Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Day is a Thousand Social Contracts

Many years ago I was a part of a distributed project team designing a workshop that combined teambuilding, with systems thinking and sustainable development. It was lead by Dennis Meadows, one of my mentors, and at one early point in our process where we were taking on individual roles and responsibilties, he asked us to distinguish between "wish to do" and "will do". At that time, I am not sure I fully appreciated his request. It really does have to do with teamwork and the systems in which we work.

Committing yourself to do something already demonstrates good intent and some level of trust on your part, however, actually delivering on your commitment starts to build it within the team. Social contracts, the promises we make to others every day, when they are honoured (as the norm) help to build trust around us and creates an environment which supports achievement, where we might be able to take some risk and try new and innovative things. The inverse is also true, non-delivery on commitments starts to chip it away. One way to build trust is to be clear about the difference between what you want to do/intend to do/hope you have time to do and what you will do. And then to absolutely do it.

This question of trust building is not just about being nice. It is also about getting things done. When I trust you to do something, I am taking risk to build my productivity and outputs on the inputs of others. The quality of my work and effectively my reputation, then becomes more collectively based on the contributions of many other people. In order to do this I need to trust that others will honour their commitments to me, so that I can do a good job. The alternative to this is that I base my outputs solely on my own work (or that of an immediate team that I control with financial or other strong incentives like performance assessments) . What more might I accomplish if I opened myself to the diverse inputs and talents of a much larger "team"?

The theory in teambuilding is that a high performing team (trust comes in here) can accomplish things that it is difficult or impossible for an individual to do alone. In systems, one goal is to find the interrelationships that already exist and leverage those in order to help achieve a much larger collective goal. And to get people to work beyond their immediate functional units (sometimes called "silos") takes trust. One place to start building trust is making good on social contracts so people can count on you. It is also about knowing when to say "I can't do this right now"; which of course is another essential team skill (for some an even harder one).

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It Takes A Village...

I have just had a heartening experience in my office. As it is the holiday season I thought I would share it on this blog. We have an incredibly complex internal knowledge management system for recording our programme plans, budget etc. as many large international organizations do. Not being someone who is gifted in using IT programmes (thankfully blogging is so easy), on Monday a call to send in my 2008 workplan created a wave of psychic angst. It was complete already, but produced in a simple table format in Word (which worked for me), how now to get it into the bigger complex internal system full of spreadsheets and quadrenniel results? So I tried myself, found the guidelines, asked my immediate colleagues, with no success and a mounting feeling of frustration and powerlessness. So I sent out an email to my colleagues, a "plea" as one called it, for some peer learning on how this works (I am still new and my unit is new here).

Wow, what a response! I was so happy to have my first email response back within minutes, and then during the day more and more people offered to help, to give me some advice, to show me their own workplans, to share their tips to make the process, which is admittedly complicated, easier to navigate. These are incredibly busy people anyways, and this is the last week before the long holiday period, everyone is madly rushing to finish off things; still I got so many offers for help that I want to acknowledge that indeed it takes a village, or at least a community of colleagues, to sort out a new staff member. At least this community is willing to do it. You just need to ask; we should ask more.

I was interested to see what wikipedia said about that phrase, "It takes a village..." and here is what I got, I have adapted it here for my own purposes (e.g. replaced "children" with "staff members", "adults" for "managers", and "nation" for "organization", etc. - interesting results...)

Staff members are not rugged individualists. They depend on managers they know and on hundreds more who make decisions every day that affect their well-being. All of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, are responsible for deciding whether our colleagues are brought up in an organization that doesn't just espouse team values but values teams and staff members.

I am well on my way to completing my workplan now, thanks to my colleagues and their willingness to provide some informal, peer learning to someone in need. And I will be actively looking for an opportunity to reciprocate in the New Year...

Monday, December 10, 2007

How (Not) to Have a Terrible Meeting

Setting group norms for a meeting that everyone can help to uphold can be challenging. We have all done those exercises at the onset to establish the rules that we want people to follow in order to have a productive meeting. Here are two alternatives to this straight-forward activity that might give the conversation more life. The second one comes directly from our "Beyond Facilitation" workshop last week.

First, using the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach, you can ask people what kind of "Freedoms" they would like to have, rather than rules or things that people should not do (rules are made to be broken, after all). For example, "Don't be late" turns into the freedom to be on time, etc.

Second, you could set up an activity to identify "How to have a terrible meeting" (AI practitioners close your eyes...) You can ask the participants at the onset to think of all the things that they see at meetings that lead to poor or weak outcomes. List those on a flipchart, have a laugh, and then number them and post them in a obvious place in the room. During the workshop, whenever someone or the group does one of those things, notice it by number, "I think we might be doing number 5 here: not listening, what can we do about that?" That might help the participants take the responsibility to ensure that you actually don't have a terrible meeting.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

You Have the Right to Remain Silent

This week we are hosting a 5-day workshop, "Beyond Facilitation: Intervention Skills for Strengthening Groups and Teams". We have 19 people here from within our institution and other facilitators working around the world, from the UK to Zambia. We are using Group Process Consultation (GPC) as our foundation for learning more about how we can help teams be as highly performing as they want to be.

I have written a few posts about GPC from a previous worksop I took earlier this year which describe this approach, No Hiding Behind Our Desks and Understanding What We are Bringing to the Party. This time however, it feels different. It's not a different trainer, we are working again with Chuck Phillips, who is one of the founders of this approach and has been working with groups on it for three decades. It is not the content; I thought it was perfect the way it was (one day shorter) for my colleagues and the other facilitators. I think it is about the participants. The participants at the NTL course that I attended last April were all private sector OD/HR people and very much "people-people". This time however, we have a greater mix. There are plenty of "people gathers" - people who are high on the FIRO-B (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation–Behavior) instrument's Inclusion and Affection continuum, and this time we also have some people for whom the touchy feely parts of group work give little energy or motivation.

This group I found much more representative of the diversity and complexity of real life teams, and as such provided an additional layer of learning for me. As a facilitator, and someone who is sensitive to participation and inclusion in groups, my tendancy is to get fixated on someone who is not speaking, not sharing, not participating - assigning that behaviour to discontent in the group - and then do everything I can to get that person involved. But one of these more reflective colleagues noted today that sometimes he just does not want to talk, or doesn't have anything particular to add to the conversation at that moment. If the facilitator jumps on him for not talking, that will probably irritate him enough to keep him from talking in the future. That is learning for me, people have differing needs for inclusion in a group, both expressed and desired. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are not engaged or contributing, it just means that they don't feel the need to talk all the time to do so (like me).

Friday, November 30, 2007

Apparently children can teach themselves anything – can we do that too?

According to the research of Professor Sugata Mitra, Newcastle University, and the main researcher behind the famous "Hole in the Wall" projects held in India in the last decade, Tamil children in rural communities can learn biotechnology in English on their own. How can this be possible?

That's what Mitra has learned after spending the last decade observing children using computers embedded in building walls in safe, public play areas around India. He observed that with a simple computer, keypad and browser, groups of children could teach themselves remarkable things, from a foreign language to the anatomy of the human body.

Through these experiments he found something that was not previously taken very seriously in educational theory – children can learn anything when the right emotions are triggered. These include curiosity, challenge, and pride (like not wanting to be called a fool by other children). The context was also important - the hole in the wall computer was not in the classroom, where learning was more associated with routine and examinations (which he intimated took all the fun out of it), but in a "play area" with no rules.

Does this hold for adults too? Can we really learn anything when our emotions are engaged and context is right? How often do we take these two things into consideration when designing our learning interventions? I have written before about creating physical memories for learning, which is working with both the mind and emotions in learning situations, as well as taking it out of the traditional “training space”. Maybe it is also about knowing what your own triggers are. Certainly mine include novelty and a steep learning curve (thus my great consternation about how to use Facebook and Second Life for learning, see my previous post about this). However, for some people neither of those tools has much novelty left; they might push all the right emotional triggers for me, but not necessarily for others.

