One game at a time

March 5th, 2011

Here’s something that puzzles me. It appears (and I’m happy to be proven wrong) that the higher you get in an organisation or the more serious your work, the less likely it is that you’re allowed or expected to be playful. I don’t mean to trivialize what’s important, but playfully exploring issues, and options, and ideas, and solutions, and relationships with each other. There appears to be an expectation of behaving oneself when doing work. That sometimes means sitting through some pretty dreary meetings. And I may be making this up, but I also have a sense that some people see playing as a waste of time, verbalised with “when are we going to start the real work?”

Over the last two weeks, Johnnie Moore and I have playfully explored facilitation. We’ve tried to emphasize that not all games and activities are designed to be used when facilitating (although they can be). Some are used to help us understand our own reactions and behaviours. It’s easier for me to unearth my supervising behaviour, my tendency to play safe, my irritation with people who don’t do things my way – and to explore other ways of acting – when playing a game. Then I can use my new knowledge about myself when I’m doing something else – facilitating, organising an event, meeting with friends, negotiating with a client.

We’ve heard a common concern about playfulness expressed in many different ways. It goes something like this: “It wouldn’t work with (insert client group, profession, culture, organisation etc).”

Given that everyone on the planet experiences love, loss, friendship, anger, has memories and hopes, can wonder at the stars and shed tears over an injustice, can be sad, and can laugh – is emotional – then what is really stopping us from being more playful? I can’t speak for others, but for me it’s fear. Fear of looking silly, fear of not being taken seriously, fear of being an outsider, fear of being the lone nut with no first followers. Fear of what others will think.

I’m intentionally trying to let go of these fears. Sometimes it’s hard. It’s easier with a friend who pushes, and pokes, and prods and doesn’t let me get away with saying one thing, and doing another (thanks JM).

A lot of things appear not to be working. Just look at what’s happening in northern Africa and the Middle East. Look at your own organisation. The more we try and control each other the less that seems to work out, sooner or later.

While the Ghandi quote “Be the change you want to see in the world” is a little over-used, it came alive for me these last few weeks. I can’t control what others think of me, or of my work, or of my approach. I can only be me, be the change, and hope that others who also want more playfulness in their lives and work, can be inspired to do something a little more playfully. Maybe it will be catching.

Better meetings?

November 2nd, 2010

I found this the other day on Twitter (sorry I don’t know the source but a HT to @nomeatballs for the link). It was described as ‘the best infographic ever’. I like the simplicity of it, and while it relates to happiness, it got me thinking about meetings.


In London, Johnnie Moore, Trish Stevenson, Stephen Wrentmore and Oli Barrett have been hosting a series of meetings about meetings called We Can’t Go On Meeting Like This. The premise is, if your meetings are not working, then try something else – change something. They try out different ways of meeting. I guess for some people, the fact that there are even different ways of meeting is a revelation.

It’s not such a big linguistic step from revelation to revolution – and I think that’s what’s needed for meetings.

I wrote about my own frustration with meetings here. And Johnnie Moore wrote about the tired Q & A format here.

I believe a lot of us want meetings to be better, it’s just that we’re trapped into a format and it feels too risky to break out. I remember choosing colours to paint the interior of our house. We wanted some bold colours but weren’t very confident in choosing them so we asked a colour consultant to help. We worked with her and made some pretty bold choices, except for one which she described as a ‘maybe next time’ colour. As a facilitator, I hear a lot of ‘maybe next time’ comments about possible different ways of meeting.

We can see that things aren’t working, we want something different, but we also want to stay safe, so we take ‘baby steps’ instead of bold steps.

I’m reading Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs. I’m only part way into it but am already excited about the potential of relearning dialogue, which is about exploring the nature of choice. Isaacs describes dialogue as “a conversation in which people think together in relationship”. Any conversation can turn on our choices. If we choose to suspend and listen without resistance we are on the road to dialogue; if we choose to defend our ideas, we are on the road to either skillful conversation or controlled discussion. Skillful conversation relies on analysis and reasoning, controlled discussion on advocacy and abstractions.

