Imagine if you were the type of leader YOU would want to follow


December 15th, 2016

Fancy three days of fun, engaging learning on a theme of leading creative teams?

Johnnie and I are bringing our Creative Leadership workshop to Melbourne, February 7th to 9th.

Here’s some reflections from those who came to this workshop in Cambridge earlier this year.

Lots more info and bookings here

‘Easy and safe’ is over-rated


October 26th, 2016

Working with groups generates lots of dynamics. I want to focus on the dynamic between the facilitator and the group. There’s a long held position about facilitation that the facilitator needs to make the task easy for the group, and to create a safe space. I disagree.

When I’m tired, feeling a bit vulnerable, and wanting to be cared for I relish the easy choice in a restaurant of the chef ‘just bringing food’. I don’t want to make choices, or decisions. I want to be (not literally) spoon fed. It’s easy to sit back and let someone else do the work.

People coming to workshops and meetings are often tired too, maybe a bit resentful that their work time has been disrupted, some may be excited, others apathetic – there is no doubt there will be a whole range of emotions in the room. They want to feel that their time has been used wisely.

If it is too easy they will disengage. There are many demands on people’s attention and an email or Facebook post is just a click away. We don’t have the luxury of patiently explaining what will happen (describing the menu/agenda/process) and easing people into the main game. We will have lost them before we even get there. We need to jump straight in, even if it is uncomfortable or confusing. They will work it out.

Most of us do jump in – begin before we are ready. We start playing a computer game, or try out new software, or start making a recipe before we read the instructions. We go back to the instructions when our experience and knowledge are exhausted and we need more information. We are wired for acting, not thinking about acting.

Facilitators need to challenge, to create some uncertainty, to let go of the need to control what people are doing, and to allow for discovery. This can be messy. It can be scary. It can be challenging.

It’s the practice of easy and safe that has led to one of the biggest criticisms of facilitated workshop, expressed in one way or another as ‘but nothing changes when we go back to work’. Some resort to what Johnnie Moore calls ‘commitment ceremonies’ – rituals that pretend to bind people to a new way of acting, when in reality it’s simply a hollow promise where no-one is accountable.

Facilitators can be a greater service to groups by challenging them and dropping the facade of ‘easy and safe’.

An article in The Conversation by Jarod Horvath and Jason Lodge on ‘What causes mind blanks during exams?’ is helpful in explaining why ‘safe’ is not always best. They describe the difference between cold cognition – logical and rational thinking processes – and hot cognition – non-logical and emotionally driven thinking processes. “Hot cognition is typically triggered in response to a clear threat or otherwise highly stressful situation”. Exams can be perceived as a high stakes, threat. So too, might a facilitated workshop. The boss and all my colleagues are present, I will be expected to contribute, I have a lot of other things on my mind, I’ve never met this facilitator before, there’s no agenda, and where are the damn tables?

The easy and safe approach would demand that facilitators reduce this response, and stress around workshops, by providing, in advance, all the information participants need, to make the space ‘safe’ by making sure it is comfortable and familiar, thus reducing the risk of mind blanking, or hot cognition. Then when participants get back to the real world of work, with all the uncertainty, demands, unrealistic expectations, challenges and too-much-to-do-too-little-time, they will be equipped with new knowledge and skills to help them. As I said earlier, I disagree with this approach.

Hot cognition – mind blanking – can kick in at any time. And there are a couple of things to do to according to Horvath and Lodge. One is to de-stress a perceived threatening situation. Facilitators can help this by avoiding overloading people’s pre-frontal cortex with information and as soon as possible, get them up and moving about the space, talking with each other – providing just enough structure to get them going. Familiarity calms the brain and leaves people open for whatever else is coming.

The other concerns preparation. Some of my friends who work in humanitarian organisations return from training experiences with stories of extreme stress and sometimes fear. They have been to HEAT – Hostile Environment Awareness Training – which replicates what might happen in a kidnapping or other life-threatening situations. The trainers rightly know that information is not enough for being prepared – actual experiences, simulated nonetheless, but real enough – help people prepare for the unimaginable. “The reason the armed forces train new recruits in stressful situations that simulate active combat scenarios is to ensure cold cognition during future engagements. The more a person experiences a particular situation, the less likely he or she is to perceive such a situation as threatening.” say Horvath and Lodge.

Their final piece of advice for students preparing for exams, and wanting to avoid mind blanks, is relevant for facilitators wanting to make sure workshops are worthwhile.

“So when preparing for an exam, try not to do so in a highly relaxed soothing environment – rather, try to push yourself in ways that will mimic the final testing scenario you are preparing for.”

My approach, when facilitating, is to avoid the gut-wrenching, bowel-tightening scenarios for sure, but provide enough uncertainty and confusion to replicate what it’s like out there in the real world, to hopefully, keep people engaged during the workshop, and prepared for whatever happens, afterwards. How do I do that? With applied improvisation, of course!

The two not-so-secret secrets about Creative Facilitation


October 24th, 2016

bringingThere’s no big secret to Creative Facilitation, it comes down to two things: using creative processes that allow people to really participate, and showing up as a facilitator that people feel able to trust.

