Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I Learned Something New About: China

On Day 2 of our Fixed Meeting Week, we had a fascinating session on the "Future of Sustainability" that featured a speaker from China, an economist currently working for a UN agency in Geneva, who spoke to us about China and how its government and 1.3 billion people are approaching sustainability.

You cannot pick up a paper or magazine (or turn on the TV for that matter) without hearing about China these days, and for many environmentalists in their discussions about sustainable development, it is the elephant in the room.

This speaker shared with us some refreshing insight into what China is doing in our field. First, he spoke about how China is translating the concept of 'sustainability' into 'harmony'. Apparently, in 2005, the Chinese government shifted its focus from growth, to building a harmonious society. The concept of harmony has had its root in Chinese culture for thousands of years. Unlike 'sustainability', the concept of a 'harmonious society' is made in China. So it is more likely to be accepted by Chinese policy makers and people. Harmony is also an embracing concept; it means harmony within a person, between people, and (newly added) between people and nature. In fact this latter type of harmony is the foundation of this concept, as without harmony with nature, the other two types of harmony become increasingly difficult to attain. This concept of a harmony is being spread pervasively; the speaker saw a sign on a highway toll booth in rural China which read, "Collect tolls harmoniously". When the Chinese government wants to do something, it can do it. Which brought him to his next point.

China's political commitment to building a harmonious society is backed up by a strong state environmental protection agency, which in China is getting unprecedented power. While other sectors develop more fully in China, he said, that people are happy to have a strong central government and environmentalists are particularly happy that the state EPA has a much strengthened role.

The final point that our speaker made was that China is experimenting with sustainable living on a very large scale now. He noted that on an island near Shanghai, they are building the world's first ecological city, which will become the model for 40 more cities of this kind that will be built in China in the next 20 years. Built using renewable energies, public transport, and more, these cities will help China learn about how urban sustainable living can be approached by its growing population.

Our speaker gave some final thoughts; China wants to play a role in a more sustainable world, it can play a role and it will play a role. How can we welcome more Chinese colleagues into our discussions, meetings and projects to learn together about what works for sustainable development in all parts of the world?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Networking - In or Out of Your Comfort Zone?

Monday afternoon, a two hour session was held titled, 'Learn Something New: People and Networking'. The objective was not to provide a taught course on Networking, but to create an environment where people can share and exchange about networking, and do it at the same time.

In one exercise people were asked to stand on a line on the floor which represented a continuum between two extremes. The question was: How do you feel about networking at meeting coffee breaks? The extremes were: "I love it!" or "I'll go to the loo!" What we noticed was that a slight majority was going to the loo. One participant reflected that, for a networking organization, we are not all comfortable networkers.

Some suggestions were offered about how we can do more networking, and how we can help create work environments where networking and interaction is one of the key objectives. Longer coffee/lunch breaks? Open spaces in the agenda for interaction? Introductory sessions which serve to connect people and help them build relationships?

After this session, another 40 people know each other better (and can recognize each other by their 'Learn Something New' wristbands!). There is a reception tonight, let's see how the networking goes...

Sunday, January 28, 2007

What Is the Purpose of ‘Free Coffee Mornings’?

A month ago (December 22nd), Gillian wrote a post about the value of weekly free coffee mornings in fostering staff networking and informal learning in our organization The Strength of Weak Coffee. Well, one month later we decided to explore the opinions of others in our organization on this topic. To do so, our team sponsored last Wednesday’s free coffee morning and, as staff flocked into the cafeteria, we explained that this week free coffee came at a small cost: In exchange for coffee – the completion of a brief questionnaire. What are the purposes of free coffee mornings? How do you feel free coffee mornings contribute to teamwork in our organization? What innovative ideas have been triggered during free coffee mornings? And, what did you learn over free coffee today?

As the cafeteria began to fill up, the exercise generated a lovely, humming buzz. What’s more, we were delighted to see that many people came equipped with pens – eager to share their thoughts, having been prepped by our email in advance. Perhaps more encouraging still was that throughout the day we were approached and asked for questionnaires by staff members who were unable to attend this week’s free coffee morning and yet still keen to have their voice heard.

A first look at the sixty questionnaires completed shows great support for free coffee mornings, with the majority of respondents citing their importance as a small ‘thank you’ from the organization and opportunity for staff networking and learning about matters of both personal and professional interest. A more substantive analysis is due, but for now I wanted to capture one additional outcome. Many staff commented on the exercise itself, pointing out learning about how to make the most of free coffee mornings in the future to engage with staff, about how enthusiastic staff are to express their opinions, and the importance of ‘social spaces’ and time for team-building and collaboration across ‘silos’.

