Five Lanes – a work in progress for mapping narratives

1.

daria-nepriakhina-zoCDWPuiRuA-unsplash

For some time now, I’ve been thinking about visual mapping techniques and how they can be used in narrative research.

I came to this topic by considering the data collection method for my PhD. What would be an appropriate and engaging way to collect data from creative industries entrepreneurs? This question led me to reflect on how I collect data from such people in my day job as a business consultant.

Consultants quickly get good at collecting and synthesising information from their clients. It’s a fundamental skill – the fast and accurate distillation of information, collected firsthand from people via interviews.  Often, a consultant is learning about a business or maybe even an entire industry that is completely new to them. Regardless of the consultant’s experience, a client can justifiably expect that a consultant will be able to rapidly understand, analyse and critique situations relatively unfamiliar to them. Time, as they say, is money, and this is especially true for consultants who charge by the hour (or in other words, all of them). It’s a business model that demands multi-tasking.

Right from the first interview with a client, the one where the consultant is exploring the brief and getting to grips with the issues, they are performing multiple, concurrent cognitive tasks, including listening, questioning and writing. And underneath that process of building a relationship with a client and trying to summarise what he/she is hearing, there’s a subroutine full of other mental functions running furiously: assessing what’s being said (does it all make sense?), formulating the next question to ask (will that give me the information I’m looking for?), spotting problem areas for further investigation, working out what additional information is needed and trying to discern what’s not being said.

This practice is not, I think, unique to management consultants. I suspect that it’s a mental diagnostic process that many professionals need to master: lawyers, counsellors, mechanics, doctors and nurses, and I’m sure the list goes on. It’s an activity I wish someone would invent a verb for, because “simultaneously listening/questioning/collecting/analysing/note taking” just isn’t going to roll off anyone’s tongue.

If you get good at it though, you can collect an impressive amount of information in a relatively short amount of time. It requires a good memory, an ability to identify key pieces of information, an ability to read people and to draw upon deep subject matter knowledge.

On the face of it, it seemed like there was a good match here between what I did in my day job and what I needed to do for my PhD research. Both had a key element of data collection, and I knew how to do this.

This is what led me to canvassing, a verb I actually did… well if not invent, then press into service to describe the relatively recent trend of using large map-like diagrams to collect data about a problem and analyse it. Canvassing takes “simultaneously listening/questioning/collecting/analysing/note taking” and adds an element of mind-mapping, producing a visual map of the storm of information collected during a client interview. I had, I thought, a promising method for collecting data from creative entrepreneurs; one which was grounded in my professional practice and one which added a visual element which creative industry practitioners would respond to.

But it wasn’t that simple.

2.

priscilla-du-preez-Q7wGvnbuwj0-unsplashNarrative inquiry favours the interviewee’s story.  Considerable emphasis is placed on allowing the story being told to progress independently of direct guidance from the interviewer. Interviewers may ask a small number of open-ended questions as prompts, but the interviewee controls the direction, content and pace of their own narrative. There is insight to be gained not just from what the story contains, but how it is told, and the choices made in the telling of it.

The free-flowing nature of the collection of narratives for research proved to be a difficult element to incorporate into my plans to use canvassing as a method of data collection. As noted elsewhere on this blog, I devised and drew up an “entrepreneurial journey canvas” for the mapping of entrepreneurs’ stories as a framework and I scheduled a test interview with a volunteer, who had founded and was still running his own creative business.  Although canvassing proved an effective tool for engaging with the interviewee (let’s call him Mark) – allowing him to interact with his story in a physical way by seeing his story mapped out in front of him – it also presented a range of practical problems and challenges to what is seen as good practice in the collection of narratives for research.

Practical problems first: my self-devised canvas framework constrained my interviewee’s story. Some parts of the canvas were crowded with post its, others relatively blank. And the use of post-its could prove a distraction, as when some lost their adhesive qualities and fluttered to the floor.

These problems were relatively minor and could have been corrected easily by changing formats from physical to electronic or by altering the design of the canvas. But the fundamental problem was the way in which a. the canvas design and b. my actions in populating the canvas with jottings of ideas worked against the free-flowing narrative of the interviewee.

Firstly, my canvas dictated the shape the story would take, rather than allowed it to emerge naturally. The lack of an open-ended chronological scale meant that I was retrofitting the story into my predetermined form, which is antithetical to allowing an interviewee to set the boundaries for their own story. And with me acting as note taker and populator of the canvas, I assumed the role of editor of the story. This meant that I, not the interviewee, chose which were the important elements for summarising.

Kate Bowles, my PhD supervisor, and I discussed the pros and cons of these approaches at length, and she first identified these difficulties in applying a consulting methodology to narrative research. The skills required to be a good consultant – distilling information and silently making editorial judgements about which pieces of information are relevant – were working against the need to allow the interviewee to tell their own story, and dictate its length, its inclusions and its shape. The entrepreneurial canvas may work as an information gathering exercise, but it did not have the flexibility to be a way of collecting narratives for research. This in turn prompted me to address the way I collected those narratives and try being less of a consultant and more of a researcher.

3.

ux-indonesia-TfCDxgBW-IA-unsplashThis sounds bad. But there was one element of this experiment which seemed to be worth persisting with: the level of engagement Mark had with his story when he saw it mapped on the canvas.

Seeing his entrepreneurial journey illustrated, even imperfectly, generated two key benefits for Mark: firstly, it allowed him to visualise the story he had just told, and notice connections between the stories various elements and secondly, seeing it gradually take form during the canvassing session allowed him to generate fresh insights from the story, to add elements to it and to adjust it. Here, Kate and I noted a more enthusiastic response from him than might have been expected from an interview alone.

This desire to hang on to what was working well in the process led to a consideration of other ways to visually map narratives. Michael White’s work on mapping patients’ journeys as part of his therapy practice was a precedent. His maps of the narratives he collected from patients included an open-ended timeline. This enabled stories to take their own length. But for my purposes, a strictly linear structure did not seem adequate considering the complexity of Mark’s story. There seemed to be a need for multiple timelines focusing on specific story elements. For instance, when an interviewee referred to their feelings and responses, there was a clear story strand for themselves as the main character, but Kate had noted the prominence of friends and family members in Mark’s narrative, so there was a clear need for a strand for the role of others in the narrative.

In addition to this, a number of narrative researchers talk about the value gained by reordering stories into chronological order, as a way of sense-making from the original interviewees’ stories. A methodology that combined this with visual mapping suggested the potential for a process that invited the interviewee to participate in this reordering process, and in doing so, clarify and add detail to their narrative.

The combination of these elements led to my conceiving of a layer cake of narrative strands stretching from left to right on an open-ended chronological scale, upon which narratives could be mapped in a way which allowed the narrative to take on its natural form, but also in a way which separated out the story elements to demonstrate the connections between them. As with a typical canvassing activity, segments of text or key concepts are written on post-it notes (or their digital equivalents in mind mapping software) along each of the lanes dedicated to each narrative element. (Ironically, this approach recalled the management consulting practice of process mapping, which uses a linear diagram to detail parts of a process in order to identify inefficiencies and bottlenecks. But it also has similarities to the storylining process used to map out plays, TV shows and films.)

Five Lanes LRRH2

In my new mapping framework, originally called Five Staves and now more snappily called Five Lanes, five key story elements are mapped:

  • self (for narrative elements which relate the interviewee),
  • others (for capturing the role of others, as presented by the interviewee),
  • environment/context (for elements which describe the operating environment the interviewee’s story takes place in),
  • actions and events (for specific actions or events which take place in the story) and
  • resources (which for the purposes of mapping an entrepreneurial journey captures the resources the interviewee needed to access to pursue his/her venture. For non-entrepreneurial stories, this might be more generally – but probably less helpfully – labelled “things” – objects which like people or events have an impact on the story being told).

In addition to the five lanes, two chronological scales are added. The first is a timeline, to which details on dates can be added to give a sense of the story’s duration. The second specifies the stages of a story. In the case of an entrepreneurial journey, these maps the stages of entrepreneurship which I have detailed here and which formed the basis for my original entrepreneurial journey canvas. This second scale can also be used to chart more general stages of story: beginning, middle and end, for instance, or bespoke labels which help identify when the story has moved into a new phase.

As an example, I’ve created a Five Lanes narrative map for the story of Red Riding Hood, which can be downloaded here.

