Asking for help

January 25th, 2012

I quite enjoy helping others. I’m not so good at asking for help. From an improv perspective it’s like making offers – asking for help is making an offer to the world. And boy, does it pay back big time.

Those of you reading this blog recently will know I’m in foreign parts designing a biggish two-day event. Those of you who know me well will know that I’m never satisfied, always looking for new (and rediscovering forgotten) ideas. And those of you who know me even better will know I’d give my right arm to have a facilitation buddy or two to hang out with, toss about ideas, egg each other on. Sigh.

So I’ve turned to the next best thing, all you good folk in internet land. Some of you I know, some I’ve never met. I’ve no idea how many of you read my blog (I know, I know – there’s something I could do with google analytics to find out and, well, I really don’t care that much and I’ve never been that big into numbers. Are you out there Stephen?). If I’m only talking to myself, that’s quite okay – it gets my thoughts out of my head and on to the screen where at least I don’t forget them.

I try stuff. I like blogging. I like twitter. Facebook’s okay. Don’t mention google+ (makes me feel guilty), I’ve tried amplify, and instgram, I’ve lost count of my email addresses (they all go via gmail anyway), I quite like rapportive, I’ve just joined pin-somethingorother, I have a neglected flickr account, I think I have a YouTube channel, I subscribe to my favourite bloggers and thinkers, I just LOVE Skype – I could go on, obviously. What’s that? What about LinkedIn? Well, of course I’m on LinkedIn – I just don’t know how to use it that well. Then, in a little burst of activity towards the end of last year I created a LinkedIn Group. Wow! Just wow! I had no idea. It’s not a big group, less than 200 people – but what a generous and creative bunch.

And what I’ve learned from having a LinkedIn group is that it’s not about leading with answers – it’s about leading with questions. Real questions. Making big, bold offers by asking for help. Who knew?

The Casuarina Project: Community Leadership 10 years on

September 8th, 2011

It’s 10 years this month since the first group of local Surf Coast Shire residents finished the inaugural Casuarina Project. The final session was on September 15th, 2001 and I remember it vividly. We’d booked out a local restaurant for us to gather to reminisce on the journey we’d shared over the previous seven months. Our conversation, of course, was not as planned (whenever is it?): we sat together and shared our shock and bewilderment at the week’s events in the US and the implications for us here on the other side of the world. And we shared some laughs, and some tears, some food and some wine. And excitedly left to develop our community projects.

The brief for the Casuarina Project was to design and facilitate a community leadership program to bring together people from across the Surf Coast Shire – those in the coastal towns, where surfing and tourism reigns, with those from the hinterland where agriculture is king. It was targeted at people already active in community groups, but not yet in leadership roles. We decided not to call it a leadership program to avoid the inevitable problem of only attracting those who already saw themselves as community leaders. It was a bold and exciting approach. We wanted it to focus on developing people, their understanding of themselves and each other, and their potential in the community. We didn’t want it to be a simple skills training, duplicating what was already available.

Year one was devoted to the face-to-face sessions. We moved around to various community halls and venues – a great way for me (as a newcomer to the area) to get to know my new home. We explored such topics as the dynamics of change, understanding group roles, designing and staging events, conflict, controversy and negotiation, and planning for a community project to be implemented in the second year. In the third year, participants would be invited to mentor and support new participants just starting out.

My intention from the very beginning was to reduce dependence on me and my involvement. On reflection, maybe I did that too well! (just kidding) When Geoff Brown (a participant from that very first intake) took over the facilitating of the program after a few years, I felt quite chuffed that I’d hand-balled it on to someone so capable and enthusiastic, not to mention local as well.

There’s so much more I could write about the Casuarina Project. How I delivered it for a few years in Gippsland as well, the celebrations – especially when we invited Melbourne Playback Theatre Company to help us reflect on the experience (with hilarious results) – the friends made, the projects started, the excellent support from the CEO and the Councillors, the freezing cold halls (with dubious heating) in winter, the dreaded smoke in summer when we all raced home to make sure our houses were safe from bush fires, the laughs, the frustrations, the tears and most importantly, everyone’s generosity. And don’t even start me on the time I returned from Vietnam with bronchitis and was quarantined because it might have been SARS, hence unable to facilitate the important opening weekend.

The Casuarina Project is alive and well, with the first ever Youth Casuarina Program scheduled for October. What a great way to celebrate 10 years!

It’s evolved, as it should.

Haven’t we all?

Happy Anniversary Casuarina Project.

Meetings. How can we make them better?

September 2nd, 2011

Recently my friend Chris Corrigan wrote about objections to participation in conferences and meetings. One of his key points was the question of who is responsible for the experience. Often it rests with the organisers, or in the case of a meeting, the chairperson or convenor.

We are all responsible for our meetings.

This is one of the edges of work that I’ve been exploring – how we can influence our meetings, so as they are more meaningful, purposeful and enjoyable. A few small tweaks can make all the difference.

Like removing the tables.

Or avoiding abstractions.

Understanding the importance of conversations and relationships, before transactions.

