The games we play

July 10th, 2014

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of games, play and movement. Recently I attended a MASHLM Humanitarian Summer School in Lugana, Switzerland. It was three days exploring games for humanitarian and development work led by Pablo Saurez from the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and Eric Gordon from the Harvard University Engagement Game Lab. And a special callout to Paulo Gonçalves, Founder and Director of MASHLM, who made it possible for me to attend.

Imagine sitting around a table playing a game with your friends – preferably a fairly complicated game requiring you to make decisions without knowing the consequences. You take turns, maybe throw the dice, pick up cards, make choices, invest valuable resources aka beans. There’s time pressure – make a choice NOW! You have to stand, or stay seated, according to your choice. No going back. No changing your mind, no prevaricating. There’s winners, and losers, each round, and sometimes you get stuck with nowhere to go – you’re out of resources or out of options.

Now add a facilitator, a games master, who keeps the game moving, counts down the time left for your decisions, and occasionally offers options, that might, or might not be helpful, depending on your situation. Add a time limit for the whole game – say 10 rounds, representing 10 years. It’s not a race-to-the-end game (first past the post wins), this is a more subtle game, where there are still winners and losers at the end, some more so than others. There’s an element of chance, of luck, and there’s an element of understanding the consequences of our decisions. And it’s fun.

This type of game is known as a system dynamic modeling game that helps us to understand complexity. The game I described above is called Paying for Predictions and is a game about the cost, value and use of early warnings. It forces players to grapple with the shifting chances of disaster as they decide whether or not to invest in forecast-based flood preparedness.

Compare that to a powerpoint presentation on the same topic.

The important thing about this game, and many of the others developed by the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre – dubbed participatory games for the ‘new normal’ – is that they are based on the underlying science. They are not just ‘made up’. They reflect what really happens in the world. Post-game discussions are inclusive and reach depths rarely seen in more traditional approaches to sharing complex scientific principles, not the least because the game provides participants with a shared experience and a shared language to talk about abstract concepts such as predictions, probability, preparedness, risk and resource allocation. It also levels the playing field between experts and practitioners, and I suspect, opens up pathways for more constructive dialogue. And it’s emotional. You feel, in a real, visceral way, what it’s like to make choices.

While this type of game can easily be lumped with all other games, especially by nay-sayers, it’s quite a different experience to playing games on-line (even multi-player games) or playing physical games that facilitate interactions and discovery.

Pablo Saurez explains why gameplay beats powerpoint: “There needs to be an obstacle. Games can plant a level of confusion (huh?) and provide a sequence of interesting choices that builds curiosity, leading to the joy in the brain of figuring it out (Ah-Ha!). Powerpoint gives you nothing to guess about – the work has been done by the presenter.”

I still have lots to learn, and I’m excited about the potential of these sorts of games, especially when there is a big power differential in groups, when there’s no one ‘right’ answer, and the concepts are wrapped in impenetrable language.

As part of the course in Lugano we developed our own games, and that too was an interesting experience. We quickly learned that what makes sense on paper, or in our heads, may not work in practice. We discovered that too many rules make it harder to play. We discovered that too much realism can get in the way. We were exploring an uncertainty/complexity game around climate change and had focused on farmers. We kept getting stuck in conversations about what farmers would/or would not do in reality. We were going around in circles seemingly getting nowhere (I actually suspect this is an important part of game design) until we decided to ditch the farmers and focus on squirrels! It was a throw-away idea that saved the day – a classic example of yes-anding. We still had investments in infrastructure, diversification of crops (in this case, nuts), we still had external influences, and making decisions with limited knowledge, as well as climate probability data, in the game. It’s just that it was about squirrels in the forest, collecting different types of nuts, building nests and being threatened by deforestation and climate variability.

Other teams developed games on sustainable fishing quotas, and coordination of humanitarian providers after a disaster.

Fun games about serious topics? You bet!

Questions and answers

May 18th, 2014

Finding the right answer, or even the best answer, was rewarded when I went to school. Admittedly, that was a long time ago. I’ve spent the rest of my life learning how to ask questions. Answers can be satisfying (giving and receiving) – in the same way that sugar is satisfying. They provide fleeting satisfaction, whereas questions can linger for years. Good questions, probing questions, questions that challenge, even scare us, can nourish us for a lifetime.

