February 17th, 2016

GobiSanddunesHave you ever been to an event that is talking about being one thing while being something else?

For example, a conference about innovation that uses well-established, mainstream and predictable processes? Or more specifically, focusing on creativity, for example, while sitting in ferried rows listening to an ‘expert’ speaker using poor powerpoint slides? With questions, taken in threes, at the end? Where did that custom of taking questions in threes come from? But I digress.

It’s easy to think about being different, much harder to do. I can think about being fitter, it doesn’t make me fitter. I can think about being creative, it doesn’t make me creative. I’m not advocating not thinking. Heaven forbid, I spend more time in my head than many, I suspect. And inspiring speakers can sometimes inspire us to action. Sometimes.

I was at such an event recently. I started thinking (yes, indeed) how easy it is to slip into talking about being one thing while being something else – to talk about creativity, innovation and change while reinforcing existing norms. Which got me thinking about fractals.

Here’s an explanation of fractals, according to the Fractal Foundation,

“A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Fractal patterns are extremely familiar, since nature is full of fractals. For instance: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc.”

What if our organisations, our communities, our cities, our countries, are also fractal? What if what we do at the smallest scale is representative of what happens at a larger scale? What if we want to transform our company or our community, we start with transforming the way we even talk about that transformation?

What if we started acting our way into a new way of being instead of thinking our way into a new way of being?


Honor Among Thieves: A Review

March 23rd, 2015

Edges are interesting places. Unpredictable stuff happens there. Much of what many of us take for granted every day – belonging, security, understanding – can be missing, or at least fleeting.

61Jhq52WqYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In his latest book, the second in a trilogy, J. explores these themes through the eyes and experiences of humanitarian workers and the people they are striving to help. Most of his protagonists live at the edges – between one place and another, never really belonging, often knowing that there’s something else, just out of reach, even if they don’t know what that something else might be.

J. weaves themes about the reality of humanitarian work into the story, giving the reader rare insights. Set in Cambodia and Washington, DC, the story evolves around Mary-Anne, whom we met in the first of the trilogy Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. In fact, we met Mary-Anne in the prequel, Disastrous Passion – a romance set in aftermath of a Haiti earthquake. The books track Mary-Anne’s journey at many levels – her growth as a person, her understanding of her place in the world, her increasing awareness, and sometimes dismay, of what it means to work ‘in aid’.

The title of this book is telling: it explores the sometimes muddy ethics and behaviours that underpin humanitarian decisions, the trade-offs and the sacrifices, the wins and the losses, the idealism and the pragmatism. J. does this very well indeed, weaving the stories of different characters to explore many of the inter-relationships and experiences that make up the ‘big’ picture of humanitarian work. Occasionally, he slips into the territory of too much humanitarian jargon and too much detail, but this is a small quibble in a thoroughly entertaining, and believable book.

J. knows his stuff too. He has lived and worked in the countries in which the book is set, he knows what it’s like to juggle the demands of a humanitarian career, he knows what it’s like to sit through endless ‘very important meetings’, to visit places many of us have only heard of, to travel endless miles in dodgy vehicles, to talk with people who simply want a chance to make the most of their lives. He’s not alone. There are many, many people who will recognise themselves in this book, and the themes it explores. What sets J. apart is his ability to share these experiences with those of us who are not humanitarian workers, who think we know how it ‘should’ or ‘could’ be done, who have opinions based on good intentions and little awareness.

This book will be widely read by those in the industry. It should be read by everyone who proffers an opinion about aid, NGOs, and humanitarian workers. It might just open some eyes, and hearts. Get it from Amazon

Where ‘YES!’ leads

November 18th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly mornings are not my best time. People I used to work with joked that no-one should talk to me before 10 am. Bit rough, I reckon. So you will understand that dragging myself out of bed at 5 am to attend breakfast meetings in Melbourne, was, well, a touch out of character (this included about 2 hours’ of travel). There was a group called the Creative Performance Exchange hosting events each month that were edgy, different and intriguing. Unsurprisingly, it also attracted some very interesting people. Fast forward a couple of years and four of us who met at these meetings remain good friends. Despite different backgrounds and trajectories, we all find ourselves in a similar space right now – specifically interested in new and different ways of doing business. We’re all enthusiastic about games in their myriad forms: physical games, on-line games, improvisational games, participatory games, serious games, drinking games. Okay, maybe not drinking games…

Viv, Nicky, Marigo, LeeSaying yes to coffee, years ago, after a CPX gathering has led to this: a collaborative offering of a half-day experiential games event in Melbourne. That’s the four of us who will be hosting the event in the picture.

