Hi. I'm Cynthia F. Kurtz.

What do you do? Participatory Narrative Inquiry.
What's PNI? People sharing stories for a reason.
What's PNI for? Discovery. Insight. Change.
What do you do again? I help you make PNI work for you.

Want to see me talk about PNI?

Click to watch interview on Vimeo

GloComNet conversations - Working with Stories - Cynthia Kurtz from Global Complexity Network on Vimeo.

Prefer a presentation?

Here are some slides that explain what participatory narrative inquiry is about and where it came from.

I wrote the book on PNI.

Working with Stories is the definitive textbook on the growing field of participatory narrative inquiry. Based on fifteen years of experience, it provides practical advice on collecting and working with the unique and valuable stories of your community or organization.

Buy Working with Stories at Amazon Go to the WWS web site

  • "It's an amazing piece of work, so simple ... and unintimidating." - John Caddell
  • "Working with Stories is a must have guide for anyone interested in helping groups change. - Shawn Callahan
  • "It is a powerful and inspiring tool." - Thaler Pekar
  • "This is the work that will still be standing after all of the dust settles." - David Hutchens

My second book adds complexity to the mix.

Confluence is a book about working with complexity as it truly exists in human lives and societies: intermingled with intentional actions. The book lays out seven thinking tools designed to help individuals and groups make sense of situations, think about how things got to be the way they are, weigh options, consider risks and opportunities, and understand differing points of view.

Buy Confluence at Amazon Go to the Confluence web site

Projects

These are just a few of the 100+ story projects I've worked on. You can find more project stories at NarraFirma.com.

Educational attitudes

A government education agency discovered that teachers were more likely than students or parents to assume that a fearful child was not trying hard enough..

Merging cultures

A big company swallowed a little company. People in both groups shared stories to understand how their two cultures could work together.

Technical know-how

A technical firm incorporated real-life stories into a learning resource that helped employees understand what getting a patent was really like.

Leadership benchmarking

A computer firm helped its executives evaluate their leadership by comparing stories about themselves with stories about other leaders, including historical ones.

These are some of the organizations I've helped with story projects. IBM. Forest Service of British Columbia. Environment Canada. Victoria State Government Department of Sustainability and Environment. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Dutch Ministry of Education. BC Hydro. Coca-Cola. Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center. GlaxoSmithKline. Novartis. AstraZeneca. Takeda. Meridian. Meals on Wheels. US DARPA. MINDEF Singapore. US Naval Air Systems Command. Singapore Police Force. Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore. University of California, Berkeley. University College London. Wharton University of Pennsyslvania. The Council of Professors and Heads of Computing. National Museums Liverpool. (Note that on some of these projects, I worked through intermediaries such as consulting firms.)

Consulting

I can help you in any of these ways.

Coaching

Whether you are planning a single story-sharing workshop or a year-long project, I can help you make plans, choose options, deal with problems, and improve your results. I have helped dozens of people and groups carry out successful participatory narrative inquiry projects.

We will schedule a series of Zoom meetings at important times in your project. For example, we might meet as you frame your project, write your questions, discover patterns in your data, plan your sensemaking sessions, and work on your final report. In each meeting I will provide feedback, answer questions, and suggest ideas.

Training

If you want to learn how to use participatory narrative inquiry but don't have a project in mind, I can help you get your feet wet with a small pilot project we design and carry out together. I'm happy to train you or your group.

We will create a training project that works with your background, interests, and ambitions to build your PNI skills through step-by-step practical experiences.

Our ultimate goal will be to advance your skills to the point that you can do your own PNI projects—and develop your own PNI style—without help from me or anyone else.

Support

If you want to do PNI projects, but you don't want to handle the (completely optional) technical side of PNI—managing data, looking for patterns, building reports—I can be your back-end support person.

Once you collect your stories, you can send them to me, and I'll send you a detailed catalysis report like this one. I have created dozens of such reports for satisfied clients of all sizes, and I can make one for you.

When I provide back-end support, I do insist on being involved (or least consulted) in writing the questions that determine the shape of the data. I can't guarantee a useful report without good questions.

Resources

Here are some publications for those who want to learn more.

Peer-reviewed papers

Other resources

White papers

Interviews

Presentations

Ancient history

For the curious

  • Fernhout, P.D. and C.F. Kurtz. 2001. A Review of Licensing and Collaborative Development with Special Attention to Design of Self-Replicating Space Habitat Systems. Proceedings of the Thirteenth SSI/Princeton Conference on Space Manufacturing, pg. 271. Slides here.
  • Ferson, S., C. Kurtz, and D. Slice. 1995. Sensitive Landscape Features for Detecting Biotic Effects of Global Change. Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) TR-105216, Palo Alto, CA.
  • Downer, R., C. Kurtz and S. Ferson. 1992. Integration of environmental models in a geographical spreadsheet. In Computer Techniques in Environmental Studies IV, P. Zannetti (ed.), Elsevier Applied Science, London, pp. 797-804.
  • Kurtz, C.F. 1991. The evolution of information gathering: operational constraints. In From Animals to Animats, eds. Meyer, J.A. and S.W. Wilson. Proc. 1st Int. Conf. on Simulation of Adaptive Behavior, Paris, MIT Press.
  • Kurtz, C.F. 1991. The Evolution of Information Gathering: Operational Constraints. M.A. Thesis, State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Biography: where I came from.

