Clonk – That’s a different noise

From the previously mentioned Sands of Time publication this is my second favourite story (the first is my straightening the river Haven tale which i have told for over 20 years). Somewhere on one of my minidiscs I have an audio version of John telling us the tale and we laughed for almost ten minutes afterwards.

John was one of our site based staff responsible for managing the National Nature Reserve at the, fantastically named, Saltfleetby Theddlethorpe on the Lincolnshire Coast.

In the glossary at the end it includes the word ‘broggling’: which is Lincolnshire for ‘poking about’.

One of my big lessons learned from this book and project was to leave everything as close to verbatim as possible.

Sands of Time revisited

In 2004 I was asked to write an article on our approach to storytelling and I just had to make a feature out of the wonderful ‘Sands of Time’ publication, shown above. [Art by local artist T.E.J. Brooker] A dream oral history project which was completed before I had even started in working with narrative. Anyway, this is the beginning of the article I wrote:

“Back in the mists of time when only the monks and the monarchy could write, there were three ways in which we learnt: first by having a go at it. When that didn’t work, or you wanted to improve – by watching someone who knew how to do it. Then at the end of the day when the sun had set and it got too dark to see what anyone was doing – by listening to that ‘someone’ tell you about the time when they …”

Clair Weaver – Grazing Animals Project, 2003

This passage is written by Claire Weaver, one of our conservation officers who, despite no contact with knowledge management as such, encapsulates in one short paragraph the heart of what I now hold to be important in communities and knowledge sharing.

I met Claire back in 2000 at the beginning of my journey to find the supposed Holy Grail of knowledge management and of my personal quest to uncover the secrets of communities and storytelling. Twelve months ago what began as a sideline turned into a full-time English Nature project, of which I hope, in this short case study, to recount my current thoughts in relation to communities. I make no apologies for occasionally following the signposts towards storytelling, because I now believe there to be a unified theory hiding between the two paths of narrative and community.

The sands of time

Claire suggested, edited and produced a marvellous book entitled ‘The Sands of Time’ in which she and her colleagues collected the anecdotes of everyone in any way connected with the Saltfleetby National Nature Reserve (NNR) on the Lincolnshire Coast. The exciting and informative tales about smugglers and nudists, unexploded bombs and shelduck held me spellbound until I had read every last word. Her comments on the wonderfully involving and evocative content inspired me on my journey:

“This is a collection of people’s reminiscences about a local place that holds a special place in the hearts and memories of those that have told their stories …we were surprised by the enthusiasm of everyone who participated …there is a wealth of local knowledge, both about historical information and wildlife …the project became an informal consultation on how the site is managed”. (Weaver 2000)

Claire Weaver 2000

This latter point particularly caught my eye, as consulting with local people is a very difficult, resource intensive activity. Yet this relatively straightforward approach seemed capable of delivering valuable benefits. I began to wonder how such a simply constructed book could contain forces powerful enough to encourage me to visit the site, including the Prussian Queen public house at Saltfleetby, where the storytelling sessions had been held. According to the landlord, the locals still reminisce about the enjoyable evenings they spent telling tales around a roaring fire and drinking traditional real ale.

May the cynefin be with you

I can still clearly remember my first public speaking event after engaging with Dave Snowden and his complexity, anthropology and narrative approach. It was 11th June 2001 at a tiny venue in France called the Palace de Versailles for a massive Marcus Evans Conference. I distinctly remember as I checked in that Sean Connery was checking out at the other desk.

I was supposed to be going as a delegate but a speaker dropped out and because l had mentioned ‘storytelling’ in my details I was asked if i could give a talk on it. When I returned I immediately emailed Dave to share my thoughts and this is what i said:


Well the Marcus Evans Knowledge Summit went far better than I could ever have hoped. I rewrote and rewrote my presentation to make it more of a story containing you as the guide.