4.

sharon-mccutcheon-ZdFwqTu62Zg-unsplashThe other aspect of narrative research noted in my reading was the importance of engaging with an interviewee more than once. This allows an interviewee time to reflect upon the narrative they’ve produced, edit or add to the story and to reconsider what they’ve said in the initial interview. A useful technique for facilitating this reflective response is restorying, where a narrative researcher will retell the story offered by the interviewee, in order to check for veracity and to offer a deeper consideration of the narrative from the interviewee.

A number of methodological elements were combining:  narrative interviews, visual mapping and restorying. In an attempt to coordinate these elements into a coherent and engaging approach, I formulated the following method:

  1. Conducting a narrative interview with a creative industries entrepreneur, with minimal input from me but with some gentle guidance to address the various stages of entrepreneurship
  2. The creation a Five Lanes narrative map (using online platform Miro), based on the interview.
  3. A subsequent restorying session with the interviewee, where the map is used as a visual aid in the retelling of the story. The interviewee is then invited to add to and edit the story with me, using the visual map.

This method was tested in an interview with a second volunteer creative industries entrepreneur (we’ll call her Nola), with positive results. As with the entrepreneurial canvas, the visual mapping element gives Nola a focus during the restorying session. She could easily see where story elements were missing or incorrectly ordered, or given undue emphasis, and could easily correct these elements. As with the entrepreneurial canvas, the Five Lanes map assisted Nola with the sense-making of her own narrative, and garnered an enthusiastic response from her, who observed that it was key to her being able to engage with her original story in an analytical and editorial way. And as with the canvas, the completed map became something to offer back to the interviewee for their participation in the research.

Ultimately, however, the most compelling reason to pursue the use of the Five Lanes framework (or any other visual mapping techniques) as a research tool is that it results in more rigorous and reliable data compared to other narrative research choices. Without controlled tests and the consideration of the appropriateness of various methods to distinct situations, this can’t be claimed for certain.

However, to focus on the restorying process for a moment, where the interviewee is asked to reflect on and edit their story, we might consider a visual map as being able to provide a perspective which audio recordings or written transcripts cannot. The ability to “see” what’s unrepresentative within a story seems, on the face of it, to offer a fast and effective way to improve the accuracy of narrative accounts. For those who respond positively to visual stimuli and to the visual representation of concepts (and we might stereotypically lump creative industry entrepreneurs in this basket of self-identified “visual people”), this method offers a way of increasing their engagement with narrative research.

The next test will be to apply the Five Lanes framework to a range of creative entrepreneurs’ stories and compare them side by side. The “heat map” effect created by the accumulation of notes within the five lanes (effective becoming a data points on a larger map) will hopefully help provide insight into the similarities and differences between each stories, and allow for effective comparative analysis. The end result should be a rich collection of data which can help illuminate the experience of creative entrepreneurs in Australia, but will hopefully also be a successful test run for a new way of visualising narratives, which can complement and enrich existing research methods.

References: White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

 

Mapping and storytelling

As a child, I drew maps. Maps which had our family house at the centre and a web of suburban streets radiating out from it, to the various destinations my parents would drive me to school, the shops, friends’ houses and so on. I liked plotting the various routes you could take to get to these places. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was constructing a narrative about me and my family in those maps, about the places which were important to us and the people who surrounded us.

I have been reminded of this recently by Peter Turchi’s book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. I found it in a bookshop in New York City, 3 blocks west and one block north from the apartment I was staying in. The book itself was lying flat on top of a row of other books in the sociology section. I think none of the staff knew exactly where to put it, so it inhabited no particular place in the bookshop’s own aisles – the streets of a bookshop – labelled by genre or topic. It was misplaced on its own map.

I can understand how. It’s a difficult book to categorise. It’s a series of short essays about the relationships between maps and stories – about how mapmaking is storytelling, and storytelling mapmaking. I want to capture just three of the many ideas it presents about this shared territory, and reflect on what it might mean for recording and seeking meaning from the narratives of individuals.

The map as the message

To view a map is to be invited to read someone’s world view. If you looked at my 5-year-old self’s view of my hometown and attempted to find your way from one end of it to the other, it would have been sadly inadequate. But you would have gained an understanding of how I navigated around it, about was important to 5-year-old me and what activities filled my days.

Sandridge amount mountains at Ulampara
Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri
Sandridge among mountains at Ulampara 1972

Maps are informed by the mapmaker’s ideas, but they also communicate those ideas. The mapmaker gets to select what features are recorded and what is left out. Maps made by the earliest European explorers of Australia, for instance, might show large featureless spaces in the middle of the continent, reinforcing notions of terra nullius. But if we could ask the local Indigenous populations of the time to show us their maps of the same regions, they would no doubt be filled with symbols describing the features of the landscape, navigating paths for the reader through geographic and mythological territory.

Stories, Turchi argues, are like this. Objectivity is impossible and what’s missing is as important as what’s included. Who’s telling the story and their intentions colour the work. The reader stops being a passive taker of direction and has to ask herself what knowledge is being proffered, what the gaps in that knowledge are and what motivations lie behind the selectivity of the mapmaker.

But we can take an extra step here and imagine the part that the mapmaker’s objectivity (or the lack of it) plays in encouraging the reader to enter their ideological world. Because as Turchi says, to actually use a map – to rely on it to get you from one end of town to another – is to subscribe temporarily to the mapmakers’ beliefs. “To learn how to read any map is to be indoctrinated into that mapmakers’ culture,” he writes, which might give us pause for thought the next time Google Maps tells us to take a certain toll road or suggests we fill up at a nearby service station.

Or we might find it comforting that with every day we spend navigating around New York or Alice Springs, guided by a benevolent mapmaker’s worldview, the more we move and react like a resident, gradually fitting in, gradually assuming a new identity. Becoming a local.

Stories create maps

“Where’s it set?” is a question we might ask a budding storyteller. It’s our starting point from where we’ll find our way to everything else within a story. If the answer is “Berlin 1938” or “the North Pole” or even “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, we as readers of these texts instantly start to build up our own mental geography. We start to conceive of place and create a context for us to help make sense of the story being told.

tolkien

The storyteller helps fill in these maps with detail. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare helps us picture the tension-filled distance between the houses of the Montagues and the Capulets, and helps us position the Apothecary’s house and the Chapel along the way. Some stories, like those by Tolkien, come illustrated by maps, the better for us to imagine the topographical barriers between Eriador and Mordor.  In stories like Moby Dick, The Iliad ­and Catch-22 we understand the characters by the literal and metaphoric journeys we follow them on, and their distance from home.

 

The map is also a common motif within storytelling. In a WW2 epic, perforated lines will creep across Europe as our heroes fly overhead. In a TV police procedural, mug shots of the suspects will be placed upon a whiteboard, red tape illustrating the linkages between the two. Stories that are successful and “world building” communicate their geographies implicitly. I know through repeated viewings, for instance, that Fawlty Towers’ guest rooms are upstairs and to the right, its dining room is in front of the kitchen and no-one’s ever had to draw me a map. And in games such as Minecraft and Fortnite players create and explore landscapes of their own making, noting landmarks, forging paths.

In this way, the description of places and the relationships between them is a fundamental storytelling element. And the places created can never be authoritative or 100% factual; even if the storyteller knew the streets and lanes of 1938 Berlin intimately, the version she creates for her story is still her own construct, created for her needs, never exact.

So the navigation between those places forms a kind of contract between storyteller and reader, based on the version the storyteller presents. Thus a shared agreement about the boundaries in which the story takes place is created. “A reader,” Turchi writes, “enters the world of a poem, or a story, realistic or otherwise, willing, at least for a short time, to believe it and accept its terms.” The storyteller becomes our guide, telling us most of the story and trusting the reader to fill in the blanks.

Stories act like maps

What she’s guiding you through is the map of the story. The purpose of a map, after all, is to help you get from point a to point b. Our storyteller is helping us get from the beginning of a story to its end, making sure we visit all the important stops along the way. Characters and incidents are our landmarks. A classic three act structure can be seen as three steppingstones, helping the reader get to the heart of the story, getting closer to the conclusion with every hop.

If wanted to, we could find maps that to help create those stories. We could follow the standard beats of a Hollywood blockbuster, if we wanted, as they have been charted by Robert McKee and others. The Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, can guide us through separation, initiation and return. Maybe these are more recipes than maps, but they all say, “start here, go there and end up there.” And they provide a level of comfort for the reader when that familiar path is followed. We feel in safe hands, that our storyteller knows the way.

