Where ‘YES!’ leads

November 18th, 2014

Dice 300x187 Where YES! leadsEarly mornings are not my best time. People I used to work with joked that no-one should talk to me before 10 am. Bit rough, I reckon. So you will understand that dragging myself out of bed at 5 am to attend breakfast meetings in Melbourne, was, well, a touch out of character (this included about 2 hours’ of travel). There was a group called the Creative Performance Exchange hosting events each month that were edgy, different and intriguing. Unsurprisingly, it also attracted some very interesting people. Fast forward a couple of years and four of us who met at these meetings remain good friends. Despite different backgrounds and trajectories, we all find ourselves in a similar space right now – specifically interested in new and different ways of doing business. We’re all enthusiastic about games in their myriad forms: physical games, on-line games, improvisational games, participatory games, serious games, drinking games. Okay, maybe not drinking games…

PC070708 300x248 Where YES! leadsSaying yes to coffee, years ago, after a CPX gathering has led to this: a collaborative offering of a half-day experiential games event in Melbourne. That’s the four of us who will be hosting the event in the picture.

Will you say ‘YES’?

Games hold huge potential – for engagement, for tackling undiscussibles, for creating, designing, innovating, all while having fun. Alexander Kjerulf has been an advocate for happiness at work for a long time. And has built a successful business around just that.

Pablo Saurez works in the serious world of humanitarian aid. He uses games to ‘wake people up’ and to make some of the complexity around humanitarian decision-making more accessible. He describes it as moving from ‘Huh?’ to ‘Ah-ha!’

Don’t take our word though, or their word.

Come and find out for yourself what all the fuss is about games in business.

Thursday, December 11th. Book here.

Birdwatching from my desk

November 18th, 2014

photo 1 300x225 Birdwatching from my deskGlancing just a little to my left of my computer screen, I can see, through my office window, one of the bird baths in our garden. It is an endless source of joy for me.

This morning I saw four different species using the bath at the same time: Grey Fantails, Red-browed Finches, Brown Thornbills and another unidentified SBB (small brown bird). When the New Holland Honeyeaters come to the bath, they frighten all the others away. They often come in raucus groups, all sitting on the edge chittering away madly and diving into the water. The much larger Red-wattle Bird visits alone, perches on the edge, looking around and then dives in sideways for a single dip and flies away. It will return a few times, repeating the procedure.

photo 1 copy 300x176 Birdwatching from my deskThe Crimson Rosellas nearly always visit in pairs or family groups. There seems to be a hierarchy. The highest ranking bird will bathe first while the others hang around calling and waiting their turn. The Blue Wrens visit whenever they want, and when the Magpies decide to splash vigourously in the birdbath, it quickly empties of water. Nothing compares to the sound of the Grey Shrike-thrush as it calls from the nearby trees. And if the Grey Butcherbird decides to visit, with it’s clear, melodious call, and treacherous beak and murderous intent, all the other birds take cover.

Simple pleasures.

When improvisation meets Open Space

October 29th, 2014

IMGP3277 214x300 When improvisation meets Open SpaceThere are few things that have influenced my way of working – and way of living – as much as Open Space and Improvisation. And it’s not so much what they represent, as the people they have enabled me to meet, befriend, and learn from.

I also see Open Space as improvisation in action. So I was thrilled to read this from one of the best and most respected improvisers on the planet, Rebecca Stockley. She was writing about a workshop she’s planning for newcomers at the annual Applied Improvisation Conference, coming up soon in Austin, Texas.

“I’m leading the Pre-Conference Workshop for our new-comers and would love to incorporate your ideas. Some of the ideas I am addressing so far include:

Create your own adventure
Learn – bring your Curiosity
Share – bring your generosity
Honor yourself – Law of Two Feet
Connect – Make new friends
Let your partner change you and Make your partner look good.”

Did you see that? “Honor yourself – Law of Two Feet”.

Yes. Yes.Yes.

Idea Bounce

October 19th, 2014

What do you get when you combine a mini one of these with a mini one of these? I call it an Idea Bounce (new process alert).

Inspired by TrampolineDay and Open Space – it’s what to do when you don’t have time for either of those processes. I had about 75 minutes, a group of about 20 people, and an obvious need to talk about lots of stuff. I knew this because, well, I was observant, and also because people kept coming up to me and asking if they could “just have a couple of minutes to talk about X”

I’m not a fan of one-to-many, or whole group, processes, especially when people are physically together in the same space. There’s too much scope for just a few to dominate, both the discussion and the agenda, and to get bogged down in details. Soon enough, the devices emerge and people start to disengage.

I think Idea Bounce is a cool alternative.

Here’s how it works. Mark 3 or 4 spaces in the room (keeping people in the same room maintains the energy, and you don’t lose time walking to other rooms or spaces. Just another reason to have as large a room as possible, and to get rid of the tables!). Decide if you want three 20-minutes sessions or two 30-minute sessions. In this case I chose four spaces (A,B,C and D) and two 30-minute sessions. After all, I’d never done this before so had no idea how it would work.