So what did we learn? That a lot of learning in organizations takes place at unexpected times in unexpected places – informally. Often this has neither been noticed nor appreciated (either by the learners themselves or others). We need to continue to help notice and appreciate our learning by continuing to find ways to ask - and capture the answers to - the question: What did we learn today? This was a valuable purpose of this free coffee morning for us.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Week of Meetings and/or a Week of Learning?

We have a full week of meetings come up. Here is what Wikipedia says about meetings and learning:

Meetings are sometimes held around conference tables. In a meeting, two or more people come together for the purpose of discussing a (usually) predetermined topic, often in a formalized setting. In organizations, meetings are an important vehicle for human communication. They are so common and pervasive in organizations, however, that many take them for granted and forget that, unless properly planned and executed, meetings can be a terrible waste of precious resources.

Learning, as the verb, it is the process of gaining understanding that leads to the modification of attitudes and behaviours through the acquisition of knowledge, skills and values, through study and experience. Learning induces a persistent, measurable, and specified behavioural change in the learner to formulate a new mental construct or revise a prior mental construct. The learning process leads to long-term changes in behaviour potential.

It strikes me that most of our meetings have learning goals, yet they are structured as though the main goal is information sharing. How can the structure of our meetings change so that they can both inform and help people learn?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

What Exactly Are You Facilitating?

I have had a few people ask me about the value of facilitating other people's workshops. What does that contribute to the grand scheme of things?

What Facilitators do that is visible to participants (that is, stand up in front of a room and guide discussions/give instructions), is probably about 30% of the work of a Facilitator. Another 30% of the time is spent working with the event holders in advance to help them clarify what they want to get out of their session, how they want people to feel at the end of it, what kind of physical outcomes they need for the next step in their process, and how can they structure their inputs to have maximum impact. The good Facilitator guides this inquiry too.

The next 30% block of time is spent actually designing purposeful workshop activities and their sequencing, making decisions about the choreography, group sizes, energy ebbs and flows, and how to capture all that into an agenda for interactivity, creativity and fun. Further discussions with the host team can help everyone share learning and experience about what works in different situations and contexts.

The final 10% of the Facilitator's time is spent in final details. Do you have your handouts ready? What other materials do you need? What are the segue ways between key activities? What is the opening script? (These are the things that can keep you awake at night.)

The overall goal is not to just to move people around a room for a day. A good Facilitator is a process person with their eye on outcomes and learning - there is reason for every interaction, what is it and how can a process be designed that makes those conversations easier, smoother, and more productive? After all, facilitation comes from the Latin word "facil" which means to make something easy. Good facilitation means making group dialogue, decision-making, information sharing, and learning processes easier and more effective for everyone: your workshop hosts, your participants, and yourself. If you care about your organization, want it to have the greatest possible impact in the world, and learn the most from its daily interactions, then being a facilitator is one good way to help.

Facilitator's Notebook: Star Speakers

We are just going into a week of facilitating learning and conversation activities and no doubt we will have some learning to share on this blog. Here is the first post for the Facilitator's Notebook:

Lights, Camera, Action: Working with Star Speakers

Here is a lesson that I absolutely need to learn as a workshop facilitator: No matter how well you brief a plenary speaker who is a subject matter expert, no matter how much you discuss their presentation and the key points, or even how frank you can be with them about keeping it short and to the point - if you give them X (pick any number from 10 to 100) minutes for their presentation, they will go over the time.

So what, you might ask, is an additional 10 minutes here and there? Well, when you have 3 speakers on a panel who do that, that is 30 minutes over time, and where do you make up that time? In the discussion. So instead of a nice 45 minute discussion where the audience can actually share and exchange their opinions on the topic, and ground their learning in their own experience, you are down to 15 minutes. One or two participants with two-part questions will finish that off nicely.

What is it about standing in front of a rapt audience (or even a few rapt people in the front row) that woos our speakers to the limelight? That puts stars in their eyes and genuinely compels them to put on a really good show for their audience? And how can we manage all that good intent as Facilitators?

Short of creating a scene, cutting someone off mid-sentence, or sending out the gaff, there is not much you can do. Obviously if it is extreme, then extreme measures are called for (see previous sentence). However, normally it is not extreme, it is just those extra 10 minutes that you really wanted to use to get people thinking, connecting and conversing about the topic. Here are a few things you might try:

  • Telling people they have 15 minutes to speak and building 20 minutes into the schedule (maybe speakers expect this and that is why they do it? Where did they learn that?);
  • Using timecards (green card - 10 minutes to go, yellow card - 5 minutes to go, red card - STOP)(AND some speakers are very skilled at focusing on a different part of the room than where you are wildly waving your cards);
  • Appointing a chair for the panel that is not afraid to tell people to finish up and can do it diplomatically (Chairs can also, however, be tempted into the same limelight with lengthy introductory and final remarks);
  • Designing a session to follow a plenary that is either expendable or contractible (like coffee break and lunch - make sure that they have been allocated enough time to absorb this eventuality, otherwise prepare for revolution);
  • Asking people to make their presentations ahead of time online, or by paper and then having them present to only take questions from the audience (you have to manage participants expectations to get away with this)
  • Don't include any plenary speakers, or at least don't stack them up - stick with one keynote speaker if you wish to have one (this is actually a serious option);

