Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Let's Give Them Something To Talk About: Big Change, Little by Little?

Active support for change can take many forms. Each act touches some group of people, potentially changes the way they think and (hopefully) what they do, and promotes the change further, connecting tiny points of light until a blanket of light shines out at us. When the actions are all taking us in the same direction, how powerful can that be? From a big city on the west coast of the USA to a rural village in eastern Switzerland, what innovative ways did change supporters get people's attention and support for change last week?

For weeks before the inauguration of President Obama, Little Rae's Bakery in Seattle has been selling the "First Family in Shortbread". More than the good conversation that the cookies themselves produce, James Morse, the owner of Little Rae's, explained on their website how this creative initiative demonstrates the bakery's support for the new President and his change programme, encourages exchange, and takes the additional step to support community action. Here are some excerpts taken from their website (as is the photo):

In a few short weeks the nation will come together to celebrate the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States. As the country begins to understand the extent of the damage to our economy, the new president and his family are going to be looked to for leadership. The kind of leadership this generation has never seen - or needed.

At Little Rae's Bakery, we're bakers. That's what we do. We decided to honor the entire first family to show our support and hope that when we stick together, when we lean on those closest, we are strongest. We're pleased to offer you the First Family cookies. They depict the new President, the First Lady, the Obama children and even the family's mystery dog. Since the Obamas couldn't adopt a dog from the animal shelter due to a variety of allergies, we're donating a portion of every sale to the Humane Society. We'd love to hear what you think of the cookies and have the chance to share the story behind them with you.

Creativity seems to be fundamental to raising awareness, getting people talking, and thinking differently. First Family cookies no doubt made an innovative contribution to this conversation, which was also going on where we live, some 5257 miles away.

We had a spirited discussion with our children last week around the inauguration due, as far as I can tell, to the action of the cantine workers at the local elementary school, which services a rural community of 2000 people in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Cafeteria workers made a whole week of "American" lunches to draw the children's (and by association their parents') attention to the inauguration and celebration of change in the US. Every day I had delighted reports of hamburgers, brownies, chili con carne, hot dogs and doughnuts (for full effect, say each with a thick French accent), the like they had never had before. I am sure the cantine staff enjoyed putting that menu together made up of clearly crowd pleasers. And I heard lots of good things about Obama and America from my 5 and 7 year old, and no doubt all the other parent's in our community did too.

There is so much noise in the system, and so much to do. Getting people's attention, focusing them on change, and getting them to try different things - whether donating to a local charity, exploring a new culture though its food, or even (like in our organizational change process) taking time to attend a World Cafe, and identify ways to contribute to organizational effeciveness and renewal - it all benefits from creativity and innovation in approach. It gives people something to talk about. And aims to help people to get interested enough to take it that one step further. We can go for big change, little by little.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Our World Café: Kitchen Table Conversations for Change

This morning our Director General invited the headquarters staff for a World Café on our institution's Organizational Development and Change process. Fifty-four of us met in the cafeteria to participate in the process. Here are some of our "hot" reflections on the event.

World Café is an innovative way to think collectively about an issue, with conversation as the core process. In our case, 12 conversations happened in parallel, and after each of the four rounds we took some highlights from these conversations. With interesting, rather iterative questions, you could feel the energy build as people made connections and meaning for themselves and others. Here are the questions we used:

  • What is your vision of a highly relevant, efficient, effective and impactful IUCN?
  • What underlying assumptions have you had about how we, in IUCN, work? How might these need to shift?

  • What can we do to help identify and embrace opportunities for IUCN’s organizational development?

  • What patterns are emerging from the three earlier conversations? What are the implications for you and for us?
The results of the discussions will feed into our organizational development and change process, through the people in the room, their teams and our individual action. Additionally the process itself will help us move towards some of our articulated goals around creating a culture of dialogue, interaction, and an enabling environment for innovation and cross-pollination of ideas.

Since we (the Learning and Leadership Unit) are the 'process people', we captured some of our learning about holding a World Café in our institution. Here is what we thought went well, and what we would do differently next time. We are also sharing our learning with the World Café online community at the request of David Isaacs, one of the authors of The World Café book. (More knowledge resources on The World Café can be found on the Society for Organizational Learning's website here.)

What worked well with our World Café:
  • The process brought lots of positive energy to a conversation about change;
  • People appreciated being listened to;
  • Mixed groups combined different teams and levels within the organization and gave opportunities to get to know new people (when we asked the group if this process had given them a chance to speak to someone they did not know, almost every hand went up);
  • It was hosted by the Director General and connected to a real internal process where people had questions and a desire to contribute;
  • It linked with an in-house tradition - Wednesday morning sponsored coffee - a weekly coffee morning for staff supported by our Learning and Leadership unit and the Human Resources Management Group to promote internal dialogue and informal learning;
  • We held the World Café in our cafeteria, so instead of trying to transform a formal space (like a meeting room) for informal conversation, we went right to the organization's kitchen literally for these conversations, which changed the interpersonal dynamic. There was kitchen noise and the sound of coffee machines making it all the more real;
  • We did not use a flipchart to take down the "popcorn" ideas between each round. We wanted to avoid to externalising the ideas and actions too much and directing the focus away from the group. Instead the comments came from within the group, were given to the group (and not a flipchart), and stayed with the group. We did, however, record them all for future use, which we will share with participants, among other ways through the use of a wordle (take a look at this application that creates beautiful word clouds, if you have never seen one)
  • We distributed an "ideas form" to give everyone the opportunity to share some of their top ideas with us afterwards. We handed this out just before the end and also sent an email for people who wanted to send us some ideas electronically. People did a great personal prioritisation for us and themselves, and the act of writing it down also helped people to go through the synthesis process and create a set of potential next actions that might help them remember what was most useful for them.
  • We put flipchart-sized graph paper on all the tables as grafitti sheets. People used them for recording ideas. Added benefits: the gridded paper (instead of plain) made it seem more like a checkered table cloth, and the white paper reflected on people's faces making the photos better!

What we would do differently next time:

  • In a room not made for speeches (i.e. a cafeteria), accoustics can create challenges for facilitating and hearing ideas from the tables between rounds. To address this we used a soft whistle to get people's attention and asked people to stand up when sharing their ideas. Next time we would get a louder whistle (!) and we would contract lightly with the group in advance to quickly conclude their conversations when they hear the whistle.
  • In our briefing, we would emphasize further that the host is responsable for ensuring interactive conversations, but not necessarily for recording or reporting back. At the beginning, making this clear would have helped our host volunteers come forward more quickly.
  • Whilst the vast majority of participants stayed throughout, a few people trickled in and out due to other commitments, which was fine. We might have created better messaging to ensure a crisp start. Only a few people had participated in a World Café before, out of our 54 participants; now that people know how it works the next time we might not notice this.

We got some terrific ideas and comments out of our World Café, including many thanks for running such a process internally. People seemed to be happy to take this kitchen table approach to connect and make new meaning together around our organization's future. And this open process provided plenty of opportunity for everyone's ideas and concerns to be laid on the table - besides the kitchen sink - which was nearby anyway.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Open for Business: Thinking about Productivity

In his Zero-In box video, Merlin Mann likens knowledge work to working in a diner. You take orders and you make sandwiches. However, what can happen for many reasons - like many meetings and not enough time to process the results, or not having a good overview of your inventory of obligations - is that you take too many orders and you don't have time to make sandwiches. Or you keep taking orders and you don't make time to make sandwiches.

What that results in is a lot of hungry people, and potentially irate customers, who are sitting there waiting for their sandwiches to get back to what they need to be doing.

Yesterday afternoon, Lizzie and I, after a week of intense meetings, are feeling like we are continually taking orders and not having the time to make the sandwiches. We are taking time to make the ingredients at least, the tuna salad and roast beef is there and ready to go. We have done the design work for our upcoming retreats, we have brainstormed the questions for our World Cafe next week. But the final steps are not yet done. We have not had a moment, or more truthfully, made the time to sit down, and finish making our sandwiches and get them back to our patient customers.

That is what I am doing here here at my desk at 6am on a Friday, getting ready to make some sandwiches. This blog post is like turning around that Open for Business sign. Hopefully there will be no new customers at this hour of the day...

(If you get so organized that you have some surfing time today: 43 Folders is Merlin Mann's website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.)

Monday, January 12, 2009


“...Find out what it means to me,” began Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in a speech (Boston, November 2008) which re-resonates with me as I reflect on it, thinking about core values. What are our core-values? Is respect amongst them? And what does respect mean to each of us? Do we confuse it with civility - with habit and ritual decorum? Do we confuse it with coded labels and other masks of political correctness? Do we think we should give it because of deference to status and hierarchy or out of a desire to avoid punishment, shame, or embarrassment? Respect. What is at its centre and what is its role in our work and lives?

I am not going answer all my questions. I want simply to capture and share some of Sara’s ‘Six dimensions of Respect’:

* Offering others the knowledge, skills and resources needed (Empowerment)
* Nourishing feelings of worthiness, wholeness and well-being (Healing)
* Feeling good about ourselves resulting from growing self-confidence that doesn’t seek external validation (Self-Respect)
* Encouraging authentic communication: listening carefully and responding authentically (Dialogue)
* Wanting to know who people are, their stories, dreams, thoughts and feelings (Curiosity)
* Offering full, undiluted attention; being fully present (Attention)

If respect is indeed one of our core-values, as individuals, teams or organizations, what more can we do in each of these dimensions? Sara provides some lessons of her own (see Respect: An Exploration), but rather than give those here I think this would be an interesting conversation to have amongst ourselves first. Any takers?

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Return of the Age of Education

(Warning: very long post. You can grab a coffee, or be entirely forgiven for moving on to your daily Dilbert email...)

Thursday as I was going to the airport to catch my flight to New York, I heard an economist on BBC talking about the Madoff Affair and the breaking news about the Satyam chief who disappeared $1b. He and the reporter had a discussion about greed. And the economist said that society now realises that there are limits to economic growth, and that this observation has been influenced by the growing social acceptance over the last few years of the ecological limits that we find ourselves bumping up against from climate change.

Now here's the part that made me smile, the economist then said that people have a drive towards growth, but that they have to find different ways to better themselves, and not just in economic terms. What music for the rather small group of people that have been humming this tune for years.

Many engaging options for achieving this state of "betterment" have been proffered over the last decade or so. Below I am going to share some of the great ideas and the people behind them that I have heard about. I would also like to add learning something new, or relearning something, to this solutions list. Learning has always been an implicit part of this desired exchange - the trade off between materials goods (or perhaps the feelings of satisfaction/achievement/competition derived from them), for the same feelings derived from non-material activities and their impacts, which are hopefully less costly, less resource intensive, and less polluting.

So, I'm going to champion learning explicitly as an option or an ingredient for obtaining that different feeling of betterment that the economist was talking about. But before that, as I mentioned, people have been working on this. Who's been on the case?

For years the sustainable development community has not only been talking about limits, a notion initially sparked by the famous book Limits to Growth first published in 1972, but also what society can do differently. These SD practitioners have long promoted replacing material rewards with quality of life rewards, or at least trying it. For example, for the last 5 years, Japan for Sustainability (JfS) and its Chief Executive, Junko Edahiro, has promoted Candle Night on the summer solstice. Candle Night has become a global phenomenon which aims, in a way, to get people to practice an alternative. It's a "voluntary, participatory, and creative cultural campaign that suggests that people share "alternative ways of spending time" and "more diverse scales of affluence" by temporarily turning away from goods and information as an experience shared by society as a whole." The campaign creates awareness, dialogue, initiative around these lifestyle alternatives, and JfS is behind it with its deep well of expertise and information when people want to go further.

"More fun and less stuff!" has been a rally cry of the Center for the New American Dream since its founding in 1997. This consumption-focused organization runs effective long-term campaigns including stopping junk mail, parenting in a commercial culture, green procurement, and says about itself, "The Center for a New American Dream is dedicated to helping support and nurture an American dream that upholds the spirit of the traditional dream—but with a new emphasis on sustainability and a celebration of non-material values. We envision a society that values not just “more” but more of what matters."

Vicki Robin and her partner Joe Dominguez, originally wrote Your Money or Your Life in 1992 to help people "change their lifestyle and transform their relationship with money..." This book has just been re-released in its second edition, and updated "for the 21st century". Vicki made a lasting impression on me many years ago at a workshop when, just prior to her presentation, she asked the group if they liked how she was dressed. Elegant and colourful, she delighted in telling the group that her entire ensemble cost her just over 3 US dollars, due to clever repurposing, thrift shopping and exchange.

Vicki and her work are backed in part by the Simple Living Network, which provides tools and resources for people who are interested in "conscious, simple, healthy and restorative living." This links up with the Voluntary Simplicity movement and leaders such as the author Duane Elgin , who wrote "Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich" in 1998. This as you can imagine is a community which goes way back.

For many people today, these are ideas whose time has come. They now fit together more comfortably with the Ebay culture, which is ultimately about repurposing and recycling. And thankfully as people dive further into this there are great resources available, which the people and institutions mentioned here, and many others, have been working to produce and refine for well over a decade. After all, it was in the 1990s that the term "Affluenza" was coined, with its definition including "...the bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses," and "...an unsustainable addiction to economic growth." There are serious messages and there is also humour involved - listen to Stockholm-based sustainability practitioner and writer Alan AtKisson sing his 1997 song, "Whole Lotta Shoppin' Goin' On."

And I think we need to be very careful about messaging. Leisure activities, more quality time spent with families, more consciousness, simplicity, back to basics - all of these things do resonate increasingly with the wider society in this time of economic turmoil. For the last 10 years or so, however, the sustainable development community has dealt with reactions of unpalatability (is that a word?) to their messages, with sustainable development perceived as being about giving up things, or loss of a certain lifestyle. Maybe when the words recession, or depression, are tossed about in the media, doing with less seems more plausible, although I think that most people hope it is a short term thing. I am not sure these changes can afford to be short term, so maybe now is the time to aggressively promote those options, or aspects of these options, that add things of value to people's lives.

The current financial situation has created a global dialogue around alternatives to economic growth but it has not taken away that very human desire for betterment and progress. Maybe developing more internal, individual metrics of development will help, and learning something new - whether the motivation is re-skilling for a career change, investing in management abilities that keep your team flexible and highly productive, seriously introducing DIY beyond the odd paintjob, or deciding to plant your vegetable patch entirely from seeds (not as easy as it sounds), learning may be both a good option, have good results, and be a good message for many.