Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Difference Between Presents and Presence

Most people who care for you would rather have your undivided attention for a while than anything that you could buy for them.

It seems to take a long time to learn this.

Enough said...

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Sometimes What You Don't Know Can Actually Help You

Today I went ice skating with my 5 year old son. He skated confidently around the hockey rink about 15 times; he ran on his skates and took enormous jumps and landed back on his skates; he skated like mad and then would do a quick turn...and this was only the second time he has ever been on ice skates in his life.

The first time we went ice skating was about 3 weeks ago. It was early and the rink was empty. I put on my son's skates and took him carefully to the edge of the rink - he simply walked onto the ice and skated without hesitation around the entire rink by himself (I had not even put my skates on yet.) In fact, he had no idea whatsoever that he could not ice skate. He imagined that he could skate and he did. Why not? There were no other people on the rink struggling to stand and falling down, no one telling him to be careful and to go slowly, no one saying that it would take him some time to learn (and even if I had he would not have listened to me). He had complete confidence in himself, and his perception was that he held mastery of that activity.

I am sure that the absolute faith that you can do something does not stop after 5 years old. Maybe we just have to tap back into that 5-year old within... back to frame of mind where absolutely everything is possible. Even if you have never done it before.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Strength of Weak Coffee

We write frequently about informal learning in our blog - that 80% of the learning that you do that is not structured in some kind of course (taught or self-taught). Informal learning is what happens when you are surfing the net looking for something, watching TV, in a meeting, even having coffee with someone that you do not know very well. All of these things can give us new insights, expose us to new ideas, help us update ourselves, and allow us to further develop and refine our own knowledge and ideas.

Informal learning for many people is completely accidental, it is not a deliberate learning process and in many cases is not even noticed (this blog is a conscious attempt to notice our own informal learning). Many companies and big institutions are trying to help their staff members be more aware of, and optimise, their informal learning opportunities for the overall benefit of the whole institution. They believe that having a "networked" staff inside as well as outside their doors will build their assets (their knowledge workers) and in the end, give them access to more of what they want. They create organizational environments where people are encouraged to go outside of their daily patterns, into more unstructured, creative spaces (whether virtual or real) and do their most important, inventive work there. The silicon valley IT companies' billiards rooms, free restaurants, and on-site gyms are more about inspiring creativity and conversation than for pure entertainment.

In Mark Granovetter's article, The Strength of Weak Ties he argues, "that individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends [or colleagues - ed]. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market..."

There are lots of ways that institutions can help foster informal learning, especially (as in my organization's case) for a large team of knowledge workers who are committed to the sustainability movement, and are expected to be visionary, substantive and work together across sectors and disciplines. Some of the ways that my institution has created this important space for exchange and updating has been weekly free coffee mornings that bring together people, many of whom do not usually meet, to share news and information. Another way is through subsidized cafeteria costs, which serve to bring staff together at meal times (rather than scattering to restaurants or their offices with packed lunches) to converse, update and brainstorm new ideas, and make necessary strategic links among a highly diverse set of programmes, projects and operations.

These initiatives have been valuable and could even be strengthened further. Without these kinds of meeting opportunities, informal learning might very well go back to being purely accidental.

As for the title, well, our office coffee is actually very good!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Learning to Sing

It is a little slow in the office around the holiday season, so I thought I would write in this post about another kind of learning that I have embarked upon recently.

I joined a local choir a few months ago with my neighbour because I like to sing and am a fairly competent; I have sung off and on in choirs and in small groups for many years. I didn't really expect to learn anything new except some French songs and perhaps more about some other people in my village. However, this current excursion is providing a completely new learning experience, which is immediately noticeable in the quality of my singing. Astounded, I asked myself, what is different about the process this time and is there anything transferable there?

In past choirs, the director would hand out the music, people would struggle with it for a while, we would break it down into parts, practice individually, put it together, have it sound horrible for a while and gradually it would come together and sound pretty good. The focus was on the notes, the words and the voice. Sing, sing, sing - hours of singing. The director's motto was "do it again!" and gradually, from pure repetition, it would be note perfect, and he would have nearly beaten the life out of it.

In this new choir, the director calls it the "Tao of Voice", and uses as her inspiration the book of that name by Stephen Cheng. During a 90 minute session, we stand side-by-side and sing from sheets of music for about 30 minutes. The rest of the time we are doing breathing and body movement exercises, singing songs without words, standing with our hands pressed against another singer's hands to feel different notes, walking around in the semi-darkness singing tones from different parts of our body (have you ever tried to sing out the back of your head, or from your feet - try it, it is not as hard as it sounds). What this means when we do sing, is much more of a sensitivity to your body, and what has to happen in your whole body to sing properly. You sing with every part of you, and you are completely connected to the music, the words, and what you are doing to them while singing.

When you sing like this, you are completely there, in that moment, in that word and in that song - and that complete authenticity of experience and connection of everything we have produces music that is very different than those songs we sang 1,000 times in school choir. Our daily lives can be so scattered - we sit in one meeting, our mind is on our next trip, our heart is at home with the family - and how convincing is anything we say in that meeting? When we can bring all these things together, that is when the real music starts.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Jumping in Front of the Bus

Why do people sometimes find learning so frightening?

Even me - last weekend I was offered the opportunity to organize a 4-day meeting of senior scientists, systems thinkers and sustainability practitioners on the topic of climate change and behaviour change. My response - no way! I have worked in the sustainable development field for over 20 years now, but I have never worked directly on the climate issue and am certainly not a SME (subject matter expert) in that complex field - I work in capacity development and learning.

Then I thought more about this - what was it about the meeting that caused me to react like that? In retrospect, it was probably being acutely aware of the enormous body of knowledge that already exists, the proliferation of different opinions about what to do about it, and a bit of fear about providing a quality event to a very high calibre audience. Overall it represented to me a very steep learning curve and a great sense of responsibility. How many other people react like this to a) big learning generally and b) the climate issue in particular?

I fortunately got to sleep on it, and the next morning I reframed this for myself. I need to learn more about this issue (as do some other 6 billion people on the planet), so I needed to embrace this opportunity to work on the climate issue. I needed to put myself in the way of learning - to jump in front of the bus, so to speak - not sit there on the sidewalk and watch it go by because it is going too fast, is too big, and seems unstoppable.

I found this analogy useful to give me the energy to take on this challenge. However, my friend Valdis, who works in climate change policy for one of the Baltic governments, usefully pointed out that by "jumping in front of a bus" you could get squashed. He observed that thinking about learning like that can take people from their comfort zone, through their eustress (or good stress zone) into distress. I think that was my case when I was first confronted with organizing a meeting about climate change. He suggested that instead of telling people to embrace new learning by "jumping in front of the bus", to encourage them to push themselves or take risks in a safer way.

So I took the challenge to organize that meeting, I am going to learn alot more about climate change in the next year, and, with the help of my very knowledgeable friends, will not get squashed in front of the bus, but will do a little learning bungee jumping instead.

Friday, December 15, 2006

New Technology: It's Not Just for Christmas

I just received a new video I-pod for my birthday as I am very interested in seeing how podcasting can be useful to my work (not to mention getting the latest episode of Lost each week).

However, the worrying thing is that I have not yet set it up properly and the papers are sitting all over my desk. What does that say about my commitment to using this new piece of technology in the long run?

I heard Dr. Palitha Edirisingha from the University of Leicester speak about the process to move students there into using podcasting in their studies - he called the process "Domesticating a technology" and he talked about 4 steps:

Appropriation: Taking the technology from the shop to home (or ordering it through Amazon)

Objectification: Creating a space in your home for the technology (in the lounge, or on your desk)

Incorporation: Finding a place for the technology in the routine of your life (remembering to charge your phone every day)

Conversion: Displaying ownership and competence in a public culture (like being evangelistic about keeping your blog up to date)

So I need to think about this - if I don't want this i-Pod to become a paperweight, I need to get through to the incorporation stage. When I start writing blog posts about podcasting you will know that I have succeeded!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

How Old is Your Knowledge?

When you learned your science, physics and chemistry at high school, could you imagine that the information you were getting was over 30-50 years old already? How old are you now? You do the math - you might possibly be a little bit out of date.

