Action storming for tackling difficult people

November 9th, 2012

The question comes up sooner or later: “How do you deal with difficult people?” Leaving aside the question of what makes people ‘difficult’, or that one person’s ‘difficult’ might be another person’s ‘creative’, this is the second most common question we’re asked about facilitating groups.

We’ve developed a rather nifty process that we’ve named Action Storming. We originally called it, jokingly, The Helsinki Method (that’s right, because we developed it in Helsinki. We being moi, Johnnie Moore and Simo Routarinne). The heart of it is to isolate the exact moment of difficulty – maybe down to one or two lines of dialogue and the precise situation. This can be tricky because we all like to elaborate and provide a back story and other sometimes illuminating details. What we’ve found though, is if we can isolate the exact moment of difficulty and recreate the scenario, we’re then ready to do some rapid action storming. This involves trying different approaches in quick succession, and as soon as someone in the group makes a suggestions along the lines of, “Why don’t you try…?” we invite them to tags the protagonist out and do what they have suggested – try something. We’ve found it creates a completely different way of tackling those difficult moments. Instead of theorising about what might work, analysing different responses and becoming increasingly abstract, Action Storming is far more concrete. You can see a physical shift in people when they get it – when something they try just works. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s a surprise. No matter, when next faced with the same or a similar situation they are ready to try something different. The whole idea of Action Storming is to find ways to keep momentum, to enable connection, and to avoid getting stuck. It’s not about avoiding confrontation, or avoiding difficulty, or avoiding something unpleasant – it’s about giving people the skills, knowledge and awareness that they have it in themselves to respond in an appropriate way.

You could say we’re pretty excited about the potential for Action Storming.

So much so we made this little slideshow about it.

Flipping learning

November 3rd, 2012

There’s lots happening right now. I’ve been travelling in Kenya, immersed in nature and different cultures, I’m visiting with my friend Johnnie and I’m about to embark on facilitating a 10-day training where there will be a huge emphasis on content. Oh, and I’m also taking part in a Stanford University MOOC (massive open on-line course) on new learning environments.

There’s a strong link with all these activities and it has to do with learning and tipping what we know about learning on its head.

I had a conversation with my sister-in-law while travelling in the Masai Mara about learning. She’d been a school teacher for decades. My experience has always been that when I’m learning about something new, and when introducing new ideas or approaches in a group, that doing matters. Do something first, then get some theory, then do some more to reinforce. As we were leaving Kenya, Sue said she’d come to understand what I meant. Before the trip – her first to any African country – she’d read a bit about the people, places and culture, and now, having experienced it she was keen to read and learn lots more. There’s some experience and context for her to make sense of.

I see this content is king approach everywhere, and Johnnie has written eloquently about it here. There’s an assumption that good content is central to learning. I propose that relational learning enables people to find and assess content for themselves. What I mean by relational learning is learning with other people – building trusting relationships to enable exploration without the fear of failure or of looking foolish or of being dismissed; where ideas can be raised, tried and discarded rapidly.

We need to turn learning on its head. To unlearn approaches that no longer serve us, such as bringing people together and sitting them down in front of an expert. Some teachers and universities are already doing this, providing lectures on line and when students meet in the classroom using that time to work together.

Johnnie and I have developed over the years a way of doing this in workshops. For the moment we’re calling it problem theatre. No matter what the purpose or focus of the training is, we always have the question about difficult people. An abstract, theoretical response from us might make us feel good but rarely helps the person asking the question. When they are next faced with a difficult person, they have to draw on what we said, which by then is no doubt forgotten.

So we get people rapid prototyping new behaviours. Rapid prototyping has become the way for design thinkers to try out their ideas and quickly improve on them. Same can be true of behaviours.

Abstract, theoretical comments such as What would you do when…? How do you react to…? How do I deal with…? are cues for us to leap headlong into problem theatre, engaging participants with trying out new behaviour for themselves, feeling it in their bodies and learning from that direct, rapid experimentation. Any suggestions from the floor like Why not try…? are an invitation to do just that, come up and try, rather than talk about it. Guess what? When the next difficult situation arises in real life, these participants don’t have to wonder what to do – they have already tried stuff out and are much better placed to respond quickly and intuitively.


