Saturday, August 30, 2008

Workshop in a Box

Lizzie and I recently ran a 2.5 day visioning workshop using systems thinking tools in Meso-America in Spanish (see recent blog post: Want more amplification: Don't call it training) without ever formally taking the floor. We did the design work and preparation, consulted pre-event with our local partners, and attended the workshop, and left the on stage facilitation to two fantastic regional experts. The workshop ran beautifully - it popped out, perfectly formed (to participants).

Of course, behind the scenes it took lots of work. Having a terrific delivery team is obviously the first big step, and we had that with our remarkable Mexican and Argentinian bi-lingual facilitators (you would never have imagined that they first met only the day before the workshop). The second is airtight preparation and process documentation. It's on this latter that I want to expand a bit.

You can imagine that a workshop using systems tools would have emergent properties that we would want to take into consideration as the process unfolded. As a result, we took our very detailed agenda, and put Day 1 into the format of a Facilitators Guide, for discussion on our pre-workshop briefing day with the Facilitation Team and organizers. This Guide had the following components:

  • The overview agenda (to see the flow and build of the workshop)
  • The detailed day-to-day agenda
  • Session-by-session descriptions

Each session was described for the Facilitation team and included the following information:

  • Time schedule: Where it fits in the overall workshop schedule and what comes next
  • Goals for the session: What's the overall objective of this session
  • Materials required: Any equipment or materials needs (aggregated later into a master materials list)
  • Preparation: What speaker briefings, flipcharts prepared (including an image of these for copying), room set up, worksheets or templates to have on hand
  • Process: Script for facilitator and process flow (timed out within the session), images of the PowerPoint slides to use and how to brief them, activity sequence withn session.
  • Facilitator Notes: Tips, and what to watch out for, and things that might happen and what to do about that (Plan B ideas).

This level of detail helped us to discuss the overall goals, flow, and individual roles of each of the Facilitators for the whole first day. It helped make everything completely explicit so that we could explore and potentially change it, which we did in our briefing, we tightened the questions, shifted things around a bit so that they made sense to everyone and then attributed the sessions to each of the Facilitators so that their preparation that night could be focused.

During Day 1, our role was to check the Facilitators Guide against what actually happened. Checking that our time allocations were close to reality, that our instructions were clear (or if not, what needed to be said in the end to make them clearer), and noted the questions that participants asked. From the day and our end-of-day debriefing with the team, we added a section to the Facilitators Guide for each session called:

  • Notes from the Meso-America workshop: Ideas and items added, and learning captured from this pilot

Also during Day 1, I wrote the Facilitators Guide for Day 2, tweaking it where possible to match the language and any learning from Day 1. We used this to allocate roles and prepare that night for Day 2. We followed the same system for the next 2 days, using the Guide for briefing, and capturing learning in our debriefing. At the end of the workshop, we had a nearly completed Facilitators Guide. The day after our workshop we had a Reflection Meeting amongst the full team of partners and facilitators. Our discussion around learning about the preparation and coordination of the meeting added the following sections before (Pre-session Preparation)and after (Annexes) the session detail:

Pre-session Preparation:

  • Selecting a workshop venue: Space needs, light needs, wall space, breaks and meals
  • Invitations: What people need to know to attend
  • Choosing 2 Facilitators: Background and roles
  • Master materials/equipment list: Aggregated from session lists for sourcing
  • Rapporteuring and reporting: Getting people and set up for lots of information
  • Onsite briefing: How to structure this
  • First day prcess pre-opening: Engineering first impressions


  • Reporting framework: To use as a template (2 options)
  • Opening speech: This will probably be the similar each time
  • Feedback form (in session): The simple form to capture participant's reflections
  • Postworkshop participants feedback: The form to send 1 month after to capture impacts
  • General comments on design: Larger ideas for evolution of the workshop
  • Participants comments: Some quotes from the feedback forms

So, we ended up with the whole workshop, literally, in a box! One of the plans for this workshop was that it would be repeated in three regions (it is a visioning and strategic planning workshop for a major global programme within our institution, that has regional implementation particularities). This "box" is a terrific learning tool - a useful Reusable Learning Object (RLO) - that can be sent ahead to the next partners (with the output report of the workshop) to prepare more effeciently the next iteration. It provides a place to capture learning from each subsequent workshop, so that at the end it serves as a collection of learning about this methodology, for further change. It also documents the process comprehensively enough that others who are interested in the methodology, but who did not participate, can potentially replicate all or part of the process.