I imagine those learning triggers are very personal, and for those of us in the learning trade this is another reminder about the value of individualized, learner-centred approaches with lots of choice. It doesn’t mean that we should not explore and experiment - that, in many cases for both adults and children is our main pathway to learning.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Want to Learn More? Take this Quiz...

Imagine that you need to inform people in a workshop setting about your organization (or another topic for that matter.) Option A: You can make a PowerPoint presentation for 20 minutes and have a Q&A discussion after it for another 10 minutes. But how much will people learn about your subject and how much will stick with this "information push" approach? Here is an Option B for this more traditional method.

Last week we ran a workshop with our organization and an external partner which had as one of its aims getting to know better the two organizations and the people working there. We had our slot in the opening session to introduce the partners and we considered Option A for a moment and decided that it did not really optimise our time, nor give the sense of interactivity and co-learning that we wanted to be representative of the partnership. So instead, we decided to take the same amount of time (perhaps add 10 minutes) and run a quiz.

We asked both partners to come up with a set of questions that made the points that they wanted to come across in their introduction. From our side, we wanted to share our special network structure, our decision-making process, the global nature of our staff and partners, how many of our resolutions deal with the particular sector that this partner belonged to, etc. From their side they wanted to share some key points of their mandate, their sustainability goals, the number of years that our organization had collaborated with them on smaller activities, and more. We structured a quiz of 18 questions (multiple choice, simple fill in and Yes/No) that only a mixed team from both organizations could possibly complete. So five tables of evenly mixed teams each took the quiz.

What happened was a wonderful peer-learning exchange table by table that transferred much more information between participants than we could have ever hoped to give in a centrally run PPT presentation. And people wanted the information, they discussed it, colleagues from the same organization debated the answers, added anecdotes, and shared their insight about the two organizations. That took 20 minutes, the same amount of time as our Option A input. And it was a lot easier for us to present (we literally just handed it out and the participants did all the work.)

The most entertainment came with the "scoring" of the quiz - we went through each question at a good pace (we had the answers in advance) and for each one asked the tables or specific people for their answers. Then we had some open debate, complete with shouting from across the room and good-humoured disagreement. We had prepped one person (the key organizer) from each team to be the final authority - they could point to location of the answers (website, by-laws, mandate, etc.) Bonus points were given for extra information, more detail was added for some questions, and at the end, points were tallied (very loosely) and the winning table got the prize. Well, every table got a prize (a bag of chocolates to share) as it was hard to be very accurate with the final scores, and that was not really the point. Total time for Option B - about 40 min. Every table got almost every question correct so they learned our key points, people got to know each other much better, and to have a real experience (in a compressesd time) working together to accomplish something that neither group could do entirely alone. In this activity, everyone was the "expert" not just the presenter, and it set a great atmosphere of informality and sharing for the rest of our workshop. For the extra 10 minutes between Option A and B the return was worth it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lost: Three Hours of My Time

Well, I think I am going to give up on the idea of workplace applications for Facebook. In three hours I managed to find some long lost friends, see photos of people I know in various guises, and learn a bit more about some of my "friends" hobbies (must google Rufus Wainwright, might be missing something big.) But as much as I tried, I could not see an obvious non-leisure link to this social networking tool.

If I was being generous, I could say that it would help colleagues to get to know each other better outside the office. However, my non-rigorous research showed that not too many "Friends"are also colleagues in people's lists. Maybe about 10%. I also noticed that there is still a big demographic slant, which goes without saying; the number of Friends seems to be inversely correlated with the number of other people you are doing laundry for.

So Lizzie (196 Friends) and Caroline (239 Friends), can you share your thoughts here -does your Facebook time add anything to your work? I'm not saying it should of course. I just wonder whether Facebook might be a part of our 9-to-5 someday; so far I can't imagine how I could timesheet the three hours I just spent scrutinising thumbnail photos for signs of aging and poking people.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

We All Have a Second Life

(This post was inspired by a conversation I had a few days ago about the possibility of holding a major Congress in Second Life as opposed to F2F. There were worries that people would not be themselves and that that would affect the quality of discussions.)

We all have a Second Life. Every time we walk into the doors of our office that is effectively a completely different world than the one we just left. We look different (at least one makes a heroic 10 minute effort to look better), we do very different things, and the details of our behaviour in our workplace and the place we just left are completly up to us to expose or not.

Some people at work, as in Second Life, are perfectly happy to share at length the details of our Home Life, to plaster our office walls with photos of our families, and to personalise our spaces. Others keep these two worlds strictly apart. Some people make friends in Work Life that become friends in Home Life, and some people cultivate other kinds of friends and relationships in each. In either world, it is up to us to be accountable, and to be comfortable with our actions in both of these lives. I guess it would be as hard to be a creep in Second Life as it would be to be a creep in Work Life or Home Life (or as easy, for some people). So I guess I don't see the big deal about Second Life being a place where people can be more or less transparent about themselves, people can do that anyways.

Now if only we could teleport ourselves to international meetings, that would be great.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

News Flash: Team has Zero In-box for One Month

In the past, doing email has never been a source of energy and delight for our team. Now it is. We use to spend hours a day sifting through hundreds of messages looking for actionable items, or scrolling down a long, complicated taxonomy of folders trying to accurately file something. Going away on a holiday or even a short work trip brought the dread of a whole day spent trying to get back on top of our email. Not anymore... Our team of four has now had a zero in-box for a month!

A zero in-box doesn't mean that you have no email at all to do, but it means that you have made a decision about every single item that has come into your in-box and moved it to its next action (Action Needed, Reply, Follow-up, Explore, Archive). We delete more, we are more careful what we send, and a few of us have adopted the five.sentenc.es promise and added it to our electronic signature. I find now that I am able to keep to five sentence responses now most of the time (I would be happy to graduate to four.sentenc.es sometime this year.)

Now we talk about email to anyone who will listen with the energy and enthusiasm of people who have mastered a new technique which we feel has increased our productivity, as well as boosted our sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. This feeling of success at the end of each day, I believe, is what keeps me on top of this new system. And the fact that I was able to learn a new way of working that has replaced an entrenched behaviour that I have had for over 10 years. I have noticed that I am getting more things done now, I certainly feel more organized and less a slave to my computer.

We plan to hold a short workshop in house in the next months to share with people what we are learning about zero-in box. How we have adapted it to our own needs, and where we still see some room for improvement and innovation (like how do you get yourself to go back to the "Explore" folder!) Productivity is satisfying and of course there are many different ways to improve this in the workplace - the Onion had another suggestion about how to do this yesterday...

Friday, November 02, 2007

Creating Physical Memories

There is certainly some significant debate about how much people remember from different training or workshop experiences. I just read a provocative blog post from Will Thalheimer refuting the various data, pyramids and cones that have helped the experiential learning community substatiate its methods for years. However, he does not necessarily refute the fact people learn differently and the more diversity in learning methods that you use, the more chance you have of creating (longer) lasting impact, or change, which is usually the objective of all learning activities.

We are starting to talk in our team about creating physical memories for people from our sessions, or at least asking the question of how we can create a physical memory. This includes how to use everything from the venue, the choreography of the sessions, the outdoors, the activities, the adrenaline rush, and more to build that physical memory. Focusing on these things does not replace the desire to help people remember the content of your session, but might provide interesting opportunities to reinforce messages and create a sense of congruence both mental and physical that might help learning stick and give them the positive feeling and enthusiasm for the subject that encourages them to take it further (or to look favourably on follow up).