More often than not, I see polite conversation – saying nothing to offend, playing by the rules – wrapped in a cloak of passive-aggressive dissatisfaction. I’ll have more to say on this soon.

To echo my London friends: WE CAN”T GO ON MEETING LIKE THIS!


May 20th, 2010

This is excellent on so many levels.

HT – Mary Nations

There is no manual

February 7th, 2010

I once worked with a young woman who wanted to know, at every turn, what she should do, how she should do it. She was smart, passionate and able – yet she was gripped by fear. Gripped by the fear of not doing it ‘right’. The problem was, and is, that there is no manual – there is no ‘right’ way. As Seth Godin would put it – she was in the grip of her lizard brain, that primitive part of our brain that is either hungry, scared, angry or horny. It’s the reason we are afraid. I heard that she’d recently had a baby. I hope she’s worked out how to tame that lizard brain because I’m pretty sure there’s no manual for raising a child either.

This is the premise of Seth Godin’s latest book, Linchpin. We have a choice to stay stuck, or we can embrace the fear and create some momentum. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our conditioning, and that damn lizard brain, might stop us. We’re conditioned to fit in, not stand out. We’re conditioned to deny our own genius, our art – whatever it is – because we might fail and then the lizard brain can say ‘told you so!’. We fear failure to the point where we don’t even try. Prototyping is all about trying and discarding. Accepting failure. Our lizard brain doesn’t like failure. It once meant we were probably dead, a tasty meal for some predator.

The predators today are no less fearful – it’s just that they are harder to recognise. Security, compensation for our labour, following the rules. These are the things that prevent us from embracing our art and sharing it with the world. Not because we want to get paid, but because there’s nothing else we CAN do, but share our art. Share our passion. We have to accept that it might not work and do it anyway.

Generosity is at the heart of Linchpin, gifting our art to others, not for something in return, not for a later transaction, but for the human to human connection. And for movement. If you’re stuck there’s no movement. It’s hard to be generous if you’re stuck.

There’s no ‘how to’ in this book. It’s a description of what the world needs, and Godin suggests each of us needs to find our own way, create our own map, forge our own future, share our own art, find others who will share the passion and momentum rather than hold us back with the threat of ‘not safe, not secure, not wise’. It’s not  a bad description of how to navigate a complex world where even if there was a manual, it would be out of date before you finished reading it.

Participation in the news

January 18th, 2010

Rob Paterson has an interesting post on the differences between growing an audience and growing a community. I think he’s nailed it.

“We don’t want a bigger audience – defined as passive transactional consumers of transactional content delivered on our terms. We want to have a deep attachment with our community – defined as their active participation in news and culture in safe places created by us for them – 24/7 on their terms.”

Is anyone listening yet?

A glimpse of Myanmar

October 11th, 2009

IMG_0468The drive from the airport to hotel in a new country always leaves a lasting impression. I think it’s a combo of relief that the flight and usually tedious immigration and customs formalities are over, and being met by a smiling stranger who immediately becomes my newest best friend.

In this case it was early morning. Saturday. There were people everywhere, walking along the street edges, piled into small buses, children’s faces peering through the spaces where windows would normally be. Clouds were broiling, bringing the last of the wet season rains. It was hot and steamy.

I was in Yangon, Myanmar (or Rangoon, Burma) to help facilitate a workshop for an NGO. My departure from Australia coincided with a renewed campaign by the Burma Campaign for Australians to cut tourist and trade links with Burma in line with Government sanctions because of human rights abuses. It appears to be a straightforward decision – to go or not. I think it’s more complex. I tend to be more in favour of engaging than isolation – and I think the locals can benefit enormously from exposure to tourists, and sorely needed direct income.

The Shwe Dagon Pagoda (the Golden Pagoda) dominates the skyline. Here’s some numbers: it occupies over 5 hectares, is 2500 years old according to legend, and entered history via the date of an inscription near the top of the eastern stairway in 1485. The main stupa is completely covered in gold, and at the very top of the spire is the diamond orb – a hollow gold sphere studded with 4351 diamonds totalling 1800 carats. On the very tip rests a single, 76-carat diamond.

