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.

Facilitation and equilibrium

September 30th, 2014

Some beliefs and theories in facilitation have always bothered me. What appears to be sane and sensible on paper, in reality, just simply don’t stack up when working with a real, live group of humans. One of these is divergent thinking and convergent thinking. It presumes that people will engage in divergent thinking (coming up with different ideas etc) and then, after a period of struggle, will converge on a smaller set of ideas that are acceptable to everyone. What’s always bothered me about this can be explained by the principle of preferential attachment in networks (and yes, a group of people in a workshop is a network). Basically, people are attracted to the more popular ideas (it’s the rich get richer phenomenon). What if the really innovative, radical, game-changing idea is not one of these?

Exactly. It gets lost, and business continues as usual doing much the same as before with little or no disruption. Everyone leaves happy, but probably feeling a bit dissatisfied.

Until recently, we have believed that equilibrium is possible, and preferable, in biological (including human) systems. However, research is now showing that convergence to equilibrium is now the exception rather than the rule. Is it time to rethink our systems of facilitation and let go of the unrealistic equilibrium states some clients yearn for?

Bringing a festival mindset to conferences

March 26th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt seems that conferences are as popular as ever. Yet many of them are stuck in some kind of conference void, wherever any innovation or creativity is talked about rather than enacted. Why do gamification / improvisation / creativity conferences and events, mostly, not use the principles they espouse for others in their own event design?

As I  sat in a crowded room recently listening to John Hagel  talk for about 45 minutes about the Power of Pull followed by a question and answer session, I pondered what an event designed around pull would look like. It seemed to me that a talk, as good as it might be, followed by Q and A, is a push model.

People are still flocking to conferences, to talks, to celebrity chef presentations, to book readings, to Do Lectures, to The School of Life, and TED talks. We are hungry, but for what? Ideas, engagement, connection, a good old-fashioned chin wag? I suspect we want this, and more.

White Night MelbourneThe other growth area is festivals. Opportunities to have a shared experience. White Night festivals, Burning Man, music festivals, Mardi Gras, street parties, comedy festivals, Improv Everywhere and all manner of flash mobs.

You don’t need me to tell you the difference between conferences and festivals.

We want more than ideas – we want adventure, experiences, to challenge and be challenged, and to act on our own ideas, as well as others’.

What would an event that combined the best of both look like?


Wish I’d thought of that!

September 7th, 2012

Doesn’t really matter what it is, when I see something I really like, a great idea, a new use for something, I invariably wish I’d thought of that.

I do understand that most good ideas are crowd sourced, or group generated – Keith Sawyer did a great job in his book Group Genius in debunking the myth of the lone genius. Still, it’d be nice to think of something that no-one had ever thought of before. Maybe our tribal origins (that’s pre-internet, pre-technology for those who are wondering) means we are always inventing and re-inventing for our own context. I’ve always thought this might be a reason why learning from others’ experiences is a bit dodgy – our own experience is a much more reliable source of learning, hence we need to make the same mistakes as those who came before us.

My latest target for idea envy is Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate. The hard copy version is bad enough (for envy, that is) – taking one of my favourite adaptations of the Hero’s Journey by Christopher Vogler and applying it to presentations, but the on-line version, the one I just downloaded onto my iPad is frigging awesome.

Until now I’ve been happy enough to live with a foot in both the analog and digital camps when it comes to books. This on-line book with it’s videos, and interviews, and ‘behind-the-scenes’ notes, capacity to highlight and take my own notes, and to apply what I’m learning as I go, has probably tipped me right into the digital camp.

What change looks like

August 21st, 2012

This TEDxHarlem talk by Jake Barton describes how we can move beyond the traditional (and mostly dysfunctional) public meeting and mobilise the community to be involved in creating a better future.

As well as the messages about “re-imagining public participation” this talk highlights a few other things as well. Jake Barton uses story-telling to good effect, and he demonstrates the spark-line approach suggested by Nancy Duarte in her book Resonate. He describes what is, what could be, what’s at stake, how, and a call to action. All in less than 8 minutes.

I also love the way this project combines individual needs, community, government and technology. It’s what change looks like. It’s also what the future looks like.

Re-learning how to learn from mistakes

June 8th, 2012

Watch any young child learning something new. Generally, there’s lots of false starts. Surfing is a big industry around here. On any day, there’s groups of people learning to surf – young kids, teenagers, adults. There’s no short cut to learning to surf. There’s lots of false starts. Yet every time someone misses a wave, they learn something, and next time they try something else. It’s incremental. Gradually, with lots of practice they start catching waves, start standing up, start surfing.

This sort of failure is okay. It’s how we expect to learn something new. Yet we’re sometimes expected to do something we’ve never done before at work – to innovate – and to also be sure it will work, first time. Seems like a big ask to me. And what happens? People stop trying anything remotely risky. If they can’t be absolutely sure it will be successful, they don’t do it. This can be disastrous for any sort of growth, innovation, or creativity.

Let’s look more closely at failure. What sort of failure is not okay?

