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!

Change, and strategy, and creativity – another take

July 29th, 2014

I love this! Change as creating. Did I mention how much I love this?

Congratulations to Karen Dawson, Julie Huffaker, Ian Prinsloo, Sarah Moyle, Andrea Grant and Leonardo Spinedi, and Laila Woozeer. Lucky people to have had the opportunity to work and play with each other and at the fabulous Banff Center in Canada. Jealous? Just a little 🙂

Courage and vulnerability

March 2nd, 2013

Artists perform. They live for their art, whatever that may be.

I’m learning more and more about my art – connecting people and ideas aka facilitating – from other artists.

This week I offered a workshop on Creative Facilitation. There were people in the room who had known me a long time, others who I met for the first time that morning. I introduced the workshop by saying I felt like a performer, with some old material and some new stuff.

I also explained why I still regard myself as a beginner, learning as I am to incorporate music into my workshops. The beginner mind is open and curious; the expert mind is closed and certain. I first learnt to do my craft, as many artists do – processes and techniques that I honed – and then started exploring being an artist. The difference between doing and being is courage and vulnerability. Courage to break away from the mould of what people expect facilitation and facilitators to be. Vulnerability to know that not everything I do will work, or be liked, and understanding that my art is not for everyone.

And if you watch this TED Talk by Amanda Palmer, you will understand why people like her are my inspiration. She nails the impact of courage, risk-taking, vulnerability and ultimately the connections and love that shows up.

Collecting insights

September 26th, 2012

There was a lot happening at the Applied Improvisation Network Conference in San Francisco. As well as the pre-planned sessions, and the open space offerings, the one-on-one and small group conversations, and the serendipitous moments, there was the Twitter and Facebook back channel, photos being posted on Flickr, videos being made, drawings made, and people blogging. I tried to capture a small slice of the whole conference using Storify. It was the perfect opportunity for me to try this platform for myself. You can see for yourself here.

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.

Peeking from behind the mask

March 24th, 2012

Two articles in today’s Melbourne Age newspaper stood out. This one and this one.

“Tell the story – the more times you tell it, the better off you’ll be.” This was the advice given to  Brant Webb and Todd Russell, survivors of the Beaconsfield goldmine disaster.  They were trapped underground in a small wire cage for 15 days after an explosion on 25 April 2006. Webb says that advice was absolutely true, and he only wishes more trauma survivors would take the same advice.

Steven Amsterdam, writer and palliative care nurse, writes about the pervasive use of a military metaphor to describe illness and death, (e.g., he lost the battle) and how this contributes an added burden to families and friends coping with grief.

“Fear must be made to look like fearlessness. This is not a cure. All of the masking hides feelings and leads to isolation. Instead of a close, supportive connection among family and friends, it steers everyone towards bravado and inauthentic cheer,” he writes.

There seems to me to be a common thread in these two stories – sharing our real emotions. So often I see people hiding behind the mask of how they think others want to see them. Oh yes, I’m guilty too. Leaders in particular in organisations seem to struggle to maintain the mask of invincibility, of knowing what is unknowable, and presenting a positive face to the world in the midst of uncertainty, confusion, even sadness.

How can we support each other to more often reveal the real person behind the mask, with all of our vulnerabilities and emotions? How can we be more compassionate listeners of other people’s stories and more willing to share our own?

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.

Spend a day exploring the edges of work

September 1st, 2011

About 16 years ago, I made the leap from full-time employment and started my own business. I agonised over a business name. I wanted something that would last the distance, and not lock me in to some sort of work that I’d outgrow. I eventually settled on Beyond the Edge Pty Ltd. I was initially attracted to the word beyond. It spoke to me of reaching beyond my own knowledge and experience, and  the unknowns that lay ahead. I chose the edge because imagination was already taken.

Fast forward to 2011. The name has not only sustained me and my business for all those years, it has finally come into its own. Maybe I intuitively knew something?

I’ve been conducting a little experiment recently around the edges of work – exploring some of the approaches that can help us deal with complexity and the demands of our modern-day work.

I’ve written about my experiences of Bodystorming here, and a participant in a workshop where we looked at the tyrannies that sometimes trap us said this:

“I found [your workshop] extremely beneficial for my personal development. I learnt a lot, particularly about my own inhibitions, and how I’ve created rules that are completely artificial, unproductive and unnecessary. After some reflection, I’ve developed some simple steps to overcome my fears of failure – concentrate less on my fears, focus on doing something, embrace being average and just have a crack – be present.”

As a result, Johnnie Moore (UK) and I have begun a venture called, not unsurprisingly, The Edges of Work (web site coming soon).  Johnnie and I have been working together quite a bit lately and pushing each other to our respective edges (where it seems the most potent learning happens). For those of you who don’t know Johnnie, he is incredibly astute at seeing what others miss, likes to playfully explore serious issues and puts a lot of the organisational BS into perspective. We share an interest in complexity, ideas, connections, spontaneity and not playing by the rules!

We’re offering a one-day workshop at this year’s Story Conference in Melbourne, where the theme is Widening the World of Work. We’re going to share some of our experiences and insights around some of the challenges we face in dealing with complexity, unpredictability and demands for creativity, innovation and agility.

The workshop is on Wednesday, October 5 and there’s more information about registering here.

Our understanding is that change happens at the edge: we see it in systems and in our own lives. At the edge, we are away from the routine and familiar: it’s exciting but scary territory, but it’s where new patterns and routines can emerge. How can we, as leaders, managers, and facilitators support people in staying in the space at least long enough for useful change? We’ll share ideas for navigating edge territory, overcoming habitual patterns that give us a kind of safety but prevent us from making real change.

And we’ll share a series of activities we’ve found powerful in getting organisations and people out of stuck places, rigid arguments and unquestioned rituals and into territory where it’s possible for new work to emerge.

We’d love for you to join us. Drop me an email if you’d like more information.

Exploring the Edges of Work II

August 18th, 2011

Anyone visiting recently will probably know that I’m exploring the edges of work – offering a series of short workshops to explore how we might move beyond the rigidity of existing systems and processes to open up workplace creativity, innovation and agility – especially when the currency of much of today’s work is ideas.

So I’m delighted to announce a full-day workshop with Johnnie Moore as part of this year’s Story Conference; Widening the World of Work in Melbourne. Here’s a little about what to expect:

Workplace approaches that were once just fine are now struggling in the face of complexity, unpredictability and demands for creativity, innovation and agility. Change happens at the edge: we see it in systems and in our own lives. At the edge, we are away from the routine and familiar: it’s exciting but scary territory, but it’s where new patterns and routines can emerge. How can we support people in staying in the space at least long enough for useful change?
We’ll share ideas for navigating edge territory, overcoming habitual patterns that give us a kind of safety but prevent us from making real change. We look at three tyrannies that keep us away from the edge: the tryanny of excellence,
the tyranny of effort and the tyranny of the explicit.
And we’ll share a series of activities we’ve found powerful in getting organisations out of stuck places, rigid arguments and unquestioned rituals and into territory where it’s possible for new work to emerge.

If you’d like to register go here (and if you register before 31 August, you’ll get that cool early-bird rate)

Revisiting the Hero’s Journey

November 21st, 2010

It’s about 10 years ago that I decided I wanted to be a scriptwriter. I’ve since discovered that everyone, at some stage or another during their lifetime, wants to be a scriptwriter. Or so it seems.

Scriptwriting was to be my next career – the one I’d turn to when I was sick of facilitating, and sick of travelling. What I didn’t know is that the universe had other plans for me. I’d discover improv, I’d meet people who would inspire and teach, I’d develop deep, deep friendships that would nourish me. I’d get to work in places like Uganda, and Laos, and Armenia, and Myanmar, and Zambia.

But all was not lost. I completed a Victorian College of the Arts Summer School ‘Writing for the Screen’ delivered by Mac Gudgeon. I have the certificate to prove it. This awakened me to the form of screenwriting, and reignited a love of movies. When I was studying part-time in my 20s for a BA in Media Studies my favourite subject was Cinema Studies.We’d shuffle into the campus cinema on a Tuesday afternoon – a tumbledown old building smelling of must – and about 30 of us in a cinema that could hold a couple of hundred would slouch in our creaky faux leather seats, feet on the back of the seat in front of us, while our lecturer Rob Jordan would introduce this week’s movie, such as Metropolis, Dancin’ in the Rain, or a classic western or film noir. I’d learn about sub-text and back story and icons and music as character.

Inspired by the summer school, I enrolled in the Australian Film, Television and Radio School online screenwriting course. We had our own chat room and everything. I often wonder if any of my fellow students on that course escaped from the olive grove and actually finished their script. Had it made into a movie even. My script is still stuck in the olive grove you see, the main protagonist and her lover…oh, never mind.

My bookshelves are scattered with books from that era. The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker; Daily News, Eternal Stories by Jack Lule; Story by Robert McKee (of course); Alternative Scriptwriting: Writing Beyond the Rules by Kan Dancyger and Jeff Rush (bet you’re surprised I was attracted to that title?!) and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

It’s this last book that has had a lasting impression.

Vogler uses the Hero’s Journey as the basis of his ‘mythic structure for writers’. This so enthused me that I developed ways of using this structure in my facilitation, re-imagining the structure as The Facilitator’s Journey.  My friend, Simon Kneebone, did some cartoons. You can check it out here Facilitator’s Journey Summary

Fast forward to 2010. Three incidences within a few short weeks.

1. It’s a workshop for facilitators recently employed for a completely new community program. I’ve been asked to help them explore how they can be creative, ‘out there’, build relationships, have fun, support each other even though they are geographically diverse. I made the Facilitator’s Journey into a small booklet for each person and had them interview each other, in pairs, about their forthcoming journey. It was the first time I’d used it for years.

2. The Applied Improv Conference in Amsterdam. I walk in – late – to a workshop, and there spread around the floor in a circle are the very same 12 parts of Vogler’s Hero’s Journey. I watched as a small psychodrama played out around the crossing of the first threshold.

3. In amongst my latest delivery from Amazon is Nancy Duarte’s new book, Resonate: Present visual stories that transform audiences. You guessed it – Nancy also uses Vogler’s Hero’s Journey as a spine for unearthing the story behind your kick-ass presentation.

Do the think the universe is sending me another message?