One current opportunity for application has come up in our organization. We are about to create Innovation Teams to start testing some new IT and management processes and to usher in a culture change within the organization. These teams need to be able to test and learn some new tools and technologies, innovate around their adaptation to our organization and then get excited enough about them to help others learn to drive this system-wide change internally. That strikes me as a wonderful opportunity to make the meetings of these teams innovative not in name only, but to use the physical environment to help create that all over experience. If they are designed with this in mind they can give people that boost by the end of the experience that has them walking away saying "that was a great event!" and having that be not just a cerebral, but a full body comment.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Go on a Carbon Diet: What the World Can Learn from Weight Watchers

Whatever else it is, Weight Watchers is fundamentally in the behaviour change business. It is a business that has been working for 40 years and they say they have changed the lifestyles of millions of people around the world. Now there are Weight Watchers meetings from Brazil to South Africa. And even where there are not formal meetings, there are Weight Watcher Meet-ups, like all over Mexico. This is becoming a global phenomenon all about reducing consumption and adopting a healthy lifestyle which is about more fun (activities) and less stuff (fuel).

Weight Watchers has come a long way in how it tries to get people to change their lifestyles, and how it supports them on this journey (and support is the operative word). They don't say "You need to stop consuming so much -It's really bad for you. Here are a few tips, now get on with it." They promote a programme that is individualised and incremental. But it wasn't always that way.

In the 1970s being on Weight Watchers was a hardship. There were very strictly regulated menus, few options (either on the programme or on the market), you had to weigh out everything on scales and keep strict track of sizes, portions, etc. Much of the time (although they said this should not be the case) the dieter was hungry. Dieting was equated with deprivation. It was all you could do to stick to the programme. And although the social incentive system was already in place - you got rewards for increments, group meeting were lively and supportive, there was weekly monitoring and evaluation - the effort it took to keep track of your consumption patterns would not easily translate over into a lifestyle change. To make matters worse, everyone's goal was standardised -your goal weight was calculated as though every person of the same height and gender should ultimately weigh the same thing. There was not much flexibility for the diversity (like metabolism, age, build, genetics) that exists in our human population.

Today, Weight Watchers has learned a lot about what it takes to help people make these changes more permanently, to have fun and feel good in the process, without the feeling of deprivation and hardship. The new programme is much more participant driven. There are lots of well-developed options throughout the programme (one option is a No Count option, that helps educate people to accurately estimate consumption - and it still works) and more fundamentally each person's goal is calculated individually. The support side of Weight Watchers is still excellent and has been further enhanced through various Web 2.0 social networking tools. Here are some features of Weight Watchers today that reflects their learning about what works :


  • People who are trying to reduce their consumption commit themselves to go to weekly meetings to join a community of others who are doing the same, there is a leader who gives ideas, tips and new information, and people share in conversation what they are learning in their effort to change their lifestyle. People help each other to achieve their goals. (Today there is also an online option, with vast internet interactive capabilities and communities.) Weight Watchers research shows that people who go to the meetings and interact with others are much more likely to succede than those who try to go it alone;

  • Each person has their own goal which is calculated by WW, and based on the results of a self-assessment. There is a weekly check-in and monitoring of progress to reach this goal. The goal and actual number is confidential to the member and the leader, but the rate of change is shared and celebrated, or advice given on how to do better next time;

  • Reaching the goal is not presented as something you do must achieve quickly through heroic effort. In fact, slow and steady is the recommendation, with just a small reduction per week considered to be optimal. The premise is when change is made slowly then it is more likely to stick. Once you reach it, there is another whole programme devoted to maintenance.

  • There is a culture of "You can do it" and the literature and language is all about Success Stories; the leaders are former WW participants, and everyone administering the programme is someone who has successfully gone through the experience and changed their behaviour permanently.

  • No one speaks of deprivation, as that is not thought to be motivational. And there is nothing anymore that you cannot consume; however it is about quantities, and trade-offs. If you want your chocolate cake, be prepared to make a choice about other things for the rest of the day/week. People are in control of their experience, and they still have an overall end-goal in mind, and a set amount of caloric energy that they know they can consume each week that will help them reach it. Weight Watchers insists that people consume their allowance each week, if people try to speed up the process then the feeling of deprivation might result in quitting or splurge.

Now if you thought of people's carbon diet, how would this translate? Aren't we trying to do the same thing? Help people who overconsume energy calories to reduce and maintain this? And to want to do it and potentially have some fun doing it? What can we learn from Weight Watchers? So many of our communications about reducing energy consumption is about Save the Planet, and guilt for overconsuming, and giving up luxuries that we cannot always imagine giving up. I think that messaging works for some people. At the same time there can be more than one way to engage what is an incredibly diverse global community, with different goals, aspirations, needs, motivations, abilities. Might such a programme, a Carbon Diet, be another way to help change behaviours permanently? I took a paragraph off the Weight Watchers website and adapted it - I think it just about works for me...

Who We Are- Our Philosophy

Energy Watchers has always believed that energy reduction is just one part of long-term sustainable management. A healthy body and earth results from a healthy lifestyle - which means mental, emotional and physical health. Energy Watchers does not tell you what you can or can't consume. We provide information, knowledge, tools and motivation to help you make the decisions that are right for you about energy needs and use. We help you to make healthy energy consumption decisions, and we encourage you to enjoy yourself by becoming more active.

To provide motivation, mutual support, encouragement and instruction from our leaders, Energy Watchers organizes group meetings around the world. Meetings members often become meetings leaders and receptionists, sharing the story of their personal success on our Carbon Diet with others. At Energy Watchers, carbon management is a partnership that combines our knowledge with your efforts. And trust us, your efforts will pay off! We help you on your journey by:

1) Helping you make the positive changes required to reduce energy;
2) Guiding you to make positive behavioral changes in your life;
3) Inspiring you with our belief in your power to succeed; and
4) Motivating you every step of the way.

Anyone want to join me on a Carbon Diet?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Embedding New Ideas in the Workplace - Carbon Care and Home Work


It is not always easy to get new ideas and practice embedded into an established work environment. How can we use existing "energy" flows to promote new ideas as well, and in the process help us change the current system?

We recently had a competition with a neighbouring institution, a large international conservation NGO, to reduce our institutional carbon emissions from transportation over a week as a part of a national awareness raising campaign. Our internal Green Team did the math and calculated how much carbon we all emit from our weekly commute to work, the other organization did the same. Then for a designated week, we did everything we could to reduce this. People carpooled, they took the train or bus, they rode their bikes, they walked. We did very well, but sadly we did not win the competition this time, although we really wanted to win.

If we do it again next year I have an idea how we might win. I wrote a post a few months back on technology enhanced mobility in the workplace of the future. I think it would be a great thing to experiment with for many of the reasons that are discussed in that post, however, there seems to be no immediately compelling reason to try it out. Maybe this is one that connects the existing interest of the institution to cut carbon and to win this competition in the future, with an interest to explore new ways of working. We could test it out first with a few "Work At Home" days where everyone possible works from home, to get used to this new work modality, and then we could launch a "Work At Home Week" that would coincide with this competition. If we did that, we could explore a more flexible work environment, get our technology tools in place to support it, and win that carbon emissions competition! (unless of course someone from WWF also reads this post...)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Can You Compare Great Speakers to Great Criminals?

About twenty minutes ago I was driving to work when out of the bushes and into the middle of the road jumped two Swiss Policemen in bullet proof vests, they practically stopped my car with their bare hands. They wanted my permit and papers NOW. My hands were shaking, and I couldn't think while I fumbled around to find my documents. Geez, I couldn't even speak and as far as I could tell I hadn't done anything wrong (I was even driving 10 km UNDER the speed limit at that point).

The night before last I was standing in Nestle's HQ in front of 25 corporate leaders there for a workshop of a network we are coordinating. For the first 5 minutes, a similar thing occurred, a blast of nerves and a random connection between my brain, speech and hands. We were prepared, everyone was there, and the environment was fantastic, no clues there.

It strikes me that good speakers and perhaps good criminals have this figured out. What kind of mind exercises can you do before you go to face great authority to avoid momentary multi-sensory collapse? It doesn't happen to me very often any more, I think my estimation of authority is changing as I get older, but when it does it is memorable and certainly something to work on.