In this way, through repetition of the well-worn narrative path, we as readers become inculcated in “good” storytelling structure. We like it when the Hero’s Journey plays out the way we expect because who doesn’t like to hear the hits? And if those familiar story beats aren’t hit in the right order, we can feel disconcerted and short changed.

Turchi was talking about a map’s inclusion of well-meaning cultural signifiers when he wrote, “every map intends not simply to serve us, but to influence us” but I think it also applies here. The more we create stories that intrinsically please us because they follow the one true map, the more those structures become entrenched and the more we seek out stories that fit those structures.

What this means for creating life histories

When we ask someone to tell us their story, we are, like the map reader, engaging in a temporary contract. We buy into their world and we ask them to set the boundaries. We ask them to select the important aspects and omit the unimportant ones. We ask them to start and stop the story. We ask them to assume the primary role in the narrative. They must be our Sherpa, guiding us through a world well known to them, but unfamiliar to us.

350px-Mercator_projection_Square

We know that perspective distorts the story, just the most common map of the world (the Mercator Projection) distorts the size and influence of many of its nations. And we assign ourselves the role of the cartographer; the person who’s going to make objective sense of this. Although subconsciously, we’ve filled in a lot of the blanks on our own. We’d decided what Berlin 1938 looked like based that movie we saw once, and we’ve decided who to cast as Hitler. (Cate Blanchett, as it happens). We are not – we cannot be – passive observers. We change the story simply by listening.

As a researcher and a collector of entrepreneurs’ stories, I can, at the least, be aware of these weaknesses of method. Still, I think the metaphor of “story as map” also offers a perspective that can be usefully overlaid on the narratives offered by research participants. In the participant’s description of place, the positioning of themselves within their own narrative and the extent to which their story conforms to an established storytelling structure, we can at least note how far they deviate from the familiar storytelling path and let them choose the destination.

Turchi, Peter.  (2004).  Maps of the imagination: the writer as cartographer.  San Antonio, Texas, Trinity University Press.

 

Entrepreneurs: heroes or villains within the arts?

An aspect of my research I find myself returning to regularly is the question of entrepreneurial identity and how it’s perceived by participants in the creative industries. This preoccupation manifests itself in questions like, “who is an entrepreneur?”, “what’s your image of an entrepreneur?” and “do you see yourself as an entrepreneur?” which I tend to ask when talking to groups of creatives. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking to the Masters of Cultural Leadership students from NIDA about entrepreneurship and its role in organisational change, and so naturally enough, they were subject to these questions.

Their responses were thoughtful and perhaps indicative of their position as arts management professionals (and as such part of the not-for-profit component of the creative industries). In general, they had unfavourable impressions of what an entrepreneur was: a “greedy old white man” and a “snake oil salesman” were two similar responses, while someone else nominated the contemporary archetype of the hipster tech start-up founder, in t-shirt and sneakers. None had an image to nominate which they were complimentary about.

Yet within the same session, we heard from Saba Alemayoh: a young, passionate African Australian who has created and run businesses in health and wellbeing and hospitality. She now runs Afrohub, a platform for promoting African Australian music and culture, and she spoke about her commitment to promulgating the work of African Australian artists, making sure they get paid correctly and working outside a government funded model; a situation which requires a sustainable business model for the arts projects she helps realise. In the creative industries, we need not look far for examples like Alemayoh who challenge the traditional understanding of who an entrepreneur is.

Distrust about entrepreneurship as a concept is not exclusive to the arts industry, but in my experience, it is more frequently expressed within it than in other subsectors in the creative industries. For example, when discussing entrepreneurship with the Masters of Screen Business and Leadership students at AFTRS (an equivalent group to the NIDA students, but from the screen industries), the reaction is much more favourable. If I was to speak to a group of architects or a set of marketing/communications professionals, I would not expect the same level of suspicion about the term. In fact, I predict that the closer we get to the “for-profit” end of the creative industries spectrum, the higher the level of comfort with entrepreneurship both as an idea and as an aspect of self.

One of the NIDA students asked about the emergence of the term “culturepreneur” and I (half-jokingly) suggested that it was a way for creatives to smooth the term “entrepreneur” into a label they were comfortable with. But actually, I think it’s a way of trying to express the multiple motivations of what Dutch economist Arjo Klamer calls the “cultural entrepreneur”.

As he puts it, entrepreneurship is about the realisation of value, and for cultural entrepreneurs, economic and cultural values are equally important. He references fellow economist and politician Rick van de Ploeg in a quick definition:

The cultural entrepreneur of van de Ploeg combines artistic qualities with business sense; he or she is able to attract customers for the arts without compromising the artistic mission and artistic integrity. The cultural entrepreneur … can be an enterprising artist, a producer, someone or an organization commissioning a work of art, or a programmer. They all exemplify his wish for more economic sense in the world of the arts, for a less protective and conservative atmosphere and less reliance on the government for financial support.

Which instinctively sounds right, and consistent with accounts of creative entrepreneurs such as Alemayoh. A definition likes this helps to shift the image of the entrepreneur away from being selfish, profit-driven fat cats to being more sympathetic figures with both commercial and creative aims – aspirational figures for creative industries participants.

Klamer is also interested in why such a divide between good and bad archetypes of the entrepreneur exist within the narratives constructed by creatives.

The entrepreneur comes with qualifications that are either good or bad. For those who consider the entrepreneur the good guy, being without initiative is bad, obviously, while risk taking is good. So is dreaming about the impossible, being adventurous, risking failure, being alert, and being creative. […] In other settings, speakers may use entrepreneurial in a pejorative sense by suggesting that entrepreneurs are suspicious characters, prone to greed and narcissism. Accordingly, the entrepreneur can feature in a narrative of achievement or of tragedy.

An entrepreneur, he says, is sometimes the hero or the villain of the story, depending (he surmises) on the exposure the teller of that story has had to entrepreneurship in their personal history (though family, education, political leaning and so on). In other words, the more we see and hear examples of small scale entrepreneurship and its impact on our lives, the more likely we are to cast the entrepreneur as hero rather than villain.

I introduce the term “small scale” here for two reasons. Firstly, because small to medium enterprises (SMEs) are the focus of my professional activities, so that is where I see entrepreneurship in action on a daily basis. I suspect that the data collection for my research will focus on creative industry practitioners working within SMEs, not only because of my familiarity with them, but also because there tends to be a considerable gap between them and large scale creative enterprises (say Sony or Netflix), which divides the creative industries into two very different sets of organisations. Secondly, because I suspect that where personal role models for entrepreneurship are to be found, they are in SME-land – your Mum’s painting business, your friend’s profitable hobby and so on.

If we want arts professionals to be more comfortable with enterprise (and in an environment of shrinking government funding, that is an idea which seems to have currency), we may need to start earlier than in post-graduate management studies. Is it so hard to imagine undergraduate fine arts courses that promote entrepreneurial exemplars as well as artistic ones? Can we give students without personal histories of entrepreneurship role models to aspire to? Should we even select students not just on their creative talent, but on their ability to think and act entrepreneurially? We don’t, I think, want arts professionals to join in the unthinking hero worship of entrepreneurship we see in the tech and government sectors, but nor do we want them to instantly cast them as villains in the stories of their future careers. A critical engagement with the idea of cultural entrepreneurship as a way of combining commercial and creative objectives would be ideal.

 

Klamer, A. (2011). “Cultural entrepreneurship.” The Review of Austrian Economics 24(2): 141-156. Freetext here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11138-011-0144-6

 

Canvassing “canvassing” as a data collection technique

As I get closer to proposing a data collection method for my research, I’ve been giving further thought to the emerging phenomena of using “canvases” as a way of summarising complex concepts. As noted previously, I’m considering using a canvas of my own devising in interviews with creative industries entrepreneurs, and this has led me to thinking about the pros and cons of canvassing (to boldly turn a noun into a verb) compared to straightforward qualitative interviews.

What is a canvas in this context? It’s a simple, conceptual map printed on a large piece of paper, which is then used as a focal point for a discussion around a particular topic.

It’s been popularised by Osterwalder & Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas, published in their 2010 book Business Model Generation. In that formative example, the Business Model Canvas is a conceptual map of a generic business model, onto which individuals or groups of people can add specific detail. The canvas itself sprang from Osterwalder’s PhD research into a standard business model ontology, but as he says in this video interview, the adaptation of his theoretical model into a simple, visual map enabled a practical way for business owners and entrepreneurs to describe and detail their own business models. Since then, the Business Model Canvas has been adapted for a range of other uses, as noted here.

