Friday, December 31, 2010

Creating Temporary Learnscapes: Can Visual Interest Help Us Learn?

I think all of us would instinctively answer this question with a "Yes", but how often do we actually take steps to create an interesting visual "learnscape" around us, particularly in our temporary learning venues.

At least 99% of the time, the spaces that we use for our workshops, whether for strategic planning, team development, training or other, are square rooms with white or beige walls. All the chairs are the same. The tables might be rectangular, square or round, and probably all the same. The windows are uniform, the walls are blank. The latter is often a good thing, particularly if you want to hang up flipcharts and the products of your work. At the end of the workshop the walls may be covered and the "journey" of the workshop evident for all to see.

But what about the first morning, when people first walk in? What do they see and how does it set them up for the exciting, creative and productive experience that you will help them co-create with your terrific interactive agenda and fast paced repartee?

It is interesting to notice when workshop or conference organizers do take the external environment and the challenge to create visual interest into consideration. I think that conference organizers perhaps try a little harder as they assume that the participant experience is more passive, so they add a plant or a sofa. Actually, TED Conferences are really brilliant at this, the stages that you see in the videos, or as a participant from the floor are intricate, rich and interesting.  Watch a minute of this Tim Jackson TED video for an example of the eclectic mix of background articles they use. Or take a look at the photo I took of a panel discussion at the TEDGlobal Conference I attended last summer. The TEDXChange Geneva event that Lizzie organized also featured a whole task list on procuring props for the stage, shipped in from Zurich, to make the background for the speakers and the conversations look interesting, including a vintage coke machine, a wagon wheel and more (see photo here), which all tied in some way with the talks being given.

When you can't truck in props, you can still create visual interest in other ways. The recent Membership Meeting of a standard setting textile product group that I facilitated featured a sample from their first harvest on each table - there to admire, feel and connect people with their process. In the room as people entered were also maps of their strategic regions, with photos of the value chain stakeholders, and posters created to show the value chain. We used these for one of the first exercises, and put them up before we started for the visuals and to get people in the theme of the meeting from the onset.

It you want to leave the walls free, what about the ceiling? I was mesmerised by the big room at the Hub in Brussels, where we had a recent LEAD Europe (Leadership for Environment and Development) training course gathering, where a local artist had hung a cardboard sculpture. How visually stimulating it would be to have a workshop in that space! I remember during past IUCN Commission on Education and Communication workshops, there would be bouquets of fresh flowers, and bowl of bright fruit and chocolate on all the tables. I remember a facilitator from Disney telling me that at some of their planning workshops, each participant would have their own placemat and setting with drawing paper, coloured markers, playdough, lego or other small items to "play with" while the meeting was going on. What can you bring in that will be different and interesting to look at/interact with during your learning exercise?

Creating stimulating visual environments for learning, even in our temporary workshops spaces, can enhance creativity and spark ideas and engagement. It can signal that something different is coming, something that will connect people will both their left and right brains. You can do this by moving people around, by using different rooms, by going inside and outside, and also by looking differently at your main workshop room and setting and thinking more about how you can make it visually stimulating. Even you are a canvas - people will look at you, the facilitator, trainer or organizer for HOURS, what colours are you wearing???

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mirror Mirror: End of Year Reflection Perfect Opportunity for Individual (or Better Yet Peer) Learning

It's the end of another year, and whether a leg cast, or just office closings give you some extra time to think, it is undeniably a great opportunity to go back over your year and see what worked in 2010, and what you would like to do more of, or differently, in 2011. When are you having that conversation with yourself?

The last 2 years have seen major changes for many knowledge workers in terms of work mode and even flow in some cases. Knock-on effects from financial contractions in most organizations have brought changes in staff composition, mandates, activity budgets, work modalities (from decentralisation of team members to outsourcing workstreams entirely), and more. With all of this movement and activity, now in its second year, how is it going? And what are we learning?

I can explore that question for myself, as I sit in my office with my coffee.  I have also been interested in a different, more collective, approach that some other professionals are taking to answer that question for themselves.

I recently received an email invitation from another working facilitator/trainer in my area asking me to have a coffee and discussion with her around some informal research she is doing to better understand organizational motivations in this new financial climate. She sent me a nice, short email giving me some information about her work, what she was learning about her offer (which has some similarities to mine) and her hypothesis about what is changing in organizations around learning and training (and what that means for her offer). She set up an interesting debate!

She asked if I would be happy to explore this with her, and then told me why she wanted to speak to me about that (she knew or renewed her understanding of my background and personalised her request.) Finally she said she would write up her findings from this series of interviews and share it with everyone who contributed.

This collaborative approach to reflection and learning appeals to me, and I also think it is very clever, for a number of reasons. First, just in her email she told me more about what she is doing and wants to do. I do know this fellow facilitator, but it has been quite a while since I have spoken to her substantively about her work, and I wouldn't have known that she is shifting her focus, expanding her offer, and how she wants to engage with organizations. And now I do. She also gave me all of her new contact information in this message. As an independent worker, I frequently have requests that I cannot fill (for content or availability reasons); she is much more on my radar screen now, even if I don't or am not able meet her (although I probably will because I enjoy her company and also for the next few reasons). After the meeting, this will be even more true, for both of us actually.

Second, her line of questioning and framing intrigued me. These are also questions that I have. I may or many not entirely agree with her hypothesis, and by giving me questions she wants to explore, rather than just topic headings to discuss, she is already getting me thinking, and more eager to engage in this discussion with her. By using this approach I see that we will be doing some peer learning here, not just a straight brain picking, as she shares her own ideas about what is happening in the kinds of organizations with which we are working. Again interesting for independent workers who don't always have the opportunity to do this.

Finally, she intends to give something synthetic back, to report on her learning across these conversations, and to help me answer some of my shared questions through her informal research. I might even be able to blog about it, so multiple benefits (sharing it with all of you!) Of course, she will really have to do this final step of the process as promised, and I assume that she will and look forward to her results (especially if I have been able to contribute to them too). Overall it sounds like a useful learning project that I would like to do, but probably won't, and I am happy that she will do it and share her findings.

I hear from a number of independent workers that their traditional stomping grounds are shifting with the changing times, with new financial parameters in institutions, with new technology sources of information and expertise (and marketing), with new types of constellations of internal and external workers. It is an interesting time to reflect on what you are doing, how you are doing it, and how it is working. And either you can do that yourself or you can find a way to do that with others. Either way, ....... (add in tag line from international sports shoe company here - sorry, couldn't resist.)  Happy Learning!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Big Slow Down: Facilitation Design Considerations When Partially Abled

Last week in an insanely busy airport of holiday travellers, an extremely tight connection found me jumping up and down, wildly waving at the large window beside the closed gate trying to get the pilots' attention - I could see them in the cockpit fiddling with their papers, the plane on the tarmac, the gate still connected, so I thought no hurt in trying.

I was getting nowhere when a passing security guard with some holiday spirit took pity on me and called down; they miraculously opened the door and I flew down that ramp - focused on that little open plane door at the bottom, the two anxious flight attendants holding it open, and not the big seam in the ramp floor in front of me.  My magnificent trip over that seam produced a lateral movement that only ninjas and some desert snakes can make safely, not being either of those I managed to tear the anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee.

Now in a leg cast for 6 weeks, I can walk but that snake and most people would leave me in the dust. And I am thinking about what I need to do to modify my facilitation work to take into consideration the fact that I am incredibly slow and only partially able. I cannot run up and down steps, or from room to room, in 2-minute intervals.   And I cannot be carrying around 50 kilos of workshop materials, can't bring that extra flip chart, or move the tables and chairs in the rooms from a U-shape to cabaret style in the 30 minutes before we start (because we asked but for some reason the venue didn't do it). Even getting back and forth to events must obligatorily be done on public transport or with the private chauffeur, also known as a full-time working husband.

