Practicing to perform

March 22nd, 2012

Those of us who have seen an improv group perform are sometimes in awe of the skills and teamwork a group of players can demonstrate when performing – in front of a paying audience, and with no script.  It’s no secret that they can do this because of the way they approach a performance, the rules that create a platform for what they do, and their willingness to practice together.

Most of us are also familiar with sporting teams. Whether successful or not in terms of winning, these teams also operate from a basis of rules and practice. They can at least play the game, even when pitted against a team that can play better.

Then we see groups and teams in organisations sometimes struggle to work together. There may be rules and structures and guidelines that support what they do (and sometimes hinder). The missing element may be practicing together.

And there’s also individual pursuits: yoga, music, tennis, juggling, driving, karate, weights, painting – just about anything I can think of requires some sort of practice, whether that be to build skills, to build confidence, to develop muscle memory, to be able to automatically jump into the task.

Yet some work seems to be different. A one- or two- or five-day course and you’re trained in something. Back at work there may be little opportunity to practice newly-learned or even long-held skills. There’s the real work to be done, pressure to perform, meetings to attend, deadlines to meet. Where is the practice that supports work skills, especially the practice that underpins skills that are highly sought after and rewarded? Skills of leadership, of communication, of teamwork, and personal interaction. Skills of participation, of awareness, of knowledge transfer? Is there space at work to practice, to do activities that hone these skills so as when they are needed it’s innate?

Where is the equivalent of the gym or the rehearsal studio at work?

The joy of work

February 9th, 2012

Reader warning: self reflection

In the last couple of weeks my extraversion muscle has been stretched to its limit. It’s interesting to notice our own limits. I am now revelling in complete isolation. My partner is off cycling and I’m alone, completely alone and with few demands on my time and energy. It’s rejuvenating. It won’t last either. Soon I will crave the company of others, the warmth of real human bodies and people I can touch and relate to in a different way to how I reach out here on the internet.

I’m conscious of this rythym, this ebb and flow of being with, and being away from, people. A friend said to me recently that, given my need to be alone to recuperate, it’s an odd choice to be a facilitator, to put myself in front of groups of people. The thing is, I love it. I love being with groups, in front of groups, performing, being challenged, meeting people, seeing their delight, their anxiety turn to engagement, and sometimes, even joy. My personal aim is to bring more joy to my work, for myself and others.

It takes a long time to know yourself well, to know your limits, your strengths, the buttons that  activate sometimes outrageous responses. We’re all still learning this together, right? In moments of doubt, I tell myself I know how to do this. It helps.

It also helps to have perspective. To know what really matters and what’s really important. In the build up to a big event, in the moment of standing in front of a hundred or so people, it can appear that this is what’s really important, that the world might actually stop if I stuff this up. It won’t. The world will hardly notice. In fact, many of the people in the room will hardly notice. That’s humbling. That’s perspective.

Like you, I’ll do my best. Sometimes my best is better than even I imagined. Sometimes it’s just good enough. Sometimes it’s not good at all. Surprise! We’re human. We’re vulnerable, we’re fallible, we’re inconsistent, we have emotions.

And then there are friends. When the work fades away to just a memory of just another event, the friends we’ve made along the journey remain. Now that’s joy.

Confidence and the Goldilocks dilemma

December 14th, 2011

Confidence is a strange thing – it comes and goes, almost with a mind of its own, and then there’s the issue of how much? Too little, and we feel intimidated, too much and we appear arrogant. Getting confidence ‘just right’ is tricky.

When Anne Pattillo and I founded Facilitating With Confidence it was based on the premise that confidence is the secret ingredient of great facilitation. Most of us can learn good, sound techniques and processes. We can practice and hone our skills of questioning, and giving instructions. We can be competent. But is that enough? Confidence is what enables us to shine, and to take risks, and to be true to who we are.

Sometimes I feel confident. Sometimes I have to fake it. Johnnie Moore likes to quip about Facilitating Without Confidence, and how this is often more of a challenge. I agree. Facilitating With Confidence is about finding that sweet spot, where our confidence is just right for the circumstances we find ourselves in. Athletes and performers sometimes call it a ‘flow’ state. Unearthing what conditions enable me to operate in that ‘flow’ state is an ongoing search. Just when I think I’ve figured it out, some situation will come along and remind me that I haven’t, not really.