Tim Kastelle describes a useful hierarchy of failure:

  • System failure (the collapse of communism)
  • System component failure (stock market crashes)
  • Major firm failure (Enron going out of business)
  • Start-up failure ( going out of business)
  • Product failure (New Coke tanking)
  • Idea failure (Apple Navigator prototyped but never launched)

Idea failure can happen in many different ways too – prototypes, assumptions, hypotheses and guesses can fail to work as anticipated.

When people react against the idea of failure, they are usually thinking about higher levels of failure than ideas. And it is really bad when entire systems fail. 

So how do we become comfortable with idea failure? How do we keep going when every time we try to catch the wave, we fail?

Part of the answer is in persistence and experimentation. When I watch people learning to surf, or when I’m out there with my own boogie board, it’s all about trying something, seeing how that works out, modifying it or trying something new, and keeping at it long enough for a breakthrough.

An aside: This brought me to wondering about the difference between persistence and perseverance. It seems perseverance is sticking to a belief or an idea, while persistence is sticking to a course of action.

A perfect example of this for me is rock balancing. I believe it’s possible, and persist with trying to make the rocks balance!  And another example for me is applied improv: I believe that it’s important to the way we relate to each other in all walks of life, and I’m willing to persist with bringing the principles and practices of improvisation to life for people.

So for learning, and for innovation, we need perseverance (a belief that things can be different or improved) and persistence to try something over and over, and learn from our mistakes. I’d also add the principle of letting go. And the wisdom to know when to keep persisting with something that’s not quite working, and letting go and trying something else.

Using the principles and practices of applied improv can help us do this. I remember one of the first applied improv conferences I attended, there was a group of about 10 of us standing in a circle trying out and creating different games and warm-ups for improvising. Someone would make a suggestion, and we’d inevitable start talking about it until someone else would say “let’s just try it!”. And that’s exactly what we’d do. We’d try it and if it didn’t work so well, someone might incorporate a new idea while still playing the game. It accelerated learning, was a lot of fun and kept us all engaged.

When using improv activities with a group to explore different behaviours, some people may become impatient when the activity has been done once or twice. It’s interesting to persist with the activity. We’ve noticed that interesting things happens after a while of persistence – the group gets into a flow state, individuals start to recognise patterns in their behaviour that they were unaware of, or the whole system might completely break down. No matter what occurs there’s a great deal of leaning to be gleaned from such experiences.

Having ideas and sharing them, talking them through, thinking how they might work is all good – and at some stage the idea needs to be tested, experimented with, assessed, modified, improved. All this can happen in a short time by improvising.

If you’d like to learn more about applied improvisation, and what it can do for your business, join us for one or two days at Thriving In Uncertainty (July 12/13 in Melbourne). Details here.

Meetings or Meetups?

April 8th, 2012

After September 11 in 2001 in New York strangers started saying hello to each other. There was a yearning for community, says Matt Meeker, co-founder of Meetup. Today facilitates off-line group meetings on any imaginable topic, now in 101 countries.

I’m new to Meetups. I participate in two Meetup Groups in Melbourne: The Creative Performance Exchange and The Collaboratory Melbourne. I have met the most amazing, talented and inspirational people, and learnt so much from them. It’s fair to say I’m a huge fan of Meetups.

Generally, I’m not a joiner of groups, especially if there’s even a sniff of agendas, minutes, and traditional meeting procedure. Nor am I a fan of meetings per se. They tend to be a way for people in organisations to legitimately gather together, and looking in from the outside, seem to be out of control. I know people whose days are just full of meetings, and their email full of meeting notifications. They complain about these meetings. A lot.

Compare that with a Meetup. There’s an invitation, a host, and one or more featured presenters of a particular topic that is described in quite a bit of detail. The ones I attend start and finish on time. I can see how many other people are attending and who they are. There’s often a follow-up post with pictures and further information. There might also be an accompanying Yammer discussion leading up to and after the Meetup.

Imagine if organisations created internal Meetups instead of meetings.

Exploring the edges of the way we work

August 4th, 2011

I’ve started a little research project to explore the edges of how we work.

When facilitating workshops with many different groups and organisations, there is sometimes a disconnect between what people want to do and how it is expected to be done. Approaches that were once just fine are now struggling in the face of complexity, unpredictability and demands for creativity, innovation and agility.

To find out what has traction I’ve come up with a series of short, free workshops that explore some of these edges. I’m pretty excited about this. You might be interested in taking part? If so, check out the offerings over on my dedicated web site, Transforming the way we work.

The road to improvisation

December 23rd, 2010

I really liked this article about the improvisational brain, based on research of musical improvisation.

A couple of things stood out: we learn words, then phrases and then grammar that eventually enables us to recombine them all to communicate our thoughts. That’s language. And we can learn notes, cords, and progressions that eventually enables us to recombine them all to express musical ideas. That’s music. This is how we learn different forms of literacy.

So far, so good.

