Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ideas Free to a Good Home

I have spent hours in the last few weeks trawling through handwritten notes in my In-box diligently taking out the ideas, potential next actions, and possible "to dos" in there. Apparently I am my most prolific at ideas generation when I am sitting in meetings or presentations (shouldn't I be listening?) Then I end up with pages of notes, filled with little boxes of ideas that are eagerly expecting to be cared for and considered.

David Allen in his GTD system has designed a clever way to manage them, in a Someday/Maybe list, or Incubate list, which provides a placeholder and a way to scan these random thoughts regularly (e.g. in the weekly review process) for a quick decision on whether there are any ideas there whose time has come. However, I now have a very long list of these, and am still not sure how to take care of them.

I wonder if I should instead try to get comfortable with notion of information (and ideas potentially) being a flow rather than a stock. This has been a theme at the annual Educa Online conferences and a vibrant discussion within the web 2.0 knowledge management set. Maybe instead of fastidiously trying to capture and keep all these ideas, I should just have them and let them go out there into the world, or better find them a good home. (Lizzie suggests I publish my Someday/Maybe List on the blog, maybe I will in 2009, what better home could there be?)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Practice Note: Helping Performance Assessments Be About Both Individual and Team Learning

It is that time of year - time for reflection on many levels, not least in the form of ... Performance Assessments. These two words elicit all kinds of emotions in managers and their teams. If we want those emotions to include curiosity, discovery, courage, appreciation, compassion, inspiration, pride, and respect, how might we structure these annual opportunities to help them achieve this and produce real learning about not only the individual's, but also the team's work?

We have tried a couple of different things over the last two years to build on the traditional process that each team member follows which includes, a) filling in her/his own Performance Assessment form, b) discussing it individually in a meeting with the line manager, c) making any tweaks, and then, d) submitting it. This year we decided to experiment with a way to run these to see if we could get into some even deeper learning both for the individuals and the team.

We all started by filling in our forms individually, then we took a 2 hour time block and structured it like this:

  • (60 min) Assessment Form Carousel: The team is seated together around a table, each with their own completed Assessment Form and a different colour pen or marker. To start, every member passes his/her form to the left. The new recipient reads the form through and in their own colour marker, makes comments, asks questions, fills in gaps, adds examples, challenges points/marks (whether they think they are too high or too low), etc. After 5-7 minutes (depending on how long the form is), every one passes this form again to the left. The process is repeated with people adding, commenting, etc. as it goes around he group. The Carousel continues until each person gets back their own Assessment Form. The group takes a few minutes to read through the many coloured comments. Then there is about 10 minutes of open discussion, questions, and so on about what people read and are noticing.

  • (60 min) 360 Degree Inquiry: The Carousel provides a good reminder for everyone about what people's goals and achievements were for the year. In this next stage of the Assessment, each person gets to ask for some additional personalised feedback of their choice. To begin, every person thinks about one question on which he/she would like to ask the group for feedback (2 minutes). Then a volunteer goes first and asks his/her question to the group. Again the group can reflect for a moment, and then when they are ready give their responses in random order, with a total of about 5-7 minutes of comments. During the feedback, the person receiving it should listen, take some notes (because you simply do not remember what people said afterwards, or you vastly reframe/paraphrase it), and don't enter into a discussion at that point. If after everyone has given their feedback the receiver wants to make a few comments they can do so. Then you move to the next person, and next, until each team member has received the feedback from everyone on the question of their choice.

  • Revision: The final step for each individual is to look again at their Performance Assessment form, and consider how it might be changed to reflect some of this learning, then it goes to the line manager in a 1:1 for final discussion and sign-off.

It is worth mentioning that allowing people to ask their own question is a great way to create a challenge-by-choice environment for people to participate in such an exercise. The Carousel will have given general feedback on the annual personal goals; the 360 degree question however, allows people to focus their inquiry on a particular project or some behaviour they have been working on. They can choose to explore with the group some areas of improvement, or to ask only for warm fuzzies, affirmations - whatever people want at that moment. My question for example was, "If I could work on 1 or 2 areas for improvement as a manager next year, what would they be from your perspective?" I held my breath. And then as expected from my team I got some incredibly considered, thoughtful and useful responses. Even surprising. And they were appreciative, honest and meant with good will and good intent - I could tell - and I really valued what, in the hustle of an office environment, may often be a very rare opportunity for this kind of sharing.

In retrospect, there were a few other things I found might be useful to consider when using such a process, largely related to the overall context:

1) Timing is important - these things take time and rushing can affect the atmosphere and dynamic. Timing is also important vis-a-vis when people are leaving for holidays, and other events around this the group unforming. It is always an intense experience to give and receive feedback, and it needs some individual time for assimilation of the information and respite time, followed by some community time afterwards for re-entry into the normally less intimate workplace environment. So early in the day, rather than late in the day seemed to be better, so people don't leave straight away, but have the chance to talk further, even 1:1 as they consider and think about how to apply what they heard.

2) Venue is important. We started our feedback in our office around a round table. We put a sign on our door that basically said "Team Performance Assessment in Progress - see you later". We were uninterrupted at that point. However, we then went out to a team lunch and continued the final 360 degrees at lunch, and it was not as easy to recreate the familiar, gentle atmosphere we had had in our own office. Continuity and calm are good for this kind of reflection.

3) Intentions are important. Performance Assessments can provide a valuable tool for team, as well as individual learning, when there is the genuine intention of being helpful and caring and when the focus is on giving feedback as a gift.

Last week in our Beyond Facilitation course we ended with a thoughtful quote from Moms Mabely, "If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got." I guess this is true for both individuals and teams. Performance Assessments can help us think about what we might do differently.

Friday, December 12, 2008

What Did You Say? Building a Group's Capacity to Deal with its Own Issues

During this week's workshop (see previous post) we have been acting as Developmental Facilitators, that is facilitators who have as one of their main goals building the group's capacity to deal with its own issues. As such, the interventions made are aimed at helping the group deal with task and maintenance (group dynamic) issues. These interventions are often made in the form of declarative statements rather than questions, so that the group does not necessarily feel the need to answer to the facilitator, thus drawing him/her into their discussion. But rather considering the interjection and then deciding together if they want to act on it or not (apparently 50% of the time, these interventions are appropriate and useful to the group.)

I captured a number of good intervention statements made this week during our work and thought it would be useful to post them...Imagine that you are with a group that is working on an important project, and you have someone sitting with you observing your work, and they say the following, what would you do?

  • You might find it useful to summarise the objectives and outcomes you expect from this meeting.
  • I see a difference among team members in engagement and ownership of the results of this workshop.
  • Everyone's putting out ideas, but no one is linking them together.
  • You stated your set of objectives at the beginning of the meeting. Are the behaviours we are seeing going to help you get there, or will they get in the way?
  • It seems that you need your team's support to make this project work. You might want to find out what support they need from you to participate.
  • You sound defensive to me. You might consider how your own attitude about the proposed change is filtering down to your team.
  • This specific issue seems to be coming up repeatedly and may signal some underlying concerns. If you ignore them now, will you really be able to function effectively as a group on other tasks?
  • A moment ago the group decided to go in this direction and you agreed. Are you going to reverse that decision now, and if so what's the implication for what you want to get done today?
  • You might want to change chairs and paraphrase what you heard the other person saying.
  • There's clearly a lot of emotion in the room.
  • I sense some fear in the group around dealing openly with interpersonal issues and wonder if that is blocking progress on the task in this group.
  • When you speak to each other rather than me (the facilitator) I notice that you have more clarity on the task.

These kinds of statements are interesting to keep in mind to tickle the memory about different ways to intervene in groups. They go from safe to very risky and always need to be chosen and crafted thoughtfully. Having said that, these kinds of interventions can be useful whether you are a facilitator, leader or team member - anyone interested in getting a group to think about how it is working and what the members could consider to help them move to a higher level of awareness and performance.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Practicing Creating Conflict

How counterintuitive is that? Practicing how you can create conflict in a group process? Most people, and certainly most facilitators, go to great lengths to avoid conflict, seeing it as counterproductive to achieving some task.

Just imagine for a moment that exactly the opposite was true...

This week we are holding a workshop called "Beyond Facilitation: Intervention Skills for Strengthening Groups and Teams." This is our second year to hold an adapted version of a Group Process Consultation training workshop. I wrote about the first one held last year at our institution in a post called "You have the right to remain silent".

Playing with creating conflict has become a leitmotiv today, the third of a four-day training course. We started with an organizational simulation called Lego Man. What may look on paper like a simple team building game, actually does a good job of simulating in 90 minutes a full production process, from conception, understanding the task, defining roles and deliverables, creating a strategy for the process and delivery, making some decisions, and then actually assembling the final product (the Lego man) with some standards to adhere to. Interestingly, one of the learning points from this simulation, noted by our lead trainer Chuck Phillips, is that the teams who provoke conflict among their members are the highest performers (measured by time to construct the Lego man).

But what do people think about this notion of precipitating conflict? For the most part, people's immediate assumptions about conflict is that it is bad - that it is fighting, and it's personal, and to be avoided at all cost. Because of this, the standard reaction to mounting conflict is to smooth it over, calm it down, or simply ignore it. Team leaders may do this, team members may do this, and facilitators may do this. Everyone may actively take a part in suppressing conflict. But what that response does, it's suggested, is to rob from a group an opportunity to confront and consider a difference in opinion, approach, or methodology that may in fact be the key to moving successfully to a higher level of performance or understanding.

Of course there are different kinds of conflict. The kind we would want to precipitate would be from bumping up against people's assumptions and ideas. This is where conflict can get a team to a new and different level, test assumptions, create new options, and as a result potentially come up with a faster, more effective result.

So we practiced today some of the skills needed to start an ideas conflict - to keep it from becoming a fight - and then to help the group guide it to that moment where paradigms shift and new possibilities arrive. That is what we have been doing today - our best to not let our working groups stay too polite.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

H.T.H.A F. M.

Appreciative Inquiry must be powerful, it even got veteran facilitator Chuck Philips of Sapience, to change his frame - or maybe it was my complaining about the title of his brainstorming session last year: How to Have a Terrible Meeting (a.k.a. H.T.H.A.T.M. - see my blog post on this at:
http://welearnsomething.blogspot.com/2007/12/how-to-have-terrible-meeting.html

This year, for our Beyond Facilitation Workshop, he surprised me by running a new activity called H.T.H.A.F.M. - How to Have a Fantastic Meeting. And you know, it was just as powerful as its alter ego (although maybe less cathartic!) See the rules on last year's blog post, and change as your temperment dictates!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Lizzie and Gillian, C.P.F

Monday was an exhausting day. By the end of it we (and four other candidates) had each undergone two intensive 30-minute interviews, conducted a 30-minute facilitation demonstration (that had to achieve concrete results within that brief time frame), and participated actively in 5 other such demonstration workshops. By the end of that very long day, a team of four assessors took into consideration these elements plus a previously submitted three part, 15-page written application and a preparatory telephone "client" interview and email exchange (with one of our assessors to prepare for our demo), and then decided, based on a set of 18 competencies, if we would become Certified Professional Facilitators (C.P.F.) Whew!

This certification process is conducted by the International Association of Facilitators, a global network of facilitation professionals with national and local chapters worldwide. Their certification programme aims to peer assess and test facilitators' knowledge and experience in both design and delivery of facilitation services, as well as maintaining a professional knowledge base about the field (our blog helped us here). As the basis of this process, IAF has developed as a community their Core Facilitation Competencies that are grouped under headings such as: "Creating Collaborative Client Relationships", "Planning Appropriate Group Processes", and "Creating and Sustaining a Participatory Environment". Within these categories are 18 sub-items such as: demonstrating collaborative values in processes, engaging those with varying and different learning/thinking styles, and recognizing conflict and its role with group learning/maturity, and so on.

And in undergoing this process, we realised that is so challenging to assess these things in general, and in particular in a "laboratory" environment. So much of the work we do is highly contextual, and our practice very individualised, based on hours, days, months of relationship building with our "clients". Whether we sit down when a group works, or lightly participate in a group activity, decide to ignore collegial bantering, or focus on visual rather than analytical tools, there is no clear right or wrong in facilitation. That's what makes certification of his field so challenging, and why this assessment process is so heavy. For 6 facilitator candidates, five peer assessors were needed for a whole day (not to mention preparation and follow-up reporting), working as a group and in pairs to find evidence of all 18 of those competencies, in many different ways and in their many inflections. Thankfully, in the end, these assessors are peers and know very well how challenging it can be to demonstrate in a day, skills that often have taken years to develop.

It was an intense and thought-provoking process, and especially fascinating to understand what this international body finds to be important capabilities for people to have to join their ranks of Certified Professional Facilitators. For us, who use facilitation as one of our learning tools, along with many others, it is nice to know what is at the top of this game for the IAF, and to be acknowledged as a part of that group. We were very happy to pass through. Lizzie and Gillian, C.P.F.

Friday, November 28, 2008

You're Being Watched...

Here's an observation about human beings speaking in workshop settings: Some people will walk up to the front of the room and quite happily chat away to the group.

Other people, however, will walk up to the front of the room, start to talk, and immediately lock their eyes on you, the Facilitator, and only look at you for the whole of their presentation. Forgetting somehow the other 40 people in the room sitting right in front of them. This is a little bit perplexing for everyone except the speaker, who doesn't seem to notice.

What's interesting is that you can do something about this without saying a word or even (almost) anyone noticing. You simply walk slowly and quietly around the outside edge of the room, while the person is speaking, to the middle of the back of the group. You won't disrupt the flow at all. The speaker's eyes will follow you the whole way. And then you stop and stand there. Viola, the person is now talking directly to the middle of the group. Even if he is still looking directly at you, at least he is not talking sideways, craning his neck or otherwise looking away from the group.

Of course to use this trick, you need to notice that the person has locked onto you. So you need to be attentive to the speaker. Normally I find this happens when someone is not confident in the subject matter, or simply not comfortable speaking in front of a group, period. So a smiling nodding face (yours) is a comfort and a safe place to look. However, once you do notice, it is time to take action - start walking slowly and don't worry, you are being followed. Good for the speaker, good for the group, kind of flattering, and easily and gently corrected.

What's In a Facilitator's Survival Kit?

I have several other blog posts that are queued up, but as I left the office yesterday to come to Zurich to facilitate a 2 day stakeholder dialogue, I noticed the following - A facilitator can run an interactive and exciting event with only the following few items (with flipcharts in the room a given):

  • Markers: 1 very thick for making templates (black), 4 regular (different colours for Carousels)
  • 1 small stack of meta-plan cards (different shapes and colours for note taking, ideas generation, question gathering, time keeping, room signposting...)
  • 1 Roll of masking tape (the obvious)
  • 1 deck of playing cards (Pick a card: for dividing groups, selecting speakers, identifying rotation order)
  • Selection of sticky dots (different colours for voting, prioritisation, designating teams and tables)
  • 1 whistle (train whistle of preference: to get people's attention, to change rounds, to start action)

  • 1 ball (for self-facilitation of reflection, for teambuilding games, for stress relief)

Have facilitators survival kit, will travel. It can take almost any last minute agenda change in style...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

“We Gotta Learn to Dance Like Scarecrow”

Remember how you learned to walk? Most of us don’t. For the large part of our lives, we take for granted our bipedal fluency having forgotten the process that first got us there. Observing children learning to walk may remind us. Or watching the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Scarecrow is taken down from his perch. Falling, hobbling, lurching and then learning to step with fluidity, Scarecrow’s bipedal journey begins… and then, as he perfects the flow of out of balance movement between one foot and the other, he even finds himself able to dance!

To address the toughest social challenges of today, Adam Kahane, speaking at the SoL Pegasus Conference, argued that we needed to learn to be bilingual in two “languages” in much the same way as we learned to walk. Drawing on the work of Paul Tillock, he provided two definitions of the essential driving forces behind these languages; 1) The drive of every living thing to realize itself; and 2) The drive towards unity of the separated. Summarizing these into two familiar words, he spoke of our need to be bilingual in the languages of power and love, and be able to dance between them with fluidity. The key, for Kahane, is focusing on the transitions between one and the other.

At this conference, the summaries at the end of sessions are made in different ways – one is with music. Just before the coffee break between conference sessions, two musicians, Tim Merry and Marc Durkee, introduce what some called the universal language of music, distilling the essence of the presentation with spontaneous Brit slam poetry and groovalicious guitar. The chorus of their song for this presentation… Here we go, we gotta learn to dance like scarecrow. Are you and your organization dancing?

The Waiting Game on the Fault Lines

Everyone waits for the other guy to change before changing themselves. You first my dear Gaston! After you my dear Alphonse! – reads the cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper. Not so in the case of Vanessa Kirsch, founder and president of New Profit, Inc., as we learned from her and Diana McLain Smith, partner at the Monitor Group consulting firm. Speaking of how relationships make or break performance, this dynamic duo told of the essential readiness needed for reflection and a relational perspective, as relationships are built not born.

Relationships along organizational fault lines are all too often too fragile to withstand today’s pressures, stated Diana. We don’t have the time to play the waiting game. One step at a time we need to reflect on the anatomy of our relationships and the patterns of behaviour, and the quick step may well be what is needed. Whilst we’re not talking Strictly Come Dancing, videoing our performance (our oral and body language) as we go may be the key…

Asking Great Questions

We are here at the Society for Organizational Learning's Annual Conference in Boston and will be writing a bit this week about what we are learning.

Yesterday I had David Isaacs, one of the founders of the World Cafe, sign a copy of "The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation and Action" and we have noticed that in this community asking powerful questions (rather than the answers) often gets the most applause in the plenaries. In fact, there seems to be no particular expectations on the part of SoL members to answer all the questions - they celebrate the good ones. Here are some of the good ones Lizzie and I heard yesterday during a panel called "Purpose Beyond Profit":

  • What if educators had the same attitude that car manufacturers in Europe have, that they "owned" their students for life. How would they educate differently?

This question was inspired by Peter Senge's comment about how EU regulations are requiring European automobile manufacturers to take back cars that they build, so they build them differently. After students leave educators' classrooms they then become parts of educators' communities - they might leave their seat at the front of the classroom, but they never leave their life.

  • What is the current US Administration's analogy of putting a man on the moon?

When Kennedy came into office, he dreamt of a man on the moon in 10 years and set this as a challenge to his scientists. 8 years and 2 months later, there was a man on the moon. At the time, the average age in the NASA control room was 26 (meaning they were on average 18 years old when the challenge was put forward). What will be Obama’s man on the moon? And what and how can we learn about best tapping into today’s 18 year olds to make this dream come true?

  • What is in our system that we don’t know the long term effects of yet?

This was a great question asked by Darcy Winslow, founder of Designs for a Sustainable World Consulting with over 20 years experience working at Nike. Her presentation inspired a question from the audience:


  • When businesses cut costs are they really cutting them - or are they just moving them into customers or into the community?

When taking a systems viewpoint, cost-cutting exercises take on a whole new meaning. The archtype called "Shifting the Burden" comes into mind. A similar question can be asked by institutions and project teams.

These questions provoke many lively conversations and ideas which connected people and their experiences and really demonstrated how asking great questions can add energy to a process, help people think differently, and get things moving.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Seeking a little Conference (En)Courage(ment)

The Pegasus Conference 2008 kicked off last night with a World Café session led by co/founder David Isaacs. Joining newcomers and regulars to the conference, we took seats at small, round, red gingham cloth–covered tables, each with red carnation, accompanied by a duo of Novascotian musicians and visual artists decorating our surroundings.

Using the well-known World Café dynamic, in three rounds we inquired into three questions –

1. What do we hope to learn during this conference?
2. What we do hope to contribute, give, share?
3. And what is the question we need to ask connecting what we hope to learn and what we hope to contribute?

My answer to the concluding question came to this –

What will we do to (en)courage ourselves to more fully and consistently apply the thinking and tools with which we coach others, to create the highest performance in our own work?

Who coaches the coaches? Who is the psychotherapist’s psychotherapist? These were the questions my café table friends contributed, understanding my plight. Well, attending this conference is our first step and over the next few days we hope that, following engagement with this community, we will return to our work place (en)couraged for our highest performance!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Facilitate and/or Participate?

We have just finished facilitating three internal retreats in the last 10 days as a part of our organizational development and change process. Two were with new Groups that are being constituted by combining smaller internal teams for greater synergy, effeciency and "network-based delivery" of our institution's conservation goals. The learning that has occurred through these facilitated Group discussions, about how things work and change in our organization, has been incredibly valuable for both strategically planning action and building these new teams. Our Learning and Leadership Unit will also become part of a new Group in the next couple of months and will no doubt have a similar retreat. The question is, do we facilitate or participate?

Facilitators have many opportunities to influence the outcomes of the processes in which they are involved, if that's what they wish to do. Before the process, they help to design the agenda and frame the key questions; they pick the sequence that might highlight one issue over another (what gets the after lunch slot?); they identify the technique and capture method used (does the discussion create an artifact for further use or not?) During the process they choose how to brief an exercise; they choose what to highlight in the opening and closing reflections; choose the order of the speakers (including the Q&A); and influence who gets a few moments more airtime and who gets reigned in. After the process, if the facilitator is helping with the reporting, comes a whole raft of other opportunities to influence the outcomes of the process. At all of these points a facilitator is making a decision (albeit a shared decision) that influences the process somehow.

And of course what makes a great facilitator (and one who gets chosen and invited back) is someone who does this incredibly responsably, with fairness and equity, the best intentions of the group in mind, and with an eye on the common higher goal. A facilitator who contributes can be very beneficial. For example, a facilitator who knows a group well can address key interpersonal issues gently and consistently, one that is experienced can provide great added value by incorporating their learning over the years about leadership and good practice; and one well-connected internally can contribute by tapping into larger institutional issues across many parallel processes. So a facilitator at some levels can facilitate and participate.

However, there are clearly limitations to a facilitator's participation, especially on the relationships and team building side of these processes. For example, as facilitators it is not appropriate to work through your personal relationship issues with team members, or devote time and energy to helping the team really get to know you, your opinion about issues, and how you like to work. In retreats forming new Groups and aggregating existing teams, getting to know one another, sharing hopes and dreams (and maybe fears) as full participants in a shared process are criticial features to success.

So I think that when it comes time to have our own Group retreat, we might help out with the agenda and report, but for the actual event, we will be looking for a good outside facilitator. Then we can be more of ourselves and help our new colleagues get to know us as future team members, including our opinions about what would be best for all of us as fully vested partners in our process. We need to be a part of the change - to facilitate and participate (but not always at the same time).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tight Parameters = Opportunities for Innovation

We found out rather late in the preparation for our major Congress that we could not stick anything on the walls during any of our workshops. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth at this announcement as many had planned terrific interactive sessions needing many sheets of flipchart paper that they wanted to paper the walls with during their 90 minute sessions. However, a crafty workshop designer can work with anything, even the tightest of parameters. Here is one innovation that hatched as a result of this rule - the human flipchart.



Well, everyone was wearing lanyards with their nametags anyways. Take a few volunteers, clip on some blank paper, and some tape, give participants their cards and viola - your interactive activity works, gets even more people involved, and not a sticky blue mark on any wall.

Not optimal you might say, but you never know when you are working in a space with apparently precious walls, the famous carpeted walls, or even no walls for that matter (how nice would it be to do your session under a big tree?) Give a good workshop designer a parameter in advance and with a little creative thinking they'll design for it. Everything is possible...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How to Start Conversations Among 8,000 People

Imagine you are at a huge international conference. How can you get over 8,000 people from 178 countries who have so much in common, but don't know anyone, to engage in conversations and meet each other? At mega-events like this, people pass by each other in droves in the hallways of the conference centre, pack into elevators or escalators on their way to the next event, and stand in long slow queues to buy their coffee. But with the exciting diversity of languages represented at a conference like this comes the inevitable and rather awkward entry question of "Do you speak English"? (or "Parlez-vous Francais?", or dozens of other possible language variations). To deal with this quandry, our Learning and Leadership unit, partnering with the Commission on Education and Communication, introduced an innovation at our organization's recent World Conservation Congress: language buttons.

Well, we decided that one way to get people to appoach each other was to advertise the languages they speak, so that the Do-you-speak-X question would not be a barrier to engagement. We made thousands of buttons with 20 major languages printed on them in their own alphabets AND we made a blank button. On the blank button, people wrote other languages (such as Nepali and Afrikaans), and dialects (like Kreol and Bavarian) and even in one case a rather key coordinating person coyly wrote, "Don't even think of talking to me" (but I don't think he ever wore it).

In this process, we learned new things about colleagues - our Australian Director spoke Nepali (he had worked in a field office there), a Canadian colleague spoke Chinese for the same reason, our American Chief Scientist was fluent in Thai. These buttons were conversation starters even among people who knew each other. That was a huge benefit, not to mention sharing the incredible pride that people felt when they put them on (like my colleague Nicole in the photo above who sported 7!)

The buttons were a hit! The Information Booth workers had them, the Registration people had them, the Commission on Education and Communication members had them, and many, many more. These big conferences can be so impersonal, yet are attended by people who have the most to gain, exchange and learn from great conversations with each other. The question we asked was," What can we do to get people talking together?" One small answer, only 30mm across, turned out to be a big success.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

What's Winning? Check Your Assumptions

Did you know that in unicycle races, it is the last person that crosses the finish line that wins? That is because it is much harder, and takes more skill to ride a unicycle slowly.

Sound counter-culture? What is it about our social norms that make us assume that bigger, faster, and more, is better than smaller, slower and less?

The sustainability community asks a similar question - why are high growth rates and GNP standard indicators of success? How can we help society see growing more skillfully, and possibly even more slowly, as akin to winning?

Even at work, winning sometimes seems to be about having the largest team, largest project portfolio and the most money - this can set up unhelpful competition among people with shared overall goals. Maybe we could flip "winning" to the team that collaborates most and generates more work and resources for other teams. Let's follow those unicyclists. Let's change the rules.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Pulling Yourself Together

We spent the last 20 minutes of our organizational development retreat yesterday coming up with words that describe our organizational culture in 4 years at the "end" of our formal organizational development and change process. The words were wonderful, and we were able to go around our circle three times before we ran out of them. We came up with adjectives that we wanted to be true about the institution and all of us at that time, and that we would be working towards now. We noticed that many of them we would also use today, and perhaps we simply wished to be more prevalent, or more consistently a descriptor. These were words like: optimistic, trusting, creative, accountable, reliable, and even fizzy. There were 3 pages of these and they were wonderful.

The retreat was over in a hail of applause 10 minutes later, and I walked across the hallway into my office and was confronted with a situation where my first reaction was surprisingly not optimistic, not trusting, and not particularly creative. It was like I had left that part of me in the conference room momentarily (and it took about 10 hours for it to catch up with me and remind me that that half of myself should wait until the other half gets there to speak.)

I guess we all have this duplicity (the charm of our species), and luckily we get the opportunity to choose which side acts/talks first. We also get to reflect on how congruence between what we say we do and what we actually do can strengthen our participation in a collective and trust in our contribution, and how the inverse may also true.

This all takes some reflection and a certain deliberateness of action. Today I will join my reflection again.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Overheard


Lizzie to Gillian: OK, I think we have everything we need for the retreat except the rope and the blindfolds...

Don't get too excited, this is Gillian and Lizzie preparing for a 2-day organizational development retreat. We are going to play a communication game called "Islands" . We spent today finding planks, plywood sheets, beanbags, and bricks - more titilating details on how it went later...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Keeping It Fresh

Today I found myself in the bleachers of, can you believe, the 5th circus performance in under a month. I have serendipitously enjoyed: one national Swiss circus, one regional Swiss circus, one opening of the World Conservation Congress (which involved four perilous circus performers - I am going to count that), the none-other-than Cirque du Soleil, and a final circus performance of my 7 year old, who takes circus classes after school. That is a lot of circus (circi?) for one person.

Today in the 3-hour perfomance of the regional Swiss circus, I thought to myself, how can these performers distinguish themselves from all the other jugglers, acrobats, and unicyclists? Audiences today, with so much access and exposure, must be the toughest crowds. (Even for those who do not go five times in a just over a fortnight.) How do they keep it fresh and new?

I thought this as I watched the young man on the unicycle. What was so interesting about his performance was what he did NOT do. He did not actually sit on the seat and ride his unicycle around the ring (at least not for more than the first 5 seconds). After that he hopped on it, he threw it up in the air, he rode it sideways without the seat or pedals, and other equally inexplicable things, none of which involved him riding that unicycle. It was a prop, a foil, a bouncing agent, a propulsion unit, something to hold his hat.

Cirque de Soleil was the same - incredibly innovative with what might seem standard circus fare. The juggler was there, with red balls, but he never threw them up in the air. He bounced them off a briefcase, up and down an umbrella, over his head and in and out of his hat. Those juggling balls never touched his hands, but they juggled none-the-less.

WARNING: HUGE SEGUE-WAY TO WORK-RELATED REFLECTION

Lizzie and I spent 3 hours Friday afternoon working through the design of an upcoming offsite workshop, an important one, involving senior management and a critically important issue. This 2-day workshop would effectively launch a 4-year process. The workshop had exciting things in it, but by the time we got to the afternoon of Day 2 in our design, we were yawning. We still had a few items to cover, but the way they were currently designed was too much of the same good thing. No more groups, no more cards, no more creative carousels, or flipchart template work. We had put in our visualisation, we had light role play to show different perspectives, people had worked alone, in pairs, trios, quads and in plenary. We moved the room set-up around four times. We needed some inspiration, so we stopped.

What would those circus people do with some flipchart paper, markers, meta-plan cards, and balls? Would they have people write their aspirations for the future on flipchart paper, make huge paper airplanes with them and then shoot them out the second floor to see which goals get us the furthest? Would they take those cards and draw items on them that they would put in a time capsule to be opened at the end of the 4-year process that we are planning? Seal them in a box for those amongst us to open at the end to see what life was like in our institution in November 2008? Maybe no agenda item at all, and no materials (some of the most interesting Cirque de Soleil performances were just 2 people and nothing else), maybe a walk outside and an Open Space session to simply deal person to person with any outstanding items.

Inspiration. Who better to get it from than performers who can eternally come up with new things to do with the human body (or briefcases, stools, or trained poodles for that matter.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

At the end of a team building module, one of several in a leadership training course I used to give, we would often play a quick game called, "The Sound of One Hand Clapping". You tell people that you will count to three and say "GO" and then they all should clap at the same time, in unison, so that everyone clapping together sounds like one hand clapping. You remind them that you will say "1, 2, 3, GO" and then they should clap. Then you proceed to say "1, 2, 3" and then you clap yourself. Then you say "GO". Inevitably, people will clap when you clap, and not when you say "GO". A couple of people always manage to wait for the GO word, but for the most part, people will follow your actions rather than your words. The message is that actions speak louder than words. They do and we all know it.

We use that game at the end of workshops because we want people to go home and, rather than tell everyone what they did, demostrate it through their actions. If it is leadership, then let's see it. Talking about leadership is not enough. Great leaders can make great speeches, but great speeches don't necessarily mean great leaders. When leadership is demonstrated, then we all clap!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Innovation: How Do You Think Up a Treetop Barbie?

What kind of creative process produces ideas like a Treetop Barbie, a doll that models adventurousness, being outside and active for children? Or a programme like Canopy Confluence that mixes artists with scientists and takes them to the forest canopy to create art (even rap music) that touches people with more than data and diagrams? Or starts a Moss in Prisons project to explore different ways to sustainably grow moss for horticultural use (apparently moss grows very slowly). Or takes policy makers up into the trees with ropes and harnesses to get conservation messages directly to decision-makers in a Legislators Aloft project?

These are all Outreach Projects of the Research Ambassador Programme at Evergreen State College (Olympia, Washington, USA). At our World Conservation Congress, we heard Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, from Evergreen, speak about all these ideas in our "Beyond Jargon" workshop. All incredibly creative, what I really wanted to know was - what kind of a creative process produced these ideas?

It is easy to gather explicit knowledge on the internet - a quick google gave me a good description of all these activities and told me more about their goals and outcomes. Tacit knowledge (know how as opposed to know what or know why)- can be an even more valuable source of learning, especially for innovation processes. I was able to ask Nalini Nadkarni about her creative process - what confluence of events, steps or practices produces these incredibly innovative projects? She shared some thoughts on what is working for her and the team at Evergreen, which I synthesized into these three headings:

1. Accept no boundaries (or at least question them relentlessly): This condition may be part DNA and part deliberate. For Nalini growing up in a dual culture home gave her simultaneous insight to two worlds and an innate breadth of perspective. Her choice to be both a dancer and a professor of environmental science again provided multiple reference points and opportunities for bringing together diverse traditions and communities, such as the arts and sciences. Evergreen State College itself is a unique learning environment where professors of different subjects have offices in the same hallway, not departments in different buildings, and this maps over into the interdisciplinary and team-taught nature of its interest-based curriculum. For innovation, breadth of view and perspective seems to foster new ideas. Multi-everything is the word that comes to mind.

2. Find time to listen to the smallest inner voices: In the confluence of stimuli, how do you notice, sort, select and develop the ideas that will become the next great one? Time outdoors alone seems to work for Nalimi, who takes long runs and hikes to tap into what's happening around her, to make connections and meaning from it. It strikes me that there are many ways to undertake this kind of reflective practice, it could be the long run, or 20 minutes on the eliptical trainer, or an off-peak-hour bus ride, or a cat nap in the sunshine, or any other opportunity to quiet your mind and ask yourself to think deeply on some interesting questions.

3. Braving the creative collision space: Once you have the ideas can you let them go so they be developed further by others, formally or informally? In this case, Nalimi has Monday lunches with students and other faculty which provide great opportunities to throw a new notion out and get people's feedback. Ideas build on ideas and quickly you have a better prototype, richer with the inputs of people you trust and respect. This might take a little courage, and a willingness to let go of some of your earlier conceptions in the creative jam around your idea.

These three things seem to be a part of the creative process at Evergreen State University's Forest Canopy Lab - it's definitely working for them. Maybe some sequence like this could or does work for you. Think about your own great ideas. What kind of conditions have been present when you had them? Are there any patterns you can identify? Why not note them down and share them. Learning can happen anywhere, not just from what you accomplished, but how you accomplished it - think about tapping into your own creative process, it's probably quite replicable.

Lesson #4: Put Yourself in Other People's Seats

OK, so you are running your event and you have an audience in front of you - what are they doing? Are they: leaving, sleeping, doing their email, sitting in rapt attention, talking, laughing, voting, writing, singing (well, so far I have not seen any audience singing, but I have seen all the other ones).

So now go and sit in those seats (figuratively at least) and stay there for more than 10 minutes. How does that feel? At the end of your 10 minutes (and remember that ours were 90 min) were you: excited, bored, energised, frustrated, motivated, moved, or a million miles away?

Now make the connection - If you want your audience to feel X (e.g. like running up after the event and asking for your card, or engaging their brains and giving you some excellent ideas on how you could improve your approach, or getting motivated to go home and do something differently, or getting excited and telling other people about what you are doing), then you need to deliberately structure your event to help them get there.

It's a great exercise for a communicator (and if you have an event you are in this role) to put yourself in other people's seats. If you do this upfront "sitting" (and thinking), both you and your audience will get more of what you want.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Lesson #3: Be Memorable

At the World Conservation Congress this week, there were 7,900 registered participants from 178 countries, and 972 events - from knowledge cafes to skills building workshops to conservation cinema. In this veritable souk of activity, how could you and your event avoid getting lost? People had a lot of great ideas about how to get attention and be memorable.

An innovation at this Congress was the creation of 12 thematic "Journeys", which helped to organize some of the hundreds of offerings. These provided direction to the Congress traveller who might choose to follow the Islands Journey (In the Mood for an Island Get-Away?) or Marine Journey (Protecting Planet Ocean), or that of Protected Areas (Protected Areas for Life's Sake!), Energy (The Nature of Energy) or Markets and Business among others. By following a Journey people had signposts to events that dealt with key issues and related social networking gatherings that put them in the pathway of other people interested in the same issue. All information on each Journey was collected into a short Journey guidebook, which in itself provided a useful synthetic resource of key words, related issues, institutions and experts working in each Journey field.

Even within the Journeys there were many overlapping events, from which people chose their favorites based on titles and short abstracts. How provocatively people worded their titles and abstracts and for some the promise for audience engagement helped people pick where they spent their precious time. The "Beyond Jargon" workshop title and short description promised and delivered the many innovative ways conservationists are getting their messages across through ideas and campaigns as unusual as a crocheting a coral reef , through developing a horticultural moss growing programme in prisons to prevent moss gathering in forests. A Learning Opportunity workshop with the provocative title of 3D Virtual Worlds: The possibilities of promoting global environmental awareness was held at which the Save Our Seas Foundation took participants to their Second Life Island and talked about how they use Second Life to educate youth about marine issues, as well as how YouTube has impacted their communication media choices and design, as exemplified in this powerful 1 minute Rethink the Shark Campaign video.

And every event had many speakers (it seemed). Who won the competition for attention and space in people's long term memories? In the thousands of presentations that were made, many speakers used combined techniques to capture and keep people's attention. By far the most effective combined great imagery with storytelling. The ones that touched us most were personal accounts and provided places to go for more resources and ways to follow up. For example, a speaker from Virunga National Park in the DR Congo set up the Gorilla.cd blog for the park rangers to share stories of their often perilous work to protect mountain gorillas, and invite other bloggers to be campaigners for their in-park team. Other speakers used video imagery embedded within their presentations to get a diversity of voices into their presentation, to take the audience out of the room to other parts of the world; they used music as a audio sub-titles to their presentations to make the participants' experience fuller, or included other language translations of their text. Presentations that had images, stories, new ideas, and ways to act were by far the most memorable. Speakers who challenged the audience, asked them questions and pitched it above introductory level added to the appeal.

With such choice, we needed some help to see the trees for the forest - thanks to those who helped make themselves and their messages most memorable.

(I have written about this before, see this January 2007 post, written as I sat in my first planning meeting for this Congress: "Bottoms on Seats: How do you make that memorable?")

Friday, October 10, 2008

Lesson #2: Sign Up for the Programme

Our second lesson as facilitators working the World Conservation Congress had to do with the benefits of continuity. For some workshop leaders, they had one facilitator help them with design, then another one work with them on the actual sequencing and delivery. For other workshop leaders they did their own design and then enlisted the help of one of our facilitators just prior to the event. For others, they made their request for facilitation help during the event.

In most of the cases what we learned was that overall the events where the same facilitator helped with the design, the delivery programme, and then did the actual facilitation for the group, the result was much better. The continuity, the relationship building, the iterative conversation that could slowly educate both on the topic and the process, and the clear "contracting" piece (the social contract of who is doing what), all meant for a more powerful, streamlined final product.

Next time, we will do more to get these matches, between workshop leaders and their facilitators, set up earlier and keep the partners together throughout. Each facilitator has their own preferred tools, their own style and approach they feel most comfortable with - so it makes sense to ask people not to pop in and out of the process, but to sign up for the whole "programme".

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Lesson #1: There's (Almost) Nothing Like Being There

We are here at the World Conservation Congress Forum, which started officially yesterday, One of our activities is coordinating a facilitation team of six who are working on 38 different sessions with session organizers. As this is the first time that we have done this, I thought we would capture some lessons along the way.

The first lesson came through loud and clear in our pre-conference meeting of the Facilitation Team: Design work, education (about different facilitation styles and interactivity tools), and trust building (to try those tools) is a challenge to do virtually.

Our facilitation team and their session leads were all over the world with very little if no chance to meet. So we needed to work differently. We didn't take as a lesson not to do the prep work virtually, but the fact is that no one had ever done that before -on either side. Normally when you bring in external facilitation help you meet first and do the creation work jointly and use that process to build rapport (at least at the beginning of any partnership).

We found that email was creating long time lags between question and response, it was too either too sparse (missing the info that one side or the other needed) or too long. Many started to pick up the phone or skype and found that a time saver and voice2voice helped with some of the trust-building. I guess video conferencing would have helped even more although we did not try that. As would have a small video library of facilitation techniques that people could see first so not everything would be left to their imagination. If I would have thought ahead about this I would have brought a video to record those activities at this Congress and had them on hand for the next one!

We were onsite early, so have set up F2F meetings with everyone here prior to the events. That is helping, although in a few cases it is coming late for this important interpersonal side. For facilitation collaboration, we need to think about how to use a virtual preparation stage most powerfully. As our teams become more and more distributed, actively seek the intercultural benefits of working with colleagues in other places, we work more from our homes, and try to limit our travel carbon footprint, all these things provide an opportunity to think more in-depth about what it means to take facilitation (at least the prep stage) virtual.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The 100% User Experience-Generated Super Consultant

At the moment I am working with six fantastic consultants who operate in some of the same areas as we do including facilitation and training in sustainable development. This is a wildly international bunch, they are from Ghana, UK, Mexico, Switzerland and Mauritius, and have all kinds of different sector experiences, from government to private. We have been working together now for a couple of months, each one is linked to 6 or 7 of my colleagues in different parts of the world, supporting the development of workshops and sessions they will run at our upcoming Congress.

And it is fascinating to reflect on their practice and see what kinds of things they are each doing that gives me the best user experience. Companies refine their products based on user experience reports. What if I pulled out all the things that I like best and created the super consultant? What would that consultant do?

1. Be responsive: My Zero-Inbox propensity means I am not usually a fan of little emails, but somehow working in a distributed team, with people around the world, in different time zones, and with variable internet access, I delight with the short email saying "Thanks I got it" or "I am working on this tomorrow". Rather this than no news and then wondering if the three emails sent are stacked up in an in-box or have been routed accidentally into a spam folder. I love getting voicemail from these consultant, a skype chat message, or an inpromptu call, just to know that things are ticking away. Responsiveness includes attention to deadlines of course, and even when they need to slide, advance notice, and a new proposed firm deadline makes this easier to work with.

2. Have a system: When you give over a project you would love to do yourself to someone sles, you are happy when you know it is in good hands. Evidence of a system builds confidence. I am happy to get an email back with a summary of the six work items in progress and their status, or great follow-up on a query I had last month that was not yet ready to be answered (and had not been forgotten). I am comforted when I know that things are not getting lost, that as the coordinator my overviews, matrices, job aids, and tables are being used as they guides they were meant to be, and not buried or forgotten in the email blur.

3. Add value: Maybe those matrices I'm sending aren't perfect - how wonderful it is when the consultant changes them around so they are more user friendly. Or sends through tips to everyone else, or asks that great aggregator question that prompts me to put together a better job aid or solve a general problem for the whole group, all this on top of the work at hand. I love it when people input ideas and questions that help everyone do a better job...

4. Give feedback: ...including me. What feedback can be offered on the overall process, what are we noticing about how things are running more generally, and what would make this smoother and easier to implement and manage for everyone? What do people need from me as a coordinator to help them do great work, and can this input be provided mid-process and not afterwards when my ability to act is limited.

5. Be nice: This goes without saying and in stressful situations, this goes a long way. Its easy, its free, and it shows others that their user experience is important. I wrote another blog post on this one (The Golden Rule).

This last one is just a nice to have - for the amazing consultant, I want to spread the word:

6. Have excellent communication materials: A terrific simple website, a folder with a short brochure, an excellent 100 word bio, a neat short CV, a couple of good photos. All ready to go by reply button. That helps me spread the word.

Overall quality of work of course is a given, these other things help to make sure that the word-of-mouth works, and ensures repeat business based on a great user experience. We can all learn something here - from time to time our Unit also works in a consulting-type frame when we are doing projects with other programmes and units in house. Also, these lessons might be useful for people working in distributed teams, technology-mediated or mobile work situations (e.g. working from home). Finally, if I know what I like, I can ask for it (just like those I-Phone users)- I see a radical revision to TORs coming...

Monday, September 29, 2008

Next Steps for GTD and Zero In-Box: Learning About Life in (or with) a System


I received a wonderful present in the post today - a whole set of Getting Things Done (GTD) products -a fond memory of David Allen's visit to our organization earlier this year. I am a bit of an organization and productivity freak - so this was like a kid getting candy in the mail. Of course there was only one of everything, should I keep it all for myself?

I had been using the GTD system at home for about a year when I changed over my office, set up my folders, swapped my bound notebooks for tear-off note pads, and so on. That process worked, combined with Merlin Mann's Zero-In box (make sure to watch the video), and then even my email started to make me happy. No longer do 600+ half-read emails wait for me on Monday mornings. Of course, I fall out of step from time to time (especially when I travel), but for the most part I can keep my email in-box at zero, and manage all the little pieces of paper and notes that magically turn up. I do my weekly monitoring (a la GTD), I don't lose anything (I might of course choose to ignore it), and I am finally in control of all the stuff that comes in and out of my office every day.

It is a little frightening knowing exactly what you need to do, you get very calm. Too calm. People think you don't have enough to do because you are not running around looking harried and overwhelmed. On Step 1 (logical stuff containment system) and Step 2 (taming email dragon) of my plan to boost productivity and achieve a zen-like relationship with the workplace - mission accomplished. Ah, but like any good learning process, this is not the end of the story, even if it is where the books and videos end.

Once you get your act together, Step 3 is to find tolerance, for others and yourself. Now other people's email and information overload becomes very obvious. You can almost immediately tell who has a system and who doesn't. However, because your situation is now so different it is very hard to remember what it was like to literally swim (or drown) in email and paper. Of course, when you do have a system, procrastination becomes deliberate and transparent, and you can tell what you don't want to do or can't really get your head around (so figuratively, your management underpants are showing.) In Step 3, to further lower stress levels, you are desparately seeking tolerance - nobody's perfect.

Finally (at least finally for now), Step 4 is to spread the word. As evangelical as that might sound, this is indeed the next logical step. At one point in the acid rain problem of the 1980s, Sweden decided that it would have more impact in Sweden with its anti-pollution investments if it would simply send the money and technology to Poland. When my "Waiting for" folder has more items than my "Action" folder, then I need to step out of my bubble and change tactics. I can send reminders, I can call, I can chase, but that just adds back in work to a process that, if I was the Master of my Universe, would have been done.

I can get my things done, but ultimately most of my things depend on other people getting their things done. So, on to Steps 3 and 4 and those unwritten chapters. Aaaah, life in a system.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Micro-Lit: Too Wordy - Try It Again


My previous blog post on this topic was ridiculously long, especially for the topic. So I am trying again:

Micro-Lit is the latest trend - the ultimate in pithy reductive literature. Why write a book when 6 words will do?

What ideas might this trend give us for our learning work? What about asking for thoughtful abbreviated responses to feedback questions? Avoid long qualitative anwers and boost creativity. Introduce synthesizing exercises for useful skills building. E.g. Pick one word that summarises how you're feeling right now? Or let small groups create a 1 sentence review of a speaker's presentation, rather than a 10 min summary report back. Recapitulate the previous day with a haiku. You get the idea: Multiply meaning and minimize words.

Think short and come up with the perfect triple entendre.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Trendspotting: Micro-Lit (and Other Applications)

We are coming up to our major Congress, now two weeks away, and working on our assessment instruments among other things. We feel keen to gather as much data, information and feedback as possible from the thousands of participants attending to help us learn more about them, their ideas and opinions, and to make decisions about future work and future Congresses. But what are we going to do with all that information?

Lizzie and I spoke yesterday with our Monitoring & Evaluation officer about a draft feedback form for participants attending the set of 54 Learning Opportunities (skills building workshops) that will be held on site. We asked everything we were interested in in an innovative way, so that the form was a learning intervention in itself, helped people tap in on what they were learning and practiced summarising it for people (e.g. If you met a colleague in the corridor on your way out of this workshop, what would you tell them that you learned?) Our M&E colleague usefully pointed out that our questionnaire was mostly qualitative and would generate reams of results that would be time consuming and costly to crunch. Did we want to think of a few ways of getting high quality and more importantly shorter responses?

Yesterday we received an email from a former colleague and fellow blogger, Michelle, asking for an activity to help teach the skills of synthesizing and making summaries which she could use in a communications course she was giving. We had never really done that and it struck me as a challenge; synthesizing is indeed an essential knowledge management skill, useful for everyone. How can we help people take lots of information and crystallize the most essential elements for themselves and others?

I read a recent article on the new trend for Micro-lit, which is both an art form in itself and a practice of using just a few words to synthesize, what in otherwords, would take many other words. This has been inspired by the oft-cited 6 word novel that Hemingway wrote on a dare: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Now there are 4 word film reviews, 12-word novel contests, etc. The trend must be a backlash from today's information overload, as well as people's increasing comfort writing text messages, using Skype Chat, Twitter etc. People are getting better at saying a lot with just a few words.

So how can we take advantage of this - well, for our assessment we decided to ask people a few questions in a different way, such as "What 5 words would you use to describe this learning opportunity?", and for Michelle, I suggested a couple of synthesis activities, such as writing a Haiku that summarizes a session participants had earlier in the training (I've had participants write systems haikus), or to pick an article out of the newspaper and write a one sentence review. Or what about a 6 word bio for yourself?

As writers, bloggers, trainers, facilitators, and colleagues the words we generate compete with the steady flow of information that sweeps through our lives. We need to think more about the other end of that information production process - to what others can do with that information - and to help them out a little by synthesizing our selves, and potentially helping them to do it too through the questions we ask.

So why is this blog post so long? Maybe I should have written a 5 word blog post instead:

Think more and write less.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Golden Rule

We have been to two local network meetings this week - one for trainers and one for facilitators working in the Geneva area. We go to meet people, to contribute something and to learn about the particular topic they are discussing. Last night at the facilitators network meeting we created an interesting taxonomy of icebreakers and introduction exercises, organized by application (group size and level of formality needed). At the trainers meeting we had a demonstration of the power of people's energy fields- both the impact of your (positive/negative) thoughts on you and on others around you.

At these meetings, I also find myself learning something about these fields of practice more generally, through observing how the community members talk to each other, how they model their messages in demonstrating skills and knowledge to each other.

One thing beamed out at me this week. In these professions, there are some golden rules. One of the most important ones, one which sounds simple but is incredibly subtle, I believe, is: Be nice.

Whether you are facilitating or training, when people come together for any purposeful reason, you can be sure that in addition to their pens and papers, they bring with them a range of powerful emotions. They could be curious, excited, exasperated, stressed, bored, or all of these things at once; and you, as their process leader, get to create an experience for these people as individuals and together that works with all those feelings.

Whether you use facilitation or training as a blunt instrument or a fine tool, everything going on in that room is precipitated or mediated by you. As you feed back and summarise, it is also filtered by you. As you guide and build the process, it is directed by you. How people feel at the beginning, middle and end, is somehow affected by you. Where are you? Standing at the front or side of the room, moving in and out of their line of sight? What are you doing while that person is speaking, are you grimacing, talking to someone else, asking hard questions, smiling, affirming, paying complete attention. Are you modelling the behaviour that you want others to have in your session?

We want to walk into a room of nice people. We ask people to open up and dig deeply inside themselves for ideas, answers and questions. We ask people to stretch, to nudge themselves out of their comfort zone to learn and experience behaviour change. One of our responsibilities surely in intervening in these processes is to bring our good will and good intent, and leave aside everything else, but our genuine desire to help others. I really think one of the golden rules for process leaders is: Be nice. Be deeply and genuinely nice. And I think everyone can feel it when its there. I am thinking about what that means for me - think about what that means for you.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

It's a Sign!


You've heard of reading tea leaves - well, look what tea bags can do. It's going to be a good week!

(10 min later) Ok, apparently it is not immediately obvious (to my husband at least) what this is - it's a smiley face! Can you see it? If this was a Rorschach blot, I hope it would say good things about me.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Working By Walking Around

In the last 2 days, I have hand delivered three letters in my office building. I think that is the first time I have ever done that. But these days it is an absolute necessity. Our office is a little crazy right now (I wanted to call this blog entry "Going Postal" but with the stress levels right now it did not seem very p.c..) We are 3 weeks away from the opening of our enormous Congress, almost entirely run by and for people in our Union (staff, partners, and members alike). People's email boxes are overflowing, their phones are on voicemail, meetings overlap, schedules are triple booked, questions and requests are flying in from all corners of the world. Time is precious. I had a 4 minute meeting today which actually accomplished something important. I am assured that this is completely normal just before one of our huge four-yearly Congresses.

What it means is that people are having to work very differently, which might not be a bad thing. If I need something now, information or a decision or someone's attention, (like my 3 invitations to speak at workshops), I need to get off my chair and go out of my office and physically find them. Sometimes they are at their desks, sometimes coming out of meetings, sometimes ducking into the ladies or heading out for a smoke, where ever they are, I need to find them. Because in 5 minutes we have discussed, informed or solved something that would otherwise go into an action file and re-emerge in a week or a month (or never). No time for that now.

