Digging into Details for Purposeful Impact

At this year’s empowering people. Network (epNetwork) Workshop (epWorkshop) in Cairo, storytelling for social entrepreneurs and a specific peer coaching approach called ‘The Systemic Swiss Knife’ were both a focus. Barbara Börner, a senior expert with extensive storytelling and peer coaching experience, worked with participants on both approaches to use them as means to further develop and communicate about their social enterprises and the impact of their work.

Storytelling Workshop

The pillars of every good story embody transformative change. This story describes change within an enterprise, but it’s not just what happens inside the story where transformation can be seen. Ideally, perspectives also shift and perhaps the reader or listener of one’s story is able to generate insights of their own. During this epWorkshop session, participants had the chance to reflect on their journey as entrepreneurs to this point.

To become familiar with the practice of storytelling, including learning about the elements of a good story, and the process and goals of the session, Barbara shared her knowledge and experience based on the content of the workbook ‘Stories About Us’ which she developed in cooperation with Siemens Stiftung. After learning about different aspects such as the basic structure and planning of a story, participants made themselves familiar with a useful tool called the ‘Storyline Graph’. It helps to visualize a business story with all its ups and downs. “In order to discuss challenges, you need to find a way to talk about them,” explains Barbara. “With the ‘Storyline Graph’, a business journey, with its ups and downs, can be addressed more easily.” The graph consists of two axes. The horizontal axis (from left to right) indicates the timespan that a story will cover. The vertical axis (from the bottom to the top) shows how a story, at a specific time, is about success (if at the top) or about challenges and risks (if at the bottom).

Germán Sturzenegger reflecting on Nilus’ development while applying the ‘Storyline Graph’.

“What worked well? What was helpful?” – Barbara collecting feedback after participants were finished interviewing each other about their ‘Storyline Graph’.

After everyone had sketched their journey, they exchanged their stories in groups of two. “This helps to better reflect on what happened, to describe disasters, to acknowledge progress and to see which decisions were the most important ones,” said Barbara. “It’s like taking inventory. They saw how their organization has transformed and better understood the catalyst for such change. It can be used for organizational development too, with onboarding processes or to monitor and reflect on growth, for example. Also, difficult stages become something social entrepreneurs can feel more comfortable sharing; in life, it’s not always easy to discuss bad fortune, but this process gave way for such discussion.” With that being said, the group was well-prepared to dig deeper and think about their enterprise at high level.

“Being able to receive constructive feedback on your company (especially at the business model level) is essential for the success of every early-stage start-up,” explained Germán, a new epNetwork member. “Telling each other about our companies’ ‘Storyline Graph’ was effective in finding answers to the individual stages and steps.”

Germán SturzeneggerCo-Founder of Nilus

In general, Germán had high expectations for epWorkshop, and they were fully met. “The different exercises inspired us to rethink a few things at the organizational level. Networking with peers and experts was also very useful, as most epNetwork member organizations have faced similar challenges about how to structure a team, how to scale, how to raise funds, and more.”

The self-study workbook ‘Stories About Us’ can be downloaded here:  https://www.empowering-people-network.siemens-stiftung.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/workbook-doppelseiten.pdf

Peer Coaching Workshop using ‘The Systemic Swiss Knife’ process

On the second day of epWorkshop, Barbara focused on the ‘The Systemic Swiss Knife’ process, a peer coaching method loosely based on the design of a Swiss Army knife – it has different functions but a single tool can only be utilized when all other tools are folded in. Primarily, this peer coaching method allows for participants to better understand an enterprise’s given problem in a very structured manner so that the entrepreneur in question can come to realizations and solutions with unbiased feedback. Ernie Aylward, Engineer Lead at Mellowcabs brought Mellowcab’s case about improving their internal communication structure to examine at epWorkshop. “Because our team has grown very quickly and members are often at different places in the world, it’s sometimes hard to stay in direct contact. So our communication channels and habits had to change, and we needed to find a suitable approach,” explains Ernie.

Peers work in the role of a reflector, rather than a supporter. “This group work is about understanding a core problem, not about discussing it. Groups have a case giver, a moderator, and a time keeper. This way, case givers can fully focus on finding the solution by themselves,” adds Barbara. The strict process enabled case presenters to focus on defining their challenge and finding the right answer without repeating themselves or others. “It’s like a buffet, where everyone adds their thoughts to the table. The case giver can come back and they converse. The actual matter might be invisible, and can only be unveiled through comprehension.”

Comprehension of an enterprise’s challenge can be achieved by following these steps and time frame of the ‘Systemic Swiss Knife’ process:

  • Explain the topic

    (5 min)

  • Clarify

    (10 min)

  • Widen your perspective

    (10 min)

  • Take a position

    (5 min)

  • Creative search

    (5 min)

  • Choose an idea & reflect on it

    (15 min)

  • Reflect on the process

    (5 min)

Ernie Aylward presenting his case about internal communication challenges to peers.  

The group thinking aloud about possible solutions while Ernie sits with his back towards them.

Steps 1 to 3 of the process are useful to analyze the challenge. First, in Ernie’s case, he explained the topic before the group had the chance to clarify all aspects of it (step 2). As a third step, to widen his perspective, Ernie turned around and “blindly” listened to his group members’ thoughts and questions. At this point, new questions and thus new directions could come up. To take a position at step 4, a clear question needs to be stated by the case giver. During the creative search (step 5), the group thought aloud about several solutions, but without discussing them. After that, Ernie turned around again to state his thoughts on every idea and to choose one solution he wanted to focus on (step 6). The last step was used to filter key moments and reflect on the process itself.

“It is obvious why the process has such strict rules,” said Ernie. “It helps the case presenter to really focus on the issue at hand and doesn’t allow personality, habits or assumptions to get in the way. My first lesson was to respect the process as it yields usable results.” Ernie added, “The presenting role could be a bit intimidating, but the risk is always worth the experience. It’s important to take detailed notes and share it with the participants since it helps with the reflection period between team members.”

Ernie AylwardEngineer Lead at Mellowcabs

To wrap it up, Ernie said he would generally keep workshop expectations to a minimum, mostly to avoid disappointment. “In this case, I can say that it would’ve blown away any expectations. Barbara and my peers advised on some of the softer skills required in the daily running of our business, in order to make our internal communication work better.” Also, Barbara was highly content with the workshop’s outcome:  “Within less than an hour, all groups had achieved real added value through intensive listening. It was a true pleasure to work with these social entrepreneurs because they’re so committed. To give them a protected space for trustful exchange is very fulfilling for me.”

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