Sunday, February 25, 2007

Learn Something New About...Sustainability

Which is more sustainable?

* A cotton diaper (nappy) OR a disposable nappy?
* A diesel compact car OR a Prius?
* A compact fluorescent light bulb OR a regular light bulb?

The answer is...we don't know - it depends on what you do with them.

Nothing is intrinsically sustainable or not. You can easily leave an energy-saving bulb on 24 hours a day every day and have to change it all the time, or you can turn off a regular bulb when you are not using it and make it last much longer. You can drive your Prius to the corner shop 10 times a day, or you can drive your diesel rarely and car pool and take the bus most of the time. You can use cotton diapers, but if you throw them away as soon as they get soiled and buy new ones, you are not too much better off.

This thought exercise was introduced to me by Dennis Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth, who spoke at our institution on Friday. His candor about the state of the world, the imminent impacts of climate change, and the consequences of the global oil peak tended towards the terrifying. Coupled with this is the notion that within our current political structures politicians cannot make the kinds of decisions that they need to for radical change.

Then this simple thought experiment. We talk about the need for behaviour change. We hope for new technologies. And actually what we need is both. We need people to use their Prius for car pooling, and to turn off their energy efficient bulbs when they are not in the room. We might say that anyone who cares enough to buy that Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb, would probably be good enough not to leave it on all the time. But do they? Do you?

Since we already have lots of nifty technology (improvements could always be made) we probably could use a lot more understanding of the behaviour change side of this equation. Technology takes a long time to develop and embed in current processes/systems, but behaviour change can in theory happen over night. Eveyone knows someone who has quit smoking, lost lots of weight, became passionate about a new hobby, or quit a good job and moved to a new city to start a new life. We are capable of radical change. (Of course there is a lot of psychology in here, and it is not so easy - see the previous post on What Do Change and Strip Poker Have in Common.)

Then we need to bring these things together. Learning sits at the heart of this dynamic process. We could usefully strengthen the knowledge to action links for all of us; even for (or even especially for) those of us working in the sustainable development field. Dennis Meadows ended his presentation with a game called the "Sound of one hand clapping" which made the powerful (and even a little painful) point that actions speak louder than words.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Design Your Perfect Learnscape

If you could design your perfect Learnscape, what would it look like?

We are in the process of putting together plans for a new building for our institution. We would love to have a purpose-built learnscape included in these plans. This would be a flexible learning space that would represent our institution's learning and sustainability goals and be a physical representation of the way people will learn and work together in the future. We would be delighted to have your ideas on this.

Here are some of the principles and features we are suggesting:

Principle 1: Bringing people closer to nature – the Learning Lab would include indoor and outdoor learning. Glass doors on the main rooms would not only bring the external environment into the room visually, it would also allow learners to move their formal and informal discussions outdoors onto a patio area. There would also be an outdoor learning space for 10 people, and a green space for outdoor experiential learning activities.

Principle 2: Supporting diversity – Adult learners have diverse learning preferences that are built upon culture, past educational experience, and their degree of openness to new ways of working and learning. The Learning Lab would include two main training rooms that could be merged for large group work. It would also feature a small informal room (Sandbox) with comfortable arm chairs and wall workspace for more intimate discussions. It would also have individual areas for more personalized work and reflection in the Blog Spot (IT space).

Principle 3: Encouraging multiculturalism – The Learning Lab would draw on educational traditions from different cultures, linked with its goals to support diversity. It would include in its outdoor space, a Yurt (10 persons) for more intimate (fireside-type) discussions, a Stamptisch in the open meeting space for debate and sharing, and some flexible spaces that could either reflect more traditional learning environments, or be spaces for circles and storytelling.

Principle 4: Convening, creativity and co-creation – Features of the Learning Lab would be designed to encourage convening, innovation, dialogue and co-creation of new ideas and actions. Here are a few of the ways that design would encourage these practices:

* All the tables in the Lab would be round tables,
* All rooms would be painted different warm, bright colours,
* The chairs in the main training rooms would be different colours,
* One entire wall of each room would be a white board,
* No wall clocks would put pressure on participants or facilitators,
* Learning spaces would be personalized with art from around the world,
* More intimate spaces would have soft furnishing and carpets,
* Different communication media would be available for participants to use – from the Blog spot IT space, to the equipment in the main learning rooms.

Our goal for the Learning Lab is to create a learning space that promotes our goals in the world, that supports a diversity of learning styles and preferences, and is consistent with the needs of a learning organization devoted to sustainability. It would integrally link the internal world of the learner, to her/his colleagues, workplace, and to the wider world.

