What is your learning edge?

April 26th, 2012

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.

Kurt Vonnegut

We now know it’s not enough to just bring our brains to work. The difficult issues we’re asked to explore require us to access and apply our whole intelligence to problem-solving, creativity and innovation, especially in the face of global and local social and environmental issues.

And it can be hard work. Which is why I spend a lot of time just trying to keep up, and developing my own skills and capacities. These days, it’s not so much learning new processes – that I can do easily, by talking with colleagues and chasing up information on line. What I can’t learn so easily is how to be responsive, compassionate, and to take risks. This takes something else – presence, awareness and a willingness to go to my edge.

I’ve started a little business with three colleagues in the UK called Edges of Work and we’ve been exploring what it means to go to our edge – or to encourage others to their edge. There seems to be three parts to this:

First, people will go to their edge more willingly if they feel they’re in the right company – with people who can support as well as provoke them.

Second, we think there is a sweet spot. It’s when there is enough challenge to create excitement and curiosity – but not so much that people lose control of their bladders or feel dragged somewhere they don’t want to go.

Third, it’s about being adventurous  and creative in the activities used. A lot of our work is inspired by art, theatre, improvisation and other ways of working that get beyond just talking and thinking.

The thing is, it’s hard to go to your edge alone. Which is part of the thinking behind convening a gathering of people willing to explore our learning edge together. If you’d like to join me and about 35 others from diverse backgrounds exploring our edges, better register now (especially as early bird registration closes on May 1st).

Facilitation in pictures

April 25th, 2012

In March I was delighted to facilitate a workshop at the Malaysian Facilitators’ Conference in Kuala Lumpur. And yesterday, “The world is getting smaller and smaller”, wrote a friend in an email. “Recently I contracted an artist for a project and saw this on her blog.”

Thanks to the amazing Wendy Wong of Welenia Studios for capturing my workshop in such a beautiful way.


April 20th, 2012

 Click here to find out more.

When I was in charge of producing various forms of innovation such as new legislation, new partnerships, new community engagement approaches, new carbon management approaches, etc [at a large government agency] someone said to me we were having success because I employed talented, young people who could cope with uncertainty.

I replied that it was a bit more than “being comfortable with uncertainty”; I actually sought talented, young people who “actively looked for uncertainty because they knew that is where the biggest opportunities for positive change exist”.

Terry A’Hearn
Director, Global Regulatory Innovation, WSP Environment & Energy, UK

Once a decade conferencing

April 18th, 2012

As many of you reading this blog will know, I’m sort of keen on improvisation theatre – especially on what I’ve learnt that influences my facilitation approach. Things like making your partner look good, seeing everything a group, or individuals, do or say, as an offer, and understanding status and how to shift it. I can’t imagine facilitating now without knowing this stuff.

And about once a decade, I get a rush of blood to the head and decide to convene a conference. In the 1990s it was Live and Earthy – a fantastic conference for community educators. In the 2000s (is that how you say it?) it was The Naked Facilitator, a conference for facilitators (naturally) which was to be (unknown to me at the time) an opening for all manner of opportunities. And this decade? Well, it’s Thriving In Uncertainty.

Why once a decade? It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to host a conference. Maybe it takes me a few years to forget just how much work is involved, until I’m happy to jump on board again. And given my advanced years, this may well be the last conference I host!

So, if you want to know what all the fuss is about in relation to applied improv, maybe you’d like to come along. As well as the Applied Improvisation Network, I’ve partnered with Melbourne Playback Theatre Company to host the conference. They are a world class playback theatre company (playback is a form of improvised theatre where audience stories are brought to life). Oh, and if you’re wondering if you have to get up on stage, or act, or do anything even remotely scary, the answer is no.

You will get an opportunity to hang out with world-class improvisors and learn how they use their skills to engage groups.

It would be great to see you there.

You can check out more about the conference here (early bird registration closes on May 1st).