The hard part is letting go of all those practices that squeeze the life out of meetings. We are social creatures, fundamentally wired for socialising, playing and creating together.  To release energy into our meetings, we need to disrupt some conventions.

We need to have fewer presentations and more conversations.

We need to free people to move around, rather than remaining pinned to their chairs.

We need to give participants autonomy: instead of telling them what to do, we create choices for them about how to participate and collaborate.

We need to create a more level playing field in meetings, a space in which everyone feels able to contribute, so we don’t just get stuck listening to the usual suspects.

We don’t believe in facilitation-as-usual and therefore don’t do training-as-usual. There will be movement, surprise, emotion, engagement and fun. We learn our most powerful lessons from experience, not from lectures. The greatest value in workshops comes from sharing experiences, rather than taking notes from the “sage on the stage”.

If you’d like to learn more, I have a one-day introductory Creative Facilitation workshop in Melbourne on November 18th.

And Johnnie Moore has a two-day workshop in Cambridge – that also covers how to perform as a facilitator – on January 9 and 10.

Best summer ever!


September 15th, 2016

I’ve just had the best summer. Yet it wasn’t summer. Not here. And I wasn’t here. I was there, in the UK, hanging out with my friend and business buddy Johnnie Moore in Cambridge. There’s many reasons that it was a great summer, and one was the fun and connection we had in making a couple of little videos about our work. Our director, Colin Ramsay, is amazing. He’s calm, professional, patient (OMG, so patient!) and loves what he does as much as we love what we do. I think this comes through best in this blooper reel.

There’s so much to learn about ourselves and others through ‘trying stuff out’. As Johnnie says, “There’s a lot of creative energy in failure, if you don’t take it too seriously…Quite a lot of our training work uses rapid, playful failure as way to learn – a much richer experience than giving out right answers.”

Right on!

Can improv save the world? It can’t make it any worse!


July 16th, 2016

13692658_1039746996112840_4549062862761023753_nWhoa! There seems to be bad news around every corner. It’s a volatile and unpredictable time, and we all need to draw on all of our skills and resources just to cope, let alone, be of any use to others.

Applied Improvisation is one approach being used to develop people’s capacity to cope with change and uncertainty.

I’ll be taking part in a special humanitarian workshop in Oxford on August 10 and 11, to explore how individuals and organisation can become more adaptable, flexible, spontaneous and resilient.

Bringing together improvisers and humanitarian workers will help us develop a common understanding of the humanitarian context and the benefits and challenges of using applied improvisation techniques. In particular, we’ll explore how improvisation techniques can build resilience amongst humanitarian workers, and affected communities, before, during, and after disasters. We’ll be designing and implementing activities that engage communities and partners and illuminate even the most serious issue, while learning facilitation tips and tricks for engaging diverse groups.

Applied improvisation has been used for facilitation, capacity building and training, monitoring and evaluation, and learning events. Where else might it be used?

The workshop will also include a Design Lab, where you can bring actual, real-world situations and issues to see how improvisation techniques might be helpful.

Tickets are £129 and are available from here.

 

Taming self talk


May 21st, 2016

Sometimes, when talking with someone, it’s obvious that they are elsewhere. They have gone into their head. While we can’t know what the other person is thinking, it’s usually pretty obvious that they are not listening to us, maybe even no longer aware that we are there.

It can range from slightly annoying to downright rude. And we know what it feels like from both sides – sometimes we’re on the receiving end of inattention, sometimes we’re guilty of drifting away.

It’s not something to fix. It is something to notice. When we notice when we do this we can then choose to follow our thoughts, wherever they are taking us, or bring our attention back to the person or task at hand.

Taming this form of self talk can help us be better listeners, better companions, and better work colleagues.

There’s another form of self talk that I’ve been experiencing a lot lately. It’s the voice that hovers like a huge question mark, it’s the voice of indecision. “Do this! No, don’t do that, do this instead! Are you crazy, do this!” Now there’s an insight into my head that you probably never needed to know.

I am learning to tame this voice. It’s another voice that says: “Just do what you know. And if you don’t know what to do, just do something.”

It’s good advice, that voice. One worth listening to.

The artefacts of organisational culture


February 17th, 2016

The Senior Citizen’s Clubrooms where I was running a workshop seemed to have every nook and cranny plastered with small, and some not so small, laminated signs issuing instructions of what NOT to do or specifically how to act. It struck me at the time, as the sort of club I would want to avoid. The signs seemed, to me, to indicate a culture of control and mistrust.

A colleague used to say that he could tell a lot about an organisation’s culture simply by visiting the tea-room and seeing what artefacts were present. Like the signs in the clubrooms, tearooms are a microcosm of the broader organisational culture: signs about how to act, notices about social events, what’s stuck on the fridge, newspapers or magazines. Is the space dedicated as a tearoom? Is it a quasi storage area, stacked with boxes of documents that no-one wants to throw out? Fascinating places, tearooms.

I asked the LinkedIn Creative Facilitation group what other indicators there were of organisational culture. Here’s a summary of the responses.