What then, is the standard way to use a canvas like Osterwalder & Pigneur’s? Generally, a facilitator will lead a group of people through an exercise to help populate a canvas with information which adds descriptive detail to the framework presented. The end result is a fully fleshed out model; a previously theoretical idea made comprehensible by detailing its component elements and illustrating the links between them.

A common method for such exercises is to print the canvas on a large piece of paper and stick it to a wall (or draw the canvas framework on a whiteboard). The facilitator will then invite the participants to consider each of the framework’s elements in turn. For example, in order to complete the Business Model Canvas component “customer segments”, participants may be asked to name the key customer segments addressed by their business. Contributions are then written on post-it notes, which are stuck in the relevant location on the canvas. If a relevant customer segment is, for example, “teenagers”, then that gets written on a post-it and stuck under “customer segments”. And so on until the canvas has been filled with sufficient detail to fully describe the model under examination.

This is what I’m calling “canvassing”. As an activity, it differs considerably from pure interviewing. The facilitator is not merely a passive collector of information. Instead, they are an active contributor to the discussion, leading the conversation, adding their own contribution and acting as a guide to the canvas and its components. The positioning of the canvas as a large, visible presence in the room provides a focal point for the ensuing discussion. It becomes a graphical representation of the conversation, built up over the course of the exercise. At the end of a session, it becomes a record of discussions which have taken place.

The visual element provided here an important differentiator and offers some advantages over a traditional interview. As post-it notes are added to the canvas, they serve as memory aids for participants, who can see their past contributions listed and ordered in front of them. The positioning of the post-its provides a visual representation of the relationships between concepts. Hierarchical arrangements of post-its can be used to differentiate primary headings from related sub-headings. Because the notes themselves can be moved, edited or discarded, the model created is not fixed until the session’s end. Participants can amend or even correct previous contributions by moving or discarding ideas. This makes canvassing a dynamic activity, allowing participants to consider their contributions critically as they build the model.

What this generates is, I suggest, a different cognitive process for participants when compared to responding to a one-on-one interview. It allows for an awareness of what has already been said, eliminating repetition and giving space for new ideas to emerge. It allows participants to reorder ideas as the conversation develops (“move that post-it note from square a to square b,” for example).

Further, canvassing adds an element of task completion which an interview does not. In a canvas session, facilitator and participants have a shared task to complete, i.e. the detailing of the canvas itself. So, the structure of the activity is clear from the outset, unlike an interview where the interviewee is simply responding to the interviewer’s questions, without any sense of how the questions are ordered or why. The canvas becomes a third presence in the room, diffusing the direct interviewer/interviewee relationship and creating a more comfortable environment for ideas to emerge.

On the face of it, canvassing seems to have some advantages to interviewing as a data collection technique. The use of post-it notes to capture key concepts can be seen as a way of tagging data during the process itself, saving time and effort. Different coloured post-its can be used to link ideas of a similar nature, in addition to the relative position of ideas on the canvas itself. But the brevity of those post-it notes may be one of the disadvantages of canvassing. Complex ideas are by necessity over-simplified.

Another challenge is the difference in role between facilitator and interviewer. As noted above, the facilitator is an active presence in the room. An impartial, “silent listener” approach would be difficult to maintain when canvassing. This means that the influence of the facilitator on the data collection process would need to be monitored, assessed and possibly allowed for in any analysis. As the facilitator is generally the person writing and positioning the post-it notes on the canvas, their influence is palpable. They are in effect editing the output of the session as they go. And they perform multiple tasks during a canvas session – writing, posting and talking – meaning it is possible that some important data gets missed.

These difficulties have been explored by Burgess-Allen and Owen-Smith (2009) when talking about using mind mapping as a research tool, while examining the impact of an alcohol service within a health care environment. Canvassing can be seen as a form of mind mapping and so Burgess-Allen and Owen-Smith’s reservations are relevant here – particularly those about the multi-tasking of the facilitator and the lack of detail allowed in a mind map. The solution they propose is that the mind map should be supplemented with other data capture techniques, such as an audio recording and transcript of the session and a post-session review of the mind map created. (“Listening back to the audio-recording allows for missing elements to be added to the map afterwards,” they note.  “In our experience, listening back to the recording invariably reveals some categories that were omitted from the original map.”)

In one way, this may be unnecessary double handling: if you’re going to need a transcript and a canvas, then why not stick to just straight interviewing? The logical answer must be that in order to justify canvassing as a data gathering technique, the combination of a canvas and an audio recording/transcript would have to provide a greater level of insight and better data than simply using interviews alone. I’ve yet to find any literature which makes that comparison, so I’m reliant on my instinct that a canvas methodology may appeal to creative industry entrepreneurs and may encourage more focussed and more valuable contributions to any discussion about their entrepreneurial journey. If nothing else, that instinct is fuelled by an awareness of the popularity of canvassing as a way of helping people grasp and improve their understanding of complex, multi-faceted concepts.

The reality is, I won’t know if it works until I try it. Which neatly brings us back to Osterwalder, who, in another video interview, nominates a level of comfort with uncertainty as being the key attribute of successful entrepreneurs. It would be fitting (not to mention academically nerve wracking!) if in a study of entrepreneurs, uncertainty about data collection needs to be embraced.

 

Burgess-Allen, J. and V. Owen-Smith (2010). “Using mind mapping techniques for rapid qualitative data analysis in public participation processes.” Health expectations : an international journal of public participation in health care and health policy 13(4): 406-415.
Osterwalder, Alexander, Yves Pigneur, Tim Clark, and Alan Smith. 2010. Business model generation: a handbook for visionaries, game changers, and challengers.
“The Business Model Canvas, an Interview with Alex Osterwalder” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=XR6HwIwUEyM
“The origin of the business model canvas – A conversation between Alex Osterwalder & Bill Fischer” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMoSzWp6u1c

 

 

Ethnographic elements within management consultancy

This week, I’ve been dragging old boxes out of storage, rummaging through their contents, keeping or discarding. Among the piles of stuff is a reflective essay from my Masters degree, in which I wrote about my job, which was at that time, running a regional film locations office Film Illawarra. In that paper, I talk about that venture from a management and marketing perspective, but I peppered it with examples of day to day tasks within the office: conversations had, deals made, inquiries answered.  It’s a window into how my work life intersected with my studies.

16 (!) years later, I’ve found myself doing some similar reflection about my work’s intersection with my research. I’m currently reading about ethnography: what it is, its principles and its application. While doing so, I’m thinking about 10 years spent as a business adviser and a management consultant. It’s a very different activity to ethnography and yet there’s a Venn diagram-style cross over territory between the two, where the methods employed are similar, although the aims and outcomes are very different. In the spirit of that dusty old essay, I wanted to jot down some thoughts about that cross over, and what can be taken from my professional experience, into the methodology for my research into entrepreneurs in the creative industries.

****

Ethnographers Margaret LeCompte and Jean Schensul talk about ethnography as a way of investigating questions relevant to the culture of groups of people. It is about producing a picture of those groups from the perspectives of the group’s members. They talk about the way in which ethnography can help clarify problems with are difficult to define, can illuminate complex problems embedded in complex interrelated systems, and can clarify the range of settings where issues are occurring and explore the factors associated with the issues examined.

Le Compte and Schensul’s overview of ethnography points towards its utility on research problems which are difficult to define and contain and whose complexities spill over between the participants’ social interactions and cultural structures. It reminds me of the concept of “wicked problems”, as first identified by Rittel & Weber (1973) – complex, multifaceted problems, often based in public policy, where key issues to be solved unclear and where, post attempts for intervention, it is unclear whether or not the problems have been solved.

Management consultants are often faced with such wicked problems, but paradoxically, in a context where the parameters for problem solving are well set. Management consultancy is concerned with improving the productivity and profitability of an organisation; in a for-profit context, this is about improving the return to a company’s shareholders. The wicked complexities which arise are not matters of fuzzy mission definition.

Instead, they arise out of the trickiness of diagnosis; of identifying a root cause (or causes) of poor productivity or profitability. Such causes could be strategic, operational, financial or social in origin and could be interacting with each other in apparent or obscured ways. Multiple and diverse data has to be collected, anlaysed and, at times, inherent contradictions explored.