I drew the grid on a whiteboard and titled it “Stuff I want to talk about…”

And here’s the best bit (that I learned from TrampolineDay). I created a pitch box, designated with masking tape on the floor, just big enough for one person. To get one of the slots on the grid, you had to step into the pitch box and announce your idea. This did two things. First, it made people get up and commit to stepping in and announcing what it was they wanted to talk about, and secondly, only one person could pitch at a time. The grid filled within minutes, and then people got to work.

*pats self on back*

Why I broke up with TED

October 19th, 2014

I’ve broken up with TED.

We had a short, but intense relationship. We never met face-to-face. We’d meet on-line. I devoured much of what TED said. I became a TED Associate. I’d receive gifts in the mail – books that I would never have read otherwise, and games. I used to be so delighted when TED’s gifts arrived. TED knew stuff. Lots of stuff. I couldn’t get enough of TED.

I dallied with TED’s offshoot TEDx. It didn’t end well. I felt alone, like an outsider. There were a few moments of “Wow, what a great story!” but in the end it wasn’t enough. Eventually I realised I was just one of many. TED was one, talking to many. I want, and need, more than that.

I still listen to TED occasionally. It’s nice to reminisce. TED seems to be doing just fine without me.


The cause, and solution, to all our problems

October 19th, 2014

Tin Can telephone 300x199 The cause, and solution, to all our problemsIt’s inevitable. In every movement, organisation, group, and relationship the villain is often communication. And the saviour.

“The problem is communication.”

“The solution to our problem is better communications.”

I hear variations of these all the time. Hell, I’ve even said it myself.

It means something different every time. While the situation, the participants, and the needs vary, what  I think sits behind the communications paradox is this.

Communications becomes a proxy for relationships. It’s easier to blame ‘communications’, especially if someone else is responsible, than acknowledge an underlying cause. It takes time, effort, and some vulnerability, to build relationships, to admit there’s stuff you don’t know, to listen to a diversity of views, and to be changed by the people you work with. It’s probably not on anyone’s performance plan or stated as a KPI.

Work towards better communications. Yes. And don’t forget better relationships as well.

How to do more of what works

October 15th, 2014

Funny how things come together sometimes – an online course about decision-making in complexity and uncertainty, a book about being an astronaut, a workshop on social labs, and an exhibition on making animated movies. I didn’t plan it this way, it just happened, and now I have something to write about.

I’m reading Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. If you don’t know who Chris Hadfield is he’s a Canadian astronaut who played a modified guitar and sang Rocket Man while orbiting the Earth on the MIR space station.

The gist of his book is to ‘be ready’. He maintains that sometimes, the things we want don’t always happen, but if they do, it’s good to be ready. It enables us to take advantage of good planning, serendipity, the unexpected and luck.

Putting humans into space requires good planning. In fact it requires more than that, it requires meticulous, detailed planning and implementation. Any stuff-ups could result in disaster and loss of life.

Another book I’m reading is The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges by Zaid Hassan. I went to a workshop hosted by Zaid and he said this: “There are some common characteristics of complex systems: they are emergent and inherently unpredictable; there’s lots and lots of information, making it hard, if not impossible to keep up with all of the information available; and adaptation is needed, we change our behaviour based on emergence and information.” Much of my work is in this realm – I’ve yet to work with astronauts, and I’m ready if they ever come calling! The environment, natural resources, poverty, human rights – these are all complex, and demand the best we can give. Our response to the uncertainty we face is to plan. But we can’t plan fast enough – the situation has changed even before the ink has dried, new information is coming at us faster than we could hope to absorb it.

Should we throw away the plan? Probably not. Though I do quite like that idea. We might want to take a leaf out of the animator’s book instead. What a fabulous, inspiring exhibition at ACMI in Melbourne: Dreamworks Animation. They come up with ideas for a character and then make them, first as a drawing, then in clay, then in wood. Each iteration reveals something new about what works and what doesn’t.  Then there’s storyboarding – telling the story with pictures, each board a minute detail, some survive, many don’t, most change. Again they are physical. There was 100,000 A5 storyboards for the original Kung Fu Panda movie (2008).

If you’re doing something complicated, like building a bridge or sending humans into space, plan carefully. Please.

In this complex, changing, uncertain world the biggest killer to innovation, change, creativity, and maybe even success is the attitude of business as usual and “we’ve always done it this way.” While you’ve been doing things the way you’ve always done them, the world has changed. Try this instead – inspired by astronauts, animators and the Social Labs revolution!

If you’re doing something complex, like community engagement or saving the planet, be ready. Be ready for what might emerge, for the unexpected. Be ready, and flexible enough, to take advantage of serendipity, coincidence and opportunities. Learn stuff. Even if you think you’ll never get a chance to use it. Prototype. Talk about ideas, with anyone who will listen, write them down, AND try them out, see if they survive contact with the real world. If the idea sucks you’ll find out sooner rather than later, before you have invested too much, then you can try another idea. Do more of what works. Stop doing what doesn’t work to make room for more experimentation to find more of what works.



