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.