A different way of working

May 24th, 2010

Here’s another cool RSA animation, this time by Dan Pink about his latest book, Drive. If you don’t have time to read the book you can at least watch this 10-minute video. It explores the paradox of rewards – that when we have enough money, more money is not a motivator. What does motivate us then is challenge, mastery and making a contribution. I really like the description of autonomy, and being self-directed, and giving stuff away. That, combined with collaborating, and connecting through social media, describe my current way of working. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

HT – Rob Paterson

What makes a successful conference?

March 18th, 2010

Regular readers will known that I’m involved in a national conference on evaluation of behaviour change called Show Me The Change. I’m excited about this conference for many reasons, but evaluation and behaviour change are not high up there. What? I’ve been known to dabble in evaluation. I’ve even been known to dabble in behaviour change. And they make fascinating areas of study. The reason I’m really excited about this conference is that it’s an opportunity take part in a radical departure from traditional conferences and to demonstrate how meaningful a conference experience can be while allowing the participants to do what they do so well – connect with each other and talk about their own experiences of evaluation of behaviour change including their successes and failures, and come away with renewed insight, inspiration and ideas.

I’m not one to get too excited about many conferences these days. That’s because many conferences follow a predictable pattern of ‘high profile’ keynote speakers, panels, Q & A, workshops that were selected months in advance by a steering committee and are too expensive to attend.

I remember a turning point for me and conferences. It was an international conference on community engagement, in Sydney or Brisbane – I can’t quite remember the specifics. I paid my own way as is always the case when you have your own business. It wasn’t cheap. More than $1000 for three days plus accommodation and travel. There were lots of speakers. So many that they were jam packed three at a time into one hour slots. You do the arithmetic. There was lots of very slick organisation. And lots of very boring powerpoint. There was no engagement. I kid you not. It was a classic case of the only engagement happened in the breaks, and there were so many people spread over a very large, soulless venue, that it was just about impossible to find the people you wanted to speak to. I also discovered a number of people who turned up for their session and then disappeared. So much for connection. But I can’t blame them really, because the form was not at all conducive to anything other than reinforcing traditional patterns of hierarchy and status.

Is it a risk to depart from this traditional approach? I guess it depends on your perspective. And seeing as Show Me The Change is about evaluation, I guess it depends how you measure success. So is success at conferences measured by the number of bums on seats? By profit? By the ‘VIPs’ it attracts? By the keynote speakers? Or by some less tangible measures? The ideas shared? The connections made? The collaborations that ensue?

What makes a successful conference for you?


March 8th, 2010

With shared interests in facilitation and open space, and a passion for improv, conversation, and exploring ideas, it was really only a matter of time before Johnnie Moore and I developed a workshop that brings all of that together in some way.  It’s called Crumbs! and you can read about it here on Matt Moore’s (no relation) web site.

Matt has invited us to Sydney to offer Crumbs! on May 13.

It’s about the tyrannies that oppress us and limit our capacity to be creative and innovative.

These tyrannies are the Tyranny of the Explicit, or the fear of not knowing; the Tyranny of Excellence, or the fear of not being good enough; and the Tyranny of Effort, or the fear of failure.

It’s going to be fun to explore these with Johnnie, and even more fun to explore how to bust them. We’d love you to come and play.

There is no manual

February 7th, 2010

I once worked with a young woman who wanted to know, at every turn, what she should do, how she should do it. She was smart, passionate and able – yet she was gripped by fear. Gripped by the fear of not doing it ‘right’. The problem was, and is, that there is no manual – there is no ‘right’ way. As Seth Godin would put it – she was in the grip of her lizard brain, that primitive part of our brain that is either hungry, scared, angry or horny. It’s the reason we are afraid. I heard that she’d recently had a baby. I hope she’s worked out how to tame that lizard brain because I’m pretty sure there’s no manual for raising a child either.

This is the premise of Seth Godin’s latest book, Linchpin. We have a choice to stay stuck, or we can embrace the fear and create some momentum. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our conditioning, and that damn lizard brain, might stop us. We’re conditioned to fit in, not stand out. We’re conditioned to deny our own genius, our art – whatever it is – because we might fail and then the lizard brain can say ‘told you so!’. We fear failure to the point where we don’t even try. Prototyping is all about trying and discarding. Accepting failure. Our lizard brain doesn’t like failure. It once meant we were probably dead, a tasty meal for some predator.

The predators today are no less fearful – it’s just that they are harder to recognise. Security, compensation for our labour, following the rules. These are the things that prevent us from embracing our art and sharing it with the world. Not because we want to get paid, but because there’s nothing else we CAN do, but share our art. Share our passion. We have to accept that it might not work and do it anyway.

Generosity is at the heart of Linchpin, gifting our art to others, not for something in return, not for a later transaction, but for the human to human connection. And for movement. If you’re stuck there’s no movement. It’s hard to be generous if you’re stuck.

There’s no ‘how to’ in this book. It’s a description of what the world needs, and Godin suggests each of us needs to find our own way, create our own map, forge our own future, share our own art, find others who will share the passion and momentum rather than hold us back with the threat of ‘not safe, not secure, not wise’. It’s not  a bad description of how to navigate a complex world where even if there was a manual, it would be out of date before you finished reading it.

What to do when you don’t know what to do?

December 16th, 2009

I’m reminded, yet again, of the power of preparation over planning. During these last couple of weeks I’ve had to draw on all of my understanding of groups, capacity to analyse what’s happening and why, knowledge of process, ability to improvise and respond to what’s actually happening (compared with what I hoped might or should happen), and self confidence. Phew! No wonder I’m whacked!

And while this was an extreme case, EVERY facilitation job requires us to draw on these capacities to a greater or lesser extent. I believe my time is better spent building my own capacity rather than trying to predict what the group may or may not do and how I may or may not respond. The key, I think is trust. Trusting yourself that you WILL know what to do when a situation emerges.

Yes, it’s stressful at times. Who wouldn’t prefer to know what’s going to happen next? My experience of facilitating, and life, is that it’s somewhat tricky to try and predict what’s going to happen. I learnt at the Applied Improv Conference earlier this year in Portland about amygdala hijacks (which someone wittily described as *not* a cocktail). When threatened with uncertainty or unfairness or any other dodgy situation, the higher functioning parts of the brain shut down and the primitive brain takes over. This is not so good because the options are limited to flight or fright. Not a good look for a facilitator! The interesting thing for me is that we can TRAIN OURSELVES TO AVOID amygdala hijacks. Improv does this by putting us into situations that could cause an amygdala hijack – and we train our brain to stay functioning at a higher level. I also think trusting oneself and allowing process to emerge while facilitating is another form of brain training. It certainly has got easier for me over time.

And another thing that helps [me] is frameworks. Not everyone likes frameworks. I find them useful as a compass to help me understand what’s going on. The week before flying to India to facilitate a five-day event I decided to immerse myself in Theory U. I spoke with many wonderful people who helped me understand the theory, and to others who helped me explore how to apply it. While I didn’t consciously apply Theory U, it was there in the background and one aspect became critical on the last day.

While researching Theory U the following resonated:

  • What does it mean to act in the world and not on the world?
  • Leading from the future as it emerges
  • The shadow side of the process

Theory U describes (in brief) a process of moving from sensing, to presencing, and finally realising. there’s lots more, of course, but that’s the essence.  So while I watched the group move thorough cycles of sensing, presencing and realising I also observed the shadow: judgment, cynicism and fear. Naming this on the final day was something I could contribute that I certainly hadn’t planned on. There were many nods of recognition as I described these shadows that thwart our best efforts to learn and improve. This is just one example of drawing on one framework to help a group move through the ‘groan zone’.

I’d be interested to hear what capacities you draw on when faced with not knowing, a potential amygdala hijack and high stakes to ‘perform’.

PS: Something else – the single most important thing I was reminded of was to do nothing. To not react, to simply observe, to allow whatever has to play out to, well, play out. And believe me, this is way harder than doing something!

Gradients of agreement

August 20th, 2009

IMG_0151Consensus is not my favourite word. I’m often asked to get a ‘consensus view’ in a workshop, which means I have to find out what’s meant by consensus. Here’s some of the meanings I’ve come up against recently.

Consensus means everyone agrees. That’s essentially the same as unanimous agreement. Hmmm.

Consensus means the majority agree. So in a group of 30, is 16 a majority? Eeeek!

There’s no ‘real’ disagreement. As opposed to ‘unreal’ disagreement, I guess. Yikes!

So you can see the dilemma. Discussions often start off civil, and quickly descend into  ‘yes, but…’ (I’m pretending to listen to you BUT I’m really just waiting for an opportunity to tell you why your idea sucks and my idea is SO MUCH BETTER). Sigh.

Sam Kaner, in his excellent book, A Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making, describes a seven-scale gradients of agreement. I’ve used this in the past and it’s useful because it gets away from black and white decision making. It’s rarely that any of us COMPLETELY agree or disagree on a particular point.

The brilliant Nicole Hunter (pictured) has come up with an adaptation to the gradients of agreement that I used today for the first time. It won’t be the last time. It’s basically a sociometric scale. It’s done ‘in action’. That means, people are invited to physically go and stand by their choice. This is important. Sitting at your seat and making a choice is a cognitive act. Moving to your choice is a cognitive AND physical act. Often your body knows before your brain does!

Here’s Nic’s Scale (henceforth that’s what I’ll call it – to remind me who provided me with this simple and elegant tool).


Love It!          Like It.          Live With It.          Lament It.          Loathe it!

New thinking

April 15th, 2009

For many years now I’ve had this Arthur Schopenhauer quote as part of my email signature:

“Thus, the task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees.” 

This TED video captures exactly that! This gives me faith that we can yet save the planet.

Leaders rule – differently, though

January 6th, 2009

Keith Sawyer has an interesting post about the role of leadership and lessons learned from the impact of internet ‘democratisation’ and the emergence of ‘open source communities’.

Keith suggests that the internet has enabled ‘participatory democracy’ evidenced by Wikipaedia and Linux. The question remains however if there is a different form of leadership required in such communities.

What is becoming clear is that  “no new technology…changes the fundamentals of human social dynamics”. Citing a study by Siobhan O’Mahony and Fabrizio Ferraro of leadership structures that emerged over 13 years on the Debian distribution of Linux – with 100 developers in more than 40 countries, Keith concludes that a leadership style is needed that enables innovation to flourish. “It’s the kind of leadership that focuses on enabling the best innovation to emerge from the bottom up.”


Another interesting finding from this important paper: developers who met more other developers face to face were more likely to get elected.  Even in geographically dispersed virtual communities like Debian, face-to-face interaction predicts community leadership.

What does this mean for those of us working with leaders, or exploring the role of leadership?

Apart from the obvious need for all of us to maintain that real-world face-to-face contact as well as social networking, I think it underlines the importance of generalist skills for leaders, as well as empathy, intuition, and, dare I suggest, spontaneity? For leaders to enable innovation to flourish they will need to be comfortable with messiness, uncertainty and whacky ideas. They will need to know how to accept offers, to keep the organisation moving, recognising that the direction and where it moves to is ultimately unknowable until they arrive. This puts processes like strategic planning exactly where they belong – in the meaningless time wasting basket. And puts improv skills front and centre. But then, I’m biased!