Nothing is Written – Learning is an Adventure now available

June 1st, 2015

NIW-CoverTo celebrate a whole new month Johnnie Moore and I are releasing the PDF of our new short book, Nothing is Written. It shares eight simple ideas that guide how we work.

Nothing is Written
Emotional connectedness
Experiences over explanation
Shared peril
Avoiding the teacher trance
The value of loose ends
Getting out of our heads
Getting over ourselves

We think it’s possible to create more engaging training that plays to human strengths and avoids many of the cliches found in training rooms worldwide. We hope you enjoy it. It’s free and available from here.

Once you’ve read the book, if you’d like to experience for yourself how we work, we have workshops coming up in Melbourne and London. There’s more information here.

Learning is an adventure

May 30th, 2015

ExperiencesTraining is on my mind at the moment. I’ve always believed in the importance of helping others learn to do what I do with facilitation, and more, rather than build a dependence. The next couple of weeks are chocker block full of creative facilitation training – one of my favourite things to be doing. So it’s appropriate that Johnnie Moore and I are about to release our new book. Here’s a snippet. Oh, and I just love the illustrations created by the amazingly talented Mary Campbell.

Experiences over Explanation

In his book, Friends in Low Places, Dr James Willis describes research in which two groups of people were shown a photograph of a face. After seeing the photo the first group was asked to recall details of the face. The second group didn’t have to do this.

Later, each group was tested to see if they could remember the faces they had seen in the photos.

The second group – those left to use only their innate and wordless ability to remember a face – were twice as likely to remember it.

By attempting to make people’s learning more detailed and explicit, we may be getting in people’s way.

Malcolm Gladwell relates the studies of tennis coach Vic Braden. Braden would ask top tennis players the “secret” of their technique. He found that although they had detailed explanations for how they did what they did, these descriptions were inconsistent and often false. Famously, Andre Agassi insisted that he would roll his wrist as he hit his forehand shots. In fact, stop motion photography showed that this simply wasn’t true. The fancy term for this mistake is confabulation.

Our rational mind invents a plausible explanation for a behaviour, and believes its own propaganda.

Fresh experiences beat old explanations.


Creative Facilitation – New stuff. Yay!

April 23rd, 2015

CF-2day2015Flyer.pdf (1 page)How does a facilitator announce new stuff? A musician brings out a new song or album, an artist has an exhibition of their latest paintings, a writer releases a new book or poem – and a facilitator announces…”I have new stuff to share with you.” Sounds a bit lame really.

Nonetheless, I DO have new stuff to share with you – gleaned from a trip to that other hemisphere where I took part in an improvisation retreat and a learning village, hung out with some seriously cool people, finished a project that’s been on the go for a couple of years, explored street art in Shoreditch (oh, I’m getting distracted now).

It’s boring to talk about this stuff – much better to do it. So I’ll be sharing my new stuff on June 17 and 18 at my favourite venue, the Donkey Wheel House in Bourke Street Melbourne. I hope you can join me. Use the promo code newstuff2015 for a 20% discount. Yay!

Honor Among Thieves: A Review

March 23rd, 2015

Edges are interesting places. Unpredictable stuff happens there. Much of what many of us take for granted every day – belonging, security, understanding – can be missing, or at least fleeting.

61Jhq52WqYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In his latest book, the second in a trilogy, J. explores these themes through the eyes and experiences of humanitarian workers and the people they are striving to help. Most of his protagonists live at the edges – between one place and another, never really belonging, often knowing that there’s something else, just out of reach, even if they don’t know what that something else might be.

J. weaves themes about the reality of humanitarian work into the story, giving the reader rare insights. Set in Cambodia and Washington, DC, the story evolves around Mary-Anne, whom we met in the first of the trilogy Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. In fact, we met Mary-Anne in the prequel, Disastrous Passion – a romance set in aftermath of a Haiti earthquake. The books track Mary-Anne’s journey at many levels – her growth as a person, her understanding of her place in the world, her increasing awareness, and sometimes dismay, of what it means to work ‘in aid’.

The title of this book is telling: it explores the sometimes muddy ethics and behaviours that underpin humanitarian decisions, the trade-offs and the sacrifices, the wins and the losses, the idealism and the pragmatism. J. does this very well indeed, weaving the stories of different characters to explore many of the inter-relationships and experiences that make up the ‘big’ picture of humanitarian work. Occasionally, he slips into the territory of too much humanitarian jargon and too much detail, but this is a small quibble in a thoroughly entertaining, and believable book.