Then there is the added trickiness of prescribing remedies, often on the basis of a consultant’s prior experience of what he/she has seen to work in the past in similar companies or industries. Success is never certain. Through the implementation of remedial action, new problems can emerge, existing problems can be further illuminated and data upon which initial analysis was based can be challenged, superseded or discarded. Tactics must alter. In many cases, an iterative process of strategizing, implementation and restrategizing based on those results is required over the long term to solve the problem originally set.

So what sets out well defined and guided by a clear objective, quickly becomes complicated, and impacted by many factors which are difficult to predict, manage and trace relationships between. I think of it like a pinball machine, on which the ball ricochets off a variety of objects, each changing the direction of the ball, each changing priorities, each interacting with each other. But all still contained within the same game table.

A particular passage in LeCompte and Schensul’s book, Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research caught my eye. They say:

…another reason why ethnographic research is preferable to survey or other approaches to research… is that ethnography emphasizes discovery; it does not assume answers. Ethnography uses open-ended methods that allow investigators and others to gather information identifying the source of the problem, rather than simply assuming that it is known from the start. The fact that ethnography is almost by definition participatory also facilitates investigation… The ethnographer’s unique relationship with key individuals in the study… brings all of these individuals into the research process and calls upon them to offer important insights – which constitute data for the ethnographer – to help clarify the situation. (p33)

There is much here which is common to my professional practice as a management consultant. Although every engagement is different, each nearly always starts with a process of discovery, where an analysis of the needs of the organisation is undertaken. This process starts not with data, but with people – the owners and/or senior staff of an organisation. Open-ended questions are asked. No pre-determined outcomes are set. What is being said and what is being unsaid are equally important. Even at this early stage, a consultant is picking up on what drives the people they are interviewing, identifying what is important to them and collecting data on where the root causes of the problem/s being investigated might lie. The skills used are analytic but also personal; trust must be built and confidence gained.

Quantitative and qualitative data are collected, from multiple sources. The qualitative data can be collected through interviews or through facilitated workshops (as discussed in my last post), or other methods such as focus groups, case studies and so on (also noted as ethnographic methods by LeCompte and Schensul). General areas of interest are identified, and specific questions are asked to better examine key issues. This process is pre-planned, but there is also an intuitive element which comes into play when considering the answers of the interviewees, their personal drivers and the information being revealed. Decisions about additional questions are made on the go, chasing down useful lines of inquiry. It is investigative but also collaborative. Interview participants provide information and offer insights; often it is the consultant’s questions which allow the client to make cognitive jumps to solutions they had not considered before.

At some point in the process – sometimes at its conclusion but often progressively throughout the process – the consultant draws conclusions about the data he/she has collected. As noted above, these can be based on prior experience. Or they can be based on logical reasoning. Or they can be hunches or best guesses. Here we can see differences emerging between ethnographic techniques and the work I conduct as a consultant. A consultant or adviser will not only draw conclusions and prescribe remedies but also work to gain support from their clients to implement those solutions. There is an element of seeking to influence which is missing from pure ethnographic research, which seeks to examine rather than intervene.

It seems to me that as the consulting process reaches a conclusion, it moves back towards its original objectives which differentiate it from ethnography; it seeks to problem solve for a distinct purpose – the improvement of a company’s or organisation’s operations. It is not concerned with groups or communities, as LeCompte and Schensul say ethnography is, other than the group of people within a company or organisation. Management consultancy shares some techniques with ethnography, but ultimately its aims are more focused, and its context more firmly defined.

However, there is a flow on effect which brings management consultancy techniques back into ethnography’s orbit. If I think about my career specialising within the creative industries, it has allowed me to establish a knowledge base about people and companies within those industries. I can identify patterns of behaviour, common problems and growing or declining trends. Such patterns are not definitive but become useful in articulating industry norms. These norms can help contextualise problems and guide decision making. And of course, they then influence the management consultancy process, hopefully making it more relevant to and efficient for the client, but also introducing a set of assumptions and biases which a consultant needs to be aware of and compensate for.

****

What’s useful in this comparison for me, is a consideration of what my own skills and experience can bring to a data collection exercise, and to a wider method for my research. Last post, I proposed a method of data collection which is drawn from my own professional practice, but also from the accumulated knowledge base I refer to above; my own personal experience of collecting data from creative entrepreneurs and which facilitated interview techniques I know work well with that set of people. As I move closer to defining that method, it’s interesting to reflect (as I did 16 years ago) on how my professional practice shapes my research and note that whether through training, instinct or common sense, some ethnographic techniques are already present, to be further refined and re-deployed.

 

LeCompte, Margaret Diane. & Schensul, Jean J.  (1999).  Designing and conducting ethnographic research.  Walnut Creek, Calif :  AltaMira Press
Rittel, H.W.J. & Webber, M.M. Policy Sci (1973) 4: 155. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01405730

Proposing an Entrepreneurial Journey Canvas

The publication in 2010 of Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur’s Business Model Generation has proven highly influential in both the theory and practice of management consulting. The book’s lasting gift to this world has been the Business Model Canvas (BMC), a cartographical representation of nine elements of a business model.

BMC snip

The widespread adoption of the BMC as a tool for identifying and exploring the connections between various elements of business models is not just due to Osterwalder & Pigneur’s decision to publish this work under creative commons. It also defines the often ambiguous term “business model” through the articulation of its component parts, allowing an easily accessible starting point for definitional debate. It also illustrates its own definition neatly on one page, in a layout which, taking its lead from design thinking principles and left brain/right brain interaction, prompts engagement and connection spotting from those working with it.

The BMC is not an insubstantial thought bubble from the latest management theorist du jour. The research upon which it is based comes from Osterwalder’s doctoral thesis of 2004, The Business Model Ontology: A proposition in a design science approach. Osterwalder describes business model ontology as “a set of elements and their relationships that aim at describing the money earning logic of a firm” (Osterwalder 2004). From here, he dissects existing approaches to describing models and comes up with his own framework, which he then tests on a creative industries business (the Montreux Jazz Festival). In his description of the building blocks of a business model, we can see the nine elements which eventually found their place on the BMC.

osterwalder snip

Since 2010, I have often used the BMC as a consulting tool in my work with businesses and not-for-profit organisations. My approach to using the canvas is, I suspect, a common one. Participants are presented with a large scale printout of the canvas (A0 size), and through a structured conversation, I invite them to fill in the elements of the canvas in sequence, starting with the value proposition and the customer segments, two closely related components.

Participants are asked to describe what makes up each element and their responses are written on post-it notes, which are stuck on the canvas in the appropriate square. Although the workshop follows a methodical “one square at a time” approach, participants are able to apply post-it notes to any square at any time, in a way which doesn’t restrict participation to a strictly linear thought process. The result of a successful BMC session is a fully notated canvas, which serves as a map of a company’s business model, through which its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities become apparent.

The BMC is not without its limitations. It has no obvious placement for consideration of market forces and/or competition, which may influence the development of a business model. In addition, there’s no prescribed method for what to do with a completed canvas – participants must formulate their own next steps. As a tool, it is illustrative rather than diagnostic. However, I have found it useful when helping someone test a potential business idea and to inform a decision to proceed or retreat from it.

Numerous adaptations of the canvas have sprung up, taking advantage of its status as a work published under creative commons. Although many of these stray from Osterwalder’s original principles of describing a business model, they can at times provide more practical tools for entrepreneurial planners. The Lean Canvas by Canvaniser, for instance, replaces the slightly pedestrian “infrastructure management” elements which Osterwalder favours, with a trendier “problem/solution” match. Other adaptors have nudged the BMC canvas away from business modelling,  to mapping value in other spheres. Emma Williams has proposed a Research Canvas for sketching out the elements of a research problem. Many more are easily found online, but the best adaptations are based on a sound understanding of Osterwalder & Pigneur’s original work and also mimic its careful approach to design. So canvasses have become a distinct genre within consulting methods (interestingly, as a concept, it predates the BMC. Osterwalder’s original thesis references Kim and Mauborgne’s “strategy canvas”, in an early indication of where his ideas were heading).

There are three aspects of this ongoing reimagining of the business model canvas which I’m thinking about, as I work towards formulating a method for my own research.

The first is the adoption of what we might call “canvassing” – the creation of a notated canvas in a workshop format, conducted a facilitated conversation – as a useful method for data collection. This is a technique which seems to have emerged from mind mapping and process mapping, to become something distinct among consulting methods, of value to both participants and facilitators. It seems there is something about facing a large scale map of an idea and physically interacting with it, which promotes a level of engagement with the topic and aids an analytical consideration of an idea’s component parts. It is possible, I suggest, that as a qualitative research method, canvassing would be a useful alternative to interviews.

