Bringing a festival mindset to conferences


March 26th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt 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.

White Night MelbourneThe 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?

 

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.

 

How to be more creative


October 3rd, 2013

Street art in MoroccoMy late mentor, Brian Bainbridge, used to laugh at the ridiculousness (is that even a word?) of deciding to be creative. He’d tap his watch and say “I’m going to have a creative thought at precisely 12 minutes past four.” Then he’d reach for a glass of red wine and bemoan the state of the world and how ‘everyone’ wants to be in control of ‘everything’. He’d roll his eyes and have another drink.

So how do you be more creative?

Create.

Cook, knit, write, draw, plant, hammer. Doesn’t matter.

Stop talking about being creative and just create.

 

 

 

 

Courage and vulnerability


March 2nd, 2013

Artists perform. They live for their art, whatever that may be.

I’m learning more and more about my art – connecting people and ideas aka facilitating – from other artists.

This week I offered a workshop on Creative Facilitation. There were people in the room who had known me a long time, others who I met for the first time that morning. I introduced the workshop by saying I felt like a performer, with some old material and some new stuff.

I also explained why I still regard myself as a beginner, learning as I am to incorporate music into my workshops. The beginner mind is open and curious; the expert mind is closed and certain. I first learnt to do my craft, as many artists do – processes and techniques that I honed – and then started exploring being an artist. The difference between doing and being is courage and vulnerability. Courage to break away from the mould of what people expect facilitation and facilitators to be. Vulnerability to know that not everything I do will work, or be liked, and understanding that my art is not for everyone.

And if you watch this TED Talk by Amanda Palmer, you will understand why people like her are my inspiration. She nails the impact of courage, risk-taking, vulnerability and ultimately the connections and love that shows up.

Courageous conversations


February 18th, 2013

Sometimes I’m asked how I know about various facilitation approaches, how I know what to do, and what not to do, that sort of thing. One of the ways is to put myself in the shoes of a participant and notice my own reactions, and also learn from the others I’m with.

I’ve signed up for a week of doing this. I’m part of a group of 25 people (all strangers to me) who have come together to grapple with their own small and large questions, to reflect on what we do and why, how and with whom – that sort of stuff. It’s quite a shift of focus to be a participant. Here’s some of my Day One reflections.

I understand the principle of organic connecting, allowing people to meet each other as the day unfolds, and as the day unfolded I warmed to it a bit. Yet I was still left wondering who these people are, and who they are connected with. In fact, I think it’s the connections between people that interest me the most. It soon becomes obvious that some people know each other, or the facilitator knows some of the participants, so I think there’s some value in making that explicit. I’m not quite sure why yet. I just noticed that I missed not knowing that.

We did a cool activity that really resonated for me. We were asked to imagine ourselves as lead actors in our own movie and to think about the journey, or story arc, of our week on this course. We were asked to come up with a title for our movie, a genre, and a strap line. It was a brilliant way to get all of us thinking differently about our expectations of the week.

I also really liked the idea that sharing something of yourself with a complete stranger can throw a different light on that idea or thinking. This feeds another (as yet unpublished) blog post I’ve been writing about the advantages and disadvantages of showing up with others (where there’s an element of safety, sharing and connection) and showing up on your own (where there’s a greater element of risk, and vulnerability, and the potential for surprise).

“We need to have a courageous conversation with ourself and others about our needs, desires and promptings.” – David Whyte, poet

This is what today was about – beginning to have those courageous conversations. It was a good start.

 

A surefire way to solve problems


October 12th, 2012

I now have a tried and true formula for solving problems.

I’ve tested it many times and it ALWAYS works. Most recently was yesterday. I was struggling with some work and finding a way to breakthrough. I was planted in front of my computer and I was frustrated and grumpy. Talking about it (complaining if the truth be told) didn’t seem to help.

This morning a whole lot of options have occurred to me. I feel happier and enthusiastic, and itching to get on with it (just as soon as i finish this post!)

The formula? It’s not new and it’s not very clever. But it works. Every time. It requires patience. And it requires trust in yourself.

The formula is activity followed by sleep. In this case the activity was playing games – not head games, physical games that required movement and concentration, sound and laughter, focus and attention. Then sleep. It’s a form of letting go.

My subconscious then got on with the job and did all the work.

 

Wish I’d thought of that!


September 7th, 2012

Doesn’t really matter what it is, when I see something I really like, a great idea, a new use for something, I invariably wish I’d thought of that.

I do understand that most good ideas are crowd sourced, or group generated – Keith Sawyer did a great job in his book Group Genius in debunking the myth of the lone genius. Still, it’d be nice to think of something that no-one had ever thought of before. Maybe our tribal origins (that’s pre-internet, pre-technology for those who are wondering) means we are always inventing and re-inventing for our own context. I’ve always thought this might be a reason why learning from others’ experiences is a bit dodgy – our own experience is a much more reliable source of learning, hence we need to make the same mistakes as those who came before us.

My latest target for idea envy is Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate. The hard copy version is bad enough (for envy, that is) – taking one of my favourite adaptations of the Hero’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and applying it to presentations, but the on-line version, the one I just downloaded onto my iPad is frigging awesome.

Until now I’ve been happy enough to live with a foot in both the analog and digital camps when it comes to books. This on-line book with it’s videos, and interviews, and ‘behind-the-scenes’ notes, capacity to highlight and take my own notes, and to apply what I’m learning as I go, has probably tipped me right into the digital camp.

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.

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.

 

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.