What do you think? What can we add? What would you add/change to make your perfect Learnscape?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reframing Falling Flipcharts

I had a powerful reframing opportunity today as I sat for 7 hours in the Emergency Room waiting to see the doctor that would eventually give me 6 injections and as many stitches in my big toe due to a freak flipchart accident in my home today.

Trying to put a new flipchart together, with meager instructions, for my home office this morning created the situation which put me in the ER all day. A serial optimist, what could I do to reframe that? How could I go in to see the Doctor positive instead of p.o.'ed that I had to wait 7 hours for treatment of a squashed toe? Well, let me tell you...

For the last 8 months or more I have carried around Peter Senge's "Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society". It is a book about systems, living organizations, reactive versus deeper learning, stories and more. All of which sound very relevant to my work, so, I have taken it back and forth on trips to the States twice, to Madrid, even to Bangkok, and I have never gotten past the Introduction (which I have read many times now).

Today, I grabbed it again, and in the no mobile/no laptop zone of the hospital waiting room devoured half of it. With the complete concentration you can only get when you have absolutely nothing else to do (or anyone to interrupt you), I dove into that book and am really enjoying it. It is dense at times, and some of the points are very subtle and need to be applied (put the book down and think "how does this resonate with my experience?") before going on to read the next part, and therefore takes the kind of time commitment that I cannot easily find these days. But I am in it now; I can even say (almost) that I am glad to have had that flipchart create the time for me to read this book properly...

This is the sentence from the book that is tickling around in my mind at the moment (and keeping it off the incredible throbbing pain in my toe):

The next great opening of an ecological worldview will have to be an internal one.

I agree - I would love to discuss this with anyone - have you read it? I still have half of it to read and am a bit worried about what has to happen to give me the quality time I need to read the rest of it...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

What is My Personal Knowledge Management System?

After some Skype chat earlier in the week, it was great to hear the voice of Harold Jarche this evening. The Skype call service wasn’t up to scratch - clipping one in every few of Harold’s words - but no worries. Within minutes Harold had guided me through setting up a Google Talk account and ‘hey presto!’ - now we’re talking (or should I say Unworkshop-ing).

What did I learn? That the first question I need to address is: What is my personal knowledge management system (PKM)?

There is a wealth of interesting stuff out there and a wealth of great information sharing, knowledge generation and learning taking place. Yet, we are often faced with information overload and an overwhelming diversity of channels. How do we sort and filter that to which we give our time and attention? And how do we move from “this is interesting stuff” to “I think that…”?

"Learning – The Link Between Knowledge and Change" is the tag-line Gillian and I will be using in a communication piece within our organization about the work the Learning Team will be doing in the coming years. At the organizational level, we are look at how we need to manage knowledge in ways that facilitate the learning necessary to bring about change. At the personal level, how are we doing this?

I don’t expect to figure out my personal knowledge management system overnight, but I will start thinking about it. And then I’ll start thinking about how I can improve it, and how the use of software such as bloglines, and others can help – at least with the web-based component.

Thankfully Harold’s already shared some great, evolving ideas about his PKM system on his blog, and others have shared their ideas through comments too. It’s a good place to start.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

How Do You Like Your Information - Rare or Well Done?

When you coordinate a network, or a community of practice, it is always hard to know how much information to send through to people, be it on a listserve or an e-newsletter, or a number of other tools. Should it be just a little bit, or maybe none, with everything going on a portal that members can search for themselves? Or can more be sent if the quality is high?

People are overloaded with information these days, they create rules that file their emails before they even read them, and they are notorious for forgetting their log-in details (I speak from personal experience), so it would seem that the more you can add value, sort, synthesize, bring together disparate threads of information, the more useful it can be to the various network members. But is that true? We are planning to launch a survey of our network members in the next month or two to see for ourselves how our network members like their information. In the meantime - what about you?

(Apologies to our vegetarian friends, I could not find a photo of grilled tofu.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Confidence in Learning

I recently heard a wonderful story retold from a book called "Landmarks" by Margaret Silf. In this story a woman is hiking late one afternon in the Welsh hill country when a storm blows in upon her. As she nears a barren peak, the wind starts to gale and storm clouds begin to boil in the dark sky. She continues to climb higher and at the very top she finds a solitary triangulation stone, a landmark that marks the highest point of her walk. As the wind gains intensity, she finds it hard to stand upright in the increasing gale, and she ducks behind the tall flat stone for shelter. The wind whips around it, gathers strength, and gusts furiously. There on the top of that rocky point, pushed dangerously from all directions by the gale force wind, she finds it hard to keep her balance, crouched down behind the stone.