What can facilitators learn from Steve Jobs?

August 26th, 2011

Here’s some quotes from Steve Jobs on design:

“Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have. [Wired, February 1996]

Seems to me we facilitators can learn a lot from this. Facilitation isn’t just about taking a tried and true process and using it yet again, because it worked just fine last time. It’s about connecting dots, it’s about seeing a way a group can relate to each other and to a problem in a way they might not have considered before.

Facilitation is a creative act. We need to draw inspiration from diverse sources, and continually design new ways of supporting creativity, innovation and agility. Otherwise we’ll wake up one day and find the world has moved on and left us behind.

Bodystorming rocks

August 26th, 2011

I had a chance to use bodystorming with a group this week. Bodystorming is like brainstorming on steroids – or, in other words, it recognises that we bring more than just our brains to problem solving sessions.

Bodystorming involves some traditional brainstorming with three key differences that I think make all the difference.

The first is context. In bodystorming, place is important. Where is the interaction happening? Who is there? What are they doing? How are they reacting?

The second is point of view. Bodystorming takes the POV of the person using the product or the service. This seemingly simple shift can change everything. Questions shift from : “How do we change people’s behaviour/opinion/thoughts about x?” to “What’s this about?” “Why should I read this?” etc

And the third (and why it’s called bodystorming) is the enacting of various scenarios to see what happens (still from the  perspective of the user). And objects are personified – and can interact with the humans in the scene.

And what happens – even in a short session of bodystorming – is trial and error, rapid insight, getting to depth quickly, and hence new ideas emerge.

Here’s the process I used. You can probably divide the process into three key parts: identifying the design question is part 1; enacting scenarios is part 2; and then sharing insights and deciding what to follow-up. These are my own notes on bodystorming based on my own experience. This session lasted two hours and, I think, would be the minimum time you would allow for a bodystorming session. Ideally, you would allow a full day.

1. Introduction to the topic (with preferably some observation by participants in advance) and a little bit about bodystorming. I put up a poster of principles (more to remind me what to say than for anything else!) 

2. Break into groups of 5 – 8 people. Ask them to discuss and list what they notice about ‘x’. Reinforce that this phase is just about observation. No judgments. And no solutions.

3. Then ask them to identify the issues from the point of view of the users.

4. Then ask each group to select a specific design question to further explore. If it’s too big, break it down. The design question also needs to be place-based. This provides some context and avoids abstraction.

5. Then introduce the roles and enacting scenarios. Roles can be people, places, and objects. Each person needs a clear label to identify who or what they are. Objects can speak, interact, and have opinions. There needs to be one narrator – that’s the term that bodystormers use. I think the term director might be better. The narrator/director provides direction for the players, can move the scene along, freeze it, rewind, stop it, start over, make suggestions and generally provides some structure so that each enactment doesn’t descend into everyone doing their own thing with no regard to the others in the scene. There’s also emotion cards to be prepared (before enacting a scene and during). These cards are held above the heads of the players and say what they are thinking, but not saying.

6. Enacting scenes. Give the groups time to warm up to this. They will start very wordy and may need to be encouraged to move around and actually play a scene. Encourage rapid trying something, stopping it, tweaking it, and trying it again. Remind objects that they can interact, respond, have thoughts etc.

NB: I had each group simply playing scenes for themselves. If there was time and the group was up for it, you could have each sub-group play a scene(s) for the whole group. This would, of course, place more pressure on people, and it would provide a greater depth of understanding amongst the whole group. On the downside it would take a lot longer, and people may feel inhibited acting in front of their peers.

One of the key principles that’s important to bodystorming is ‘Yes, and…’ If people spend time arguing over what might or might not be a useful thing to try, they will never leave their heads and experience the benefits of bodystorming. Taking a ‘yes, and…’ attitude instead of the often-times more familiar ‘yes, but…’ approach ensures rapid prototyping or testing of ideas with the opportunity to throw out those that don’t work and maybe be surprised and delighted by what does.