I need help

March 28th, 2012

Recently I received a great little gift from my friends at On Your Feet. It was a reminder about asking for help, and the rewards that often go beyond the help itself.

So, here I am, asking for your help to let others know about a conference I’m organising. It’s called Thriving in Uncertainty and will be held in Melbourne on July 12th and 13th.

I am simultaneously excited and nervous about this – the first time we’ve publicly explored how applied improv can be used in different business and organisational settings. I’m passionate about the power of improv practices to build people’s capacity to respond to uncertainty, navigate change and be agile and responsive. And I know passion is not enough.

A significant insight I had recently was about the role of practicing improv exercises regularly to build our capacity to do our work more effectively. It’s like going to the gym to build your strength to be a better tennis player; or it’s like practicing scales on the piano so you’ll be better able to perform that tricky musical piece. I believe we provide too few opportunities for people in businesses and organisations to regularly practice the skills of making and accepting offers, noticing, making their partners look good, letting go, and doing something when they don’t know what to do.

I’ve promoted the conference widely amongst improvisers – now it’s time to share with businesses and organisations who we know could benefit from some improv wisdom.

Can you help?

Improv in business

February 12th, 2012

It’s no surprise – learning the practices of improvisation, has transformed the way I work, the way I facilitate, the way I relate to others, my outlook and my approach. Big claims? You bet.

The internet enables us to find others who share this passion for improv. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because we can find others who share this belief that improv is a fundamental skill for navigating the uncertainty of the world, and a curse because it may lull us into a believing that improv is now mainstream in business. Not yet. Definitely not yet. Using improv in business settings is still at the edge.

So I’m delighted to find this selection of essays about improv in business compiled by Ian Gotts and John Cremer. It is a cracker. If you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss is about, and why you should consider improv – in any context – it’s worth a read. Lots of examples and case studies and different applications of improv.

And if you’d like to explore applied improv – or improv in business, communities and organisations – closer to home (if home is Australia ofc), early bird registration is now open for AIN Downunder, right here in Melbourne , July 12 & 13.

Make your partner look good

January 28th, 2012

This is one my favourite improv principles. It’s just so obvious – focus on making others look good. It’s about shifting the focus from yourself to others, and being concerned more about the overall outcome – whether that’s a performance, a workshop, a show, a presentation, or a conference.

Speaking of conferences, it’s the last three days for super early bird registration for AIN Downunder. You can help make the conference look good by showing up and making us all look good! Go here to register.

It’s gonna be amazing! We’ll explore how to use the principles of improvisation to bring more spontaneity, and effectiveness, to your work and life.

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

January 23rd, 2012

I’m in a foreign country, working with my client, to prepare for a two-day facilitated event with 150 or so people from multiple countries and organisations. While many things are familiar, I’m very conscious that I’m not at home. I received an email from the Australian Government alerting me to some imminent dangers, someone tried to snatch my shopping, and I’m hearing lots of people speaking languages I don’t know. It’s not uncomfortable per se, just a little bit unnerving.

Which is probably how many people feel coming into an event, a workshop or a conference. It’s why people often demand a detailed agenda – a sort of safety net – to be assured that they have some sense of what’s going to happen. So if it’s assurance and safety and a sense of well-being that people want, maybe we can provide that without the traditional agenda?

I’m not a fan of detailed agendas. I think they provide a false sense of security, the illusion that someone is in control and knows what is going to happen from moment to moment. The best workshops and events are emergent, building on what comes from the previous sessions rather than a sausage machine that churns out some pre-determined outcome – or in the worst cases, seats people in rows for hour upon hour while they are force fed information, with little or no interactive and engagement.

Yet it is still important to give people coming to this unusual, out-of-the ordinary event some sense of what’s going to happen and how they are expected to show up. I’m often called in too late to have impact on how this is done, yet there are still some ways of creating a welcoming and sense of comfort with a dash of curiosity and surprise.

