July 31st, 2012

While I’m banging on about communication, might as well tell you about my most recent Werewolf experience.

Werewolf is a game for between 10 and 30 people (thereabouts – don’t quote me). It’s not at all physical. It’s played sitting in a circle, either on the floor or in chairs. It helps if all the players can see each other. There’s one moderator.

The premise is straightforward: the game is set in a village where some of the villagers are actually werewolves. By day, they look like any other villager; by night they turn into werewolves and kill innocent villagers. The villagers want revenge. By day, they lynch someone who they suspect of being a werewolf. Who will win? Villagers or werewolves. At night, players are instructed to close their eyes. By day, eyes are open. At night, the game is played in silence. During the day, anyone can speak.

Players are given a random role (either villager or werewolf) at the beginning of the game that they only reveal after they have died.

It’s an easy game to set up – no materials or props are needed, and it’s an easy game to moderate.

It’s not such an easy game to play. Some people adopt a strategy of saying nothing at all (Suze hasn’t said anything all night. I bet that’s because she’s hiding something. I bet she’s a werewolf!), or taking control (Who does Tom think he is? He’s trying to tell us all what to do. I bet that’s because he’s a werewolf!) or pointing out what else is happening (Why is Sarah deflecting us from her? She wants us to think she’s innocent. I bet she’s a werewolf!) or doing nothing at all (Frank looks a bit shifty. I bet he’s a werewolf!).

See, fraught. The game is fraught with innuendo, misinformation, uncertainty, not knowing who to trust and life and death decisions made on account of the way someone is sitting, what they are or are not saying, or who they glance at.

It’s brilliant. It’s fun, multi-layered and a perfect platform to unravel all those grand ideas we have about who we are and how clever we are reading other people.

Passion is not enough

July 31st, 2012

We hear a lot about doing what you’re passionate about. Good advice. Certainly beats doings something you hate. Finding your passion is one thing – and not always as easy as it seems – and sharing your passion with others is quite another.

I’ve come to realise that passion is not enough.

It’s not okay to be passionate and boring, or passionate and rambling, or passionate and incoherent, or passionate and judgemental.

Communication for mentors

July 31st, 2012

I’ve been asked to design and deliver a short session on communication skills (2 hours) as part of a longer training for a group of mentors. It’s much harder to design a short session than it is to design one or two days, or even a whole week’s worth. Too many choices. Too many decisions. This got me thinking about specific communication skills needed for mentors, and how this might differ from other situations and/or relationships.

I’m a bit antsy about the term ‘communication skills’ – it just too big, probably means something different to every person who hears it. Communication for me ranges from the extremes of a presentation in an auditorium to sitting silently with another person. Communication is more than talking; it’s more than sharing information; it’s a lot more than giving advice.

So what do mentors specifically need to know about communication? That’s the question I’m playing with today. I’ve gone back to what I believe is the role of a mentor: to facilitate professional learning. Therefore mentor communication needs to focus on one-to-one communication. It will also incorporate elements of role modelling, and is a sustained, caring relationship over time.

It’s not about you
People being mentored want to learn from their mentors, want to benefit from their experiences and connections, want to share the wisdom. I think it’s easy for mentors to become focused on their own challenges and triumphs. This is an important principle to remember for mentors: it’s not about you.

Listening with your whole body – that’s right, being present with the other person, fully, completely. We know when we have someone’s complete attention. It’s becoming rarer. It’s a gift to be present for another person.

Probing, listening for what’s not said and being genuinely interested in different experiences and points of view. Yeah, curious.

It’s easy for all of us to remain comfortable. Sometimes someone has to provoke or cajole us into trying something new or different. Provoking without being pushy; cajoling without upsetting.

I know! I bang on about improvising all the time. That’s because it’s not possible to know in advance what might be needed. I think it’s important to incorporate the principles I’ve outlined above AND to be able to improvise according to what’s happening right in front of you (the person you’re talking to might be upset, bored, excited, too talkative, too quiet, expects too much, expects too little, is over- or under-confident). You see, so many different scenarios. Even if you know the person well, they are not going to want to communicate in the same way every time. Things change. People change. We need to be responsive.

Anything else? What have I missed specifically about the communication skills for mentors?

Habits and disruption

July 30th, 2012

Recently I facilitated a couple of workshop with visiting academic Professor Bas Verplanken. He specialises in habits. Here’s a few things I gleaned.