I swear before I went on I heard your voice saying  “may the cynefin be with you”

I covered myths especially creation, with biblical creation of land, sea, plants, creeping things etc leading through to the creation of English Nature.

I then showed a few ecological metaphors and explained your interest in us.

Then I moved into how you used teaching stories to pass on your knowledge and how easy we could then remember complicated theories and ideas.

I then told the story of Birling gap and how we held a camp fire tale to reveal and eventually map the knowledge.

Finally I talked about the ‘Sands of Time’ collection of stories about a local area.

The effect was a bit scary, as I had complete attention throughout (not like the previous German speaker with 120 powerpoints slides about language technology).

My best moments were when the technician came over afterwards and said how he liked the “straightening the river” bit about getting rid of the old people and making similar mistakes. He had been an apprentice and learned everything from this old man… Then an ex-pat living in Hollend asked if the Prussian pub I had mentioned, where the Sands of Time stories were collected, sold Adnams real ales as he remembered drinking pints of it long long ago.

Interest in the subject was huge especially the practical application of getting involved with the local community which I related back to their own businesses as getting closer to the customer.

Anyway to cut a long story short the feedback I got was fantastic, my drink bill was zero, KPM, British Airways, NTL, lecturers and many others I cannot remember quizzed me at every opportunity and we were mentioned in every subsequent presentation.

On my return I reported back to one of our management groups and had a similar incredible effect. They now want me to speak to Council, Directors, Performance Committee and Team Managers to explain the power of storytelling (I still have to call it that because I am only a junior jedi).

I promise I will write it up properly.

I desperately want to concentrate my efforts on this full time and would appreciate any influence you could put on our management to make her realise the sense in this.

Thanks for jump starting my career and sparking my interested in something again.


Be careful what you wish for

Back in June 2001 I was working in English Nature and for two years had been pursuing as many opportunities to engage with storytelling in all its forms. In those days it was necessary to support everything you did with numerical targets. So , in the strong context that this was a proposal in the quickly emerging field of knowledge management, this is what I proposed to senior managent and it was accepted as an 18 month project which I managed to keep going a full 7 years until I left in 2008.


My vision of what we could achieve if successful:

English Nature regarded as a major player in Knowledge Management

Our key messages influencing Industry and businesses throughout the world especially FTSE 100

4 papers published telling our story in prestigious K M publications

Presentations at 10 major conferences telling of our story and experiences

7 more NNR ‘sands of time’ published

14 local teams visited to deliver a package that would include:

  • Presentation based on our story
  • Story telling workshop
  • Science network analysis
  • NNR ‘sands of time’ blueprint

A knowledge map of our communities and knowledge assets

Involvement in Dave Snowden/Ch 4 Television programme on Story telling

A story bank on the Intranet/Internet to be used by all staff for learning, teaching and publicity

Involvement of local Peterborough ethnic communities on story telling

Indirect effects such as:

  • Improved learning, succession, apprenticeship, communication and Knowledge management throughout English Nature.
  • Attraction of more sponsorship for publications and events
  • Stronger links with local communities
  • Greater promotion of English Nature and its key issues/messages
  • Promotion of NNR network
  • Greater staff loyalty, pride, enthusiasm, respect
  • Discover greater knowledge about our reserves

Ron Donaldson, IDT 20th June 2001

As you can imagine, not everything above happened as planned, I had completely forgotten about the proposed Dave Snowden TV programme, but I gave them my best shot and several of the above ‘experiments’ did generate desirable shifts and gave me, as I used to regularly say at conferences, “the best job in the world”.

Narrative Ecologist

Taking inspiration (again) from Chris Corrigan and his recent call for a return to blogging, like others, I am going back to my blog and taking ownership of my words and thoughts. Twenty Four years ago I first met Dave Snowden who shifted my personal story from that of process modelling and systems analysis to a much more anthropological approach using narrative, sensemaking and a gradual understanding of complex adaptive systems.