My first event in the New Year is mid-January and we are working on the interactivity and activity design now. We will have around 400 people in Paris at a planning event for an international water forum happening next year. What do I need to do differently now, so that when I get there, cast and all, I will still be able to do a great job? This is a good thought experiment in its own right - this might be a temporary condition for me (hopefully!) but for others it might be status quo, both for facilitators and potentially for some of the participants.

Here is a list of what I think I need to know and do to facilitate with my leg in a cast (and probably should know anyways!):

Transport: Slow and Virtually Hands Free
  • Can I get there by public transport? How long will that take? What changes do I need to make (train to tram to bus)? Where are there steps or lifts or long walks? I am usually in the venue at least 60-90 minutes in advance for set up, can I get there in time? Can the day start a little later, and go later - what is the flexibility with the start and stop time if needed?
  • If I need to be driven, can we park close enough so that I can carry the materials to the venue? Can I offer someone else from the team a lift to help carry?
Venue: Steps and Who Can Help
  • Occasionally I look at the floor plan for the venue if it is large (and available) but normally I don't. Now I would like to know - how far is the room from the entrance, how far apart are the breakout rooms, how far is coffee and lunch from the workspace?
  • If I am working in a plenary auditorium space, is there a stage area with steps? Can I either start and stop up there, or can I do all the talking from the floor (better)? Is there a wireless mike I can use?
  • I won't be able to fix or move things myself, or run for more this or that. Who is in charge in the partner organization just in case, do I have her/his mobile phone number? Who is in charge for the venue, do I have that contact information? 
Agenda: A Little More Leisurely Than Usual
  • Is the agenda perhaps a little too tight, are breaks and transitions short? Can the pacing in the design be a little slower and less choppy in terms of rooms changes - more gastropod and less hummingbird? (This reminded me of one of my own blog posts recently about not overdoing interaction: Too Much of a Good Thing.)
  • Where do I need to be when? Can I minimize my own running around by putting other people in charge of certain rooms and spaces? (For the mid-January event, I will be working with 4 other Facilitators, can I assign them the furthest rooms? Are they happy with these extra "fitness" benefits?) 
Workshop Rooms: Where Can I Sit? 
  • How is the room set up? Do I need to reserve a seat in the auditorium for myself at the front by the microphone so I don't have to walk up and down the steps to speak?
  • In the workshop rooms, can single chairs be put here and there to sit on while I am not facilitating? This is a funny one, I noticed at a recent workshop there were exactly enough chairs for the participants and not one extra, so I spent the whole day standing (until the participants were standing -then I was sitting in their seats!) Make sure to have more than one extra chair around the walls, as late comers (both at the start, but also after each break and lunch) will always take the single chairs in the back/side rather than moving people to sit in the middle.  

Communicate: Tell People
  • I need to tell people, especially the other facilitators asap about the fact that I will be wandering around, slowly, in a full leg cast. They will have good ideas how to be as efficient as possible with a partially able team member.
  • Communicating about how it is going during the event will also help people understand why I might opt out of the group dinner, dragging a leg and cast up and down the steps all day will probably be incredibly tiring.
  •  At the same time I need to be as self-sufficient as possible, believe me I will be wearing something with as many pockets as possible, stuffed with pens, markers, etc. things I normally have to continually walk around to find when I need them!
I'm sure in the end it will be fine. And this situation will give me the opportunity to think even more creatively about many aspects of my event. It will get me to put in the advance preparation time that is needed, the thinking through of choreography, materials, and movement, now even more crucial than ever. And it will certainly give "team" an additional dimension.  It is good to be mindful of these things anyways, and will be a good real life reminder of what it's like to work with and pay attention to mobility and other very human conditions in a workshop setting.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Holidays from Bright Green Learning!!

We wish everyone a wonderful holiday season!!

I can say "we" officially now, as Lizzie (my co-blogger here since 2006, and former IUCN team member) has joined Bright Green Learning and will start on 1 January. She will bring her innovative learning and facilitation abilities, incredible creativity, and no doubt her "Maximiser" skills to our work. Welcome Lizzie!!!

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Too Much of a Good Thing?

I ran a workshop yesterday - an interactive membership learning exercise for a group of 40 international network members - which gave me a moment to reflect on dynamics and the value of diversity of, well, practically everything.

In my workshops I like to keep things moving, to get people out of their seats to work, use different parts of the room, etc. and when one participant asked me if, for the next exercise, we were going to "stand up again", it made me smile - had I over done it on the moving around?

Generally, due to an Appreciative Inquiry approach I tend not to look at what not to do, and at the same time this little list seemed useful (and could easily be turned around to a "what to do" list):

  • Don't sit down too much;
  • Don't stand up too much;
  • Don't have too many interactive activities (people like to sit and reflect on their own too, or listen to a presentation from time to time);
  • Don't write on flipchart templates too much (vary with cards, post-its, handouts, electronic templates);
  • Don't stay in the same room too long, even if it is an excellent one (use a breakout room, the lobby, or send people outside for a walk);
  • Don't have people sit in the same seat all day (or look at the same part of the wall) even if it means you might need to rethink about people's names;
  • Don't always ring a bell to signal the end of something (change with voice, clap, or other);
  • Don't use the same colours or always draw very straight lines on your visuals (can you use circles or wavy lines too?);
I could go on - what else would you add when you want to remind yourself to vary things, even when what you are doing seems like a "good thing"?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Time to Reflect: Cooking Up Your GTD Weekly Review

As many of my friends and acquaintances know I am a big fan of Getting Things Done (see the blog's GTD tag on this, and also the tag on Productivity). One of the GTD tenets is the "Weekly Review" and there are some great resources for this - from the GTD Times article The GTD Weekly Review to videos of David Allen on YouTube talking you through it in 2 minutes.

I was always rather apprehensive about starting the Weekly Review because it seemed like a potentially never ending task and completely absorbing. What has helped considerably, psychologically getting over that barrier to starting, is using one of two incredibly simple and rather obvious things - one, an Online Alarm Clock that you can set for 30 minutes (or however long you want to invest) and which goes off sounding like a bullfrog impersonating a police siren.

The other is using the Pomodoro Technique (a simple technique that involves a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato and 25 minutes chunks of your life). This helps you cut up the task into bitesize pieces, gives you a break in between and helps you plan exactly how much time you want to devote. You will get over the loud ticking (or find a cozy home for it under a chair in a far corner of the room).

Now I set my online clock, or wind up my tomato and get reviewing.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gaming an Interview: Using Interviews to Explore Teammember and Teamwork Potential

I just had a suggestion come in to help make job interviews more informative, and therefore increase the potential of finding a match between the candidate, the position, and team within which it sits. How do you learn enough about someone (and help them learn enough about you) to make this important match successful?

Traditional interviews often start with "Tell us a little about yourself" and end with asking the candidate a series of standard questions that have been developed to give some insights on how people will approach the task being advertised. The sampling of information about the interpersonal elements comes during a 30-60 minute timeframe, during which everyone on both sides (supply and demand) are in an entirely artificial and often rather awkward situation. If you wanted more information, and a different kind of information, why not play a game?

What an interesting interview, from the candidate's perspective, if you were asked to play a problem-solving game with the whole team - it could explore notions of team development, communication, trust, leadership or any other number of important team elements. It could also feature some good debriefing questions (What metaphor does this exercise bring to mind? When have you seen these dynamics/behaviours before? What did you do? etc.) which would help people share a bit more (all around) and with a great deal of nuance about their paradigm of team work and their approach to work more generally.

If you were hiring a trainer or facilitator, you could even ask them to bring in the game and run it for you (we did this at LEAD when we were hiring the next Director of Capacity Development). We actually looked forward to the interviews and could see people in a familiar and comfortable role (than sitting in a chair on the other side of a long table!)