My arrival in Myanmar coincided with a Buddhist Holy Day, hence the vast numbers of people making their way to the temple. When I visited the following day there were still many reminders of the previous day’s festivities. The number of smaller stupas, pavilions and shrines is mind boggling – certainly too much to take in in a single visit. I found myself unable to stop staring at the main stupa. As the sun set it took on different hues and was truly spectacular against the night sky. On a practical note, I was glad to visit later in the day when it was more comfortable to walk on the marble surfaces in bare feet. A mat encircles the main stupa for visitors whose feet need protecting from the hot white marble surfaces during the heat of the day.

I also visited the Bogyoke Market – surprisingly high quality art, lots and lots of gemstones at ridiculously reasonable prices and exquisite lacquer ware. I loved the way the store holders would accept payment in US dollars and then whack their other goods with the notes – to bring good luck and further sales!

IMG_0491But most of my time in Yangon was spent inside a barely adequate meeting room with about 30+ people, dealing with vastly different expectations of strategic planning, and using processes as diverse as World Cafe and sociometry (which revealed two birthdays to celebrate during the workshop) to using the Story Spine and Visual Explorer – all new tools and processes for the participants, who it’s probably fair to say probably expected a more familiar, ‘chalk and talk’ approach with powerpoint presentations.

An additional day, focused just on change and conflict was a surprise, but enabled me to practice what I preach, namely, to improvise! I’ll be forever grateful to the woman at the hotel who, on being unable to find any tennis balls for me to use in a juggling exercise, presented me with a jug full of ping-pong balls. Perfect!

It was exhausting (not helped by a dose of food poisoning on the last day that left me feverish, wrung out and nauseous) and rewarding all at once. As always, the good will of the participants and their willingness to try just about anything was a highlight – even if one participant observed that my activities meant it was hard to keep his longyi on and next time he’d wear trousers!

A doorstop versus relationship rules

September 23rd, 2009

Many years ago I read a very good article about the differences between a Big Mac and the Naked Chef by Joel Spolsky. It was 2001. It’s about scaleability, and quality. And surprisingly, it’s still on the web, hence the link. The main premise was this:

  1. Some things need talent to do really well.
  2. It’s hard to scale talent.
  3. One way people try to scale talent is by having the talent create rules for the untalented to follow.
  4. The quality of the resulting product is very low.

Now Joel was talking about IT companies. I think this can be applied to anyone, anything. Especially organisations that want to control the quality and outputs of their workers. It is, of course, possible. The price is quality and innovation.

Fast forward to 2009 and the book In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew May that I wrote about here.

My heart sinks when I see the manual – the guide on how to do things. There’s a belief that if we have a manual (or rules of engagement, or accredidation, or similar) we can minimise risk and ensure quality. Matthew May argues the opposite. If we have the rules all set out we stop paying attention. And we are less engaged with the task at hand. He cites Hans Monderman, a Dutch road traffic engineer and innovator.

Hans Monderman is behind the design of Laweiplein in Drachten – an unregulated traffic intersection that accounts for 22,000 cars, thousands of cyclists and pedestrians.

One of the reasons this works is because “…you are not just another adherent to an imposed order, but rather a fully engaged and contributing participant in the emerging self-organisation.”

What Hans Monderman discovered is the same as what Jackson Pollock discovered. And is also true for flocking birds. “When you are fully involved in a process governed by very simple relationship rules, a natural inclination takes over, and a self-organised pattern emerges that is far more orderly than anything legislation could produce. Under those circumstances, you’re connected and interacting with what’s around you.”

Now let’s apply that to organisations. Is it possible that a handful of relationship rules, that are interpreted by people, would be more effective, engaging and purposeful than a doorstop of a manual full of do’s and don’ts?

Yes! No! Maybe!

August 17th, 2009

In some cultures, yes means yes, and no means no. Elsewhere yes is the answer to everything. And sometimes yes means no, and no means yes. Or maybe. And other times, it depends – on who answers first, what the question is, or even who asks it.

This creates a few dilemmas for facilitators.

And it reminds me of this puzzle that Dave Winer posted recently:

Four logicians are having breakfast. Waitress asks — Will you all be having coffee? The first logician says “I don’t know.” Second says “I don’t know.” Third says “I don’t know.” Fourth says “No.” The waitress returns with their coffees. Who gets coffee?

