Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Putting Action into Words (Hunh?)

I have been spending the last weeks at my desk developing a shared “curriculum” for a trio of sustainability leadership development programmes in different parts of Africa. I find myself writing about activities that help people make impact in their contexts and communities, and about how to take ideas from rhetoric to behaviour change.

That's what I'm writing about, but what I'm doing is actually the opposite. I'm taking action and putting it into words. And I realise as I write this shared curriculum, ostensibly from existing materials, for a global programme that has already existed for some 15+ years, how useful and unusual it is for practitioners to take this extra step in their capacity development and facilitation work. That is, to actually write their “curriculum” down, or record it in some way - to capture more than just the content, but the learning process used (the learning objectives, the frames, the questions, the activities, the timing, etc.) Here are a few reasons why I think this is useful and important in this day and age.

Finding efficiencies and economies of scale

This curriculum development exercise was initiated because of a consolidation of three existing programmes who want to create efficiencies and economies of scale from sharing past and future learning investments and practice. These programmes are located in the same “region”, but that region is Africa, and we all know how big that is. So frequent face-to-face work and oral exchange becomes less viable, and flying the one person around who knows how to do X-by-heart is also more problematic. It needs to be documented some way so that everyone can use it.

Democratising the learning process and creating on-demand resources

Writing the process learning down, or recording it in some way, helps move the learning from the expert model, where the knowledge is kept in one or a few people, and makes it available to a wider community of other facilitators (or would-be facilitators). Although distance knowledge sharing is aided by conference calls and video skype, (although still somewhat limited by accessibility), it is still rather impossible to download days (or years) of process this way, and unless you record the exchange, it is not available later when you might need it as an on-demand resource. And even if it is recorded, it is probably not tagged so not searchable later (and who will wade through 40 hours of hand-held workshop video?) I know change is coming in this area because I participated in a demo webinar of Quindi, which is a software package that aims to capture all aspects of meetings including video recording, which then is organized through tagging and bookmarking, but I have only just heard of this recently and not seen it in practice yet.

Promoting knowledge retention and exchange

When each programme team started their own training work many years ago, they probably did not anticipate that they would be in the position one day where they needed to share everything. In this global programme there were initiatives to report on curriculum, outlines were shared, presentations made, but not a lot of learning content was shared across the network and used by other programmes. As a result, I am not finding as much of the curriculum and learning process documented as I would like for this exercise I'm undertaking. It exists in the heads of the facilitators and faculty, but without a great deal of investment, that is very hard to use. Putting action into words can help document the learning process into reusable learning objects which then can be shared and really used.

I wouldn’t mind how this was done - practice and learning materials could be taped and YouTubed and well-titled, recorded into how-to podcasts, blogged, or simply written up (well-labelled -not pdfed please, what a pain to reuse!) and stored on a hard drive somewhere ready for emailing, even better on the cloud. Not only would it be useful for me, but it would be useful for anyone new (and in this time of high turnover, new colleagues are not unusual.) We would all benefit from this tacit knowledge of how things work, whether it is to build it into a new learning process, or share good practice with other parts of the larger leadership development network.

Creating Social Learning Opportunities

Writing things down or recording them in any way takes time, and it is certainly easier for a facilitator to simply have a learning framework in your head, to put together your materials and make it happen. And this immediacy can be very good for learners (but not so good for your peers - in fact, the better you are at facilitating learning activities, with your stock of tried-and-true games and activities, the less likely you are to record your process I find.) However, I think you can do both. If you want to contribute to social learning, and in turn benefit from the conversation that happens when someone can see and query your practice, then find some way to record it and make it useful to others who can then benefit from your work and grow the practice overall.

People who work in leadership for sustainable development need to help leaders make transformational change, and put their words into action, but in order to help this leadership learning community to strengthen its own practice, we also need to put this action, somehow, into words.

Friday, December 18, 2009

BBC's Holiday Video: Wish I Had Home for Christmas

Thanks to the BBC for a slightly odd, but very environmentally-message friendly holiday video!

PS: And just to make more of a learning object out of this (e.g. more than learning that squirrels can play the saxophone), this is the first time I have embedded a video into blog post, much easier than I thought to copy in the code. OK, maybe the squirrels are more interesting - Happy Holidays from me!)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Follow the Leaders: Sharing Jay Cross' Collected Wisdom

The recent Online Educa International Conference on Technology Supported Learning and Training featured a stream of fascinating workshops in and around informal learning that was organized and facilitated by Jay Cross (author of Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance.)

I attended a number of the workshops in this stream, that started with a session called "The Great Training Robbery" and included others such as "The New Era of Corporate Learning Unconference" and a Pecha Kucha Mini-Master Class (my first exposure to this cool presentation technique). (Note for conference organizers: Titles are everything when you have 10 parallel sessions to choose from, plus the ongoing pull of the cafe or bar for networking; this stream had some of the most provocative titles and they lived up to their promise.)

Today, Jay kindly sent around to participants of his workshop stream a wonderful set of links to all the rich content and out-front thinkers who contributed to his sessions and said, "Feel free to pass it to others." So here it is, a veritable cornucopia of fantastic stuff about learning, well worth exploring for new ideas and to get a feeling for where some of the leaders in this field are heading:

Session: Informal Learning + Web 2.0 = Social Learning Breakthroughs

  • The Cluetrain Manifesto, the important book for understanding web culture;

  • Jerry Michalski's video interviews with Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman (who challenged transport planners to look again at the way people and technology relate to each other);

  • Enterprise 2.0, important new book by Andy McAfee;

  • CIA Blog & Wiki Vision by CLO Carl Andrus;

  • Toolwire, David Clarke IV's company;

  • Jerry's online Brain and tweetstream

  • Jay's Research Page and Articles

  • Jane Hart's eLearning Pick of the Day

  • Jane's Social Media in Learning

  • Pecha Kucha Mini-Master Class:
    Recordings of our first four Pecha Kucha sessions on YouTube.

    Session: The New Era of Corporate Learning

  • Internet Time Alliance, the folks running the workshops

  • Charles Jennings' blog

  • Jay's blog

  • Kevin Wheeler's Global Learning Resources and blog, Over The Seas

  • Kevin's Corporate University site

  • Jane's Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies

  • Jay's notes on Unmeetings and Open Space Technology

  • Jay's Research Page

  • Online Educa Learning Video Festival
    The video listing is at

    Faculty (Gillian: I added the links here)
    All of these experts make multiple resources available for other's to use, whether its a daily reviews of learning tools and news on their blogs, Delicious pages, Flikr accounts, Podcasts, YouTube videos, and Twitter feeds - all are focused on social learning, walking their talk, and making it easy for others to follow some of the leading thinkers exploring this growing field.

    Sunday, December 06, 2009

    The Two-Day Total Twitter Immersion: Using Twitter for Social Learning

    Many people do not see the point of Twitter. I know this because I counted myself as a proud member of this large, non-plussed group until a few days ago. We had followed the hype and set up an account, followed some people (quickly stopped following some people), Tweeted a few times to see how it worked, and then thought, "so what?" Nobody tweeted back to me, most of my "followers" didn't know me, and it felt a little silly to be sending these cheeps out alone.

    Using Twitter in a conference setting however completely changed my mind about its utility and possible applications for learning.

    The Online Educa Conference was full of Tweeters. I know that because I spent a lot of time looking at the hashtag that was set up by the conference organizers (smart, they printed it in the front of the Conference Programme Catalogue in "Important Practical Information".) A hash tag – like #oeb2009 – is a tag that people include in their 140 character Tweets that is searchable on Twitter. If you put the hash tag in the search box on your home page, any post that includes it will come up in an aggregator window on Twitter. So you can keep track of the whole conversation happening in real time, even if you are not following the individual people Tweeting (yet).

    Believe it or not, a big conference was a great place to be totally immersed in Twitter as it had so many useful applications at the event. Here is what I was noticing about how people were using Twitter for social learning in this setting (remember there were some 2000+ people attending).

    • At any time, there were up to 10 sessions going on in parallel and obviously you could only attend one, but you could count on the fact that a dozen or so people in each session were Tweeting the main points, and if one of those sessions sounded better than yours you could always split and go find it. Twitter helped make more purposeful the Law of Two Feet.
    • Speakers were using Twitter to publicise their sessions in advance (plenty of healthy competition with participants spoiled for choice). They also used Twitter to share their websites and papers. They even used them to announce changes to rooms, speakers line ups etc.
    • Being active and thoughtful on Twitter helped people gain visibility in a large conference. In vast plenary halls, no one could really stand out, and very few got to make their points publically, but on Twitter anyone could jump in with good ideas, and be rewarded with comments and engagement.
    • Participants were using Twitter to gather people together – for example plenty of Tweets announced snacks and discussion at a certain time at some stand in the Exhibition Hall, or at the bar. As one Tweeter lamented, "Shoot!!!.... i see i missed the Tweet meetup at the oeb bar yesterday...always good to meet tweeps in RL."
    • In each session, there were assistants handing out paper feedback forms, but I noticed that not too many people were filling them in. I think they didn’t need to, people were giving real feedback to speakers and organizers on Twitter on everything from the quality of the presentations to lunch. One Tweeter wrote, "maybe we need an online course for silently closing the door!" (obviously sitting too close to some conference room exit).
    • Panel Chairs could use Twitter to gather questions from the audience. At least one Chair monitored Twitter for questions, that she then used to launch discussion when the panelists were done with their formal presentations. One Tweeter even asked his "followers" (not at the conference), "going to mobile learning session- mates of mine, any questions I should ask?"
    • People were using Twitter to be a part of the larger conversation and interact with many more interesting people. We noticed that we could talk to about 20 people face-to-face in the breaks during the two-day conference. However, we heard from and engaged in conversations with hundreds on Twitter.
    • Now, after the conference, Twitter acts as an archive of content through Tweets, with their links, ideas, and connections to a previously unknown group of like-minded people.
    Overall, I was impressed by how much Twitter added to my conference-going experience. It took me a while to get into it. I needed to install Tweetdeck on my I-phone before it got really easy to use it for all the things above. It took me some time to find my "voice", make some personal policies about what, when and how I would engage with the community through Twitter. And suddenly, I wasn't learning alone anymore.

    Saturday, December 05, 2009

    Ahead of the Curve: This Year’s Learning Trends at Online Educa

    I just spent the last two days at Online Educa, one of the largest global conferences for technology-supported learning and training, held annually in Berlin. It is my third time attending and every time I return full of new ideas and a glimpse at the future learning trends through the eyes of some of the top thinkers, academics and techno-geeks. This year was no different.

    Each year there is some tool or topic that is capturing the excitement and imagination of the 2000+ participants. When I first attended in 2006 it was blogs and wikis, with many people enthusing about their experiences with these young tools. At that time we had just started this blog, so were eager to hear how people were experimenting with theirs for learning. Informal learning was also a topic with Jay Cross’ original book on this published.

    In 2007, the buzz was around real learning applications in virtual worlds, like Second Life (SL), which most people had discarded as playgrounds for slackers. Many formal and informal learning experts were exploring and exploiting their potential for all kinds of learning. Podcasting was also a hot topic, and mobile learning was a beginning topic of conversation then, but was being drowned out by SL avatars and a much bigger conversation about the quality and quantity of user-generated content. (I'll never forget plenary speaker Andrew Keen -author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture- who was boo-ed for proclaiming to the audience of thousands of otherwise very polite internet enthusiasts that wikipedia and the internet was being written by monkeys, or something to that extent.)

    Trending this year were a few things: Tools like Twitter were not only mentioned in practically every session, but also was being actively used to extend the learning beyond the seminar rooms throughout the conference. All kinds of video application was also a trend, from having school kids use the video clips they took with their phone for show and tell, to the question of whether YouTube and its mega supply of how-to, just-in-time learning content might ever replace formal training. Mobile learning was also very big this year, with everyone doing it on their I-phones (or other, although I saw lots of them) as well as discussing the future of learning as being “hand held”. This was linked to an ongoing discussion about the coming of cloud computing, having everything in the "cloud" with ubiquitous access, where any user can access any content, anytime with their phone, PDA or even a TV. One plenary speaker heralded the end of "bulky" laptops, while holding up one of the smallest I've seen.

    I myself found it fascinating that I only turned on my own PC once the whole two days (and that was for a skype call to Sweden). Not that I was taking notes and talking instead, no, I was on my phone the whole time. I used it to Twitter the conference, used it to give feedback in sessions on, to ask questions of other participants, to meet and interact with many people, and more. Instead of sitting down to write my blog posts, I micro-blogged the whole time (I would have never found the hour it takes me to write a proper blog post during that fast-paced conference.) And in doing got some experiential learning in "going mobile", learning alot about this new handheld future, from many who do it so expertly.

    In fact, my last Tweet from the Conference was: "#oeb2009 Difference @ OEB for me this yr: Didn't use my laptop at all- all interaction with mobile & found it great- Next yr no pc 4 me!"

    Thursday, November 26, 2009

    11 Ways to Build More Learning Into Your Work Life

    Learning can be a useful accelerator for the work you do. It can help keep you motivated, let you experience your progress in a different way, keep you engaged with wider processes. So how can you build more learning into your work life? As a learning practitioner, I asked myself this question, and here is what I came up with:

    1. Ask great questions
    It is surprising how many people don't ask any questions, or only ask rhetorical, obvious or yes/no questions. Try to ask engagement questions that people want to answer, questions that ask people to think and share. Ask questions of yourself (like I just did). For all of your questions, consider how you ask them - an approach like Appreciative Inquiry can help you refine your questioning practice (it even works on yourself).

    2. Listen for learning
    Listening is a companion to number 1: How often do you ask yourself as you go into a listening or a conversation opportunity, "What do I want to learn?" Answering this question can help you listen very differently and more deliberately. You can also ask yourself, "How am I listening to this?" This can help you explore your openness to learning at that moment, and to notice when you are most receptive to new ideas and messages (and when you are not).

    3. Be a better storyteller
    Storytelling has so many contributions to make to learning, as we have written about so many times. It helps take you through the process of packaging your learning for better recall and resuse, makes it easier to repeat/retell (thus further embedding it), and makes your learning more useful not only to you, but also to others, as you do the work for them to distill the most meaningful parts of some experience or learning.

    4. Start a blog/vlog
    For so many reasons, blogs help you be a part of the conversation (even if you are only talking to yourself). They provide an opportunity to notice your experience and a provide a virtual place to record it. Because it's public, it asks for some quality control (through, say, number 3 above.) Its chronological organization and tagging helps structure your experience, so it can be used as a knowledge management tool. And I personally use it to strengthen my reflective practice, more on this below.

    5. Join a community of practice
    These can be physical, virtual or both. They can help you share and be shared with, providing rich opportunities for peer learning. They can be even more useful if you use them to practice some of these other learning tools, like asking great questions, and listening for learning. If you don't find a community of practice that fits, can you start one? (Ning makes this easy for virtual CoPs.)

    6. Practice it
    Find opportunities to try something again. Maybe you went to a great visual facilitation workshop - how can you continue to practice that even if you are a beginner? As you sit in on a conference call, or in a meeting, can you doodle icons of the conversation process ?

    7. Move your learning into a different side of your brain
    Can you add an image to the theory, or link your learning to a physical experience that makes the point visceral? Can you draw a diagram that explains your thinking in addition to writing a paragraph about it? Can you move your learning from knowledge to behaviour change, from left brain to right?

    8. Notice/Map your personal knowledge management system
    If knowledge is a flow, how are you tracking the flows? What kinds of tools are you using to manage this flow - google is good of course, and what other kind of nets are you throwing out in the ocean of information to help you get the quality of inputs you need when you need them? In effect, what are you using as your personal knowledge management system? For example, do you have a list of the gurus in your field whose blogs or tweets you follow? Do you tag useful incoming content in your gmail or in a delicious account? Can you improve your email management system (e.g. through something like Inbox Zero?) Plenty of opportunities exist in the Web2.0 world of today.

    9. Be deliberate about reflection
    People use different means for this, and generally agree that they are more fully present for learning when they are actively reflecting on their experience. Capture, whatever your tool - journaling, blogging, songwriting, slam poetry - is helpful for many reasons that can be found in the points above. The choices you make about what to record helps to prioritise information, makes it more reusable and, depending on your tool, makes it available on demand for both yourself and others.

    10. Help other people learn
    In addition to the obvious social value of this, learning through teaching (with a small "t", thus not necessaily in a formal learning setting) is a well known way to embed learning. How can you volunteer your learning to others and in doing so practice and progress your own? Every conversation is an opportunity to exchange, so you don't need to have a classroom environment to help other people learn.

    11. Know your own learning preferences
    There are of course diagnostics around this, and I think one of the simplest ways to identify your learning preferences is to ask yourself some questions (and voila we're back to point 1): "When was the last time I learned something new? What were the conditions that helped me learn? What was I doing? What were the people around me doing to help me learn? In what situations do I learn the best?"

    Learning happens continually, and still there are always opportunities to integrate it more powerfully into personal practice and team practice, even without a training budget. For example, just writing this blog post gave me an opportunity for learning, which combined many of the above. Once you get out of the formal learning environment it's free for the most part, it's relatively easy, and still, it takes a little thought, and perhaps a change in daily practice. The rewards, however, can be great - a boost in productivity, satisfaction, direct engagement with your topic, as well as an opportunity to strengthen yourself as a practitioner and further increase the value of your contribution to your community(ies) of choice.

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    Making Memories: Improving Your Workshop Impact With Visual Facilitation, Slam Poetry and More

    Many of us go to hours, days, even weeks of meetings and workshops as a part of our working life. Then when we return home have the added pleasure of trying to remember what happened and what we agreed to do.

    Thankfully many of us also have developed good systems for tracking our next actions (I'm happy with my GTD practice, which 2 years after adopting is still going strong), and of course we also rely on the organizers to send out a report which further reminds us what happened and what's next. These reports take many forms, and a good one is one that we a) actually read, that b) keeps the interest/excitement/momentum of the hours/days everyone spent together, and c) encourges follow-up on our part.

    With the flurry of meetings and workshops that most people experience as part of their work process, how can you make your own event memorable? What can you add during and after the event that makes it stand out and finds a little home in the grey matter of each participant for the duration of your collaborative work?

    Helping people remember is something that can be built into a workshop process. Like the deliberate process of creating a story from an experience - it helps people to organize and contextualise information, distill its meaning, reorganize it into a lean narrative, and create a product (story) with title or tag that is easier to remember and reuse later.

    You can of course, literally, ask people to create stories from their experiences at the end of a workshop, and practice telling each other these stories and notice the great ones (people can always share and use each other's stories). You can also use techniques like some we saw at the Society for Organizational Learning conference last year, which had "Weavers" (two charismatic people who opened and closed each day, Sonny and Cher style), who effectively linked or wove together what was going on in the conference into funny stories and jokes -again contextualising the information and applying it to real life in a humorous way. They created and told the stories for us in that case.

    That conference also had a Slam Poet duo - Tim Merry and Marc Durkee - who by the end of each day had written a rap-like song, with guitar accompaniement, which pulled out a few of the strongest points from the day's plenary presentations and built them into a strong refrain. To get big messages to stick, they even had a sing-along component. You can't get much more memorable than that (600 people singing along to the key messages over and over again).

    Visual facilitation and graphic recording are two practices that also help to create icons and memory triggers for participants, not to mention helping information and data creep over from our rational left to the creative right side of the brain (more brain real estate cannot be bad). The image above (of me!) was created in a recent workshop by Fiami, a Geneva-based graphic recorder and visual facilitator, who worked at the back of our room to capture the essence of the discussion in one pane images which are informed by his work in "bandes-dessinees" (which translates (poorly) into comic strips). His work creating one frame images with captions is slightly different than the main-stream graphic interpretations by visual facilitation groups such as Bigger Picture, a Danish group with which we have also had the pleasure to work.

    Bigger Picture, like many of the visual facilitators who work in the tradition of David Sibbet and The Grove (often credited with first bringing strong visuals into planning and strategy processes), capture the process in murals which visually track the progress, decision, discussions of the group in real time. With this approach, at the end of the workshop, you have a large graphic artifact (literally meters of interconnected drawing) which ultimately can be reproduced as a poster for each participant if you have the budget (they are not cheap). These mural creation processes, which do go on quietly at the back of the room during your meeting, have the most impact if some time is built into the agenda for participants to interact with the visual - validate it, add their own post-its of icons and meaningful words here and there, and reflect on some of the key messages. With these visual "fingerprints" of participants embedded within it, the final visual's utility as an aide memoire is greatly enhanced.

    The number of groups around the world working in visual facilitation is growing. Many of these practitioners are connected through networks like the International Forum of Visual Facilitators and vizthink which operate globally, the latter of which includes all kinds of applied visual techniques.

    Whatever you do (come up with your own!) you can increase your chances of success, longevity of ideas, and active follow-up to your workshop by being more memorable for participants. It might feel a bit risky at first, but my experience has been that participants are most thankful for the extra help making their time spent with you in the workshop more actionable.

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    The Work-From-Home Field Guide to Time

    Time is like snow. It's all made of the same stuff - minutes for time, or water in the snow case - but it takes so many different forms. Did you know there was a Field Guide to Snowflakes? (over 35 different kinds!) I want to write the Field Guide to Time.

    I never noticed what kind of time I had until I had a different kind of time. And now that I have made this observation I've started to look more closely at the nature of my time, at the individual forms of time, to see how different they really are. In my Field Guide to Time I would have both Office Work Time and Home Work Time.

    In the office I saw different kinds of time floating around me:
    • Desk Time - Perceived blocks of time for working on documents/reports/proposals, often interrupted by all of the following. What you tend to get hired to do.
    • Email Time - Chunks of time for zeroing in-box and working on action file. Should be linked to "Desk Time", but can include many other extraneous things.
    • Meeting Time - Hours of time (and sometimes whole days or weeks of time) for collaborative discussion that can sometimes also count as working, and sometimes not.
    • Corridor Meeting Time - Minutes of time to gather information that is not found elsewhere.
    • Pop-in Meeting Time - Usually happens when you are at "Desk Time", longer or shorter depending on the pop-in person's place in institutional hierarchy, and/or desire to procrastinate.
    • Phone Time - Answering calls that I miss while I was at Meeting and Corridor Meeting Time.
    • Negotiation Time - Very brief moments providing windows of opportunity to change things.
    • Talk to Your Colleagues Time - This time expands when procrastinating and can often lead to "Coffee Time".
    • Coffee Time - Self-explanatory
    • Cleaning Your Office Time - Time so called when you can't or don't want to concentrate on anything else. Could also be called "Procrastination Time" except nobody would ever pay you for that.
    If you were lucky, you could get useful things done in all of these times (including needed mental rest and processing time from the last one). And if you needed to, you could theoretically shift around the time so that you had more Desk Time when you needed it, and less of the other kinds of time in your day.

    Now that I am working at home, I am getting to identify some different kinds of work-related time, some are the same, many are different. At home, for example, I find I can subtract "Corridor Meeting Time" (for obvious reasons) and "Pop-In Meeting Time" has reduced (or at least now there is a warning phone call since I live outside of town). And some new specimens of time have been added:
    • Car Time - This could also be called "Thinking Time" for return trips when car is empty.
    • Judo Time/Circus Time/Football Time - Highly fragmented minutes of calm during children's flurry of activities - could also be called "Checking Iphone Time".
    • Car Park Time - This time only occurs in daytime or in carparks where the space near the light is free. Includes much balancing of papers on knees.
    • Skype Time - Occurs more because now I am paying the phone bills myself.
    • Google and Social Networking Time - This time increases, as guilt decreases about surfing when someone else is paying for your time.
    • Cafe Time - This is different than "Coffee Time", although they can overlap. Cafe Time is more about working around people (as opposed to working with them).
    • Making Dinner Time - This would have previously been called "Phone Time", now all the most important calls come when you are making dinner.
    I'm sure there are more, feel free to add some!

    These latter kinds of time take forms that I am not yet used to using productively, although I am getting better at it. I do notice that they crowd out a lot of "Desk Time", which means that I need to be clever about the kind of projects I take on. No longer do I seem to have long stretches, day after day of "Desk Time" when I can work on a big writing project, for example, or any task that demands hours back-to-back of stationary, uninterrupted concentration. This seemed to be an easier environment to organize in a workplace office rather than a home office. Now every work day is an aggregation, a collection of kinds of time, a veritable snow bank of the many different, often fleeting forms of Time that make up my day.

    Being productive in this kind of environment must be like choosing the right shovel or wearing the right clothes - noticing the kind of work that fits the quality of your time. Being able to identify the kind of time you have, in your own Field Guide to Time, must be a first step.

    Thursday, November 05, 2009

    I’m With The Brand

    I just spent a worthwhile 30 minutes reading Brenda Bence’s, “The Top 10 Branding Mistakes Entrepreneurs Make”. Since I went independent in June this year I'm still getting my head around many aspects of what it means to work independently. I thought this was a useful set of points for newly independent workers to consider – it works almost like a checklist, if you turned it around with an appreciative frame (I am not too fond of thinking in mistakes, I rather prefer opportunities to do things differently, which is a little easier on my ego.)

    One of the first things that struck me among those 10 points was the second one (the first one about company names I felt pretty good about). The second point is: Forgetting that you are your brand. I type this as I sit on the Heathrow Express on my way to an afternoon meeting in a multi-national’s corporate Headquarters in London with a purple and black backpack and jeans. I am definitely going to change for my meeting this afternoon, and what if I bump into the whole group in the lobby before I even get there?

    I would like to hope that my brand is more than just the aesthetics, and at the same time some branding expert/communication specialist/marketing guru might disagree with me, at least partially.

    Before I became independent I worked for a string of sustainable development institutions, from small to large - an academic institute, a leadership training foundation, a conservation organization/NGO. The larger they got, the more people who were holding up the brand, and perhaps the stronger the corporate branding (and thus the lighter the individual brand within in.) When you turned up at meetings you were a person from that INSTITUTION, and although you obviously had to sound and look ok, the reputation of the institution made up for any shortfalls (e.g. from lost luggage, thus the tennis shoes at the conference, on down.)

    And now I’m independent, and at least for the moment, it’s just me.

    Of course I have a certain persona/reputation within my networks, with people who have known me and worked with me for years. But what about the new people, those that I am meeting for the first time? I can always quote my CV to them, if I get the opportunity, and still, the further I get from being an ex-staffer, hiding behind a great big brand, the more I need to build my own.

    (Later) So, I made it to my hotel and managed to check in and get up to my room undetected, and of course, the electronic key didn’t work. On my second pass through the lobby I was not as lucky. That rather embarassed greeting of new colleagues from around the world firmed up my resolve to start thinking a bit more about what I want my brand to say about me, all the time, and what I want to say about my brand. After all, I’m not with the brand anymore, like Brenda Bence says, I am the brand.

    (Next action: Reframe to make this sound less frightening and more exciting...)

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    "They Threw Out My Exercise!"

    All week I have been working with a mixed Private Sector/ Not-for-Profit group (the latter from one conservation organization) in a joint learning exercise about partnerships between these two different sectors. It was structured in an interesting way, the first two days were internal to the conservation organization, with headquarters staff joined with their regional and national office counterparts. The third day invited a wide range of interesting and interested multi-nationals, and the final day featured a more intimate meeting between those private sector partners with a more formalised relationship with the NGO, and the relationship managers from both organizations.

    This was a marathon meeting for some, and almost more so because of the highly interactive nature of it – no sitting and vegging out during hours of plenary presentations. At the same time, this intense interactivity in a workshop - working in pairs, individual reflection with Job Aids, trio Peer Consult walks, Learning Cafes, Graffiti Boards, Carousel discussions – all has accelerating affects on the group development process. And if you succeed and get far enough in developing trust, open communication and comfort around authenticity in the group, what that often means is that at one point in the agenda, the group kicks out one of the exercises. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

    That happened in our meeting, and while my counterpart (who had picked that session to facilitate) was a little distressed by this, I saw it as a strong indicator of success.

    How can it be successful if a group decides to not play along with an exercise, but instead tells you that this is not the right question or activity, and proposes another one? That sounds scary from a facilitator’s point of view, and this might sound counter-intuitive: if you are a good facilitator you need to be ready for that.

    When a group kicks out a session, it can be a sign that the group, the network or team that you are building, is making its own decisions. It knows where it needs to go, and is comfortable enough with the relationship they are building together, and with the facilitator, to articulate that (in the nicest possible way as we experienced). The group exerts its independence and drives the conversation in another direction. Potentially this new direction involves the Elephant-in-the-Room question - that might have been perceived to be uncomfortable or unsafe early on in the relationship building process - and for which resolution is critical to overall long-term success.

    For the facilitator, the right reaction, like in good improv theatre, is to say “Yes!” and go with it. Seeing a decline in dependence on the facilitator at the end of a workshop is always a good thing, and can even be built into the agenda, as the group will continue on its own afterwards, and manage its own processes. So it is an excellent thing if this independence can occur and be practiced in the safe, face-to-face environment of the workshop.

    So if a group throws out your exercise, think about it, it might be a sign of a job well done!

    Friday, October 09, 2009

    Embedded Learning and Making the Bed

    Last night I participated in an excellent webinar run by Chief Learning Officer Magazine called "Metrics of the Modern CLO: Measuring Formal and Informal Learning".

    (CLO offers a great series of free learning webinars, by the way, see the archived version of this webinar here.)

    The speaker was Josh Bersin, and he spoke about three kinds of workplace informal learning and how to measure them:

    1) On-Demand Learning
    2) Social Learning, and
    3) Embedded Learning

    He said businesses report that informal learning gives the greatest business value, with 72% of learning coming from on-the-job experience (stretch assigments, etc); on-the-job mentoring/projects/rotations; and coaching and peer learning. Only some 28% comes from formal training. He noted that informal learning was not fad, it was an evolution in workplace learning. Yet only 1/3 of organizations have learning and development programmes that reflect future talent needs (and that is in the private sector, I wonder what the percentage is in the other sectors - higher? lower?)

    This morning I woke up thinking about the third kind of informal learning. I am not used to seeing or hearing the words "embedded learning" and I needed a way to remember this, and here is the learning anecdote I came up with.

    Embedded Learning is the invisible learning on the job, feedback from managers, performance support from mentors and peers, and so on. It helps you on the job to learn as you go, in the context of your working community, rather than noticing something you need to learn and then going out to search for it yourself (this is on-demand learning).

    From June I started working from home. So that is my workplace, and at the moment I work primarily alone. Of course I have many virtual partners, and occasionally meetings in my home office. However, one person I do see weekly during my working day is the nice lady who comes in to help for a few hours. She just started just over a month ago, and we already appreciate her as a masterful mentor in her approach to family order.

    The first week she was here, the house was a jumble, and when she left the house was perfect. Everything that had been out on any flat surface was gone. Some things are still not found (library book, football socks, telephone list). The second week, it happened again. The third week, again, although slightly less was exposed. After a few weeks I noticed that just a few days prior to her arrival, things started to get put away. Now, the day before she arrives, everyone reminds one another of her imminent arrival. And like magic, order gets restored even before she comes. She set us on this learning pathway and it is working through embedded learning.

    This woman is a household manager and she is clearly giving us feedback. When she doesn't like where something is, she shows us what she wants by putting it where it belongs (in her estimation). She models the kind of (workplace in my case) environment she wants us to maintain. It's happening over time, and she is helping us make the change ourselves. This is embedded learning. There is no job aid or checklist on how to maintain this productive learning/working environment (on-demand learning) or no wiki where we are writing down where we are putting things (social learning). Although both of these kinds of learning might also be useful in the future.

    Today when my husband left the house he reminded me very seriously that it was Friday (implicitly, anything you don't want to disappear needs to be moved now) - and this from someone who has not traditionally noticed anything below 1 meter. The mere mention of her name and my 8-year old is scouring his bedroom floor for precious items. This order mentor and household coach has been like magic. She has embedded new practices at the smallest unit of organization, although not through formal training, or setting formal systems into place. If she stays long enough, dare I say, this might be permanent; and eventually she could leave quietly and move to another family, like Mary Poppins, her work done.

    Once you start to think about it, you might notice embedded learning in other places around you. Today's high turnover in organizations might provide an opportunity for embedded-learning spotting. In a workplace where someone has moved on, you might notice habits and practices that have changed as a result of someone's influence, coaching, modelling, mentoring. That is, if they happened to be in tune with embedding learning, overtly or not (I am not sure the nice lady in my house is actively thinking about her household learning programme, although I may be wrong about that.) Not everyone operates that way of course.

    How you get people to operate like that is one of the keys to a learning organization. Then people can move in and out, and the learning is embedded, it stays and just keeps building and growing.

    Even if it is not the original person, with successful embedded learning, someone keeps making the bed.

    Wednesday, October 07, 2009

    Motivating the returning new mother in her first days back to work

    Some top tips for managers from my first day:

    • Invite her to a ‘welcome back’ one-to-one meeting with you and brief her on key ‘must know’ information before she delves into the delighting deluge that is her inbox

    • Present her with prioritized objectives and actions to get stuck into… things that you just can’t wait to get her tackling with her unique and much missed talents! (No mother wants to leave her child to be at work twiddling her thumbs.)

    • And offer chocolates, biscuits, balloons and beaming smiles (helping her realize that there is still a heart beating in her chest even if it feels like she left it in the crèche)

    What tips do you have for the powers that be… and me?

    Tuesday, October 06, 2009

    Create a Facilitator Role for Your Conference Calls and Webinars

    Last week I was asked to facilitate a conference call. Sound odd?

    Well, originally it was supposed to be a face-to-face meeting on sustainability reporting for a high-level company review panel. In its first iteration it had two people conferencing in from distant time zones. That meant we had to design activities that the participants physically present could do, as well as meaningfully engage the people who were virtual. We created a design and it seemed like it would work, using in part the interactivity of an internal webinar platform. However, before the meeting occurred, the format changed again.

    For financial reasons, for time reasons, and for environmental reasons, the organizers decided to hold the meeting entirely virtually, and yet, they still wanted interactivity and a facilitator. Why a facilitator for something that would end up as a modified conference call? Surely someone from the team could convene the call and walk the group through the agenda? It turned out to be a good idea to have a facilitator. Here is what we learned...

    First, having someone facilitating the call helped the team hosting it to concentrate entirely on what people were saying (the content), rather than focus on process -and I can tell you that it is hard to do both for a virtual event. In the end, we decided on a blended format - we used a webinar platform to show a Powerpoint slide set which we could control in our HQ office. Then we added a phone-based conference call so that we could talk to one another, as we went through the slides. So my facilitation included managing the telephone (calling on people, mute button, helping people come in and out, getting technical advice), as well as paying attention to the webinar slide show questions and the transitions (thankfully I had someone else changing slides, I just called them and facilitated their content.) I was surrounded by technology, and still it took just a few minutes to get used to it so it would run smoothly. (Note: We did a thorough test of the system a week before the event.)

    Second, having a facilitator also meant that another layer of structure could be incorporated into the virtual meeting and there would be someone there to handle that extra complexity. Rather than asking the question to the group and then opening for comments -thus having people jump in at the same time and potentially speak over top one another (the case in both conference calls and in meeting rooms), I managed the inputs by having a list of participants beside me and calling on people by name. I varied the order so it wouldn't get too monotonous, and each person got the chance to comment on each question without fail, or say "Pass". And I could go back to people if someone built on their answer in a way that might change their comment. This way there was no stress on the part of participants about how and when to jump into a conversation, as it is in open conference calls, and no fear of interrupting people. We set some norms at the beginning around brevity and conciseness and people seemed to be happy to support these. Because they were called by name each time, they always knew who was saying what.

    Third, we added another interesting facilitating feature of this virtual meeting. We took the decision to send out the slide set in advance, and to design it as a job aid. Instead of just descriptive information, we used the slide format and made it more instructional, guiding participants through the agenda. We included the various questions for discussion and formatted them into something that could be used as a preparatory worksheet for participants with places to fill in answers, and visuals (matrices, scales) to capture responses to different questions. For example, one question included a continuum, which we put on a slide, numbered the options along the continuum (1 to 5), and asked people to place themselves along it in advance with a cross. When we got to the call, we showed the continuum on the webinar and asked people to tell us where they were using the numbers as a guide for precision puroses. We collected these orally and made an aggregated visual continuum for the group and report.

    Having the slide set also meant that the few people who for some reason (firewall, etc) could not access the webinar, could follow along on their printed slideset, using the page numbers. Because it was a worksheet, everyone had been able to think about their answers to the questions in advance and have a place to record them for use during our call. We got brief, considered responses and the participants got a practical way to prepare. Because people knew they would be asked each question they could hold their comments/questions and elaborate on their previous answers in the next question.

    On final reflection, we are not sure that a face-to-face meeting would have produced very different results. Certainly it would have taken more time for a number of reasons. We probably wouldn't have sent through a worksheet in advance with the exact questions, and as a result, people might not have prepared as much. Also the quick feedback (supportive/opposition) and the spontaneity of facilitated face-to-face meetings might have encouraged people to speak longer as they took the cue from the group to define their points of view as well as their role/value in the group. Our virtual meeting took exactly 2 hours, and I think it would have been twice that at least for F2F meeting. And we still had good interaction, with people listening to each other (that might also have been because I was calling on them in different order, so as to not miss your turn you had to pay attention and not just lurk and do your email in the background- although I didn't do that on purpose!)

    Conference calls and webinars are getting more and more popular for the reasons cited here. Consider establishing a facilitator role, and some facilitation structure to help your meeting be te most productive learning environment possible.

    Thursday, October 01, 2009

    Who Wants to Be A...Converting Game Shows to Workshop Learning Games

    For an event that combines product designers, technology experts and policy makers, you want to move into as many innovative "integrative" spaces as possible. That takes buy-in from all parties, as well as lots of courage!

    On Tuesday, the second day of a 2-day international conference on sustainable products and services in Essen, Germany, we took the familiar format of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire" and converted it into "Who Wants to Be a Sustillionaire" (credit to the CSCP team for the title!) We used this modified format to do something interesting and new for plenary reporting on a series of 5 parallel workshops, in which 200 people from 29 countries took a set of project ideas to their next stage of development.

    Many conferences have a combination of plenary sessions and parallel workshops as a part of their design. The challenge is how to bring in the learning and outcomes from the parallel work back to the whole group in a way that is not a boring sequential set of oral reports from the workshop organizers.

    It's an interesting decision about whether to do plenary report-backs at all. Really large conferences don't bother. Medium-sized ones with community-building goals, often try. And it is a challenge for organizers and facilitators to do this in a way that is engaging and not sleep-inducing (heaven forbid adding into the mix the after lunch snooze-time zone.)

    One compelling reason to do after-workshop reporting, is that it ups the stakes in terms of quality outcomes. If you need to report back to 200 people what you accomplished during your 2 hour session, you put some extra effort into it and want it to be good. Another pro is that it promotes more authenticity in reporting, as you have your whole group of 40 or so participants in the room witnessing and hopefully validating your description of what came out of the event.

    So there are some good arguments around why to try to bring some of the flavour and learning from parallel sessions into a plenary setting. We decided to do it.

    So back to our game session, "Who Wants to Be A Sustillionaire". We thought it would be interesting to get each of the Project Incubators (the titles of our parallel workshops) to give us two questions, in the familiar multiple-choice format of the game show. We would combine them all into one game round which would be delivered by Powerpoint in the plenary after the conclusion of the parallel sessions.

    On each slide we had the question, and then an A, B or C choice. The next slide had the same question with the right answer highlighted. There were 10 questions. Each question was asked to the audience by the game host (in this case it was me), and their answers were collected in different ways. After some of the questions (at least one per workshop) I asked someone from that particular Project Incubator, either an organizer or participant, to tell us a little more about the question's answer and in doing so some of the results of their workshop.

    It was ambitious, we got some laughs, and good humoured responses. In retrospect, I would do it again. Here are some of the things I learned about the conversion process, converting the game show format to the learning format, that I would consider next time:

    What I liked:

    1. I could administer the game from the audience, I had a lapel mike and walked through the audience as I asked the questions which were shown on the big screen at the front of the plenary. I also had a hand mike, so I could either ask the group to respond, or I could ask individuals the questions. It made it more spontaneous.
    2. The quiz was at the end of the conference, so I knew many people by that point, and when I needed to pick an individual to answer a question, I knew who might be happy to answer a queston in front of a group of 200 people, and who might add a little extra humour to their answer.

    3. I thought 10 questions was about right, I would not have wanted more (perhaps a few less, but generally, the 10 questions went pretty quickly).

    4. I thought it worked well to collect the answers in different ways. For some I asked the audience to stand if they thought it was A, B or C; or asked them to raise their hands; or ask individuals. I could also lightly play on the ask the audience, phone a friend etc. (although no one took me up on the latter). I couldn't easily use 50:50 as we always had 4 answers.

    What I would try or do differently next time:

    1. I would number the questions (1 to 10), so as the game host, I could tell when we were getting near the end and raise the drama.

    2. I think I would put the questions in order from very easy to hard, like in the game show. Ours were mixed, and all of them had some funny answer choices, which was good, and at the same time made the questions continue to be rather easy. Next time, I would make the first ones very funny and easy, and then get gradually harder so that people didn't automatically know the answers. It might give me more opportunity to get discussion going within the audience and not just between the audience and me.

    3. I would vary the kinds of questions - we used a template to make it easier for the session organizers to give us their questions. We even gave them some samples, and then asked them to give us the wrong answers in advance and then give us the right answer after their session. I think having different kinds of questions, and different numbers of answers (e.g 2, 3, 4, 5) might have given more variety, and therefore be easier to animate.

    4. I was a good idea to have question "stems" (e.g. What are the priorities for...? What is the role of...?) which were sent in advance (5 days) to the organizers who could use them to frame their questions. In the future we could go back to the game show for some familiar stems, to even further connect the audience to the energy of the tv game.

    5. I would build in a little more time between the end of the workshops and the quiz in plenary - we had a courageous 30 minute coffee break to collect the final answers, check through them and run the game. It did feel like the quiz was very fresh which was great, and perhaps little more time would help iron out any little hiccups, let us look over the quiz as a whole for the build in difficulty and drama, and give us a test period. A lunch break time length would be great.
    6. I might add a final question that is not directly related to the indvidual workshops but was a comment on the overall goal or message of the conference - that could be the 1 million Euro question.
    7. Adding monetary figures overall to each question might have added some fun, at the end I could have asked who wanted to donate their winnings to the Project Incubator follow-up (hopefully everyone would have raised their hand!)
    These are some of the things I learned from the experiment to convert a game show into a conference reporting game. It was infinitely better than stand up reports, gave some interesting energy to the end of a lively conference, and gave people a shared experience that could continue to bind them together (more than sitting shoulder-to-shoulder together and listening to podium speakers).

    I think it also showed the organizers in a good light, as courageous and willing to try something new. It promoted the idea that there are always new ways to do routine things, things that we might do without giving it much thought, especially in a familiar setting (in this case, like a conference). How can we keep from going on autopilot and missing out on the innovation and energy that comes from trying something different and new? And for sustainability, we will take all the innovation and energy we can get!

    Friday, September 25, 2009

    New Bloggers: Boost Your Chances of Success

    I am way behind in my blogging, mostly because I have been completely obsessed with another blog - one I set up in July for my Father that is not as different as I had imagined from this blog on Learning. The topics are very different, his blog (Outdoors with Martin) is about squirrel hunting, building farm ponds and the best places to catch large mouth bass. But his orientation is purely "how to" which definitely appeals to my learning side.

    But that is not what is keeping me on his blog more than mine right now. Granted I try to post one of his articles per day (he is an outdoor and travel journalist with an archive of thousands of published newspaper articles just the perfect length for a blog), which takes me about 20 minutes to put in the links (they were originally print based), and update any dates or figures (what is the 2009 teal duck limit in Ohio?) Sometimes I find out odd things that need a little rewrite, like that the great State Park Lodge that my father raved about in a 2005 article burned down last year.) It is critical for him that all the dates, telephone numbers and so on are up-to-date.

    But just the time spent on the other blog isn't what's keeping me off this blog.

    It's the STATISTICS!

    Oh my, I love the statistics that Wordpress gives you (we decided to set it up on a different blog platform as a comparative experiment). We have set up a Sitemeter account for the new blog too. We are literally swimming in positive feedback - data about where the people come from who are checking your blog, who has referred you, which article is getting the most hits, what key words people typed into a search engine to get what article. That information sets up a positive feedback loop that just keeps you, the blogger, on that site, posting, researching, reading.

    Maybe it is just for the extremely curious, but I think there is a business end to this too. For example, there are a few topics that are getting by far the most traffic on my father's site, odd things - using solunar tables for hunting and fishing is the top, after that building perfect farm ponds, raising peacocks, and growing nut trees. I would think that it might be interesting to write more on these niches, if that is getting the most interest. Reader feedback, that is one of the reasons to write a blog.

    When Lizzie and I set up this Learning blog in 2006, we made a decision NOT to collect statistics. I set up a SiteMeter page, but it never worked on this Blogger site (maybe because we had a referral page?) In any case, we decided we didn't want to be driven by the statistics but by our own learning and desires to create reusable learning content. I still think that is completely valid. However, I guess I didn't know what I was missing!

    Now my suggestion for a new blogger would be to use a site that has a good stats function (like Wordpress and not Blogger - sorry Blogger!), and link up Sitemeter as well. And to actively use that information on what people are reading, how they are skipping through your blog, and how they are finding you, to make your blog even better and keep you interested and energised, through powerful direct feedback.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009

    Changing Social Logic: Learning for Fitting In

    In January of this year I wrote a blog post called The Return of the Age of Education, where I wondered if the kick one gets from acquiring stuff could be replaced by that from acquiring knowledge. Effectively, could personal growth replace economic growth? Can acquiring knowledge replace acquiring things? (For example, I was going to experiment with growing all my garden plants from seeds this year.)

    I asked that question last week at our Balaton Group Meeting to University of Surrey Professor Tim Jackson, one of our speakers and a member of the UK Sustainable Development Commission which produced the recent, provocative report Prosperity Without Growth.

    His answer changed the way I'm thinking about how learning can best contribute to sustainable development, and changing the social logic is a part of this.

    Why do people buy things? (Probably there are many individual answers to this question.) Tim Jackson questioned greed as the primary driver. People may instead buy things to gain a place in the community. Tim drew on Adam Smith's linen shirt example and spoke about the life without shame and the symbolic function of materials good and the importance of these commodities in our lives. So if buying is linked to participation and placement in the community (like keeping up with the Jones') then individual learning may not be a good replacement, or at least not good enough.

    So instead let's look at community learning. Could this help people find their place (and minimize their need for stuff?) There are many examples of social "experiments" in intentional communities, local currencies, community agriculture schemes, which may better connect individual learning, through community learning, with sustainable development goals.

    Of course it is not as simple as all that. In the current economic model, employment is a big driver, and it gives people the money to keep buying, which stimulates the economy, and signals to businesses to produce more stuff, that workers have to make, which keeps people employed. All this works until consumers stop buying (then comes the credit, for a while...) Replacing buying with something else has other consequences in the current system. One quote from this presentation stuck with me: Growth is unsustainable but degrowth is unstable. Tim gave some of the conclusions from their report Prosperity Without Growth, and if you're interested in thinking about alternatives to the current macro-economic system, its worth a look.

    Tuesday, September 15, 2009

    Quotable Quotes from the Balaton Group Meeting

    The annual Balaton Group Meeting, featuring from 8-12 fascinating speakers in the morning formal programme, and anywhere from 15-25 parallel afternoon sessions in the Open Space portion of the meeting, is always full of provocative ideas. I captured a number of them here, made by some of our speakers including Dennis Meadows, Bert de Vries, Ashok Khosla, Kevin Noone, Tim Jackson, Jorgen Norgaard among others:

    • (On change) People and institutions are only willing to give money (for external research, projects, etc.) when they are no longer open to significant change.
    • (On resisting change) "Astroturfing" - When companies pay local people to fight their government over decisions that the companies don't like.
    • (On coming discontinuities) Global society will change more over the next 20 years than it has in the past 100.
    • (On thinking globally) Global sustainability problems will still be experienced locally.
    • (On time horizons) A far-sighted dictator is better than a short-sighted democracy and neither works.
    • (On equity) Are we really living together on this planet?
    • (On economic growth) A primary anxiety of a firm is around capital mobility - that money will fly out of the firm if it does not innovate.
    • (On alternatives to economic growth) Here is a global dilemma - growth is unsustainable, and de-growth (decroissance) is unstable.
    • (On carbon emissions) We need an economy that takes carbon out of the atmosphere.
    • (On a service economy) There are also limits to a service, or amateur, economy - you can only take care of other people's kids 24 hours a day.
    • (On decoupling) Where does environmental impact come from if not from economic activity?
    • (On the coming changes) These things take longer than you think.

    Each idea, fascinating, and often bucking conventional wisdom. That's what the Balaton Group Meetings provide each year for the 50 people who attend them. For a little history and more on this years meeting, see another Balaton Group Member's Blog: Dormgrandpop.

    Tuesday, September 08, 2009

    Balaton Group Meeting 2009

    Each year for 28 years, the Balaton Group has met on the shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary to discuss sustainability issues, systems dynamics, and global change.

    This year's meeting is focused on "Frontiers of Sustainable Development" and I have decided to try to blog the various meeting inputs. These follow...

    Sunday, September 06, 2009

    Can't Do Another Visioning Process?

    Vision fatigue? Many groups involved in change processes over time claim they just can't do another visioning process. They have done it so many times. What is a creative way to engage this kind of group?

    Instead of trying to design their process, why not design an inquiry process where they do the fundamentals of design?

    You might start with attention grabbing questions (group or individual):

    • If I were going to send you an email inviting you to a visioning process, what would it have to include for you to enthusiastically say "Yes!"

    • If you were going to participate in a vision process that really energised you, what would be some of the features of this process?

    • If you were going to participate in a visioning process that created a profound vision, who would be doing something differently at the end? What would these people be doing differently at the end? What would you be doing differently at the end?

    • If you were going to say that the visioning process created lasting change, what would be some of the necessary conditions to make this vision stick?

    • If we were going to give this process an innovative name, what might we call it?
    This inquiry process doesn't focus people in on their past, potentially less-than-satisfactory visioning exercises. It focuses them on the positive future and involves them in creating it and answering questions about what it will take to make it work (differently) this time. The energy that these kinds of questions creates is very different than that from a problem-focused approach, and just may get people to the table with a different attitude and intent, and that might make all the difference.

    Tuesday, August 25, 2009

    If Trainers Designed Training Centres

    Imagine you and another trainer got together and could dream up your perfect training centre. What are some of the things that you would avoid, that have driven you crazy in the past, in various hotels and conference centres around the world? Heavy or fixed furniture, poorly lit rooms, carpeted walls, struggles getting one more flipchart at 11pm, getting internet connections for speakers - you name it. What trainers and facilitators want more than anything is flexibility. How might you design a centre for maximum flexibility?

    This morning I had the pleasure to visit just such a training venue outside of Geneva called Ecogia. It is the main training centre for the International Committee of the Red Cross. And in fact, it is the manifestation of the vision of two trainers, Christiane Amici Raboud, now the Director of Ecogia, and one of her ICRC colleagues, also a trainer at the time. They seemed to think of everything and built up a delightful learning environment for both their peers, and the participants who spend time at Ecogia.

    Each meeting room is the ultimate in flexibility. Everything is on wheels, the tables, the chairs, the projectors - there are even mobile units that people can wheel around after them to hold their materials and documentation (with handles at the front and perfect height for humans as opposed to smaller mammals). Each of these items has a very small overall footprint and weight - the tables quickly fold up into slim objects that look like flipcharts, the chairs are very light, the projector is in a trolley (and the cables are in the floor) so you can use any wall as a projection screen.

    Even the lighting is flexible. In the main room, the projector is linked to automatic blinds and dimmers, so when you are ready to go, you push the button and the lights immediately go off and the blinds down; when the off switch is pressed, everything lights up again. No fumbling around in the dark looking for blinds and switches.

    There are plenty of break out spaces, and to make it easy for groups to move around with their work, many walls are magnetic, and flipchart headers with strong magnets on them, filled with paper, are easy to take off one magnetic wall and into another room. Meeting rooms which have wall paper (the Centre was originally an 18th century orphanage, with modern additions, and has kept its charm), there are full length magnetic strips or clip in strips for flipcharts.

    Of course there are many great training centres in the world, frequently very expensive and exclusive, often the domain of private sector clients. However, Ecogia, which has the majority of its clientele with the ICRC, also rents its meeting rooms and sleeping rooms to other organizations, all at compassionate cost-recovery rates, in keeping with the ICRC's community values. It also offers simplicity in both reservation, and an all-inclusive equipment etc. package. No negotiating late in the night with a junior manager who doesn't want to part with that additional flipchart or projector because it is not on the reservation. Also surprisingly included - all the bedrooms and many small meeting rooms have internet-accessible computers, are connected to printers and have free phones!

    I must say, I was impressed. And I could clearly see, as Christiane kindly showed me around, the care and thought that had gone into every aspect of the centre. I love the idea that some trainers got together and tapped their learning about what works in training spaces, and then used it to make an innovative new place that uses learning for learning.

    Wednesday, August 19, 2009

    Visiting the Systems Zoo with Alan AtKisson

    This morning I am helping to team deliver a day-long systems thinking module as a part of this week's Isis Academy (AtKisson Associates), a leadership programme for sustainability practitioners being held outside of Stockholm. Systems can be complex for some people, so we are starting with an introduction by Alan AtKisson, sustainability expert, author and song writer, on the "systems zoo". Listen to the Systems Zoo song here.

    The Systems Zoo, a concept originated by German systems thinker Hartmut Bossel, has been translated into a sing-a-long song by Alan. As he walks them through the concepts, the participants don't know yet. At the moment, Alan is introducing the basic concepts, telling stories about them, and having the group say each word (he says they are onomatopoeiac, that is, they sould like what they are.) The words are:

    • Sources
    • Sinks
    • Stocks
    • Flows
    • Oscillations
    • Delays
    • Rates of Change
    • Nonlinear Effects
    • Feedback Loops
    • Na-na-na-na-na (well this is a part of the song, but not actually a systems concept)
    To make some these concepts easier to grasp, Alan is using "rumours" as a story example. Rumours have a source, someone starts a rumour and tells it to someone else. And eventually, the rumours stop somewhere (like an internet archive, or a blog page, or in your head). In between, the rumours just flow around as people tell them to one another. Of course, along the way they stop, and potentially accumulate in a stock, like in your head while you desparetely try to not tell them to someone else. And then perhaps at some point after too much accumulations of corroborating evidence for the rumours, you just can't help it and you tell someone else, and the rumours flow again until they finish up (hopefully soon) in their sink.

    The song is followed by an introductory presentation on modelling, being done by Piotr Magnuszewski, from the Centre for Systems Solutions (Wroclaw). It has now quickly gone into systems modules, with stock and flow diagrams, bathtubs, fishery models, and an introduction to Vensim. Much more complicated than the concepts seemed in the song and the rumours example, but that was a good familiar introduction to a way of thinking that is not familiar to everyone. Jay Forrester , one of the "fathers" of systems dynamics, was attributed as saying, that people's minds had not evolved to think about solving non-linear differential equations. That's for sure!

    Note: The Centre for Systems Solutions website is in Polish at the moment, but they have an interesting new multi-player game in English on climate change negotations called the Climate Game.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009

    Cross-Cultural Collision Caused by One Word

    A major cross-cultural collision occurred at the end of a recent multi-stakeholder dialogue I was facilitating.

    The offending word: Report.

    In the final feel-good stretches of a dynamic multi-sectoral, heretofore generative dialogue, progress screamed to a halt when this six letter word was uttered. The precipitating question, expected to be purely rhetorical – Can we issue a “report” from this meeting?

    The room was immediately divided between loud answers of absolutely YES, and absolutely NO. Faces contorted, side conversations bubbled up around the room (ok, maybe I am being a little melodramatic, but not too much). Confounded, I took a quick poll. We found that the private sector representatives weighed in heavily on the NO side. But what about transparency, the NGOs said?! Transparency is fine, came the business answer, the problem is we didn’t DO anything to report on. (Chilly silence, after two long 10-hour days.) But, we spoke for 2 days on lifecycle improvements, made some agreements and got some great ideas, claimed the NGOs. But we set no targets, have no deliverables or budget figures, countered the business partners, let’s work together now and issue the Report in a year or two. A year or two!! The NGOs were mystified…

    Ahhh, the penny dropped. Report, I thought, that’s the problem. In a company, a Report (with a capital “R”) means End of Year Report, Annual Report, Shareholders Report. They involve hard figures, money, progress, dates and demonstration of concrete targets met. For us, NGOs, however, we write activity or process reports (with a small “r”) all the time, for communication purposes among our wide and varied constituencies, to keep people abreast of issues and activities often while they are happening, as a means to engage our staff and partners in ongoing consultation. Very different notions of that word “report”.

    OK, let’s try this again. I asked the group, “Can we send out a meeting summary after our workshop? “ (No R word this time). Unanimously approved, collision tidied up, traffic flow back to normal.

    (Note for my Facilitator record: Sometimes I expect and prepare for cross-cultural differences when I am working with groups that include two or more national (or sub-national) cultures; I might not expect the differences that can occur between institutional cultures. These can be as strongly adhered to, and incredibly different, as working with international groups, and present surprises for a facilitator such as the one described above.)

    Sunday, August 09, 2009

    Re-Learn Something "New": Testing the Depth of Those Neural Pathways

    I wrote a post in March about learning through repetition, versus intense bursts of learning - so the benefits of 15 minutes of Spanish a day for 2 years versus the same amount of time in a one-month intensive each summer. This apparently deepens your neural grooves and helps you really learn something (See para 2 of Golden Nuggets from the GTD Summit - notice also Michael Randel's comments about the timing piece).

    Well, I checked that recently when I did two things that I have not done for over 25 years. I picked up my silver Stradivarius Bach trumpet and played a high school fight song, and caught four nice largemouth bass on a rooster tail spinner (albeit not at the same sitting, or standing, as it were).

    I had no idea that this intrinsic knowledge was still there. It made me wonder what else there is still sitting in there waiting to be used, or re-used?

    Indeed, 25 years ago, I played my trumpet nearly every day over a seven year period. I was in the marching band, orchestra and in a jazz band. I even got to leave school from time to time to play taps for military funerals in our small town. (Because I was paid for this I got a lifetime of confounding responses to the workshop icebreaker game "2 Truths and a Lie" -no one ever believes that I was a Professional Trumpet Player - it almost made standing in the snow behind a tombstone half a mile upwind from a 21 gun salute worthwhile.)

    I probably played that particular fight song thousands of times. Any one Friday night football game, win or lose, would have produced dozens of opportunities to do so, not to mention the practice drills, and the end of every single, daily 45 minute band practice. I picked up the music for that song two weeks ago, looked through it and played it without hesitation, the second time from memory. My kids were amazed, they couldn't even get a non-frog sound out of the instrument and they'd never seen me and a trumpet in the same room together.

    Bass fishing was a similar experience. Over the years I have had a few opportunities to drop a worm on a hook into a farm pond and pull up a few bluegills. However, casting for large mouth bass with a spinner takes a little more than watching the bobber go under in shallow water and pulling up the fish. Although I found bass fishing again - getting the lure just where you want it and reeling in at the right pace - after decades of not casting, nearly as easy as that. I could even strike so that the bass were lip caught and could be happily released instead of having to practically surgically extract the hook, which never bodes well for their continued longevity as anything other than turtle bait.

    Fish filleting also came with the memory package (the bluegills my boys caught), as I got to bring back those specific skills to create lunch. This was not like buying fish in the supermarket and taking off the skin, this was like taking the shiny excited fish out of the bucket of water and making it into tiny lunchable boneless, skinless filets. Something that as I get older and perhaps more sympathetic to vegetarianism, I find harder mentally to do, although I could do it almost mechanically and of course did it all the time without hesitation when I was younger and living in a rural community.

    It seemed so easy, it took so little time and those abilities were back. It made me want to remember what else I have really learned in the past, perhaps long forgotten, that I could bring into service now. And somehow reapply - my guess is that trumpet playing and bass fishing might be hard to integrate into my current line of work. Although if one of my goals was to meet some new people in my local area, and perhaps work more at the community level, I can assure you that I never thought of joining the fanfare (local village bands notorious in Switzerland for playing long sets after speeches at national celebrations, and before the drinking starts.) But maybe I should.

    And I'm sure that I could come up with multiple parallels between bass fishing and leadership learning if I tried, it might make for some good learning anecdotes - at least for me.

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009

    Venue Checklist: What You Want to Know Before You Go

    Imagine you are using an amazing venue for an upcoming, interactive conference of around 200 people (or any number for that matter), and you are visiting it for the first time. What would you want to know? Imagine that the venue is not a purpose-built conference centre, but something like a World Heritage Site, a venue that models the content of your conference in some way, but might not have the systems in place as professional conference centres do. That makes it even more important to ask the right questions the first (and second time) that you visit. Here are a few things that I would want to know prior to putting the final touches on the design of any event:


    1. How do people get there? Do they have maps and directions available?

    2. Is it accessible by public transport, and is there parking for those who come by car?

    3. Is there a preferred taxi service serving the venue? What is the contact information?


    1. Do they have staff to set up the venue and individual rooms the night before? Can the organizers get in there early (e.g. the day before) to check room set up and post signs?

    2. Can the staff change the room set up during the day, or must the morning set up last for the entire day? If so, how long does it take to change a room?

    3. What kinds of tables do they have? Round, rectangular?

    4. What kinds of chairs do they have? Fixed to the ground? Fixed together in rows? Movable? Can they be moved by the workshop organizers during the day for small group work, etc., if they are moved back?

    5. Can the organizers post signage for the workshop? Or does the venue have its own signs and post them? What are the rules about posting signs (if any)?

    Meeting Rooms:

    1. Are there any limitations to room set-up formats? If so what are they? Can the venue take a suggested set-up format from the organizers (such as cabaret style for breakout groups) and use that, or do they have fixed set up formats?

    2. What are the capacities for the plenary room and breakout rooms, in theatre style, cabaret style, etc?

    3. Does the venue have enough chairs and tables for simultaneous set up of plenary and breakout rooms so there is no delay in set up?

    4. Can flip chart paper and other posters be put up on the walls? If so, is there a preference for fixation (blue tack/sticky stuff, masking tape, etc.)

    5. If nothing can be fixed on the walls, do they have ample flipchart stands, and possibly pinboards (with pins), for the workshop organizers to use?

    6. How are the acoustics between rooms? Can you hear people speaking in the corridors? In the neighbouring rooms? What if microphones are used?

    7. If common spaces are used for workshops, how are the acoustics in the common space? If people are clapping, or talking amongst one another, does that sound travel to other corners where potentially quieter conversations are being held? Are there live barriers (plants, etc.) which might be used to divide common spaces?

    8. If organizers use interactive exercises, or games in their workshops, are there any limitations to using open or common space for these?

    9. Are markers provided with the flipcharts, or do these need to be brought in by the organizers?

    Registration and Welcome:

    1. Is there a registration area that can be used to greet people and provide them with their documentation and badges? Where is it? Can it be set up in advance? (the night before?)

    2. If there are any VIP needs (special access/doors), security, or separate waiting areas, what facilitaties are available?

    Food and breaks:

    1. What kind of lunch is served? Sit down, served, buffet? If the lunch break in the agenda is short, how can the venue assure that people can eat quickly?

    2. Can all 200 people eat at the same time, or do they need to eat in smaller groups? If the latter, how long is one sitting and how many people can be served?

    3. Where are the coffee breaks served? Can they be outside the meeting rooms to minimize noise?

    4. Can the whole group break for coffee at the same time, will there be a back up at the coffee area? Or are there multiple stations that can serve people quickly, so that 15-30 min is enough for every one to have coffee?

    5. Check the menu options for lunch and coffee breaks-what choices are available? Can they serve special diets (vegetarian, caffeine-free, lactose or gluten-intolerance, etc.) Do people need to notify of special needs in advance? How much in advance?

    6. Is there water available in between breaks and meals?

    7. Is there smoking in the venue? If not, is there a designated smoking place?

    Communication and Equipment:

    1. Does the venue have internet access or wifi? Is it free? Is there a code? Are there capacity limitations (e.g. number of people connected)? If so, what are they?

    2. Are there printing or office facilities available for the organizers, for last minute copies, etc. Or for speakers with last minute changes to their presentations?

    3. Are there any cell phone restrictions or limitations in the venue?

    4. What are the cell phone numbers of the key venue service people? Can we have a list of who to call for service, technical, or other issues during the conference?

    5. Does the venue provide equipment such as PPt projectors with laptops (connected to the internet), overhead projectors, video projectors (as needed)? How many of these are available? Are there technical people to help with set up?

    6. Is there a sound system for the plenary, is there a technical person for set up and monitoring?

    Breakdown and closing:

    1. What are the organizers expected to do prior to leaving the venue, in terms of venue breakdown, clean up, etc?

    2. Can anyone at the venue answer questions about return transport, flights, train schedules, etc. or help changing or getting bookings?

    3. Is there a place where participants could leave or deposit feedback forms prior to leaving?

    4. Is there a place where participants can leave their luggage on the second day prior to leaving? Is it secure? How do people get things out again if they leave at different times during the day?

    No doubt there are more. These are just things that I have seen over the years in conference centres (both things I liked and things that impeded our process because they were not available or there were limitations that we had not been aware of in advance of our meeting.) No doubt there are more. I like to say that we (facilitators, trainers, organizers, and participants) can work with anything as long as we know about it in advance. Sometimes you get a real test, but I can tell you that there is nothing like a freaky parameter to get your creative juices flowing!