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Designing Experience

Designing Experience

Written by : Brian Woodward // @jbwoodward50

I began writing this blog a week after I returned from running a five-day leadership development program at the Banff Centre entitled ‘Self As a Living Story’. This was a new program for senior executives from a major global hotel chain. The nature of the program and how this program came into being reflects what I love to do – personal growth through arts-based practices.

When I begin a new project I look for two things: understanding and a metaphor.

First, I need to understand the people who will participate by knowing the real-life demands of their everyday work roles.

I knew that these participants were like most senior leaders; they are like knife-edges, very sharp, very focused and few having pursuits other than work. They bargain a rich full, varied life for career success by narrowing their interests, relationships and activities.  However, the demands of a global enterprise require breadth and width of thought and sensibility. They need to be more, not less. The challenge is how can I get them there.

Second, I need a main metaphor that acts as the primary thread for the design of the program.

The client, with a little skepticism, accepted the metaphor reflected in the title – seeing oneself as a living story. Rather than participants exploring themselves psychologically or behaviourally, which is most common, this metaphor pointed to autobiography as the primary approach to exploring self. This choice provided the direction and, more importantly, the language for designing the program’s arc and flow of activities..

I like to begin the work with my co-facilitators and program manager (design team) by constructing a language model based on the metaphor. The language model contains all the key concepts and their relationships to each other and is used to translate the metaphor into a more operational form so we can select and develop the activities of the program. In this case we chose ‘story’ and ‘storying’ as key concepts and built up a vocabulary around them. As we did, we began to realize that the latter term was the richest. From this we realized the power of viewing a life from four vantage points: the protagonist, the narrator, the author and the reader. What if we could help our participants see their lives from each of these perspectives?

The goal of the program was to do the following: to stretch them, wake them up to themselves, to help them bond as a group, to become more critically self-aware and learn to live ‘bigger’ through risk and vulnerability which will in turn help them to better to meet the demands of their roles. (They would need coaxing, support, confidence building but also a purpose and a reason for doing it.)

It is at this point in the design process that I became doubtful.

The excitement of the ideas and the creative process gave way to the reality of the goals.

How am I and my co-facilitator going to get our hard-core business executives to engage in this work? The thoughts are not pleasant. Twenty-two pairs of eyes looking like a herd of deer in the proverbial headlights as we lay out the work they will do over the five days. Reality landed hard here.

Holding these doubts, I have learned from my colleagues, is part of the deal, so is a belief in self and in one’s work. They encourage me to have confidence in my ability, experience, to draw inspiration from the ideas and the creative process. These sentiments cleverly are hidden in “Don’t worry, this will be great!”

In my programming I like to work in cycles with each new cycle building on the last until the final cycle is the climax, the big risk. A cycle is a sequence of inter-related learning activities. With each cycle new cycle the learning activities become more challenging.  For this program each cycle consists of three steps: the participants generate biographical material; they shape the material; and share the material. Each cycle was designed to increase the risk that came in the sharing stage. The final cycle of the week ended with a ‘performance reading’ on stage at The Club at Banff Centre with lighting and live music accompaniment. These readings were performed on the second last day of the program and on the final day we reviewed the learning, the processes that lead to that learning and the applications envisioned.

As designers we liked this ‘arc’ of the design. The cycles of activity slowly built to a climax or peak with each cycle pushing the participants and also arming them with the tools and confidence, building their capacity. It would continually expose participants to more and more information about themselves, introduce a variety of ways to shape the material and provide increasingly riskier ways to share it.

Now that the structure of the program (cycles, arc) is in place the next step is to decide on the specific activities that will be used in each cycle. This is where the arts come in. For this program we decided to combine theatre and creative writing as our primary learning methods because I have found working with colleagues in the arts that the arts provides risk and vulnerability for most people. Personal risk requires a degree of vulnerability and vulnerability brings great rewards. I believe strongly that there is no growth, no learning, no living ‘bigger’ without risk and that this risk needs to be more psychological than physical.

My co-facilitator is a theatre director from the UK and so we begin to generate the  activities that will populate the various cycles. We used creative writing methods in the early cycles to generate biographical material and then moved to more theatre methods on the final cycle to do the same. We used a combination of writing and theatre methods in the shaping and sharing parts of each cycle.

Now came the ‘script’ or process notes – the detailed articulation of what will be done/said at what time using what process/method by whom with what materials in what room or setting throughout the whole five days. I have grown to enjoy the discipline of process notes. It relieves somewhat the nagging doubts and provides confidence in the design. I begin here to picture myself engaging with participants through each step. This ended the design process.

Making it Work

Nothing can take away the nervousness, the anxiety and excitement of meeting the participants for the first time and beginning the first steps of a program.

I like to spend a good deal of time making sure they connect with each other, appreciate the beauty of the mountains, disconnect as much as possible from their work lives. It is also quite beautiful to watch the program design unfold in real life – elements of it flowing easily, others requiring adjustment, some eliminated as needed and replaced by newly and quickly invented ones. The metaphor holds it all together.

It is also satisfying to watch the first glimmers of understanding through eyes that also hold apprehension and doubt. I like especially the growing anticipation and curiosity that begins to emerge as some participants begin to see where it is all leading. I like watching as doubt; skepticism and even cynicism begin to melt away as people share with each other themselves. I think this is why I do what I do, to see others connect in this way.

In the end, their performances were secondary to the journey towards them but that did not take away from their honesty, from their truth, from their artistry. For a few moments they each lived bigger on the stage. They each took a risk to express something about themselves that they had re-discovered. By doing so they had connected with each other in a profoundly new way.

In the end each participant will travel back home having reconnected with who they are, not as executives, but as human beings and this will make all the difference.


Brian Woodward, Ph.D.

Senior faculty member at The Banff Centre and Associate Director with Foresight Canada.

Has been facilitating groups and teams for over 30 years. Extensive experience in the design and use of artistic processes in leader development; has developed a range of innovative learning methods using the arts; designs techniques to facilitate large, multi-stakeholder groups to develop deeper understanding of creating change in complex issues; developed a variety of scenario methods for groups who require a scanning of future landscapes and potential contexts.

Dr. Woodward’s experience ranges from government to energy, to manufacturing, to agriculture and to the financial sector.  He has worked internationally in Iran, India, the USA, the UK and Hong Kong in the areas of systems thinking/education and leadership development.

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