The end of a calendar year seems to demand some reflection. As I look back over the last 12 months I’ve experienced the absolute joys of my work, serious questioning of my capability, discovering and rediscovering some things and people I love, letting go of some things and people that are toxic, and reinventing my approach to work. It’s been scary and challenging and exciting. I’ve felt validated at times, and at other times, vulnerable. I’m not alone. I know many others who are questioning what they do, and why, and looking for something more rewarding or challenging or lucrative or fun or serious or that simply makes them feel good about themselves.

Thanks for being part of the journey.

To celebrate surviving and thriving yet another year, I’ve created a networking group on LinkedIn – I want to stay connected, especially to my facilitation colleagues and those of you who have helped shape Facilitating With Confidence. I hope you’ll join me there. It will be good to talk to you.

What do you do?

November 29th, 2011

This has never been an easy question for me to answer. There’s been times when I’ve hankered for a recognisable ‘career’, maybe even a calling. The feeling passes soon enough and I’m back fumbling for a way to describe the work I do. I’ve realised how important this is recently as I’ve been working to reinvent myself and my work.

I’ve been intrigued by obituaries in my daily newspaper. Every one includes  a one or two word description that apparently sums up their life. I can’t imagine how many of us would fall into such easy categorisations. The people I find myself working with are often very talented in so many areas they defy categorising. And I think that’s a good thing. Categorising belongs to another era. An era when work was based on a specific career, and often one where the choice had to be made when quite young.

So for now I’m content with this:

Bringing meetings to life Creating conditions where people can feel alive when they are meeting together in whatever context, and paying attention to eventfulness – that nebulous aspect of gatherings that make them memorable.

Doing work that matters To you, to me, to the world. We innately know the difference between work that matters and trivial work. It doesn’t have to big to matter, it doesn’t have to popular or even mainstream. What’s important is that the work has heart and meaning.

Connecting people and ideas It’s an amazing time to be alive. So much is happening and it’s now possible to connect disparate people and ideas across the globe. And it seems to me there has never been a greater need to connect people and ideas, especially from different fields of thinking.

Also, a shout out to Nancy White who introduced me to the term Social Artist. Hmmm, maybe that will do for now.

Travelling a different road

November 15th, 2011

For many years I’ve been waiting for the planets to align to do two things* – Robert McKee’s Story Seminar and a workshop or seminar with Dave Snowden. I’m still waiting to do the Story Seminar. There is a link, of course. Dave Snowden punctuates his often rambling and diverse ideas and opinions with stories. I’ve found a few days later that I can remember many of his stories. I have to refer to my notes for the other stuff. But this is not a post about stories. It is a post about unlearning,

When I first started facilitating, and considering venturing out on my own, it was in the midst of the systems thinking era. I read Peter Senge The Fifth Discipline, and bought into the whole notion of shared visions, mental models and learning organisations. Frustratingly, I was working in an organisation at the time that was anything but a learning organisation. I completed a Masters of Applied Science that was based on systems thinking. It made a lot of sense. I read Margaret Wheatley Leadership and the New Science.

Today, 15 years later, I find myself letting go of systems thinking and embracing complexity.

Now, many aspects of systems thinking that troubled me are starting to make sense in the light of complexity: the notion that it’s even possible to map systems; the fantasy that is strategic planning – that we can predict the future and prepare for it years in advance; and the resistance to uncertainty and messiness, the unwillingness to let go of control, even when all the evidence tells us that control is not possible.

Complexity has a lot more in tune with ecology, hence I’m drawn to biomimicry; social networks; narrative, stories and metaphor; playfulness; and what we can learn of organisational life from artists, actors, choreographers, musicians, directors, writers, poets, and dramaturgs. It is a rich and diverse field and requires as much unlearning as learning.