Standing, moving and using your hands – as well as your brain.

These are some of the small moves that I’ll be exploring at a two-hour workshop next Wednesday, September 7th at the Hub Melbourne. Wanna come and play? You can register here.

Valuing friendships and connections

October 20th, 2010

Have you ever been to an event where you have come away excited, but unclear why? And have other people at the same event wondered what the point of it was? These are two extremes of experience with many shades inbetween and represent the great diversity of experiences we have at different events. What works for you may not work for me and vice versa. I think we get into trouble when we forget this and try to design events to please everyone. My suspicion is that such events don’t offend anyone, and probably don’t excite either, resulting in something akin to ho-hum.

While some people can be frustrated by the supposed lack of action, I think simply connecting with other people is somewhat undervalued, and misses the point of how action actually happens. There is a difference between activity and action. In a post that is not unrelated to these thoughts, titled Connecting Dots and Valuing Networks, Roland Harwood explains: “There is a sequence of activities that occur in networks that can seldom be bypassed. Namely you start with lots of conversations, some of which will lead to a smaller number of some kind of relationships. Eventually, and almost certainly long after the first time people met, some transactions may follow that create value, be it commercial or social.”

This was the basis of a talk I gave recently to a group of fourth year agronomy students at Uppsala University. My lecture was part of a series to help prepare them for working life.

I think we sometimes undervalue, or even completely ignore, the power of relationships and networks. I live in a society where great value is placed on being busy, doing something, producing. And I have certainly done my fair share of all three. The basis of this value is knowledge and information. The more you have, the more valuable you are. Yet the internet has changed the game while most of us weren’t looking. Information is virtually free. Knowledge is shared. My value is no longer in what I know but who I know and how I can connect those people and their ideas.

So my challenge to the agronomy students was to value their learning, their knowledge, their expertise AND to value the relationships, networks and connections they have equally so. To nurture existing ones, and look for new ones. This is where support will come for new projects, for funding, for research, for jobs.

This is the new face of leadership – where things get done through sometimes messy networks and relationships, with timeframes that are unclear, rather than through elaborate plans, gannt charts and milestones.

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.

Nick Owen keynote at the improv conference, Portland Oregon

November 15th, 2009

Thought I’d try some live blogging. I’m at the Applied Improv Conference in Portland Oregon with about 100 other people. It’s day two – and Nick is our only keynote. The title of his session is called Touching the Heart: Exploring Core Values through Personal Storytelling.

He’s doing some introductory stuff – building rapport with the audience (that’s us). He’s doing that by telling personal stories – and he has some ppt slides that support, rather than distract. He’s now telling a fable – 17 camels – and you can hear a pin drop.

Leadership themes that emerged from the story – generosity, saving face, give it away and it comes back, noticing more, being grateful for the smallest things, imparting knowledge. Now he’s linked the fable, and the themes back to improvisation. Nice incorporation.

The more we give out the more we get back. It’s not about denying fear but facing our fear – improv provides a way to do that. A gift is loving what you do – many people don’t have this. Generally, improvisers love what they do.

In the corporate world – learning and development is mostly about skills and competency, but we know what’s really important is relationships.

Now it’s time for another story. He uses story well to punctuate the presentation and reinforce key messages. And it’s tied back to leadership.

A bit of theory now – and tied back to the story to make it more accessible – Ken Wilbur’s 4 fields of action – professional (It), personal (I), cultural (You + I = We), infrastructure (Its): inner/outer – self/others. Learning a lot about how to structure a keynote presentations by doing this live blogging. Use of metaphor and reincorporation.

Most businesses work in the professional and infrastructure realm because it’s safe and measurable. Improvisation has so much to offer because it brings in the personal and cultural. We have to start with ourselves. So now we’re doing a Bio-poem. Here’s how to do it.

First line: Your name

Second line: 3 adjectives alliterated

Third line: Who has loved…

Fourth line: Who wanted…

Fifth line: Always… (and includes) never…

Your name…

And here’s the thing – the structure gives us, well, structure. At the other end of the spectrum is chaos. There’s a tension between structure and chaos, and the tension is the field of form, action and innovation. Creative artists know this and lean towards the chaos end (too much leads to disintegration). Businesses generally want to hang on to the structure (too much leads to stuckness). Neither is good. We need a dance between structure and chaos. We all operate in the field of uncertainty.

What gives us the confidence to operate this way – how can we connect with our values and be true to ourselves, and show up authentically in the world?

Now he’s exploring Otto Scharmer’s U theory.

1. Intending: What is life calling me to do?

2. Sensing: Observe, observe, observe. Listen, really listen. Take time to notice what I know.

3. Presencing: Connect to source: From a place of deep quiet allow inner knowing to emerge.

4. Executing: Test. Apply new ideas in real contexts and notice effects.

(“Business is the only group I know that don’t know what rehearsal means.”)

5. Evolving: Embody the new in sustainable eco-system.

This is an intuitive model. Business has a huge over-reliance on the rational, says Nick. Business is stuck in rationality.

