We use Biography Work as a generic term to describe an adaptable tool that brings out and visually represents life histories and stories of individual people, teams or entire organisations. It can follow a general question like ‘What were the experiences and steps that brought you to where you are right now?’ or ‘What is the history of our organisation?’. Or it may use a more specific question like ‘How have you experienced leadership in your life?’.
The process involves creative work that allows those who do it to connect with their own intuition and access what is emotionally most important to them. It builds rapport between those involved, either by jointly developing an organisation’s history or by sharing personal histories. It also contributes to sense-making and creating a deeper understanding of individual or shared identities, motivations, values, behavioural patterns and, in the case of organisations, practical dos and don’ts.
In the context of change management, it can be a powerful tool to externalise personal motivations for change, to prepare the ground for a more trusting collaboration between those involved or to serve as a point of departure in developing a vision for future development.
Goal/Learning Objective/Expected Output
Building trust and a deeper understanding of one’s history, values and motivations.
Way/level of dealing with subject at stake
Creative and intuitive expression, relationship building through story-telling, deep listening and sense-making.
Application in moderation cycle
During the early stages of the divergence phase, preparing the foundation for a good process.
Depending on the size of the group, it can last from 60 minutes to several hours.
Preparing individual visual representations takes between 15 and 30 minutes. The subsequent presentation and story-telling needs at least 10 to 15 minutes per person or at least 45 minutes for an organisation.
Working on individual biographies should be done in a group of not more than 10 persons. Organisational biographies can be developed in larger groups: here it is usually certain individuals who know the history of the organisation well, while others might not be able to add to the story from their own experience and memory, but can listen and ask questions.
Level of difficulty
In guiding individual biography work external facilitators would be more appropriate. Facilitating individual biography work can sometimes trigger unexpected emotional responses when participants get in touch with painful memories and past experiences. This means that the participants need to be ready and willing to reveal their personal history, while the facilitator should be prepared for that and be conscious of the role they may need to play. The development of organisational biographies could also be facilitated by internal moderators.
The more creative the material available the more it inspires participants to use it. This might include, but not be confined to, ropes, different coloured paper, crepe paper, coloured pipe cleaners, different natural or precious stones, shells, photos or photo cards, gaming pieces, all kinds of figures, different objects etc.
On the other hand, it’s also possible to work with more abstract tools (such as different coloured and shaped moderation cards that can be labelled). Such technical and more abstract work materials tend to introduce a more factual and less emotional approach to biographies.
The method also needs a big enough room for participants to lay out their creative work.
Additional resources: Photo flash cards for different thematic areas can usually also be found online (used in coaching or counselling settings).
Individual biography work
The facilitator needs to decide at what point during a workshop, if at all, such an exercise could be purposeful and add value. It is equally important to phrase the opening question correctly. Additional examples could be: ‘What’s the path that led you to your current position?’ ‘What has been your experience of working in teams?’ ‘What led you to work in the field of….?’ ‘What is your story?’
The creative material should be laid out in one corner of the room.
The facilitator gives a short introduction mainly explaining what is done in this exercise: presenting the opening question, inviting participants to tell a story by using creative materials and inviting them to start. A key principle to be included here is that participants should be led as much as possible by their hands and the material that inspires them rather than systematically thinking about what they want to express by what they are doing.
While participants start their creative work, it might be helpful to play relaxing music in the background. Overall, it should be done in a state of silence and concentration.
One option is that an object in the middle of the room indicates the ‘here and now’ and participants build their biographies leading towards this centrepiece. Otherwise, participants can find their own working area in different parts of the room.
When everybody is finished the creative works are presented one by one. It may add an additional perspective to invite bystanders to first share what they see. This should, however, focus on a general impression or aspects that they find striking, and should avoid immediate interpretations of what something means.
After this short feedback from the other participants the creator tells the group what she or he has made. Other participants can ask questions or share their thoughts and insights. In the end, the creator should have a brief final word.
Organisational Biography Work
To use this exercise for bringing out narratives around organisational history, including the myths and hero stories, opening questions could be:
‘What is our story – if we see our organisation as a being that was born, that grew up and matured?’
‘What has been the path of our organisation from the first concept to the here and now?’
It is possible to let participants all lay out their own personal history of the organisation and later compare the different perspectives, or to facilitate it as a collaborative piece of work. The latter makes better sense if a significant number of the participants are not fully aware and have not been personally been involved from the beginning.
In terms of materials it can be helpful to have available a selection of symbolic objects, e.g. a horseshoe, an onion, an hourglass, scissors, a nail etc. This might help people make sense of certain events from their different perspectives. When working collaboratively on the organisational biography it is helpful to use a long rope or paper tape on the ground as a timeline to be embellished with key events, moments or personalities entering or leaving the organisation or specific positions. In this case, the storytelling can be done simultaneously while people are working on the timeline, or can be preceded by a phase of individually adding symbols to the timelines which are later explained and discussed.
Don’t forget to take final photos of the artwork!
Debriefing can be done at two levels: The content level and the process or methodological level. The first is about reflecting and summarising what the group found out and learned throughout the process. Usually, an important insight is that opening up on personal issues, becoming visible as a person rather than a role, matters for the ability of a group to work together and enhance communication. It can possibly also induce a shift to another level in other areas. However, this might only become visible later.
When debriefing on the process of collectively building an organisational biography the final discussion usually provides rich material for a joint sense-making of the organisational history. This will include how certain people or events have shaped the organisation and the organisational culture, how certain values and behaviour patterns can be traced back to the history of the organisation, and what past experiences mean for future developments.
At the process level, the debriefing question would be how participants felt about this kind of work or if there is anything, they can draw from it methodologically.