Pre-event logistics: Anyone who travels a lot knows how useful it is to have information about the country you are travelling to, it’s entry requirements, how to get from the airport to the venue, what the climate is like, the local customs, where to change money, what to watch out for etc.

Welcome Pack: When checking in to the venue it’s nice to receive (or if the hotel is really good, find in your room) an individualised welcome pack that includes some up-to-date information about timings, where to go for breakfast and dinner, a map of the venue, a local map, and a treat – a sweet or chocolate. This signals that the organisers know you are coming, and that, well, you’re welcome!

Active Hosting: I learnt this from my friend Anne Pattillo who is a master at active hosting. I’m not so good, but I’m learning to do it in short bursts and to recruit others to help. It’s making sure people are greeted when they enter the workshop or conference space. It’s obvious, but it confirms they are in the right place and helps them navigate the space.

When I travel in foreign airports, I often lose the ability to read signs. I know, it’s weird. I put it down to a combination of tiredness, tinged with anxiety. Sometimes it’s not even that. The signs might be ambiguous or misleading. So I’m always looking for someone to ask. There’s something so much more personal about someone explaining where to go, compared with standing bewildered wondering what to do next. We should try and avoid people feeling this way at conferences.

Identity, Connection, Action: I learnt this from my other friend Antony Williams (seems I’m always learning from my friends). This is a nice little reminder about what people need when they enter a group for the first time: they want to be recognised first as an individual (name tags and individualised materials help); then they want to find out who else they know in the room and to connect, and who they might like to know, and connect in some way; and finally they like to move into some action that is relevant to the reason why they have come together.


Creating a memorable conference

January 19th, 2012

I opened a newspaper and there was a photo of Yosemite National Park. I’ve been to Yosemite once, for a few days. The place was instantly recognisable. It strikes me time and again how easy it is to recognise a place that I have physically visited. There is some visceral memory. There is something about place, and relationship to something outside of ourselves that creates, and embeds, memory.

I’m asking myself what makes a memorable conference? If you attend many conferences, what memories come to mind? Which events come back with enormous clarity, and why? What conferences do you talk about long after they were done?

I have a few theories based on a research sample of one.*

Sense of place
Not all venues are created equal. Memorable events have light, space, a vibe, connections with nature, provide an opportunity to stare into the middle distance (maybe even fuelling daydreams) and are a part of the place, not apart from.

Involving all the senses
Hearing and seeing are well catered for in most conferences. Our other senses not so much. Smell – the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee; the smell of jasmine flowers wafting on the breeze; the salt smell of the ocean. Touch – the feel of lovingly crafted and carved talking stick; of a notebook that is bound in linen and embossed. Taste – of the flavours of the place, of freshness. And even hearing and seeing can be enhanced – colours, beautiful pictures, the sounds of nature, singing, silence. The best conferences I remember through all of my senses.

Connection is as important as content
After I’ve been to a great conference I’m likely to chatter incessantly about all the great people I met and what new stuff I learned. Without the connection, and the ability to reference what I’m learning to who I’m learning it from, I’m likely to forget.

Pace and movement
Not too rushed, not too slow, and plenty of time for conversations to develop beyond the superficial. Long breaks. Long enough to grab a coffee, and check messages, and visit the bathroom, and talk to people. And movement, not just sitting all day.

STAR – Something They will Always Remember (hat tip Nancy Duarte)
Something quirky, something unexpected. Like 200 people doing James Bond Aerobics, or group singing on the New York subway, or a presentation that moved you to tears, or ginormous bubbles that did nothing more than make you smile a lot.

What makes a conference memorable for you?

*That would be one person, not one conference.

How to be more playful

November 29th, 2011

I’m always banging on about bringing playfulness – which can be an attitude, a point-of-view, an approach – to work, to problem solving, to meetings, to life. “But how?” I hear you asking. Here’s a few ideas:

Have a play space – a space at work or in a conference for people to play: shooting hoops, hopscotch, just tossing a ball around… It doesn’t have to be fancy, just somewhere to get the body moving.

