Using Narrative in Small Group Simulations: Reflections from IITSEC

Measuring collective performance is challenging: we can assess quantitative outcomes based around tasks and tests, but not necessarily the internal coherence of a team and the interplay of individual relationships. We may be able to measure specific task outcomes, but not so easily measure how those outcomes come to be achieved. How the story flows.

Small team simulations - narrative and story IITSEC

Any outcome within a team flows through a web of formal, hierarchical relationships, power structures, conversations, disagreements (both verbalised and unspoken), arguments, control mechanisms, implicit and explicit permissions and rule sets, cultural filters, contextual and situational filters and plain good luck.

This is especially true of a team that operates within strongly hierarchical structures, where power structures can inhibit sharing due to high levels of consequence.

I wanted to share a framework that would wrap some Social Age concepts around this challenge: it’s about taking the act of simulation learning and enveloping it with layers of narrative, reflection and sharing. Creating individual and co-created narratives that cut through formal hierarchies. Capturing the tacit knowledge, the internal narratives of the team, and finding consequence free spaces to share that story.

The 3 levels of narrative

We can use Simulations to prototype and rehearse activities in increasingly realistic situations, but the realism is only part of the story. Technology can allow us to augment and spoof the inputs. But we need to think about story forms and layers of narrative to uncover levels of functioning within a team. Not just outputs, but routes to outputs. If people just inhabit formally defined and bestowed roles, we lack agility, and what’s the point of simulation if it doesn’t allow us to prototype and rehearse? So let’s consider each later in turn.

There are formal leader stories and stories within the team: we are going to weave both together. We start with action: the simulation plays out in chapters, say over a number of hours or days. Our first action is to capture narratives: personal and co-created. Personal narratives from every perspective and the co-created narrative of the group.

Small team simulations - narrative and story IITSEC

The personal narrative captures my individual story of learning and change over time. The co-created narrative, by contrast, is a journalistic view that lays over this, charting where we differ and where we agree, charting success and failure. The co-created narrative is not about building consensus: it’s about understanding difference. This may be facilitated by a storyteller, or may be told from within the group: i’ve written quite widely around stories recently, so we can refer back to some of that for more detail of how the narrative is created.

Small team simulations - narrative and story IITSEC

The point of the co-created narrative (and the personal narrative that feed into it) is to formalise, to a degree, the tacit, tribal knowledge of the community. It’s based on this notion: we know that the simulation was a success or a failure, but we may not yet have achieved the true learning. The true learning comes from understanding how we got to where we are, whatever the outcome. Because if we understand that, if we understand what happened within the team dynamics, we can replay the simulation with an explicit permission to prototype and rehearse different behaviours.

Small team simulations - narrative and story IITSEC

But what do we do with our stories? The next step is reflection: this is the part where we truly learn, where we decide what we believe, how we will behave next time, what we will start to do or stop doing. It’s where we reflect internally, on our own learning, and as a team. Again, we can use various structures to do this, but at it’s heart it’s about reading each of the stories and forming an opinion about it.

This is where Social Learning approaches differ from formal: in the formal model, the organisation writes the story and people are expected to believe it. In Social Learning approaches, we still have the organisational story, but it’s a meta narrative based upon the personal and co-created stories, and we also have the option of whether we want to believe it. We recognise that learning is inherently an internal and self reflective activity, not purely an organisational and imposed one.

Finally, we loop. The narrative approach captures tacit knowledge: knowledge which, if we didn’t formalise it to some extent, would remain purely within the team. If we capture it, and loop it back into the formal, we do two things. Firstly, we make it visible so that subsequent cohorts can learn from it. And secondly, we inform the organisational narrative, which overlays the personal and co-created. Remember when i said that organisations tell formal stories? Well in a Social Learning approach, the organisation learns to write a meta narrative, based upon the first two layers. It’s humble enough to listen to what is being learnt within these teams, within these communities, and to learn from it. This is doctrine informed from within, not imposed from without.

Small team simulations - narrative and story IITSEC

In summary, this is an approach to layer narrative, reflection and sharing around simulation, with the aim of both teasing out HOW we learnt, and providing opportunities for more open prototyping, rehearsal and reflection on learning. Additionally, we are making the tacit knowledge, the output of the learning, more visible and allowing it to contribute to the ongoing organisational story.

Small team simulations - narrative and story IITSEC

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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9 Responses to Using Narrative in Small Group Simulations: Reflections from IITSEC

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