Then there’s the Road to Improvisation. Part of the journey is learning new skills with a combination of exposure, a toolbox and practice. If improvisation is part of the journey, then an improvisor’s MINDSET is needed for the next phase. However, the budding improvisor is prone to rely on a safety net, just in case spontaneity lets them down at a crucial moment. At some point (and here’s where it gets fuzzy for me) there’s a decision to CHOOSE improvisation – a conscious choice? – and the necessity to LET GO (I’m reminded here of a trapeze artist letting go of the bar or a skier letting go of fear and leaning down the mountain) which culminates in what Aaron Berkowitz calls the ‘creator/witness phenomenon’.

“At this level of musical cognition, the improviser often achieves a seamless trade-off between his conscious and subconscious knowledge. He knows he’s creating the music and feels very much in control, yet he also feels as if he’s watching himself play, a paradox that Berkowitz calls the creator/witness phenomenon. “They’ll be playing and something happens that they didn’t quite expect,” Berkowitz said. “Then they react to that and it kind of starts this dialogue where the improviser is steering the ship, but is also being steered by the ship.”

Which brings me back to the question of improvisational facilitation. I think one of the greatest skills a facilitator can develop is to be spontaneous – to notice what’s happening and respond in the moment. In other words, to improvise. This is not the same as being unprepared. There’s a solid background of exposure to various forms of facilitation, a toolbox full of methods and techniques, and practice. Lots of practice.

I think just about anyone can learn to be a competent facilitator. My interest is in what does it take to develop an improvisor’s mindset as a facilitator, how to ditch the safety net (the plan, for example) and be always in choice when facilitating to become truly improvisational.

Due to a solid grounding in traditional facilitation plus exposure to improvisation, I’ve developed my own capacity as an improvisational facilitator. The hardest part has been learning to let go. It doesn’t always work, but when it does – wow! My challenge is to unpack how that happens so as I can help others learn how to improvise when facilitating. This is edgy, exciting work that I have a real passion for.

Trying too hard

July 3rd, 2010

Sometimes I find myself trying too hard. Trying too hard to impress, or to keep the peace, or to come up with a brilliant idea. And this despite that I know that I can’t do all or any of those things even some, let alone all, of the time – and certainly not on demand. It’s when I catch myself trying too hard that I try to become more playful. And that’s where it gets tricky, because it’s hard (ironic eh?) to be very playful on your own. Much easier to get sucked in to the prevailing mood. It’s remarkably easy to forget playfulness in the midst of all the serious stuff of life (read tedium) – paying bills, catching trains or planes, standing in queues, or (God forbid!) attending meetings.

Why be more playful? I think it opens opportunity. I think it’s fun and when I’m having fun I’m more likely to try something new or adventurous and who knows where it might lead? I also think it helps others to relax too. I was chatting with a friend the other day who played an improv game with a group of his colleagues. He said he learnt more about them in that few minutes than in years of regular meetings. He saw who jumped straight in, who opted out. He saw a different side to his colleagues. I wondered if it was a ‘different’ side, or whether he was seeing the ‘real’ person, rather than the work persona?

A few weeks ago I ran a workshop with a group of people using improv games for much of the time. Later, the feedback I received was that people felt “challenged, inspired, confused, excited and energised”. All from being playful! I’m reminded of the 80s when the management mantra was to leave your personal life at home and not bring your personal self and problems to the work place. Always seemed bizarre to me as to how I was supposed to split myself into the ‘work Viv and the ‘home’ Viv. Seems some people have taken this to heart though and still see work as ‘serious’ and play as well, something else that’s not really appropriate in the world of work. Thankfully this is changing, and there are lots of commentators who talk about the benefits of play and of having fun, yes, even at work!: Keith Sawyer, Alex Kjerulf. And it’s not a new theme for me either. I’ve written about it before here and here.

So, how to be more playful? As well as the usual paraphenalia I carry with me, I’m going to try and find ways of actually being playful more often. Maybe I should dig those juggling balls out of the cupboard and have them in my bag? Which brings me to the question of whether I need things to be playful? Or other people to play with? Or whether playfulness is a state of mind? I guess it’s all of the above.

My challenge is to be true to my own convictions: I know that play, and laughter, releases endorphins. I know that play triggers different parts of the brain. I know that the way we act when playing games is a window to how we act in other situations. I know that I’m more open when playing games. I know I have more ideas, and even if I don’t, I have more fun anyway. And I also know that I stress over what people will think of me when I suggest a game in lieu of a more serious, more conventional, approach.

It’s certainly easier, and maybe even safer, to be conventional, to be unexceptional. Challenging the status quo has always been an uncomfortable place to be. I have enough experience of facilitation now that I know how to be predictable, and I know how to use a whole range of processes to deliver perceived outcomes for the client. I know how to use management speak, how to play the corporate game. Problem is, I don’t want to. I prefer to challenge, to disrupt and to take people to their learning edge where something might actually shift as a result of what we do together. It’s unpredictable. It’s sometimes scary (yep, for me too!). It’s one of the reasons I have this blog – to capture these thoughts, to share them, and to find playmates (wanna play?).

For me, and my clients, some of whom do some of the most serious work imaginable, playfulness is a way to seriously explore what they do and how they do it – to innovate even. Guess that’s why my business is called Beyond the Edge.

This, I think, is the work I’ve been waiting to do.

HT to my playmates. You know who you are.