I’m spending some time in Oxford and Cambridge – places that are infused with questions. There seems to be a right of passage, from studying, exams (getting the right answers), graduating, celebrating (there’s a lot of that going on right now) and then some enter research. Researching in science and the humanities, asking unanswerable questions, looking for answers anyway, surfacing new questions. Insights, even some answers, seem to emerge from curiosity and operating at the edge, looking for, or more likely, stumbling across, intersections between disciplines.

“Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world…they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds — justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on. To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind.”
Anne Rice


Who me? Yes. You are your own best resource

May 16th, 2014

Over the years I have learnt and collected lots of processes, activities, a few frameworks, ideas and games. When facilitating, I draw on these choosing what I think might be best for this group at this time to do this task. Here’s the question I get asked most often: “How do you choose?” The answer, which is somewhat underwhelming and I suspect disappointing, is that I am guided by what’s happening, what people are saying, the questions they are asking, and what I suspect might be useful at this time.

My greatest asset is believing in myself – and that I will know what to do when the time comes. I believe I am my own best resource. As are you.

Bringing a festival mindset to conferences

March 26th, 2014

P3251146 300x132 Bringing a festival mindset to conferencesIt seems that conferences are as popular as ever. Yet many of them are stuck in some kind of conference void, wherever any innovation or creativity is talked about rather than enacted. Why do gamification / improvisation / creativity conferences and events, mostly, not use the principles they espouse for others in their own event design?

As I  sat in a crowded room recently listening to John Hagel  talk for about 45 minutes about the Power of Pull followed by a question and answer session, I pondered what an event designed around pull would look like. It seemed to me that a talk, as good as it might be, followed by Q and A, is a push model.

People are still flocking to conferences, to talks, to celebrity chef presentations, to book readings, to Do Lectures, to The School of Life, and TED talks. We are hungry, but for what? Ideas, engagement, connection, a good old-fashioned chin wag? I suspect we want this, and more.

photo 300x224 Bringing a festival mindset to conferencesThe other growth area is festivals. Opportunities to have a shared experience. White Night festivals, Burning Man, music festivals, Mardi Gras, street parties, comedy festivals, Improv Everywhere and all manner of flash mobs.

You don’t need me to tell you the difference between conferences and festivals.

We want more than ideas – we want adventure, experiences, to challenge and be challenged, and to act on our own ideas, as well as others’.

What would an event that combined the best of both look like?


Turn taking

March 25th, 2014

The advantage in doing some research into applied improv is that I’m reading a lot – especially books that have sat on my bookshelf, largely unread for a long time. The disadvantage is that i get distracted easily and end up writing blog posts!

In The Improv Handbook by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White, subtitled The ultimate guide to improvising in comedy, theatre, and beyond (no shrinking violets here) I was struck by a comment on turn taking.

Children approach playing games, or doing exercises or being given the chance to try something new, very differently from adults. Children approach these situations with one mission, and that mission is to have lots of turns. They sometimes actually rate their success that way, saying something like “I had four turns and Charlie only had three – I win!”

Adults are very different. We want to sit back, assess – from our seats! – whether we’d be any good at the task in question. If we think we’d be successful at it, then and only then will we want a turn. If we think it is something we would not be good at, we usually prefer to have no turn at all.

Children want lots of turns, but adults just want one perfect turn.

This is worth remembering. I don’t have any answers to this dilemma. It’s another interesting question to emerge from researching applied improv.

It doesn’t take much

March 24th, 2014

It doesn’t take much to do things differently. It doesn’t take much to influence others. And it doesn’t take much to break out of entrenched habits.

It just takes a nudge.

Forget advice. Forget complicated instructions and planning. Just nudge, yourself, or others, to try something a little different.

Here’s a few for you to try to bring your next meeting to life.

Turn off the data projector. You know your stuff. Talk with the audience, instead of at them.

Having a small group discussion and it’s not going anywhere? Are you sitting down? Stand up. Are you already standing? Walk around.

You’re stuck in a plenary vortex. Ask people to talk in pairs, then fours, then in groups of eight. Encourage people to talk with each other.

Use all parts of the room. Do one activity from the ‘front’ of the room, the next from the ‘back’ of the room or another corner.

What nudges have you tried?


But what would you do instead?

February 19th, 2014

That hoary (yes, I like to use archaic words sometimes, it sets the scene for the post I’m writing) old saying (and yes, I know hoary and old mean the same thing and so this is a tautology – it’s about emphasis) , “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is often used as an excuse to not change something. When it comes to meetings, workshops, conferences the saying might as well be “If it is broke, don’t fix it.”

