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"?