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 (http://www.generativedialogue.org/) 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 http://www.online-educa.com/ 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"
(http://www.amysutherland.com/), 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 (http://www.talkthewalk.net/) 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 (http://www.generativedialogue.org/), 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 www.worldchanging.com). 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. www.Dormgrandpop.com 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...