Scharma also talks about 4 types of listening:

1. Downloading – I alreday know that – closed mind

2. Scientific inquiry – how interesting , let me explore that, open-minded

3. Conversational enquiry – empathy, let me REALLy listen to what you have to say, so as I can listen with an open mind and an open heart

4. Generative – resonating with the whole field around me

Bringing it together now: I like the way Nick weaves story and models.

Now introducing spiral dynamics : 8 codes that drive development.

8. Turquoise: Deep Human Code – an integrated, systemic way

7. Yellow: Complexity Code

6. Green: Inclusion Code: everyone has a place, a contribution – awakening of understanding; paradox is that nothing gets done because we’re too busy listening to everyone, whether they have something to say or not

5. Orange: Achievement Code: Looking at now – technology, material success, but asking what life is all about

4. Blue: Obedience Code: look outside selves to give structure and order and hierarchy eg religion, organisational command and control structure

3. Red: Power Code eg teenagers, how can I get what I need in a scarce world, about me, me, me – blame outside themselves

2. Purple: Tribal code eg fighting, fleeing, fornicating

1. Beige: Survival Code eg post-disaster

We all show up in all these – and the values in each are different. Has caused a bit of frission in the group. Spiral dynamics tends to do that. Often some pushback and a sense of hierarchy. As Chris Corrigan jsut whispered in my ear: “It’s hard to do a quick overview of spiral dynamics!” True.

Now Nick is talking about the application of the model – that is, how hard it is to take people from one level to another, especially if we skip levels. I guess that’s why it’s called ‘spiral dynamics’ – it’s not linear, and it’s dynamic. From my own perspective, I can slip between the codes depending on the circumstances, safety, my mood and of course, my values.

Applying this to AIN, Yael is talking about where we are at as an organisation – the green code, inclusion? Mostly. There’s also a bit of blue and green in there too, I think. Lots of implications.

Now we’re returning to leadership strategies. POA: Politeness, Openness and Accountabily…connect with all levels.

And finishing with an activity. Sharing personal stories – the same story but with different people. My story went deeper and the other person’s response influenced the story. Our lives are so full of so many stories – many that we have lost track of. Our stories are inside of us, when we tell each other’s stories we reconnect with each other.

Telling personal stories reveal our vulnerabilities. When I share my vulnerability with you, and you with me – we open up to possibility.

Nick’s description of mid-life: “When you stop counting the time since you were born, and start wondering how long it will be till you need an exit strategy.”

Courage – to embody and live our values.

Further reading:

Nick Owen, More Magic of Metaphor, Crownhouse, UK, 2004 and The Salmon of Knowledge, Crownhouse, UK 2009.

Chan Kim W, Blue Ocean Strategy, Harvard Business School Press, USA 2005

Jim Collins, Good to Great, London, Random House, 2001

and more at

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.

Just ask. The answer might be ‘yes!’

January 22nd, 2009

Check out this photo.  




It announces some tour dates for Eric Bibb in Australia. Nothing strange about that. Now take a closer look. There’s a gig in Melbourne, capital of Victoria. Population 3.8 million. And another one in Hobart, capital of Tasmania. Population 205,000. And Meeniyan. Population 1006. Meeniyan. Where the hell is Meeniyan and why is it hosting Eric Bibb, arguably one of the world’s greatest acoustic blues performers? Don’t get me wrong, there’s no reason why Meeniyan shouldn’t host world-class performers, but doesn’t it strike you as strange? Doesn’t it make you wonder how this has come about? And I can disclose, this is not Eric Bibb’s first visit to Meeniyan.

I share something with Eric Bibb. I too have had a gig at Meeniyan Hall, albeit a facilitation gig. This is what it looks like.

It’s a typical Australian country hall. Wooden floor, stage with steps at one end, fading picture of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, lists of Hall Committee Presidents and Secretaries, a supper room out the back where, well, supper is prepared. In fairness, it’s quite some time since I’ve visited Meeniyan Hall so this description may not be absolutely accurate, but I bet it’s pretty close.

I remember Jeanette, a participant in one of my workshops. She attended one of Eric Bibb’s gigs at the Hall, queued up along the street with all the other locals, carrying supper and a bottle of wine. She said it was ‘the best night of my life’. She met Eric afterwards, he signed her CD. The Hall was packed to capacity. In a town with a population a little over 1000, in east Gippsland, about two hours’ drive from Melbourne.

This story epitomises community. A small country town is not daunted by its size or isolation. I bet someone once said: ‘why don’t we just ask?’ When I was organising a conference way back in the 90s called Live and Earthy (great name, don’t you think?) we wanted Campbell McComas – a consummate performer, public speaker, comedian and all round good bloke. He was way out of our price range, but I called him anyway. To my great surprise he answered his own phone, listened to my request and said ‘yes!’. Similarly the Coodabeen Champions also agreed to a whacky request to make a Landcare tape. I asked and they too said ‘yes!’.

So the lesson for me is that anything’s possible. And if you want someone’s help, just ask. The answer might be ‘yes!’.


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!