Friday, March 27, 2009

Leadership: Looking Past the Front Row

Many years ago a friend, a systems dynamicist, told me a story about the perils of only looking at the front row when you're speaking in an auditorium or leading a group on stage.

He told me that you can easily create a positive feedback loop for yourself, that is, a cause and effect situation that continually reinforces itself, until you find yourself far from your original track.

For example, he noticed that when he gave speeches he got the most positive feedback from the front rows of the auditorium. These people would nod, laugh at his jokes, give him all kinds of active listening prompts, and the more he responded to them, the more they loved it, and the more positive feedback they gave.

However, who sits in the front row? Not only people who can’t see from the back. But people who already are keen, are followers or devotees, people who want and are getting your quality attention, who may even want to be close to you potentially for other reasons – maybe status seekers, your friends, and potentially people who care enough about you not to doubt, question your logic or challenge you. So, in your narrative, they go wherever you take them, and you take them wherever you go. You don’t have to take them very far, they are fans, they agree with you, they are happy with what you are giving them. That is your front row.

There are obvious perils to depending on your front row for real feedback, for insight into other options and directions, and for the personal growth and development that comes from having your ideas and world view challenged (even gently). It is the people in the middle and even in the back, the hecklers and the still-to-be-convinced types, who can do that. They might be sitting back there completely disconnected from what you are saying or worse misunderstanding it, but you don’t notice, you are focused on communicating to your front row because they are making you feel good about your message - your vision, your strategy, your stories, your best jokes.

As a leader, at any level, how can you make sure that you look past your front row (or how can you get the people in the middle or the back to feel comfortable enough to move up there), so that you can get genuine feedback on what you are saying and the decisions you are taking, so you can course correct if need be before you so solidly believe it yourself (these wonderful friendly people just in front of me believe it too so it must be true)? How can you create an environment for yourself where you encourage people to share their opinions even though they may be different than your own (and potentially those of your entire front row). They might give you something very useful that will make you an even better speaker and leader. And, after all, they’re quite important, since they make up most of the audience.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What's New for HeatSeekers? Using Twitter in Meetings

If you look up "Heatseeker" in Wikipedia, you get redirected immediately to "Missile Guidance", and a long explanation of how these kinds of missiles work to find their targets. However, the top link of this entry is another redirection to Billboard weekly album chart's Top Heatseekers which refers to a selected list of new and emerging artists who have never been on the top 100 albums list. In fact, once an album hits the top 100 chart, they are off the Top Heatseekers list. The label of heatseeker is strictly reserved for great new stuff.

I was interested at David Allen's GTD Summit a few weeks ago to hear the label of "Heatseeker" used over and over again. It was used to refer to speakers and participants, like Guy Kawasaki or Taco Oosterkamp, who are out there looking for the newest technologies, gadgets and productivity enhancements (usually these people are in the technology space, but this is probably not a necessity.) One of the participants beside me in a panel session was using the newest Kindle, and delighted in showing me how it worked, what he liked about it and what he was looking forward to in the next version. Everyone had their iPhone and were talking about new applications for it and wishes. David Allen was given a Mac after Guy Kawasaki hassled him about not having one, clearly for the Heatseekers a Mac with all the bells and whistles is essential.

One thing I noticed about this meeting that I have not noticed before, was that everyone seemingly was using Twitter. In fact, it was the first time I had seen a plenary session where, in addition to the two central screens, there were two lateral screens that were scrolling the Twitter Tweets as people posted them. It turned out that there were dozens of people in the room who, throughout the speeches and discussion, were micro-blogging their 140 character Tweets, including questions (that other Twitter users were answering), quotes, additional information and connections to what other speakers had said (especially when they contradicted each other). Nothing got past the people Twittering. And the interesting thing was that people outside the room were following people inside the room, so not only were we benefitting from the Tweets, but who knows how many people not attending the conference were following those Twittering inside the meeting rooms. Apparently David Allen has over 75,000 people "following him", which he said was either the cause of celebration or great paranoia.

I had heard of Twitter a few years ago just after it started. We had a demonstration during our New Learning Meeting in Alexandria, Egypt in 2007, where at the time the primary new and interesting Heatseeker thing was using Second Life for learning. I started my own Twitter account in the meantime but had not discovered its potential yet for learning. In addition to using it to host multiple conversations during what otherwise would be a monologue of a plenary session, they had some other applications for Twitter. For example, the Heatseekers said that it definitely could be useful for learning how to waste time (that was their first response.) However, they also said that it gave people up-to-the-minute news flashes (remember the people who tweeted about their plane crashing before any other media was on the spot.)

