Bolder Conversations


July 19th, 2016

BolderConversationsI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive

 

None of us like to feel uncomfortable when talking with others. Sometimes it’s easiest to stay silent. Yet staying silent, especially on important topics, can have ramifications worse than speaking out. