In our June call, we went through the Tipu Ake ki te Ora Leadership Model with respect to participatory narrative inquiry. Here’s what we came up with.

The Tipu Ake model is “An Organic Growth View” people use to “consider growth within the rich interdependent ecosystem of a rainforest.” We think it is an excellent model to use for thinking about any sort of complex ecosystem-like interaction, like PNI. The Tipu Ake web site says that if you use the model you should acknowledge its use by “koha” – “a gift in return based on its value to you.” We will do that by using our application of the model to spread awareness of the Tipu Ake model. A simplified version of what we talked about in this phone call will soon make its way onto an introductory page about PNI on the web site, so it will continue to introduce people to the Tipu Ake model.

The Tipu Ake model lists fourteen “levels” of the ecosystem being described. In our call we read the descriptions of each level and thought about what they might represent in the ecosystem of PNI. We came up with the following descriptions. In each of these the headings and text in italics are taken from a document describing the Tipu Ake model.

Tree (Tane)

[In] the Maori creation story … Tane, God of the forest in the form of a tree stood with his head on Papatuanuku (Mother Earth) and pushed Ranginui (the Sky Father) upwards with his feet to grow a living space for all species between.

A PNI project is like a tree that stands on a community or organization in its present state and pushes upwards to grow a living space for the community or organization at its best – a state in which we listen to each other, surprise ourselves with new insights, and find solutions that work (or work well enough) for everyone. PNI in general seeks to do the same thing for all of humanity, one project at a time.

Earth Mother (Papatuanuku)

The source and end of all life. The place where all life decays to and comes from.

The Earth Mother in a PNI project is the community or organization itself, that is to say, its people. In PNI in general it is everyone who participates in PNI, whether they tell stories in a project, run projects, or develop theory.

Sunlight (Raa)

External energy that fuels the ecosystem.

The sunlight of any PNI project, and of PNI in general, is the ritual of story sharing. This ancient invention is found everywhere people talk to each other, and it’s part of how people understand their world. In a world with no stories PNI could not exist. PNI also draws energy from the complexity of group dynamics – the insights that emerge when people engage fruitfully with each other – but the influence of this element is less critical to the process.

Soil (Kore)

Here the fire, acids, water, wind, storms, earthquakes, pests, and termites break down the old growth crack the hard shell of the seeds to make a new life possible.

The soil of a PNI project is the narrative life of any community or organization: the stories that are told, retold, untold, remembered, and forgotten. Helpful and harmful stories are mixed together, and indeed the same story can be helpful or harmful depending on how and when and to whom it is told. Stories make new life possible because turning experiences into stories, reflecting on them, and sharing them is a big part of how we live our lives. Thus the narrative life of an organization or community is the soil on which PNI rests and from which any PNI project must draw its essential elements. In doing PNI projects it is important to pay attention to this. The soil was there before you got there, and it will be there long after you have gone. You can do successful projects in fertile or rocky soil, but you need to suit your approach to the environment. You can have an influence on the soil in the long term; but in the short term you have to work with what you find.

The soil of PNI as a field is the narrative life of PNI as a field: its creation story, how it has changed over the years, what various people have added to it, its challenges and strengths, its future. All of the stories that embody and describe PNI are the soil in which it lives and grows.

Mycorrhizal fungi network (Whana)

With the naked eye, we can’t see the complex network of mycorrhyzal fungi, a complex underground pipeline system that interconnects diverse species and the earth, swapping the nutrients of life.

The fungal network in a PNI project represents the ways in which people share stories in a community or organization. Some of these ways may be obvious, but there may be other ways you can’t see, or that people don’t want you to see. The important thing is to respect what is already going on in the community or organization. When it comes to story sharing, there are no blank slates. If you try to do a PNI project without paying attention to the ways in which people already share stories, the story sharing will work against you.

The fungal network of PNI as a field is the connections people build and maintain among projects and practitioners. When we tell stories about our projects to each other, when we “talk shop” about doing story work, when we reach out to explain and ask, we build a mutually sustaining network.

Seed (Kakano)

The new life cracks open with courage. The hair roots appear to turn it over, give it direction and stabilise it.

The seeds of PNI are the motivations that keep projects – and PNI practitioners – going. Seeds can come in a variety of forms. Some projects are moved forward by needs that must be addressed. Some are moved forward by people or groups who have strong goals or imagine a better future. Sometimes stories just have such a great need to be told that story sharing in some form has to happen.

The field of PNI is driven by the seeds of action as people find out what PNI can do, learn more about it, and get started on doing real projects so they can learn as they work.

Roots (Putake)

The roots take hold of the earth to give the tree its support and nourishment underground before a sapling appears.

The roots of a PNI project can be found in the things people learn and create as they plan the project, think through its goals, ground the project in its people and its topic. Roots apply especially to the return phase, where people take stock of the project and look honestly at what happened, what they learned, how they were surprised, and what they can do to keep the momentum going in their next or follow-on project. If there will be a transition of leadership, for example, it is part of the roots of PNI to develop a plan so the project doesn’t get disrupted or destroyed by the change. Strong roots make strong projects.

The roots of PNI as a field have to do with how people learn to do PNI, improve their skills over time, make PNI their own, add their own contributions to it, and help each other learn. 

Trunk (Tinana)

This gives the tree rigidity and the boldness and ability to reach up through the nurturing canopy of competing / supporting trees to see the light of day. There is a rich interconnectedness between all the species of the forest ecosystem.

The trunk of any PNI project is its stories. They support everything that happens in the project. The stories, and the fact that people come to know each others’ stories, generate the new growth that occurs. That’s why the quality (even more than quantity) of stories determines whether a project will succeed or fail. The quality of the stories depends on the strength of the roots, and everything else depends on the stories.

The trunk of PNI as a field is its projects. We can talk about theory forever, but it is the practical results of real people sharing stories for real reasons that make PNI work. 

Branches (Pua)

They spread out to collect the sunshine, wind and rain to gain sustenance. When a big tree dies it passes on its space to saplings it has nurtured.

The branches of any PNI project can be found in the sensemaking that grows out of the stories people tell. When sensemaking is participatory and generative, branches grow out in several directions, diversifying the growth of the project. Pattern exploration (catalysis) connects the raw material of the stories to the emergence of sensemaking; but pattern exploration must support the growth of branches, not replace it. Pattern exploration without sensemaking creates artificial branches “plugged in” to the trunk — like those on an artificial Christmas tree. True sensemaking grows organically and emergently from the trunk of stories, creating insights no one could have foreseen. These insights have great value because they are grounded in the reality of the community or organization.

The branches of PNI as a field are the new ideas and practices that grow out of its projects. Every time someone creates a new exercise or a new flavor of PNI, a branch grows from the main trunk.

Flowers (Puawaitana)

These attract the bees and birds to bring in diversity and pollinate the seeds of new life.

The flowers of a PNI project are the transformations that take place as people go through the process. These can be diverse, from the simple change in perspective that take place as people sit together sharing stories to major revelations that overturn longstanding assumptions affecting thousands of people. You could say that the flowers of PNI are where the magic happens. The largest, brightest, most surprising flowers grow where roots, trunk, and branches are strong. If those supporting parts are weak, the flowers that emerge will be small and pale, and they will offer little that is new or useful. It is the flowers of PNI that distinguish it from traditional research traditions such as ethnography. Like its parent action research, PNI is as much about transformation as it is about measurement.

The flowers of PNI as a field are the collaborations that generate innovative ideas in the practice and theory of PNI. The PNI Institute is a flower of PNI, in that by speaking together and working on the future of PNI we create the magic that keeps the field alive.

Fruits (Ngahua)

These are the outcomes: Purified air, food, shelter, prosperity, shade, moisture, health, higher learning, and long term sustainability of life.

The fruits of a PNI project are its obvious outcomes: new discoveries, new ideas, new solutions, new support for decision making, and so on. These are the returns on investment that funders look for in choosing to support PNI projects. The fruits of PNI cannot come to their full potential without the roots, trunk, branches, and fruits on which they depend. Often people think they can get the fruits of PNI without the “messy” parts where people share stories and make sense of stories together. You can get results from PNI if you use it as nothing more than traditional research with a jazzed-up survey. But those fruits are tiny and tasteless compared to the lush, energy-rich fruits you can achieve with a fully fleshed-out, participatory, engaged PNI project.

The fruits of PNI as a field are the knowledge and experience embedded in the people who know how to do PNI projects and teach others how to do them. As the fruits of PNI grow, so the whole field becomes a more and more useful tool for everyone in the world to use.

Birds (Manu)

The entrepreneurs who carry the new seeds of opportunity. The birds transport seeds and their digestion juices crack the hard seed shell to allow it to germinate. This creates a nursery of juvenile plants on the host tree and under its canopy waiting for an opportunity to find sunlight and grow.

The birds of a PNI project are its champions: the people who make it happen. They don’t have to be the people who carry out the project. They might secure funding, find people to participate, persuade people to come to meetings, brainstorm solutions to problems, and so on. These people are not usually responsible for growing or maintaining the roots or trunks of projects, but they can be instrumental in sparking new projects or aspects of projects.

The birds of PNI as a field are the people who create new connections in the field, who reach out to people in related fields, set up collaborations, answer questions about PNI, and in general keep it lively and connected to the rest of the world.

Pests (Ngarara)

It is easy to identify behaviours at each level that result in forcing us back to the undercurrent for recycling as nutrients. Pest Control (alias Risk Management) is the process of avoiding the destructive effect of those “pests” that jeopardise upward growth. The pests are also positive; they are the natural death path from failure or un-wellness at any level that leads to recycling of resources.

Pests in a PNI project are challenges that simultaneously make a project harder to complete successfully and more effective when successful. A partial list of pests might be: power differences among groups; taboos; censorship; fear of speaking up; limiting beliefs about stories and what they are for; apathy; resignation; distrust; inexperience or mistaken assumptions on the part of facilitators. These things can derail a project, but they can also provide useful multiplicities of perspective, depending on how the project is structured. For example, asking people to share stories with those in power without anonymity could be a disaster, but asking those same people to share stories in a way that carefully protects their rights and privacy could be transformative.

Pests in the field of PNI are difficult, sometimes even unpleasant struggles that are nevertheless good for the field as a whole. These are things like criticism, competition, taboos, power struggles, and so on.

Poisons (Whiro)

Toxins, acid rain, ozone hole, exploiters, polluters – take living energy out of the ecosystem. Insidious negativity that turns the undercurrents into a whirlpool, a black hole that blocks any idea germination.

Poisons in a PNI project are things that weaken the project and the narrative life of the community or organization. These things might be pests that have strengthened to the point where their negative aspects cannot be overcome by careful planning. They might be deliberate attempts to sabotage or control the project by people who hate or fear it or want to use it to advance their own agenda. Poisons can also be brought to a project by those who are running it. Lying about why stories are being collected or what will be done with them; twisting stories into propaganda; breaking agreements (even unwritten or unspoken ones) about transparency or privacy or use; disrespecting or denigrating stories told in an expectation of trustful exchange: all of these things break the tradition of story sharing itself, eroding the trust necessary for people to open up and describe their experiences to each other. PNI practitioners must be on the lookout for the signs of poisons, whether in the community or organization, in the project, or in their own practice. When poisons are found practitioners must mitigate the damage and learn from the experience.

Poisons in the field of PNI weaken the power of PNI itself. These might be pests — competition, criticism, power plays — that get out of control. They can also be rigid, purist assumptions and rules that limit the spread of PNI or its power to create change. On the other hand, distortions of PNI to support “participation as tyranny,” or the pretense of participation in an actually coercive or controlling system, also weaken PNI, because its core values become lies used to trick people into a false sense of security. The stronger the connective tissues of PNI — its networks of mutual support and learning — the less likely such poisons will be to develop.

Using the model

Going through this exercise was fascinating and enlightening. Some of the connections were so obvious that we knew what some of the Tipu Ake levels represented after only a few words of description. Others took a while to figure out — the differences between pests and poisons, for example, initiated a long discussion.

Four things arose out of the discussion in addition to the descriptions above.

  • We think this set of descriptions, shortened and cleaned up a bit, would make a great “introduction to PNI” page for the PNI2 web site. It might give visitors a better way of understanding what PNI is really about than our current explanations.
  • It might be a good idea to go back over this write-up, as an exercise, every year or two, to see what we think has changed about PNI. Assessing the state of the PNI ecosystem might be a good way to take the temperature of the field and consider what has been happening lately.
  • As we skimmed down through the long and useful document on the Tipu Ake model, we found many things to ponder. In particular, the list of “ground rules” on page 28 caught our attention. It occurred to us that there might be a correspondence between ground rules such as these and the “PNI principles” described in Working with Stories (at the bottom of this page). We left it for a later exercise to see how those connect up (or don’t). We also thought it would be a good idea to see if we can come up with a new list of principles that fit into the Tipu Ake levels explicitly, and see if that list might be better than the original list.
  • We realized that a PNI project group could use the Tipu Ake model to (a) talk about how the version of PNI they intend to use in their project will represent each of the Tipu Ake elements and (b) craft a set of ground rules for carrying out their project based on those representations. In other words, we used the Tipu Ake model to think and talk about PNI projects in general, but a project group could go through the same process to talk about a particular project. This might help project planners develop a deeply shared understanding of the project as they go into it. They could then revisit their document and discussion later in the project, and certainly in the return phase as they go over what they learned.

All in all, it was a fruitful exercise (which must mean that the roots, trunk, branches, and flowers were also good!). If you find this interesting, please send comments and ideas.