussion of the current question has been fully exhausted. You may find that the discussion will naturally flow from the current question into the topic of another question before you've asked it - if this happens let it happen as you can always come back to the original question later.
Theme 1: Information Management
This theme seeks to explore the information flows within your organisation, and between your organisation and other stakeholders.
- Think about the last time you needed to find NRM information for your work. Did you find what you were looking for? When have you been impressed by how easy it was, or alternatively frustrated by how long it took or hard it was.
- Think about the last time you needed to find information from your stakeholders. What worked and what didn’t work? Were you pleasantly surprised or disappointed with what you found?
Theme 2: Knowledge Sharing
- Think back to when you needed assistance in finding something or solving a problem? How did you go about it, who did you contact, what happened?
- Think about how you communicate in the region, either in your area or with other areas. It might be just going to talk to someone to meetings, to email, talking to the boss about work etc. When do these work well? When are they just a waste of time?
- A common problem is duplicating work because you don’t know someone else is doing the same thing. How do you find out what’s going on in the region?
- Picture yourself down the pub this evening and one of your friends was there and they were trying to decide whether to accept a job offer to work in the region. What examples would you give them that would either encourage them to accept the offer or which would cause them to think twice.
- There is potentially lots of value sharing knowledge with stakeholders outside the region. These might be land holders within the region, other regions, government or research bodies. When have you worked with these groups and what happened?
Go around the room ask ‘How do you feel? Are there any final anecdotes or observations you wish to share? Tip:sometimes at the end of the session when you are just about to turn off the recorder, a new and interesting conversation may start. Keep the recorder going. You might be surprised what can come out of these ‘door-handle’ conversations.
4. What to do after the anecdote circles
It is useful to debrief participants about how the collected transcribed anecdotes will be used in a one-day or two-day sensemaking and action planning workshop with their senior managers or leaders. Depending on the organisation and how this sensemaking workshop is designed, this sometimes provides us with the opportunity to issue an open invitation to the workshop.
Providing space for any questions from participants about the next steps in the process is a good way towards transparency, as well as helping participants to recognise the value of their involvement and to get ready for any next steps. Most importantly, remember to thank people for their participation in the anecdote circle.
The introduction and closing outlined in this how-to guide provide participants with clear messages about the intent of the Anecdote circle and also provide an opportunity to understand the purpose of the process.
1. Extracting anecdotes directly from the Anecdote Circle
The most common method of capturing anecdotes is to record the sessions with a Digital Voice recorder. Recording requires that anecdotes subsequently require transcription before the stories can be extracted for sensemaking. This process takes time and requires a gap between running workshops. If you wish to run the workshops back-to-back, you can use an alternate method for recording anecdotes. An alternative is to ask people at the end of an anecdote circle to recall their stories and clearly write them down on a piece of paper. These can then be used immediately afterwards in a sensemaking activity. Here is how you would use that approach.
There are times where anecdotes must be extracted directly from the anecdote circle and made ready for sensemaking immediately (e.g. where there is insufficient time for the transcription of audio files and extraction of anecdotes from transcripts). This method can be used in such circumstances
- pads of large post-it notes (153mm high x 203mm wide) for anecdotes to be recorded on
- Enough 0.6mm marker pens for each participant (to write anecdotes on hexis)
- Requires facilitator + and observer/recorder
- Observer/recorder must be experienced at recognising anecdotes during the AC conversation. For each anecdote provided during the AC, the observer/recorder notes on one of the large post-it the name of the story-teller, a story title and brief description of the anecdote. It must be sufficient that the story-teller will be able to recall the story at the completion of the AC. One anecdote per post-it.
- At end of AC, observer/recorder hands out relevant post-its to participants and asks them to write out on a seperate post-it note the anecdote using the 0.6mm markers. Include the story title but omit the storyteller name. Encourage them to write neatly, and to try to fit each anecdote to one of the post-its.
- Check for readability (get them to clarify as required)
- The post-its are then ready for use as part of the gallery-walk in the sensemaking workshop
2. Writing your own questions
Instead of using the anecdote circle questions given in the Facilitate the anecdote circle section above, you may wish to ask some of your own questions. If you would like to look at doing this see How to prepare questions for an anecdote circle.
3. Including one-on-one interviews
As well as the group anecdote circle process, you may also like to gather additional information through one-on-one interviews, however this would be very time-intensive.
- Draw a little map of the table and who is sitting where – referring to people by name is important.
- Be prepared if extra people turn up
- Don’t feel like you need to fill silences – let them hang and see what happens. Don’t ‘actively facilitate’ unless people can’t get into ‘story mode’. Resist the temptation to comment on every anecdote. Avoid paraphrasing their anecdotes. Let your body language and facial expression encourage them.
- Offering your own story can be a great way to get started. The personal anecdote from the facilitator helps to demonstrate the nature and style of the sharing in the anecdote circle as well as helping to build rapport with the group. As in the saying “As they start, so they continue”, providing a story will help to garner more stories.
- Don’t mention stories – stories are constructed – anecdotes are real experiences
- Encourage good anecdotes: “that’s a great example, does anyone else have one?”
- Dig for the anecdote – “that sound interesting, can you give me an example?”
- If people are dominating, remind them of the guidelines
- Be aware of body language, especially if people who haven’t been contributing give a sign that they are ready to engage. If the group has negative body language, use the objectives (described below) to break up the session a little.
- Try to spend equal time on each of the themes, but don’t interrupt if they are ‘on a roll’. Look for a natural break to move on to another theme. If you are still on theme 1 with only 30 minutes left, you will need to move them on to the next theme.
- Most anecdote circles will not cover every question. As you will normally be running multiple ACs just ask different questions in the subsequent sessions.
- There may be situations where people are reluctant to even answer “What brought you here today?”. This can often be the case in places where the culture is not to speak out. In these cases try starting with a closed question like “How long have you worked for this organisation?”. Then slowly build up, recognising the experience in the room, to create a space where more open questions may be used.
Using the Objectives
Towards the end of the session (20 mins left – or earlier if the session isn’t working too well) focus people on the list of objectives on the whiteboard. Ask them to consider which ones are most important to focus on for the region. Give the two votes on which ones we need to focus on most. Record votes and then ask for anecdotes around the highest few and the lowest few.
Getting out of trouble
If the session still isn’t working, use a simple time-line technique. Ask the group to identify key events in the recent history and describe how they experienced these events.
Often you might have a facilitator and an observer in the anecdote circle. This is fine, but once you have more than this it can affect the dynamics of the group. If you have a facilitator and co-facilitator, ensure one is the nominated lead. The co-facilitator would then only speak very occasionally in the session when they sense an opportunity to dig for an anecdote or to ask a different question.
This technique can be used in a variety of settings where quantitative data is required.