First career: ethologist

I started my career as a biologist specializing in the evolution of social behavior. I got my B.S. in Biology in 1986 (at Clarion University), and spent five years pursuing a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution (at SUNY Stony Brook) before leaving in 1991 with a M.A. degree.

Second career: software designer

From 1992 to 1998, I worked on various software projects, including educational simulations of gardening and plant growth; GIS software for decision support; an organic foods database system; a payroll system; a database system for insect-host research; and a telephone interview entry system.

Third career: researcher, software designer, consultant

In 1999 and 2000 I was a "Technical Supplemental" in the Knowledge Socialization group at IBM Research. I had two main research interests: finding ways to gather and work with stories to help people make sense of complex topics; and finding ways to look at stories and answers to questions about them (especially lots of them) to discover meaningful insights.

In 2001 I began work as a research consultant for the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management. At the IKM I brought my research on stories and questions together with Dave Snowden's and Sharon Darwent's work on similar topics (in IBM's Global Services division) to help clients work with stories for sensemaking and decision support. Dave, Sharon, myself, and a network of IBM consultants developed and refined an approach to collecting and working with stories which is used by many people today. I helped with the formation of the IBM Cynefin Center in 2002 and its splitting off into the company that became Cognitive Edge. Until 2007, I was the group's Director of Research. In that role I researched, designed, built, supported, used, and refined the SenseMaker software suite.

Third career plus: now with more independence!

In 2007 I established an independent consultancy practice. In 2008 I wrote the first edition of my textbook Working with Stories. In 2011 I started using the name "Participatory Narrative Inquiry" to describe the approach I continued to develop (and which inevitably began to diverge from the approach I had previously developed with IBM and Cognitive Edge).

In 2014 I finished the greatly expanded third edition of Working with Stories. At that time I also co-founded the PNI Institute to continue research and development in this new field. In 2020 the PNI Institute closed its doors, and I collaborated on the creation of a new group: the Participatory Narrative Practitioner Network. In 2021 I finished my second book, Confluence.

Frequently asked questions

  • Do you write stories?

    Participatory narrative inquiry is not about crafting stories, though sometimes stories are created as part of participatory processes. PNI is mostly about listening to what has happened to people. If you need help crafting stories, you can find lots of helpful people in the field of organizational storytelling (for example, I recommend Thaler Pekar and Karen Dietz).

  • How do you coach?

    I help people decide things like whom they will ask to tell stories; how, when, and where they will ask people to tell stories; what questions they will ask about the stories they collect (and the people who tell them); how they will look for and make sense of patterns; and how they will use their stories to help their community or organization.

  • Do you collect stories?

    When I help people with PNI projects, I rarely collect the stories myself. Why? Because you need to find the people who will tell stories and ask them to participate. I can't do that for you. Also, anyone can collect stories. It is better for you and for your community or organization if you (and those around you) learn how to listen to stories yourself. If there is some reason why you really can't collect stories yourself, I can help; but things usually work out better when my clients collect their own stories.

  • What is narrative catalysis?

    Catalysis report thumbnail

    I use a modified form of mixed-methods research to look simultaneously at all of the data collected: stories, answers to questions about stories, and answers to questions about people. The result is a catalysis report (like this example).

  • Isn't that just analysis?

    A catalyst speeds up chemical reactions, and catabolic processes break up large molecules and release energy. In a similar way, narrative catalysis helps people speed up sensemaking, break down limiting solidifications of thought and belief, and release energy to consider new ideas. For example, one of my rules in creating catalysis reports is to offer competing interpretations of every observed pattern. Analysis provides answers; catalysis supplies questions.

  • Why is catalysis useful?

    Often people use collected stories (and answers to questions about them) in sensemaking sessions where they ask people (the storytellers and/or others) to interpret the stories and answers on their own. It is also helpful in some projects to have an outsider who is experienced in looking at narrative patterns — but critically, naïve with respect to the subject matter of the project — highlight patterns to stimulate sensemaking.

  • How is catalysis used?

    Catalysis reports work best in sensemaking sessions. The patterns, observations, interpretations, and ideas provide food for thought, triggering discussions and insights as people react to what they see and are inspired to explore further on their own. The collected stories should also be easily available for people to dive into.

  • Stories and complexity?

    Yes. All complex patterns emerge over time, which means they have (or are) stories. And all stories move and spread in complex patterns in human groups and societies. So it makes sense that stories and complexity go hand in hand. I help people work with complex patterns by sharing and making sense of stories; and I help people work with stories by creating conditions under which complex patterns are likely to emerge.

  • What about software?

    I use NarraFirma, the open source PNI framework developed by my husband and myself. NarraFirma is a web application, so I use it to collaborate with clients through the internet. NarraFirma also helps us to keep a detailed record of the project for use in future projects.

  • Where are you located?

    Topo map

    In upstate New York, about an hour and a half Northwest of Albany. In the summer there are blackflies and mosquitoes. In the winter there is deep snow. The trees are beautiful in September.

  • How can I get in contact?

    Send an email to cfkurtz@cfkurtz.com. If you like, we can arrange a time to talk on Zoom or telephone.