An added benefit for the recruiting team is that it is more fun to play a game than simply sitting in interviews all day and asking the same questions (change the game each time to keep them on their toes), and it provides a team development opportunity that is valuable whatever the outcome of the interview.

Thanks, Andy, for the idea!

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Meetings Too Long and Too Wordy? Try a Twitter Meeting

I hear over and over again that meetings go way too long (and certainly have been in more than a few of these myself). People are not always to the point (if they get to the point), and the actionable items are often embedded in lots of description and anecdote. Loose narrative is not necessarily a bad thing, and at the same time, when an institution has a meeting culture where everything happens in meetings, it is refreshing when they are planned, concise, decisive, and over.

Would it be possible to practice being concise by having a meeting on Twitter?

Here is how it might happen. You could have the first meeting in the same room, with everyone there with their laptops or smart phones. You would have to get everyone on Twitter (in most institutions, only a minority are - and still people are incredibly curious). Help them sign in, set up and connect. Then do a little practice chatting so people get the mechanics. Then start your meeting - try to conduct at least the first item completely on Twitter.

Imagine a silent room with 10 people in it all staring at their computers or phones - frankly, lots of meetings with one person talking are still like this (except people on their laptops and phones are not paying attention to the speaker - see my blog post on Email During Workshops: Bad Manners or Proof of a New Paradigm). At least this time, the other 9 people are all typing and commenting as the person sends through their very concise report, idea, or question. Every agenda item would have everyone's multiple inputs - thoughts, comments and questions. Stop at some point and debrief it, how is it going? It is interactive? Are people getting used to saying things that are short and pithy?

The next practice might be the same group in their offices. Set a time for the Twitter meeting and have everyone start engaging on Twitter from wherever they are. Imagine in this format, some of the people might be at home, on the train, or having a coffee at the cafeteria. Again see what that is like in terms of helping people be concise, and in the next face-to-face meeting reflect on that. How easy is it to get to the point? How much preparation does it take to have a short meeting? (I think it always takes more - how many people do not prepare at all for meetings, and do their thinking on their feet? Is this why meetings can take so long?) With the Twitter meeting, how easy is it to interact and engage in the discussion? And what's it like to have the minutes of the meeting at your fingertips immediately as the meeting is going on?

Full disclosure, I have not yet tried this myself although I love the idea. It sounds like an excellent way to help people notice the value of being concise in meetings and to help them practice that. Even in a formal learning situation it might be an interesting exercise in using social media, reflective practice, summarising, reporting, and two-way communication. If you try this, let me know!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Swimming in the Sea of Learning Resources

I am currently working with a team focusing on biodiversity conservation and assessment to "makeover" an existing training curriculum into one even more interactive and learner-focused. As a part of this process I offered to put together a selected list of resources, from the raft of those available, that are particularly useful to me in this kind of work.

As trainers, capacity developers, learning practitioners, and facilitators we have before us a veritable sea of interesting tools, techniques, and even toys that have been developed to help make our events successful and enjoyable (yes, we have discovered a learning space where we can have fun and learn at the same time!)

Because this sea is vast, we each have our own parts that we prefer. And our selection of what we bring with us may be different every time - we might dip in and out, or we might dive deep into one area or another. It's always varied, to keep both us and our co-learners fully immersed and engaged. What follows are some of the places I go to find inspiration (many I have written about on this blog and in these cases I will link up the posts or the tag).

Of course I always approach an event from the point of view of its learning objectives. Once those are clear, how you achieve these is an exercise in building an agenda or process that will, as much as possible, bring people out of their everyday discussions into a vibrant learning zone. Try...

I use "games" frequently in my learning work, whether they are quizzes (see: Want to Learn More: Take this Quiz), experiential learning processes (see: An Appetite for Experiential Learning), or introduction games (see: An Amazing Group of People), or others. I find they help tap into the natural curiosity of learners and participants. I have written quite a bit about using games (see the tag: Games), and I frequently use the Thiagi Gamesite for ideas and for ready to use games, as well as Thiagi's books, such as this one on interactive lectures, for when you can't avoid a presentation. I adapt games, create new ones (see: Make a Game Out of Any Workshop Topic: The dryer the better), and get ideas from other trainer's games. Brian Remer and The Firefly Group have a nice website and Games newsletter called the Firefly News Flash, for example. I also use the games of Dennis Meadows, such as Fishbanks and Strategem in my work, as well as the Systems Thinking Playbook (NB: We are writing a new Systems Thinking Playbook on Climate Change right now that should be published by GTZ in the next months.)

Discussion and Co-creation Techniques
There are so many wonderful tried and tested techniques and processes available now with which people are getting more and more comfortable (facilitators and participants). I'll list a few of these here along with some of the blog posts we've written about our learning using them. What is also intriguing, once you get really familiar with them, is to mash them up! This helps them be even more suited to the particular needs and interests of your group. Among these is Open Space Technology, developed by Harrison Owen which has a whole community (OpenSpaceWorld) of connected users (see: Opening Space for Conversation (and Eating Croissants)). We have enjoyed learning about and using World Cafes (see: Our World Cafe: Kitchen Table Conversations for Change), and this methodology has also gone global with a useful website (TheWorldCafe) full of its own tips and resources. We have built numerous Conversation Cafes - into our sessions (instead of holding them in cafes). These are slightly different than World Cafes - they are hosted and build conversations without people moving tables.

Specialisations to Add
To a good interactive learning base, you can add some special features to your event (warning: with too many it starts to become full sensory overload). The selection also depends of course on your goals and objectives. What about Storytelling (see: My Point? To Be a "Story" there Must be a Point)- story circles, featuring cases as stories, etc. Anecdote from Australia has a wonderful website showing how you can "put stories to work" and a good newsletter by the same name. Check out their learning White Papers for interesting applications and how to's. We also have a tag on Storytelling on this blog.

Improv Comedy and Theatre
I love the idea of adding Improv comedy or Theatre activities, especially if you are working in leadership, presentation, conflict resolution, teambuilding or just to spice things up and get the group thinking more creatively. I have been to a couple of Improv Theatre application workshops and have experimented with adding this to events (try to go further than role play.) (see: People Buy Adjectives). John Cremer gave an excellent workshop at last year's European IAF Conference on using Improv and his website gives more ideas about how to use it for creative thinking and presentation skills learning. If participants need to give presentations as a part of their learning event, why not start with a little interesting improv training on this?

Visual Facilitation
There is a great deal of nuance here around graphic facilitation, visualisation, graphic recording etc. which I lump together as "visual facilitation". The bottom line is that real-time visuals are created to capture the discussion and activity threads of your event. (see: Making Memories: Improving Your Impact Through Visualisation, Slam Poetry and More). We have worked with a Danish-based group called Bigger Picture, who are members of a larger, global Visual Thinking community called VizThink. We have contributed to visual murals at Society for Organizational Learning Conferences, worked with cartoonists at several IUCN events, all with great results, tapping into visual learners, and giving an extra dimension to our work. Visual facilitation works best when time is given in the session to have participants co-creating, developing personalised icons and talking through what is being visualised.

Systems Thinking
This is one of my personal passions - using systems thinking tools for learning. We have experimented a great deal in applying an approach that might initially appear to be too complicated to introduce in a short workshop. It does have a specialised vocabulary, a number of graphic tools and a set of conventions. We have a tag on this blog devoted to using systems thinking (see: Systems Thinking) which features posts on using it for strategic planning (see: Building Capacity in Systems Thinking: Want More Amplification? Don't Call it Training), and exploring ways to help learners pick it up and use it in experiential ways (see: Working With Systems Archetypes in Learning Contexts). Systems thinker Linda Booth Sweeney has an interesting site devoted to systems thinking learning and storytelling, and has developed a useful systems thinking resources room.