Frankly, designing your workshop to absolutely account for this, and being able to effectively manage with run overs is probably the best place to start, especially if you have an incredibly engaging speaker. It is a pity to cut off a unique learning opportunity for people, and a good facilitator will know when to let things run over. Plan for it in as many ways as possible, especially by allocating substantial discussion times (even after they get cut down) so that this critical part of the learning process is always there to help people follow your star.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Scattering Learning Seeds: The Pod and the Magic Bean Stalk

Everyday I commute for two hours, traveling an hour to and from work with chunks of the journey by foot, tram, train and bike. For the past three years, this has been a time for thinking, reading and chatting with other commuter colleagues - on both professional and personal matters. The time has always been a much appreciated ‘wind up’ to and ‘wind down’ from the hours in the office. A recent addition to my commuter repertoire has made it even more enjoyable! – Podcasts.

Podcasts. The word itself tickles my imagination – hence the title of this blog post. Little did I expect, however, to find them so engaging. An audio file, downloaded from the internet to your computer, from where you can listen to it or transfer it to your iPod for use wherever you go – in my case whilst commuting. I had never thought of myself as an audio-learner. I realize now I’d just never found audio-learning resources so suited to my interests and lifestyle.

My first three Podcasts came from the members section of and comprised some really stimulating expert interviews with the authors of books on leadership and learning. Much like a great radio show, these presented manageable amounts of info in a way that really came to life - so much so that I felt more-or-less party to a live conversation. Of course there’s no substitute for reading the book in its entirety, for in-depth learning; however with the Podcasts the seeds have been successfully scattered and sown. I'm sure I will follow up on the ideas presented there and who knows where these new bits of information take me. If a magic beanstalk results – all the better!

For me at least, listening to Podcasts is a pleasure. Now I just need to learn a little more about how and where I can find even more quality content providers that match my interests so well. Recommendations please…

Monday, January 22, 2007

Leveraging the Wisdom of Crowds in our Organization

James Surowiecki has popularized the concept of The Wisdom of Crowds in his book of the same name, which 'explores a deceptively simple idea that has profound implications: crowds are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant - better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future. This seemingly counterintuitive notion has endless and major ramifications for how organizations are (or should be) organized and operate, how knowledge is advanced, and how we live our daily lives.' The question is, how are we responding to these ramifications? How are we leveraging the wisdom of crowds in our organizations?

According to Surowiecki, there are four key qualities that make a crowd smart. It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd's answer. It needs a way of summarizing people's opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and not worrying about what everyone around them thinks.

Next week, our organization is hosting a week of meetings, bringing together in headquarters senior staff from our offices around the world. During these meetings, how smart will our crowd(s) be? How smart could it/they be? As session organizers, what can we do to make our crowds as smart as possible - better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future?

Returning to the office tomorrow, I'm going to have another look at our session designs and ask myself these questions, considering the extent to which our crowds will have the key qualities described. I will certainly come back to this in the coming days.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Very Informal Learning: From Portland to Geneva in Four Minutes

Even skype chat offers learning conversation opportunities. This is what you can type in a chat window in four minutes between Portland and Geneva...

[10:33:55 PM] Andy says: How can one work situation with all the money and talent be such a torture chamber and another situation with a few fairly tolerable people turn out to be such a great job and incredibly productive?

Gillian says: Because work is all about relationships and when they are good, work is generally higher quality, and when they are bad the same positive correlation is often true.

Gillian says: And I think we have a lot more control over our work environment than we think. There is a nice little book about the Seattle Fish Market called "Fish" which is all about making great workplace environments. You should check it out; you can read it in about 2 hours.

Andy says: I'd throw trust in there somewhere. This latest gig has really let me make my own mistakes and fix them. It's kept me interested the entire time. There has been no second guessing and back stabbing that just kills any and all ambition.

Gillian says: Yes, and I think that trust is fundamental to a good relationship.

Andy says: Yeah, my boss really has done that well. The gal I work with could make soooo much money somewhere else, but he leaves her (and me) alone to get the work done.

Gillian says: And she would rather have a good working environment with a little less money than a bad working environment with loads of money - good for your boss.

Andy says: Yeah, my boss doesn't have any money so a good work environment is all he has to offer. You know how non-profits work.

[10:37:09 PM] Gillian says: Yep, I work in a non-profit.

