Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Horse, Rope, Hat, Ready to Go

We have just driven out of Yellowstone National Park, past herds of bison and grazing elk, through Shoshone National Forest along the Buffalo Bill Highway into Cody, Wyoming. My husband remarked that this had been the longest time he had been away from an internet or telephone connection in his professional life (he is a software engineer with a PDA). And I too cannot remember the last time I had five days with absolutely no way of reading my email or checking into the office.

Let me tell you, it is easier than you think. Day 1 is full of anxiety and intruding thoughts about what you left to do while on holiday (when you thought you could check in from time to time). On Day 2 those thoughts are fleeting and gradually give way to resignation about no possible signal (after walking around the campground to see if there is anything secretly emitting a signal that you can jump onto). Then by Day 3, it is the blissful, restful return to the pre-1989 (even 1889) state of NO EMAIL CONTACT. Then you just are where you are, with those you are with, and doing what you are doing at the moment. Fishing for cutthroat trout on a boat in Yellowstone lake. Watching a grizzly bear amble down the roadside. Counting how many colours of wildflowers there are along the trail. Trying to identify all the types of animal skat. Getting ready to go to the rodeo.

There's a whole other world out there that has nothing to do with technology. It's amazing how quickly you can go back...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Like a Surgeon

This week's conference extravaganza has been an eye opener (11 workshops and breakout sessions for a 500+ person conference, with effectively 2 Facilitators). Trying to process, reflect and be appreciative about what has transpired (and blogging about it each night ) has been incredibly useful to capture learning. We came here to help create the subtle environment for generative dialogue. Instead we were working very low on Maslow's hierarcy of needs. That's ok, it was what was needed. Tonight I'm going to use an analogy to try to crystalise what it has felt like to be here trying to focus on process facilitation.

This week we are like surgeons to whom the patient has come a little too late.

You work very hard to diagnose the problem, try different experimental interventions; but it is late in the game and you don't see a significant change. When you finally have all the information, you can see clearly that many months ago, this condition would have been easily treated, but now the condition is too advanced to treat. However, you are compassionate and committed to remaining a caregiver. And you spend your time now focusing on making the patient comfortable, fluffing the pillow, administering local pain relievers, helping the patient maintain dignity - generally creating a nice environment for the final days - and making sure the strongest memories that visitors and loved ones have of your patient are good ones. No level of intervention at this point, no matter how invasive, will change the patient's outcome; so you put your energies into administering care and support, and do it in the nicest possible way. (e.g. My most significant contribution today was buying a bottle of rum for the drafting team.)

There is a real role here for preventive medicine. We need to get to the patients much earlier. We need to help establish good habits, good reflexes, good decision making, good planning, and thus good healthy, interactive workshops and peer learning sessions, and happy participants. Surgeons are trained to do amazing things, if its not too late.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What Was That

I took an art class in college where we got to programme 1 minute of our classmates' lives. I don't remember now what the project was, but it seemed like an interesting thing to do at the time. I worked with another student and we decided to try to fill that 60 seconds with as much stuff as possible - sounds, visuals, odors, movement. We put together everything we could find. We showed overlapping videos, projected enormous slides, put up a wall of writing on an OHP; we played radio music, blasted a CD compilation, tuned an electric guitar, set off a line of alarm clocks. We splash painted the wall with fluorescents as a backdrop, sprayed strong cleaning aerosols, flashed coloured strobes, and got people to take in the whole thing standing and moving around.

We did this for 60 seconds, which might sound short, but in this case felt like a lifetime. With full sensory overload, at the end of it, we were all freaked out and utterly exhausted. People looked at us at the end of this long minute and said, "What was that".

Today, we held our first set of 11 workshops and breakouts for this 500+ person conference. The workshops started 1 and a half hours late and were all over town, some accessed by buses some by foot, breakout groups were in different buildings - the Mayor's office, the cultural centre, an expo space, a parish meeting room. We were two facilitators...

We left this morning at 7am. It is 6pm at the time of writing. Alarms, stand-by helicopters and EMTs, town bells, accordians, police dogs, hundreds of PPT slides, VIPs, walkie talkies, invasive species, flashing cameras, 9 buffet tables, French, TV interviews, English, key note speeches, (the strong smell of) freshly painted everything, Spanish, laptops clattering, walking on the stage with the message, Portuguese, ten buses, walking off the stage with a message, traffic marshals, wifi, climate content, images of sinking islands, rapporteurs, roving mikes. I'm sitting in this auditorium at the end of the day thinking, "What was that?"