Will you say ‘YES’?

Games hold huge potential – for engagement, for tackling undiscussibles, for creating, designing, innovating, all while having fun. Alexander Kjerulf has been an advocate for happiness at work for a long time. And has built a successful business around just that.

Pablo Saurez works in the serious world of humanitarian aid. He uses games to ‘wake people up’ and to make some of the complexity around humanitarian decision-making more accessible. He describes it as moving from ‘Huh?’ to ‘Ah-ha!’

Don’t take our word though, or their word.

Come and find out for yourself what all the fuss is about games in business.

Thursday, December 11th. Book here.

Path dependency

October 7th, 2014

Always wondered why, even in the face of undeniable evidence of better ways of doing stuff (anything, really) we prefer to stick to our old ways? Of course, there’s many answers to this, but here’s one I’ve just learnt about which helps explain, to me, why case studies rarely help in influencing  how people act; why strategic plans are often deadly boring, predictable and more of the same in the future, just bigger; and why people are wont to put up with something inferior (for example, conference formats) when faced with superior alternatives.

It’s called Path Dependency, where the choices we made in the past influences the choices we make in the future. The cost of conversion exceeds the immediate gains in operating efficiency. With me so far?

Now let me introduce you to my new friend, the ‘Curse’ of Technological Inter-relatedness.

This is how Dr Joost Veenstra, Postdoctoral Researcher in Economic History, at University of Groningen describes it (in the Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World on-line course)

“If you switch technology but none of your competitors do, you pay the immediate switching cost and lose all extra value from using the most common technology. And, it’s too costly to coordinate all the users to make the switch collectively. This explains why technological and institutional changes in society are partly influenced by decisions and developments in the past, even if the circumstances of the past may not seem relevant today.”

So path dependence is “caused by the behaviour of doing things the way we know, out of uncertainty about the cost of alternatives” and we become locked-in to an inferior standard.

Entrepreneurs know this stuff, and they know that the cost is not always financial – it might be reputational.

Someone has to take the risk to try new technologies, to take a different path, to reject approaches that don’t work, but are familiar, and replace them with approaches that are yet unfamiliar and unproven, still novel.  Social self-organisation and agent-based modelling proves that we humans are prone to ‘social influence’ – as we interact with each other, our opinions tend to merge; and ‘homophily’ – our tendency to interact more with those who are similar.

So next time you present a case study that people love, and ignore; do a strategic plan that is more of the same despite protestations for innovation; and prefer a traditional conference over Open Space, you’ll know why.

Reflections on learning and reflection

July 11th, 2013

Johnnie and I have just completed a week’s training on learning and reflection in Malawi, Africa, with 35 people from a humanitarian organisation. Bob Dick, a friend and mentor, once said “The best time to plan something is after you have done it, because then you understand it.” Too right!

To say we take an unconventional approach to training is probably an understatement. Preparing an agenda for a whole week’s worth of training is an exercise in plotting potential topics and activities. It has little to do with the reality of having people in the room and responding to their needs in real time. While we were clear about the experience we wanted people to have, and some of the content, and what we hoped they would learn, the order in which that would happen was dependent on many factors: people’s interests and enthusiasm, their questions, how well they could understand us (always a factor when English is a second or third language for most participants) and what we learned during the process ourselves. We wanted to model being flexible and adaptable – something it’s hard to do if tied strictly to a pre-prepared agenda.

It was interesting to hear some of the participants in feedback later in the week say that when they entered the room for the training on the first morning they thought they were in the wrong place: no tables, no screen and data projector, no bulky manuals.

On reflection, it was probably quite a shock to the participants to be thrown in the deep end of our style of training. No wonder there were a few grumbles about “where’s the training manual?” As with an agenda, I prefer to develop the training manual as we go, reflecting what we actually did, and adding additional information and further reading. I have a hunch that people are more interested in content and theory after an experience. I also have a hunch that receiving a report/manual a few days after a training has finished allows the brain to subconsciously process the information and experience.

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this, in which case there are plenty of people who provide conventional training. If however, you want to break down some of those conventions, disrupt patterns and habits, and learn by doing rather than listening to presentations, then our approach might just be the ticket.

It will come as no surprise to hear that we use improvisational theatre techniques and principles in our work. The principles in particular, such as Letting Go and Accepting Offers can be quite abstract unless they are explored in an active way. We use games to provide a way to illustrate these principles. In this case we used Bunny Bunny and Paired Drawing. Letting Go and Accepting Offers are not easy to grasp, yet it is possible, through playing these games and activities, to explore what they feel like in a safe and supported way.

It became clear to us that learning is often a social activity. When immersed in a complex training experience, not everyone can remember everything, so group reflection is a good way of reinforcing learning. Conversation is also at the heart of learning, and opportunities to be in conversation with others were repeated throughout the training.

Other key principles we introduced to people in this training were turn-taking, asking curiosity-motivated questions, avoiding solutions and advice, and empathy. It is SO easy to jump to conclusions when in a group, to tell people what they should do, offer advice and walk away feeling as though we have made a difference. In many cases we haven’t. We haven’t listened, we haven’t felt compassion and empathy for the person’s situation, and our advice, no matter how well-intentioned will go unheeded, because it’s ours, not theirs.

We believe iterative processes are at the heart of learning. By returning again and again, through different games and activities, to these core principles we hoped to embed these in people’s minds and bodies (so as they knew what they felt like as well as understanding them in their heads).

It is easy to fall into patterns and habits and to continue to do what we have always done because ‘that’s the way we do things around here’. Change and innovation require a different mindset, to see what we always see, but to think differently.

The philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, said: The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what no body yet has thought about that which everyone sees.”

Learning, change, and innovation require courage and vulnerability. The courage to try something different or new in the face of expectations to do things the way they have always been done, and vulnerability to admit that you don’t know what might work until it has been tried. With these activities we put ourselves out there as role models of courage and vulnerability to explore new ways of coming to an understanding of our own, and the organisation’s challenges, with learning and reflection.

A lot of new ideas and ways of being in groups had been explored during the week. Some participants struggled with the nature of the training that reflected the way learning happens in practice, compared to the standard approach to providing training (one that we would argue leads to little or no learning and change). Only time will tell what real impact we’ve had. In the meantime, it’s pretty fair to say we learnt a lot. Our challenge is to continue to push the boundaries – our own and of others’  – and not to fall into our own trap and fail to break our own habits.

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.


Why thinking harder is not the answer

February 4th, 2013

We’re all having to learn, and re-learn the ways of the world. The systems, processes and approaches that have served us well are breaking down – whether it’s democracy and capitalism, or how we communicate with our families – the technology that many of us now have access to, and the shifting sands of public and private structures, means we have to call on all of our abilities.

Thinking is a good thing, grappling with tough questions and dilemmas, wrestling with ethics and ideas. And good thinking is highly regarded. It’s rewarded educationally and in business, proof of a mind that is sharp and logical. And watching someone with a super-sharp mind grapple with a problem, and unearth inconsistencies in argument, and unproven assumptions, leaps of abstraction and whatnot is a joy to behold.

Yet even those with super-sharp minds would probably agree that thinking harder is not necessarily the way to get better performance from their minds. And those who use their minds differently, whose thinking is manifest in their art – whether that be song, dance, painting, sculpture, performance – understand too that thinking harder is not the answer.

What seems to work in all of these diverse situations is thinking differently.

