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.