Sunday, April 20, 2008

(Preparing) The Greatest Show on Earth

What do you see when you go to the circus? You see the amazing daredevil acrobatic teams, the perilously high tight rope walkers, the perfectly synchronized performing ducks... What you don't necessarily see is the lifetime of concentrated training the acrobats have undergone, the many hours a day the jugglers practice, and the fact that the lion tamer is actually missing a thumb.

The incredible amount of preparation that it takes to pull off a thrilling, memorable and meaningful performance is what my organization is experiencing right now in the preparation of its quadrennial global Congress. Expectations of 8,000-10,000 attendees have raised the stakes for putting on a really exceptional event. What that means for us is not only getting the logistics right, but also engaging the audience - our colleagues, partners and visitors - in many different, exciting ways.

Some people might be born with the ability to juggle flaming torches while standing bareback on a cantering horse (in sequins no less.) For others, it takes some practice, preparation and a good deal of help. The same is true for our events. So, for the first time at a Congress, we have engaged an international team of professional facilitators as advisors, who will work with 54 of our colleagues leading on different Secretariat sessions. This facilitation team will help the leads to think through their events and make suggestions as to interactive tools and techniques that they might use to get their messages across and novel ways to engage the audience. Whether it is Open Space Technology, Conversation Cafes, or newly designed large group games, the goal is to see how we can break through the fourth wall between those on stage and those in the bleachers, to reach them, touch them, challenge them, learn from them, and engage them in our work.

Because this is rather experimental, we are going to capture our learning throughout the preparation as a part of the M&E process. So more will appear on this blog on the Congress Facilitation Advisory Team and its work to help us prepare our Greatest Show on Earth -suddenly I'm craving popcorn.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Peak of Productivity: GTD

When do you have a burning desire at 9pm on a Sunday to go into your office and sort through your mountan of paperwork for 3 hours? When you feel like you are, for the first time, actually Getting Thing Done.

After a visit and full day seminar from David Allen last week, creator of this popular approach to personal productivity, our office has been hit by the intense need to Collect, Process, Organize, Review and Do. When I started my organizing streak last night, I didn't have to create my own categories of lists, I simply copied my colleague's, who had spent all day Thursday and Friday setting up her own system. We had 54 staff members attend the seminar - I heard that there was a run on folders, and that people were scouring the basement for old in-trays and bits of filing cabinets the rest of the week.

Now I have my own mind sweep nearly complete; that is, getting all of those undone things that David refers to as work on a set of next action lists, from performance assessments to paying my cafeteria tab. And when I can get over the intense sense of urgency of doing all of those things that I had actually forgotten, I hope that my weekly review will free up some physic ram so that I can get on with some of the creative things on my Someday/Maybe list.

Sound like a new language? It might be for some, but it's not a foreign one and not hard to learn. It's based on practices you do regularly, but puts them together in a more effecient, and systemic way. And it seems to really appeal to people. One of my colleagues said that in the first 30 minutes of his seminar she had decided to adopt the GTD approach, because it was simply better than the one she was currently using. Another colleague worried about the extra time investment asked David at the end of his seminar, "Doesn't using GTD take a lot of discipline?" David responded with "Yes, absolutely, but anything takes discipline before it becomes a habit. Brushing your teeth and taking a shower regularly took enormous discipline (or disciplining) when you were a kid. Until it became a habit. Now it feels bad not doing it. You need to get to that stage with this practice as well. "

Feeling on top of things is the peak of work/life balance. I can just about see the top of my paper mountain. It's bright and beautiful up there. When I get there I am going to shout from the top of it, "It works! Labelmaker anyone!?"

Friday, April 04, 2008

Facilitator's Notebook: Were You Listening?

The start of any workshop normally includes a tour-de-table where people introduce themselves and say a few words about their expectations and why they are there. If you are going around in a circle, you can figure out how long it will be until your turn. Then you calculate how many people you can actually listen to before you need to think about what you are going to say. At that point you tune out in order to come up with something that sounds interesting and intelligent, until after your turn. After your turn, you replay your intervention a few times in your head to convince yourself that it was a good contribution and made you look good. Then you tune in again. Out of the 20 or so participants, you ended up hearing about half or less.

As a facilitator what can you do to get people to register the interesting information about each other that will start to connect them at a personal level, allowing you to move the group towards more and more powerful, creative, potentially intense and exciting discussions? People need to feel comfortable with the other group members for that; it can be a bit risky in the group process sense. How can you catalyze that process?

There are of course many ways to do this. What we did last week, with a small group of people who will be working together for two years on a project at a distance, was to give them a team quiz.

No one said that you had to listen the first time, maybe some of them did not. However, the next morning after their introductions on Day 1, they received a pop quiz about the team to complete titled, "Were You Listening?" Match the person to their musical instrument (who played the bassoon, the piano, the guitar?) Who studied philosophy in university? Which two people do not speak Portuguese (because almost everyone else in this group does)? Who coined a well-known conservation term? Who started their career in the civil service? Ten multiple choice questions captured some of the interesting things about this new team, taken from the things that they had said about themselves in the previous day's introductions.

If they did not pick it up the first time, then this was the second opportunity to absorb the information. And this time, going through the answers of the quiz and discussing them further, everyone was listening.