J. knows his stuff too. He has lived and worked in the countries in which the book is set, he knows what it’s like to juggle the demands of a humanitarian career, he knows what it’s like to sit through endless ‘very important meetings’, to visit places many of us have only heard of, to travel endless miles in dodgy vehicles, to talk with people who simply want a chance to make the most of their lives. He’s not alone. There are many, many people who will recognise themselves in this book, and the themes it explores. What sets J. apart is his ability to share these experiences with those of us who are not humanitarian workers, who think we know how it ‘should’ or ‘could’ be done, who have opinions based on good intentions and little awareness.

This book will be widely read by those in the industry. It should be read by everyone who proffers an opinion about aid, NGOs, and humanitarian workers. It might just open some eyes, and hearts. Get it from Amazon

Language, please!

February 4th, 2015

It’s not what you’re thinking. I have no problem with bad language, swearing, cussing. Fuck no. My friend Kay Scorah wrote a brilliant piece recently about all those words you probably shouldn’t be using. As they say, be warned, strong language – and now go read it. I’ll wait.

Johnnie Moore found this gem too on the Ad Contrarian website. I couldn’t watch the video to the end. I was done after about a minute. Go have a look. It’s about McDonald’s philosophies, I think. I couldn’t get past the jargon and cliches.

Jargon. Cliches. Rhetoric. Weasel words. Obfucations.

I’m done with them.

Don’t tell me you’re a thought leader. I don’t want to hear about your innovation incubator. I don’t believe the answer to all your problems at work are to clarify roles and responsibilities. I certainly don’t care about your open and transparent dialogue. Business as usual is so overused it has its own acronym.

I want to hear plain language. Solid words. Anything ending with ‘..ion’ is probably an abstraction. Sounds fancy. Means not much.


Learn facilitation?

January 7th, 2015

IMG_2554Facilitating is like rock balancing – you never know if you can do it until you try.

Everyone’s offering training at this time of the year (let’s face it, everyone’s offering training all year round!) How do you choose? Not sure, but here’s my advice:


You can read all the details about Creative Facilitation: The Basics here and Facilitation as Performance here, and other people seem to have enjoyed the experience, even learned some stuff.

Come along and find out for yourself. Melbourne. February 11 and 12. Use the Promotional Code of CF20 for a 20% discount on registration costs. Shhhh – don’t tell everyone.

And if you’re in London, do a Molly (that’s Australian for ‘do yourself a favour’) and get yourself along to one of Johnnie Moore’s workshops on February 5 and 6.

Burlesque, red dust, sexual and mental health, fun, connection – and cocktails!

December 7th, 2014

photo-2While I’m on about inspiring, how about this? The Channel Country Ladies Day.

Also on ABC’s Landline. You can watch it here.

Women who live and work in isolated communities and properties in rural Queensland come together for a girls’ weekend. There’s everything you’d expect from a girls’ weekend: pampering, cocktails, talking, eating, shopping – and a whole lot more: burlesque dancing, body painting, talks about sexual and mental health. Plus I get an excuse to use a pic of an espresso martini in a blog post.

I love the idea of this.

I love how it’s a bit edgy.

All that’s missing is some improv!

The power in performance

December 7th, 2014

josh01Josh Arnold is a country music singer, songwriter and seemingly all-round good Aussie bloke. His story was featured on Landline – an ABC program that features stories of Australian agriculture, and rural life. You can watch it here. 

He brings music into classrooms – at all levels – helping kids connect to music, gain confidence, write songs that are relevant to them, and to perform. He’s developed the Small Town Culture workshops to celebrate small town culture. There’s even a Small Town Culture YouTube channel.

How great is it that kids, in school, are learning about music, about celebrating their local lives, and about performing?


The meaning of words

December 3rd, 2014

Play WordleMusing over the meaning of these words – play, playfulness, game, activity, ice-breaker and warm-up – I invited others to share their understanding. Even with a sample size of 14 responses*, there’s some interesting insights regarding word meanings and the use of language when facilitating. here’s what i discovered.

Some people gave meanings for each word, others took the words as a collective and said what they mean to them: eg “Fun, sharing and the unknown”; “getting together and learning from having fun”. So there’s my first insight:

Even instructions are interpreted differently

That’s not to say everyone should interpret instructions the same way (unless it’s the safe operation of a chainsaw). There’s something interesting and unexpected about what emerges from different interpretations of instructions. Plus, who am I to know the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way of doing an activity?