What is the real work of facilitation?

October 8th, 2014

If you could draw a caricature of a facilitator, what would you include?

  • Covered in sticky notes, in multiple colours and sizes
  • Surrounded by butcher’s paper
  • Holding multiple marker pens
  • Trying to herd cats or catch clouds
  • Wielding a whip or cattle prod
  • Standing in front of, or at the centre of, a group of reluctant participants
  • Constantly donning a selection of interchangeable hats: party hat, policeman’s helmet, hard hat, artist’s beret, timekeeper’s cap

And so on.

What you probably wouldn’t see, is this:

OST pic10 What is the real work of facilitation?

That’s because the most powerful work of facilitation is that which goes unseen. It’s what the facilitator is not doing.

Letting go of control, enabling the group to do the work, and holding the space for whatever it is the group has to do. Sure, there may be some suggestions as to process, but inevitably the group will do the work themselves.

The facilitator’s role is to get out of the way while remaining present.

Sounds easy. Quite difficult.

Path dependency

October 7th, 2014

Always wondered why, even in the face of undeniable evidence of better ways of doing stuff (anything, really) we prefer to stick to our old ways? Of course, there’s many answers to this, but here’s one I’ve just learnt about which helps explain, to me, why case studies rarely help in influencing  how people act; why strategic plans are often deadly boring, predictable and more of the same in the future, just bigger; and why people are wont to put up with something inferior (for example, conference formats) when faced with superior alternatives.

It’s called Path Dependency, where the choices we made in the past influences the choices we make in the future. The cost of conversion exceeds the immediate gains in operating efficiency. With me so far?

Now let me introduce you to my new friend, the ‘Curse’ of Technological Inter-relatedness.

This is how Dr Joost Veenstra, Postdoctoral Researcher in Economic History, at University of Groningen describes it (in the Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World on-line course)

“If you switch technology but none of your competitors do, you pay the immediate switching cost and lose all extra value from using the most common technology. And, it’s too costly to coordinate all the users to make the switch collectively. This explains why technological and institutional changes in society are partly influenced by decisions and developments in the past, even if the circumstances of the past may not seem relevant today.”

So path dependence is “caused by the behaviour of doing things the way we know, out of uncertainty about the cost of alternatives” and we become locked-in to an inferior standard.

Entrepreneurs know this stuff, and they know that the cost is not always financial – it might be reputational.

Someone has to take the risk to try new technologies, to take a different path, to reject approaches that don’t work, but are familiar, and replace them with approaches that are yet unfamiliar and unproven, still novel.  Social self-organisation and agent-based modelling proves that we humans are prone to ‘social influence’ – as we interact with each other, our opinions tend to merge; and ‘homophily’ – our tendency to interact more with those who are similar.

So next time you present a case study that people love, and ignore; do a strategic plan that is more of the same despite protestations for innovation; and prefer a traditional conference over Open Space, you’ll know why.

What I learnt about productive meetings from tree planting and report writing

October 6th, 2014

Many years ago I worked with an environmental program that was designed to help bring conservationists and farmers together, to help make agriculture productive and sustainable. Measuring productivity was easy – farmers knew how to collate the costs associated with their particular enterprise, and the market took care of the rest. It’s fairly straightforward economics to work out the inputs, outputs and profits.

What’s harder to assess, is why farmers continue to farm when it’s obvious they are not making much money. How do you put a price on the lifestyle that many of them relish?

A national assessment of the program suggested lots of indicators against which to measure the success of the program. They were all quantitative – could be counted one way or another. Easy to aggregate, easy to report, but it only told a part of the story. These numbers would tell us what was happening, but not why, and also missed some of the unexpected outcomes such as social connections, friendships and emotional support in trying times.

Then there’s writing reports. In another life I worked as a journalist, editor and sometimes writer. Much of my work was associated with taking pretty dry and verbose scientific reports and editing them into something readable without losing the meaning and intention. I had some great teachers and mentors who taught me about trimming away all that redundant text. The original authors were often horrified that their words had been trimmed from a fat tome to a slim volume. The measure of hard work, and success, was a nice fat report. We called them ‘door stops’ because that’s inevitable what they were used for.

More is better? Not always.

Similarly, in meetings I see the same reliance on outputs, on measures that are countable and obvious – how many people turned up, how many speakers and topics covered, how many ideas emerged? It’s interesting at some level, and provides some useful information, but it misses the potential of capturing what really was happening. Were people’s ideas honoured, were people changed by what they heard, did they feel part of community, were they engaged and contributing, were they willing to take risks, did they have a memorable experience that will stay with them? Inevitably, the answers to these questions are not immediately obvious.

Harder to measure? Yes. More interesting? You bet.