When looking to unearth habits it’s sometimes worth searching for the habit in the behaviour. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not. We often associate a habit with behaviour, yet a habit may also be a way of thinking. The behaviour then might be a consequence of habitual thinking. This can be good or bad. For example, we might want to develop a habit of exercising, yet the real habit might be the decision to exercise, with the behaviour being the exercise itself.

Another really interesting point was about the problems that our habits reward. Some habits help us navigate the world, they help us short-circuit everyday decisions so as we can get ourselves to work without having to make new decisions at every step. This is called fluency – we don’t want to have to think about what we are doing all the time. Even bad habits solve some problem for us.

Some habits don’t bother us but bother other people. People delivering ‘behaviour change’ programs are often trying to change habits that are seen by others to be troublesome.

And then there’s the conditions that contribute to, maybe even reinforce, particular habits. In trying to change habits, it may be worth looking at those conditions rather than the habit itself.

The way to start thinking about changing habits is to begin with some form of disruption. Disruption might be voluntary, or it might be something we’d rather avoid (such as becoming suddenly unemployed, or a serious disease diagnosis). The disruption provides a ‘teachable moment’ – an opportunity to explore alternatives.

Which of course, got me thinking about disruptive facilitation, providing a circuit breaker to group habits. Or at the very least, becoming more mindful of our actions in groups.

More about habits and a list of published papers by Prof Verplanken can be found here.


There’s more to an event than logistics and registrations

July 23rd, 2012

Designing, organising, structuring, promoting, facilitating, and hosting a conference has provided me with a few insights that I’d like to share – just in case you find yourself in a similar situation. Here’s a few random thoughts.

There are so many considerations around a venue – location, facilitates, cost, public transport, parking, helpful staff, flexibility, vibe, atmosphere, spaces to just sit and chat, access to outdoors, access to good coffee, a bar. Putting the time in to finding the right venue is well worth it. The Amora Riverwalk in Richmond ticked all these boxes.

Most people will forgive almost anything if the food is awesome. Especially if it includes freshly-baked, crispy and gooey Portuguese tarts!

By all means start with how events are usually structured, then play with it. What if you replaced the pre-conference workshops with longer in-conference workshops? What if you found an alternative to a conference dinner? Question every assumption you’ve ever had about events. You may still want to include something that’s been a tradition, and you will have thought it through rather than blindly following said tradition.

The experience
What experience do you want people to have? What memories will they carry forward? How can you make the event eventful?

Personal Invitation
If there’s people you really want to come to the event, send them a personal invitation. Even high profile people might say yes, and the worst they’ll do is ignore you.

One less thing
This from Open Space – what’s one less thing you can do? At AIN Downunder: Thriving In Uncertainty we had concurrent workshops. We didn’t ask people to sign up in advance, or on the day – we simply invited them to go where they wanted. It worked fine. Given the opportunity, people will self organise.

If you’re hosting, then you’re the host from inception to beyond
Be a real person, be known, be seen, be heard, be helpful. It’s good to have one person as a focus, go-to person. There might be others behind the scenes helping. I don’t think people want to correspond with an organising committee or whatever, they want personal contact. It means a lot of work. Organising an event IS a lot of work.

Have an easy-to navigate web site
Doesn’t need to be fancy, after all, it only has a limited lifespan. I use WordPress themes and create web sites myself, keeping it simple and with lots of information that people might want.

Use an on-line registration outfit
There’s a few of these around. I use Eventbrite. It’s easy to set up, automated, and they have the BEST help desk I have ever come across. No kidding.

Social media
Communicating through Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc is an integral part of communicating an event these days. Do it, or find someone who can help you.

Have a logo
This comes in handy for all sorts of things. For AIN Downunder I used fiverr. Best $5 I ever spent.

Know your limitations
Book-keeping stresses me and makes me grumpy. I can do it, but I don’t want to, nor do I like it, so I find someone who does like it who can help. Be realistic about what you want to do and don’t want to do, and find others to do the things you don’t want to do.

Ditch the committee
Helpers are fantastic. Committees suck. Have one or two people making the decisions – have others providing ideas. Listem, learn, question and then decide. And accept offers of help!

Does it serve the event?
This from Geoff Brown and the Airey’s Inlet Music Festival. They have a mantra: “Does it serve the music?” If not, they don’t do it/include it. It’s easy for events to become diluted, trying to be all things to all people. A small, well focused event can change the world, as much (if not more) than a ginormous mega-event.

PS: All endorsements are because I like the products/services.

Capturing the essence of improv

July 22nd, 2012

This is a fantastic summary of highlights and insights from AIN Downunder: Thriving In Uncertainty from April Seymore.


