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 BO1204203200  200x300 Honor Among Thieves: A ReviewIn 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 2554 300x225 Learn facilitation?Facilitating 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 2 225x300 Burlesque, red dust, sexual and mental health, fun, connection   and cocktails!While 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

josh01 The power in performanceJosh 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

Wordle Applet 1024x563 The meaning of wordsMusing 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

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*