Professor Natalia Tarasova, Director of the Institute of Chemistry and Problems of Sustainable Development at Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology of Russia, spoke at our network meeting today about the need to update curricula in the sciences and keep it current so that our next generation of scientists don't leave school already out of date.

What about the rest of us? How do we update our learning? We can’t all go back to school - this takes time (which we don't have), it takes money (which we might also not have available), and it might take displacement (which we don't want necessarily.) And it is possible that the information you will get is also 30-50 years old. That updates you a bit, now you are just 30 years out of date again instead of 70. But what if you want to be right up to date – how do you do this?

Where do you get your information? Do you have time to read books? Do you have time to surf the web? How deliberately do you try to find the information you need to do your work and make your decisions, or do you rely mostly on what you have? Jay Cross, author of Informal Learning, says that workplace learning is 20% formal and 80% informal. Formal learning might be those introductory Spanish classes that they offer at your work. Informal learning however, is an interesting combination of reading, internet surfing and search, audio-visual inputs, speeches and presentations, meetings, and conversations in the cafeteria, corridors, and on the bus. For the most part in these activities learning is quite accidental and not a deliberate objective. There are learning opportunities around every corner. What are you doing to structure your informal learning?

We Don't Use the "L" Word.......Enough

Did you know that the Earth Charter, a soft law instrument that is gradually becoming "harder", has the word Love in it? One of the principles of the Earth Charter is to "Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion and love."

Leadership development practitioners, such as those at the Teleos Leadership Institute are increasingly talking about "Whole Leaders" and how to build capacities in our development leaders which incorporate mind, heart, body and spirit. Their new book Resonant Leaders explores "renewing yourself and connecting with others through mindfulness, hope and compassion."

This weekend I am at a steering committee meeting for a network of sustainability scientists and leaders that I have the pleasure to attend each year in December, in Walliselen, Switzerland. In our very first conversation this morning we talked about what makes this particular network of sustainability leaders, which has been active for 25 years, so successful. Members agreed that when this community meets, it becomes one of the few environments - safe creative spaces- where you can integrate your intellectual work and "love". In the conversations of this group, people can talk in the same sentences about global change, development trends and dynamics and care, concern and love for society, the environment, their friends and themselves.

The difference? They do not feel that this type of holistic conversation diminishes the intellectual rigor of their points. On the contrary. It is felt to be more real, more accurate and more representative of the real world, than the potentially one-sided conversations happening in science-based bodies now. Think about it, when was the last time you used the "L" word in one of your workplace conversations?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

When did I first know I needed an iPod?

How many of you have an iPod? Asks Kevin Wheeler, Global Learning Resources Inc. Many hands in the room go up. When did you first know you needed one?

I do have an iPod. My husband bought his iPod home a couple of years ago. He (we) started buying tracks from iTunes instead of albums on CD, and I suddenly found that where he goes, our favourite music goes. What about me and my music? I'd dabbled in the world of Ipod and, like any good marketer, he'd sold me on customized playlists, podcasts and pocket-sized. A few months later, I knew I now needed my own iPod.

Kevin's point? Executive buy-in to the use of technology-enhanced learning for professional development is all a question of marketing. How do we help our executives know they, and their organization, need technology enhanced learning? Is it really as simple as enticing them to have a quick dabble with technologies they never knew they needed? Perhaps we should be providing our CEO with a choice of links to our end of year report: podcast or a wiki?

Me and My Multiple Intelligences. We and Ours.

Eight kinds of "intelligence" exist in us as humans and we all possess varying levels of the different intelligences, determining our unique cognitive profile. This is at the heart of Howard Gardners Multiple Intelligences theory – explains Ann Shortridge.

Ann and Benay Dara-Adams have been looking at the theory of Multiple Intelligences and posed the following questions during one of the Online Educa Berlin pre-conference workshops:

* How aware of we of the intelligences making up our cognitive profile?
* How do our intelligences affect our learning style?
* How do our intelligences and learning styles affect the way we interact with others, including trying to help one another learn?

I think I'm pretty aware of my own 'intelligences' and learning style. I hadn't given much thought before to how it affects my interactions with others.

Following the 'Exploring Deep Change' meetings that we organized a couple of weeks ago, we asked people to send us their 'learning stories': short, personal reflections on what they took away from the sessions. Collecting these has been fascinating. For any one session, the diversity of stories has been great (ranging from appreciating one-to-one interpersonal story-telling exercises to recommending greater use of bold and colourful visualizations to trigger the imagination). Is this indicative of the diversity of intelligences and learning styles present? I can only think so.

My question now is - in our organizations, what are we doing to make sure we interact in ways that address diversity of intelligences and learning styles? And how can we engage the multiple intelligences of our colleagues to best answer this question?

Fish!ing for a compliment?

Arriving at my desk this morning, I was greeted by a delightful surprise. In fact, it was a surprise that made my day. Stood proud on my desk was a bottle of wine, wrapped in a paper bag sealed with a staple, with a small, silver, star-shaped sticker attaching a little note. On the front of the note – a friendly graphic, carefully chosen from our photo bank, and my name in hand-written calligraphy. Inside – a simple, personal sentence of thanks. Following a few 'delicate' weeks at work, this touched me greatly. I went to my colleague to thank them for the gift – more for the words than the wine. What I didn't tell them was that they made my day.

I recently read a wonderful little book called Fish! in which it is suggested that organizations introduce a 'box' which isn't for complaints or suggestions, but rather for people to acknowledge others in an organization who make their day. We don't have such a box in our organization – yet. If we did, I know who would have got my vote today, and in the absence of a box I am just going to have to tell them myself! A little, genuine appreciation can go a long way.

Whose day did you make today? And who made yours?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Nothing Private About That! Applying Corporate Learning to NGO Processes

On Monday our organization hosted the most fantastic workshop at which 12 staff members from a major multinational bank came to our office for the day to help us think about how to best message, market, and position one of our most important institutional knowledge products. They came from completely different departments in that company, from HR to legal, and they learned with us, talked with us and thought with us over a whole day about how to increase the reach and impact of this key sustainability knowledge product.

These days we know that private sector companies have much more to offer the sustainability movement than only financial resources. They have expert knowledge and experience in identifying client interests, matching users needs with quality products, testing ideas, delivering messages, marketing services, and so on. They also have corporate social responsibility programmes and HR programmes that can help make these highly developed skills accessible to non-governmental partners.

In working with them over the day, we were delighted that their staff members engaged with us creatively and enthusiastically, and with great commitment to follow-up sharing and exchange. Calling them the private sector might be a bit of a misnomer...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

How is Information Like Electicity or Water?

Information is a Flow. Like electricity or water in your house, it is constantly available, you know where to get it, and you can turn it off or on whenever you like. You would never keep buckets and buckets of water around, all over your house, just in case you need it...

This was a thought-provoking comment by Teemu Arina at the Educa Online Conference in his presentation on Blogs as Reflective Practice.

If information flows, then why do people keep so much of it around? Why do I keep every newsletter or email that I receive, carefully filed, when the information is constantly being updated on some portal or another, changing or becoming obsolete?

Corporate learning experts carried this notion a step further with the advice that structured workplace learning should be less about giving staff the information than about giving them the skills to find it - to know where to go, whom to go to, and what to do with it when you finally get it. How might that change the way learning is approached in institutions?

How can we let go of that need to keep those buckets around us, just in case we need them?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Knowledge Has Changed: 6 Big Ideas from George Siemens

In his plenary presentation this morning at the Educa Online Conference, George Siemens argued that knowledge has changed, here are some of his reasons (read more in his conference paper):

1. We create knowledge together
Today knowledge and knowledge products are created together, we are no longer passive consumers of knowledge created for us. BBC is starting YourNews which is inviting viewers to write their own news and share their own images on the BBC website, blurring the line between knowledge consumer and product. Zefrank's website on cultural entertainment features a weekly show titled Fabuloso Friday which the viewers who watch the episode write the script in a wiki.

2. The distributed "we"
We collect our knowledge in our friends rather than having to keep it all in our own heads (see last blog post).