Have materials available (see the pic) They don’t have to be used, although they might be. Just having these available might encourage people to explore visual thinking, or ideas might emerge from looking at a problem from the perspective of a fish (yes, really).

Can’t quite figure out what to focus on? Try haiku. The limitation of a haiku (3 lines, 7, 5 and 7 syllables) encourages creative thinking. Make lots. Here’s one – it’s not very good (and that’s the point) Like chocolates, it’s hard to stop at one.

Playfulness gets a bad rap
Why? Play is fun and
helps us do our work better


We have serious work to
do. We can’t waste time
in play! That is sad.

Or try Essence, to get to the heart of something – especially if you are trying to describe something quite complex. Essence is a Thiagi activity, and while it does create a product at the end, the real benefits come from the conversations people have. In small groups get people to write (a description, proposition, elevator pitch – anything really) in exactly 16 words. Hear them all, then ask them to rewrite using exactly 8 words. And then 4 words. You can continue to 2 words and 1 word if it’s helpful. Depends on the circumstances really.

Paired Drawing is another favourite activity to get people playing with their thinking. In pairs, draw a face, taking turns, one line at a time. Silently (except for the laughter, of course).

Improv warm-up games. These games are designed to build a bridge between the day-to-day work that actors have been doing and getting ready for the stage (and after all, most actors have day jobs). The games might be simple physical warm-ups, and they might help get people out of their heads (and whatever might be worrying them) and into their bodies, they might aid in concentration, in focus, in empathy, in noticing. There are literally hundreds of these games. Often, any will do. People will make meaning according to what’s important for them. Games can also be a circuit breaker if a group is stuck in a certain pattern of thinking or looking at a problem. Games can provide metaphors, they can illuminate behaviours, and they can simply make us laugh. Sometimes we all need a good laugh.

All very well for creative thinking and problem solving you might be thinking to yourself. What about sharing important information? Surely nothing beats a good presentation, followed by a robust Q & A? Maybe – if the presenter is actually good. I’ve never seen a satisfying Q & A session, either there’s not enough time, too few dominate, it provides opportunities for grandstanding and soapboxing. Ah, don’t start me. Let me share some alternatives.

You’ve got a Very Important Report to share and want comments. Rip the report apart (especially if it has lots of pages). Give each person a page with the page numbers obliterated (of course) and get people to organise themselves into chapters, and then identify the key messages in each part.

The Board has just met and come up with some statements about the organisation that you have been charged with sharing with the staff. Sound familiar? Print out the statements on small cards and leave lying around the office for a few days. Feign ignorance if anyone asks about them. After a few days do some follow-up activity.

Staff have to learn a new procedure that’s to be implemented in the next financial year. Plant clues on your web site and in other electronic places, and on social media sites that your staff use, and create an on-line scavenger hunt.

Some key information has to be shared, and understood, by people. Use 35 (another Thiagi activity).

Many of these activity embody the improv principles that underpin playfully exploring serious issues: letting go (of limiting beliefs, of old patterns of thinking, of pre-conceived ideas); accepting offers (working with what’s available, building on each other’s ideas, silencing the judgmental inner and outer critic); seeing mistakes as opportunities (trying something lots, throwing out what doesn’t work, doing more of what does, small tilts to see the effects – some call this fast prototyping); being average (that’s right, letting go of the need to be seen as competent, polished, professional and opening up to new ideas and creativity).

Bringing people together, for a meeting, for a conference, for a gathering of any sort requires more than booking a time and a space. It’s our responsibility as leaders to take care of the human dimension too.

And one more important point about playfulness. It’s not a pre-requisite to have any ‘talent’ (though you might be surprised) – you don’t have to be an actor, or a performer, or an artist to be playful. All that’s needed is that you’re human. You are human aren’t you?