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:

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Did You Know? Some of the Things You Learn at TED

A week of TEDGlobal Talks leaves you with many lasting impressions and some very interesting things to mull over - especially after hearing almost 100 hand-picked speakers in under 5 days. Here are some of the fun facts that just won't leave me alone...

  1. Some resources for the future may not come from earth - one 500 meter asteroid is worth $330billion dollars due to the concentration of platinum group metals (let's get it from space - it currently takes 1 ton of rock mined on earth for one pea size bit of platinum), according to Eric Anderson.
  2. There is a new insurance only sold online for Finnish students first leaving home called "Undo" (as in if something bad happens they can Control Z - the site has YouTube videos of the kinds of things that can befall young people with skateboards, cupboards and the like), as told by Jeffrey Mann.
  3. We eat 500g of insects per year, as all processed food is allowed to include x number of insect parts, and campari and surimi "crab" sticks are coloured with natural dyes from insects (which cost the same per ounce as gold). This good news from Marcel Dicke.
  4. One pig becomes 185 products, from ammunition to bread, from train brakes to a heart valve. The pig is all around us. A catalogue of Dutch pig number 05049 was produced by Christien Meinderstma.
  5. Math teaching is all wrong, according to Conrad Wolfram. Calculations are only one part of math, perhaps the least interesting part, and certainly the only part that computers can do well. So why is that the only aspect of maths we are being taught in school, and especially why are we doing it by hand?
  6. According to Economist Tim Jackson, we buy things we don't need with money we don't have to make impressions that don't last on people we don't care about.
  7. We should be calling ourselves Coctivores instead of omnivores because we are animals that live almost entirely on cooked food (just look at our teeth - we did, all 700 of us in the audience at TED). Heribert Watzke told us that we have developed such big brains because cooked food gives us more energy. (He also told us we have two brains, the second is a small one in our stomach.)
  8. Dimitar Sasselov, working on Harvard's Origins of Life Project, gave us some news from the Kepler telescope - apparently the Milky Way is rich in small earth-like planets, a first batch of 60 are ready for further study to see if they are habitable.
That's TED. It's still swimming around in my head as I try to process it all.

Well, we can just take our two brains, computers, a few pigs and some delicious insects to another planet, and send back asteroids to pay for our UNDO insurance, just in case it doesn't work out...and we just won't care what other people think.

Monday, July 12, 2010

TEDGlobal: Why Am I Here?

Why am I here?

No, not why am I at TEDTalks.

Why am I on this planet?

I am here at TEDGlobal with hundreds of people who know exactly how to answer that question.

And they can do it in 5 minutes or less.

Which is pretty impressive, to say the least.

I just finished watching the TEDFellows speak on the O'Reilly stage at Keble College in Oxford, with some 15 young(er) first time TED speakers sharing their take on that question. For example, the creator of an installation art project that aims to connect people living thousands of miles away from a conflict zone to the daily death toll (to move from 2D statistical deaths reported in the media to a more sensory experience of them.) Including time to reflect on how our actions those thousands of miles away may be contributing to them.

Other TEDFellows shared discoveries on using banana peels to clean toxins from water, using poetry to access the unseen (for the poet this was "bringing" her Nigerian neighborhood to central Boston.) Using mobile technology to make organic farming "sexy" to younger farmers in Kenya, and attracting the attention of the "Afghanistan" generation in the USA who doesn't watch the news on TV (but they are all over Facebook.) And more inspiring answers to the question "Why am I here?" How would you answer?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On My Way To TEDGlobal!

I leave tomorrow for a week of TEDTalks (Ideas Worth Spreading) at the upcoming TEDGlobal conference in Oxford. The theme this year is perfect as far as I am concerned - "And Now the Good News".

The speaker roster is also exciting, TED is known by its slogan, "Riveting talks by remarkable people".  At this TEDGlobal there are even a couple of people speaking that I have written about in the past, such as Tim Jackson (Changing Social Logic: Learning for Fitting In) and Sugata Mitra (Apparently children can teach themselves anything - can we do that too?)

I'll also attend TEDUniversity on Monday where audience members can take the stage in shorter presentations. The audience of 700 that attend have applied to go (my application took me 5 hours to write!) and by their profiles, look to represent an eclectic cross section of the Technology, Environment and Design communities (and more) that make up TED. I will let you know which speakers I found the most inspirational, they will no doubt quickly appear on the TED Talks list, and look forward to my experience becoming a TEDster!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

811 Years of Experience!

We just completed a very interesting workshop where 110 stakeholders were involved in giving feedback to 15 speakers (project proponents and authors of 11 Chapters of an ambitious global Reporting project) in 1.5 days. How we did that is a completely different blog post! (We did use Pecha Kuchas to give the Chapter overviews, which overall worked well - participants appreciated them very much for their economy of words and time, and some speakers were rather challenged to get all their information, diagrams and graphs into the 20 slide x 20 second format.)