3. Complexification
Some educators take a messy information space and simplify it for learning. This is not always a very accurate depiction of reality, but people seem to favour simplicity over accuracy. Now with blogs, we can complexify things again to get closer to accuracy. In order to act we need to simplify again to a series of choices; however now we can do both the complexification for understanding and the simplification for actions ourselves, rather than having to rely on a media reporter or a journalist to do it for us.

4. Recombination and Tools
We now have an "internet of things" whereby any aspect of physical space can be exposed to the internet. The internet probably knows what colour shirt we are wearing because it had an electronic RFID tag from the shipping to the point of sales. We are also seeing the "Thumb generation" which will eventually focus on mobile devices rather than PCs for knowledge transfer and connection.

5. Fluid product to process
George Siemens likened a book to a process that has been stopped. It is frozen knowledge, and shows a state of the debate where the conversation has been stopped. He felt that this does not work well when the underlying knowledge is rapidly changing. We need instead to keep the knowledge at the process stage, rather than the product stage, so that we can continue conversations in the knowledge space. (He has just published his new book in a wiki format.) Even courses are products that freeze knowledge, we need to make our learning environments more process oriented.

6. Fostered transformation
We should not adapt too quickly or be overreactive, and make changes that bind us to one space or technology. We should continue to experiment and continue our spirit of transformation and stay in line with the nature of change.

I Collect My Knowledge in My Friends: The Distributed "We"

Lizzie and I are at the Educa Online Conference in Berlin which brings together people working with all the weird and wonderful new online tools and technologies for learning. This will be the first of a series of blog posts on what we are learning and how we think it might be applied in our work.

George Siemens, author of Knowing Knowledge says that that a body of knowledge cannot exist in the head of one individual, there is too much and it is too complex. Therefore, we need to network our knowledge and rely on our network to collect and filter knowledge for us.

Charles Jennings, from Reuters, added that 40% of a knowledge worker's time is spent finding answers. So instead of spending so much time trying to keep up with a rapidly changing field yourself, it is better not to know - instead learn where to go when you need the information (instead of the information itself.) Networked learning is knowing where to go, who to go to, and to learn as you go. Especially in an environment where information changes rapidly, is complex, comes from distributed sources, and is for the most part itself technologically mediated.

It also means that you need to be more deliberate about what you are doing every day, so you can identify your knowledge needs and go for the specific information you need. Rather than trying to keep up with the ocean of information and letting its eternal flow to determine how you spend your day (reading email documents, filing or deleting it). What a relief, that takes about 100 emails out of my in-box!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Why Do They Call Them Bullet Points?

The facilitator of our discussion asked the group to give her bullet points, but the man from Rwanda told her he would only give her stars...

Swimming in a Half-Empty Pool? Working in Different Enabling Environments

Ginka Tchavdarova from the National Association of Ministries in Bulgaria spoke at the Conference "Capacity Strategies: Let the Evidence Speak" about the conditions for decentralised development. She gave the case of Bulgaria where initially responsibilities were transferred to communities and leaders, and later (10 years later), the rights associated with the responsibilities were transferred. She used the analogy of "swimming in a half-empty pool" to describe that long interim period.

Sometimes we are working in situations where the enabling environment is not quite there, it is somehow missing a couple of feet of water, and you can splash around a great deal but you cannot really swim. To take this analogy a little further...

When do we see cases where responsibilities are given, and rights are not there? Perhaps the titles are not there in addition to the associated rights, or maybe these are Acting swimmers. What kind of enabling environment is created for those people to do good work?

If you really want to swim that might be frustrating. At the same time, is there another way to see it? Can the swimmer see the pool as half full (it's not empty, right?) Can the swimmer use that time to practice her/his strokes so that when the water does come, they can swim even faster? At the same time, the water needs to come in good time, otherwise the swimmer will be so tired from practising that when the water does come...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Express Yourself Through Celebration: Social Movements and Social Change

"When the imagination is unleashed, change happens." This is what John Samuel, International Director of ActionAid noticed throughout his Stand Up Against Poverty Campaign in India and other places where millions of people joined the antipoverty campaign in many creative ways, from concerts, events, and other cleverly branded activities. Speaking at the conference mentioned in the previous post, he encouraged people to "unleash the power of people with a sense of agency." This is not your typical concert-going crowd, it is one with agency, which is the sense of being in action, or being instrumental in some cause. (

Another speaker, Antonio Campo Dell'Orto, Managing Director of MTV South Europe, talked about the "No Excuse 2015" Voices Against Poverty Campaign, which MTV in Italy has taken on air and into classrooms and other venues in Italy. This essentially youth campaign, has used creative anti-poverty advertising spots, bracelets, pop icons and electronic technology to get millions of Italian young people interested and involved in the Millenium Development goals (

These are two examples of creating social movements for social change, using activities that people want to do, that they want to use their own time and energy to participate in, and that are fun. John Samuel encouraged people to "express yourself through celebration" rather than through complaint or disengagement.

Does this work at all levels of society - even the institutional level?

Ballroom Learning and Large Groups: Using Socratic Questioning

Can it be, Ischomachus, that asking questions is teaching? I am just beginning to see what is behind all your questions. You lead me on by means of things I know, point to things that resemble them, and persuade me that I know things that I thought I had no knowledge of.

— Socrates (Quoted in Xenophon's "Economics")

I am sitting in a hotel ballroom with 140 people at a conference titled, "Capacity Development Strategies: Let the evidence speak" and the level of some of the participants has dictated a certain room layout and format - we have a head table with four speakers and 140+ people sitting shoulder to shoulder behind tables in the room. There are a number of international speakers sharing their knowledge about issues such as: Capacities for local development, Capacity development at work, etc. When the speakers are finished with their interventions, they stop, and the chair asks for questions from the audience. A couple of questions are asked and answered. They come from different people and are unconnected. The Rapporteur works to identify threads and lessons from the session. The purpose of the meeting is to draw some new insights from the speakers and the group about these critical issues, and to exchange knowledge so we can all learn.

If learning is the goal, and this formal room layout is a given, how might we best work with this format for optimal exchange?

One possibility might be to structure the Q&A session differently. How different might the post-speaker discussion be, if the speaker asked the audience the questions instead? Would it be more focused? Would it help people in the audience connect what the speaker said with their own experience and help them share their opinion? Would it focus the discussions and shed some new light on the subject for everyone with more contributions from the floor?

We use the Socratic method in workshops to lead people into discussions on issues that help them explore what they already know and build on it with the experience of their peers. Could this method work in this ballroom as well? And if we were using this ballroom for what it was built for (dancing, celebration, conversation) would we be interacting and sharing more?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Rules of the Game: Understanding the Unknown

A colleague and I wait by the large gorilla statue in the entrance hall. Dumisani Nyoni joins us. As part of our Exploring Change Processes workshop, Dumi is introducing us to a game used by Pioneers of Change (

Right, says Dumi, It’s simple. I would like you to go into the room and try to figure out what’s happening. Try to figure out the rules of the game. Speak about what you see and what you think is going on. Keep talking so everyone else has an idea of what is going through your mind. Doesn’t sound too hard.

We return to the workshop room as the game begins and we set to solving this little mystery. We see everyone walking around, weaving in and out of the tables and chairs. The pace changes – sometimes almost coming to a standstill and then speeding up again. People watch others in the room, changing direction. Arms fold and unfold. Hands go in and out of pockets. Something purposeful is going on – but what?

Five minutes later, Dumi thanks us all and asks us to return to our seats. Did we figure out what everyone was doing? Did we figure out the rules of the game? - Dumi asks the two of us. No. And we begin to explore how it felt to be outsiders to the game, trying to figure out the rules.

Eventually the rule is revealed: All thirty people in the room (the players) were asked to secretly select two others and stay equidistant from them throughout the game. (See: How Do You Play Yours? The Change Game).

Now, a couple of days later, I’m wondering – Why didn’t we figure out the rules of the game? This wasn’t a question we really probed during the workshop itself, yet I think it is a powerful question.

In terms of the players: To what extent did the players want us to figure out the rules of the game? What were their objectives? Did they wish to help us understand the system or to prevent us from doing so? And what motivation lay behind?