Clearly, this journey is not about discarding that which is old and grasping for the shiny new thing. It’s an evolution. I have relied on my somewhat unreliable brain to get me this far, and I hope my brain will continue to serve me. Yet now I understand that my brain is embodied. Parts of it never get activated unless the body is activated. I recognise the importance of trust and how social media can help build and maintain trust. How values are devalued by the very act of making them explicit. How culture is often used as an excuse to not do something, because people are people, no matter where they live and what they do. We should take more notice of mavericks and outliers. Disrupting entrenched patterns is part of the work, and how fundamental rituals are to disrupting patterns. And we need to experience before we process and analyse.

I still have much to explore and much to learn from Dave’s seminar. I am confident though, that although it’s a different road that I’m travelling, it’s one worth exploring.

Fundamental to my journey and exploration is how to apply the principles of improvisation. So here’s a story about another sort of journey and how these improv principles came into their own.

The picture in this post is of the Annapurna Sanctuary region of the Himalaya in Nepal.  My partner and I were on a nine-day trek, a trek that we had put off for 30 years. The opportunity arose so we decided to take it. When this photo was taken we’d been walking for five days – through isolated villages, across rivers, over mountains, down one side and up the other. It was clear every morning, hazy, raining or snowing by the afternoon. I was slow, taking one step at a time, especially on the stone steps that seemed to go on forever. Going up was bad, coming down was worse. As we approached Machapuchare Base Camp I was in awe of the scenery. I’d also had enough walking. I wanted to stop, to drink in the scenery, to rest my legs. So the rest of my walking party left for Annapurna Base Camp where they would spend the night and I would stay put, rejoining them the next morning. Wrapped in a yak wool blanket, I sat on a bench in the communal dining area of the teahouse where I was staying. It was the only warm place. The snow came down lightly at first and then it completely obscured my view. I read for a while, finished my book. Had a cup of chai. Sat, and watched others come and go. No-one else spoke English. A group of Japanese women were playing cards. They invited me to join them. I had no idea what game they were playing so the only thing to do was to jump in and have a go. If I played an incorrect card they would all laugh and shake their heads, explaining in sign language what I should do. They also had some rituals about who got to play the first card and when you won. It was a lot of fun. I eventually worked out the game, won a couple even. It was a great example of what happens when we show up, let go, and jump in: being present to what is, letting go of expectations and needs, and accepting offers. That’s been my mantra ever since I returned from that extraordinary walk in Nepal, and it’s paying off in spades.

*I’ve actually been waiting for the planets to align to do many, many things, but for the purpose of this post, two will do.


October 14th, 2011

There’s something about performance: about being in the presence of a great performance, about acting ourselves.

There’s a common refrain about creativity: ask a group of pre-school kids if they’re creative and they’ll all stick their hands in the air; ask a group of adults and most of us will say we’re not creative. Kids are also happy to act – they take on roles, create scenes out of nothing and make up their own stories. Somewhere, somehow, it becomes not cool to do this any more. We grow up into rational adults, making sensible decisions, using our huge brains to think our way through issues.

So why do many of us – given an opportunity – love to play, to act, to perform? How come many of us find creative outlets away from our everyday work? Why can’t our everyday work fulfil the yearning for creative pursuits?

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.

What happened to play?

May 29th, 2011

Watch kids playing. What do you see? Watch adults playing in a workshop. What do you see?

When do we lose that capacity for commitment, imagination, curiosity, play?

Maybe it’s not lost – just hidden. Is this why we flock to comedy plays, love stand-up and sit-coms? Are we trying to replace or rediscover what’s been squashed?

Self awareness

May 18th, 2011

Sometimes I read something in someone else’s blog and think – yeah, that’s like me. Like this, from Sarah Irving, author of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs

I’m not a theory person or an in-depth analyst. I have an adequate but far from outstanding brain, and although I can absorb staggering quantities of useless factoids, I’m not mentally quick. I’m the sort of person who suffers from bad cases of esprit d’escalier, revisiting moments in arguments and debates days or weeks later with that final, killer line. So the idea of being faced with an unsympathetic philosopher and supposed intellectual heavyweight was enough to cause me some lost sleep and serious nausea.

Sarah was writing about a book launch. I sometimes think a book launch or tour must be as excruciating for a writer as standing in front of dozens, if not, hundred of people to facilitate a meeting. (I can relate to the lost sleep and nausea.) In both cases it’s pretty unlikely that every person in the room will be your ally. I think this sort of self-awareness is a good thing. Sarah’s post is worth reading because it’s a great description of some serious status games. And she’s a great writer.