This is so easy to achieve yet many of our institutions are set up in a way to reinforce the existing patterns rather than make it easy to break those patterns. So next time you’re called on to think harder, try something different, something we already know works – sleep on it, let it go for a day or two and see what emerges, do something physical, explore other people’s art.



February 3rd, 2013

It’s been a while – blogging that is. Now that the excitement of our book launch is abating (thanks for all your lovely comments, by the way – and over 2000 downloads, that’s pretty amazing) it’s time to resume some normal blogging (whatever that looks like).

I’ve been thinking about recipes. I have lots of books of recipes (I’m talking cooking here). I’m in the process of digitising my favourites – I know, such a geeky thing to do. And out of all the thousands of recipes I have access to (and that’s only on my bookshelves, haven’t even started on the web yet), there’s just a handful that are my real favourites. My ‘go to’ recipes. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped learning. I like to try my hand at different things – like Moroccan tangines, and Lao salads. I’ve been thinking about why some books get used, others looked at once and then gather dust. Some books provide just one or two great recipes: from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck and Julia Child I learnt how to make a sponge, and incidentally, how to bone a chicken (something I’ve done, oh, maybe two or three times and will possibly never do again); from Jamie Oliver I learnt how to make risotto; and in Paul Gayler’s Pure Vegetarian I discovered my all-time favourite salad – ruby salad with beetroot, watermelon and goat’s curd.

The recipes though, are only part of the story. They remind me what I already know, they remind me of quantities but they don’t show me how to cook. They don’t describe techniques. It’s the understanding of techniques that is more important than the recipes. With a solid repertoire of techniques – and a few ingredients – I can improvise when I need to. I don’t even need a recipe. This didn’t happen overnight – it’s a lifetime’s accumulation of knowledge and honing of skills.

Bit like facilitating really (you knew that was coming didn’t you?)

I was asked recently to review a facilitation process that seemed to have more akin to recipes than technique. Here’s what I noticed. I wonder if you have noticed similar things, especially when participating in a workshop?

The whole process seemed simply a means to get people talking together with its roots in a fairly linear process. No matter how it’s framed it’s still a linear: do A, then B, then C and voila! Rewarding in the short term, in the long term, I’m not sure what difference it makes. People leave having followed a recipe, with some heavy-handed facilitation to boot, and I wonder what, if anything they have learned about tackling similar issues themselves in the future. Too harsh?

Like recipes, what some processes do is give people a language and framework to talk with each other – often needed because people generally don’t have the will or the patience to struggle through and see what emerges. I wonder how useful shared language and frameworks are without understanding. Turns into empty words I would imagine. Or maybe that understanding eventually emerges.

I think ultimately, my main concern is that these approaches don’t necessarily lead to any change or action – a whole process of action planning at the end of the workshop is a cop out. It’s done INSTEAD of doing something. I do it all the time, I’d much rather write a list about what I will do than actually get on and do it. I think action plans are just lists at a larger scale. Bit like writing a shopping list and preparing a menu for a meal, but never actually getting on with shopping and cooking.

What’s missing from such processes? Iteration, fast prototyping of solutions, testing, throwing out and trying something else. Too much front end cognitive framing of the problem, not enough messy play.

Others things I’d change – using round tables (they get in the way), people working in the same groups throughout (where’s the opportunity to find ideas from diverse perspectives?), taking something complex and trying to explain the unexplainable – the tyranny of the explicit, and reflection that forces people into one approach – sitting quietly writing. How about doing yoga? Going for a swim? Playing table tennis? Why does reflection have to be only ‘quiet time’? (too much like primary school!)

This is typical of conventional (and somewhat successful) forms of facilitation. Nothing visceral, no edges, no people doing their art and letting the rest of the world see it – it’s, at its heart, a process about controlling what others do.

I think it’s an approach to facilitation that is like a sugary snack. It satisfies in the short term, but leaves you feeling unsatisfied later on, and worse, craving more.

All facilitators know to avoid sugary snacks in workshops. Maybe we should also look at what we do and make sure we’re not providing the equivalent with our processes.



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.