I guess whether something is broken or not is a matter of opinion.  I’ve noticed that many people want to do something different but don’t know what or how. These are some approaches that I think are definitely past their use-by date, and some suggestions on alternatives.

Breaking into small groups, doing some task, then coming back to a plenary session and reporting back. Argghhhh…(and yes, there have been times when, against my best judgment, I’ve agreed to this. It’s usually when I’ve been worn down and lost the will to live. And if that wasn’t quite true before reporting back, it certainly is afterwards!)

This comes from school. The teacher has a responsibility to check the work done by her students, and it’s a good thing to learn to be able to stand up in front of a group and speak. Workshops are not school. What’s that? The reporting back allows everyone in the group to hear what the other groups have done. There might be something really important. What do you notice about your own reactions when in this type of session? Depending on the circumstances there may be no value to any reporting back at all. Ask yourself why is there a need for reporting back? How will it benefit the group? How will it benefit the reason the group is meeting? Johnnie has written about the perils of the plenary here.

Instead – send someone from each group to ‘spy’ on the other groups and bring back their ideas; pass one group’s work onto another group to ‘peer review’; post on the wall and do a ‘gallery walk’; ask each group to provide a headline only on the most important thing that emerged; do nothing, and follow up with a break; ask each person to write down on a card one thing that emerged from the small group work that’s relevant to <insert topic> then do another process like 35 or Cardstorming or Survival of the Fittest.

If it’s a big event, consider using Playback Theatre as a plenary session – improvised retelling of moments and insights from the event. I’ll guarantee this will be more memorable than anything else you come up with.

Guest speaker followed by Q and A. What could possibly be wrong with this? Anyone who has sat in an audience will know what’s wrong with this. Let’s assume the guest speaker is great. Let’s assume there’s enough time for Q and A (I know, BIG assumptions). You know what happens next – statements posed as questions, the speaker get’s into a one-on-one argument about some detail, you never get to ask your question, you’d love to ask a question but what if it’s stupid and you end up just looking foolish? I could go on. I’m more interested in the alternatives.

Instead – use Poll Everywhere or something similar. Geoff Brown wrote about it here. While the speaker is speaking you can text your questions as they occur to you. They all come into a single web page where someone familiar with the topic can quickly scan them, see what themes are emerging and identify a few questions to ask the presenter, AND the presenter is emailed all the questions and asked to respond. This can then be sent to everyone present. A great way to get a range of questions, and answers, or new areas to be investigated if there’s no answers – and it’s all recorded for secondary analysis if that’s your thing. Make those highly-paid presenters work for their fee!

If the group is smaller, ask people to write comments and questions on cards or stickies, collect these, do a quick affinity grouping and then get the speaker to respond.

Capturing everything. The whole event is recorded. Does anyone ever do anything with those recordings? Someone is responsible for taking notes aka minutes. Who said what, and when. Every bit of paper that’s written on is collected and written into a report. “We’d better keep this, just in case.” Just in case of what? Rarely is it necessary to capture everything. Just because it’s possible to capture everything doesn’t mean we need to.

Instead – plan in advance how you want to share what happened with those who were not present, and allocate some time in the process to synthesising. For example, engage an illustrator or cartoonist to capture key moments – someone like Simon Kneebone can really capture the essence of an event. Some people specialise in graphic facilitation. One of the best around is Lynne Cazaly. Capture pictures, video, sound bites, do a Storify with tweets, encourage blog posts.

Sitting people at round cabaret tables. Arrrgggggghhhhh….I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (because people keep doing it – the most recent reason was because it ‘looks more professional’), get rid of the tables! Those big round cabaret tables are good for, oh, maybe cabarets. They’re not conducive to conversation.

Instead – have chairs that people can easily move into a conversational setting, or stack at the side of the room for activities, or arrange for a World Cafe conversation, or an un-conference process like Open Space or Trampoline.

We’ve always done it this way. Yep. That’s probably the biggest barrier to any change. Someone has to make a decision to do something differently. Yes, that involves some risk. Yes, that means you’ll be vulnerable.

Instead – don’t go it alone. Find others in your organisation willing to share the risk with you. Find collaborators from outside who can bring in new ideas. You can start with anyone I’ve mentioned in this post. Good luck.


Facilitation training workshops

February 18th, 2014

Back by popular demand is Creative Facilitation: Bring Your Meetings To Life, a one-day workshop on Tuesday, April 29th, full of processes and tips on how to get people involved and keep them engaged. If you’re frustrated with standard meeting procedure, come along and find simple ways to enliven meetings and workshops.