The second is that the constant revision of the canvas into new forms establishes a precedent of adaptation, and offers the possibility of examining the journey of creative industry entrepreneurs in a similar way. A non-linear graphical approach may also suit the subjects, as it may aid those exhibiting entrepreneurial cognition (or creative cognition, as I imagined it here) and support their ability to spot linkages between seemingly disparate elements.

As discussed previously, entrepreneurship can be seen as a process and that process can be mapped in a way which demonstrates how entrepreneurs and their ventures develop. That entrepreneurial journey can, I suggest, be converted into a BMC-style canvas and used as a research tool for collecting data from creative industry entrepreneurs, in a workshop format.

A first version of an Entrepreneurial Journey Canvas (EJC) is presented here. It retains the linear progression of the entrepreneurial journey, as informed by Baron & Shane, but adopts a simplified BMC-style layout which hopefully prompts cognitive leaps between its various elements. Much like with a BMC session, the end result of the workshop would be a notated canvas of an entrepreneurs’ journey, from which key themes could be identified and easily coded.

The table below shows the nine elements of EJC: six process stages and three decision points. It also shows suggested questions which may be asked in a facilitated workshop format to elicit insight from participants.

Element Type of Element Suggested questions
Self-concept Process How did you imagine yourself to be an entrepreneur?

What role models did you have?

What made you think you could do it?

What did you imagine the rewards to be?

Idea Generation Process What sparked your idea?

What interests led you to it?

What dots did you connect to get to that idea?

Opportunity spotting Process What was the market opportunity you saw?

How did you identify it?

What helped you decide it was the right time to pursue the opportunity?

Decision to proceed Decision point What made you finally decide to press go?

What did you need to stop or give up to proceed?

Resource gathering Process What resources did you need?

How did you procure them?

What barriers did you face?

Launch Decision point What did it take to get here?

What happened immediately before and after launch?

Managing growth Process How did you grow/develop the venture?

What were the big moments?

What went well and what didn’t?

Harvesting rewards Process Were the rewards monetary or other?

Were they what you expected?

Were you satisfied with them?

Was it all worth it?

Exit Decision point How did you decide to exit?

Was it forced on you or was it entirely your choice?

What is the legacy of your entrepreneurial venture?

Feedback on this embryonic version of the EJC and its potential as a research tool is welcome, via the comments section. Does it have potential as a method for collecting data on the journeys of creative industries entrepreneurs? What problems do you foresee? What changes would you make to it? What is unclear about it? And is “canvassing” a viable research method to employ?

Download version 1 of the EJC.

With thanks to Wendy Mather, for valuable comments on the entrepreneurial process, non-linear thinking and for “gussying up” Version 1.

Kim, W. Chan. Mauborgne, Renée. (2005) Blue ocean strategy: how to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant Boston, Mass. : Harvard Business School Press,
Osterwalder, Alexander. (2004). The Business Model Ontology – A Proposition in a Design Science Approach.
Osterwalder, Alexander; Pigneur, Yves. (2010). Business Model Generation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Dimensions of entrepreneurship

Clarke’s law is, famously, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Entrepreneurship is hardly advanced technology, but I think to those who don’t practice it, it can seem as dark an art as sorcery. An enigmatic practice of certain gifted people. When it works, there is something alchemical about it. A way for people to turn ideas into gold.

Researchers into entrepreneurship, and many others beside, have an interest in trying to demystify it and describe it as a process. Because once distilled into a process, entrepreneurship can be analysed, replicated and taught (perhaps even branded and sold). Repeated observation of entrepreneurial ventures has enabled researchers to document that process, but not so thoroughly as to illuminate all its mysteries.

Reading Baron and Shane’s Entrepreneurship: a process perspective has walked me through that process, but also highlighted its limitations. They point out that there is much debate about how much entrepreneurship is methodology and how much is psychology. Is it like a recipe which can be followed by anyone with access to the correct ingredients? Or is it something innate in certain people, more akin to individual talent – something you either have or haven’t got?

Certainly, entrepreneurship is a process which crosses disciplinary boundaries; it is both economic (in that it is about the exploitation of finite resources) and psychological. The stages of an entrepreneurial venture are clear enough to follow like steps in a manual: idea generation, opportunity recognition, resource gathering, decision making and so on. But although you can follow that process as if you’re assembling a model aeroplane, there’s no guarantee it will fly. Because entrepreneurship appears to need a human factor.

The key psychological element of the process is “entrepreneurial cognition,” a term which describes how entrepreneurs’ thought processes differ from non-entrepreneurs. It’s in the description of the elements of entrepreneurial cognition which aid entrepreneurs’ decision making (risk sensitivity, optimism, pattern recognition) that personal abilities and preferences become relevant. The relative importance of process to personal –  of the macro world in which entrepreneurial opportunities exist to the micro world of how people behave entrepreneurially – is still unknown.

I think there’s a similarity here between entrepreneurship and creativity. Both are essentially processes which require an element of individual talent for full success. You could follow a step by step process on how to write a novel, for instance, and it may still be rubbish. Perhaps “creative cognition” exists in a similar way to entrepreneurial cognition.

Below, my graphical representation of the process of entrepreneurship, as divided along two theoretical concepts about its conception and implementation: the micro and the macro. Not a strict retelling of Baron & Shane, but more of a mind map drawn by me in an attempt to capture the various ideas about entrepreneurship as a process. (In particular, the positioning of resource gathering in the process is mine.)

dimensions of entrepreneurship

Baron, R. A. and S. A. Shane (2008). Entrepreneurship: A Process Perspective, Thomson/South-Western.

Some initial thoughts on entrepreneurship, business, wealth and innovation.

Recently, I’ve been teaching a subject at AFTRS on Entrepreneurial Finance. This has been a useful exercise in exploring ideas about what an entrepreneur is and who identifies as an entrepreneur. Before I outline a few ideas which have sprung from that class, I must thank my seven students who have been willing to be dragged in a new direction, as I moved the subject from being purely accounting based, to include looking at stories of entrepreneurship, to thinking about types of finance available and to pitching for finance.  Their contributions have been insightful and informative.

In this subject, we have talked about entrepreneurship, but we’ve also been lucky enough to talk to four creative industries entrepreneurs about their careers and about what they do. This has resulted in an ongoing discussion about the personal attributes of entrepreneurs, such as risk-taking, passion, vision and perseverance. We have been hearing about the relationships between entrepreneurship and other social constructs, which seem to share the same space, like overlapping segments of a Venn diagram.

So, this post is a quick summary of a few thoughts about the interdependent relationships which entrepreneurship has with business, wealth and innovation. The blog equivalent of scribbled reminders on post-it notes.

Entrepreneurship and business

As part of Entrepreneurial Finance, I interviewed a film producer with a string of prominent feature credits to her name. Parallel to a successful producing career, she has also established, grew and sold a film related company. But when asked if she identified as an entrepreneur, she said no because in her view, to be an entrepreneur, you have to be in business.

The job of a film producer seems to me to be all business. It involves a range of tasks which are inherently entrepreneurial: raising finance, negotiating with talent, striking distribution deals and so on. Yet for my interviewee, this storm of production duties required to get a film made doesn’t feel like being in business. Business is not just busy-ness, but doing and something that looks and feels like a permanent, ongoing profit-making activity.

Are entrepreneurship and running a business essential companions? For me, the answer is no. I see entrepreneurship, and the ability to be entrepreneurial, active in a whole range of fields: in the arts, in not-for-profit organisations, in social enterprise. These are fields which may or may not be “in business.” Fields in which the participants (like this film producer) may not identify as being “in business.”

It seems to me like “entrepreneur” and “business person” are different roles. Like the person who has run a service station for thirty years, you can run a business without being an entrepreneur. Like someone who renovates and sells houses for profit, you can be an entrepreneur but not have a business. But there’s a set of implications about being in business – being self-directed, generating profit, financial risk taking, growing a company over time – which seems to sit comfortably alongside business as complementary ideas. They just seem like they go together, but they can and do exist separately.

(I’m grateful to my supervisor Kate Bowles for finding that term entrepreneur has its origins in 19th century France as “the manager or promoter of a theatre production.” Who’d have thought we’d have the creative industries to thank for the term?)

