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?