Friday, November 28, 2008

You're Being Watched...

Here's an observation about human beings speaking in workshop settings: Some people will walk up to the front of the room and quite happily chat away to the group.

Other people, however, will walk up to the front of the room, start to talk, and immediately lock their eyes on you, the Facilitator, and only look at you for the whole of their presentation. Forgetting somehow the other 40 people in the room sitting right in front of them. This is a little bit perplexing for everyone except the speaker, who doesn't seem to notice.

What's interesting is that you can do something about this without saying a word or even (almost) anyone noticing. You simply walk slowly and quietly around the outside edge of the room, while the person is speaking, to the middle of the back of the group. You won't disrupt the flow at all. The speaker's eyes will follow you the whole way. And then you stop and stand there. Viola, the person is now talking directly to the middle of the group. Even if he is still looking directly at you, at least he is not talking sideways, craning his neck or otherwise looking away from the group.

Of course to use this trick, you need to notice that the person has locked onto you. So you need to be attentive to the speaker. Normally I find this happens when someone is not confident in the subject matter, or simply not comfortable speaking in front of a group, period. So a smiling nodding face (yours) is a comfort and a safe place to look. However, once you do notice, it is time to take action - start walking slowly and don't worry, you are being followed. Good for the speaker, good for the group, kind of flattering, and easily and gently corrected.

What's In a Facilitator's Survival Kit?

I have several other blog posts that are queued up, but as I left the office yesterday to come to Zurich to facilitate a 2 day stakeholder dialogue, I noticed the following - A facilitator can run an interactive and exciting event with only the following few items (with flipcharts in the room a given):

  • Markers: 1 very thick for making templates (black), 4 regular (different colours for Carousels)
  • 1 small stack of meta-plan cards (different shapes and colours for note taking, ideas generation, question gathering, time keeping, room signposting...)
  • 1 Roll of masking tape (the obvious)
  • 1 deck of playing cards (Pick a card: for dividing groups, selecting speakers, identifying rotation order)
  • Selection of sticky dots (different colours for voting, prioritisation, designating teams and tables)
  • 1 whistle (train whistle of preference: to get people's attention, to change rounds, to start action)

  • 1 ball (for self-facilitation of reflection, for teambuilding games, for stress relief)

Have facilitators survival kit, will travel. It can take almost any last minute agenda change in style...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

“We Gotta Learn to Dance Like Scarecrow”

Remember how you learned to walk? Most of us don’t. For the large part of our lives, we take for granted our bipedal fluency having forgotten the process that first got us there. Observing children learning to walk may remind us. Or watching the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Scarecrow is taken down from his perch. Falling, hobbling, lurching and then learning to step with fluidity, Scarecrow’s bipedal journey begins… and then, as he perfects the flow of out of balance movement between one foot and the other, he even finds himself able to dance!

To address the toughest social challenges of today, Adam Kahane, speaking at the SoL Pegasus Conference, argued that we needed to learn to be bilingual in two “languages” in much the same way as we learned to walk. Drawing on the work of Paul Tillock, he provided two definitions of the essential driving forces behind these languages; 1) The drive of every living thing to realize itself; and 2) The drive towards unity of the separated. Summarizing these into two familiar words, he spoke of our need to be bilingual in the languages of power and love, and be able to dance between them with fluidity. The key, for Kahane, is focusing on the transitions between one and the other.

At this conference, the summaries at the end of sessions are made in different ways – one is with music. Just before the coffee break between conference sessions, two musicians, Tim Merry and Marc Durkee, introduce what some called the universal language of music, distilling the essence of the presentation with spontaneous Brit slam poetry and groovalicious guitar. The chorus of their song for this presentation… Here we go, we gotta learn to dance like scarecrow. Are you and your organization dancing?

The Waiting Game on the Fault Lines

Everyone waits for the other guy to change before changing themselves. You first my dear Gaston! After you my dear Alphonse! – reads the cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper. Not so in the case of Vanessa Kirsch, founder and president of New Profit, Inc., as we learned from her and Diana McLain Smith, partner at the Monitor Group consulting firm. Speaking of how relationships make or break performance, this dynamic duo told of the essential readiness needed for reflection and a relational perspective, as relationships are built not born.

Relationships along organizational fault lines are all too often too fragile to withstand today’s pressures, stated Diana. We don’t have the time to play the waiting game. One step at a time we need to reflect on the anatomy of our relationships and the patterns of behaviour, and the quick step may well be what is needed. Whilst we’re not talking Strictly Come Dancing, videoing our performance (our oral and body language) as we go may be the key…

Asking Great Questions

We are here at the Society for Organizational Learning's Annual Conference in Boston and will be writing a bit this week about what we are learning.

Yesterday I had David Isaacs, one of the founders of the World Cafe, sign a copy of "The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation and Action" and we have noticed that in this community asking powerful questions (rather than the answers) often gets the most applause in the plenaries. In fact, there seems to be no particular expectations on the part of SoL members to answer all the questions - they celebrate the good ones. Here are some of the good ones Lizzie and I heard yesterday during a panel called "Purpose Beyond Profit":

  • What if educators had the same attitude that car manufacturers in Europe have, that they "owned" their students for life. How would they educate differently?