And So Much More
You can actually find inspiration all around you for making your learning events more meaningful, more engaging, more powerful. Look everywhere (see: When I Was a Game.) Why not do your reporting back after group work borrowing from the current trend in micro-lit? (see: Micro-Lit: Too Wordy, Try it Again or the longer Trendspotting: Micro-Lit and Other Applications) or have all your presentations time in at 6 minutes and 40 seconds because they are given as Pecha Kuchas (see: Taking the Long Elevator - 13 Tips for Great Pecha Kuchas). This great technique helps speakers get to the point by putting all of their inputs into 20 slides, auto-timed at 20 seconds each. Presentations in general can have a myriad of formats - even PPT can be replaced by Prezi (see: Preparing a Presentation? Read this Praise for Prezi) or any other number of innovations (see: The End of Boring: Borrowing, Adapting and Mashing for Facilitators).

Send your working groups on a walk, use the cafeteria or hallway for a session, make cool job aids (get inspired for your handouts by David Seah's Printable CEO series.) Pull one of your main presentations up into a webinar (see: Look Behind You! The Webinar Facilitator's Non-technical Checklist), or instead of a live speaker, find an excellent TED Talk video which presents the content in an engaging 15 minutes (see: On My Way to TEDGlobal).

Through this process you will "Learn how to speak agenda" and will be able to both design for interest and impact, and also to write up your agenda like it was a menu at a restaurant. Think of yourself as a diner, if you got this menu (agenda), would you want to eat at this restaurant (or attend this workshop?)

And Finally (although I think this beach is endless)...
A recent book by the World Bank called The Black Box of Governmental Learning, which I am reading right now (download it for free from their website), starts with an interesting history citing the progression of learning in this domain  -governmental- although I find it widely applicable from my experience. It talks about the change from expert-driven learning which is lecture-based with limited interactivity, to the newly evolving paradigm of learning with each other. The tools and techniques that I list above can help makeover a learning event from a one-way teaching model, to one where everyone jumps into the topic together.

Such a long list might seem indeed for a trainer or facilitator like jumping in at the deep end yourself, and yet you can wade slowly into this sea of interesting learning tools and techniques, until you find your own favorite place(s). Good luck! Fellow trainers and facilitators, please add your favorites in the Comments section below!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

TEDxChange: Lessons from and for The Future We Make

Where do we stand in the work to save and improve lives around the world? What changes have taken place in the last decade? What does the future hold? Listening out for some learning for the future, here are some highlights I took from TEDxGeneva’s TEDxChange event: The Future We Make.

1. Learn to save lives. Learn from a local innovator, a barefoot entrepreneur, a world leading corporate giant. Learn across sectors and scales. Look, listen and learn closely. "Success is relevant because if we analyse it we can learn from it and then we can save lives." (Melinda Gates)

2. Bye bye linear, hello loops. Take time to understand the system you’re operating in. Create feedback loops to achieve your goals, leveraging energy from throughout the system so it’s not all on you. (Gillian Martin Mehers)

3. Be one step ahead: Diagnosis pays. Never mind the naysayers. Invest in investigation. Don’t stop at symptoms. Diagnose your enemy. Minimize medication (scale up tests and the need for antimalarials drops – see Senegal). Resist fuelling resistance. Eliminate malaria. (Rob Newman).

4. Warmly welcome the wonderful world of statistics. Let data be your guide. And keep it modern, refreshing concepts as you go along. (Can we really still call a country - Singapore - with one of the lowest child mortality rates in the world “developing”?) (Hans Rosling)

5. Bowl in the light. Demand real time data. Turn the lights on. You need to see the skittles and know the score so you can decide on your ball, approach and spin. (And you need to know whether you’re hitting the skittles in your intended lane or next door!) (Melinda Gates)

6. Make a smart entry. You’ll make little progress reducing the strain on natural resources with family planning until you’ve figured out infant mortality. Suss out the system first. Identify the obstacles to change. (Patrick Keenan).

7. Change with children. Children are the Revolutionary Optimists of Calcutta slums. They are the educators and group leaders. “It is our duty – our little brothers and sisters,” they say as they champion and double Polio immunisations, carrying fellow children to clinics. (The Revolutionary Optimists)

8. With women and girls too. Look at Malawi. “Women and girls will lead social transformation.” (Graça Machel)

9. Up the ubiquity. Take a master class from the ubiquitous. Learn to get everywhere from Coca Cola (who serves the equivalent of every man, woman and child on the planet a glass of coke a week) and Thai condoms. (Mechai Viravaidya)

10. Parle local. Be aspirational to beckon new behaviours; avoid avoidance messages. Even if people need something, you still need to make them want it. Take toilets in India, for example, and match them to courtship. Remember, “No loo, no ‘I do’”. (Melinda Gates)

11. Promote promise. Polio. 99% reduction in 20 years. We’ve come so far. How amazing would it be to eradicate this disease?! We can overcome Polio and make it the 2nd disease ever to be wiped off the face of the planet. (ibid)

12. “Aid-u-tain”. Play snakes and ladders (“Auntie takes her pill in the morning when she wakes up. Very good. Up the ladder you go.”) And let the Olympics save some lives (“why just run around?”). (Mechai Viravaidya)

13. Involve everyone. Empower the people - from policeman plod and cabbies to vendors in local corner and coffee shops. “Would you like a condom with your cappuccino?” (ibid)

14. Ever-re-design you. One designer candidly speaks of his purposeful and personal trajectory to maximize impact, ever re-designing his design career. What are you doing to maximize your impact? Reflect on re-designing your career to leverage more change in the system. (Patrick Keenan)

15. Encourage for the cause with networks. Change making needn’t be lonely. From the power of one to the power of many: network your knowledge and scale up confidence, assurance, courage, commitment and even career change. (Cheryl Hicks)

16. Converse. Conversations matter. Talk about action, however small. “We’ve got the future in our hands, lets build it in our minds.” (Bajah and The Dry Eye Crew).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Working with Systems Archetypes in Learning Contexts

Systems Thinking Learning: Stand Alone or Integrated?

This year I have been working with LEAD Europe (Leadership for Environment and Development) to integrate systems thinking effectively into the leadership curriculum. Last year, I contributed a stand alone module to the LEAD Training (Using Systems Thinking: How to Go from 140 PowerPoint Slides to 2), and think that this year's more integrated and incremental approach is much more effective, not least because with case-based training you have real content to use as examples and group work.

This year, in the first of the two LEAD Europe week-long training sessions, I introduced the overall concept of systems thinking, and two diagramming tools - Behaviour Over Time Graphs (or Reference Mode Diagrams), and Causal Loop Diagrams (or Feedback Loops). And we used lots of systems games to illustrate the points, I even created a new one called the Flash Mob Game.

The second LEAD Europe session just finished in Brussels earlier this month, and during that week the systems learning focused on Systems Archetypes. This is the first time I have gotten that far with systems thinking learning with a group, usually I only have time to get through the diagramming tools, so it was learning for me too!

10 Systems Archetypes and Where to Learn More

There are some very good resources about systems archetypes. I really like this paper by William Braun titled, The Systems Archetypes,  and the online resource Archetypes: Interaction Structures of the Universe by Gene Bellinger to list two.  These ended up being good references for the work that groups would be doing on this topic.

I could not imagine anything harder to understand and do something with, than me standing up for 1 hours and giving a lecture about the most common systems archetypes. According to Braun and Bellinger they include (sometimes the names differ slightly):

1. Limits to Growth (Limits to Success)
2. Shifting the Burden
3. Drifting or Eroding Goals
4. Success to the Successful
5. Escalation
6. Fixes that Fail
7. Growth and Underinvestment
8. Tragedy of the Commons
9. Accidental Adversaries
10. Attractiveness Principle

These names are intriguing, seem simple enough, although not completely self-explanatory. Still, using an hour of time to go through them, their generic structures, examples, and the insights thay they give sounded too passive and abstract to be useful to the learners.