Then it occurs to her, that her position behind the stone is not the best place to weather that storm. So she moves in front of the stone and lies on it, with her back against its flat, smooth surface. As the wind blows harder and harder into her face, it only blows her more firmly onto that stable stone, and she can watch the storm come in and pass with the confidence that she will not be swept off that peak by the wind and not be harmed by it.

Margaret Silf asks 'what is that stone?' For some people it might be faith, or truth, or maybe it could be learning. What gives us confidence when things are unpredictable around us? What do we use as our triangulation stone? And is it something that we hide behind or that we lean against as we face whatever our environment blows towards us? When it comes to our learning, we are the experts; that can only give confidence when we know how to apply it in many different and sometimes unpredictable situations.

I have the pleasure to work and interact with a group of young professionals in our organization, and sometimes they want for support from other levels of management, and they are curious about how they can weather the changes they see all around them (aren't we all?) Yet, we are learning so much about how to manage our environments (both natural and institutional). Can we notice this more, value it more, apply it more? Can this be our triangulation stone - can we find confidence in learning?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Shedding Light On Our Sundials

What are your talents and your key strengths? And what are you doing to maximize these day-to-day?

I recently received a fascinating book for my birthday, written by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton: Now, Discover Your Strengths. Refreshingly, this book sets out to dispel the “pervasive myth” that excellent performers must be well-rounded. It asserts instead that “you will only excel by maximizing your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses.”

To what extent are we maximizing our strengths, versus taking the traditional ‘problem-solving’ approach and expending our energies on fixing our weaknesses?

“Benjamin Franklin called wasted strengths “Sundials in the Shade”. Too many organizations, teams and individuals unknowingly hide their sundials in the shade,” write Buckingham and Clifton. Their book seeks to help us shed light on our “sundials”, for “the real tragedy of life is not that each of us doesn’t have enough strengths, it’s that we fail to use the ones we have.” Shedding some light on our sundials, we can then make sure they are aligned (parallel with the earth’s axis) and angled (depending on their latitude) for consistent, near-perfect performance.

What we can do to make sure we shed light on our “sundials”, building on our talents and maximizing our strengths? How can we work individually, in our teams and throughout our organization to identify and describe our talents? - For, if Buckingham and Clifton are right (and I like to believe that they are) we can then work together to find ways to maximize our strengths and really excel.

In the next week or so, we’re going to be following some of the authors’ advice and testing their tools. I’m very keen to see what they have to offer, and hope to be soon turning my talents into greater strengths. I’ll also be speaking with Gillian about her reflections on the work of these authors… after all, she was the one who started me on this path having looked into her own strengths with them some years ago. I have a sneaking suspicion she may have the “maximizer” talent :)

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What Can a Learning Programme Do For You?

Imagine that you were going to develop a new Learning Programme for your organization - what would be its purpose? What features would it have? Who would it target and what would it like to help them achieve? (Is it all about Them or is it all about Us? Or maybe we want to learn together?)

Learning needs to be owned by the individual or the organization (which in fact is made up of individuals.) It is the people side of knowledge and education. It is through the learner's lens and experience that knowledge becomes useful or not. If you consider yourself a knowledge producer, and want to change the world, how can you find out more about what learners want and need in order to do things differently? And how can you find out more about their learning preferences - the ways they like to learn?

There is a fundamental transaction between knowledge and action that is all about learning. We know that it is not enough to get the information out there to see change in the world. The knowledge exists in libraries, universities, and the minds of our great thinkers. However, the path between the sources of knowledge and information, and the people who need to use it to do something differently, is an interesting process to explore. How do people gain understanding that helps them modify their attitudes and behaviours?

Whether this is learning within an institution, or between an institution and its chosen constituency, this is what a Learning Programme can contribute - the people side of knowledge. The side of the transaction that puts knowledge to work.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

In Our Organizations, Are We Titmice or Red Robins?

I received an email from my Father-in-Law this morning, with a nice little learning story which I thought I would share here. It goes as follows:


In the late 19th century in Great Britain, milkmen left open bottles of milk outside people's doors. A rich cream would rise to the top of the bottles. Two garden birds, titmice and red robins, began to eat the cream. In the 1930's, after the birds had been enjoying the cream for about 50 years, the British put aluminium seals on the milk bottles. By the early 1950's, the entire estimated population of one million titmice in Great Britain had learned to pierce the seals. The red robins never learned that skill. What happened?For learning to occur among birds, three things need to happen:

(1) Some of the individuals in the organization must have the potential to invent new behaviours or develop new skills;
(2) The members of the species must have and use the ability to move around, and they must flock or move in herds rather than sit individually in isolated territories; and
(3) The species must have an established process for transmitting a skill from the individual to the entire community through direct communication.