Organizational Talent Scouting: Finding Julie Andrews

Recruiting senior staff for a global knowledge organization these days is very much like casting a movie. First you need a good idea of the movie you want to make, then you need to cast it with the right talent. If you have a choice of actor profiles, in order to have a good movie, you would look for a great actor, rather than someone that necessarily has experience doing what the character does. For example, Julie Andrews did not need to have experience being a nanny to be a fantastic Mary Poppins. She is talent and she can play a variety of different parts very well - she knows how to prepare herself (go talk to some career nannies), she can learn her lines and part, she can work with the director to improve the script, she can innovate and shape her role around her own assets for maximum effect, she has chemistry with others, and she can breathe energy and life into her role - here, her job.

In a fast changing world, organizations need to be able to continually adapt to new conditions, new information and developments on the global stage. You need your senior staff to have widely applicable skills to be able to change as their roles change. Having a very specific experience base might be less important than having the skills to learn the job, the motivation to improve the context, the creativity to shape it to maximise their assets, the contacts with the subject matter experts, and the ability to work with others to get the job done well.

Need a new senior staff member? Advertise for a Julie Andrews. (After all, wouldn't you like to work with someone who believes that, "In ev'ry job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job's a game...")

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bottoms on Seats – How Do You Make That Memorable?

The participant’s journey at a large-scale conference can be an interesting one. People travel to the venue, they walk into a bustling and colourful conference venue (exhibitions, restaurants, meeting spaces, and all), then they walk into their first of many small workshop rooms and basically sit there (different small rooms of course) for 75% of the conference. The room size might change, the speakers might change, and still, most of the conference goer’s experience can easily be sitting in seats listening. Research shows that retention rates from listening to presentations are low and generally decline over time. Not to mention the fact that when you sit shoulder to shoulder in a room you rarely get to know whom you are sitting beside. In a plenary keynote presentation last September, I asked a group of 300 people to raise their hand if they knew both of the people they were sitting between. Only a few people raised their hands. This was on Day 3 of the Conference.

We spend a lot of energy thinking about communication to conference participants and the media around the event to make it colourful, interesting and engaging; how can we make sure that this does not stop at the workshop door? After all, that is where most people spend their Congress-going time. Believe me, I know, I am sitting in a Conference planning workshop myself today…

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

* A team retreat to do strategic planning for the next 5 years;
* A one-day meeting of partners to contribute to an upcoming summit;
* A co-development process for the design of a leadership programme with a colleague a country away;

What do these things have in common?

Each one of them will be more successful when there are good relationships existing or being built among the participating people that support the interaction, the dialogue and decision-making.

We have spent time recently with colleagues who are engaging in design and development work for ambitious upcoming activities that have as a central need good relationships amongst the participating people; one of trust, openness, honesty and a genuine desire to be a positive contributor to the discussions. When these relationships exist, you have a context where amazing things can happen - you have the foundation for a highly performing team, and a team whose abilities will not stop at the end of this activity. Those good relationships will continue to exist.

And, if they don't yet exist, what kinds of things can you do to help build them?

Friday, January 12, 2007

How Excited Are You About the Year Ahead?

It's January and for many of us that means yearly work planning. We get together and we think about what we need to accomplish in the year ahead. How do you feel at the end of this planning process? Ready to go, or tired already? How can we get excited about the year ahead?

We may not always have a choice about the work we do, but we can choose the way we do it is a well-known statement that managers often use in efforts to help motivate team members. But maybe there is more. Maybe we have more latitude for choice about what work we do than we think.

Even within set organizational programmes, teams can always ask the question - What do we want to do this year? What do we want to learn and what do we want to achieve for ourselves and our team? There will always be the 'reality check' team member that will remind us of the programmed goals. The creative process then focuses on how to weave these together. How much more motivation, energy and enthusiasm does it create when people get to bring into the workday some of their passions, personal avenues of enquiry, and the opportunity to develop some longer term capacities they are building?

New Year Resolutions: Pleasure or Pain? We Can Choose!

One week into 2007, I'm back to work and Gillian and I are looking at all we have planned for the year ahead. Wow! We have a long list of things we want to do and achieve. How are going to ensure that - come the end of the year - we stand the best chance of finding ourselves looking back and happily reflecting on our successes?

Going through the deluge in my inbox, I come across an end of year email from Mind Tools entitled 'Keeping Your New Year Resolutions' . It raises some interesting questions for us to ask ourselves, including: Why are New Years' resolutions often about what we should give up and not do?

This made me think back to two earlier, related posts: What Do Change and Strip Poker Have in Common? and Our Story, Our Choice. As explored in these previous posts, we don't have to focus on what we should give up and not do. We have a choice.

Rather than thinking of change and what we resolve to do differently as a loss and pain, let's frame our new intentions more positively, more 'appreciatively'. In our personal resolutions, and looking at the list of things we want to do and achieve professionally in 2007, let's first resolve to ensure that we frame our new intentions as a pleasure and get motivated to succeed!