7. Summarise insights and identify what could be followed up.

Bodystorming appeals as a process because it combines real-world experiences and observations with actual problems to be solved, in a way that takes into account the experiences of the users, and provides insight and ideas by acting out what happens.  It draws on, but doesn’t rely on, principles of improv, action methods, and psycho-drama – and while some exposure to these might be useful, it seems to me that anyone can do bodystorming with a bit of encouragement.

HT Harriet Wakelam and CPX Melbourne for introducing me to bodystorming.

Do your ideas matter?

March 12th, 2010

Leif Hansen writes this in a newsletter: “Are you like me in feeling that life is just too precious to waste time going to events where we’re talked at as if we’re merely disembodied information-processing machines?  I think most of us would rather just download those experiences and listen to them while driving, thank you very much!”

Johnnie Moore writes of  his “frustration with rooms of smart people listening politely to long winded keynotes and dire panels, as if they’re not actually capable of intelligent thought or dissent.”

He’s referring to a post by Jeff Jarvis which starts like this: “This is bullshit. Why should you be sitting there listening to me? To paraphrase Dan Gillmor, you know more than I do…But right now, you’re the audience and I’m lecturing. That’s bullshit.”

Are you seeing a theme here?

I think it’s time we recognised speeches, key note presentations, Q & A sessions for what they are – an anachronism from a past era. An era where the verb google didn’t exist, and where the media determined who and what we listened to. We are living in a different era – one that isn’t served by one-to-many ‘expert’ presentations, no matter how they are dressed up.

We need engagement, interaction, curiosity and as Seth Godin writes in Linchpin, to “solve interesting problems”, where ‘interesting’ is the key word.” These are the questions that google can’t answer.

Or as Tim Brown says in Change by Design – let’s ask questions that begin with ‘How might we…?’

Why make a big deal out of speeches, presentations, Q & A sessions? Surely if people want to listen, they can? Problem is, when captured, in person, at an event there’s no choice. Someone else has decided that everyone in the room should hear what so-and-so has to say. And maybe what they have to say is indeed interesting and relevant. The issue is around the paternalistic notion of someone else knowing what’s so important that everyone in the room should be held captive. If it’s a TED talk, that will only last about 20 minutes. However, I can download every TED talk and listen while I’m exercising, driving or sitting under a tree.

I’ve never been to a TED event but I can bet that the room would be buzzing after listening to a number of presentations – buzzing with people interacting with each other. I’m also betting many people would find the interaction stimulating.

So, how might we make best use of the amazing brain power of a group of people together in the same room?

And why does it matter? Let’s explore this question first. It matters because if we can’t engage a captive audience and encourage them to share their knowledge and ideas, how are we going to engage them in many of the wicked problems that beset us? We might be losing valuable opportunities to tap into the broader intelligence.

I’d like to further explore the notion of ‘keynote listeners’ and encourage greater use of processes like Open Space and World Cafe that enable conversations on which to springboard ideas. That means everyone in the room has to take some responsibility, and maybe that’s the real issue.

How might we design a conference?

February 28th, 2010

I’ve been reading Tim Brown’s Change by Design and I’m surprised at how much the principles in the book about design thinking resonate around what Johnnie Moore, Chris Corrigan, Anne Pattillo, Geoff Brown and I have been doing for a national conference on evaluating behaviour change.

In collaboration with the conference organisers and hosts we’ve created a design team to bring some edgy thinking and practices to the delivery of what could have been yet another predictable conference. We’re thinking this conference will be anything but predictable.

Tim says “design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognise patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as functionality, to express ourselves in media other than words or symbols”. And while design thinking has mostly been applied to objects and their functionality, more and more the principles have been applied to services and experiences.

He also explains some other principles of design thinking:

  • building on one another’s good ideas
  • direct engagement with people
  • genuine reciprocity of interests
  • investigative learning
  • exploring questions around ‘how might we…’?
  • the challenge and excitement of applying design thinking to problems that matter
  • finding ways to encourage individuals to move towards more sustainable behaviours

So it seems that a conference that explores complexity and the art of evaluation within a context of behaviour change for sustainability just calls out for design thinking.

Geoff Brown does a great job in this slideshow of describing some of the key principles that underpin this Show Me The Change conference.