Or the story Malcolm Gladwell tells in his book Outliers about Korean air crashes, which on investigation had little to do with knowledge or flying skill, and a lot to do with teamwork and communication, particularly ‘mitigated speech’. “We mitigate when we’re being polite, or when we’re ashamed or embarrassed, or when we’re being deferential to authority,” writes Gladwell (pp 194). He goes on to describe research by Ute Fischer and Judith Orasanu that describes at least six ways to persuade, with different levels of mitigation. In this case, the example relates to persuading the pilot to change course.

1. Command: “Turn thirty degrees right.” That’s the most direct and explicit way of making a point imaginable. It’s zero mitigation.

2. Crew Obligation Statement: “I think we need to deviate right about now.” Notice the use of “we” and the fact that the request is now much less specific. That’s a little softer.

3. Crew Suggestion: “Let’s go around the weather.” Implicit in the statement is “we’re in this together.”

4. Query: “Which direction would you like to deviate?” That’s even softer than the crew suggestion, because the speaker is conceding that he’s not in charge.

5. Preference: “I think it would be wise to turn left or right.”

6. Hint: “That return at twenty-five miles looks mean.” This is the most mitigated statement of all.

While Captains said they had no problem issuing commands, the first officers, when talking to their boss, would choose the most mitigated alternative. They hinted. (pp 195).

This suggests to me that we need to be aware of the questions we’re asking when facilitating, the language we use, the linguistic norms of the group we’re working with and the dynamics in the room. All the more reason to be present to what is actually happening, rather than planning for what you think will happen.

Inspiration via Twitter

August 15th, 2009

Some of you will know that I’m quite a fan of Twitter. By following a diverse group of people I’m exposed to ideas, articles, blogs and links that I would probably never find any other way. Here’s the winner of the Ukraine’s Got Talent competition, Kseniya Simonova, doing an extraordinary sand sculpture of the German invasion of the Ukraine during WW2.

Thanks to Neil Gaiman for the heads up (on Twitter) and hat tip to Patti Digh.

You say tomato, I say…

August 3rd, 2009

A friend, who shall remain nameless for the time being, wrote an update on Facebook the other day saying she had just bought a new bathing suit. Now apart from the fact that I am insanely jealous of seemingly EVERYONE ELSE in the world who is taking holidays right now, and I’m not, this little update got me thinking about language.

Bathing suit. In Australia that translates as bathers.

Swimming costume. Well, that’s obviously a cossie.

Then there’s swimmers, togs, Speedos, boardies and for men only, budgie smugglers.

I can’t stress how important it is to clarify the meaning of words. As I work more and more internationally, I find myself asking time and again: ‘what do you mean when you say [insert word]’?

The more abstract the word, the more likely there is to be misunderstanding. I was once travelling through corn country in the US, from Indianapolis to Chicago. I was on an agricultural journalists’ tour. It was a lot of fun, there we were, a bunch of agricultural journos from around the world doing a road trip through wide open spaces, stopping to visit farmers. And the most amazing corn factory. They made everything out of corn. There were corn pens, and paper, and oil, and food. As far as I know the whole building was made of corn. But I digress. Apart from my accent meaning I was virtually unintelligible, obviously my questions made little sense too. We were visiting a farmer who had reclaimed a lot of marshy country. The water was collected into drains and flowed away. I asked where? He looked at me as if I was from another planet and answered, away. Obvious really. Then I asked about biodiversity. And his reply was that he grew corn and beans. Well, that’s OK then!

Over dinner one night I found myself having a heated discussion with a local journalist about organic agriculture. I don’t remember much, except the moment when I asked ‘what do you actually mean by organic?’ That’s when we discovered we were talking about two completely different things. There was some confusion regarding organic and biodynamic. Anyway, the lesson stuck. I’m reminded of this any time I ask someone what they mean by consensus, or outcome, or sustainable or even workshop! Or heaven forbid, facilitation.

It pays to clarify meaning, and simply illuminates how our different experiences manifest in the language we use.