All this was done just prior to and during the workshop and produced an unexpectedly useful process product that literally popped up alongside the final report.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Leaking Left Brain Knowledge into Right Brain Action

I am at the annual Balaton Group meeting this week and we have been talking about, among other things, how to motivate people to change their behaviour - in this case, towards more sustainable actions.

One of our speakers on change agentry put up a slide titled, "Obstacles to change," which included all kinds of reasons people give for not adopting more green behaviour (such as "my company needs to make a profit, my small contribution will not count for much, I can't afford it", etc.) Someone asked the quesion - are these obstacles to change, or rationalisations for not changing behaviour? Here was the argument:

People know what they want to do. When you encourage them to do something differently, they can easily come up with rationalisations of why they cannot possibly do it. Action emerges, it was suggested, in the right side of the brain. Action is vocalised, in the left side of the brain. Models, data, causal loop diagrams, and so on appeal to the left side of the brain. They can help people logically see what they should do and say so. In the right brain however, where the stories, emotions, images lie, is where the motivation to do something is initiated. The left side of the brain picks the song, but the right side of the brain dances to it.

If we want people to dance, to change their behaviour (for example after our systems visioning workshops), we need to do something that leaks over into the right side of their brain. We can't just give them rationale, data, causal loop diagrams to get them to do things differently. That will help them find their direction. It will be the games, the images and maps, great questions and the heated discussions, that will get them to do something differently after our workshop. Let's dance!

Email During Workshops: Bad Manners or Proof of a New Paradigm in Learning

In the old days at workshops, there was a person up front speaking and everyone listened attentively. If they were not listening they were thinking about something else (a.k.a. daydreaming).

Today at workshops, there is a person up front speaking and everyone not listening is typing madly on their computer doing email.

Should we care?

Some people do care - they think that it is completely unacceptable that people are not paying attention and doing something else (a.k.a. multi-tasking). Perhaps I used to be one of those people - but not any more.

Now I think this is fine for a number of reasons, mostly because I see it as a sign that the paradigm of learning - as centred on the choice of the individual learner - has really shifted. Imagine that I am in a workshop which has speakers who are imparting information to me. If I am interested (and if they are interesting), and if I can use this information, (and they help me understand that I can use this information), then I will tune in long enough to see if I can learn something. If I decide to tune out, I may dip back in to check up to see if my original decision (to do email) was correct or not, or if I should start listening again. Overall, I am in charge of my learning and I can choose what information is useful to me right now. Of course, I need to keep an open mind, and I will always START by listening, and then reassess at some point. This is opposed to a centrally taught system whereby everyone needs to listen (or appear to be listening) to everything.

Now of course, for an organizer and a speaker, it is preferable if everyone listens to everything, and finds everything useful. This is, afterall, why you organized this workshop - YOU think that everything is valuable. What can you do to make sure that the audience agrees?

The number of people typing emails is an interesting indicator of how well the speaker is doing, and how useful the focus of their intervention is. It is also an indicator of interactivity. You cannot type and speak, play a game, answer questions, or have a powerful, thought-provoking question capture your attention. How refreshing would this be: The Facilitator says to the participants, "You are welcome to tune in and out of any of these presentations as you find useful. We ask that you please give each presentation a chance first. If you do decide to tune out, please notice the time elapsed (was it after 2 minutes, 5, 10 minutes) and please give us the feedback. It will be useful for future programming." Viola, permission to choose your learning yourself.

That way people would still be in control of their learning, and speakers and organizers would get more data on what people want to learn and the best way of reaching them. It would also be a powerful motivation for speakers to make their presentations meaningful.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Learning About Your Organization Where You Least Expect It

I have been working in my organization for almost five years. How much do I know about the work of my + 1’000 colleagues in different technical programmes and offices around the world? I would say more than most (thanks to the designing diverse workshops with a variety of teams) and still much less than I might like.