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Adventures in Facilitation

Over 9 hours today, Aisha (co-facilitator for this big conference in La Reunion) and I drove one and a half hours into the mountains to heroically visit our workshops' venues for tomorrow, and then another hour to the Thursday venues, where we:

* Visited and counted over 1700 chairs in 37 workshop rooms;
* Tested coffee makers for noise and ease of use (I will not sleep for 2 days);
* Checked at least six set of toilet stalls for paper and soap (interestingly found in most cases only in the men's toilets, we did find soap then...);
* Shook hands with the proud Mayor of a small town;
* Remembered that, when you give 500 people the same backpack (gift for site visit), they cannot imagineably find their own again when they put them down, without a label (not a popular recollection with the person who had to go out and find 500 luggage tags);
* Noticed that there are no waste baskets in La Reunion, thus see a huge market opportunity for portable, pop up waste baskets;
* Strategized bus turnaround opportunities on one lane roads with no shoulders;
* Bought 25 magic markers, 100 squares of sticky stuff; and at least 600 boiled sweets;
* Told the person who had given logistics announcements that he had erroneously announced a bus meeting time that was 30 minutes too early (06:30 instead of 07:00) and recommended that he correct that announcement or risk getting lynched by hundreds of non-morning people at breakfast;

I could go on, but the organizing team has just walked in the door, and I need to get back into my mild-mannered facilitator clothes and work with them on the best learning designs for their large-scale workshops, and, of course, brief them to take their own TP tomorrow...

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Welcome to La Reunion

It strikes me as particularly fitting that the organizers chose Ile La Reunion (reunion is actually "meeting" in French) for a big conference that is being held this week on the topic of the European Overseas Territory islands and climate change adaptation. This beautiful volcanic island in the middle of the Indian Ocean is as far away from Brussels as you can get (at least contextually if not geographically-it is delightful to see the Brussels-based diplomatic crew in flipflops).

With 586 people descending on the island from all parts of the world, this is turning into a very large gathering of incredibly passionate opionions and a diversity of perspectives. As a result, this week might serve as a not-so-dry run for our upcoming Congress in October and produce some good learning for the most process aware. This could however be a luxury that only I will have, as this meeting has many of the same hallmarks as our Congress - most notably a small organising team made of primarily of content experts who have also been given the task to make it happen (from stuffing the conference bags to delivering one of the keynote speeches). It can be an incredible team building exercise which lets people step out of daily roles and showcase their abilities to stretch into new situations; it can also create situations where the transferability of competencies to different and completely new tasks is not so easy or obvious. The reactions will be very individual and can provide an amazing laboratory for the conscient manager.

Ostensibly I am here in La Reunion to work with the coordinators of a set of 11 workshops on the results-orientation of their workshop designs, and to help deliver a few of these with a second, Mauritian, facilitator. And I am not sure I can resist shining the spotlight from time to time on our overall process here, and what the delivery team is learning. We will see what the appetite is for this simultaneous task and team maintenance conversation. It may also help identify some strategic interventions for more individual and institutional capacity building around these critical convening skills and collaborative processes.

With hundreds of people coming from all parts of the world, from the largest European bureaucracies, and the smallest island administrations, from local civil society to official representatives of the United Nations, La Reunion will no doubt be a creative collision space, both for the participants, and for us.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Reframing Our Big Dig

For the next 18 months, our organization has a Big Dig going on outside our office windows. This enormous excavation started last week with a ground breaking ceremony that launched our new building, one of the greenest in Europe. A hard hat zone, the roar of big machines, the sound of crunching as tons of cement blocks get pulverised into bite sized pieces for carrying away (and giving away), and an absolutely enormous hole. What will they find? Roman coins, medieval dumping grounds, dinosaur bones??? (We are after all located in the foothills of the Jura mountains, home of the original Jurassic Park!)

Of course the intense noise, clouds of dust, and soul shaking vibrations are different than we are used to in our work at headquarters, located in a quiet Swiss town on the banks of Lake Geneva, so this situation is ripe for reframing. If I think about some of the workplaces of our colleagues around the world - on storm-tossed boats in the ocean as they collect specimens in marine biosphere reserves, in deep field offices with dodgy water and intermittent electricity, in work sites near war areas and oil spills, and on and on; I guess this experience helps us imagine some of what our colleagues in the field and other parts of the world get to integrate as a part of their work for our organization. Flexibility, resilience, keeping our sense of humour? All useful workplace survival skills!

Of course, it's easy for me to see things differently, I write this blog post from Australia where I am on a work trip, half way across the world from our Big Dig. And still on Monday, when I was last in the office, I got to feel the thrill what it might have been like to work beside a Tyrannosaurus Rex feeding ground!