And more importantly (to me at least right now): What could we – the outsiders - have done differently to increase the likelihood of figuring out the rules of the game?

How would the outcome have been different had we asked questions directly to the players? And what would have been the right questions to ask them? Would the players in the game have been able to answer our questions? And would they have felt at ease doing so? What could we have asked Dumi, the game leader, in order to clarify the rules governing our play?

How would it have been different had we stepped into the game (albeit not knowing the rules) rather than observing from the sidelines? What would the reactions of the other players have been? Would we have learned more by trying to get inside the game as it unfolded?

I won’t know now, but next time I’m trying to figure out the rules of the game I might take a different approach. What approach would an expert change consultant take?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Is This the Storming Stage?

You derailed a conversation in a meeting;
You made an unfair comment;
You spoke with too much emotion and not enough forethought;
Was that me?
What's that all about?

What was it about those conversations that made me react like that?

What does the team leader think of this situation?

"Soon, reality sets in and your team moves into a "Storming" phase. Your authority may be challenged as others jockey for position as their roles are clarified. The ways of working start to be defined, and as leader you must be aware that some members may feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do, or uncomfortable with the approach being used. Some react by questioning how worthwhile the goal of the team is and resist taking on tasks. This is the stage when many teams fail..."

This is a passage I took from psychologist Bruce Tuckman's 1965 description of the development process that teams go through (Norming, Storming, Forming and Performing). This is really resonating with me right now.

The storming stage makes me feel uncomfortable. At the same time, it is a new team, we don't know each other very well, and we are getting familiar enough now with one another to start to express a diversity of opinions even about very fundamental principles.

That could be the basis for an open conversation with the team leader. I can also apologize. What can I do right now to help us move through this stage and on to the norming and performing stages?

If this is the storming stage, I look forward to what comes next...

How Do You Play Yours? The Change Game

What was your experience? Dumisani Nyoni asks. What did you think and feel as you were playing the game?

The game had been simple. All thirty people in the room were asked to select (secretly) two others and stay equidistant from them throughout the game. Meanwhile two 'outsiders', unaware of the rules of the game, would come in and try and figure out the rules of the game. The reactions of the 'inside' players were diverse:

• I was simply focused on the task of keeping equidistant from the two players I had selected without letting them know I had picked them. It felt very egocentric and at the same time I found it fun.

• I found the game frustrating. I just wanted everyone to stop moving in the hope that I could stop also. I was frustrated by the effect of the other players on my game.

• Whilst playing the game, I wondered which of the other players had selected me and was trying to figure out what effect my movement was therefore having on others in the game.

• Finding the task simple and a little boring, I considered how the game might be changed and how I might bend the rules in order the achieve this.

• I puzzled over the relationship between the game, my life and work, asking myself how much choice I have and considering the implications of breaking the rules.

I found this really interesting. One game; one rule; multiple experiences. What a complex thing a game can be. Like with most systems in which we live and work, we make sense of it and interact with it in so many different ways. Sometimes we 'go with the flow'. Sometimes we want the system to change and yet make no effort to change it. Sometimes we try to understand the system and figure out how we can change the system into one that works better for us, or for others involved. Other times we don't want to be a part and ask ourselves – how can I get out?

How can the game metaphor help me think about the systems in which I am living and working? What game(s) am I playing? How am I playing the game? And what do I think and feel about it?

What's my game? And what's yours?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

What Do Change and Strip Poker Have In Common?

Chuck Phillips, a change management consultant for major institutions and corporations in the USA, was a lively speaker during our recent meeting on Deep Change Processes. He started his presentation with an activity that some people likened to strip poker...

Two people face each other and take an "inventory" of the other person. Look them up and down and notice everything you can about their appearance.

Now, turn your backs to one another and listen. An important client of yours tells you that to keep up with the market, your company needs to change its appearance, and asks you to change five things about your appearance before you turn back to your partner. What do you change? Most people took off their glasses, they took off their watches, their earrings and rings, rolled up their sleeves, and unbuttoned their shirt. When they turned back to their partners, each had to guess what 5 things had changed.

Now, turn your backs to one another again, and listen. This client tells you that the market is extremely tight, and more serious changes need to happen. In order to keep up with the competition, you need to change 5 more things about your appearance. People complain. They struggle to think of what they can change. They take off their shoes (that's two), they take off a sock (one more), they stop and think - what more can I take off? "Hey, this is like strip poker", someone shouts to nervous laughter. Now what? Fold up one trouser leg, stick up your collar (that's five). We turn around again and try to guess the five things that have changed.

Now turn your backs AGAIN and listen...We're going to go out of business in this current cutthroat business climate, your client says, unless you can change 8 more things about your appearance. Rioting ensues, well almost, as people cannot even imagine what more they could take off, take away, shorten. Then it starts to occur to people - can we change our smile, can we put things on - that sweater, that guy's hat? Can we sit down or stand up? Yes to all of those!

What is it about change that makes people assume that they need to lose something, cut something, or take something away? Does it have to be like that? How can we get people to see change as an opportunity to add things, to change the way we see the world (sit down, turn around), to get some ideas from other people (what is that guy changing, hey, good idea), or swap things with someone else so we both look different?

As I sat in a different meeting today and heard about budget changes and saw the subsequent taking away - of positions, of projects, of offices - I asked myself what do change and strip poker have in common? And does it need to be like that?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Generating a new relationship and behaviour: me and my work

Multiple definitions exist for the transitive verb 'to generate', all of which have to do with positive change and the emergence of something new. When we talk about positive change in the world, we talk of generating new relationships and new behaviours. Yet to what extent are our personal and professional practices generative?

Many of our interactions centre around dialogue – bringing together people seeking to make change through conversation and agreement. Indeed this is the focus of the Generative Dialogue Project (, and on Friday, Bettye Pruitt joined our meeting exploring change processes and ran a session considering the extent to which our dialogue practices are and could be generative.

Following a short breathing exercise to calm and focus everyone after the coffee break, Bettye grouped us into small 'pods' of four chairs in a tight circle. She posed three questions:

1) What opportunities do you see for generative dialogue processes in your work? And what are your highest aspirations for what these might produce?

2) What factors are supporting a shift to using more generative dialogue processes in your work? And what are the challenges?

3) What do you personally need to change in order to implement more generative processes in your work?

Within each group of four, we explored these questions, one at a time in rotating pairs with one person in the pair talking for three minutes, followed by the other person in the pair. Returning to plenary, the group then came together to answer a further question:

From this experience, what is different? What new knowledge do you have and how are you going to use it going forward (i) in this meeting; and (ii) beyond?

This was a great, generative exercise for the morning of the first day of the meeting. Why? Because we had the opportunity to get to know one another as we spoke (uninterrupted) and listened to another (without interrupting), sharing thoughts for three minutes on each of the three questions. Because we focused on opportunities, aspirations and supporting factors (very appreciative!). Because we had a space and time for reflection. And, most importantly, because we focused on what we personally need to change.

I found the focus on the 'I' extremely powerful and empowering - helping me to see more clearly my personal role in my professional environment and making me articulate what I, personally, need to start changing today if I want my work to be more generative!

Participating or Being Participated?

The notion of the Trojan Horse approach stuck in my mind following the earlier post. What is the relationship between the way an initiative is framed, the extent to which the objectives are made explicit, and participation in it? And what is the 'right', socially responsible approach to take?

Change is constant and we are all participants (whether aware and willing or otherwise) in multiple, simultaneous change processes. How are these processes framed? How aware are we of the objectives? And are we (actively) participating or (passively) being participated ?

The idea of participating or being participated is one that recurred during the World Congress on Communication Development ( I wonder now - How does the framing of initiatives determine our active participation in them and affect the amount of energy and enthusiasm we choose to bring? And how are we framing our initiatives?

Framing Change: The Trojan Horse Approach?