I just watched a couple of great episodes of Nature Inc. For some time I’ve been hoping to view these (having missed many when aired on TV; luckily now they are downloadable by episode as MP4s. I digress.) Anyway sat at my office desk, watching these in search of inspiration about the important links between business and biodiversity, I learned much. And, to my delight, much of what I learned was about what my own organization is doing in different parts of the world! I will be following up with my colleagues and seeing what lessons we can learn from creative and compelling communication channels like Nature Inc in helping us spread the word, outside and in! What others stones should I unturn. Where did you last learn something about your organization when you least expected it?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Facilitator for Today: Thought Leader for Tomorrow?

In our organizations, who are the people igniting the passions of those around them? Who mobilizes the talents of the people they work with and builds collective as well as individual strength of others? Who are the 'Thought Leaders'? And how are they leading thought? (See Robin Ryde’s short video which inspired this post.)

In the Learning and Leadership unit, we have been embracing invitations to design and facilitate workshops to help 'lead' thinking (as described in our earlier blog post: "Building Capacity in Systems Thinking: Want More Amplification? Don't Call it Training", August 14). We engineer experiences aiming to facilitate people thinking and conversing effectively and efficiently, purposefully mobilizing talents and building strengths. As today's facilitators, are we the 'Thought Leaders' for tomorrow? And if we are, will this loaded label bring us greater success?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Activity Makeover Using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART

In the last few years I have become a devotee of Appreciative Inquiry, I think it is a useful, energizing frame for learning. However, in some cases, you need to redesign activities, their briefing and debriefing so it is consistent with this approach. It feels a bit like taking a very fattening recipe and making it into a Weight Watchers one - trying to change some of the ingredients so that you still get your delicious chocolate cake, but it is much better for you.

In our workshop this week we played a game called "Thumbwrestling", which is an excellent game that demonstrates collaboration versus competition. In the end, most people fail, and the debriefing talks about how people aren't stupid, but the system in which they are operating actually promotes stupid behaviour. In the game, people are given a very short amount of time to get as many points as they can from their "opponent". They are instructed not to hurt anyone, and given a demonstration that looks like hand-to-hand conflict. The result is that they do the same and they get about 2 points, rather than the 30-40 points they can get when they collaborate. The debriefing question is:

What went wrong?

The answer you get from participants is a useful collection of things to watch out for in the system around you when you are trying to improve your interaction with colleagues. The answers that the participants give as they observe their behaviour in the activity can cleverly be written like this:

Small Goals
Time pressure
Untrusting Partners
Poor Example
Insufficient Vocabulary
Dysfunctional Norms

Now, if you wanted to convert this activity, make your low calorie cake, with an appreciative frame here is a potentially better question, and a way to organize participants' answers that might give the same insight but not make them feel as foolish:

What would give us a better behaviour?

Sufficient Vocabulary
Major Goals
Appropriate Timeframe
Right Examples
Trusting Partners

You can makeover any recipe and have your delicious learning cake and eat it too. (bit corny sorry!)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Building Capacity in Systems Thinking: Want More Amplification? Don't Call it Training

In our conservation organization we work in an environment which is opportunity rich and time poor. Therefore, one of our primary goals as the learning team is to help people to work and take decisions with powerful systems insights so that their interventions have the highest impact, and take the least amount of effort (including resources, time and money).

So among other things we do systems thinking training. A neat one- and two-day workshop that gives participants a chance to learn some specialised vocabulary, to practice a couple of useful systems diagramming tools, and to look for archetypes (repeating patterns). Our in-house training is popular with mostly young professionals who are interested to learn this approach and to use it in their work. With this kind of training we get people to adopt systems thinking one person at a time. In our younger colleagues, turnover is relatively high and yet we are happy to contribute to building overall capacity in our larger sustainability community.