A word with no context can be taken many different ways

Play, for example can be a verb (activities done primarily for leisure or enjoyment), a noun (a theatrical performance), or an object (the button you push to start a DVD player). This really drove home the point for me that, as facilitators, we may use words that mean a certain thing to us, but may be interpreted quite differently by others. It’s a clue, I think, to talk less, and do more.

There was no agreement on what these words mean, because ‘meanings are slippery’

Thanks to the person who alerted me to this. I understand what I mean when I use a particular word, you may understand something completely different. I remember an animated argument I once had with a US journalist about ‘organic’ agriculture. After a while, I asked him what he meant by ‘organic’ and we discovered that what I understood to be ‘organic’ he understood as ‘biodynamic’: related yes, but somewhat different. We sometimes need to clarify and negotiate what we mean when we use various words. And sometimes we need to be open to accepting a different, or changed, meaning to the one we had in mind.

Our experiences and influencers shape our understanding

“I didn’t come all this way to play games!” said a manager in one of my workshops. In his mind ‘play’ and ‘game’ had a particular meaning, and place. And it certainly wasn’t in a facilitated workshop. A colleague is very clear that a ‘game’ is something that has rules, winners and losers. If it’s a collaborative, group game then, in his mind, it’s not a ‘game’, it’s an activity. A hunter would have a different understanding of ‘game’ eg a wild animal; and game can be used as an adjective ‘are you game to do that?’

Language is an abstraction and representative

The words I type here reflect my thoughts, they are not my thoughts. The word ‘chair’ is not a chair. At least a chair is a concrete object that I can point to, touch, feel, and sit in – even though there are many different types of chairs. Abstract language, which crops up a lot in workshops, is even harder to deal with: communication, strategy, best practice etc. and is fraught with danger.

Meaning can be sucked out of words

Don Watson, in his book, Weasel Words (2004), talks about ‘sucking the meaning out of words’. “This is a language without possibility. It cannot convey humour, fancy, feelings, nuance, or the varieties of experience…This dead, depleted, verbless jargon is becoming the language of daily life. The death of language is not being brought about by absent commas, and misplaced apostrophes, or even by neglected grammar. Foolish as that neglect is, the real disease is in the system…it is there in the cant of competitive advantage and human resources management, transparency, accountability: in the clichés, consumer, client, key, core, going forwards, at the end of the day, outcomes-based. It is there in the pompous lunacy of management jargon which reaches from the world’s biggest corporations and government agencies…to primary schools where children now use PowerPoint in English presentations and are taught to call the conclusions of their history essays product.”

We can have an emotional reaction to particular words

And usually it’s not a good reaction – these words close us down. You probably know what yours are. If someone tells me in a workshop that ‘communication is the problem’ I inwardly sigh and immediately wish I were somewhere else; if someone suggest a SWOT analysis I want to scream. These words trigger a response in me. They may be completely benign to others. In his recent AFN post, Peter Rennie, talks about ‘taboo’ words and muses as to what makes them taboo. Is it because they are ‘shadow’ words, words that remind us of something we’d rather forget or ignore? Interesting question.

What’s all this got to do with facilitating?

Language is a form of power. Don Watson (2003) again: “Public language that defies normal understanding is, as Primo Levi wrote, ‘an ancient repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires’. They will tell you it is in the interests of leadership, management, efficiency, stakeholders, the bottom line or some democratic imperative, but the public language remains the language of power. It has its origins in the subjection or control of one by another.”

As facilitators we need to cultivate our ability to sniff out weasel words and to challenge them. In a workshop someone suggested ‘business as usual’ was needed. This is a meaningless term to me, so I probed a bit more. What they really wanted to say was ‘we need to honour our existing commitments’. Still not great, but at least better than ‘business as usual’.

And we also need to be aware of our own facilitation weasel words. There’s a great hash tag on Twitter #shitfacilitatorssay. I cringe every time, seeing myself using ‘facilitator’ language.

It pays to be vigilant – to notice the language others use, to notice the language we use, to be aware of the power of language, and to sometimes let go of language altogether and tap into more embodied experiences of sharing.

* To be perfectly clear, this is definitely not a scientific study – it was a random on-line question to facilitator groups with the invitation to share what these words mean to them.


Don Watson (2003) Death sentence; the decay of public language, Random House, Sydney.

Don Watson (2004) Watson’s dictionary of weasel words, contemporary clichés, cant and management jargon, Random House, Sydney.

Where ‘YES!’ leads

November 18th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly 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…

Viv, Nicky, Marigo, LeeSaying 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.