"It is not always necessary to frame initiatives as part of a sustainability movement in order to get people to think about the environment and peace" said Junko Edahiro, initiator of the Candle Night Campaign ( which started in Japan in Summer 2003. Turn off the lights; Take it slow are the key messages of this campaign, for which more than five million people in Japan and around the world turn off their lights for two hours on the summer and winter solstices annually. "People are often willing to spend their time and money to become happier – not to become a sustainable citizen. Sometimes the 'Trojan Horse' approach can therefore be the best way to communicate with non-experts when seeking environmental sustainability" explained Junko.

I was interested by the issue of framing. How would participation in the Candle Night Campaign have been different had it been framed as the Save Energy or Think Peace Campaign? Would people have responded to these worthy causes as much as they did to the more personal Take it slow message? In a way, it is easier to see the impact of Take it slow than it is to see the impact of Save energy or Think peace? And maybe this is a good way to practice doing things together?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Our Story, Our Choice

In the next few days no doubt we will be writing a lot about a recent meeting we held on "Exploring Deep Change Processes: Learning from Around the World". As I work through my reflections, I thought I would start with the discussion about how much choice we really have about how we see our own past, present and future.

One of our speakers was Ulrich Goluke, from blue-way, who is a scenarios and systems practitioner. He urged us to think about the future in a deliberate way and to have the courage to choose and develop for ourselves a set of possible scenarios for our futures. He prefaced his contribution with a short game, described below:

In pairs, take two minutes each to tell the story of your life to your partner as though it was a heroic one.

In the same pairs, take two minutes each to tell the story of your life to your partner as though you were a victim.

For many of the participants, this exercise was a "Wow" (we collected "wows" at the end of the workshop.) Why did this short exercise mean so much to people? It was incredible that with the one data set (our lives) we could frame the same sequence of life experiences so convincingly and so truthfully as both a heroic endeavour, and as a victim. Where one moment we were proud of where we were and our future, and four minutes later, we lamented the fact that we had only come this far due to events that kept us from living to our full potential.

This really showed how much choice we have in how we project ourselves into the world in the present and in the future; how we tell ourselves stories that can either celebrate a life, or despair it. Ultimately, we can choose the story we want to tell, and it can lift us up, or bring us down. It's our choice...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Helping Other People Do Great Work

Anyone who organizes learning events and meetings knows that often intermingling in the same room are some people who know each other well, and some first-time guests, who are there to contribute new insights, generate some inspired discussion, and generally help enrich the group's learning about a specific issue.

The meeting we are holding at the end of this week which will focus on change processes has this composition, as did the meeting I went to last week (see blog entry on Thursday, 2 November "A Courtroom or a Concert?") The difference is that at this week's meeting I will be one of the existing group members, whereas last week I was the guest.

So how transferable was my experience last week and what can it prompt me to learn about how to help our guest speakers do great work for us at the upcoming workshop?

When I have made useful contributions into other people's meetings here are a few things that have helped:
* I joined the group several hours before my intervention, so that I could get to know the group and how they interact;
* I had a very clear idea of the goals of my session and the organizers helped me get specific on the desired outcomes;
* The session was introduced by an "insider" and they linked my contribution directly to the rationale of their meeting, and linked it again with a summary at the end;
* The session was well placed in the agenda for its purpose, i.e. if it was a brainstorming session, it happened when people were fresh and creative (first thing in the morning). A reflective discussion was after a sequence of inputs, etc. (later in the day);
* I had numerous exchanges with the organizers prior to my intervention to craft the key messages.

I see from the above, that none of these actions are things that I could do alone. In every case, there was a partner or counterpart in the insider group that provided necessary guidance that helped me do great work.

Now I am the insider in our meeting starting on Friday, how many of these things have I done so far? What more could I do in the next few days that could make all the difference for a first-timer, to create an environment where people are proud of their contributions, others appreciate it, and generally helps everyone do great work?

I think I need to pick up the phone...

Using Storytelling to Generate Ideas: We Just Went to a Great Staff Meeting - What Happened?

If you read the blog post on 19 October, this title will sound familiar. That blog post was inspired by a discussion with a few colleagues after a staff meeting. Some ideas were already popping up on how these kinds of gatherings could be even more interesting and contribute to good dialogue within the institution. We decided to take this a step further and use our own communications unit meeting to generate additional creative ideas, and then to share them with the team who is responsible for our staff meetings. We imagine that these ideas will be read with as much enthusiasm as produced them!

Here was our question: You just went to a great staff meeting - you left excited, energised and hopeful. Tell us - what happened?
We first worked in pairs to create our stories, then shared them with each other. Here are some of the ideas that emerged:

• The staff meeting has changing chairs/facilitators – sometimes the DG, sometimes other management, or staff members lead the meeting.
• A different programme/unit hosts each staff meeting and uses it as a creative event. They use visuals (ppt or video with little text) as people enter the room to promote or update people on their programme. They run a warm-up, facilitate the news and reporting, and use a few minutes of the time for an “ad-break” on their programme. We give an award to the best staff meeting of the year at the Christmas party (people vote for it). Sometimes departments partner to put on their staff meeting so as to encourage cross-department collaboration.

Format of the meeting
• At the beginning of each staff meeting there is a 5-minute warm up to get people’s attention (breathing, tai chi, something fun etc.)
• The free coffee morning is changed to right after the staff meeting to encourage people to talk about the meeting and what they heard.
• There are different formats using interactive exercises for discussion components. For example, people make one minute interventions and then go into different corners of the room and invite people to discuss further, so they are “opt-in” discussions.
• Creative sharing is promoted in the staff meetings, and discussions are held that generate ideas about things of interest to staff, that explore a major issue, or use voting for more inputs by staff.

Reporting and updates
• Reports are not always made by the Heads; other staff members also get to report.
• Reporting uses more visuals, including “advertisements” of new products of which we are proud. Little text is used in the visuals, and more emphasis is put on pictures, cartoons and things to remember.
• Reports are delivered as if they were news items – answering the question, “What’s attractive for people? What is newsworthy?”
• The reports have a limit of 2 minutes (some people say 1 minute!) and a bell or a timer goes off when the time is up.
• The reports are interesting, humorous, engaging – the audience “votes” at the end of a report by clapping and that instant feedback incentivises the staff reporting.
• In reports, some parameters are set – such as that people cannot talk about “where, when or who”, only about “what they have learned and the key messages to staff.” Reports are forward looking and not backward looking, giving staff an idea of what we want to achieve and inviting engagement and discussion.
• Not only technical people take the lead; we also hear from general management, finance, cafeteria, etc. We consider what is interesting to ALL the staff.

Updates on non-programme and non-work activities
• Staff share what is going on in management – using the meeting to achieve even greater transparency on current debates in management.
• Space is given to support staff to share their news items.
• An “open-mike” system is used to allow people to share their news.
• Each staff meeting includes both work-related reports and also updates on people’s lives: births, announcements, weddings, etc.
• Staff meetings include 5 minutes at the end on social aspects such as how to make life exciting in our area (local events, announcements etc.)

Certainly there are great staff meetings in other institutions, what other experiences are out there? Even this 20 minute creative exercise was an example of how a staff meeting can give energy and contribute to our learning about how to do things differently.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Art of Networking and Being Beautiful

Sticky croissant in my left hand, coffee in my right, congress programme tucked under one arm and computer bag precariously balancing on the shoulder of the other, I awkwardly weaved in and out of the people thronging in the ‘Atrium’ until I found some breathing space by the outer wall, along side a documentary photo exhibit. Looking onto the jostling Congress ( participants from this 'safe' spot, I found myself in a conundrum: Do I put on my networking hat, offer my sticky fingers to others and muster my best opening line in the hope of kick-starting a conversation to identify common interests and future possibilities? Or, do I busy myself with carefully examining the photo exhibit beside me – "Communication in the Disaster Zone" and drink my coffee in peace?

Day one, coffee break one – I allowed myself the photo exhibit, full in the knowledge that in those that followed I would need to step into networking mode (something which doesn’t come very naturally to me). As I did so I began thinking about a book I’d just come across whilst scouring the airport bookshelves on my way: Edward de Bono’s How to Have a Beautiful Mind (2004) ( "The beautiful mind… is a mind that can be appreciated by others – usually through conversation… Just as people can look at your physical beauty they can listen to the beauty of your mind… If you want to make your mind more beautiful you can. It is not a matter of innate intelligence or great knowledge. It is how you use your mind that matters" – read the intro.