July 22nd, 2012

What an exhausting and exhilarating couple of weeks it’s been. Improvention in Canberra with lots of really talented improv folk, then hosting AIN Downunder: Thriving In Uncertainty Conference. More on that later. And now I’m at Mt Hotham for a week’s skiing.

I love skiing. I love being in the mountains. Today was a glorious day, one of those days you dream of – a bit of new snow overnight, a clear, bright, sunny day, only a little wind, not many people on the mountain.

So I’ve been thinking about edges a lot. Of course, I’ve been rediscovering the edges of my skis. And Johnnie and I have had many long, rambling conversations about Edges of Work. My business is called Beyond the Edge, and today I skied past this run. Not sure I wanted to be Off the Edge so I skied right on by.

This relates to a theme that Johnnie and I were exploring that we named “I’ve Got Your Back”. As I was skiing alone today – my partner was back in the lodge with a nasty dose of flu – I was thinking about the role of a skiing buddy who’s ‘got your back’. Someone who’s ‘got your back’ is there to support and encourage, as well as poke and prod. Ski instructors often play this role – taking their students into terrain they wouldn’t (and maybe even shouldn’t) ski alone.

Whether it’s skiing, improvising, trying something new at work or in life, experiencing change and uncertainty, leading a group or organisation, or even making difficult decisions, knowing that someone’s ‘got your back’ can be the difference between playing safe and taking a risk. And most importantly, feeling safe to proceed in the face of uncertainty. There’s a lot written about leadership and what it takes to be a good, great, better, the best leader. Maybe it’s the people who support leaders who make the biggest difference, that enable leaders to go to their learning edge and make new and interesting discoveries for themselves and their organisations?

Tom Salinsky’s improv wisdom

July 2nd, 2012

I’m at Improvention in Canberra – a festival of improvisers from all over Australasia, and a smattering from elsewhere. There’s shows, and competitions, and workshops, and serious discussions, and partying, and lots of coffee and other beverages. I feel like an imposter. There, glad I got that off my chest. And that’s all I’m going to say about my own personal demons. Back to Improvention.

Today there was a chat with Tom Salinsky from The Spontaneity Shop in London. I’m not a huge fan of the “Sage on the Stage” approach, but Tom brought enough humour, humility and sage advice to make it work even for me. Tom (right) was interviewed by Steve Kimmens.

When asked why he loves improv, Tom answered what many of us might say: it brings together humour, storytelling and working collaboratively. And, you never get to the end of learning improv.

Ain’t that the truth?

It seems that improv has inspired much of Tom’s life and work, from finding a partner (“Improvisers are nice people. If I was going to marry someone, I’d marry an improviser.” Apparently he did.) to scripting a play he’s taking to the Edinburgh Festival, Coalition. Yes, that’s right – the uses for improvisation even extend to writing a scripted play.

This story really helped illustrate an important aspect of improvisation. Tom told us how he colluded with another student at school for the weekly cross-country race to always come in last. The two of them would make sure they were the last to cross the line and sprint for the finish. Consequently, he never found out how fast he could really run.

Maybe we’re doing this to ourselves all the time, setting up situations where we are guaranteed to fail, thereby never having to actually RISK failure? Live improvisation, on the stage, with that always-present risk of danger and imminent failure, can show an audience that players can actually delight in chaos and failure. And the audience can share in that delight. “A triumphant failure is more satisfying that slinking off the stage.” This for me, is one of the main differences between stand-up routine, where the performance has been honed and crafted, to an improvisation performance where the players and the audience participate in something together, as it is created.

And here’s an interesting point about corporate improvisation workshops. At something like Improvention, we pretty much know what we’re getting into (yep, even me) and we sign up for the opportunity to perform. In corporate workshops it’s fair to say most people prefer not to perform, so more care has to be taken to prepare people. Bridges need to be built so as they can see the connection between what they are learning from improv and how that relates to everyday corporate situation such as presenting, leading meetings, making a sale, negotiating, etc. It seems to me that building a non-judgmental atmosphere and one where it’s okay to fail, indeed expected, is a pretty hard ask when these conditions are generally frowned upon. It’s one thing to suggest holding back on judgment and critical thinking, quite another to actually do it. One thing to suggest it’s okay to make mistakes and fail, quite another to internalise that and really believe it. This is one of the reasons I find applied improv so interesting and useful. It’s one of the few approaches I’ve come across that really builds the capacity to be non judgmental and to really risk failure.

And Tom’s final point is one that I buy into absolutely. He commented that many corporate workshops are about finding out what makes people different. Improv workshops are about finding what we have in common. Hallelujah to that.