Using Peer Learning, Even for Complex Issues

Over the time I had worked with this interesting cross-sectoral group of LEAD Associates, I had seen them to be real self-starters, and still maintaining a helpful stance towards one another. We had worked hard to create a collaborative co-learning space in this programme (rather than a competitive environment). So instead of "teaching" on this issue, I decided to support them as they made these archetypes meaningful for themselves. I started by giving a brief high level overview (e.g. what are they and why they can be helpful). To reinforce the message about paradigms, mental models and habits -which may hinder you from seeing the systems around you - I used 3 short systems thinking, experiential learning games (Colour/Flower/Furniture: See post How Deep Are Your Neural Pathways?), Pens, and Arms Crossed (watch Dennis Meadows run this game in the video Change is Difficult.

Then I put people in six randomly assigned (e.g. pick a card) groups, gave them some background resources, a flipchart template to fill in (see above photo), and had them pick a slip of paper with one of 6 of the archetypes written on it out of a hat. The groups were then given 45 minutes to create their own description of the archetype, give some examples of where they have seen these patterns in real life (including the context of the full-day simulation that we would be conducting on Day 4 of the training), give some insights about what one can do when you spot this particular pattern or archetype, and finally draw a Causal Loop Diagram that illustrates the concept. Each group then picked the name of an archetype out of my hat and that was their archetype for this exercise. They went outside and went to work.

What ensued was really peer learning and team learning: They used the handout resources, explored understanding, corrected any language or comprehension mis-matches, and told stories as examples from their own experience as well as from the case study of this module (the EU carbon emission targets) which was also the basis for the simulation.

When they returned to the plenary, they presented their archetypes and then answered questions/comments from the group, their peers.

When we started, no one had any experience with systems archetypes. However, by the end of this session (2.5 hours) they had a very deep understanding of one (and how it worked, and where it could be useful), and a good understanding of the others, as they listened and talked to their different peers presenting the explanations. For them, I am convinced that this was much better than sitting in chairs and listening to me talk and show them slides of 10 of the most common archetypes. In this scenario, they would not have had the practice identifying and using them.

Using Systems Archetypes

When I designed this session - self-taught systems archetypes - I wondered if it would work. I was pleased that it worked so well - the examples were excellent, the whole thing was personalized, and I could simply intervene to add stories or correct things, as needed. I had time to help groups that might have been stuck, and question them in ways that would get them to think about the issues at a different level.

To reinforce this learning later in the week, I offered a prize for anyone who used or referred to a systems archetype within the context of the simulation. Interestingly, I found many examples of how systems and the archetypes were being used. As a reminder of our archetypes, we kept all the flipchart explanations/diagrams in the room for the rest of the week.

I could have made up a job aid that described in that way all the archetypes, and simply presented it. But this way, the self-taught approach - with participants making their own set of personalized “job aids” for future use – turned out to be an extremely effective way to transfer messages and learning about systems archetypes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

TEDx Change Geneva: The Future We Make

I was very honoured tonight to be able to speak after Melinda French Gates, Graca Machel, Hans Rosling, and Mechai Viravaidya at the TEDxChange event, hosted by the Gates Foundation. Well, this is technically true, although I was speaking on the TEDxGeneva local stage, which followed directly after the simulcast of the New York event.

Lizzie, representing tonight the Hub in Geneva, curated the event brilliantly. It started with the simulcast, a break and then four local speakers including Dr Robert Newman, a pediatrician at World Health Organization and Director of the Global Malaria Programme, Cheryl Hicks an independent business advisor in Geneva who spoke about the power of networks using CSR Geneva as an example, Patrick Keenan - one of the co-founders of the Movement, and me

I spoke about the power of systems thinking to help social change agents be even more powerful. How can we use the systems around us, close up feedback loops, and get systems to "do our work for us"? During my short talk (10 minutes!) I adapted a demonstration game called Living Loops, from the Systems Thinking Playbook. I used the game to demonstrate the difference between relationships that are linear and take an enormous amount of effort to change, and between systems that have feedback loops that are self-sustaining and can help you reach your goals.

The game helped me tell the story of my brother-in-law, who is working in Mutale in the Northeast of South Africa, and his community's efforts to start, among other things, a tomato growing business for income generation. When childcare issues threaten to challenge the sufficient engagement of the local labour force to make the business work (many families are run by a single head of household due to absentee parents working in the nearby mines), connecting the profits of the tomato business with creche management and maintenance helps to make this initiative self-sustaining - it satisfies the community's desire for income and parent's desire for secure and quality childcare while they work. We played the game demo using a tomato picked from my garden instead of a ball.

After hours of preparation, it's over now - whew! I enjoyed speaking at the TEDx event, although the quality of all the TEDTalks are so high, that it was extremely nerve wracking to prepare for and then to walk on that stage in front of 100+ people at the University centre in Geneva. We had one of 82 of the parallel TEDxChange events globally, all focused on the 10th anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals and The Future We Make. Big topic, big event, big night - just coming down off of my endorphin rush, and happy I did it!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Knowledge at a Distance: Skype Video - It Works!

We were very sad a few weeks ago when Joan Davis, one of our speakers, and a Switzerland-based founding member of the Balaton Group, let us know that she was not able to attend. She was to be an important part of our programme, focusing on organic agriculture, and scheduled for Day 3 of our annual Balaton Group Meeting on "Food Futures".

We are a group that focuses on sustainability, and very sensitive to travel and carbon emissions, so virtual contributions would be acceptable from a philosophical point of view. However, everything we have tried in the past to have virtual participation at our meetings has not really worked for many reasons. We thought we would try again this time, our of sheer necessity - and as I watch Joan on the big screen through skype video, we can see that it really works!

The quality of the connection, video and sound is excellent. We are just using a regular laptop with an integrated video, connected to a PPT projector, and a speaker connection (used for showing videos). The wifi is strong in this meeting room. So this is a good start - the technical support is great. However this is only part of our expectations.  One of our group's values is that speakers stay with us throughout the meeting. This means that they get to know the group and can connect with our conversations and help us move ahead in our thinking through their inputs and contribute substantively to generative dialogue. Too often speakers parachute in and give their usual talk and leave, especially easy for a web-based part of a programme, giving the feeling of disconnect and potentially taking a group off in another direction. Here are a few things that we did to get this depth of connection with a virtual speaker:
  • Skype connection previously in the meeting week: Joan has been monitoring the presentations and discussion all week, so she is able to make comments on the previous speakers points in her skype presentations.
  • Know the participants: She knows the participant group and can mention names of participants and their relevent backgrounds, and can mention them as people that the group can speak to for further engagement around some of her points.
  • Support the two-way conversation: As you can see in the photo above, the laptop on the desk of our Chair Kevin Noone is facing the group, so Joan can also see us. Conversely, seeing this small image of ourselves in the upper right hand of the screen helps us be aware of the 2-way nature of this conversation. The Chair is also actively moderating, repeating questions if the microphone doesn't pick them up, etc.
This was an excellent experience for the group, which has strong traditions and values around speakers contributions and social interaction during their events. However, in a time when travel restrictions (whether self-imposed or infrastructure/nature-imposed) and other things like health and finances increasingly keeping people home, this doesn't need to impede good quality knowledge exchange and dialogue that creates new ideas, new meaning and new initiatives. We believed this in theory, and now know this from experience.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Live from the Balaton Group Meeting in Iceland

We started our annual Balaton Group Meeting this morning (held this year in spectacular Selfoss, Iceland). Our topic this year is "Food Futures" and we have already heard several speakers on the topic, including Karan Khosla (Earthsafe in India) who presented a systems model aimed at conceptualising the issues. John Ingram from the Environmental Change Institute (Oxford) shared with us some shocking facts like 15-50% of all food that is grown is lost between the field and the plate. With him we explored the suggestion that alleviating food security by reducing food waste is much cheaper and more environmentally sustainable than just increasing food production. Other Balaton Group Members wondered what reducing waste would do to the GDP (the growth of which might depend somehow on this waste) - an efficiency and resilience discussion will follow in our afternoon Open Space workshops.

We also had 2 brave Pecha Kuchists on the topic: Laszlo Pinter, formerly of International Institute for Sustainable Development and now at Central European University on gathering agri-environmental evidence through an indicator process with OECD. Andrea Bassi from the Millennium Institute was the second, speaking about the agricultural aspects of UNEP's Green Economy Initiative.

We are currently in discussion and some very interesting ideas have come up, particularly sparked by a presentation about soil by University of Iceland Professor Vala Ragnarsdottir. She noted that currently soil erosion is 100 times faster than soil formation - and suggested that soil is a finite resource.

A systems map showed that the interactions of soil, people and food depend also on oil and mining (phosphorous). When these resources are gone/limited, what can soils deliver themselves and what can they recycle?

This brought up a few observations, such as the notion of "Peak Food", mentioned by Alan AtKisson, which sent shivers down our spines.

Our Thai Balaton Group member, Professor Chirapol Sintunawa, noted that Iceland is importing topsoil from around the world every day (through importing food from countries such as his). This took us into a discussion of the notion of "embedded soil" (as opposed to, or in addition to, embedded or embodied energy in the lifecycle of goods). Could this be a new part of the accounting methodology that helps people make decisions around use of goods?

Oh, the Balaton Group - an annual opportunity to disrupt our paradigms and challenge our mindsets, and be with old friends who feel the same way.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Horses for Courses: Facilitating High Stake Workshops

There are so many kinds of workshops/meetings/events, with as many different kinds of objectives and outcomes desired. Each needs a specific structure and build to get successfully from start to finish. For veteran facilitators this might be a statement of the blindingly obvious. However, we do have our favorite sequences. We have tried and tested frames for group work, our signature activities and games, our question stems that we draw on and adapt to many different contexts. We might also do more of one kind of workshop than others - more retreats, or relationship building, or strategic planning, or stakeholder dialogues. These big categories indeed might have archetypal sequences that we can use as building blocks and rely on for winning results.

When the Stakes Are Even Higher

When we get into a new category of work, that is a great opportunity to think again about our favorite workshop outlines. For example, how different might an agenda look if you are consensually negotiating a text that will be binding on those in the room (and many others who may not be)? This is an interesting context as stakes will no doubt be much higher. In this context, participants may be formally representing constituencies (where their re-election depends on successfully serving their interests), others may be spokespeople for higher-level absentee decision makers (who may sign their paychecks). There might also be observers, funders, hosts, and other non-voting participants, who might still have significant impact on the final decision.  There may also be significant power asymmetries, along with the familiar cultural and sectoral diversity and personalities that we see in all of our workshops. Ultimately jobs and much more may be at stake. All together this might make agreeing on a black and white text in a defined period of time an exciting couple of days for a facilitator.

Some of the differences between such an agenda and one devoted to, for instance, strategic planning by project teams, might be how and when you work with the product (text) itself. Some of the things I have noticed revolve around timing and placement of the decision moments in the overall workshop agenda. These might sound simple, and can make a difference for a successful outcome:
  • Watch attendance and travel: If this is a high stakes decision-making meeting encourage people to be there for the duration of the meeting, and if necessary make an agreement that if people choose not to stay it indicates their agreement of the final decisions of the group.
  • Have clarity on decision moments: Make certain participants are clear WHEN the readings will be and decisions taken, so that they can arrange phone checks or access to other decision-makers at critical times. It helps them avoid scheduling other work or calls at those times and also helps them arrange their schedules to be present (mentally and physically) when they need to be.
  • Keep extreme realism in timing: Because timing will be important throughout the event, keeping to time is even more important - make sure this particular agenda is super realistic (as opposed to optimistic), and build in some extra discussion time where possible (can a less important agenda item for the group be pushed into their next meeting?)
  • Make it visual: When it comes to the text itself, make sure that the text is put up on PPT point or visually in the room and not just read out loud to the group. The meaning is much clearer and easier to discuss as a group when people are able to read and mull it over together.  
  • Externalise the decision: Making it visual (rather than oral - as in reading) also externalises the words (e.g. de-personalises the text) so that the group can own it and it is not affiliated with any particular position or the opinion of the reader(s). 
  • Provide something to take away: Have a print out of the final text too, that people can use to check with counterparts who are not present, or can use to read later on their own or in caucuses. Don't make people write it down for themselves.
  • Build in check-in time: Give people time after the first reading to check with their constituencies if necessary or with their bosses.
  • Sleep on it: Try to get the text work done before the last day, so that people can sleep on it and discuss it informally.
  • Take a second look: Have a second reading of the decision taken on the final day. Make sure this is not in the last few hours of the workshop in case there are still open issues which can be dealt with in time.
  • Don't push it: Introduce no new issues on the last day of the work together.
There are many other familiar activities that can and will feature along the course of the negotiation. There will be the relationship building, the mapping of opinion, the exchange of perspectives and reality checks. With this kind of high stake workshop, the steps of the negotiation and decision-making process need to be perfectly placed so that this central aspect of the group's effort doesn't create a hurdle but a gateway to ... (ok, giving up on the horse-racing metaphor here, it's sounding more like the stable floor than the track - you know what I mean!!) 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When I Was a Game

I arrived at the Chicago workshop about 5 minutes late and was horrified to see all the participants in their seats looking at the trainer/facilitator who was in mid-sentence describing the objectives of the day. He didn't even pause as he said "gruetzi" to me ("hello" in Swiss German), to which I quickly replied "bonjour" (I don't speak Swiss German), and tried to quietly sneak to the only remaining seat in the room, which of course was at the first table. I grimaced as I walked in front of him to take that seat. He never broke his opening patter, but for that first word of welcome, and didn't address me directly again as he informed the participants that I didn't know that I was the first game for the day.

Take out a piece of paper, he said, and write down three things you know about this Mystery Person (the group had already met for several days previously, and I was only joining on the fourth day). Including, he added, how you pronounce her name (I had just written it on a sticky name tag) with a hard "G" or a soft "G". The winner, he announced, wins a BMW.

People took out paper, and peered quizzically at me. After literally 30 seconds of reflection he asked for everyone to share one of their guesses. I was to answer yes or no as they postulated about me based on the little bit of data that they had collected in that 2 minutes since I walked through the door. What do we know about our Mystery Guest, he asked, and people started...  I disliked being late. I wasn't good with directions. I spoke another language. I had a job where I worked in front of people. I had travelled by plane to get there. And on and on. It was simply amazing how many things people could discern or infer from so little input in such a short amount of time.

At the end, he asked me to say a few words about myself. At that point, my introduction to the group was alarmingly short as I built on the many uncanny, correct guesses of my fellow participants. At the end, he asked people to  count up their "points" at which moment there was a flurry of quick questions. He said "congratulations!", without being too concerned about who actually had the most points, and welcomed me as a newcomer into the Thiagi Interactive Techniques Certification Workshop.

* * *

What a wonderful way to be warmly integrated into a formed and familiar group, what an interesting way to involve everyone in this introduction process. What an excellent way to reinforce the fact that your participants know much more than you probably give them credit for (or can figure out for themselves), and that you can cover a lot of ground, hitting multiple objectives (introduce a new person, integrate him/her, play a game with some learning points like these, get people's attention and wake them up at 08:00 on a Thursday) in only 5 well-used minutes.