And – drum roll please – a brand new, never before offered, workshop: Creative Facilitation: It’s Not About You! It’s All About You!, another one-day workshop on Wednesday April 30th. It’s all very well to have lots of processes to use with groups, but what about you? How do you deal with challenges, stage fright, a crisis of confidence? This is a paradox of facilitation – you are there to serve the group but who’s looking after you? In this training we’ll explore some of the ways to keep your cool when in front of a group, how to calm your nerves, and what to do when you don’t know what to do.

I’m offering these workshops back-to-back so as you can choose either of them or both of them (with a great discount for booking both). There’s more information on the content and pricing here and here. Hope you can join me.

Three ‘new’ group processes

February 17th, 2014

There’s probably no such this as a new process – variations on a theme maybe. Nonetheless, I’m excited to have used these over the last couple of weeks. Recorded here as much as a ‘note to self’ as well as something others might find useful.

Wave Analysis Evaluation

The Wave Analysis uses the metaphor of the wave to explore different practices in a particular industry. I’ll often use it early in a workshop to gauge people’s experience and breadth of knowledge. At the last Creative Facilitation workshop I used it to gather information from the participants about meeting processes. I dropped the New Edges (seems to be a step too far for many people). The ‘Wave’ was scattered with a few ideas about what happens in meetings that are established norms (mainstream), dying practices and emerging trends.

photo1 300x178 Three new group processesAt the end of the day, I gave everyone a different coloured pen from the one used at the beginning of the day, and asked them to add anything they liked to the ‘Wave’. here’s a snapshot of part of the ‘Wave’ – with the end-of-day comments in green.

This gave me a good idea as to what people remembered from the day. A quick and easy way to do some rough evaluation, and it’s not a ‘happy’ sheet!


Recap – one sentence at a time

We had one participant miss about an hour’s worth of the workshop. When she returned, I wanted her to have an idea of what we had done. I asked the other participants to describe what we had done in her absence one sentence at a time, keeping the story coherent and logical. In debriefing this approach (that I’d never tried before) it was suggested that I start, rather than putting pressure on one participant in the group to start. Good idea. Will definitely try this again. I suspect it works best with small groups (less than 12). Then again, it might work just as well with bigger groups. If you try it, let me know.

Values Activity

Step 1: Go through the group’s existing strategy docs, vision, mission, values statements etc and pull out all the individual words and or phrases that are used (no need to worry about context or whether or not they’re vision or something else)

Step 2: Print these individually on small cards. Make one set of cards for every 4 – 5 people in the group. (I had a group of 13, so made three sets of cards)

Step 3: Introduce the difference between Values (beliefs) and other statements that describe how you will do something (no need to get bogged down in definitions)

Step 4: Give each group a set of cards and ask them to separate the words/statements that are Values from the other cards. Side coach that if they’re unsure, keep it in the Values stack. When done, collect the discards from each group and set aside (can use these later for strategy, mission statements etc)

Step 5: Each group passes their remaining cards to the next group. Their task is to halve the number of cards. In this case, each group started with 30 cards. The number remaining ranged from 24 to 17. Round up, then halve.

Step 6: Collect the discards and set aside. Pass the remaining cards to the next group, and ask them to now halve the remainder.

Step 7: Post the remaining cards on the wall and look for similarities. (At this point I had no idea what would emerge. There was the potential for each group to have 6 or 7 different values. As it turned out, there was remarkable consistency, I think because the group was from a cohesive organisation. This may not work with a group from different organisations. Then again it might.)

Step 8: Do a Full Circle process on the chosen values to identify the behaviours you would see in relation to each value.

This activity reinforced two things for me: first, the importance of making space and providing a process for people to have conversations about the topic; and two, how you can avoid the deadly plenary processes in favour of small group, connected processes that enable all to have input, focus on the pieces as well as be aware of the whole.

A few thoughts about what it’s like to be a free agent gleaned from John Hagel’s talk

February 17th, 2014

photo 300x211 A few thoughts about what its like to be a free agent gleaned from John Hagels talkWhen John Hagel started speaking about the dark side of technology as mounting performance pressure, the inevitable comparison with others and the pressure to keep up, I found myself nodding in agreement.

John Hagel, co-author of The Power of Pull and co-founder of the deliciously paradoxically-named Deloitte Center for the Edge, is back in Australia for a conference and a whirlwind series of talks in Sydney and Melbourne. John is the current darling of the social entrepreneur set. With good reason. He speaks to the dilemmas that free agents and changemakers face.