Thinking about this book and about the Congress of which I would be part for the next three days, I began wondering about the link between natural networkers and 'beautiful minds'. I believe that there is at least some link, whilst additional factors are certainly at work (introvert versus extrovert tendencies for example). I guess the question is: Do all good networkers have beautiful minds? And if so, do they have beautiful minds because of what they have learned from the many conversations they have had as good networkers? Or did they start with beautiful minds which have made them good conversationalists and therefore good networkers?

What would improving our networking skills contribute to beautifying the mind? And how would developing a more beautiful mind - and more 'beautiful' conversations - enhance the networker within? I will sign up for the makeover and let you know.

A Courtroom or a Concert?

What is the difference between a courtroom and a concert?

A courtroom is a place where people are being questioned for holes in their argument, for inconsistencies in their stories. People attend expecting not to believe one side or the other. It is a place where for the most part people's minds are made up, and it will take a very powerful argument or some remarkable new evidence to change an opinion. The person speaking is either the accused or the witness, and the person asking questions is the defense or the prosecution. Courtrooms, I can imagine, are rather stressful environments. People probably don't get up in the morning excited about going to court.

A concert, however, is a place where people go to expect to hear and be a part of something they will enjoy. They go to be transported by their thoughts, to be taken back to meaningful moments in their past and to hear some new things that they fully expect to love. Everyone is united in their appreciation of the person speaking or singing, and that person is energised by this openness and desire from the audience to participate in a transforming event. The person speaking or singing is an artist, someone who brings a unique message or delivery to an idea, and the people attending are expecting to enjoy themselves. Concerts, for the most part, are exciting and appreciative environments. People do get up in the morning excited about going to a concert.

Someone might say that the purposes of the two are different - courtrooms are there to make important decisions that affect people's lives. However, aren't concerts similarly generative gatherings? How many artists and authors, and people generally have been inspired by music? How many people have been buoyed to action by music?What comes out of concerts is often joy, thoughtfulness, creativity and inspiration.

If I was going to run an important meeting, which environment would I want to create? How would I want my participants and speakers to feel when they left the room? What would I want people to get out of it? Would it be a zero sum gain, or would it be a step of a creative, hopeful process? When I sent out my next invitation for the group to meet again, what would be people's reactions? Would they be excited that their favorite group was holding a concert again? Or would they dread the eyes of the jury?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Five Beams Through the Clouds of Information

Some days so much happens that it is a challenge to put your finger on a few things that you usefully learned throughout the day. Today was one of those days. Five different meetings of various lengths, all around the building, up and down the stairs. At the end of the day, tired, yet wanting to keep up my reflective practice (rather than simply giving in to the BBC) and not wanting this day to slip away without thinking about it for a few minutes, I ask myself, what could I say that I learned today?

* Once you have a "story" in your head about someone it is very hard to change it, even if they do something that is in direct contradiction to what you are expecting. How can you let someone break away from the story that you have built around them and pleasantly surprise you? (Email 9:00)

* Ditto AND What are some of the ways one can create opportunities to build trust with people that you only meet in the workplace? (Meeting 1)

* Sometimes people just want you to listen, and that is the best possible intervention that you can make at that time. How can you pay attention to this kind of need and be quiet for a change? (Meeting 2)

* I actually was stood up for Meeting 3 - my learning was that if you are reading a newspaper in the cafeteria, people will not want to bother you and so will not sit with you. However, most of the time people are reading a newspaper because they do not have anyone to sit with and talk to. (Non-meeting 3)

* Interest and enthusiasm can rub off on others. The two women I had my meeting with were clearly excited about their project, and so I was too.(Meeting 4)

* You don't have to be a content expert to ask good questions and be a valuable contributor to a process. Bringing a different perspective, being curious and wanting to be helpful is often enough. (My husband the computer engineer asked me if I thought the technical guys who were in the meeting with me would agree with this...) (Meeting 5)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

What Kind of a Discussion do You Want?

It is thought-provoking to hear people come away from discussions that they have lead and say, "Why do you think people reacted that way to my ideas?" Another question they could ask might be, "What could I have done differently to develop a generative discussion rather than a debate?"

We noticed during a recent meeting, where an external speaker was presenting a set of models of change, that some of our often outspoken younger colleagues remained silent, and a few of our more gentle colleagues really debated the speaker strongly, even in one case where the differences were very slight between the ideas that were apparently in conflict. If you took away the words and just watched the body language and the tone of voice - what would come to mind?
For me, a university classroom. There was an expert standing up at a screen, talking about theory, showing diagrams, asking questions and inviting comments. Around the table there were several quiet learners who were on a steep-ish learning curve, and several others well versed in the literature and related theory, heatedly debating fine points with the speaker. Most of the discussion time was spent intellectually jousting - good mental exercise, thought-provoking, entertaining, and making us proud of our smart colleagues, and of our speaker who tackled them all. What it brought to mind - many people loved university and love getting back in the thick of it.

If the goal of the discussion was to get the most points, then this kind of mind wrestling would have been a perfect way to do it (nearly a tie I would say). If the goal was to get people to develop something new and think about ways to work together on a common initiative, then perhaps some changes in the approach could have produced a different outcome.

I think the outcome of the meeting was a good one, people left interested generally, although I think we had a slightly higher goal. What kind of impact could the following changes have made?

* Speaker sitting down or standing at the back of the room?
* Presentation more applied, with case studies?
* More conversational (less taught)?
* More explanation (less acronyms)?
* What else?

What did I learn - if one sets up an academic situation, then people will be happy to react as though they are in one! Rarely do people throw a professor or a keynote speaker for that matter a soft ball...

What is your theory of change?

When I first drafted the opening paragraph of this blog entry, it read as follows:

I was out with a group of friends on Saturday night when a number of supposed non-smokers lit up cigarettes. 'Social smokers' – they called themselves. This has always baffled me (not in the least because I believe smoking is particularly anti-social). What makes these non-addicted smokers smoke? I know they all read ‘smoking kills’ on the packet and understand the health risks. What’s more I know they are well-educated, socially oriented individuals and, as the World Health Organization has put it, "the tobacco industry and corporate responsibility are an inherent contradiction". So, if awareness and knowledge are not enough to prevent this behaviour, what would successfully bring about this change?

Thinking about this, I'm pretty sure that asserting my personal bias is not going to bring about a change in their smoking habits. And knowledge of the risks hasn't done the trick. So what might work? If I were to make it my mission, what questions should I ask to better understand what it is about social smoking that people enjoy in the first place and what, if anything, might change this behaviour? How do I think people change? If I thought that knowledge changed people's behaviour, then this smoking case is one that challenges my theory.

“What is your theory of change?” asked Steve Waddell, founder of GAN-Net (a learning network of Global Action Networks), visiting our organization on Friday. Whether or not we’ve studied theories of change at an academic level, we often have a pretty embedded change theory influencing the way we approach the world. For example, I might have assumed that informing people about the serious hazards of smoking (or of damaging the environment for that matter) would be enough to change behaviour. The question is, do we subscribe to one change theory in a no-questions-asked fashion? For example, do we believe it’s as simple as knowledge → behaviour change? Or do we give due attention to diverse change theories and the multitude of other factors influencing change, ranging from beliefs to new technologies?

As seen in the case of the social smokers, the knowledge → behaviour change theory is clearly not a universal truth (those who are working on climate change these days would have noticed this as well). Other theories of change are needed. In what ways could learning about our own, embedded theories of change as well as the diversity of other theories help us change the way we approach the world for greater, positive impact?

Dialoguing about dialogue

In a beautiful retreat forty minutes drive from Boston, two dozen members of the Generative Dialogue Project community ( came together. I was extremely privileged to join the group and, over the course of three days, engage in dialoguing about dialogue.

From the outset we were charged with the following: “Listen to one another with your full attention. Think about what is said, how it is said and the intent behind this. How does it make you feel - physically, intellectually and emotionally - as a participant in this dialogue process? How does it make others feel?” The purpose of this was advancing our understanding of generative dialogue by experiencing it as well as talking about it and examining case examples.

A heightened level of awareness was brought to the discussion by balancing theory with practice in the ‘here and now’. This experiential dimension – the learning by doing approach – set the stage for a wonderful interplay between exploring academic discourse, sharing experiences, and at the same time reflecting throughout on our own dialogue process.

This was a truly inspiring exercise! Joining change and dialogue process experts in this, I was party to a rare space in which professionals listen and inquire with a resolve and integrity too often reserved for outside the professional environment. These were conversations that mattered; conversations in which relationships changed – including my relationship with the ‘art’ of dialogue, the way I will approach dialogue processes, will listen, will inquire and will learn.

There is still much to explore and emerge about the role of dialogue in change processes. Along the way, how can we replicate such experiential approaches in our own institutions for collective learning about the important role of dialogue in change?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Are We Sinking or Thinking? Learning at the Workplace Re-Invented Online

Well, it turns out that many institutions have figured this one out - using blogs for reflective practice. A quick google showed that many environments that are education and learning-based are using them.

I found an interesting upcoming conference titled Online Educa Berlin 2006 with a parallel stream titled, "Social Technologies in Educational Practice". Some of the presentations were:

*Blogs as Reflective Practice (Dicole Oy, Finland)
*Wikis and Blogs: Teaching English to the 'Net Generation' (University of Padua, Italy)
*Everything 2.0: What Do New and Emerging Social Technlogies Offer Learning and Teaching? (King's College London, UK)
*Learning by Storytelling in Weblogs (Newlearning, University of Erlangen-Nurnberg, Germany)

Apparently there are many organizations who are exploring how they can use blogs and other new technologies to help people learn.

Another presentation in a different stream was titled, "Are we Sinking or Thinking? Language Learning at the Workplace Re-Invented Live Online" - I adapted it as the title of this blog entry (I think perhaps it could be more appreciative!)

Blogging as Reflective Practice?

Many people say that they do not have time for reflection in the workplace. Meetings after meetings with two minutes in-between, emails interrupted by visitors in turn interrupted by telephone calls. Forgetting to have lunch?

Reflection however is what helps people process the various inputs that they are receiving. It helps them develop their own opinions; link new ideas to their own experiences to either validate them or question them; and consider possible actions (proactive or reactive.)

Building in reflective practice however takes commitment, perseverence and motivation. You have to make the time and you need to see positive results in order to have the incentive to keep it up. Learning and change can be that incentive, the possibility of dialogue can also be an incentive.

I am interested in how blogging can be used for reflective practice in the workplace - how it can be used to capture the progress that people make when they are thinking through issues and ideas. And how it can be used to start discussions, both within an institution and outside. Discussions that might not happen otherwise due to lack of time and attention.

How can we get our organization to promote blogging by staff members to help them reflect on the work they are doing and develop conversations around the things they are noticing, and the questions they have? It could help people understand more about the work staff members are doing and the processes that they are undergoing themselves as they develop their own capacities in many areas. It would help people get to know each other.

Are there any non-governmental organizations that actively promote blogging for this kind of purpose? Imagine an organization where every individual or team kept a blog. One that captured for themselves, their team and others some of the things they notice every day, funny things, celebrations, learning points, frustrations even. I can imagine myself checking one of my colleagues blogs thinking, "I wonder what's going on in the DG's office today?"

Thursday, October 19, 2006

You've Just Been to a Great Staff Meeting - What Happened?

What are some of the different purposes of a Staff Meeting?
-To update and inform staff members of activities in the institution
-To profile people who have done good work and let them share their reflections
-To maintain transparency and an open environment for sharing
-To bring staff together for a shared experience once and a while

What is the most common format for a Staff Meeting? Most people would say that the staff meetings they have attended were of the "one-person talking/reporting and many more listening" type. What are some other possibilities for holding staff meetings - what would an un-staff meeting look like?

* Maybe there is an email sent out 10 minutes before the staff meeting which has 5 items (one para each) and the key people listed, then when you walk in the room you see those 5 people and you can go and join a small group to discuss their items. At the end each group gets to share in 1 minute, two or three of the highlights of the conversation (followed by announcements). People could move around so they can participate in several small group discussions.

* Maybe there is a rule at a staff meeting that people can only talk about the future, so that people are informed of things that are happening so that they can better participate, instead of after-the-fact reporting (that can go on the website or staff newsletter).

* Maybe an agenda is sent out in advance with key points for discussion, and at the beginning of the staff meeting there is 3 minutes of complete silence in the room while people focus on what they want to learn specifically at the staff meeting. At the end there is 5 minutes of silence or perhaps a 5 minute pairs conversation while people think about what they learned and what they will do with it when they get back to their desks.

Have you ever been to a great staff meeting? What was it about the meeting that made it useful, interesting, and made you excited to go to the next staff meeting? Any ideas to add?

Monday, October 16, 2006

No Such Thing as a Pointless Question: The Impact of Simply Asking

I am currently reading "The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry", by Sue Annis Hammond which is one of the first books written on AI in 1996.

One of the 8 Assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry focuses on the questioner herself and the impact of questions:

The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.

What a responsibility our questions are! When we ask them in a meeting, when we ask them of our colleagues, when we ask them of ourselves. With our questions we get people to focus on something - what is that thing? Is it a problem? Is it how bad the situation is? Is it how little people know about a topic?

Or is it how much wisdom the group already holds to tackle a new challenge? How much experience it has in guiding a situation towards a successful outcome?

What is our purpose of the question we are asking and what impact will it have on the way that person and the room think and feel? If people go in the direction you question them, where do you want them to go?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Changing behaviour in the most exotic of animals – the organization

As I was dashing out of the door to work this morning, throwing my empty coffee cup in the sink and grabbing my bag, my husband handed me a weekly news magazine. "Read this article", he said, "you'll enjoy it." Settling into my seat on the tram, I glanced down to the article in hand. "I trained my husband like an exotic animal", read the headline. He had my attention.

Written by Amy Sutherland, author of "Kicked, Bitten and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers"
(, the article considers behaviour change techniques - as learned from trainers of seals and other exotic animals, and seemingly effective with the human too.

As I read this, whilst wondering about quite what my husband was trying to say (not sure whether he thought of himself as the one throwing or catching the mackerel), I began thinking about the applicability of these ideas and techniques in the most exotic of animals - the organization.

In our organizations, how successful have we been in:

  • Identifying the ways in which are own actions may fuel those of others and using this to the positive?
  • Introducing "incompatible behaviours” that make undesirable behaviours impossible?
  • Rewarding the small steps towards learning a new behaviour?

And how can we continue to practice and master these techniques until our practice ‘makes perfect’?

Friday, October 13, 2006

In our day to day conversations, how do we “talk the walk”?

We’ve all heard of “walking the talk” – but what of “talking the walk”?

Googling this just now I came across a report Talk the Walk - Advancing Sustainable Lifestyles through Marketing and Communications ( by Utopies, UNEP and UNGC. However I don’t want to talk now about “design, development, branding, packaging, pricing, distribution, personal selling, advertising and sales promotion” (see the foreword). Rather I want to refer back to an earlier entry and ask: In our day to day conversations, how do we “talk the walk” and reflect the core values employed in our work?

During the coffee break at a recent external networking meeting - where I was a newcomer in the community - another participant approached me; “Of course the discussion about the Wilbur model would have gone over your head”, he began the conversation. This completely surprised me. Only minutes before the break the group had been affirming the importance of respect and trust, as conditions for successful efforts to bring together diverse people and organizations in exploring sustainable solutions to complex, multi-stakeholder challenges!

Our conversations can serve to enforce or discredit our messages and ourselves in powerful and lasting ways. Walking the talk is imperative. Talking the walk is so important too. People notice.

Are we having conversations that matter?

We have conversations everyday. How many of these conversations matter? When did we last have a conversation that mattered? And what was it that made it matter? What defines a conversation that matters from the multitude of conversations that so often fill our world?

We’ve all come away from conversations that have mattered and to some extent (whether we recognize it at the time or not) shaped our lives - conversations that have changed the nature of our relationships, the way we think and the way we behave. Similarly we’ve come away from conversations which have made little (or no) impression on us, and following which business continues as usual.