It also reminds me of a discussion Johnnie Moore and I were having about a mutual friend who can talk a lot. I’m quite happy with companionable silence, and certainly can’t sustain a lot of talking. Johnnie pointed out that people who talk a lot are most likely thinking out loud – making sense of their thoughts by speaking them, while I have those conversations in my own head. It’s good to be reminded of our similarities, and differences.

Fear, readiness and perseverence

April 18th, 2011

I’m just back from 10 weeks on the road and am revelling in catching up with blogs, twitter, friends, email (not so much), book-keeping (not at all) and being surrounded by the familiar.

This from Euan Semple: The pressure on us, both from ourselves and others, to take the easy route, give in to our fears, and not risk disapproval or ridicule is constant and insidious. But I know, and need to keep constantly reminding myself, that I will regret the things I didn’t do more than the things I did ….

Included in that time away was taking a different approach to facilitation training.

And also a nine-day trek in the Nepalese Himalaya with my husband, a guide, Arjun, and his two sons (Santosh and Suman) and a porter, Min. We started at Phedi, trekked to Annapurna Base Camp and finished at Naya Pul. About 70 kms, elevation gains of 3000m (that means a bloody lot of climbing up, and subsequent climbing down!), amazing mountain and forest scenery, hard beds and dodgy pillows (beds nonetheless), occasional hot showers, washing in freezing cold water, lots of masala tea and hot chocolate, pit toilets, rhododendron forests, snow, sun-burn inducing sun, early mornings and falling into bed exhausted straight after a dinner of dahl batt or noodle soup.

And this from Patti Digh in celebration of National Poetry Month:

The Poet

She is working now, in a room
not unlike this one,
the one where I write, or you read.
Her table is covered with paper.
The light of the lamp would be
tempered by a shade, where the bulb’s
single harshness might dissolve,
but it is not; she has taken it off.
Her poems? I will never know them,
though they are the ones I most need.
Even the alphabet she writes in
I cannot decipher. Her chair —
let us imagine whether it is leather
or canvas, vinyl or wicker. Let her
have a chair, her shadeless lamp,
the table. Let one or two she loves
be in the next room. Let the door
be closed, the sleeping ones healthy.
Let her have time, and silence,
enough paper to make mistakes and go on.

-Jane Hirshfield

I guess this post is about many things. It’s about perseverence, it’s about doing the unexpected, taking risks, about the difference between grabbing opportunities and being prepared.

I had a lot of time to think while I was trekking. Some days it was a struggle. Our guide, Arjun, would point out a village in the distance, that day’s destination. And inevitably that meant traversing valleys, going down to the river and back up to the village. Or it simply meant doing a lot of climbing. Some days I felt like the slowest person on the trail as many backpackers, mostly from Europe, would overtake me. But at least I was on the trail, taking one step at a time.

Which got me thinking about timing. When is the *right* time to do something? I first planned a trip to Nepal for trekking exactly 30 years ago (yikes!) but we bought a house instead. Fast-forward to 2011 and a work opportunity took me to Nepal and planets aligned in a way that enabled us to do that long-abandoned trek. I could have waited till I was fitter. I could have waited till my ankle had recovered from recent surgery more fully. My husband could have waited till his broken collar-bone had healed. We probably couldn’t wait another 30 years! The opportunity was here now, and we took it.

The same applies to work and preparation. I’ve been known to rant occasionally about over-preparation, or maybe it’s over-planning. I’ve learnt over the years to trust more – trust myself and others, to be more honest and even say ‘I don’t know’ when well, I really don’t know what to do next. Sometimes that means I make mistakes. Yep, that’s right. I get it wrong. I stuff up. Which means I get to try something else – something which may work in a way I had never imagined. This is what keeps me interested and engaged.  The world hasn’t collapsed around me. Not yet, anyway. So I feel ready to take on a few more risks.

What stops me taking risks – in work and in life – is fear. I see it in myself and I recognise it in others as an unwillingness to commit. So, echoing Euan, I will regret the things I didn’t do more than the things I did…