This is the work of Thiagi (Sivasailam Thiagarajan), who holds the title of Resident Mad Scientist at the Thiagi Group. With its Indiana USA origins (starting "in a basement" some 30 years ago), this group is building an increasingly global network of games enthusiasts and Thiagi Certified Facilitators (like me!) who use these kinds of interactive techniques as a basis for engaging people in our facilitation and training work. And in that short introduction to our Certification day, Thiagi helped us see that not only are we people who design and run games for learning, we can be games too. There are no boundaries! How different might daily life be, how much more might we notice or learn, how much more fun might we have, if we knew that we could make a game of literally anything?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Taking the Long Elevator: 13 Tips for Good Pecha Kuchas

What do you notice when you have the opportunity to watch 35 Pecha Kuchas? We have featured these interesting presentation techniques - 20 PPT slides autotimed at 20 seconds each - in different workshop settings in the last few months. Here are some of the things we noticed that made them work:

13 Tips for Pecha Kucha Success
  1. Practice your Pecha Kucha WITH the timing turned on (don't just talk through your printed slides to yourself as "practice".) 
  2. Check particularly how your message for each slide matches the 20 second timing limit.
  3. Too much information? Think about where you need to break down your message if there is too much information for 20 seconds. For example, run your message over 2 or 3 slides if need be. Think creatively about how your visual can progress with your message development.
  4. Too little information? If you find that there is too little for 20 seconds, e.g. just a one liner or one brief point, then double up two messages on 1 slide, or think about a quick example to illustrate your short point. Note: Watch that the example doesn't launch you into a long story which will blow your timing.
  5. Using diagrams? These can be a good way to snapshot lots of information but be careful with diagrams or graphs that are too complex. Can they be recrafted so the one key message/line/box is bolder? Note that people will not be able to read the little stuff (like all the indices etc.) quickly, so only include what you need for your story. Spread it over 2 slides and use a build. Make a handout for later if people will need the detail, don't try to go through it in your Pecha Kucha.
  6. Save time by not using the first slide to introduce yourself, the title of your talk only, or closing with a "Thank you for listening" slide. Just say it quickly. If you want to elaborate on yourself, use a wordle (beautiful word cloud) of your CV or bio to snapshot yourself (here is an example of one I did for myself).  
  7. Watch your computer positioning - make sure the computer is in a place where you can see the screen as a prompt and still face the group, unless you have good peripheral vision and can stand at the side so you can see both the screen and the eyes of your audience. 
  8. Never NEVER read your slides.
  9. Design thinking - I have seen both slides with only images and no text, and slides with an image and a prompt word. Unless you are very good at picking images and they are very obvious (even quirky can be obvious within your narrative), I think I like the latter. The single word can summarise the point of the image.  It is also very effective to only have one or two words on a blank slide (centred or interestingly placed), and perhaps with a black or colour background. In any case, mix it up!
  10. Interactivity? It is hard in the time allocated to do very interactive work with your audience - you can use hand mapping or voting, or other quick inputs, but if you have to pick on people and wait for an answer, and then if people talk too long, there goes your timing.
  11. Part of a Pecha Kucha marathon? If your Pecha Kucha is one in a string of PKs, then the organizers might want to pause for a minute (literally) between them and invite people to write down any thoughts, questions, or comments before starting the next one. The organizers could even make a Job Aid of some kind (a card with a matrix, etc.) to help people keep track of where they are in the line-up and their impressions.
  12. Getting people's attention - If you do want to engage, then end with a "lesson" unconcluded; with a question, or an invitation.
  13. Don't apologize for "not having enough time to go into depth because of this format"; that just says you didn't prepare well enough.
Everyone should be able to make their point in this day and age of micro-media with an "elevator speech" - and 6 min and 40 seconds is an incredibly generous elevator ride by most building's standards!

Monday, August 09, 2010

How to Go to TED (or at least TEDGlobal)

(Note: I went to TEDGlobal this year in Oxford, so this is written from my experience, and may be very different for the other TED events.)

Going to TEDGlobal was like jumping into an icy stream, or swimming in Lake Geneva at 4 degrees C. It took endurance, a little craziness, and provided that kind of a wake up and direct reconnection with so many of life's support systems. That for me was the WHY, here is the HOW...

T is for Technology

To connect with a TED event, the main port of entry is through the TED website, which is interesting all by itself as it features links to the "riveting talks by remarkable people" videos from past TED conferences that we know so well.  If you want to explore joining a TED conference, there are four now - the TED Conferences link will show you where applications are currently being accepted (yes, you do have to apply to go to a TED event). The four include the Long Beach, California TED, TEDActive in Palm Springs (simulcast of the Long Beach TED), TEDGlobal in Oxford, and new this year, TEDWomen. There are also more and more TEDx events around the world, which are independently organized TED events.

It must be said up front, attending a TED event can be a rather expensive proposition, an investment you could say, with published prices ranging up to USD6000 for the Long Beach main event. Having said that, there seems to be a lot of variation in what people pay, and some ways to join an event that are supported, such as through the TED Fellows Programme (there are Fellows and Senior Fellows). You can also try to make an individual case for a reduction, this has worked for some in the past. Another option is to gather a small group and follow simultaneously one of the events online through a TED Associate Membership, at a reduced rate. We had a group of participants in Kenya following the TEDGlobal event; at one point they hooked up a video link and we exchanged a "Hello!" with them from the Oxford Playhouse.

If you decide to apply, the electronic application form is available on the TED website. You will want to spend some time on this: the questions are provocative and are the main way that the selection team assesses your application if you are not known to them. A key word for TED is "curation" (a curator is content specialist responsible for an institution's "collections". ) So everything from the chemistry of the participant group, to the framing of the talks, is highly managed and choreographed.

Once you are there, at the TED event, a notable "T" stands for Take your Toys. You will see people tweeting, blogging, vlogging, podcasting, you name it, from the event - either live during the talks from the back row of the auditorium (audibly enforced), or in the simulcast lounges set up for spill over and for this purpose. The amount of e-chatter that comes out of the events through every technology imagineable is amazing. You can take a technology holiday yourself, but will still want some way to capture your thoughts as they roll through your head at 200 miles an hour over the week-long event.

E is for Education
(Actually, it is officially for Entertainment, but Education speaks more to me!)

There is a lot to learn, both at the TED event and prior to it. Before you get there, do some "self" learning -  you will be asked the question "Why are you here?" by everyone you meet, and if your answer is not satisfying enough, you may be asked it twice. Look deep and be ready with a good, authentic answer to this question. This is not just why are you at TED, although that is also interesting to people, but Why are you on this planet? (This was something I noticed on my first day there which I blogged, "TEDGlobal: Why Am I Here?) This conference is full of social entrepreneurs, angel investors, many people with great ideas to share - their answers to this question are fascinating.  After all, TED is about ideas worth spreading, make sure you have yours ready.

There is also quite a bit of information on the TED website, which merits attention (probably more than I gave it in the busy weeks prior to the event.) There was an interesting matching exercise, which identified 10 other participants that you might like to look up. I did have a few people find me, and should have printed my list! If I was doing it over again, I would have spent more time with the online participant list (there was none printed) to identify people that I wanted to find and meet from amongst the 700 attendees. There was a tag wordcloud produced (we each picked 5 tags for ourselves for our profile), which could help narrow down the participants to some groups of interest. These tags were also printed on the helpfully large name tags (11cm x 19cm). No matter who they were, everyone was incredibly accessible, and the TED community norm was definitely to approach anyone for an introduction and a chat. There was also much waiting-in-line-time (more this year according to veterans) as lines formed in front of the Oxford Playhouse for main stage sessions. I would go much earlier to queue up than the 15 minutes recommended to get a good seat, if that matters to you, and the Lucky Dip of wait companions in line make it all the more worthwhile.