This question was inspired by Peter Senge's comment about how EU regulations are requiring European automobile manufacturers to take back cars that they build, so they build them differently. After students leave educators' classrooms they then become parts of educators' communities - they might leave their seat at the front of the classroom, but they never leave their life.

  • What is the current US Administration's analogy of putting a man on the moon?

When Kennedy came into office, he dreamt of a man on the moon in 10 years and set this as a challenge to his scientists. 8 years and 2 months later, there was a man on the moon. At the time, the average age in the NASA control room was 26 (meaning they were on average 18 years old when the challenge was put forward). What will be Obama’s man on the moon? And what and how can we learn about best tapping into today’s 18 year olds to make this dream come true?

  • What is in our system that we don’t know the long term effects of yet?

This was a great question asked by Darcy Winslow, founder of Designs for a Sustainable World Consulting with over 20 years experience working at Nike. Her presentation inspired a question from the audience:

  • When businesses cut costs are they really cutting them - or are they just moving them into customers or into the community?

When taking a systems viewpoint, cost-cutting exercises take on a whole new meaning. The archtype called "Shifting the Burden" comes into mind. A similar question can be asked by institutions and project teams.

These questions provoke many lively conversations and ideas which connected people and their experiences and really demonstrated how asking great questions can add energy to a process, help people think differently, and get things moving.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Seeking a little Conference (En)Courage(ment)

The Pegasus Conference 2008 kicked off last night with a World Café session led by co/founder David Isaacs. Joining newcomers and regulars to the conference, we took seats at small, round, red gingham cloth–covered tables, each with red carnation, accompanied by a duo of Novascotian musicians and visual artists decorating our surroundings.

Using the well-known World Café dynamic, in three rounds we inquired into three questions –

1. What do we hope to learn during this conference?
2. What we do hope to contribute, give, share?
3. And what is the question we need to ask connecting what we hope to learn and what we hope to contribute?

My answer to the concluding question came to this –

What will we do to (en)courage ourselves to more fully and consistently apply the thinking and tools with which we coach others, to create the highest performance in our own work?

Who coaches the coaches? Who is the psychotherapist’s psychotherapist? These were the questions my café table friends contributed, understanding my plight. Well, attending this conference is our first step and over the next few days we hope that, following engagement with this community, we will return to our work place (en)couraged for our highest performance!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Facilitate and/or Participate?

We have just finished facilitating three internal retreats in the last 10 days as a part of our organizational development and change process. Two were with new Groups that are being constituted by combining smaller internal teams for greater synergy, effeciency and "network-based delivery" of our institution's conservation goals. The learning that has occurred through these facilitated Group discussions, about how things work and change in our organization, has been incredibly valuable for both strategically planning action and building these new teams. Our Learning and Leadership Unit will also become part of a new Group in the next couple of months and will no doubt have a similar retreat. The question is, do we facilitate or participate?

Facilitators have many opportunities to influence the outcomes of the processes in which they are involved, if that's what they wish to do. Before the process, they help to design the agenda and frame the key questions; they pick the sequence that might highlight one issue over another (what gets the after lunch slot?); they identify the technique and capture method used (does the discussion create an artifact for further use or not?) During the process they choose how to brief an exercise; they choose what to highlight in the opening and closing reflections; choose the order of the speakers (including the Q&A); and influence who gets a few moments more airtime and who gets reigned in. After the process, if the facilitator is helping with the reporting, comes a whole raft of other opportunities to influence the outcomes of the process. At all of these points a facilitator is making a decision (albeit a shared decision) that influences the process somehow.

And of course what makes a great facilitator (and one who gets chosen and invited back) is someone who does this incredibly responsably, with fairness and equity, the best intentions of the group in mind, and with an eye on the common higher goal. A facilitator who contributes can be very beneficial. For example, a facilitator who knows a group well can address key interpersonal issues gently and consistently, one that is experienced can provide great added value by incorporating their learning over the years about leadership and good practice; and one well-connected internally can contribute by tapping into larger institutional issues across many parallel processes. So a facilitator at some levels can facilitate and participate.

However, there are clearly limitations to a facilitator's participation, especially on the relationships and team building side of these processes. For example, as facilitators it is not appropriate to work through your personal relationship issues with team members, or devote time and energy to helping the team really get to know you, your opinion about issues, and how you like to work. In retreats forming new Groups and aggregating existing teams, getting to know one another, sharing hopes and dreams (and maybe fears) as full participants in a shared process are criticial features to success.

So I think that when it comes time to have our own Group retreat, we might help out with the agenda and report, but for the actual event, we will be looking for a good outside facilitator. Then we can be more of ourselves and help our new colleagues get to know us as future team members, including our opinions about what would be best for all of us as fully vested partners in our process. We need to be a part of the change - to facilitate and participate (but not always at the same time).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tight Parameters = Opportunities for Innovation

We found out rather late in the preparation for our major Congress that we could not stick anything on the walls during any of our workshops. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth at this announcement as many had planned terrific interactive sessions needing many sheets of flipchart paper that they wanted to paper the walls with during their 90 minute sessions. However, a crafty workshop designer can work with anything, even the tightest of parameters. Here is one innovation that hatched as a result of this rule - the human flipchart.