It turned out to be a random police check (with lots of NYPD Blue drama added in), and the Nestle event smoothed out a few minutes later, but for that initial "Oh no!" send in your tips!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Walking Around with Nothing in Your Head: Getting Things Done

This was the goal set forth by David Allen at his seminar in London last Friday, addressing the 120 knowledge workers in the room (from IT companies, banks, company HR departments, and so on - mostly men, by the way) - how can you get all your tasks and projects out of your head and into a trusted system, and walk around with nothing in your head. He described this state as "Mind like water" (and showed us some martial arts moves to demonstrate his point) where you are able to make a perfectly appropriate response to and engagement with what is present.

Several things surprised me about the day long seminar on Getting Things Done (or GTD as the adherents call it). First was how incredibly popular it is among the private sector, especially in IT companies. I knew that David Allen was a consultant to many silicon valley enterprises, but I had no idea that Belgian companies would have GTD support staff, and software engineers worldwide were developing GTD compliant add-ons to various office packages. There are bloggers devoted to making GTD work, even Microsoft Office 2007 has functions that were designed to work with GTD organizing systems. Who would have known?

The second, related thing that surprised me was how completely absorbed the audience was. This was a full day, 8 hour seminar with a packed ballroom, and David Allen spoke for the whole time. There was very limited interactivity (he said at one point, "I don't do interactive stuff, this seminar is basically me talking to you." (only slightly paraphrased)) And the audience was rapt, the questions were incredibly detailed, "what is the average time to spend on your weekly review?" And this predominantly male, corporate British audience didn't even flinch when he stated that appropriately managing your commitments frees up attention for higher-level thinking and creativity and opens up psychic space.

The final thing that surprised me is how excited I got about this approach. I have already used it for about a year, and I learned many new ways to make it more efficient. Many of the tips and tools are very familiar, but the way to put them together, from the "runway" or day-today tasks to those which sit at the visionary "50,000 feet" level, this method aims to take in it all, organize it, and engage with it when the time is right - not all the time- so that most of the time you can walk around with absolutely nothing on your mind - open and ready for that next great idea.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Zero Your In-Box? You Never Thought it Was Possible!

I can't believe it, but I have ZERO messages in my in-box right now. Not only do I have zero messages in my personal email account, but I also have zero in my work email. On Sunday I had hundreds and hundreds in each. Now I have zero -what's the secret? Watch this fascinating google video and see...

This is a video of a 58 minute presentation (including Q&A) called In-box Zero by productivity guru Merlin Mann that he gave at the Google HQ in July. I watched it, I tried it, and I now feel completely different about email. It no longer rules (me). Mann's advice is based on David Allen's method and book called, "Getting Things Done" (or GTD for short). It seems that Allen's method has been heartily embraced by IT companies where knowledge workers, who are supposed to be creating new and innovative things, are apt to get swamped by endless everyday email and tasks. His method is about getting your to-do list out of your head, or your email in-box, and into a system that works to organize and manage it for higher productivity.

I have now read the book (bought the label maker), watched the video, implemented the systems now both at home and at work for both email and paper-based tasks. I am surprised to say that it works (you need to keep your maintenance up), and it is refreshing not to see those piles of paper on the desk, or hundreds of emails. I'm sure there are still plenty of tips that passed me by the first time. By sheer luck, I have a free pass to a David Allen full-day seminar in London tomorrow and will get to hear more about the method right from Allen himself. I will blog my learning when I get back.

What am I going to do with all that spare time if I ever do get completely organized?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

"We Deserve the Leaders We Get"

I have spent the last two days with the British Council team who is working to roll out an innovative leadership programme called InterAction. The programme started in Africa and has run for four years and trained over 1000 African leaders, and 40 African facilitators. I was very happy to have been a part of the original design team and work through the first year of the unique leadership programme with the African facilitation team. The programme is starting to scale up has just started in Pakistan and this meeting was to discuss a global programme.

Yesterday we had a discussion about the focus of the programme - one person asked, "What difference can you make if you just focus on personal development?" We had a passionate response from the Ethiopian facilitators, Selome Tadesse, who said, "We get the leaders we deserve. Our leaders do not fall down from Mars or Venus at 45 years old and are bad people. They grow up in our villages, and communities, they go to our schools and they belong to our families. " Personal leadership development that starts with community level leaders, people with local or neighbourhood spheres of influence, or young people in institutions, rather than the elected officials or heads of organizations and programmes might take longer, but will certainly help guarantee that the leaders we get in the future are the leaders we both want and deserve.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Get a First Life - Your World. Sorry About That.

I recently spent many hours in Second Life with the goal of showing people at the recent Balaton Group Meeting what all the fuss was about. One of the goals of our climate change-focused meeting was to explore accelerated learning tools, so my workshop on Web 2.0 applications to environment and development issues was one contribution towards this end. In the main programme of my workshop I did not get into Second Life, mainly because my avatar had been stuck in an unfinished ski resort for months, still in her first change of clothes and going nowhere. So I rustled up another avatar and was determined to get her going (at least get a skirt on her) and go out and have some fun.

I succeded on that front, to get off the initiation island, to get her decked out in long blond hair and a jazzy outfit, and took everyone watching my screen to a few places that I knew were concerned with sustainability issues. First I went to Better World, a collection of socially conscious organizations and their various neighbourhoods. I visited the water centre and wandered through Camp Darfur. Then I teleported to WWF's Conservation Island to have a look around - lots of lawn chairs, assorted animals running around, a couple of donation boxes in the shape of Panda Bears. But my main reaction was "HEY, WHERE IS EVERYONE???" These places are interestingly built and totally empty (at least the few times that I was there I saw no one.)

Well, that was a little embarassing to show to my open-minded colleagues. However, I busied myself in learning how to uncross my arms, sit down, and change the colour of my hair. It wasn't until I met my husband in there (a software engineer for whom this stuff is at least Second Nature if not Second Life itself) who then took me to some fun places - on a hot air balloon ride (I still managed to fall out somehow), to a swimming pool where you can slide down a high water slide. He showed me how to dance and we went to look at speed boats. That was actually nice as I was in Hungary and he was back home in Switzerland with the kids. But even in these places people seemed to zoom in for a moment, wave their swords or whatever, and then split. I guess you can be as clueless socially in Second Life as you can be in Real Life.

My complete absorption in trying to figure it out, and find the interesting environmental sites (not to mention telecavorting about with my husband) was seen as a very scary sign of how people can get sucked into this virtual environment and ignore the world around them (the world around me at that time was participating in Hungarian dancing). My colleagues were intrigued, but not totally convinced. They asked, how can Second Life model climate change? Can the lights dim and go out from time to time? Can teleporting be rationed or controlled, or at least affect the energy available to do other things? Is cyclonic and anti-cylonic activity increasing in Second Life like it is in First Life? And what happens if the weather starts to destroy the coastal developments? Is there Linden Insurance coverage?

Tonight I got an email from one of these colleagues with this link for a website called "Get a First Life" - I love it - it makes me want to walk out of my office and find someone real to talk to!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Learn Something New About: Water

Do you know where your water comes from? For the first few years after moving to Switzerland, we filtered all of our water, and bought bottled water frequently. Having lived in other urban areas around the world I tended towards doubt about water quality from taps.

Our local council last week sent out a simple information leaflet with some interesting information. The water from our taps comes from three sources: springs (like Evian!) (53%), underground water table (11%) and Lake Geneva (36%). The latter is only pumped into our water system from spring to autumn; during the winter, our water network draws entirely on water from springs and the water table, which is of such good quality that it enters the network without any treatment. The lake water is only lightly treated to take out sand, adjust ph and add some chlorine. This information is incredibly useful and sufficiant to make me feel both fortunate and foolish about wasting money on bottled water (Evian is just across Lake Geneva from us) and on expensive water filters when our water is such good quality. I just didn't know.