Actually I am enjoying this new mode of working. I get to see people, talk for a minute, learn about their latest whatever. I am getting to hear more about what people are doing, their hopes, goals and sometimes frustrations. I can even help at times which is very satisfying. Like the postman in the old days where I grew up - he walked around door to door, chatted with people, knew what was going on in the neighbourhood, and was always willing to exchange a few words or give some friendly advice. I think that this way of working helps reduce stress, pulls the community together, builds relationships, and fosters informal learning. There is something deliciously counterintuitive about this way of working (I am too busy to send a 2 minute email and wait for a response. Instead I'm going to take a 10 minute walk to get what I need.)

I remember reading an article about the workplace of the future (which is now) suggesting that the ONLY reason to come into an office today was to interact. At home, people have all the equipment they need to work - online access to intranets, skype, Instant Messenger, and more. So if you are not in the office to interact with colleagues, you might as well work from home. There, your only interuption might be the postman.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

It Only Takes 1% to Make A Micro-Trend

If we have 1500 staff members, what are 15 of them doing together that creates an interesting micro-trend in our organization that we should be paying attention to?

I enjoyed reading Mark J. Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne's Micro Trends: Surprising Tales of the Way We Live Today (Penguin 2007), and found this intriguing paragraph to capture the essence of the book:

Today, changing lifestyles, the Internet, the balkanization of communications, and the global economy are all coming together to create a new sense of individualism that is powerfully transforming our society. The world may be getting flatter, in terms of globalization, but it is occupied by 6 billion little bumps who do not have to follow the herd to be heard. ... In fact by the time a trend hits 1 percent , it is ready to spawn a hit movie, best selling book, or new political movement. The power of individual choice is increasingly influencing politics, religion, entertainment and even war. In today's mass societies, it takes only 1 percent of people making a dedicated choice - contrary to the mainstream's choice - to create a movement that can change the world.

...or an organization? I have the exciting challenge to facilitate a four-year, system-wide organizational development and change process in my organization. Many teams will be involved in this evolving process. At this early stage we are thinking about how best to inform and engage people so that they see and feel their own potential to catalyse change in their areas of concern. I have been thinking about how to get the majority on board, but reading this book makes me think that, in fact, there may be no "majority" in the organization. Maybe, just like in the outside world, as MicroTrends proposes, people are going hundreds of small directions at once, quickly.

So how can we harness that energy for this process? Where are the niches within the organization? Maybe trying to unify people around one macro-slogan, tagline, or end point, is not the most effective way to go. Maybe we need to make lots of customised, personalised products and processes that speak to and build tolerance for the different choices that people are making (like going to staff picnics and not going to staff picnics, or coming to free coffee or not coming to free coffee.) The book talks not so much about identifying Communities of Practice, but Communities of Choice.

We need to start micro-trend spotting - what are those 15 people doing right now?

Watch Mark Penn's GoogleTalks Video on YouTube.

Avoiding Petrifying Talk of ‘Taking Action’

How can we talk about applying learning without turning off those who are petrified by talk of taking action? This challenge leapt out and stared me in the face last week.

When we take time to interact with business people on the topic of business and biodiversity, we hope that they will be energized and better equipped with what they learn to return to their businesses and lead change. But leading change requires taking action. And talk of taking action… well, apparently this isn’t something that energizes everyone; Quite the opposite. So what did we come up with? - A series of appreciative questions which imply taking action, but don’t explicitly state so.

• Is your business strategy more focused on addressing biodiversity risks or opportunities?
• What more could your business do to mitigate the biodiversity risks and/or capitalize on the opportunities?
• If your CEO asked you for one suggestion on how to improve your business’ biodiversity strategy, what would you suggest?


The room buzzed. Suggestions sprung to the surface. And lively conversation continued into dinner, with learning translated into fresh ideas for leading change!

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in 50 Words

I just spent my Saturday morning filling in a 6-page questionnaire sent by UNESCO as a part of their global monitoring and evaluation of the Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). They want to know what organizations and networks are doing to contribute to the Decade, here at the mid-decade mark.

The question I appreciated the most was: What is Education for Sustainable Development for you? (Give your perception of ESD in 50 words.) It was the 50 words that got me, now that was a challenge! Because the Decade is a United Nations process (it is a UN Decade), with all the reams of paperwork, pages and column inches that brings, I found this question both refreshing and intriguing. It was an exercise that tapped into to my right brain creativity that was not unlike writing a poem or a haiku. It generated a little spark of energy where before there was only a 6-page questionnaire. And it was the last question - good thinking on someone's part!

Here was my response:

ESD is the process of helping individuals and groups deliberately define their own SD journeys, supporting this through learning tools, collaborative opportunities and reflective processes. ESD shapes people's viewpoint on their personal and professional experiences so that decisions that favour sustainability become a part of their habitual and desired practice.

Want to try one of your own? See if thinking about it this way, like a puzzle, ignites some renewed energy - after all we have 5 years to go!

Friday, September 05, 2008

The 10 Commandments of Panel Sessions

See Doug Johnson's Blue Skunk Blog for "10 Commandments of Panel Sessions". This post seemed particularly relevant for what we are about to do at our upcoming Congress in 4 weeks - that is, hear lots of panel discussions. These strike me as sensible ways to steer panels so that they do what they are meant to do (which I guess is to present a lot of information to a lot of people in a short amount of time.) Learning should also be a top goal, and I think following these "commandments" will get us a little closer to that one.

Thanks to my colleague Wiebke in our Brussels Office for sending this along (fyi she also keeps a blog, on "perpetual learning and other pathways to peace".)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Forum's Many Faces

I have mentioned before in this blog the Learning Capture process that our institution is undertaking in the months prior to, during, and after our upcoming World Conservation Congress (October 2008). I use the blog to answer some of the questions - this is question four: Reflecting on the process of designing and coordinating the Forum, what aspects were successful and could become part of the process for the next Forum? What aspects of the process are, in hindsight, not essential, redundant, or simply did not work?

When I think of the issues I am dealing with right now, coordinating a Facilitation Team for the Forum (a four day mega-event with hundreds of parallel workshops, activities, cinema, etc.), I imagine the kind of questions I might have asked many months ago that might have mitigated some of the work I am doing now. I see an opportunity for next time (we do these events each four years) that is worth mentioning around the venue selection process.

As I am working with the facilitation side of things, I would start with the same kinds of questions in this situation that I would ask of anyone organizing any activity: What is the purpose of the event? Once that was established, I would ask: How can we model our goals in our methodology? So that people get both an intellectual experience and a kinesthetic experience (that's our left brain/right brain issue again) that grounds it firmly in participants' life experience (at least for longer than 90 minutes.) My next question would be: What kind of a venue do we need to do this?

That would be the question sequence from my perspective. Another perspective might come from a thematic organizer - I want to get this great message out to as many people as possible - how big are the rooms and do we have translation? Or from a logistics person - how good is the venue staff - am I going to have to do everything myself, or are they really well organized? Or from an admin person - is the venue too big that I am going to have to run from one event to another and is my office near where the action is? Or from a participant - am I going to be sitting all day listening to people talk - are the chairs comfortable and is there a place I can get a coffee? Or from a facilitator - I need to involve people, are the chairs moveable, can we post things on the walls, is there open space I can use for games or activities?

Compromises might need to be made of course (hopefully not too many), however, far upstream of such an event, a useful checklist (a Reusable Learning Object) can be made of the needs and perspectives of the people that will bring such an event to life, followed by clear communication of the decisions taken. This would be an interesting way to involve those people in the very first stages of the process. Maybe the advance team, visiting the venue options early on, could invoke them in their visits - can they take a handful of masks? The organizer mask, the staff mask, the facilitator mask, the participant mask - and see it through their eyes?