Time is two modes. The one is an effortless perception native to us as water to the mackerel. The other is a memory, a sense of shuffle fold and coil, of that day nearer than that because more important, of that event mirroring this, or those three set apart, exceptional and out of the straight line altogether.
William Golding | Freefall 1959
Timelines are a powerful tool. They connect the particular to the general, the personal to the whole story and past experience to future directions. Here are seven ways in which Sparknow has used them.
1 | ‘moment forts’, exploring shadows and lengthening time horizons
Early in 2002 Sparknow started out on a five-year partnership to explore storytelling with the Swiss Agency for Development & Cooperation (SDC).
At the start, we asked two trios each to use the project experiences of one of the trio to map the unfolding long story of a project, tracing back to before the formal start and forwards to after the official finish. To adopt the language of SDC itself, they were recalling the ‘moments forts’ the strong moments or turning points, and using these to trace a different understanding of the storytelling landscape of SDC: where were the inflections when they missed a chance to ‘capitalise experience’ through better uses of story?
We all discovered that the trajectory of a project started long before it’s official beginning and carried on long after its funding period ended, and that looking ‘below the line’ into the behind the scenes activities in a project is where most of the best stories and turning points are to be found.
The discovery of long timelines, and the importance of exploring the shadows, set the direction not just for the SDC project, but for Sparknow’s overall approach.Here are six more instances of timelines as an integral part of Sparknow’s approach.
2 | recall reflect imagine
Our first real efforts at understanding how to structure interviews came in an oral history project we did with the Islamic Development Bank in 2005.
We wanted to help people rediscover their stories and then use them as a lens through which to reflect, so we organised the spine of the interview as ‘chapters’ deliberately to four different angles on their experience.
- origins and ambitions | reminiscence about your own background, first encounter with IDB, early days and journey with IDB
- milestones and metamorphosis | recall of significant moments, small actions with profound effects, turning points, dilemmas, pivotal decisions
Ideally then with a break in time between recall and reflection:
- proud stories, cautionary tales | reflection about the clues the past holds for the future
- alternative histories and possible futures | imagine if you could turn the clock back, what would you do differently, if you could paint a picture of the future, what would that look like?
We also asked people to prepare for our time together by sketching the timeline of their careers, and selecting some objects they might place on that timeline as artefacts that unlocked some key stories. (They didn’t draw the timelines, they did mostly bring the objects.)
We discovered a real difference in those interviews where we could hold people awhile in reminiscence and in the personal before they arrived at organisational memories. That timeline leading up to arrival in the time period under scrutiny, and then the memories of those events ‘out of the straight line altogether’ might seem a bit strange and slow but it allows people room to wander through the past and then wonder about the future in a fresh way and with a different eye, and loosens the imagination.
The same structural principles have applied to many other projects over the past eight or nine years.
You can read more about some aspects of designing that project in our paper, Gritty lessons and pearls of wisdom (.pdf).
3 | future present past
Around 2005–2008 we did some sustained work on evaluation and toolkit design with Defra, aiming to equip policymakers commissioning horizon scanning and futures research. Both the narrative research method we were evolving and our exposure to the horizon scanning and futures palette led us to look more closely at how future, present and past are arranged in relation to each other at different stages of research and reporting and we started to play with winding back from future settings as well as forward from the past and the present.
In the Defra work, timelines ran as a thread through the whole project:
- piecing together a timeline from 1:1 initiation interviews to find the history, negotiate a common understanding and pinpoint those ‘moments forts’ which looked like usefully sticky episodes to slow down and look at a bit more
- working with narrative mapping, much in the manner of the SDC work, where people shared postcard-sized project stories then picked one to interview out of the holder in more detail and visualise, then deconstructing the lessons - this meant that every item on the future checklist could be traced directly to particular experiences and episodes
- developing the ‘flowerbed’ checklist as a planning tool, with time running backwards, right to left across the page, in direct response to the lesson that everybody needed to plan better at the outset for the end they had in mind.
You can find out more about the project in our paper about Demystifying horizon scanning and futures for Defra (.pdf) and there are also the interim reporting assets of an essay collection Looking backwards at looking forwards and the full Getting futures right checklist.
4 | above and below the line
The above and below the line dimensions we started exploring with the SDC narrative maps have their roots in the tacit and explicit dimensions of knowledge management models.
That above/below the line characterisation has become central to our way of exploring, connecting, finding the hidden, informal, unofficial, invisible, felt, shadowy unlit inner worlds that connect with the available, visible, formal, official, enacted, well lit outer worlds.
However we are working with those dimensions, we are always teasing out elusive and perhaps surprising and unarticulated connections that make for a more nuanced picture of the light and shade of the present.
There are various ways in which we’ve worked that outer/inner above/below dimension: on a worksheet, in an interview structure, on small post-its or pinboard cards in group work. Sometimes we’ll make it physical and participative, aiming to connect public histories with personally treasured moments and being explicit about the felt nature of those personal moments.
A good example is in a team away day we ran with Warc. As a prologue to exploring future directions, we ran a red tape down the floor of the lobby at the Almeida theatre and invited people, in small groups, to identify the turning points by which Warc had arrived at the present.
Before moving to the future we invited them to think back over two or three of their own personal ‘moments forts’ and place these below the red line. We then invited them to have a couple of private conversations to share these moments with others. The physical act of placing their own stories of Warc on the same timeline as the official history made a tangible connection between person and organization.
There’s more about the above and below the line principle as it has evolved in other projects in a blog posting about walking in their shoes.
5 | how did it begin?
More and more often, we’ll use the timeline as a means to probe further and further back into the origins of the present.
In business narrative workshops we conducted on strategic financial governance for the Audit Commission in 2009-2010, we went through layers of group work and sensemaking to construct timelines and ‘moments forts’. In each workshop we invited people to select the date when they thought it all began. We’d expected that to land around the 1997 election, and to be working with about a decade of experience. That was true for some workshops but in others, the beginning felt much earlier, as much as 30 years ago.
The same thing happened more recently in a lessons learned exercise for an international procurement project. As we worked on the timeline people found themselves digging further and further back into the history of this and related projects to find the beginning and the many yesterdays still manifested in today.
6 | a sheet of paper as a window on the past
Tracing timelines as a first step to probing selected incidents is a key part of Gary Klein’s critical decision method, and we took this practice with us on a mission to Darfur with the World Health Organisation in the spring of 2010. In our interviews, the WHO/Sparknow teams invited people to draw out their memories of key moments and sequences as a prelude to selecting one or more episodes to explore further.
Often it was hard to get people to put their own pen to paper, and harder to resist the temptation to step in and start drawing and annotating for them. It might not have mattered whether we pressed people or took up the role of amanuensis, I’m not sure, but the act of tracing the past onto a timeline and then selecting decisions and episodes to dig into was very powerful – similar to the Islamic Development Bank oral history experience as a means of arrival in memories, sticky with feeling and insight.
There was one interview in particular where the mission interview pair sat one side of a desk and watched, for the best part of an hour, as the interviewee the other side of the desk sat with pen hovering over a blank sheet of paper without ever making a mark on it.
It didn’t seem to matter. Somehow the invitation to recall in this way, and the A3 piece of paper that lay between us, created a kind of window to the past, and the focal point of his gaze went through the paper rather than landing on it as he remembered.
7 | walking backwards into the future
Paul Sasso writes that you need to look back twice as far as you look forward. Cognitive neuroscience suggests that without the ability to remember the past, you lose the ability to envision the future. The remembering self must be present in the self who moves forward.
This we did brilliantly, working with Andrew Curry at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2006 with museums and archives as we traced history from the 1950s and then jumped into a 30-year future. For more information, take a look at the visual essay (.pdf) of that work.
That feeling that you need to know where you’ve come from to understand where you are and choose where you are heading has lead us to be very interested in curating the past, not as a retrospective but as a future resource.
We’ve had the chance to turn that back on ourselves in 2012 as Sparknow was 15 on 1 November 2012. In the autumn we started to forage in the archive, with some surprising results, especially discovering that the ‘moments forts’ in a commission, research enquiry or approach is rarely in the official version of Sparknow’s history. More often it lies off to the side. Piecing together the tapestry of which Sparknow is woven is ongoing work and we’ve set ourselves these rules to help with that:
- It’s not a personal timeline but the shape of Sparknow yesterday as it influences today and tomorrow.
- As far as possible there will be no cul de sacs, so every item in the timeline will eventually have pathways from it to blogs, publications, writings by others, our own and client websites.
- Each big project is defined not by its beginning or end or length of time but ideally by one or maximum two or three moments when the project started to ignite - those moments take a bit of finding it turns out.
- Each project or moment should have its proper credits in terms of clients, origination, delivery team and so on.
- Everything is illustrated.
As we move into the cycle of a new year, we’ve also developed a time spiral, a place for you to think about curating your own 2012 and seeing how that shapes your 2013. (This with thanks to Wendy Schultz who prompted us to look at how the arrangement of past/present/future varies in different cultures, and to her recommendation to look at Trompenaar on how we manage time in different cultural settings - a little bit of that thinking can be found in the design of a workshop at the Pitt Rivers Museum on which we worked together. We covered it in a previous posting on curating the future.)
timeline graphic | James Cartwright
You can download the .pdf if you’d like to take the spiral, print it out and play with it. We’d love to know how you get on, so please do take a picture and email it back to us.
Ending, then, with a quote from the beginning of a Margaret Atwood book:
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space, you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once….I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time, but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.
Margaret Atwood | Cat’s Eye 1988