Anecdote Circles

An anecdote is a naturally occurring story, as found in the “wild” of conversational discourse, usually about a single incident or situation. An Anecdote Circle is a way of capturing these. It is a lightly facilitated, group based Method. People are selected that have some form of common or shared experience. As an example they will be prompted to “Share either a good or bad experience when…” in relation to this common or shared experience. Anecdotes can then be applied across a wide variety of organizational endeavors, from culture to strategy. They may also later be tagged or signified and placed in a Narrative database. The general operating principle of the anecdote circle is this. Because “you only know what you know when you need to know it”, it is difficult to get at aspects of knowledge, values and beliefs that are held in common but rarely talked about. When people tell each other stories about their experiences, the social negotiations that take place create conditions which recreate to some extent the feeling of being “in the field under fire”, or, in the state of “needing to know”. Thus hidden knowledge surfaces and becomes available in ways it could not otherwise do so. Anecdotes are usually short and about a single incident or situation. Contrast this with a purposeful story, which is long and complex as well as deliberately constructed and told (usually many times). Some people tell purposeful stories often; others don’t. What you are after in the anecdote circle is not purposeful stories, which are indicative of what people believe is expected of them, but anecdotes, which are more unguarded and truthful. For sense-making and knowledge sharing anecdotes are priceless. They can answer many questions that direct questioning cannot. Telling stories allows people to disclose sensitive information without attribution or blame, because the inherent distance between reality and narration provides safety for truth-telling.

Typical Uses

  • Anecdote Circles are mostly used as a capture mechanism, but are also equally valuable as an intervention. One of the earlier Cognitive Edge principles is quite relevant here: "Every diagnostic is an intervention and every intervention a diagnostic". While Anecdote Circles are great for capturing raw narrative material they impact and change the "space" as well. Anecdote Circles have effectively been used for a variety of activities, more common uses include:
  • Decision Making / Strategy: Data points can be captured from multiples sources (including Anecdote Circles), then used to develop a contextualised model (Using a Contextualisation method) based on the Cynefin Framework. This has lead to the development of specific strategy actions well suited for strategy and decision making in uncertainty
  • Knowledge / Mapping: Many organisations grapple with Knowledge retention and knowledge diffusion. Anecdote Circles are a great way to capture raw anecdotal narrative material, from which contextualised knowledge is normally present
  • Culture / Audit: If an organisation is looking at major transformation, re-organisation or just 'up-ending' how people have been used to working, or, if there's a need to understand where people and groups are in terms of their perspectives, Anecdote Circles provide a way of getting a 'barometric' cultural reading that serves as valuable perspective for pre, during and post attitudes and perspectives


While the anecdote circle is relatively simple to prepare for and use, it is a method where you need to think on your feet and adapt your approach to new circumstances more than any other. That’s why these variations help in preparation. You will get all kinds of groups of people in an anecdote circle. People are famously diverse in (a) how much they tell stories, (b) how much they think they tell stories, and (c) whether they think it is worthwhile to tell stories. Some people live in a narrative world; some don’t. It is easy to get people who are natural storytellers to tell stories – too easy, in fact, because if those are the only people telling stories you will get an insufficiently diverse set of anecdotes.

As indicated in the ‘Things You’ll Need’ section above, the anecdote circle should be populated by people who have had experience, and who can reflect together on some issue or topic that relates to that experience. There should also be some diversity within the group, who have different perspectives, experiences and insights to share. Participants are usually selected and invited to the workshop, based on some initial preparation by the core team who do some thinking around how to introduce diversity into the session. Participant Selection Guidelines provide a set of heuristics for facilitators.

Probably the most important thing about the anecdote circle is that people shouldn’t be aware of a lot of structure or “objectives” in what they are doing. They should mostly think they are having an interesting time reminiscing together. It’s fine to have different groups doing different exercises at the same time. What you are trying to do above all is facilitate the emergence of natural storytelling in engaged energetic conversation, which will lead to the collection of a diverse body of meaningful anecdotes.

A Note on Anecdote Circle Facilitation

Facilitated workshops present a danger of the facilitator biasing the results or outcome. After a facilitator hears a few stories around a particular theme, it is human nature to begin to form perspectives/views around the nature of the issues discussed. Bias can be introduced by the facilitator in their choice of prompting and probing questions, by their level of interest and tolerance of specific stories, by their body language, by the way in which they engage and encourage certain participants. The idealistic way of addressing this is to train the facilitators to encourage them to be more concious of their own biases and to improve their impartiality. However, we believe it is impossible to be totally unbiased for a prolongued period of time. For this reason, we install during anecdote circles the Three Facilitator Rule. Simply, we allocate 3 facilitators to an anecdote circle group. Whilst one is facilitating, another is observing the facilitator and noting the level of bias in their facilitation. The third is close by, removed from the group awaiting instruction. Once the main facilitor begins to demonstrate bias behaviour, which is inevitable, the observing facilitator calls it out and the facilitator is switched with the reserve facilitator who is close by. The process continues, with each facilitator in turn observing the next until bias is noted and the facilitator is switched.

Things You'll Need

  • A topic
  • A quiet room, with ample space for a circle of chairs, for at least 6-7 participants and up to approximately 10-12 people. Depending on the culture and organisation, it could be around a table
  • Participants in Anecdote Circles should have had some experience with the selected topic, but within that group, facilitators should ensure a good mix of participants with a diversity of perspectives
  • A way to record / capture the Anecdotes. If you're moving directly into another Cognitive Edge Method (for example Contextualisation), recording may not be necessary, the Circle will simply act as a memory refresh and bring experiences 'to the forefront', ready for further use. If you need to record them, there are several options. After each person shares an anecdote, they can write a summary of their anecdote onto a hexie . With the groups' permission, you can set up an audio recording device
  • With permission, you can also video groups



Task Comment

The participants should then be divided into groups – each group should have a good mix of people representing different perspectives so as to maximise sharing of experiences.

Set some basic ground rules and make it clear that it should be a sharing session, and that there are no right or wrong answers. Differences in interpretations of story should be encouraged.

Once you have everyone seated, invite them to introduce themselves. After that you may want to share a very simple explanation of why they were invited, obviously without necessarily explaining in depth the project you’re participating in.

The emphasis here is to help everyone feel comfortable. When you explain why you’re doing this, you might say something like the following: “We’ve been asked to gather anecdotal experiences about project X / people involved in Y / those who are familiar with…”, then add, “We all have different recollections and perspectives, we’re simply interested in collecting your experiences so we can gain a better understanding…”. Depending the circumstances and context for the project, you may be able to offer them access to the collected anecdotes. This often alleviates concerns, especially in an environment where there may appear to not be much trust.

Once you have managed to break the ice, you can begin the process by asking the first prompting question.

In the preparation phase (above) you developed a series of prompting questions. These are really only there to be used as a catalyst to start the anecdote circle, or to navigate the experiences being shared back on to the topic you’re focusing on. Sometimes as different people share, the conversation shifts and the topic may stray. This is where you can come back and use the next prompting question. After asking the first prompting question, don’t be afraid of silence, let the question hang for perhaps 30 seconds or more, if needed.

Once the participants start sharing experiences the facilitator takes a “back seat’ and doesn’t actively participate.

If the Circle needs stimulating or re-activating, the facilitator can refer back to their list of pre-prepared prompting questions. It’s important for the facilitator to ask open ended questions, as described in the Prompting Question Design guidance document.

Once the Anecdote Circle starts to draw to a close – this is typically after 1 to 2 hours, but can go much longer (depends on the topic and participation levels) – the facilitator should then take a few moments to bring the circle to a gentle close, thanking participants for their participation.

It’s important to re-iterate the purpose and any offer to share at the end of the anecdote circle and who they can contact if they have further questions.


Do's and Dont's

  • Watch for especially active people dominating groups. You want everyone in the anecdote circle to tell at least some stories to get maximum diversity. Don't say anything to people who are dominating the storytelling, just pull them aside and find something you need them to do. Deriving archetypes is a very good thing to ask dominating people to do, since they will likely throw a lot of energy into that task. Even if you don't use the archetypes for anything, it makes the experience more interesting for the people, and talking about the archetypes always sparks some lively conversation. Be careful not to include the direct manager of other participants in the same circle, this inhibits sharing.

  • Probably the most important thing about the anecdote circle is that people shouldn't be aware of a lot of structure or "objectives" in what they are doing. They should mostly think they are having an interesting time reminiscing together. Mix up the techniques so that people can find things they like doing. It's fine to have different groups doing different exercises at the same time. If a technique isn't working for one group (say they can't think of any way to shift the setting, or they won't dit), try another one. What you are trying to do above all is facilitate the emergence of natural storytelling in engaged energetic conversation, which will lead to the collection of a diverse body of meaningful anecdotes.