Finally, educate yourself about your baggage limit if you travel by plane; you will get a pile of big books and a TED gift bag (more like a napsack) of many delightful and sometimes bulky items like Mike Dickson's Please Take One* (One Step Towards a More Generous Life), a bobble, a handy Rhodia notebook, BBC Earth Life on DVD, more films and books and technogadgetry, even a magic wand, by far the most talked about inclusion, from The Wand Company.

D is for Design

Design expresses itself at TED in many different ways. There is of course the content about design, as well as the overall stylish design and curation of the event, and all the satellite events. I noticed design in a few other simpler places. For example, if you like people watching at airports, you will just love doing this at TED. The great part is that you can walk up and talk to these passers-by, versus watch them on their way to Gate 48. You can also afford to be yourself with this group, you don't need to pack that conservative kit that you might take to a normal conference. Nothing is too unusual for this crowd. I enjoyed talking to The Retronaut at one evening reception, creator of a visual time-machine, who in addition to having a fascinating story delightfully looked the part.

Other often hidden innovative "design" elements that I noticed included titles and labels, and business cards, to name a few. First of all, everyone was a Founder, Owner, a Maker or a CEO. There were also bio-inventors, creative directors, and rational optimists, voting system designers, plant neurobiologists, whistleblowers, humourists - what do you call yourself when you are doing something that not many other people are doing?

And then what about that business card? They were being exchanged fast and furiously. One artist I met specialised in invisible paintings, and she wrote on her business card in invisible ink (the kind you need to hold to a lightbulb, I hope my CFL will work!) Another green designer worked only in bamboo, and his business card was printed on a thin slice of this favorite material. A staff member of invited people on the back of her card to "Collect all 6" (and presumably she would have been happy to give 5 more if someone had asked). Another staffer of a company that traded in (presumably happy) digital labourers sported a '50s black and white photo on the back of his card provocatively asking you to find, "How many happy people in the picture?"

How to Go to TED

These are some of the things I thought were interesting to keep in mind if I went to TED again, or which might be interesting for others who are considering, or going, for the first time. Overall, I thought it was a wonderful experience, and I'm happy I went.

I came away in awe of the imagination of humanity, at the creative pioneer spirit. And definitely benefitted from the refreshing paradigm-shifting that undoubtedly results from repeat practice (like 100 times in 5 days) in thinking laterally about just about everything.

One thing I would definitely do differently next time and would encourage first-timers to do - I would apply to speak at TED University, where participants apply to speak on stage in shorter increments (there are even 3 minute slots), to share their work and thoughts. That would add to the stress a little, and also greatly add to the benefits of going to TED.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

New Systems Thinking Game: The Flash Mob Game

I just finished co-facilitating a week-long leadership training course with LEAD's Edward Kellow. Systems Thinking was one of the cross-cutting skills components, which started with an introduction on Day 1 (introduction and drawing Behaviour Over Time Graphs), and then on Day 2 we got into reading and drawing Causal Loop Diagrams. Both were entirely based on a case study which we would be exploring and visiting later that week - in this case the London 2012 Olympics and its sustainability legacy (See Towards a One Planet Olympics). I had introduced systems thinking in the previous year's LEAD programme - See a previous blog post about: How to Go From 120 PPt slides to 2! I think this year's approach to spread it throughout the week's curriculum was even better. ) This game helped us pick it up even at the very end.

We had worked throughout the week in so many different groups and constellations, from Digital Pairs (everyone was given an unknown  partner before the workshop to introduce to the group the first night solely from online research into their Digital Identity), to Learning Trios, Presentation Groups, Daily News Groups and LEAD Associate Project Groups. To tie this together with systems thinking, to make visible these interconnections and to celebrate this work, I designed a new game for the closing, called the Flash Mob Game.

We had played the Systems Thinking Playbook Triangles Game earlier in the week (where people stand  equi-distant between two people who act as their reference points), and had explored how to spot systems around us, and to harness their inherent energies to help us meet our goals. So rhis new game was designed to play at the end to pick up those points, and to let people "close" the meeting in a fun way. Here is how the game goes:

Flash Mob Game

About this Game:
This game is perfect at the end of a longer workshop, or at least one that has given participants an opportunity to work in a number of different kinds of groups. It is an interesting way to make visible the  invisible connections that people have made over the course of the workshop. It also shows how something that from the outside seems chaotic, actually has a number of complex inter-relationships that only become obvious when needed, and over time (at least over the time of this game). Like a Flash Mob, the minute before and the minute after their inter-relationship becomes apparent, this seems like a normal crowd of unconnected and unrelated people.

Time Needed:
10-12 minutes

Space Needed:
An open space big enough for people to walk around in without bumping into things (can be inside or outside, we went outside).

Number of People:
From 15 to 50.

Equipment and Materials:
A bell or whistle (I prefer the softer sound of the bell).

Steps of Play:
  1. Ask participants to move to the open area to brief the game.
  2. Briefing: Tell people that they will be walking around on their own in the open area, and periodically stopping on your signal. They can walk anywhere they want and should keep moving without bumping into anyone (or anything!) While they are walking they should remain silent. Upon your signal (bell or whistle), they will stop, listen, and follow your instructions. When they hear the bell, they will start walking silently again.
  3. Ring your bell and ask people to start walking.
  4. Let them walk around for a minute, gently remind them not to speak if needed. Watch the group, this random milling around is somehow very beautiful.
  5. After a minute, ring the bell, and say the following, "Please go find your Digital Partner (pick a group in which they worked that week), say 'Goodbye' and tell them how much you enjoyed working with them this week."
  6. All of a sudden people will go from a random place into a small group and start to talk. Give them a minute to say their goodbyes and a few words, and then ring the bell again. At this point they melt back into a meandering crowd, and start to walk again. Again wait a minute, and then ring your bell. This time say, " Please go find your Learning Trio (or Presentation Group, or Daily News Group), say 'Goodbye' and tell them how much you enjoyed working with them this week."
  7. I use the chronology of the workshop to call the groups, it just so happened that they started as Pairs, went to Trios, and then larger and larger groups. For the final group, I asked people to find their LEAD Associate Project Group, which was a newly formed group that would last for the duration of the 3-module programme. This time I told them to, "Find your LAP Group, say 'Goodbye for now' and tell them how much you are looking forward to working with them in the future". Note: If you do not have any group or activity that continues after your workshop, you could say "Find all your fellow workshop participants, say 'Goodbye for now' and tell them how much you are looking forward to keeping in touch with them in the future".
  8. After the final Goodbye, ring the bell and let the crowd start to walk again. After a few seconds, end the game and stop for a few words of debriefing.
  9. Debriefing: If this is at the end of the workshop, you might use it to reinforce some of the systems messages with a statement or observation about how if people outside could see the crowd walking they would never know what kind of interconnections there were in this group, what they have done and what they can do together. If it is earlier in the programme you can ask people to notice the different action at different time frames (random movement and purposeful groups). It is interesting to see how what might look like a number of interconnected people (things, ideas, etc.) might actually be connected in surprising, and potentially useful ways which you can understand if you observe the system carefully over time.
You could probably adapt this game to a mid-session time frame, or earlier in the workshop if you can identify different interconnections and inter-relationships between people and are sure that they are also aware of them. For example after introductions on Day 1, you could call it the Hello Flash Mob and ask people to find others who work in their sector, who come from the same country/town, etc. and say 'Hello' and tell them how nice it is to meet them. This would also help visualise a "crowd" self-organise and then melt into a crowd again. At the end of this version, you could ask them to find the people who are happy to be here, say 'Hello" and tell them how much you are looking forward to working together this week/day/etc. I would still end with a bell and letting them walk away again. Then stop and debrief the game (as above).

Make sure you test it yourself, we just played it for the first time yesterday (and it worked beautifully)!

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite Flash Mob Videos: Central Station Antwerp, Grand Central Station New York

and Liverpool Street Station in London: