Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Focus AND Perspective in One Hour or Less?

Some days go by in a blur. Meetings interspersed with small chunks of desk time, interrupted by phone calls, nature breaks, and impromptu visits by interesting colleagues, an SMS from home, the background bing of email dropping into your in-box. Interruptions, as welcome as they might be, unweave the fabric of your day. The focus you had when you walked into your office slowly unravels, as your attention is simultaneously sought all around you. Over the course of this day your task completion rate dips - the trees appear and the forest recedes into a fuzzy background. Presuming you notice this, what can you do to regain your focus and perspective?

Here's an idea...colour in a mandala.

I laughed when the art therapist briefed our group on this activity last Saturday in a workshop I attended. I have mandalas all over the house that my sons have made. They seem to be popular projects in first grade. Now I see why. A mandala is described as an "integrated structure around a unified centre"; they represent wholeness, and the integration of macro and micro perspectives. Although they originally come from Eastern religions, they are now found in many cultures and have come to represent the unity and flow of life. Most of all, creating them (even just colouring them in) can help you relax and improve concentration (no wonder they are popular with teachers of 6 year olds, and harried adults).

When you take on a mandala, your process starts with picking one that you will be happy spending an hour of your life on, out of an infinite variety of designs. Then you need to think for a while and begin to make a series of decisions about colour and pattern. You tap into yourself - how do I feel and what combination of colours will portray the perspective I have or want to have? This is a thoughtful reflective process. There is nothing random about a mandala. Whenever you make a decision, it implicates many other parts of the mandala (sound familiar?) As you make your decisions about colour and intensity, you explore the intricacies of the pattern, you gradually see the impact of these decisions on the whole, unfolding design.

After a while, as you settle into this creative process, you start to bring in other ideas and influences, you might question your earlier choices, you go down another level to see where you are going with this. Everything in your head translates into your design, unspoken; you are completely focused and uninterrupted. I was surprised, in a room of 15 people, with more coming and going, no one could distract me from completing my mandala. There is no intermediate stopping place on this circular design, once you get started, you are compelled to finish. Completion, what a nice feeling.

If you decide to try this, and take it seriously, you will feel the benefits. It lifts the mood, it refreshes you; you can think and connect while using your creativity to make something new. There is a satisfying end to the task. All that in one hour or less... If your day is spinning, take an hour, some felt tip pens and a mandala, and restore your focus and perspective. It really can be that easy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

It's OK to Be Invisible

Blogs are great because they can be used for so many things. This is an exercise in reframing…

There are many professions that have as a feature of their creative work, being rather invisible in the final product. Editors find this, ghost writers certainly, even advisors to high level people have the opportunity to provide discreet guidance, direction and ideas to leaders which might make a major change in the world. Every President and Prime Minister has a team of people who are consulted and once in a while may be the source of their next great idea or provide insight for the solution to a particularly sticky problem.

These people clearly enjoy their influential jobs, and rightly so. Let's explore that enjoyment a little. What might be some of the incentives, in the absence of public recognition, that motivate them? Of course there might still be some public recognition, if they have the title as Advisor to the President, or Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper. But what if they don't actually have that title?

Does it take a specific personality type to be satisfied with the knowledge that you are helping someone else do a great job? Does it take a longer term viewpoint, or the belief in good karma, that what goes around comes around and if you are helpful to someone then eventually someone will be helpful to you? My first professional boss some 18 years ago was a busy man who always had time for people, who would freely give advice, try to be helpful, brainstorm with people for programmatic ideas or even ideas that would help them navigate the incredible bureaucracy that was the UN. He even wrote a major report for the CEO that people still refer to today, and his name did not appear on it anywhere. He was an excellent networker, built strong personal relationships with people, and generally, in spite of the politics and hassles, enjoyed his work. He didn't get to the top of the organization, but he had lots of people at his retirement party. I think eventually he did get a title that spoke of his important advisory role, but I am not even sure about that. I don’t think that bothered him too much, he seemed to have a bigger picture in mind.

Everyone needs some recognition and feedback to keep them motivated. This can come in different forms and forums. It might also be more or less important based on the stage of their career. The public-ness of this recognition might also have a link with how much they want to be included in things (see Firo-B discussions), or how much self-esteem they have. Personally, I struggle a bit with invisibility for many different reasons. At the same time, I do believe in a strong service culture, and value being a part of many "teams" no matter how ephemeral or informal. I need to keep coming back to the big picture idea; how is this process contributing to an overall goal, and what is the best way for me to help achieve it? Then it is also up to me to create the story for myself that captures my role in that change process, and to be able to repeat it to myself and perhaps others from time to time. I think its OK to be invisible, sometimes.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Time, Technology and Tangibility

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to Frits Hesselink, who has recently completed a Toolkit on Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA) for the Convention on Biological Diversity. Toolkits are very much the fashion right now and we were interested hear more about what Frits had learned in his process, which featured over 100 inputs from members of an international, distributed expert Commission linked to my organization (the Commission on Education and Communication, for which I act as the staff Focal Point). From our conversation three things struck me as particularly relevant to further Toolkitting activities: Time, Technology and Tangibility.

Time: For Frits, time was a major issue, and a resource need that had been wholly underestimated by all parties. The deeper the consultation, the better the product, and the more time this takes. For this toolkit, Frits did not simply request a group of editors to prepare set chapters or send out a prepared document for comments. He sent out web-based surveys which needed in many cases follow-up interviews with longer discussons to develop fully. He found that he needed to follow up with people quickly, within 10 days or less, to keep momentum and to keep people from forgetting the nuance of their survey responses. This created bursts of intensive time allocations. In addition, as this is a large network which was queried for the project, to keep his request from falling through the cracks and to attract people's immediate attention, the personal connection was important; so in many cases, Frits used his personal links with experts that he knew were working in the field of CEPA to encourage a concrete and timely response. This involved many individual messages, responses and person-to-person linkages rather than the typical all-network broadcast. Time, time, time.

Technology: For the final toolkit authors/editors group, Frits, and one of our IT colleagues, set up a technology platform for collaboration; a bespoke tool to upload documents, share commentary, etc. However, in the end it simply did not work. Frits was the only one who took the time to learn how to use it (the project started 2 years ago and the tool was a little too clunky), and other authors never had the time or enough incentive/need to get on top of it. Frits learned that technology must be easy, intuitive, and people need a strong incentive to learn a new system, rather than falling back on usual technologies like email. (We spun off here on an interesting tangent on age; perhaps our network needs that injection of young people for whom these new technology tools are second nature. We faced the possibility that our network is "too old" for some of these new tools, and that a little reverse mentoring through a cross-generational "Buddy system" could go a long way).

Tangibility: The final point that we talked about was how to make a Toolkit more than a book. We saw the proofs for the hard copy of the CEPA toolkit last week and indeed it looks like a book. It was first a website, then a CD-ROM, and now it is a book. There are of course good reasons for the hard copy, but these days it could perhaps be more useful for longer as a living social site, where people could upload more tools, experiment with them and share their results and questions. That would make it a real toolkit. But there is still, in some corners, the expectation to have a physical object as a product. Something you can hold in your hands, pass around, send in the mail. It also perhaps gives the sense to the partners that the project is "completed", and that the toolkit is "done". But perhaps it is more interesting these days, to never actually "complete" a toolkit project; not to freeze the knowledge at any point, but let it flow, go on percolating, updating itself, and spinning off into new areas when needed. This Web 2.0 option however demands monitoring and perhaps some facilitation at the onset to keep the quality, which takes not only money, but time - and that takes us right back to where we started from...

The last time you did an interesting project, did you learn something new? How did you share your learning with others?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

No "Thanks" Needed

Every time I watch Merlin Mann's Google video on Inbox Zero, I get a little more out of it and gradually the idea of a Zero Inbox is capturing people's imagination in our institution. We have now run two 60 minute staff sessions where we projected the video, had some stories from current users, and then had a Q&A discussion to explore some of people's ideas and concerns around this notion.

Our last week's session produced a nice, concise list of principles for emailing. It seemed different than the usual list of DON'Ts, as it was linked to specific strategies for helping people more efficiently process their email. Most lists aim to do that, and with the rationale right up front it seems to make even more sense. It also serves to remind people of their responsibility to help the receivers on the other end (or at least think about them when they shoot out their mail). Linked to this, we are getting ready for David Allen's visit to our institution in April for a day seminar with our staff on "Getting Things Done". I think that all of these discussions about pesonal productivity also help us see more clearly how, by getting our own stuff done most efficiently, we can actually help other people get their stuff done too (a.k.a. Teamwork).

Below is our list:

9 Principles for Email Good Practice

To facilitate SEARCH and ARCHIVING:

  • Put an accurate title in the "SUBJECT" line (and please don't leave it blank)
  • If possible, use one email for one topic, action or decision needed


  • Use the "TO" field for those persons from whom you need a response, use the "CC" field for people's information only (no response needed)
  • Put any deadlines at the top of the email in bold (consider putting them in the "SUBJECT" line)
  • If you can identify the next action and prominently include it in the email, it will reduce processing time for the recipient.
  • If it is really URGENT, and the turnaround is very short, then call the recipient if possible to see if they received it (don't assume that they have read their email in a short time period)
To minimize VOLUME:
  • CC only those people who really need copies of the correspondence
  • Ask for responses or acknowledgements if needed, otherwise do not expect/do not send "thanks" responses to signal receipt
  • Do not automatically REPLY TO ALL

The hardest part of this exercise was writing the email to staff signalling this discussion (an email code of conduct had been formally requested by the senior management team). It had to be completely congruent. I ended up sending it to one person for their direct response, and ccing everyone else to give them the option to comment or DELETE.

Most institutions have these rules or guidelines, developed a couple of years ago when email started to become the way you run your life. I hear that we do too somewhere. And I guess it never hurts to repeat this exercise. Perhaps renewing the discussion will get more people interested in analysing, and where necessary changing, their email practice - with the goal of helping themselves and others spend a little less time fiddling with email and creating a little more time to do other interesting stuff.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Am I This Stuff?

Here's a puzzle, what do the following things have in common?

  • Analysis of green areas per person in the Metropolitan Area of Mexico City 1950-2000
  • Description of a process (1994-1997) for capacity building to promote multi-stakeholder dialogue on the environmental problems in a peri-urban hot spot and the capacity needed for its management
  • Report on the status in 1996 of Biosphere Reserves in Arab Countries and perspectives for an Arab Network of Biosphere Reserves
  • Empirical studies from 1997 of the role of gaming/simulations in policy development and organizational change

I could go on. What these things have in common is that they joined several thousand other such interesting pieces of paper in a journey to the recycling centre last week as I cleared out at least half of my "archived" material at home over the holidays.

It was hard - every piece of paper had interesting data and information in it, it had memories, places, faces, experiences - little parts of life. I had to struggle with myself to let go of it - what would it mean when it was gone? Was this stuff me? After hours of looking through it (ostensibly to recuperate paper clips but mostly procrastinating tossing it) I decided that the answer was Yes and No. Yes, this composite of knowledge and information somehow reflects my own personal and professional experience and gives some indicator of who I have become through my work.

No, because this stack of stuff has way too much detail, frozen information that has shifted and changed over time. It does not reflect the progression of my understanding of these themes nor even necessarily what I actually learned through these experiences. For example, that particular Mexico trip took us from Mexico City to the Yucatan Peninsula. I don't actually remember the figures for green area per person in Mexico City (I guess the trend was going down.) However, I do vividly remember watching fishermen near Progresso catch octopus during the day with bait of live crabs that the women would catch at night. This was a fantastic example of gender roles and natural resource management that I will never forget, but I didn't have any report or papers in my files on that.

I did notice that there were many papers, events, trips etc. where I did not recall much - a missed opportunity for learning. Most of these situations seemed to include classroom case studies, powerpoint, activities that I did not engage in (simulations that I watched but did not take part in). There seems to be an inverse correlation between interactivity and background documentation. Even more reason to get rid of the paper tower, much of it did not sink in. But I kept it for a reason, it helped me to track my experiences, and to a certain extent reflects me. But I guess it will do that anyways, either in my basement, or in my head - and perhaps as a part of a newly recycled paper document that I get on my next trip. How's that for a learning cycle?

Happy New Year!