HUMAN – sci-fi meets aid

August 4th, 2016

HUMANAs a long-time fan of science fiction, I was delighted to hear that J. was writing a new novel, the world’s first humanitarian science fiction. J. is a fabulous writer as his previous books – fiction and non-fiction, all with humanitarian themes – attest. I’m not sure what it’s like for someone who is a professional aid worker to read his books, but for someone like me who occasionally works in the humanitarian sector and is really a fringe dweller in their world, his books provide a useful insight into the complexity, the joy, and the sorrow, of aid work.

Science-fiction, you’re thinking. Why science-fiction? If you’re not a fan, don’t be put off. Science-fiction has been used, and continues to provide, a window into current social and geo-political conditions in a way that conventional fiction can’t. Science-fiction provides a world that is unknown but familiar, characters that exhibit the best and worst of what it is to be human, and a way to explore ideas without the predictable “that would never happen here” response.

HUMAN does this very, very well. It’s a great read. It’s short enough – novella length – to read in a couple of sittings or on a long flight, and is chock full of insights into what it’s like to be ‘like me’ and ‘not like me’. The parallels to current world events is illuminating and/or scary, depending on your point of view.

In a world where our views are mediated and manipulated, and where ‘outsiders’ are increasingly viewed with suspicion, HUMAN provides an insight into what it feels like to belong, and not to belong, and the underlying bonds that make us all human, no matter what our circumstances or backgrounds.

Enough from me. Just read it and see for yourself. Highly recommended!

Can improv save the world? It can’t make it any worse!

July 16th, 2016

13692658_1039746996112840_4549062862761023753_nWhoa! There seems to be bad news around every corner. It’s a volatile and unpredictable time, and we all need to draw on all of our skills and resources just to cope, let alone, be of any use to others.

Applied Improvisation is one approach being used to develop people’s capacity to cope with change and uncertainty.

I’ll be taking part in a special humanitarian workshop in Oxford on August 10 and 11, to explore how individuals and organisation can become more adaptable, flexible, spontaneous and resilient.

Bringing together improvisers and humanitarian workers will help us develop a common understanding of the humanitarian context and the benefits and challenges of using applied improvisation techniques. In particular, we’ll explore how improvisation techniques can build resilience amongst humanitarian workers, and affected communities, before, during, and after disasters. We’ll be designing and implementing activities that engage communities and partners and illuminate even the most serious issue, while learning facilitation tips and tricks for engaging diverse groups.

Applied improvisation has been used for facilitation, capacity building and training, monitoring and evaluation, and learning events. Where else might it be used?

The workshop will also include a Design Lab, where you can bring actual, real-world situations and issues to see how improvisation techniques might be helpful.

Tickets are £129 and are available from here.


The future belongs to those who can be flexible and adaptable

April 7th, 2012

A special Insight report in the weekend paper is about the future of a baby born in Australia this year. Here’s what caught my eye.

“If current trends are anything to go by, today’s babies will inhabit a world in which flexibility and adaptability will be key. Their life trajectories will be whorls of activity spinning off into periods of retraining and reinvention. Their education will be interactive, ongoing, and probably much more fun than yours.

I’d argue that flexibility and adaptability are important right now.

Also in the weekend paper, is an opinion piece by Garry Lyon, a former professional Australian Rules Football player.

“I couldn’t help but think last weekend how important it is for football clubs, and their coaches, to have the ability to improvise, and be flexible in their planning as they embark on season 2012…I hope the spirit of improvisation catches on during matches…What we do know is that football constantly surprises, throwing up new challenges at every turn. The ability to improvise has never been more important.”

This talk of the need for flexibility, or agility as it’s sometimes called, adaptability and improvisation are all very well, but how do we develop these capacities?

We all improvise – life is an improvisation, as it comes with no user’s manual. We seem to be happy to improvise the small parts of our lives – or maybe it’s that we simply don’t recognize that we’re improvising. Yet when it comes to our work, improvisation is seen as something akin to recklessness.

It is possible though to learn to improvise more and to bring this to all of the facets of our lives. Even those in the most controlled professions can improvise within  constraints. Improvisation is not a synonym of anarchy or chaos. It exists within boundaries.

In many ways I’m not surprised when a group of capable, talented, professional people, when asked if they improvise, shake their heads. “I’m not an improviser,” they declare. “It’s not for me.” Jazz musicians, and comedy improvisors are probably what come to people’s minds when asked if they improvise. They probably think of improvisation as something performers do on a stage in front of an audience. Any wonder that most of us would say no to that.

Even these ‘professional’ improvisors practice relentlessly to build their capacity to improvise.