Of course, this community is vast. Even our institution is enormous - both at Headquarters and in the field. With this approach it will take us years to get to everyone - IF we could even get everyone to attend. Higher level management staff do not sign up for this kind of training. Often they don't feel they have time for professional development, and may not see from the description the direct applicability of this approach in their immediate work. However, if we could get these people involved, and when they incorporate this in their teams and programmes, the tools and thinking goes much further.

So we decided to not focus our whole strategy for building capacity in systems thinking on training. We have begun instead to incorporate the use of systems thinking tools for discussion and analysis in strategic planning workshops, which is precisely where the high level people need to be. We get more and more invitations to help design and facilitate visioning or planning workshops, the perfect environments for the application of systems thinking tools. The side benefit is that the participant group is very different than that of a training course. In fact, when an invitation comes through to do planning, visioning, and recommendations for your own organization or a partner, everyone works to get the highest level people possible, who then, if they like the process and outputs, can take them further for you - with direct implications for their teams, organizations and projects.

We realised this most strongly today at the end of a visioning workshop that we have been conducting in our organization's Meso-America region with a staff team and partners. We spent 2.5 days with a set of iterative exercises that aim to identify the goals of water maangement in the region, to look at some existing trends in the past and possible future trends, to understand the inter-relationships in the existing system, to identify intervention points that help them to reach their goals of radical change, and finally to make concrete recommendations for the water management community in general, and our organization in particular, for strategic future work. In order to do this, we were obliged to help people first to understand and use the tools (Goals creation, Behaviour Over Time Graphs, and Causal Loop Diagrams), to practice them, to physically experience them with some interactive systems games, and to then use them to do their work together.

At the end of our workshop today, numerous people - heads of projects and programmes - asked us for our slides, and more information on the methodology, which we will be delighted of course to provide. They wish to use it in their project teams, to use it to diagram their systems and for communication with partners on what they are doing. After this visioning workshop, these high level people take with them a set of systems tools that they used for real-life decision-making and as a result of their experience using them can see the utility and applicability for themselves (and not second hand from a junior staff member who brought them back from a training course - although they should!)

We will never stop training our young colleauges; that is the future and they are well on their way to becoming the leaders of tomorrow. In parallel, however, we will continue to quietly embed these tools, with a tiny invisible training component and real life applications, into these strategic visioning discussions with high level people. The systems message will go much further and deeper through these proponents; the tools will travel faster (exponentially) out of our hands and through those of the particulants as they simultaneously share their learning; and overall be less financially resource intensive for us because we don't need to finance the transfer ourselves. In the end, people will know and use the tools, they will share their learning in their own languages and contexts, and no one will ever need to refer to it as training. That is my systems insight for today!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

No More Thinking Out of the Box: Games Can Get Your Further

I regularly read the Thiagi monthly Gameletter which promises "seriously fun activities for trainers, facilitators, performance consultants and managers". (Lizzie and I went to one of Thiagi's workshops in Switzerland last year and I am definitely a devotee of this unusual gamer and trainer.) This month's gameletter focuses on debriefing games, jolts (blinding flashes of insight from intense experiences), and links to other players in this field.

One of these players is Brian Remer and his Firefly group. I have just enjoyed a 60 minute clickthrough journey into Brian's world. His monthly newsletters, focused on performance improvements and games, are pared down sparks of inspiration (as he calls them). More than anything I notice that they aim to be immediately applicable, and short. This latter quality is critical in today's megamarket of words and ideas, and something I am coming to value (and need to work on myself). Maximum idea in a small space. He has a series called Say it Quick which always only consists of 99 words, and he gives the ETR (estimated time to read) his newsletter as 5 minutes (although he gives the ETII - estimated time to implement ideas at 5 weeks - I guess this is how long it takes you to forget something completely if you don't try it).

What sold me on this newsletter was the thoughtfulness of Brian's gentle diatribe in the July Newsletter about why he would not go to a conference workshop called "Creativity: Thinking Outside the Box". He worried about its novelty if it could not come up with a more inspiring analogy for breakthrough thinking. He added, "Besides, breaking out of a box is not very difficult. And when you're free, you're still in the same!"

Look into the gamers, they are not just doing icebreakers anymore. Great games can get you out of that box, and out of the room, and into a whole new world of learning.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Say It With Flowers

There are many ways to say "No", some are distinctly better than others. Yesterday a mini experiment in saying "No" happened in our office. I wrote an email query (not the first time) which included a budget request and sent it to two senior managers in the institution. It was something I had been banging on about for months and clearly was beginning to be an issue that needed resolution. A short meeting had been held the previous day on the topic, so I was eager for the answer. Within 30 minutes of my message, both managers wrote me back. Both effectively saying "No", but what a difference in approach, delivery, and how it made me feel afterwards.

One manager wrote me a one liner asking if he could talk to me about this. Then within 30 min he was standing in my office. We sat down, chatted for a minute and then he brought up the issue. He listened to me first, then he told me about the process and rationale for the decision. He gave me an example of how another staff member in my similar situation had found a solution and was working it out. He appealed to my sense of fairness (as in this case the limited budget I had requested was going to those who had no other options for participation without this means). He smiled, he asked if I understood, and in the end I felt a bit guilty about my initial request, was willing to give it up. I thanked him for his time and thoughtful explanation; I practically thanked him for his "No". At the end of our 7 minute conversation I was more knowledgable about the process, I understood his challenges in decision-making and his rationale.

The other "No" response could not have been more different. The second manager wrote me an email and pasted in the text from the minutes regarding the decision that was taken in the meeting. It also refered to a memo from last January (which has not been spoken of again until recently). It had no rationale, was unapologetic, and straightforward in saying "No". It ended with saying, effectively, the rules say you will not do this. All this in 4 lines of an email. Wow, the feeling of this "No" response was dramatically different. I made me feel argumentative; I wanted to take the time to dig out that January memo, follow all the discussions and find evidence of miscommunication, etc. write back a retort, stir up a fuss, stand on principle, etc. etc. Effectively, waste a lot of time (mine and potentially this manager's) contesting a decision that only moments before I was completely fine with.

The nice approach won out. I will drop this now, but it is an interesting lesson in how to artfully say "No". And also about time -short term time investment for long term time savings (in systems akin to the "Worse Before Better" archetype). Both managers are incredibly busy. However, taking 10 minutes to come see me saved this first manager (and me) potentially much more effort dealing with my reaction to this decision over time, and potential spin off reactions from bad feelings. Ironically, this short exchange with the first manager to tell me "No" probably even improved our relationship. Imagine being able to use a bad news situation to make interactions better overall - artful people management. I am not sure this would be the case with the second approach.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Behind Jargon: Watching Paradigms Shift

Like tectonic plates, our understanding of different concepts in our world of work slowly, collectively shifts. Like in the natural world, parts may move at different speeds, and change may be initially imperceptible from some perspectives, but things are moving nonetheless. Changes in terminology often accompany these shifts; yet may be offhandedly dismissed as jargon by those who have not been involved in, or perhaps agree with, the new shift in thinking.

Behind jargon however is something; some conceptual change, and it is interesting to sift out the nuance, past the new words, to see how the community is growing and deepening it collective understanding for better applications and actions.

One shift I have seen over the last decade, in the environment and development community at least, is the change from training to capacity building, through capacity development to learning. We have seen this evolve in papers, conferences, programmes, departments, and it has even manifested itself in people's titles. Take mine for instance. In the last 15 years of work (3 different institutions), I have gone from the Director of Training, to Director Capacity Development, to the Head of Learning. And this has not just been in words on business cards only; the way I work and my orientation has fundamentally if gradually changed.

15 years ago, capacity building was mostly about training, it was an extension of the academic environment and the realm of experts imparting useful information on participants and students, whether in a headquarters meeting room, or an extension office. It was for the most part workshop or event-based, intensive, and had lots of reading materials. When it existed, curriculum development was based on university outlines, reading lists and lecture notes, with discussion questions. Models like Train X were used to develop lesson plans for training (now I cannot find any mention of this methodology on the web, interesting). What participants got out of it was ascertained in exit questionnaires, much of it however was not repeated very often. It was focused on what people had to know to do something, starting from the ground up.

Capacity building took over from training, with more of a focus on application and a fuller understanding of the professional in his/her environment. Somehow capacity building was a broader, more integrated concept. Capacity development became the vernacular after about 10 years of building capacity, and with the increasing acknowledgement that professionals brought with them their own capacity, and often LOTS of it. So no longer were we building it (e.g. from scratch - with empty vessel-like connotations) but that we could strengthen and further develop into areas of excellence within people. Capacity development also came out of the classroom to many different in-situ environments - complete with more individualised applications and practice.

This subtle shift began to focus the process on the individual. More needs assessments, better understanding of what the people needed to DO with the information, helped to tailor and refine the input, which was now not only an event, but adopted a longer term approach - and more intervention opportunities - shadowing, mentoring, peer-learning, networking, work-place learning, preparatory e-conferences, post-activity advisory services, etc. And the whole process can be fun.

The newest shift to learning is an interesting one. Now it is all about me (well, not me personally, but all of us). No longer do I necessarily need my own learning and development to be moderated by some outside person or group, or include too much formal instruction, training or otherwise. I may want that for something specific, but I can develop my own pathway for improvement and updating to match what I want and need. Learning can happen anywhere and at any time. As we have read in Jay Cross' book Informal Learning, 80% of workplace learning happens almost without our awareness - at a Sponsored coffee morning, in meeting discussions, in reading notices posted in the staff toilets, in our web searches, in our evening experiments with Second Life. Now a Learning Director has every spot in and outside the workplace to play with, and practically every hour of the day.

The end result is the most important and it is mostly determined by you, the learner. What do you need to do a great job? What do you need to learn, and what medium (or better, media) works best for you - and how many different, interesting, energizing ways can we help you to gather or create your knowledge, analyse it, test it, apply it, learn from it, and then keep at it. Now its lifelong learning, slowly moving, shifting and changing, just like those tectonic plates.

(Note: This post was inspired by my current reading of colleague Nicole's "Opportunity Plan" for a leadership programme of ours. Apparently Business Plans are out, now they are called Opportunity Plans - I'm curious about the conceptual shift in thinking that's behind this change.)

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Evaluation for What?

I have mentioned in previous posts the 12 month assessment and learning process we are undertaking for our upcoming World Conservation Congress (October 2008). An internal evaluation team is asking a question each month or so to a sample of staff working across functions in preparation (and delivery) of this major quadrennial event. Their aim is to capture more iterative and detailed reflection on learning over time, rather than doing a huge debriefing the day or week AFTER the event. The result should be information that we can strategically use, rather than the more generic (self-) congratulatory "smile sheet" responses that both participants and conference workers alike generate in the glow and relief of the end of such a huge event.

The question this month asks us to describe what we have learned since our last World Conservation Congress (Bangkok 2003), and what we are doing differently as a result.

I really like this question for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is an intervention in itself. Just the act of asking this question gets people to reflect on the past process and identify their learning, and think about how they are applying it now - effectively helping us to complete our learning cycles through application. If we have not already done so (connect our efforts last time with this new event), this question will get us to start, and potentially open up a whole box of useful know-how that has been parked in the dusty corridor of our brains. Secondly, the question is appreciative, in that is assumes that people have learned something from their past experience, and they just need to write it down to share with other people. Thirdly, I remember reading recently that people remember not so much what happened but what they TOLD people happened at an event. So by getting people to document their learning (even if it is 3 years later), the chances are greater that they will remember it longer (thus have the knowledge available to pull into service) by having had to analyse, process, and then craft a "story" for sharing.

I would say that one of the first things that we learned from our last World Conservation Congress is how to run an assessment of the event that is focused on learning, rather than on writing an evaluation report for funders. Now that will help make our next event even better.

Of course, 3 years later, people might not remember the detail strongly, but have feelings or impressions. Another good thing about this learning assessment is that you can share in what ever format you like. My impressions from the last Congress were strong, perhaps I will choose expressionistic painting or interpretative dance - how would the evaluation team work with that?

Did I answer the question?