Red robins are territorial and don't communicate much with one another, so they didn't learn the new skill. Titmice flock together and were able to learn the new skill through-out the whole country.So, when you learn something new, or have a great idea on how to improve something, share what you've learned. You and your colleagues have many ways to communicate ideas and information - use them! Through improved organizational sharing and learning, we can help each other achieve our goals.

Source: Arie de Geus, The Living Company, Harvard Business Review, March, 1997

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Language Really Can Become Your Reality

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a management workshop that had been organized after our full week of meetings and I found it incredibly valuable in terms of new insights and learning. For one, it allowed me to meet my colleagues out of a workplace context (even though it was held at our workplace.) Being in jeans and more relaxed gave me a sense of being able to talk to people outside our usual frame. The day also gave us lots of opportunities to work on short exercises and talk to each other in different ways about ourselves and our work. We learned new things about each other, and we shared some of our concerns about our work as managers at a big institution.

The other thing that I found incredibly valuable was the opportunity to see for myself how language affects people (at least me). This is one management insight that I am sure will help me in the future. This is something that I learned through AI, Appreciative Inquiry, and today was an excellent example of this particular principle.

When I left the workshop, I felt tired. I was a bit down, and a little overwhelmed at how challenging being a manager was, and felt some doubt about my ability to give people good feedback and actively listen. Why was this? Normally I am a very positive person, I take management and leadership as one of my personal improvement goals, and do my best to be a good team member. When I thought through the day, I realised that many of the activities were framed in a way that emphasized the hard parts of being a manager. We first identified our challenges in the workplace, we did an activity that demonstrated how hard it is to give good feedback (no one could do it on the first or even second go). Words like 'battered' and 'trapped' were used to describe our feelings for our jobs; we talked about what we hated about our jobs and what aspects of job satisfaction that we did not have.

We also talked about lots of good things here and there, and at the same time, the deficit discussions seemed to affect me more at the end of the day. Lizzie told me that she heard a podcast from MindTools recently in which, during an interview with an author of 'The Power of Nice', Robin Koval spoke of how it takes seven good actions to undo one negative one. You have to do so much more on the positive side of things to bring people around from a negative frame. Somehow those aspects were what I took away with me that day. I asked myself as I was leaving, do I feel energised, do I have ideas I am eager to implement, am I excited about my work and my role? How do I feel?

I got some good ideas during this workshop and I also learned something very valuable for myself. For some people, like me, we go in the direction that we are questioned, and language can become our reality. These discussions focus a spotlight on a part of reality for us. What part of reality do we want to choose (or do others choose for us?) I don't deny that there are challenges in the workplace; I guess I would like to address these in a more appreciative way, so that at the end of my query process I understand more about my situation, have some clues as to what I can do about it, and I have the enthusiasm to make those changes.

If I use an appreciative approach here I would ask myself, "So how could this workshop have been different?" How would I feel about my job as a manager after a day where we practiced how to give great feedback and help our team members identify what they do well, and how to apply those qualities and skills to the things that they (and we, as managers) would like to be different?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

How Do You Like to Learn?

Yesterday afternoon we had a workshop on a new leadership initiative within our organization in order to bring renewed energy to the idea and generate some useful information which could be used for the next stage of programme design. In the opening activity we each interviewed a partner about how they like to learn, and then the partners introduced each other to the group. The responses were incredibly diverse!

We share so many similarities (all committed to our organization, working people, interested in sustainability issues) and yet we had a vast range of preferred learning styles - from more formal settings in classrooms and workshops, and hearing from experts; to completely non-formal, learning by doing, learning from examples, and learning from other people's and our own experiences. One person even felt they learned better on a full stomach!

This was very useful information for the future designers of this leadership programme - it must feature many different methods for learning, and a variety of ways for people to personalise their learning process, so that it works effectively for everyone in the programme.

This is also useful insight for all of our colleagues generally. We work for a knowledge organization that aims to support people moving from knowledge to action within the conservation and sustainability field. If we learn in many different ways, then our partners and constituencies certainly do too. How can we vary the way we share our knowledge so that people can learn most effectively? And shouldn't we ask our counterparts how they like to learn, so we can produce our knowledge in formats, and embed them in learning processes, that are most useful to them?