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

Some musings on facilitating open space


November 11th, 2015

While open space has been part of my facilitation DNA for 25+ years, I don’t always have opportunities to facilitate open space events. That’s changed this past few weeks with two quite different events. The first was for a group of 40 humanitarian workers from the Pacific Region. They meet regularly, but this was the first time they had done so using open space. The second was with around 200 people, many with an engineering background,  from a state government organisation.

The first I facilitated alone, the second, I co-faciltated.

Given the choice, I would always choose to co-facilitate. It’s just not possible to have the sort of conversations I like to have with a co-facilltator (Should we or shouldn’t we do this or that? What if we…? How about trying…?) with my client. For one, it would probably freak them out to have too much of an insight into how my brain thinks up, considers, rejects, and eventually, after a circuitous route, lands on a course of action. Or not!

There’s a rhythm to an open space event, especially if people are new to the process. They arrive and view the circle with some suspicion, or at least apprehension. There’s nowhere to hide. It warms up slowly. Even if it’s a short open space, I like to include at least one sleep. People come back different after their subconscious has had a chance to process the experience of open space. Different how, you ask? More relaxed, more confident, willing to jump in – I’m not sure, but you can feel the different energy.

On the whole, I like big open space events better than smaller ones. There’s a buzz, an excitement around being able to get hundreds of people self-organising. It just seems to flow. As we know it always does. For me, it’s more evident when there’s lots of people.

I also love the way people are surprised by how useful it is just to talk with each other. Sure, there’s always someone who is a bit bored, or wants to move along at a faster pace, but generally the feedback is about the joy of actually sitting down and talking about what matters with other people who also care.

My favourite moment in open space is when people reconvene in the circle. I learnt from my friend and mentor, Brian Bainbridge, to sit in the circle and gently ring the bells till everyone comes and sits down. It may take a while, but eventually they do come. And with a large group, there’s also a lot of chatter. I absolutely love that moment, when ringing the bells, and all the chatter has stopped and there’s pretty much complete silence. It’s a moment you can practically touch. I find it deeply satisfying. A bit like open space itself.

What is Creative facilitation?


November 11th, 2015

And how does it differ from any other sorts of facilitation?

It took me a long time – literally years of trial and error – to find my own style of facilitation. It was helpful to see how other people facilitated and I would learn lots from them. But I was not other people. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say there were two huge influences on my facilitation: open space technology and applied improvisation. In-between I learnt lots of processes and techniques, useful of course to have many of these to draw upon, but alone, not enough.

Open space technology and applied improvisation provided a way of being a facilitator,not just doing facilitation. Eh? Does that sound a bit weird? Even if I am not specifically using open space or applied improv, the principles behind these approaches are always a part of how I facilitate.

For example, from open space I learnt to hand over responsibility to the participants, to step out of the limelight, to let people get on with it.

From applied improv I learnt to let go, to trust (both others, and myself), to commit, and how to perform as a facilitator.

Importantly, from both of these practices I learnt these things both cognitively and physically. Letting go is not just an abstract idea, it is a physical process.

Fast forward to 2010 when Johnnie Moore and I co-founded Creative Facilitation. Creative Facilitation embodies (literally) the best of open space and applied improvisation, and importantly, is based on this premise: that the participants in any workshop are creative, intelligent and want to succeed. With that in mind, we facilitate with people, not for people. It’s nuanced, and for me, it’s pivotal.

Creative Facilitation in Melbourne Nov 26-27


October 4th, 2015

bringingYou might be surprised by the variety and depth of ways to engage people,especially if you’re stuck in a meeting rut, listening to others drone on, and rarely having time to discuss what really matters.

I make my living from facilitating, so I’m always on the lookout for new ideas and better, more creative, and more engaging ways to get the best out of people in a meeting.

I’m hosting a two-day Creative Facilitation workshop in Melbourne on November 26 and 27. You’ll be able to share your reactions and insights with other professionals grappling with the same issues that you are. You’ll spend very little time sitting down, a lot of time doing; and while our appraoches are grounded in behavioural science, you won’t be bombarded with theory. You’ll leave with practical ideas to try at your next meeting or event.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

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.

Keeping it fresh


September 1st, 2015

With lots of Creative Facilitation training under my belt, the challenge is to keep it fresh. The danger is complacency. Two things happened in today’s training that helped with the freshness. Actually, one happened even before I arrived. I’d decided I’d done enough preparation, so on the train to Melbourne, decided to read the paper on-line. Skipping through politics, economics and sport, I landed on this article about research that reveals the predictors of a successful relationship.

Here’s the crux of the article:

“Say you look out your window one evening and see a huge full moon bobbing just above the horizon. Flushed with wonder, you turn to your partner and say “hey sweet cheeks! Isn’t the moon beautiful tonight?” This, according to Gottman, is a “bid” – a request for a response that will hopefully lead to a small connection between the two of you – an understanding that, on this particular topic, you share the same worldview.

Your partner now has a choice to make – they can look up and say “wow! It is beautiful!” or something similarly agreeable. The Gottmans call this a “turning toward”. (Seasoned improvisational artists like Tina Fey call it the part where you say “yes, and …” to keep a scene moving.)

Or, they can keep eye contact with their computer device and mutter “mm hmm”, or worse, remain silent. That would be called “turning away”.”

Ah-ha, you can see where I’m going with this.

Relationships are at the heart of everything. We might like to ignore relationships in favour of the ‘real’ work. Please do – it will keep me in work for years to come!

Not noticing, ignoring and actively blocking offers is a fast-forward to trouble.

Seemed relevant to the group I was working with today, so I rejigged the non-existent agenda, and incorporated a few activities around making and accepting offers. You can’t plan for this.

And secondly, the flip chart paper I’d planned on using wasn’t available. Rather than stressing, and worrying, I simply decided to do something different. It resulted in a new approach to an activity that I’ve done a squillion times.

Can’t plan for that either.

Seemed appropriate for a workshop on the uses of creative facilitation in innovation.

Nothing is Written – Learning is an Adventure now available


June 1st, 2015

NIW-CoverTo celebrate a whole new month Johnnie Moore and I are releasing the PDF of our new short book, Nothing is Written. It shares eight simple ideas that guide how we work.

Nothing is Written
Emotional connectedness
Experiences over explanation
Shared peril
Avoiding the teacher trance
The value of loose ends
Getting out of our heads
Getting over ourselves

We think it’s possible to create more engaging training that plays to human strengths and avoids many of the cliches found in training rooms worldwide. We hope you enjoy it. It’s free and available from here.

Once you’ve read the book, if you’d like to experience for yourself how we work, we have workshops coming up in Melbourne and London. There’s more information here.

Creative Facilitation – New stuff. Yay!


April 23rd, 2015

CF-2day2015Flyer.pdf (1 page)How does a facilitator announce new stuff? A musician brings out a new song or album, an artist has an exhibition of their latest paintings, a writer releases a new book or poem – and a facilitator announces…”I have new stuff to share with you.” Sounds a bit lame really.

Nonetheless, I DO have new stuff to share with you – gleaned from a trip to that other hemisphere where I took part in an improvisation retreat and a learning village, hung out with some seriously cool people, finished a project that’s been on the go for a couple of years, explored street art in Shoreditch (oh, I’m getting distracted now).

It’s boring to talk about this stuff – much better to do it. So I’ll be sharing my new stuff on June 17 and 18 at my favourite venue, the Donkey Wheel House in Bourke Street Melbourne. I hope you can join me. Use the promo code newstuff2015 for a 20% discount. Yay!