Entrepreneurship and wealth

Over on Radio National’s Big Ideas program, the Class Act podcast has detailed issues about Australia’s class system – insisting on its existence, detailing its complexity and talking about its effect on people and on. In its second episode, ANU’s Frank Bongiorno talks about the image of Australian entrepreneurs that developed in the 1980s. (Relevant section starts at 19 min 26 sec)

Australia became more unequal in the 1980s. Indeed, it was becoming more unequal from the 1970s, with the end of the long post war boom. And many of the long standing economic opportunities that existed within Australia, within industry and manufacturing, within the farm sector were closing off. During the 1980s, as Australia de-industrialised, as farm incomes and the farm economy came under increasing pressure, unemployment was very high, persistently high, much higher than today right through to the 1980s. Home ownership was declining and so, in many ways, that old image of Australia as a workers’ paradise or a working man’s paradise which goes right back to the 19th century… seems to be belied by the ways Australia was being transformed in the 1980s.

And so, you have the emergence of the figure of the entrepreneur, a term which was used in a non-pejorative way for most of the 1980s and then became more pejorative with the corporate collapses of the late 80s/early 90s and the recession. But you had this image really of the entrepreneur as a kind of public benefactor a public hero. Figures such as Alan Bond, for instance, or Robert Holmes à Court, Christopher Skase and they were held up as people to be emulated. The great irony of this, of course, is that it was a period of Labor government and, in many ways, the Hawke government and Paul Keating as treasurer held up these entrepreneurs as models to be emulated. They were new money as distinct from old money. They had a bit of “get up and go” about them. And, in many ways, a different kind of mass in popular culture where such figures, for the first time really in Australian history, I think, are being held up as real heroes. Their conspicuous consumption, their lavish lifestyles, were seen as admirable, because somehow or other we were able to share in them.

It is interesting to consider how our image of the entrepreneur in early 21st century Australia has changed since the time Bongiorno describes. Certainly, I think they are still held up as figures for emulation. We still think they have that bit of “get up and go” and that’s to be admired. But I think the connection to ostentatious displays of wealth is not so strong. The pervading image of an entrepreneur is much more likely to be of startup owners, app developers and hipsters in incubators. Their values seem to be presented as hard work, self-direction and innovation. Their wealth is mostly invisible and mostly presented, I’d suggest, as existing only as a future possibility.

We seem to have extended the definition of entrepreneur beyond the stratified giants of the AFR Rich List. But we’ve retained the idea of heroism and of an entrepreneur’s story being the highs, lows and ultimate triumph of the classic hero’s narrative.

One further thought: linking entrepreneurship and the drive to grow personal wealth is a challenge to the use of the term in the creative industries, where many activities are pursued without the desire to create wealth (in some cases, without the potential to create wealth). As noted previously, there’s a profit/not-for-profit divide within the creative industries and personal wealth creation sits on one side of it. Further, in the field of social entrepreneurship, I suspect it is absent entirely. It’s another example of how the concepts of wealth and entrepreneurship are drifting further apart from each other, through our wider definition of who an entrepreneur is.

Entrepreneurship and innovation

An ongoing conversation in Entrepreneurial Finance was around the role of innovation in entrepreneurship. One of my students, Daniel Punton, works in the startup space and saw innovation as fundamental; to be an entrepreneur, you must be creating something new. My discussion with Daniel and the rest of the class followed the stories told by our guest speakers, but also sprang from this definition of entrepreneurship from Howard Stephenson of Harvard Business School: “entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.” This definition, which doesn’t mention innovation, business or wealth, allows a wide range of activities to be classified as entrepreneurship.

But here’s another definition from Scott Shane and S. Venkataraman: “Entrepreneurship, as a field of business, seeks to understand how opportunities to create something new (e.g., new products or services, new markets, new production processes or raw materials, new ways of organizing existing technologies) arise and are discovered or created by specific individuals, who then use various means to exploit or develop them, thus producing a wide range of effects.” It mentions the word new five times, so they must really mean it.

For these researchers, newness can be explored in lots of different ways (it need not, for example, be a new product) but it is essential to entrepreneurship as a process. But how new is new? To take our aforementioned service station owner as an example, his business is not, a new idea. But the personal challenge of starting a business, the need to raise resources and to execute a strategy, may be a new opportunity for him/her. And if a service station in a new (geographic) market, for instance, could fit within Shane and Venkataraman’s definition, and certainly within Stephenson’s.

If we’re looking for a set formula for entrepreneurship, I don’t think we’ll find one. And, to speculate for a moment, the lack of a clear-cut definition seems to allow personal bias to influence perceptions of what entrepreneurship is. Viewed in this way, the extent to which any one aspect of entrepreneurship (newness, risk-taking, profit-making) is seen as essential, would be subjective, depending on each individual’s personal values. You might think of innovation as being essential to entrepreneurship, if you value innovation highly, and so forth. This allows Stephenson, Shane, Venkataraman and Punton to all be correct – but signals (another) a difficult definitional journey ahead.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (2018). Part 2: How we got here. [podcast] Class Act. Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/projects/class-act/ [Accessed 20 May 2018].
Baron, R. and S. Shane (2007). Entrepreneurship: A Process Perspective, Cengage Learning.
Eisenmann, T. (2013). Entrepreneurship: A Working Definition, HBR.org, available at: https://hbr.org/2013/01/what-is-entrepreneurship [Accessed 20 May 2018].
Shane, S., & Venkataraman, S. (2000). The Promise of Entrepreneurship as a Field of Research. The Academy of Management Review, 25(1), 217-226. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/259271

 

The pitch as storytelling and the storyteller’s shifting position

keith-johnston-221964Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of running a two-day clinic for artists seeking to improve their skills in attracting financial support from donors and sponsors. It’s the second time I’ve done this and both times it has been an engaging and rewarding experience.

Much time is spent at the clinic talking about the “ask” – how challenging and daunting it is for artists, and how asking positions the artist and their work. Each time I’ve run this event, discussing the ask has morphed into discussing the value of art, as perceived by consumers, donors, the general public and so on. In general terms, there’s uncertainty about what price to put on a piece of art but despite that uncertainty, there’s indignation when someone wants to access that art for a low or non-existent price.

So, the value placed on a piece of creative work is an ill-defined and touchy subject. It’s also one which is brought into sharp focus by the “ask”, which is ultimately about why anyone should hand over money for an artist’s work and if so, how much. These can be confronting questions for artists and I’ve seen firsthand the distress answering them can cause. Having to put a price on something you created, that has profound personal meaning for you and then justifying that price to a wary buyer? That’s tough.

The ask is part of a wider exercise we train these artists to undertake: the pitch. Pitching feels like something we’ve borrowed from the world of entrepreneurs, and specifically baseball loving American ones (pitch an idea to me, see if I take a swing at it or not). Pitching, which I think of as the act of presenting a potential supporter with an idea, challenges artists greatly and fundamentally. There are language barriers to break down (mainly, the tendency to hide behind incomprehensible jargon) and the need to build up the personal confidence to speak in front of people. The most crucial part though is simmering the artists’ projects down to its simplest and most compelling elements, that can make a potential supporter comfortable enough to say, “I get this and I want to help.”

The experience of talking these artists through this process got me thinking about the pitch as a form of story told by entrepreneurs. That story told well unlocks support, money, experience and advice. Told poorly it elicits indifference and/or distrust. It is in the storytelling nature of the pitch that artists have a natural advantage; they are all inherent storytellers, be they painters, filmmakers, dancers etc. If the pitch has been foisted upon artists by advocates of business practice, it is at least something which they can adapt and excel at.

*****

In 2001, researcher Ellen O’Connor spent months trailing the founder of a technology start-up and observed when and how he engaged in narrative practice. She used this experience to develop a typology of entrepreneurs’ narratives: personal, generic and situational. She observed that the founder in question moved between the types of story he was telling frequently, depending on his needs at the time and his audience.

She also noticed that depending on the type of story being told, the founder re-positioned himself in the narrative. Personal and generic stories had him positioned as the hero: a visionary, a creator, a person who made things happen. But situational stories, about the environment surrounding the founder and his nascent company, positioned him as a supporting character; only one of many players impacted by forces outside his control.