The central premise around The Power of Pull is a shift from a push-based model  to a pull-based model. The dominant push-based model assumes you have a question, or a problem, that needs resolving, and that you can meet that demand for answers by allocating resources, tasks, timelines, milestones, key performance indicators (okay those last few is me editorialising). Businesses and organisations are modelled around push because it’s easier to organise within an organisation than across organisations.

The pull-based model draws out people and resources when and where you need them and is often based on not even knowing what questions to ask.

There’s something I can relate to!

Pull is also about our ability to attract others, and particularly, serendipity. John suggests we can shape serendipity and increase the quality and quantity of those encounters. That’s why I joined The Melbourne Hub and try and live by the mantra of Show Up. Let Go. Jump In. (The very reason I was at the event last night where John was speaking) Co-working for me is the epitome of accelerated serendipity.

John started talking about passion and I started to tune out. The word passion has become a victim of its own popularity. I think it’s over-used and a catch all remedy for all sorts of underlying darker stuff we don’t want to talk about. Just find your passion and all will be okay. Sure. Whatever. Meh.

And then he talked about the passion of the explorer and I perked up again. This sounds interesting, I thought, and I also had an inkling that he was talking about me (and the other 30 or so people in the room!) Johnnie and I often talk about exploring, adventure and serendipitous discovery in our Edges of Work projects.

I can’t recall the context to the passion of the explorer (because, as I said, I’d tuned out). He mentioned accelerated learning and surviving and thriving in the increasingly complex and uncertain world. Good so far. And then this – three attributes:

1. Deep, long-term commitment to a domain, to learn, and to make a difference – and not just once, to continue to learn and to make increasing difference over time.


2. A questing disposition, so when presented with an unexpected challenge, what’s your reaction? Excitement. Wow. How would I do that? People with a questing disposition actively seek out new challenges, and get bored easily.


3. A connecting disposition, so when faced with above challenge, doesn’t hunker down in a hovel somewhere to nut out the answer (and knows there isn’t an ‘answer’ per se) but seeks out others who can help, who can work with us on the challenge.


There was other good stuff about the role of narrative in nurturing and catalysing passion. I liked John’s description of narrative: open ended, no resolution (compared with story), the direction depends on the choices I make, and I will shape the outcome of this narrative. People ‘buy in’ to the narrative, e.g. religion, wars, Apple, Nike were the examples he used. Narratives are shared by many people, and are very personal, they are long-term, offer many possibilities and huge challenges. “Every successful social movement is driven by narrative”.

An interesting side note on narrative – it’s not the same as the company story. And it’s not provided by the PR Department!

And finally (if you’re still with me, thanks for reading this far) John talked about extreme sports. I took no notes, yet I have a vivid memory of what he said. Suddenly I was really engaged, not just listening to an engaging and knowledgable speaker, but relating at a different level.

Let me digress for a bit. The Winter Olympics are on at the moment. You may not be interested in the competitive, commercialised, control-freakery nature of the Games, yet there’s lots to admire, to marvel at, to laugh at, and be confused by. Why would anyone do a sport like Skeleton? And what’s with the Double Luge? Watching the competitors in the Women’s Slopestyle and the Women’s Super G, it was great to see how they support and encourage each other and even send information back to the start line to help their competitors. The roll call of injuries, broken bones and even deaths from these sports is staggering. The risks and rewards are great.

John spoke about another extreme sport – big wave riding - surfing huge waves with tons of water behind you just ready to swat you aside. People who do big wave riding function differently – they function with the passion of the explorer. They share information on the water, on the beach, on-line. They seek out greater and greater challenges. The have a deep connection to big wave riding, worldwide.

What distinguishes people involved in these sports is a marathon approach, rather than a sprint mentality. They’re in it for the long haul. Yet a lot of our society is caught up in “dysfunctional threat-based narratives” reinforced by urgency. Our political discourse is an example. Organisational rules, regulations, procedures and competencies are another. Do this, be this, or else. Opportunistic narratives are less common. Maybe this is something for me to explore around my applied improv project.

Those of us working on the edge could do well to support each other in the same way. It’s hard to sustain working at the edge. We need – I need – an antidote to the dark side of technology and the inevitable performance pressure. Abundance instead of scarcity. Vulnerability instead of assuredness. Courage instead of playing it safe. Sharing instead of competing.