And of course trend spotters and Heatseekers use it to find the heat, so no wonder they like it. There are definitely different levels of Heatseekers, we have a few in our institution, although I don't know of anyone yet who is Twittering as a part of their work (or even for recreational purposes for that matter). We haven't had a meeting yet that mentioned real-time bullet-point reporting via Twitter. Our team has introduced reporting via a cartoonist, graphic facilitation and blogging. Maybe Tweeting is next. When you only have 140 characters to make your point, you need to make sure you are on target - maybe that missile guidance system analogy works after all...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Gold Nuggets from the GTD Summit

The last panel I went to at the GTD Summit in San Francisco was called "Best Practices to Good Habits: Can I Make GTD Stick?" The panelists were GTD coaches and very experienced practitioners. As can be expected the discussion produced some gold nuggets in the form of tips to making GTD a habit.

A panel the previous day featured a cognitive theory expert, Frank Sopper, who explained that the two numbers you need to know for large scale behaviour change are: 2 years and 15 minutes. It takes 2 years apparently from initiation to competency (that you can see and measure), for any new thing you want to learn - whether it's learning a new language, the trumpet, or getting really fit. 15 minutes was the other important number in behaviour change: Once you pick the thing you want to master, spending 15 minutes a day can be transformative - not one hour a week, or a month-long intensive per year. Only 15 minutes a day is needed, because it's the repetition of doing something 700+ times (e.g. daily), rather than 104 times (weekly) that makes the behaviour stick. The repetition of the desired behaviour deepens those neural grooves.

The panelists gave us lot of tips and tricks, many in the black-belt category (for nuanced users of GTD.) So what was some of the gold the panelists had for us?

  • Making your Project and Context lists work: Look over your project lists and make sure there is a verb in each entry. These verbs could be: complete, finalise, ensure, maximise, etc. If you don't see a verb then you will have to think about what "done" looks like every time you look at your list. As a result it will take you more time to do your review. Your Context or Next Actions (e.g. @Calls, @Computer, etc.) lists should also have verbs. You want to have done all the thinking before you review to make these more useful lists. The time savings adds up - one panelists even advocated getting a Mac because the start up time is much faster!

  • Use your Projects list for scoping: For each project, write three sentences - 1) Why you are doing this; 2) A set of 3 principles (I can do anything I want as long as I...); and 3) What does wild success look like?

  • Dump anything that creates drag on the system: Be ruthless and get rid of anything that takes time, or creates drag. For example, if you don't like some of your equipment, change it to something you do like (e.g. get rid of psychic drag) - like the file folders, or filing cabinet, or your notebook or pen (one panelist got rid of all his different pens and replaced them with one kind of pen so he would never have to hesitate when picking a pen). Cull you lists too from time to time to take off things that you don't want to do, and put them on your Someday/Maybe List. Having stop to choose between x and y, or between things you aren't ready to do can create drag, so eliminate the choices if you can, save time there, and have a system that engages you, rather than repels you.

  • Managing your in-box: Some people find their in-box distracting during the day (when they are not processing, but doing), if so you can put it behind you, or use a closed box with a lid as an in-box, from which you can take one piece of paper at a time to process when you get back to that stage.

  • Review your folders from time to time: If you are keeping an A-Z filing system, you can put a tick on the folder you use, each time you pull it. That way you can see over time which folders you are using frequently and which are not being used. Check the un-useful ones and see if they are mis-labelled, or maybe could be eliminated. Also notice where you look for something, if you always look one place, and then repeatedly locate the file on your second or third try - then its not in the right place so re-label it.

  • Use multiple A-Z systems if needed: If you have more than half drawer of folders on the same subject you might want to make a separate A-Z system on that topic. For example, if you have a large ongoing project, or if you are an avid gardener and have many folders on that topic, that project might need its own sub-system.

  • If your Lists are too long: If you have too many items on your lists (e.g. more than 60-100 Next Actions), see if there are multiple lists that can be made. Maybe your contexts are too broad (e.g. if you just have a Tasks list, consider the different place the Tasks can happen and create lists for @Indoor, @Outdoors/Garden, @Spouse etc. You can also consider having multiple Someday/Maybe lists if you have big projects. Instead of putting everything under one, create Someday/Maybe lists for (e.g.) household renovations, project ideas for work, fundraising, etc. You can even add timing to your Someday/Maybe lists, such as weekly, quarterly, yearly, depending on how often you want to be reviewing them. All these things can shorten your lists if you are feeling uncomfortable with the length.

  • Do your Weekly Review: This was considered one of the most important things to making GTD stick. Some people schedule it, others do it when they need it (like brushing your teeth, when they feel scuzzy, you brush them.) And perhaps, as in David's new book, the process will no longer be called the Weekly Review, but instead Time to Reflect. As overall this is the time to ask yourself what does this action mean to me, in order to prioritize, defer or get rid of it.

It was useful to hear these GTD experts and their tips and advice. It helps you sift through the detail, the gravel and the sand, and find that gold.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Blackbelts in the Game of Life

I spoke on two panels yesterday where I gave presentations on using GTD in our workplace, and what we are learning about that integration process. One was on the challenges and opportunities for the NGO sector of using GTD. The other was on using informal learning approaches (rather than formal training approaches) to help people learn how to use the GTD methodology for productivity enhancement.

What surprised me about the discussions that followed the panelists contributions (and I was joined, for example, in the second panel by a brain specialist, a Canadian mayor, and a software entrepreneur) was that they had a strong focus on what people do at home.

The integration of work and life practices was what people wanted to explore. How these top performers, executives, innovators and entrepreneurs are using GTD across their work and home lives as a way to be the most effecient, and to make time for the creativity that is putting them at the top of their games.

I wasn't exactly prepared for that, nor for the final question of my testimonial interview that I gave, filmed at the end of the day, which was, "Has GTD made you a better mother?" But when I thought about it, I could come up with some good reasons why bringing together work systems with home systems might make for overall more effeciencies and more time with a clear mind to spend with my family. At the moment I have two distinct GTD systems, but one of my next actions is going to be to explore how to merge them into one and see if it gives me the same productivity boost, and the aikido "mind like water", that it seems to be giving these other "blackbelts in the game of life".

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Getting Things Done Summit: Learning from a Reception?

The Getting Things Done Summit: Changing the Way the World Works, is being held this week in San Francisco. I am here to speak on two panels - one on "Good Things Getting Done: GTD Serving Service" and the second on "GTD and Education". Both are today and I have just put the finishing touches on my contributions, which I will post tomorrow.

The formal opening is in about an hour, however, I have already started to learn things - informal learning as you know can happen anywhere. In this case it was at the opening reception last night.

I went into the reception rather early and immediately had a string of amazing conversations with the other people attending. Mostly from the private sector, they represent a group of people who are productivity experts, motivational speakers, leadership coaches, entrepreneurs, and innovators. Is this just the Bay Area of California? Is it David Allen's peer group? Above all it is an eye-opening collection of people, and a very unique environment in which to think and learn. (After that reception, I immediately went back to my room and rewrote my interventions.)

I was engaged in conversations by people who get other people going. One man runs a gym outside of LA which has a specialised workout that would normally take 90 min, but has so many effeciencies built in that it can be done in 20 min, for busy executives. He is using GTD to increase the productivity of his offer to service the demand of his clientele around time saving. He was incredibly convincing, it didn't sound at all like snake oil to me.

I met a leadership coach with whom I swapped anecdotes about using haikus in training to help with reflective practice and synthesizing ideas. She also told me to look into using sutras for a similar reflection activity, and to help people work out their arguments for or against taking some action.

Then I met someone who works for the Hunger Project, who was inspired in the 1980's by Dana Meadows and John Richardson who were on the Board at that time. After many years in business left it all to join the Hunger Project team. He has worked in India helping to train women entering municipal leadership positions - the 1m women entering local government resulting from the legislation passed in 1993 to include them.

Each person spoke with passion and warmth, clearly articulating their motivations and goals, they networked and knew how to have a good conversation and move on. Many had written books, many were also speaking, now I am getting nervous... must go and read my notes....

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Leadership Quality Called Courage

In times of extreme change, be they ecological or financial, leadership is a focus of deep discussion and heightened observation, and the source ultimately of trust in decisions and hope in the future.

Courage is widely accepted as one important leadership quality. Let's say that courage is a good thing, we want to see even more courage, and that we want to help build capacity to be courageous. If you were a leadership developer, what might be some of the ways that you could do that?

Courage, according to the inimitable Wikipedia, is also known as bravery, will, intrepidity, and fortitude. It is the ability to confront fear, pain, risk/danger, uncertainty or intimidation. "Physical courage" is courage in the face of physical pain, hardship, or threat of death, while "moral courage" is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, or discouragement. Hmmm...

One way to foster courageous behaviour would certainly be to model it. Another way would be to practice noticing it, naming it, and creating conversations around it. Discussions might explore what makes an act courageous, what conditions are needed for people to express their courage, how courage might be seen from different perspectives (the behaviour might not even seem like courage, but contradictorily the lack of courage to some).

Times of change produce opportunities for people and institutions to be courageous. You see it everywhere. It takes courage to make hard decisions that are needed but might be unpopular, and have unforeseen consequences at the time of taking them. And courage is complex to label, often tangled up as it is in the diversity of personal interpretations, which come from the diversity of personal impacts of the outcomes. I guess courage in itself is about stepping out of comfort zones, to act to change a situation which is not working for you and your constituency (which could be your family, team, community or organization.) And even these constituencies might not agree. It is an interesting time to have a conversation about courage, what it looks like, and who gets to decide what is courageous or not. It's probably not always so clear.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Informal Learning and the Financial Crisis: Lessons for Practitioners

When people ask us what our unit does, the Learning and Leadership Unit, we often say that we do capacity development by stealth. That is, we focus much more on informal learning than on the more obvious training courses to help build capabilities and improve the overall effectiveness and impact of our organization and its staff through this learning.

We still do the odd training course - on systems thinking tools, on blogging, on developing facilitation and teambuilding skills, or using productivity-enhancing approaches such as Zero-in box. However we have found that busy people do not have the time to attend training, and the higher you go up the hierarchical ladder, the less time you may feel you have.

So the informal learning approach, much heralded by the private sector as the highest impact way to make learning interventions, has become our main modus operandi. I would say this approach as it has been formalised in recent years and its language is still quite new in the NGO sector. We have been working with this approach for the past 3 years. What kind of things have we done to promote informal learning?

To create new learning opportunities, early on, we developed and lightly programmed a weekly Sponsored Coffee morning that still gets people together for social networking to learn new things from colleagues they may not always meet in their well-worn pathways around the building. When our first training course on the subject did not get a high response rate, we integrated systems thinking tools instead into visioning and strategic planning workshops. To reverse a deficit frame (common in the sustainability community) we used Appreciative Inquiry questioning techniques into our designs. And to reinforce the asset-based language and viewpoint, we introduced the Strengthsfinder diagnostic tool into our own team, and based on our learning developed a facilitated sequence with the results that we have now woven into the many team retreats we facilitate. In the last three years we have worked with over half of our headquarters staff with this interesting tool. To soften the walls of our institutional silos and foster more collaboration, we built into regular meetings innovative games and techniques such as World Cafes and Open Space Technology among many others that help build relationships, encourage people to share their ideas, and help people practice joint problem solving and co-creation of ideas. To embed and model teamwork, trust and collaboration, we also coach our colleagues in meeting design and facilitation and no longer do all the events ourselves. But none of this we have done through training.

An issue is, however, that training is obvious. It has a schedule, a meeting room, a reserved table in the cafeteria and a cow bell to call people back after coffee breaks (at least in our Swiss-based institution). It also has a set of known metrics attached to it, and a defined beneficiary group, who know that they are being trained because they are sitting in the training room for several days with other learners. Therefore you can easily report on training - the number of training days, how many people were trained, how much budget is spent per person on training, and through standard evaluations, with quantitative and qualitative questions, you can provide data to anyone who wants to know, about what has been learned by those people in your training courses.

The metrics around informal learning are unfortunately less obvious. People's experience and time spent in informal learning is more streamlined and hidden in their day. They need a great deal of reflection to notice what they are learning, and rarely have a forum to report on it. In most workplaces, which are go, go, go, reflective practice is sporadic (which is why we build so much of it into our meetings and workshops), and there really is no place for people to capture and document their learning (which is why we started this blog in the first place - for ourselves, to do this.)

Which means that when it comes time for budget discussions, in a time of global financial crisis, it is possible, that the work of a team that does informal learning may not so obvious.

Recently, in Chief Learning Officer's online magazine (a terrific e-zine by the way), Jay Cross, author of the book Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance, wrote a provocative article called "Get Out of the Training Business". In this article Jay reinforces his premise that informal learning is the learning mode of the future, and training is based on the workplace format of the past. We have indeed taken this to heart over the last few years of our work in our institution. Informal learning, I am convinced, is the right paradigm for the learning organization of the future. However, it will also take a paradigm shift to help decision-makers from all our institutions see its value. And one work area for informal learning practitioners continues to be creating the metrics that make it visible and valued, so that even if the work is done by stealth, the impacts and the activities that inspired them are completely obvious to everyone. In this time of financial crisis, making these causal links (loudly) is particulary important; they might not be as obvious to others as they are to you.