Having just returned from some wonderful conversations with the Generative Dialogue Project (, I got to wondering: How are the conversations our organization is having changing the nature of relationships and the way people, groups and societies around the world are thinking and behaving? In other words, to what extent are our conversations bringing about the change we seek and helping achieve our objectives? And how can we continue to improve the quality of our conversations to better ensure that they matter?

As yet I don’t have the answers to these questions. I do think that sparking some conversations about them in our organization would be very worthwhile – enabling us to further reflect on and learn from our own conversational practices.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Why do people blog?

"Why do you want to blog?" my husband, the software engineer asked me. "Is it for visibility? Is it an ego-thing? Is it to start a discussion on an interesting topic? Is it to gather a community of like-minded people around you?"

What good questions. What was it about blogging that made it an interesting way to capture our thoughts? And what did we hope to accomplish by starting and maintaining a blog? Here are a few responses:

1. What a great way to explore a new communication medium!
2. This gives us a new way to follow our favorite topic - learning - and to capture this journey for ourselves;
3. It presents a creative way to practice Appreciative Inquiry within an organization;
4. It might get other people who are passionate about institutional and personal learning to start a conversation with us;
5. It gives us a reason to be deliberate about our learning;
6. It might give other people some ideas or things to think about (it certainly does for our team);
7. It is a useful way to frame our experiences for one another in our team; it asks us to be concise and make a point;
8. Everyone else is doing it! (actually at the moment I've only found one other blogger in the Bangkok office);

These are some of my reasons for blogging, and, I can say, that I notice that it has created a whole new sense of energy and purpose for our team. This blog helps us to capture and crystallize our learning points as we work through our day, and practice communicating them to each other. It's a storytelling tool - a way to create a meaningful narrative and draw a single thread of learning out of the deluge of information, stimulating conversations and multi-sensory inputs that we get every day.

I find that I listen more deliberately. It makes me want to be an active learner and not a passive learner, at least I want to notice what I am learning so that I can value it (and potentially write about it). I think this blog is more for us than for anyone else. However, at some point it might get noticed. We are sure that others will see that we are writing with appreciation, good will and good intent.

Most of all this learning blog makes me want to ask really good questions. Like, "It's 10:30 at night, what else should I have been doing when I was working up this blog entry?"

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Learning from What Works in Our Organization

We are currently exploring even more ways to "Walk our Talk" within the organization. A meeting last Tuesday was devoted to looking at the assets (experience and expertise) that we already have within the institution in terms of sustainability practices, both individual and institution-wide, and what we would like to know more about.

Starting any new initiative in a very busy, dynamic environment demands not only an eye on content, but also on process. At the end of our meeting to further develop some of the priority areas (identified as travel and transport policy/CO2 emissions, local interaction, and administration/workplace effectiveness), we asked ourselves the question and had a lively brainstorming session:

When you have seen new initiatives be successful and have impact in this institution, what were some of the things that made them work? What were some of the features of this success?

The people attending came up with many excellent examples of what has made various initiatives work, here are some of the things that were shared:

- There was a "buzz" - people talked;
- There was strong communication and teamwork;
- There was clearly coordinated teamwork across the regions, programmes, strategies, and so on;
- There were dedicated resources: a person responsible and financial resources;
- Senior management championed the activity along with involved staff;
- Targetted services were a part of the activity and they were client-oriented;
- There was personal commitment and clearly defined responsibility;
- There were clear goals and the activity reported on the progress it was making;
- People saw a personal benefit (and it felt good!);
- Everyone involved spoke the same language - there was consistency of message;
- There was collective engagment and people were convinced about the activity;
- All the main parties were involved in the design;
- There was the power of volunteers with a common passion.

Each of these items came with an example of an initiative and a good story, from someone who was involved. I personally find this a really helpful list of keys to success for activities within a complex institution. These work within our organization; they probably would also work in other institutions. It is a good learning exercise for anyone - when you have participated in an activity that really worked, what were some of the things that happened that made it a success?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Subtle Practice of Noticing our Learning

Last week I ran a short workshop on facilitation for 8 people within our organization. Four days after the workshop, to follow up with them and tap in on their learning, I sent an email with three questions:

1. Have you noticed anything in your work that we talked about in the workshop (that you might not have noticed before)?

2. Have you done anything different or differently based on something you heard or learned at the workshop?

3. If you were going to conduct the workshop, or if we were going to do it again, what is one thing you would change?

I was very surprised that one person wrote back saying that she had not noticed anything new after our workshop. As a facilitator, what an opportunity this response provided me for reflection!

How could this response give me some new insights about learning? How could I redesign the workshop so that I get a different response to this question in the future? What could I do differently? I thought of three things:

1) I could find out more about people's experience with facilitation prior to the workshop (I asked them this in the first 15 minutes of our session). Then I could make sure that there is something new in there for everyone. This still might not help them see something new in the few days after our session if they do not find themself in a "facilitated" context.
2) Perhaps I could wait longer to ask this question, or ask it several times. So that people have more time to link what we talked about over to real situations.
3) Or I could ask a different question: I could embed the notion that participants will notice something by asking, "What is one new thing you have noticed in your work that we talked about during the workshop?" Then they can actively look for an example, and by looking they will probably find one, perhaps more, and create a longer learning process for themselves and potentially more value from their participation.

Maybe with all the "noise" going on around us, we just don't notice these small learning moments sometimes? Noticing them definitely takes practice...

Friday, October 06, 2006

When Our Organization turns Sixty, what will she be saying?

"Today this organization celebrates its 58th birthday!" it was announced at yesterday’s staff meeting. In two years time, its 60th birthday will be celebrated at the opening ceremony of the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona. What will all those present be saying about these past sixty years in our organization and those of the future?

In twelve days I will be at a surprise birthday party celebrating my Mother-in-law’s 60th. Last night my husband and his sister began busily reflecting on the life of their Mum and what they have learned from her. Oblivious to this little secret, she too is taking stock of what life has taught her over the last sixty years and how she wishes to embrace these lessons to make the most of the coming decades. Sixty is a big birthday, most people think "What kind of impact do I want to make in the years I have left?"

Whilst organizations and individuals have different life cycles (some institutions last for hundreds of years, our doctors have not cracked that yet), approaching the 60th birthday of our organization seems a great opportunity to reflect on what the organization has accomplished in the last fifty-eight years and what we have learned from it. How can these lessons can be embraced and used to propel our organization into its future in the most meaningful way?

If our organization was a person turning 60, what would she say was the most important contribution she has made to the people and world in the last 60 years, and what would she like to be known for in the future?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Importance of Being Witty

Today the new Director General greeted the staff for the first time (she begins officially in January 2007). People filled the cafeteria with a little trepidation perhaps, a new boss after all... However, a couple of good jokes later, you could feel the mood lighten and energy fill the room:

New DG: How many people work in this organization?
Senior Staff Member: About half.
New DG: Which half are you?

That worked, a quick fire response and a big smile - you never get a second chance to make a good first impression!

What Did I Notice Sailing Around the Blogosphere? Learning About Blogs

We have just started our blog about learning at our organization and in doing so, I did some learning myself about blogs (after being completely inspired by a presentation on the power of this medium by Alex Steffan from I spent around 3 hours looking at many blogs about learning and here is what I noticed:

1. The blog itself needs a distinguishable title and a good tag line that talks about what the theme is. Otherwise it is hard to find it;
2. Colour and font are important for readability;
3. Short is definitely good. But too short unless there is some pithy content is not good. site has good length - long enough to develop a thought, and not too long to get boring;
4. Links are valuable;
5. Postings have great title names - clever (think New Scientist);
6. No spelling errors. This reduces trust in content;
7. Write in full sentences and with proper punctuation and capitalisation - otherwise it is not easy to take seriously; and
8. Archives are hard to use if there is not a search function on the site. It is hard to look into the date archives if you are looking for something special. Thematic archives seem easier to use, except that not too many blogs have thematic archives (some do.)

We are just going to start our blog and get going. We will no doubt find our pace in a few days...