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.