Well, everyone was wearing lanyards with their nametags anyways. Take a few volunteers, clip on some blank paper, and some tape, give participants their cards and viola - your interactive activity works, gets even more people involved, and not a sticky blue mark on any wall.

Not optimal you might say, but you never know when you are working in a space with apparently precious walls, the famous carpeted walls, or even no walls for that matter (how nice would it be to do your session under a big tree?) Give a good workshop designer a parameter in advance and with a little creative thinking they'll design for it. Everything is possible...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How to Start Conversations Among 8,000 People

Imagine you are at a huge international conference. How can you get over 8,000 people from 178 countries who have so much in common, but don't know anyone, to engage in conversations and meet each other? At mega-events like this, people pass by each other in droves in the hallways of the conference centre, pack into elevators or escalators on their way to the next event, and stand in long slow queues to buy their coffee. But with the exciting diversity of languages represented at a conference like this comes the inevitable and rather awkward entry question of "Do you speak English"? (or "Parlez-vous Francais?", or dozens of other possible language variations). To deal with this quandry, our Learning and Leadership unit, partnering with the Commission on Education and Communication, introduced an innovation at our organization's recent World Conservation Congress: language buttons.

Well, we decided that one way to get people to appoach each other was to advertise the languages they speak, so that the Do-you-speak-X question would not be a barrier to engagement. We made thousands of buttons with 20 major languages printed on them in their own alphabets AND we made a blank button. On the blank button, people wrote other languages (such as Nepali and Afrikaans), and dialects (like Kreol and Bavarian) and even in one case a rather key coordinating person coyly wrote, "Don't even think of talking to me" (but I don't think he ever wore it).

In this process, we learned new things about colleagues - our Australian Director spoke Nepali (he had worked in a field office there), a Canadian colleague spoke Chinese for the same reason, our American Chief Scientist was fluent in Thai. These buttons were conversation starters even among people who knew each other. That was a huge benefit, not to mention sharing the incredible pride that people felt when they put them on (like my colleague Nicole in the photo above who sported 7!)

The buttons were a hit! The Information Booth workers had them, the Registration people had them, the Commission on Education and Communication members had them, and many, many more. These big conferences can be so impersonal, yet are attended by people who have the most to gain, exchange and learn from great conversations with each other. The question we asked was," What can we do to get people talking together?" One small answer, only 30mm across, turned out to be a big success.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

What's Winning? Check Your Assumptions

Did you know that in unicycle races, it is the last person that crosses the finish line that wins? That is because it is much harder, and takes more skill to ride a unicycle slowly.

Sound counter-culture? What is it about our social norms that make us assume that bigger, faster, and more, is better than smaller, slower and less?

The sustainability community asks a similar question - why are high growth rates and GNP standard indicators of success? How can we help society see growing more skillfully, and possibly even more slowly, as akin to winning?

Even at work, winning sometimes seems to be about having the largest team, largest project portfolio and the most money - this can set up unhelpful competition among people with shared overall goals. Maybe we could flip "winning" to the team that collaborates most and generates more work and resources for other teams. Let's follow those unicyclists. Let's change the rules.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Pulling Yourself Together

We spent the last 20 minutes of our organizational development retreat yesterday coming up with words that describe our organizational culture in 4 years at the "end" of our formal organizational development and change process. The words were wonderful, and we were able to go around our circle three times before we ran out of them. We came up with adjectives that we wanted to be true about the institution and all of us at that time, and that we would be working towards now. We noticed that many of them we would also use today, and perhaps we simply wished to be more prevalent, or more consistently a descriptor. These were words like: optimistic, trusting, creative, accountable, reliable, and even fizzy. There were 3 pages of these and they were wonderful.

The retreat was over in a hail of applause 10 minutes later, and I walked across the hallway into my office and was confronted with a situation where my first reaction was surprisingly not optimistic, not trusting, and not particularly creative. It was like I had left that part of me in the conference room momentarily (and it took about 10 hours for it to catch up with me and remind me that that half of myself should wait until the other half gets there to speak.)

I guess we all have this duplicity (the charm of our species), and luckily we get the opportunity to choose which side acts/talks first. We also get to reflect on how congruence between what we say we do and what we actually do can strengthen our participation in a collective and trust in our contribution, and how the inverse may also true.

This all takes some reflection and a certain deliberateness of action. Today I will join my reflection again.

Monday, November 03, 2008


Lizzie to Gillian: OK, I think we have everything we need for the retreat except the rope and the blindfolds...

Don't get too excited, this is Gillian and Lizzie preparing for a 2-day organizational development retreat. We are going to play a communication game called "Islands" . We spent today finding planks, plywood sheets, beanbags, and bricks - more titilating details on how it went later...