  • What’s displayed on office walls, including motivational posters and the like, organisational statements, and awards
  • Conversations outside of meeting rooms – and people talking to each other, or not, outside of scheduled meetings
  • Personal items – photos, mementos etc
  • Nature – plants
  • How people greet each other, and how they greet strangers
  • How people make decisions, and presumable, how they enact those decisions
  • Staff amenities and how they are used

One reason I’m interested in this is the sometimes apparent mismatch between what an organisation espouses its values to be (often posted on the walls) and what values are actually played out. It’s hard to know what people are thinking – it’s easier to see how they are acting, either directly through their behaviour, or indirectly, through the artefacts present or missing. Of course, it’s all assumed, but I think organisational artefacts provide an interesting starting point for any exploration of organisational culture, especially if there’s a desire to change that culture in some way.

Becoming who we are not


February 11th, 2016

ImprovNotebookMy photocopier is broken. I’ve been searching for the manual. I haven’t found it yet. However, I did find a yellow notepad that I paid US1.49 for at the San Francisco Marriot in 2004. The price sticker is still on the back. I remember buying this notepad in the hotel gift shop. I remember walking along the waterfront, in the sunshine, trying to will jetlag away, and watching the planes land at San Francisco airport. I remember feeling like a fish out of water. Mainly because I was.

It’s hardly fathomable that 12 years have passed since then. My yellow notepad, foolscap of course – after all this is an American notepad – is well thumbed, but it’s years since I’ve looked at it. Possibly because many of the highlighted notes or margin annotations are now part of me. I no longer feel like a fish out of water.

Here’s some of my notes:

“Great exercise! Lots of applications.”

“Your job as a facilitator is to reconcile paradoxes, not to solve problems.” – Thiagi

“Performing is a creative activity. You build something new with others. Behaviour is following the rules, eg, stopping at a red light.” – Cathy Salit

“People who say they can’t tell stories really mean they won’t.” – Kat Koppett

This notepad is full of notes, activities that I experienced for the first time, connections to my existing work. I was a sponge, soaking up all the newness and the goodness. It was my first Applied Improvisation Conference, organised and hosted by Alain Rostain. I was in awe of most people. Actually, I was in awe of everyone, so I laid low. It changed my life.

Within months I was extolling the virtues of applied improvisation to my facilitation colleagues, or to anyone who would listen. They probably thought it was a fad. It wasn’t.

I returned the following year to New York, again jetlagged, awake at 3 am, seriously fading by 3 pm. Izzy Gessel and I were always the first at breakfast. I’d ask him to explain stuff to me, to help me build my improv vocab. He patiently obliged. I learnt. I played. I kept notes. I watched. I’d jump in – sometimes.

Embracing applied improvisation is still the best professional development decision I’ve made. Fast forward and applied improv has given me friends, inspiration, business opportunities, fun, games, trouble. Did I mention friends?

A few days ago Johnnie Moore recorded a pod-cast interview with Cathy Salit inspired by her work with Performance of a Lifetime and her imminent book Performance Breakthrough. It’s well worth a listen, if only to hear Johnnie and Cathy riff off each other’s ideas. Listen here. 

It also explains why applied improv opened up a whole new world for me during those few days in August, 2004. A world that I’m still exploring, still discovering, and still learning from – to continue to become who I am not.

Change your meetings, change your culture


February 1st, 2016

Beach1st of February – it’s when the new year ‘really’ starts here in Australia. The kids are back at school, most people are back at work, we’re all planning our next holiday…the weather is great. It really does feel like the new work year has properly begun.

And you’re stuck in a meeting!

Johnnie Moore and I are working on some great new stuff, building on our Creative Facilitation work of recent years. People often tell us how much they dread meetings. If our meetings are uninspiring, then so is our organisation. We believe that it’s in our meetings that we create our culture. Is it possible to set a different standard, and create meetings in which we are challenged, surprised and engaged?

I’ll be exploring this in some detail at my next public Creative Facilitation workshop in Melbourne on February 25/26.

Bring your meetings to life in 2016 – February workshop dates announced


January 20th, 2016

VivCrouchingIt’s a whole new year, and a great opportunity to come to one of my Creative Facilitation workshops – still at 2015 prices. 

Where? Parkville, Melbourne.

When? February 25 and 26

How much? $440 per person for two days (if you book 3 or more people) or $700 for a single registration

How many people? Maximum of 18

Beyond the traditional ‘facilitator’ role – What does leading a meeting mean in today’s workplaces? How to avoid the mistakes that traditional education teaches us about how people share, learn and interact.

Participatory approaches – Ways of sharing information, gathering ideas, and making decisions that helps a group connect and engage with the content. How to create an environment of open-ness and trust, and getting people to work together.

Beyond words – How to get beyond wordy, and worthy, sometimes meaningless, words to unearth what’s really going on – using photos, action and story.

Bravo! You as a performer – While the group, and the processes you use, are important, what about you? How do you deal with challenges, stage fright, a crisis of confidence? The second day of this workshop focuses on YOU and gives you tips and tools to manage yourself, especially when things go wrong.

More information? Click on this link