When watching a group of people improvising on the stage, here’s what I see: a high-performing team, seamlessly working with each other, each with a specific, if changeable, function, working towards the successful completion of a specified task, sometimes making mistakes that might give them pause, but rarely stop them in their tracks.

Sound familiar? In its various forms, this is how teamwork is often described to me in businesses and organisations. It’s how people wished their teams were.

Taking a group of people for an away day or two or even three or more, or suggesting they attend a training course to learn how to improve their teamwork is ludicrous.

Would you send a child to a camp to learn how to play the piano, expecting that when they return from a few days away they would be transformed into a pianist? Would you take yourself to a retreat to learn new habits expecting to be a changed person on your return?

You might return with a new perspective, new information, insights and inspiration. You might even return with a set of skills to practice and hone and develop.

And this is the point.

We never learn anything new without practice. I’ve already written about this here.

Building our capacities to be flexible, to be more comfortable with uncertainty, to trust our abilities to adapt, and to see the possibilities around us, don’t always come easily as we struggle to shed the legacy of an era of order, control and predictability. We need to be exposed to being flexible and adaptable, we need to learn the foundations of improvising, and we need to practice.

Just as a footballer will practice in the gym to build strength, and run to build stamina, we need to train to be more spontaneous. If we want to be more flexible and adaptable and able to respond when we don’t know what to do, we need to practice so as those skills become second nature.

These ideas fascinate and excite me. And I’m looking for others who are share an interest in how to develop our capacities to thrive in an uncertain future. I don’t think there’s any easy answers, no magic bullets, no next ‘big thing’. But I do believe there’s lots of new territory to explore, new skills to learn, ideas to share and connections to make. If you are also fascinated by these ideas, you might be interested in this.

Tasting an amygdala hijack

May 8th, 2011

Warning: Contains self-reflection

I’ve always said that an ‘amygdala hijack’ is a great name for a cocktail. I’m not sure what would be in such a cocktail except that in my mind’s eye it’s red, so I guess cranberry juice would be a good start. A real amygdala hijack is a serious thing though – it’s when our primitive brain takes over and the amygdala ‘hijacks’ the higher functioning of the brain. It literally (through some process I really don’t understand) flicks a switch, so to speak, that means we lose our capacity to consider anything other than fright (deer caught in the headlights) or flight (just get out of there as quickly as possible).

I had what felt like a slow-onset amygdala hijack recently while facilitating and it’s been an interesting experience to reflect on. I’m also re-reading (by chance) Mindsight by Dan Siegel. He talks about how it’s possible to change the wiring and architecture of our brains, and how mindsight gives us the capacity for insight and empathy – two things I really lacked last week.

After getting some space (literally) away from the group and spending time outside, having some laughs and some tears, some exercise and some sleep, and some time alone, my brain is functioning again, the right and left hemispheres are integrated, the prefrontal cortex is back in business and the synapses are firing away. Empathy and creativity are back. (Phew!) I can now see with a clarity that’s a bit scary in comparison to the fog I was operating in. It felt like mentally crawling through molasses. I knew I had to move, but every movement felt laboured. I was operating on auto-pilot, and a pretty timid one at that. Fair to say, that’s not my usual style.

I fell into the trap of trying to think my way out. My body was telling me something else. I could feel the tension throughout my body, but mostly in my gut. People kept engaging with me at a cognitive level and I would try and respond similarly. Now I can see that what I really needed, and wanted, was a hug – human connection at a very basic level to calm down my amygdala and give my brain time to recover and start functioning again.

Writing this, I feel completely different. Optimistic, brave, creative. I no longer feel frustrated, angry, trapped, afraid. I feel like me again.

This line from Dan Siegel’s book really resonates: “Before we can reconnect with others, we need to reconnect with ourselves”. This means checking in with our internal sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts. He also talks about not beating ourselves up: “What’s wrong with you, Viv? You’ve done this before, you know how to facilitate, you understand status, you know what’s going on here…Why can’t you keep your head together?”

Siegel say that ‘reflection requires an attunement to the self that is supportive and kind, not a judgmental stance of interrogation and derogation. Reflection is a compassionate state of mind.’

Facilitation is harder than it looks. Great facilitation is barely visible at all, yet takes an enormous amount of effort, mainly around what not to do. It’s always easier, whether facilitating, or doing anything else, to take along everything, to do more, to say a bit more. It’s easier to keep adding, adding, adding. Take a few extra clothes on that trip, add a few more slides to that presentation, talk for a bit longer. It’s harder – much harder – to stop. To stop doing and to start being.

I’ve been reminded to reconnect with myself, and to allow time and space for that to happen. I’ve also been reminded that others probably need this too.

Beyond resilience

August 24th, 2009

Dave Pollard has an excellent post on resilience. Resilience is a bit of a catch phrase at the moment, and yes, guilty as charged, your honour. I’ve been pedalling the resilience story for a while now – individual, community, organisational, family.

As Dave says, resilience is about ‘springing back’, and embedded in that is the expectation that things will somehow, eventually get back to ‘normal’. We now know that there is no ‘normal’.

I’m particularly taken by his research that reveals that we need to adapt, and improvise. It’s so obvious when it’s presented this way, yet I’ve been blinded by the lure of resilience that I’ve neglected alternatives.

Great stuff. I’ve saved Dave’s post for further reference.

What presses your buttons?

August 5th, 2009

The term ‘change management’ presses my buttons. So instead of responding straight away with a rant, I thought I’d explore what the term means to me.

First ‘change’ – there’s two types of change: change that I initiate, like changing jobs or moving house, or taking a vacation. Then there’s change that is imposed on me by someone else: a new train timetable, a restructure at work, a new way of acting that someone else has decided is necessary (aka behaviour change). Okay, so there’s more than two types of change. There’s incremental change, and there’s catastrophic change.

Now ‘management’ – able to influence, direct, control. Some things really do need management: building a house, or any other complicated project; running a household – paying bills, putting the garbage out, organising maintenance, taking the dog to the vet – all manner of things need to be managed. Good thing too.

It’s when change and management are lumped together that I get a bit antsy. What does change management mean, I wonder? I guess it may be possible, and necessary, when moving office locations for example. Change management could be handy. But it often relates to cultural change – and I’m not sure it’s possible, or even desirable to manage cultural change.

I was once asked how to ‘ensure a controlled and managed change process’? I have no idea! I don’t think it IS possible. So instead of ‘change management’ I offer the following alternative: ‘change awareness’ – a process of creating an environment in which change (read cultural change) can be explored, played with, and adopted in an organic way that makes sense to people.

How to do that? Open space, enable conversations, build relationships and trust that people will do what’s necessary, based on their passions and the responsibility they’re willing to take. Yep – it’s about using open space as a means of being together in community and organisations to build connections and culture.

Some reflections on the bushfire recovery process

June 23rd, 2009

iStock_Bark after fire

It’s nearly five months on from the Victorian bushfires that claimed many lives, homes, livlihoods, habitat, livestock and wildlife. I don’t live in the affected area. I’ve done a few workshops with people who do, and with people who have been affected indirectly.

I’ve seen some of the effects – physical and emotional. I’ve seen the blackened trees, felt the stillness, and the emptiness. Yet have been surprised by the resilience of nature, as the sound of a single bird fills the void and the sight of new, green shoots seems to sprout as I watch. I’ve listened to stories and to accusations, to questions and to answers. I’ve seen multiple emotions cross people’s faces in a moment. And I’ve seen great pain and great joy.

I’ve read reports of the inquiries. I’ve listened to people recount their stories. I’ve heard analysis. I’ve heard blame. And I’ve heard thanks. Directly and mediated.

And most poignant of all, to me, are pleas from people rebuilding their lives for ongoing support. Not for more money, although that helps; not for more visits from the agencies, although it’s good to know they haven’t been forgotten; not from tourists, although it’s good have their money flowing into the affected communities. Sometimes they don’t even have the words. They want their community back. They want the connection. The feeling of belonging.

I can’t give them what they want. Nor can anyone else.  This has to come from within. Community-building is community-centric. The time for facilitators from outside of these communities is passing quickly, although we can still provide valuable support through training, coaching and mentoring. In the end though, it will be up to these reinvented, fledging communities to bring their own groups together to re-build local capacity, and resilience. And a sense of belonging again.

Lessons from the field

June 10th, 2009

After eight days of facilitation training in Indonesia, what did I learn?

Before I answer that, a bit of context. I was working for an international aid organisation. Some 55 people took part in the first three days, then 30 of them disappeared to take part in an emergency simulation. The remaining people stayed to learn more facilitation and prepare to debrief the simulation – which also included local staff, bringing the numbers on the day up to 100+. The final day brought the original 55 back together for a review.

It was, at times, challenging, tiring, exhilerating, fun and ultimately satisfying.

Slideshows and interaction can work!

For many years I refused to even entertain the idea of including a slideshow (aka powerpoint presentation) in any facilitation. Then I discovered Keynote (the Mac equivalent of powerpoint) and Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen fame. And my friend Geoff Brown and I started experimenting with slideshows. And we created a training program called Insanely Great Slideshow Presentations. So it was only natural that I would make a slideshow to 1) ease people into the training 2) demonstrate an alternative to crappy powerpoint and bullet points 3) ensure I had a plan for the first day at least 4) prove to myself that I could integrate a slideshow, and interaction. If you’d like to see it I’ve loaded it here on slideshare.

Doing beats all other approaches

Telling is telling, demonstrating provides a frame, participating gives perspective and doing it yourself is really the only way to actually learn. Having an opportunity to prepare and practice using different facilitation techniques builds confidence to actually facilitate.

Having a real facilitation experience to work towards focuses attention and provides multiple learning opportunities, as well as a sense of achievement

The post-simulation debrief provided a real facilitation experience for the trainees. The day was designed in advance and incorporated a number of facilitation techniques, including some that were not planned for! The shift from one venue to another provided an excellent opportunity for the trainees to experience the decision-making associated with staging an event in a less-than-ideal venue.

Improv rules!

Sure, I know I sound like a broken record, but that’s because improv has become fundamental to how I facilitate. And I also believe an understanding of improv principles provides a fast-track to better facilitation. This was proven during this event. I’d introduced my six favourite improv principles for facilitators: Be Present, Accept Offers, Let Go, Make Mistakes, Be Average, and Do Something. I think they provided permission to ‘have a go’ – to see every opportunity as a learning opportunity rather than pressure to perform. During the simulation debrief with 100+ people in a room suitable for probably half that many, facilitated solely by people who had learnt many of their facilitation skills only days before and with a frenetic pace I saw many examples of improvised facilitation in action. I only had to ask once and someone would step up to help, to facilitate a process they’d only seen and participated in once before. They knew it was okay to make mistakes, to accept offers, to be average and present to what was happening, to do something if they got stuck and to let go of expectations.

There’s always an alternative

Okay, so I’d planned to incorporate juggling as an activity. Alas, no juggling balls. Could we buy balloons, and rice? We’ll make our own. The activity was a hit. I’m sure no-one knew it wasn’t planned (although they will now!)

Themes emerge

After a few days a theme of ‘catching the ball’ emerged, fueled by juggling balls, group juggling, improv games and outdoor activities with the physical resilience guys. The ball became a recurring theme – albeit unplanned, and unexpected, but a theme nonetheless.

Even the most basic facilitation skills can make a difference

Not everyone is going to become an ace facilitator. Not everyone wants to. But everyone can incorporate some understanding of facilitation, and the power of interaction, into events they design or lead. And this can make a big difference. Or just a little difference. That’s okay.

Stamina helps!

Don’t skip breakfast. I did one morning. And paid the price later in the morning when I simply ran out of energy. I was unfocused, weary, had trouble making decisions and felt flat. This level of facilitation requires stamina. And that requires fuel. And fitness. I need to be fitter to do more of this work.

Schedule long breaks

We scheduled 1.5 hours each day for lunch, a day off and another free half-day. Learning facilitation is intensive work. Having time and space to relax helps people to integrate and consolidate their learning. There’s a tendency to cram as much as possible into the time available. This is a case where less is definitely more. Once people are tuned into facilitation there’s plenty they can learn along the way. If we scare them off on their first encounter there’s little chance they will pursue further learning.

I’m sure there’s more lessons that will emerge as I continue to debrief this experience. This’ll do for starters.

Learning from fellow facilitators

March 16th, 2009

I love sharing stories with fellow facilitators. In this podcast, Geoff Brown and I chat with Nicole Hunter about her experiences with rural communities following the Grampians bush fires a few years ago. Go here to listen.

Talking with Gil Brenson-Lazan about the role of facilitators in disaster response

March 1st, 2009

Anyone reading this blog over the last couple of weeks will notice a pre-occupation, of sorts, with facilitation and disaster response. This is borne partly out of the need to share what I know and believe regarding what facilitators can bring and partly due to frustration. Frustration that the authorities responsible for recovery following Victoria’s bush fires, and the media, commentators, and experts – seem to be oblivious to the important part that facilitation can play in helping communities rebuild.

So here’s the next installment – and it’s a beauty. Geoff Brown and I interviewed Gil Brenson-Lazan who has 35 years experience in this field and is a co-founder of the Global Faciltators Service Corps (GFSC).  We cover topics such as:

Gil’s experiences of disaster responses – good and bad. What happened when 26,000 people were killed in Columbia.

Why it’s important for people to participate in their own future.

Training facilitators in psycho-social recovery: personal (psycho) grieving processes and building community (social) resilience.

An aid mentality compared with a facilitative approach to disaster response.

Thinking like a facilitator.

Role of Community Fireguard in building resilient communities.

The power of participating and dialoguing instead of being ‘talked at’ by an expert.

Secondary crisis – not dealing appropriately with the loss and turning to ‘escape’ behaviours.

The problem of staying in the aid mode for too long and building dependency. The ladder of participation.

When is the right time for facilitation after a disaster?

Go here to listen (32 mins)