O’Connor’s Typology of Entrepreneurs’ Narratives

Type Type Description Subtype Subtype description Storyteller as character
Personal stories Authored by the company’s founder Founding stories Autobiographical in nature (“why I founded…”) May refer to a specific incident in founder’s life. Entrepreneur as the stories’ hero
Vision stories Focus on technological innovation and breakthrough as envisioned by the founder.
Generic stories Templates, required by conventional documents, such as a business plan. Marketing stories Plots the company against its competition and shows its superiority. Entrepreneur as the stories’ hero
Strategy stories Concretely plots the trajectory of the company from launch to success.
Situational stories Contextual storylines that the founder can do nothing about. Historical stories The longer and recent historical events of the industry in which the company is just one of many players. Entrepreneur as a minor player with little or no control
Conventional stories The “common sense” or widely held beliefs by industry insiders as well as the general public as to what companies in that industry and their founders do, should do and what they are like.

 

O’Connor’s story types correlate to the experience of creative industries practitioners in interesting and problematic ways. For creatives, telling personal stories is challenging; positioning themselves as the hero does not come naturally. It’s clear in how difficult they find the pitching process; generally, they have a natural tendency to deflect, to defer to a team’s contribution rather than their own and to downplay their achievements.

This is not just because of the stereotype of the introverted artist, but because it can be difficult to accept the credit for creative work, even if it’s entirely yours. Often acclaimed creative work depends on inspiration, luck, collaboration and strokes of genius that somehow just happen. It can be hard to take credit for this, because often an artist simply can’t explain how they made something great. Thus, a disconnection between the self and the work is always present which makes it difficult to replicate an entrepreneurs’ story of “this is how I made this.”

Generic stories are also challenging because often creatives aren’t trained to think about strategy or competition. There can be very little strategy employed in making a new creative work; there’s always a process but it doesn’t always have the clear objective which necessitates a strategy. If each piece is unique and a really good piece has an indefinable element to that uniqueness, then how could strategy to create it be devised? In this sense, artistic creation is almost antithetical to strategic thinking.

Competition (and in O’Connor’s sense, the ability to market your product’s advantages compared to that of your competitors) is equally challenging. Some of the more profit focused sectors in the creative industries (architecture, marketing and comms, etc) would be acutely aware of their competition. But artists tend to work in collaboration and to share information with their competitors in a way which other industries wouldn’t sanction. Artists in my clinics bristled at the thought of their peers as competitors, even though they often do compete for funding, opportunities etc.

It’s in the situational stories where creatives can flourish. My experience is that they are generally unworried by repositioning themselves as powerless sub characters within a narrative because the world around them is the inspiration for their work. They are more comfortable talking about the forces around them that shape their work, than how they created it. Perhaps it’s because the spotlight’s glare isn’t as bright, but I think it’s also a space they inhabit all the time. Entrepreneurs can use these situation stories to demonstrate a market opportunity; to show how the times we live in have created a chance to make some money. Artists use them to describe their muse.

*****

I hesitate now, because I seem to have fallen into a false binary: that artists and entrepreneurs are mutually exclusive. Of course, they are not. The cohort of artists I met in 2017 have proven that by harnessing the financial support they needed to create their work.

As I surveyed the 2017 group in preparation for meeting our 2018 clinic attendees, time and again they reported an increased confidence in making the ask. This confidence came from the responses they garnered from the donors and sponsors they approached. The consistent message was that they found people who wanted to feel involved with the work and wanted to help financially. They didn’t mind being asked and, in some cases, encouraged it. This, in turn, created a renewed confidence in the artists about the value of their art, because they found people who valued it as much or more than they did.

One of the 2017 mob said this: “I stopped thinking of it as an ask and started to think of it as an invitation. Because who doesn’t like to be invited to stuff?” In that remark, there is a repositioning, or a narrative sensemaking, as O’Connor would say. That artist repositioned himself from a beggar to the host of a fabulous party; from someone at the mercy of their situation to a hero, controlling the narrative. That’s the narrative transition that O’Connor spoke of entrepreneurs making, articulated proudly.

Storied Business: Typology, Intertextuality, and Traffic in Entrepreneurial Narrative” The Journal of Business Communication (1973), vol. 39, 1: pp. 36-54. First Published Jan 1, 2002

Are the arts central to defining the creative industries?

There’s more to talk about in the article by Julian Meyrick which I discussed last post. As I mentioned then, Meyrick is highly critical of measures used by successive governments to assess the arts on a “value for money” basis. As he writes:

The replacement of policy debate over the all-important question “what kind of culture do we want?” by reticulated, quantified, assessment procedures stems from a moment in time when governments became fixated on getting “value for money” for taxpayer spend.

The monocular vapidity of this reduction belies its administrative adhesion and political use. If you are forever demanding someone “demonstrate” the benefits they provide, you never have to describe or defend the world you want them to be of benefit to. In the 1980s and 1990s, artists and cultural organisations disappeared under a tsunami of Byzantine evaluative and audit tasks that disguised the heavily partisan beliefs that produced them.

The financial and statistical measurement of arts organisations for use in funding decisions and government policy is a world I inhabit and have done since the mid 2000s, a time, I note, significantly after the tsunami swept through. Still, I think that I’m familiar with the “evaluative and audit tasks” that Meyrick alludes to, and the type of arts organisations which are asked to complete them. I think it’s fair to say there are pros and cons to that regime, but some more from Meyrick first.

Meyrick notes that arts funding was one provided as part of “quality of life” legislation, as part of nation-building aspirations. To me, this sounds like what I know of as the “public good” argument for arts funding, and indeed, I have always thought of this as a thing of the past. Certainly, by the time I was running an arts organisation in the early 2000s, an organisation simply existing as a way of providing cultural benefits alone, was not an argument funding bodies supported.

(There is a notable anecdote which illustrates this shift in my paper about the rise and fall of professional regional theatre company Theatre South. When that company’s relationship with one of its key funders, the Australia Council, was floundering, the General Manager was called to a meeting there. In the face of criticism about the company’s performance, the General Manager responded with the argument that the most important aspect of Theatre South was that it existed, only to be flatly told that that was not enough. It’s worth mentioning that a key text for me in preparing that paper was Meyrick’s rigourous account of the Nimrod Theatre Company, See how it Runs: Nimrod and the New Wave.)

“In the last 40 years,” Meyrick writes, “arts and culture have found themselves weighed against criteria and targets not of their choosing.” I think Meyrick’s right that the arts industry has not been immune from the wider movement in management thinking which might be summarised in that old maxim, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” And if organisations and their boards have been encouraged to professionalise in order to, at least in part, comply with the measurement regimes imposed on them, that only underlines Meyrick’s point.

Meyrick seeks a more meaningful way to measure culture. “Australian culture is more than series of market preferences,” he argues, “It is more than a list of its impacts on well being, social cohesion, education levels, and the interstate sale of hotel beds.” And in the article co-written with Phiddian, Barnett and Maltby: “We argue that metrics systems for artistic quality imply a spurious homogeneity of purpose in the arts, invite political manipulation and sequester time, money and attention from arts organisations without proven benefit.”

Having seen this system in practice, I find much in Meyrick’s and his colleagues’ concerns to nod along to and to shake my head at, at various times. This is, I suppose, the difficulty of knowing about the nuance of a subject; there’s much to quibble with. So I won’t, certainly not on an open channel.

However, it’s worth revisiting the posited link between the desire to measure the arts along neo-liberal lines and the emergence of the term, “creative industries.” As I said last post, I think that relationship is of two separate but related things happening at the same time. But it might be useful to consider the conception of the creative industries that may have led to making this connection – a conception which places the arts as central to the creative industries. (Other models are available, as noted here)

Part of the issue is that any perception of the creative industries is influenced by the view from where you stand. The arts may only be central to the creative industries if that’s what our starting point is. I’m sure there are, for instance, marketing & communications professionals bemoaning the same rebadging of their industry and giving no thought at all to the arts.

But another factor is the high level of government involvement in the arts and that the fortunes of the arts rise and fall with decisions made by government. In this environment, no change of nomenclature is without motive, no change exists without an agenda to drive it. In this context, I can see how the link is made: government wants the arts to be economically viable and a reimagining of them as an industry (a term infused with economic and bureaucratic meaning) fits that agenda.

For me, the arts is a component of, not central to, the creative industries. It makes more sense to me as a categorisation of commercial sectors which have, within their business models, the exploitation of the creative process. And although my conception of it includes the arts, there’s an argument, I think, for excluding them from that definition, because they lack the commercial intent to make them truly industry-like.

And if that makes sense, then it might even lead us back to the public good argument. Because isn’t doing something for its inherent cultural or community benefit, with no need to measure its costs and returns, antithetical to what an industry is?

References: see last post.