Our very large participant group was made up of experts, advocates, authors, and partners, all with a valuable perspective to share, both on the process and the content areas addressed in the Report. With so many speakers and items on the agenda we needed to design in as many opportunities to hear from the participants as possible, as getting their feedback on the Report was one of the main goals of the workshop.

With so many amazing people, we needed to optimise their inputs and flatten out any potential power hierarchies that might be inadvertently created by a speaker/participant, teacher/learner lecture format (e.g. someone speaking and many people listening and then asking questions). We used many different ways of capturing inputs and ideas from people after our Pecha Kuchas, many starting with table-level work so that many people could speak simultaneously.

But back to the very beginning... After our workshop opening on Day 1, we took the first 10 minutes at the tables for people seated together to introduce themselves. They shared their names, organizations and insight on their involvement in the Reporting process so far. That provided a good sense of the resources available in close proximity.

Then we used a group mapping technique that would help demonstrate and visualise, for all of us, the collective knowledge and expertise in the room. First we asked people to stand up when I called their sector - I asked people working for government to stand up, for those from NGOs, business, the UN, etc. to stand - this gave us the sector balance in the room. Then I asked for people to stand who had already worked on the Report as an author or writer - that gave us the people who have been most intimately involved - our process experts. I asked who had read one or more Chapters - that gave us the people who had been involved in any kind of review (formal or informal). We noticed that for each of those categories called, the experts were in fact seated at all the different tables in the room - no longer were all the "experts" at the front of the room.

Finally, we asked for people at their tables to add up quickly all the months that individuals had been involved in the Report process, and all the years of content expertise they had. They wrote this up on a prepared flip chart near their tables, and then we had them quickly report their numbers table-by-table in plenary.

When we added this up we had 625 months (or 52 years) of process involvement in working on this Report (which had officially started in 2008), and 811 years of content expertise! With all this experience in the room, we were ready to go!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Learning from Best Practice: What Can You Do With That?

(Note from me: This (rather long) post was inspired by my partner in this exercise who challenged me to try to blog about our own process reflections. It seemed congruent to frame it as a "How To" - so this is my learning about learning!)

In many project documents and programme concept notes you see mention of building on or using learning from best practice. But how exactly do you go about collecting this, and in what form can you use it?

Identifying Patterns

We recently finished a 6-month learning exercise at a large international NGO which explored this issue. It focused on learning from a number of experiences in the last 10 years in a newly developing area of partnership work for the organization - providing independent advice for businesses on biodiversity conservation in their operations. The HQ programme manager saw some patterns developing that she thought would be interesting to capture, organize and make available for other colleagues around the world who were interested in adding this kind of work to their portfolio of projects.

We were also curious to see if there was a way to describe some of the common components of the processes that were being used as models that made them more easily transferable. And we wanted to learn from the Project Managers living and breathing these experiences about what worked and what they might change, if they did this again, in the different stages of their process. These included areas like governance, communication, contracting, etc.

Don't Shelve It! (Why to Collect It in the First Place)

In this case, there were several reasons for collecting best practices:
  1. To help understand more about staff member's work in this new field and to make it visible;
  2. To provide Project Managers doing this innovative work with an opportunity to reflect on their process and what they are learning, and to document this;
  3. To provide interested staff members with some basic "how to'" information, as well as to connect them with a set of experienced colleagues to whom they can go for advice; 
  4. To develop a set of models - in the form of diagrams, generic steps, and actionable insights -  that help to lightly organize the experiences (which developed organically in many cases). These model descriptions can help staff and potential partners more strategically choose from amongst them when a collaboration opportunity arises, and also help this new practice be more effectively communicated internally and externally.
The learning exercise therefore had two target audiences - staff members (both running these partnership projects or interested in starting them); and potential new partners. The first was considered to be more important at this stage as a focus of the learning exercise. As these are very different audiences, two separate products were designed as vehicles for the best practice information collected - a "How To" learning document for staff, and a promotional brochure for potential new partners.  The first one took 6 months to write, and the second took 1 day.

Do It in Steps: How We Collected Best Practice

A. What Makes for Best Practice? Identifying the Cases
One of the first steps in the exercise was to identify the cases that would become a part of the learning and analysis. We found that we did not need to worry about how to categorise "best" cases (by anyone's subjective standard) as in every case Project Managers could pick out aspects that were working very well, and could also always pinpoint things that could usefully change or had changed for various reasons. Good practice was a better frame as it exhibited itself in every case we analysed, whether in setting up the project Advisory Board, how stakeholders were integrated, developing strategic reporting time lines, or using formal team building. Each Project Manager had innovated in interesting ways, and also had naturally come up against challenges. In some cases, they had effectively solved them for each other, but prior to this exercise no format existed to capture and exchange on these items.

