Big Data, Big Qualitative Data

As someone that occasionally plays in quantitative data world, I know that many quant researchers, including too many of my MPA teachers, place an infallible value on quantitative data over qualitative data. One reason quantitative data is so valued is its simplicity, very little context is needed to make grand analyses, and the bigger the n the better because that just increases your validity, and, after all, it’s not like you have to actually read all of those responses, just push a button and run your regression.

Now having the debate over quant and qual data is not the point of this post, but rather to ponder what to do with big qualitative data? There is no regression to write that will make analysis or recording easy, instead I have to actually read and make sense of all the individual responses, and if I was being methodical than code all of those responses. But when you don’t have the time to code, what is the best use of all that “extra” data? From my sixteen stakeholder interviews, I have scoured through and essentially categorized or coded for a few key topics that have generated and support my recommendations. But now I have pages and pages of transcribed notes that likely have all sorts of nuggets of wisdom for the organization that extend far beyond my project scope. Without just handing over my notes and breaking confidentiality (even if de-identified), I’m a bit perplexed what to do with all this information. I could write a 20, 30, 40-page report with all of the information collected, but that is the last thing this organization needs; in fact, they brought me on specifically to simplify and prioritize someone else’s big, long report. I wish this was a one-time problem, but it is something that I have faced time and again with client processes that involve semi-confidential stakeholder interviews. I still don’t have an answer, but maybe next time I go into a similar process I’ll spend more time with the client reality testing what different outcomes are appropriate for all the “rest of the data.”

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PWS Agenda Design, Part I: Thinking Buddies in Action

With nearly 30 interviews under our belt and a two-hour leadership conflict coaching session, Lysbeth and I launched into agenda planning on Friday night before our big community healing conversation on Saturday. Now neither of us are the type of to do the bulk of our planning the night before, but given less than three weeks time to do case development and that day being the first day we had been on campus and met anyone in person, we didn’t have a ton of other choices. We ended up planning until nearly 2 a.m.—my hotel room where we were working probably looked the oddest slumber party of all time with charts, slicky notes, sticky notes, and various print outs from case development stuck all over the room.

Our planning time together proved to be a really enjoyable collaboration. Coming off of Sam Kaner’s workshop and the use of thinking buddies, we very much made good thinking buddies for each other as we both took turns playing out different approaches and working through various activity ideas. I was amazed with how much Lysbeth let me take the lead in the agenda creation itself. The three main activities we did all came from me: initial question activity to both guide our time and evaluate our progress; an around-the-room historical timeline made up of sticky notes; and a pair story-sharing activity called “blank paper photograph.”

Of course, Lysbeth’s true art form is the incredible work she is able to do in open dialogue and circle time, so we integrated this throughout the agenda, especially in the middle and end when we knew that the groan zone would be happening and that to move into a convergent space we would need for everyone to hear each other. We also integrated activities because we wanted to “mix things up” for this group who culturally can overly rely on circle work and blatant consensus-building. Both of these approaches, while really valuable, can if over-used or used in a mixed cultural group be to the detriment of different learning styles, silencing of voices during prolonged conflict, and can be marginalizing to parents, board members, and administrative staff who are perhaps not as bought into the Waldorf way of processing information as the Waldorf-trained teachers (which I had heard from some individuals during case development. (Although, after the event, we actually heard from some of those most acculturated teachers that it was nice to have such an interactive agenda that brought people’s voices out in different ways).

Since I’m writing this after the facilitation, I can say that not only did this mixing up of different strategies work well for the participants, but the mixing up of our very different approaches worked well for us too. I might not have gotten to see her “do her thing” (consensus building through dialogue circles, such as befits her Quaker background), but I did get to see how “my thing” (small group, activity-based work) could be expanded and integrated into other practices. It was also just so much fun to have such a willing collaborator and thinking buddy, it makes me very much miss Carrie Bennett (Learning Through Differences, LLC) and it makes me want to find a business partner should I ever launch a private practice.

Discovering the Big Picture One Interview at a Time

Over the last two weeks I’ve completed twenty interviews with Pasadena Waldorf School (PWS) internal stakeholders, including teachers, administrative staff, board members, parents, and building contractors. Going into this project, we thought this healing process and community conversation was needed for misunderstandings that had come about within the past year. However, there is always more to the story than meets the eyes. It is quickly becoming apparent that this is a very complex situation that extends far further in time and impact than just the last year or just a single building project. Instead, it is rooted in decisions made over a decade ago, furthered by both very constructive and toxic elements of their organizational culture, and exasperated by a perfect storm of largely unforeseeable circumstances. Every person I talk to has a piece of the puzzle and a unique vantage point on the situation, but virtually none seem to appreciate the bigger picture or be able to see the situation from the myriad of other perspectives involved.

I am reminded of the classic 6 vs. 9 metaphor we learned on our first day of Basic Mediation Training with Annie, Carrie, and Anita all the way  back in summer 2013. At PWS, some can only see the outcomes of the last year, both good and bad, and have no reference points to either the process that created those outcomes or the history that influenced their creation. Likewise, those closest to that process and most intimately connected with the history, cannot understand how the outcomes have not been better understood and appreciated. Everyone is frustrated because they cannot see what the other person is seeing in this situation. And unlike the 6 vs. 9 metaphor, there are far more than just two perspectives on this situation. In a vain attempt to map the conflict, I could identify no less than seven unique perspectives or “parties” in this situation.

Given these diverse and deeply rooted experiences, I actually think that I might be one of only two to three people who have had the vantage point of looking down and seeing all of the parts, and recognizing that, like in most conflicts, there are many simultaneous truths—that yes, it is both a 6 and a 9. Helping people to see these simultaneous truths—to understand history they may not have been a part of, to appreciate a process they were left out of, to empathize that the impacts of this situation did not match the intentions—this will be our mantle of responsibility when we facilitate their community conversation next week.