So this seems like an opportune moment to review and reflect and I hope to share, with anyone who is interested, a shallow dip into the insights, inspirations and case studies that have shifted me most.

This first one is an attempt to explain why I call myself a narrative ecologist.

A narrative ecologist, as I see it, looks not at individual stories or other system components but instead takes an ecological perspective enabling you to focus on the communities, flow and realisation of insights within a narrative landscape.

The sharing of (insights) knowledge via relationships across  an organisation is much more an ecology that needs to be nurtured, than a precisely defined machine that can be managed. Ecology has at times been called the ‘subversive science’, since it subverts our egocentric insistence on separateness.

In subsequent postings I hope to explain many of the concepts and methods that have most influenced my approach to facilitating workshops, coaching and teaching.

Narrative Ecology Workshops

What if 18 people, representing all aspects of your ‘system’, were to come together for one day, and work through a sequence of workshop methods, such that they left with a new (more desirable system) story, stronger connections to each other (and the system), and a bag brimming with possibilities.

A typical workshop will:

Answer three questions:

  • What’s the old story?
  • What is possible?
  • What’s the new story?

Be facilitated as three steps:

  • Old Story – mapping the narrative landscape
  • Insights, patterns and possibilities
  • New Story – storyboarding and preparing the ground

It can take three forms:

  • Short – a day
  • Medium – one and a half days
  • Long – Two days

It can be delivered as:

  • A facilitated workshop
  • Face to face or online
  • A hybrid to include ‘how to be a narrative ecologist’

The participants will leave with:

  • A new story
  • Stronger relationships
  • A bag full of possibilities

See home page for further detail. Email now to find out all you need to know about booking narrative ecology workshops and training.


Final (for now) pitch for a new TV series.

Is your house, office or community centre full of stories that get you down. If so call the PNI – SOS team now.

Dressed in our matching purple shirts, and looking scruffy just like Nick Knowles used to, we are just a phone call away.

We’ll send you away for the weekend, gather up all your friends and family and
clear the place of stories like that, then fill it with more stories like this.

Upon your return we expect you to engage with all the stories sensing all the logic and emotion then responding, on camera in as dramatic a way as possible.

[PNI – Participatory Narrative Inquiry – just in case you were wondering]

Coming soon
Adjacent impossible – the quiz show

Trust me I’m a facilitator

Springboard Story Watch

The Hairy Pattern Shifters

My second pitch to the BBC with a new series idea is that of the Hairy Pattern Shifters.

For this I am looking for a similar complexity based facilitator who has avoided the hairdresser for the duration. This fellow hairy person (ideally from Lancashire) would partner me as we travel the UK on our motorbikes facilitating groups we encounter to rid them of unwanted patterns and shift them to adjacent possibles.

Keeping with the theme we would work with local ingredients and build in a local twist.

The Great British Facilitate Off

Its been a long 13 months of longdown and resticted access to workshop participants so i have been watching a lot of TV and I have had a few ideas of new series to pitch to the BBC. This is the first of three.

The Great British Facilitate Off

In a large tent (preferably at a beer festival) four would be facilitators would take on a number of challenges that I have encountered along my twenty odd year journey.

For their Signature offering they would need to design and facilitate:
– A two hour workshop around a ‘good death’.
– 24 identical team workshops to improve Service Delivery
– ‘Safe to Fail’ Probes to generate a bid for Heritage Lottery funding.

Technical challenges would include:
– An ice breaker for a group of hardened aerospace engineers
– A one hour school environmental workshop for 12 year olds
– A 50 minute session for 150 environmentalists at an International Natural Capital Confernce

For Showstoppers I would suggest:
– A five day sandpit on land based renewables with a final prize of up to £1 million for the best proposal.
– A full lessons learned & Knowledge Audit for a major UK Charity campaign.
– An anecdote circle sensemaker project across ten European cities to be done in their native language.

On your marks, get set, facilitate…

Another idea tomorrow, featuring hair and motorbikes.

Narrative ecologist emerges from lockdown

Twelve long months ago I was flying high delivering sessions on Storytelling for my old organisation, Natural England, then Lockdown.

Since then I’ve tagged more online resources and bought more e-books than I can ever read, but a few stand out as influencing me more than most.

Chris Corrigan and his approach to pattern shifting

Donella Meadows and her 12 leverage points

Dave Snowden and friends new Cynefin book

As a result i’ve reconsidered my approach, deconstructed and reconstructed my principles and took a paradigm shift to an adjacent possible.

In short I am ditching ‘knowledge ecologist’ and repatterning as ‘narrative ecologist’.

My two year open goal (up to getting my bus pass) is to repattern and midwife as many new narrative ecologists into the world to achieve great things around health, climate change, hedgerows, anything positive and beneficial.

I started today Zoom teaching Community workers across the West Midlands and am actively looking for anyone in an interest in this. If interested, please get in touch.

So from today the Narrative e-college is open to budding narrative ecologists.

Weak signals of the Covid-19 Pandemic from 2005

EEAC 2005 Group 1 – Love Interest – PANDEMICS

A recent request on Twitter for anyone who had run a Future Backwards exercise predicting the pandemic set me on a mission. In 2005 English Nature (where I worked) had hosted a huge Climate Change Conference on behalf of the EEAC (European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils). I was asked to run the preliminary warm up day for the conference in Oxford, and I ran a Cognitive Edge based exercise which Dave Snowden named ‘future backwards’ looking at Today, the past, a worst case future (Hell) and a best case future (Heaven).

The conference was held near Oxford and attended by specialists in Climate Change from across Europe. Unfortunately because of the scale of the event and the logistics of running ten groups of 15 people in breakout rooms all across the hall I only have a few sample photographs of the outputs.

EEAC 2005 – Group 2 The Tricksters – FREQUENT EPIDEMICS

As you can see from these pictures almost ever group predicted the current pandemic on at least one of their hexxies.

EEAC 2005 Group 3 – The Dragons – PLAGUE UNKNOWN AETIOLOGY HITS 80 million

This latter vision of ‘Hell’ is particularly chilling producing as it does, a small cluster of hexxies that include: Plague of unknown aetiology hits 80 million; Every nation for itself; UN dissolved; China/US war and just over to the left: European Union collapses.

I might just look back through my archive of pictures dating back as far as 1999 when Dave Snowden first introduced me to these participatory narrative inquiry methods.

It is interesting to look at the other issues raised around the different versions of ‘Hell’ shown here. Remember, these were all European experts specialising on the Environment/Climate Change. Lets just hope none of them prove to be as prophetic as these.

Improved communication with an emphasis on storytelling.


Earlier this year I was contracted by a large Government Organisation to design and deliver 8 one day training courses aimed at improving communication skills with an introduction to working with story and storytelling.

The day was designed to be instructive, entertaining and participative. I included the importance of personal stories, the community/organisation story and how to remember and inspire others with a story.

Almost 120 members of staff attended, across four locations throughout the country.

This course is now available, at a fixed price, with a discount for multiple orders, if you or your organization would like me to run something similar for you.

The content can easily be tweaked to cover your interests or issues.

I would recommend no more than 15 per session.

Book now and we can agree a suitable date later. Contact me to discuss

If you are wondering how useful the training was, I will let you make your own interpretation of some of the feedback I received:

Feedback on the training

Leadership group should do this training

Good pace, lots of content, great stories and enthusiasm

Storytelling training told through stories. What could be better?

Should be mandatory – getting staff thinking much more about our stories and comms to deliver

A really useful and positive day

Ron’s engagement and enthusiasm – great stories

No Power Point made it more engaging and personal

Provoking and valuable

Informative – got me thinking about how I present things

Good mixture of conversation, examples and anecdotes

Continue reading “Improved communication with an emphasis on storytelling.”