We started with 10 cases and ended up using 7 of them for various reasons. We tried to get a variety of experiences from different parts of the world that were well established (i.e. had been going for some years, or were nearly completed) and for the most part well-documented. Each however had something in common, they worked with a new business partner with a specific goal of providing independent advice for biodiversity conservation.

B. Creating an Opportunity for Reflection: Gathering Information
For each case, although for most cases there was lots of descriptive documentation on the web, it often did not include process information. It was mostly framed as reporting details and quantitative data. We did use that as background, but our main input was conversation based, using Appreciative Inquiry stems for questions (e.g. focusing on what is working). So Skype or face-to-face interviews with the Project Managers and, in many cases, other delivery team members external to the organization, were built centrally into the process.  We focused in the interviews on what people thought worked very well and what could be different to make the experience even more successful. Creating an opportunity for reflection, we asked about learning along the different stages of the process, from preparation/set up through delivery, to reporting. And, because this was a newer area of work for an well-established organization, we explored perceptions of risk. We specifically asked for Tips for future project managers who might be running a similar exercise, and on the qualities that Project Managers needed to have make the project successful.

C. What's Bubbling Up to the Surface? Developing the Model
It was only after all the cases had been written up, that we could step back and try to understand what some of the commonalities might produce in the form of a generic model or structure. In the stories of the Project Managers there were definitely repeating elements, process steps, even challenges. Some features were shared across all the cases, for example, all had some similarities in sequencing of process steps, all had a governance component - an external Panel or Steering Board that helped the advice given be truly independent, all were set up with some form of formal agreement between two organizations even if a larger number were involved. Across these common elements much good practice was exhibited.

Other things in the cases were clearly different, and what became apparent as we looked deeper, was a framework model that included the goal of the process, especially the depth of outcome desired - was the change on which the project focused a remedial action (e.g. trying to fix something in a specific location like a lake, harbour or protected area?) Or was it aimed at much broader social change? This was linked to the level of intervention - a field operation, a company, sector, supply chain or society. Each of these in turn had an optimal level of stakeholder involvement. We plotted the categories of projects and the individual cases along these lines to see what we would get.

What this analysis produced was a useful tool, a diagram, which collected the different kinds of experiences in one place, based on their key features. It effectively organized the diverse experiences in a visually interesting way and could be used as an aid to guide an exploratory discussion with new staff member or with a potential business counterpart.

D. Pulling it All Together: Producing the Best Practices Product
The "How To" Learning document was an exercise in synthesis. Although we had collected a binder full of data, and held hours of interviews, the result had to be a crystallisation of the learning. In the end, the main body of the document was 22 pages of text with diagrams which included an overview of the main categories we identified, each with a set of steps for implementation, tips for setting up and managing the processes, communication lessons, and a discussion of potential risks and management options. It was in the Conclusions section that we introduced the model that situated all the experiences into relationship with one another based on the features mentioned above (depth of outcome desired, stakeholder involvement, and scope of intervention). The case studies and resource documents were alphabetised in the Annex, along with a matrix snapshot of the cases in terms of their exact cost, time frame, managers, and level of public disclosure. The cases studies were also referenced throughout the document in the form of a three letter code, set up as a key at the beginning, so that for any tip or process step, readers could refer back to a real example in one of the case studies.

A Challenge We Faced in Developing Best Practice Advice

Even though the framework model was a key intellectual input into the learning exercise, we chose to put it in the Conclusion. This decision was based on what we found as one of our key challenges in this overall best practices process.

Innovation in organizations can happen in many different ways. A new idea or practice can be developed centrally and then tested in different locations/conditions to see how it works. The lessons can be gathered and analysed. This more top-down process exhibits a certain amount of standardisation at the onset, although different contexts will see practice gradually diverge from the first model. Another way, however, is more bottom-up. Some internal or external opening or trigger (policy change, global change, etc.) sparks new practices start to occur organically in different places and these experiences start cropping up in parallel to one another with very little horizontal interaction. They each understandably develop their own vocabulary, labels, and a proliferation of process peculiarities. If at this point you decide to undertake a learning or best practices process that includes some sort of meta-model development - which need a certain level of harmonisation of labels and a set of common concepts - then you might find this a little more challenging. You can still find incredibly useful best practices, and will get to be creative about the categorization and labelling of these.

In the end, each case we explored was indeed unique, and at the same time, their goals were very compatible, which made for a rich value-adding exercise to look across them and understand what makes for best practices, so that they can be shared, communicated, and used for continual improvement through learning in the future.