The second thing I didn't know was how much water on average we used in our area. Apparently, me and my neighbours use on average 403 liters of drinking water per person/per day. I wondered how it could be so high, so I went to the BBC's excellent water calculator to see what my household water consumption estimation would be. This is a very simple, visual calculator (no math necessary!) According to the calculator, our household uses approximately 160 liters of water per person/per day (I would like to know who's using the other 243 liters per day?). The calculator compared that to the average British household (155 liters per person per day) and also identified the places of highest use in my house and gave some useful tips for water saving. Now that I know how good our water is, it seems a pity to flush so much of it down the toilet!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Web 2.0 Meets Traditional Art Forms

This very random thought was inspired by my learning recently that text on the WWW is measured for value not by column inch but by the density of hyperlinks...


If a haiku has

hyperlinks within it is

it still a haiku?






Sunday, September 16, 2007

Tales of the Black Swan

Children's stories are cautionary tales that help to relay messages of right and wrong, good and bad, and somehow our hero always pulls through.

Yesterday in a presentation at our Balaton Group Meeting by Dick Barber, a Duke University oceanographer known for his work on El Nino, we heard a story about black swans, which for me was the ultimate cautionary tale. The Black Swan, a theory made popular again recently by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book by the same name, is a large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations. Black Swan was adopted as a metaphor for this phenomena because in the 17th century the Europeans, who felt they knew everything about swans, including that they were white, were astounded to find a black swan in Australia. Their science had not predicted that and there was no way it could have.

Dick Barber invoked the Black Swan concept in his talk about our oceans' response to climate change and our global climate regime. Our climate regime sits in a narrow band of plus/minus 18 degrees and has stayed there for 4 million years (Dick said that this fact shakes his faith in atheism). The group asked him if climate change could cause this regime to shift or flip. Because our models are built with historical information, they simply cannot predict these events; they are "new under the sun". Dick said that there might be two examples of climate regime shift/flip, Mars which froze and Venus which evaporated. Neither is a very cheery story.

Could our earth's climate regime flip? We simply do not know, our models have no way to tell us. If the black swan is a cautionary tale, does our hero pull through in the end?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Anyone Not Here Please Raise Your Hand

We opened our network meeting yesterday with a workshop on new media, Web 2.0 and social networking tools, and an exploration of applications for learning and sustainability processes. This network is the Balaton Group; a group of systems dynamicists, systems thinkers, and sustainability advocates founded by Dennis and Donella Meadows, who have been meeting by the shores of Lake Balaton to discuss global challenges and change for the past 26 years.

Yesterday during our workshop reflection, we queried our ability to "hear" voices not in the room. How much does our work and avenues of inquiry simply reinforce the messages that we want to hear, rather than minority (or in some cases majority) messages that are completely outside our experience? Network members are well-travelled, culturally sensitive, and primarily reached through electronic means, and now exploring the utility of blogs and podcasting; how much are we able to take into consideration those with whom we do not connect? One of our Members from Indonesia told a story about working with local communities in which they had provided computers for communication purposes. They had recently sent an email inviting people from those communitiesto attend a workshop, and no one responded.

In his recent book, "Stumbling on Happiness", Daniel Gilbert talks about the view from in here. He puts together a compelling story about how hard, even impossible, it is to remember accurately a previous condition. A more recent experience will always color our evaluation of a past experience. So if those around us are sharing an experience with us, how easy it is for any of us to represent or invoke accurately a completely different context (do we really remember what it was like before we had the internet)?

When such a large percentage of our work is devoted to behaviour change of people that have a potentially very different motivations and contexts to us, sustainability advocates, how close are we getting to really understanding and speaking to the real thing?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Test Message: Balaton Group Meeting 2007

This is a test message for a workshop I am giving this morning on Web2.0. We have a group who will be experimenting with blogs and wikis, tagging and other social networking sites. This message has the tag: BGM2007 (changed later to Balaton Group).

More later!

Tools for Accelerated Learning Workshop: Balaton Group Meeting 2007

This is a test message for a workshop I am giving for 14 people this morning on Web2.0. From Emeritus Professors to sustainabity field workers, we have an interesting group of people attending who are exploring tools for accelerating learning by experimenting with blogs and wikis, tagging and other social networking sites. This meeting has the tag: BGM2007.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Eggs Teaching the Chickens: Reverse Mentoring

‘The old adage “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow” may be true, but what do you do when your “acorn” days are far behind you? How do you continue to grow and flourish? Mentoring apprentices and protégés has been a part of business as long as we’ve had crafts and professions. But when you’ve put a few growth rings under the bark, consider the flip side. Sometimes what managers really need is a mentor from a younger generation to inform and inspire.’

As a ‘young’ professional reading this from the much-loved ‘silence car’ on the train from Zurich early this morning, I smile. It comes from a wonderful book – The Ten Faces of Innovation: Strategies for Heightening Creativity – by Tom Kelly with Jonathan Littman, IDEO.

‘Reverse mentoring can help counter your company’s natural tendency to be over-reliant on its experience. Consider seeking out younger mentors to provide insights and initiative about what’s happening in the world today’ (pp 86).

Whether the relationship is formalized or not, most of us tend to have mentors. Yet how many of us have or are ‘reverse mentors’? What does your reverse mentoring landscape look like?

Within the headquarters of my organization, around 30% of our staff are under the age of 35. We are, somewhat controversially, referred to as the ‘young professionals’. Having already gained considerably greater presence, visibility and voice in the last four years, we are now in the process of developing a programme to maximize the value that we bring and receive during our time here. Part of this is expected to be more formalized mentoring. Now i'm thinking that we perhaps ought rather (or at least additionally) be paying more attention and giving more credit to the reverse mentoring at play…? I wonder what our senior colleagues would feel and have to say about that! Any thoughts?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Workplace Evolution – a Process of Natural Selection?

In recent months our organization has undergone some restructuring and our team has accordingly received a new mandate. Whilst continuing much of our existing work, we now have the scope to develop in new areas, including in the area of ‘leadership’. Thinking for some time now about what this might look like, we have been looking at ourselves – as individuals and a team – to see how we might better use and further develop our strengths. In this process, I have been struck by quite how quickly our jobs can evolve. And I have been wondering about the relationship between me and my job. Are my job and I evolving apace? And is there a process of natural selection at work, in which my job has increasingly played to my strengths?

I joined the organization almost four years ago on a short contract as an editor and soon became involved in a number of projects looking at strategic communication and learning. I have since gained valuable experience working with international, voluntary membership networks, developing websites and portals, using web 2.0 technologies, and more recently I’ve added facilitation skills and interactive learning design as ‘feathers to my bow’. In the course of all of this, to what extent have I sought to evolve in response to an evolving job? And to what extent has the evolution of my strengths influenced the evolution of the job? I am not sure of the answer. Nor am I sure of what would be the optimal balance for me and my organization. To the extent that we can influence the evolution of our jobs, how much should we?

Tapping Into Natural Talent: Bibliotheca Talent Shows

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was, last week, host to a couple of talent shows. One was that of participants in the Youth Employment Summit (YES). Amongst others, Dumisani Nyoni was on stage with his guitar performing a medley of songs from across the world – with his audience standing and singing along as he strums something from a part of the world with which they feel special association. Another, quite different talent show took place during the ‘New Learning for Sustainability in the Arab Region’ event.

Fayez Mikhail, an Information Technology Manager from a large, international environmental organization, took centre stage (well actually just off-centre so as not to obscure the images projected on the screen behind) and showed a talent he had never shown before in almost twenty years with his organization. Fayez has a natural talent for speaking in public. Discovery of this talent was quite by accident. He never signed up for a talent show. We needed a speaker on how developments in information and communication technologies have affected learning within our organization and how we are sharing and learning with others. The speaker would be before a largely Arabic audience. Who better than our Egyptian IT Manager! It didn’t take long for us to close the deal and before we knew it Fayez was on stage and displaying a talent he never even knew he had. (Conversely, during the event we were also presented with performances by that highly experienced public speaker who clearly lacks any natural talent at all and who would have been wise to ask another to do the job for him/her – after all if your lyrics and score are great but you can’t carry a tune you’re unlikely to convince your audience that you belong at the top of the charts).

How can we tap into natural talent in our organizations? Would bringing talent shows into the workplace help us discover talents we never knew we had? And would they help us identify others with the talents we lack who could help us for greater impact? If not a talent show, how can we provide other environments in which we can discover these things? Surely our talents shouldn’t go hidden for almost twenty years. And once discovered, how can we make sure we use these to their full potential?

How Is Networking Form Following Function?

‘Are formal networks pre-internet artifacts?’ - asked Gillian in her post of August 30th. For some time now, we have been dabbling in and experimenting with the ever-evolving networking technologies available online. Working with a formal membership network of over 600 people worldwide, we have been seeking ways to use online technologies to stimulate decentralized engagement and action.

In 2006 we progressed from a traditional website (in Dreamweaver) – editable only by headquarters staff – to an open-source web-portal. The portal provides all network members with the opportunity to login, edit their user profiles, search other members, and share news stories, coming events and resources. And yet already we can see that the speed at which online technologies are developing means that our portal appears a product of the past. Web2.0 social and professional networking tools have taken centre stage, offering ever-more informality, flexibility, functionality and fun. The burning question - What are the implications for our formal membership network? And yet maybe there’s a bigger question that we ought to first be answering…

For me, the question of a network’s ‘form’ (and related used of tools and technologies) cannot be separated from the question: What is the network’s function? (- For we have all heard the familiar ‘form follows function’ saying.)

The World Conservation Union has over 10’000 expert members in six formal networks (otherwise known as ‘Commissions’). What is the key, generic function of these networks? The Union’s website states that these networks ‘assess the state of the world’s natural resources and provide the Union with sound know-how and policy advice on conservation issues’. Is a formal, membership network the best form to support this function? I think this question deserves further exploration. No further exploration is necessary, however, to see clearly that the formality of these membership networks brings to the Union an essential scientific credibility without which the largest conservation organization in the world would certainly lack influence.

When addressing the issue of form following network function - and the related issue of the most appropriate technologies- how can we address (and perhaps reconcile?) these explicit and implicit network functions for greatest impact? I’m hoping that both my informal and formal networks will help me here…

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Having F.U.N.* with Vance Stevens


Vance Stevens, of the Petroleum Institute (Abu Dhabi) and founder of Webheads in 1998, gave a two hour Un-Workshop this morning at our Arab Region New Learning for Sustainable Development Workshop that he titled F.U.N. * Fair: Computer Mediated Communications Tools for Distributed Social Learning Networks. This was a face-to-face un-workshop, a veritable souk of activity, connectivity and interaction both in our training room at the Library of Alexandria, where we are now in Egypt, and with his online colleagues from Barcelona, the West Coast of the US, and so on, who joined us in Second Life, on skype and on worldbridges.net.

The Un-workshop had an open door policy, people were popping in and out. Laptops and terminals all on different pages, the clattering of keypads, exploring and trying out the URLs that Vance was introducing to us, talking us through, answering ten questions simultaneously. There were plenty of technical challenges, and at the same time lots of patient people who were excited by the possibilities, mystified by Second Life (one Egyptian participant said it should be called "Second Wife" instead), and eagerly starting their journey in the technology-mediated environment. It was great to have Vance as a guide. What you can learn from seeing it, trying it, and being able to query it in real time is so valuable, plus his enthusiasm is catching. You could tell that we weren't the only ones having F.U.N.*

* Frivilous Unanticipated Nonsense

Friday, August 31, 2007

Talking About Tagging: Finding Our Event

We are in Day 2 of our New Learning for Sustainable Development in the Arab Region conference at the Library of Alexandria, Egypt. Vance Stevens spoke in our morning session titled, "Motivating Change: New Learning in Formal Education for Sustainable Development."

During his very interesting presentation (which I will blog more about later), he introduced a tag for our meeting IUCNALEX, which we will be using together to aggregate our comments and reflections.

In the presentation this morning by the Taking IT Global team they introduced the idea of "curiosity-based" learning. I think we have a rich mixture of participants here with us, some who are active bloggers and Web 2.0 enthusiasts, and some for whom many of these tools are new. So we can use our curiosity to experiment with some of these, use the resources and knowledge of our colleagues to promote further learning on these tools and the opportunities that they provide, and the tagging system will help people keep it all organized. I hear that Buthaina al Othman, who is one of our speakers this afternoon, talked another participant through how to set up a blog already, so we might have some new bloggers coming out of our meeting!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

An ISO Standard for Plenary Speakers?

We have been talking about standards for social impact analysis today in a small discussion group. Has anyone thought of an ISO like this yet? That would be really helpful to those who are organizing workshops and for speakers as well.

You Can't Fight Furniture

No matter how hard you try to have a dynamic, interactive feeling to a workshop, if you are in a room where the furniture is all facing forward and bolted to the floor, people's assumptions are that they are there to sit still and listen, and not to look at each other and talk.

We have just launched our New Learning workshop, our room is a banked auditorium - very nice, very wired, not too big and very quiet at the moment. Of course, we are at the introduction and context setting part filled with short presentations. And we will get to work hard to change the dynamic once we move past this part to participants' introductions, which I will facilitate next. Needless to say, I was delighted to notice that the chairs do swivel.

Are Formal Networks Pre-Internet Artifacts?

This strikes me as a rather explosive question, and it would be interesting to hear different viewpoints. Several years ago I think I would not have considered it as plausible as I do today. Formal networks now are competing with personal networks that people set up for themselves, both social and professional. Why join a structured professional network, when you can use a ning or Facebook to bring into your orbit the people who are important for informal learning and exchange on your preferred practice, and use google or any other search engine to find all the relevant new information for your field. What can formal networks now provide as a compelling value proposition for their members?

I guess they can be filters and aggregators, but there are lots of organization providing clearinghouses and tailored information collections. There might be a few specialised niches left to populate here, but fewer and fewer every day. Maybe they can provide quality control? But voting and ranking functions can do that to, as well as checking the popular tags on del.icio.us or the public bloglines accounts of reputable experts. What is the most compelling offer for formal networks today?

Maybe they need to go back to F2F formats, that is something that many of these new tools don't provide. When they are virtual, then they are increasingly in a crowded space.

We are just about to kick off a meeting organized in conjunction with our international network of communication and education/learning experts on New Learning, no doubt this will be an interesting question for reflection...

Friday, August 17, 2007

What Can a Trader Learn from a Tribesman?

This is the new corporate ad that our organization has developed - I was so excited to see that out of the 8 words chosen so carefully to profile our organization, "Learning" was one! The tagline at the bottom is also interesting: "Bringing experts together to help solve our most pressing sustainable development challenges".

Earlier this week we had a programme planning session in which we explored our theory of change, visioned our unit in 5 years, and discussed the needs that we saw for learning and leadership within our organization, the greater union of partners and members, and externally. At the end of the day, we worked very hard to try to draw together the many strands of thoughts, ideas and goals, and we came up with the simple (in words if not in action) phrase that will help give our work direction: "Learning - Leading - Convening" (perhaps drawn as a feedback loop diagram). And that was before we saw the corporate ad...

What do you think? Too simple? Too narrow? How do you think learning and leadership go together? We would love to have your feedback!

Monday, August 13, 2007

When Do Facilitators Need Facilitating?

For professional facilitators practised in the art of designing and running effective group processes, skill in reading the underlying dynamics in a group ('The Orchestrator') and maintaining objectivity ('Under the Neutral Flag') are two of fourteen key competencies described in the June 2007 issue of The Global Flipchart.

I have marvelled at facilitators displaying these competencies par excellence and have no doubt about how hugely this has helped the group to progress and succeed with the task at hand, whilst also enabling some to find a little insight into their 'Johari's window'.

My question, however, is: 'In what contexts do even the best facilitators need facilitating?' What happens at meetings of the International Association of Facilitators? When doing their strategic planning, who facilitates? When do facilitators need facilitating?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

For many bloggers, keeping up their blog is a vocation. They are completely devoted to keeping their blog warm, talk about it incessantly, obsess over their statistics, and celebrate when people comment on their posts. The only thing that can possibly keep a blogger away from her blog is perhaps.......vacation, vacation, vacation!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Thoughts from the Dentist’s Chair: Interactive versus Lecture-based Training

As I sat in the dentist chair, turning up the volume on my ipod to mask the drills and trying to focus my attention on the lyrics of carefully-selected sunny-day songs, I found my head filled with questions about dental training. When did this surgeon extract his first wisdom tooth? And how did he learn to do so? Did he learn by doing? (“Oh, so that’s how a jaw breaks, better not do that again”).


A couple of weeks ago, Gillian and I attended a three-day workshop: Performance Beyond Borders – Interactive Training Strategies. An interesting discussion arose around the pros and cons of interactive versus more traditional, lecture-based approaches to training, including:


  • Improved ability to recall information is not always correlated with improved ability to apply and transfer learning;

  • Interactive approaches usually result in a better ability to apply and transfer learning than traditional, lecture-based approaches. However;

  • Improved ability to apply and transfer learning is not always correlated with increased confidence;

  • Confidence in learning approaches depends largely on a learner’s self image, as well as their experience and perceptions about learning (most people think that you need to listen to a lecture from an expert, or read a book with the definitive theory, in order to learn something – that builds confidence, but it still might mean that you are not able to apply the knowledge as effectively);

  • A well-balanced, blended approach (both lecture and interactive) is best.

How had my dentist developed the knowledge, skills, ability and confidence to pull my wisdom teeth? From where did he pull his wisdom and how? Unfortunately when I left the surgery my mouth was all mush and I was unable to ask. On second thought, if he did learn by doing, I might be better off not-knowing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What Can You Learn from a Card Trick?

Last week we went to a fantastic workshop on gaming given by one of the gurus in this field, Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan, whom we have mentioned before in a previous blog post ("Bingo!") . His website on Improving Performance Playfully, is a wealth of free games, interactive training exercises and ideas for trainers and facilitators.

At one point in our workshop, we were taught a card trick. Well, actually we were taught two card tricks - one we were taught directly by Thiagi, and one we were taught by someone else (who had been taught by Thiagi).

What did we learn from a card trick? Well, there is an incredible difference between understanding how something is done and actually being able to do it yourself (let alone being able to teach it to someone else).

When Thiagi first did the card trick, many people could not immediately see the "trick" part. So he showed us the trick and then how to do it in detail. He then handed us each a pack of cards and instructed us to practice and in 5 minutes we would do it for someone else, and then show them how to do the trick.

Let me tell you, it is very hard to turn explicit knowledge (knowing how the trick works) into implicit knowledge (being able to actually do the trick). And it is even harder to then teach it to someone else (explaining it to make it explicit again.) And that was just a card trick, imagine if it was leadership or environmental management. It is not that it is impossible to do. But often when we teach or train, we leave people with explicit knowledge (knowing how the tool, methodology, practice works) and don't go much further than that.

I came away from that exercise with one card trick that I can do acceptably well after lots of practice (at least to the delight of my 6 year old) and a much better appreciation of why watching someone use games will not necessarily make us better gamers, and reading all kinds of articles on leadership will not make us better leaders, and why saying "I know how that works" will not necessarily mean that I can actually do it myself.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Learning at All Levels: Boss Swap

I heard a great idea yesterday from the founder/owner of an innovative Dutch technology firm. He wanted to create an experiential learning opportunity for himself, the head of the business for nearly 20 years, so he organized a "Boss swap" with a friend in another company. For three days, he swapped roles with another CEO from a similar-sized, but non-competing business, to see what he could learn.

He said that he found the experience fascinating. Indeed, he got some new management ideas that he could effectively apply in his own workplace. And, by observing with a more dispassionate view on structures, roles and work flows, he found that when he returned he was able to look more objectively at his own business.

One of the most valuable parts of this experience he said were the discussions with his swap partner afterwards. Both in similar roles, they were able to help each other explore internal decisions and options for change with much more background that they could ever shared over (many) dinner conversations, creating a peer-learning opportunity that bordered on coaching that was equally valuable to both of them. He also said that, following his experience, he organized similar swaps for other levels of management in different offices, and that the Dutch media had been so interested in the exercise that they had covered it in the news (no doubt an added benefit.)

This strikes me as an excellent informal learning exchange for those at different management levels in our institution (even between our HQ and regional/national offices). It would give managers the opportunity to think differently about their own work, build relationships among senior staff (and with other workers), and develop a system of peer-support at the management level. It would also give people more information and experience with one another's programmes and might help identify practical ways to collaborate that were not obvious before.

Facilitators Notebook: "Experience in a Box" Application

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post (Experience in a Box) about an interesting kit of materials that could be used to help people move through their learning cycle, from "analysis" to "experimenting", by building and simulating their ideas.

I used this on Thursday in our in-house Facilitator's Training Course (Module 4: Working with Space and Context). Earlier in the session we had given our facilitators scenarios to use to practice their introductions - the contracting piece - when you introduce yourself to the participants, share your goals, and frame of the workshop/meeting. Later we used those same scenarios with the Combi box to physically "build" the workshop rooms where those scenarios would most effectively take place. As they built their spaces (with sticks, wooden blocks, game pieces, modelling clay, etc.) each team talked through the various reasons for a certain room set up - based on the meeting's purpose, what they knew about the group, cultural considerations (given in the scenarios), etc.

We could have had general discussions in plenary about different kinds of room set-ups. However, that would have been passive learning for many, and perhaps too theoretical to be really useful. It would have been a few of us sharing our experiences, rather than strengthening the experience of others. The act of building the ideal workshop rooms in miniature with the materials allowed people to test different options together, talk about how one might work better than another, and make decisions, and then share the artifact of their discussion with the rest of us in a very short time.

This turned out to be an interactive, productive and fun exercise to give people more than just a notion, but some "experience" in setting up workshop spaces to contribute to their desired outcomes. Next step - moving those chairs for real! (Also, as a side note, not many of their final room set-up plans looked anything like those traditional ones in the image attached - they might have started that way, but in the process of their discussions their designs turned out to be much more innovative...)

Friday, June 08, 2007

Normative Forecasting versus Extrapolation - Big Words for Big Change?

In the last couple of days, I have been working with a core team in our institution on a strategic planning process to structure and organize a major upcoming event - a Congress of 10,000 people which will be held at the end of next year. We spent a good deal of our 14.5 hours together building a wall-sized work plan that detailed every aspect of the Congress that we could think of - and tried to understand how these all fit together in terms of sequencing and responsibilities, as well as the kinds of knowledge gaps or risks that we could identify now. The final, enormous visual result was less overwhelming than expected because we knew that everyone understood each other's individual pieces, and were there to help.

We did not start this exercise with extrapolating what needed to happen from today (that started after lunch). Instead we started with what kind of a Congress we wanted. We talked about what we wanted to achieve in terms of strategic objectives, and our most energised discussions were around how to have a healthy and happy Congress for everyone involved. These Congresses happen every four years, and are increasingly marathon events, with thousands of participants, hundreds of staff, hundreds of different activities happening concurrently, and - because they happen in a different place and with a different team each time- a steep learning curve. Our conversation about a healthy Congress (which is actually one of the sub-themes, although it is meant more in a global sustainable development sense) tapped people in to what they wanted their Congress to look like and be, not only for participants, but for them as the people who devote their lives to it for the two years preceding it.

During those 14 days of the Congress they wanted features both simple and complex. They wanted regular break times and meals, for sustenance and reflection; they wanted fresh air and some exercise (besides running around an enormous conference centre). They wanted clear responsibilities and lines of communication; and they wanted recognition for great work (and not just those emergency calls when things fall apart). They wanted the ability to participate in the substantive discussions to be built into their terms of engagement, so that they also could contribute to the debate. All of these things would help create the Congress they wanted to see, and would give them something to aim for. This is a more normative approach, describing desired future (I read an interesting definition of normative as being "one step beyond normal"). Normal, is what you might get if you use an extrapolative approach - one that infers or estimates the future by extending or projecting known information.

These two choices for developing future pathways, whether using extrapolative or normative approaches, are equally valid whether you are planning a major event, reorganizing an entire institution, developing a new programme, or trying to figure out what you want to do with your life - all four types of conversations I have had with people over the last week. The tendency seems to be to use extrapolation. How far can we get if we tweak this or that? What kind of different outcomes might we get if we experiment with normative forecasting? This might be a better way if your goal is big change.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Experience in a Box?

This week we went to a meeting of a Swiss-based Knowledge Management Community of Practice called "Think Table". This one-day gathering was packed full of games, experiences, discussions on topics such as storytelling (Story Guide: Building Bridges Using Narrative Techniques" prepared by the Swiss Development Cooperation-their webpage has many other related free documents to download), facilitation (our contribution), monitoring and evaluation for knowledge management, and "rapid prototyping".

Rapid prototyping was a particularly interesting tool, and it fit in with our recent preoccupation with getting people at work to be thinking about their Learning Cycles. This tool presents an opportunity to go further with the experimenting/experience part of the cycle through actually building a process and then simulating and walking through the various steps, before documenting them more formally on paper after the experience.

Manfred Kunzel from the University of Fribourg presented the activity, asking four small teams to each construct the following scenario: "opening the door to sell black ThinkTables to schools in our community". He gave us each half a box of supplies, small blocks, game pieces, sticks, post-it notes, other representational objects, and instructed us to build and then simulate the various seps in the process. After our initial "what?" reaction, we got to the task, and the discussion which followed helped us move through the essential stages of both project planning and execution (simplify the task, organization and set up, exploration and modelling, develop the plan, and execution). Apparently you can build any process in about 40 minutes, although then it can take several hours afterwards to formalise the process (map it, write down the steps, assign roles, etc.)

I have one of the boxes on my desk now, and already have plans to use it (you could probably create your own box). I thought it was a brilliant way to get people to think about something they want to do together, agree on it, build it, and then practice how the various stocks (money, people, ideas) flow around their system. It doesn't replace real life, but sometimes you can't practice building a bridge, or running a Congress of 10,000 people. At least this way you can create that environment on a much smaller scale and then run around in your simulated environment, saying what you would say, going where you would go, and seeing what kinds of things you might run into on the way.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Getting Some Help in Letting Go: Online Communities, Nings and Del.icio.us

This title might sound like the start of a self-help entry, and in some ways it is. We have written a few blog posts in the past about seeing information as flow (rather than a stock). These posts included How is Information Like Electricity or Water? and Knowledge Has Changed: 6 Big Ideas from George Siemens. And we have even tried to experiment with this notion in our own lives, for example in our office, which we wrote about in the blog post No Trees Were Harmed Setting Up This Office. However, when you come right down to it, people just want to keep things, bits of information, papers, books. No doubt there is some deep psychological reason for this (did my family move around alot when I was a child?) or maybe I just don't have enough time to read all these things in the first place (so I imagine that I will have more time later?)

I have been active recently on a new community social networking tool called a ning. One in particular is devoted to informal learning, run by Jay Cross, called the Internet Time Community. On that site, the community of 90 members (this number has tripled, it was only 30 last week) discusses community building, blogging, PLEs (personal learning environments), and more, all at the same time. Here is where I found something that helped me take another step in letting go of paper. I shared with this community my urge to print things (I had just started a physical folder of interesting articles on web 2.0 and somehow it seemed very anachronistic) and asked them for some advice.

Several members of the community answered this question. Here is what Jay Cross (author of Informal Learning) said: "Try using Del.icio.us or Magnolia. When you see something you like, click and you have a breadcrumb back to that item. You can tag it for retrieval by any terms you want. And you can even see who else has tagged the same thing. "

So I just spent the last hour setting myself up on Del.icio.us and I must say, it's satisfying to go back through those many emails I sent myself with URLs to useful sites and documents. I was able to annotate them, and tag them for future reference. I won't lose them and I won't print them. And it feels good knowing that they are there - just like those community members in the ning; they helped me take one more small step towards letting go...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Giving Feedback That People Can Hear

We have been on the giving and receiving end of feedback recently and that has inspired us to think a bit more about this artful communication process. How can we give feedback that people can actually hear, and even potentially use as a part of their learning process?

A couple of questions come to mind when thinking about this often delicate transaction: First of all, why am I giving this feedback? What are my motivations? Is it to help the person do something differently, to improve a process, to establish myself as an expert in the area, to register my reaction to some behaviour? Or a combination of these things? How close can you come to the core reason for giving the feedback in the first place, and can that help you package your feedback in a way that helps the person understand your motivations, and therefore make your feedback welcome?

The second question is how can I give my feedback? We asked this question to our group of trainee facilitators two weeks ago during our course. Many responses came up, and fundamental to the means they picked (writing, orally, face-to-face, etc.) was the question of trusting the giver to provide the feedback in a way that was appreciative and balanced (so what worked and what could be different).

Ultimately, the best result of giving feedback is that the relationship between you and the recipient is ever better than it was before. After all, you care enough about her/him (the process, the work, your relationship) to think carefully and share your reflections, and genuinely work together towards constant improvement. Think about the last time you gave someone feedback, would you say that your relationship is even better now? If not, then you could have had a communication misfire. Thankfully, feedback is not necessarily a one-off event, if you really want to help, think about it and try again.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Happy 100th Blog Post! What Blogging Has Brought to Us

Today we are celebrating - in the last 7 months we have written 100 blog posts! What is this practice contributing to our work? Here are some of the things that we have identified...

Making Space for Reflective Practice – Many people say they are too busy to think or be creative. For us blogging has created a space for reflection, and reflection is an essential part of our learning process (see Kolb’s Learning Model). In writing our blog posts, we are not skipping that essential step: taking an experience, reflecting on it, then applying our learning to new experiences. Our blog helps us map our learning on a daily basis, which encourages us and focuses us on constant improvement. No learning gets lost or goes unnoticed!

Capturing our Knowledge as it Develops – Our blog is a way to synthesize and record our knowledge and ideas as they develop. It is a way to capture and create new knowledge and meaning for ourselves. It is a means of analysis (in a most non-scientific way.) And it organizes these ideas for us so that we can track them and refer back to them later.

Fostering Creative Thinking and Writing – Our blog helps prepare us for conversations where we need to articulate new ideas. It helps commit our learning to memory, helps us develop our story, and practice telling it (albeit in writing) as the message is already "chewed over" in our heads.

Developing our Personal Knowledge Management Systems – Through exploring blogging and the theories behind it, it has introduced us to new thinking about personal knowledge management while at the same time providing a new tool in our personal knowledge management tool box. It also helps us practice what we preach in terms of experimentation and creativity.

Connecting Us for Quality Inputs – Our blog has enabled valuable comment from others in the blogosphere through a self-selecting mechanism (comments are opt-in) which in our experience been about quality versus quantity.

Even now, writing this 100th blog post has given us an opportunity to reflect again on what we are learning to help us consider what we can change, do more of, or explore further to improve our learning with this tool.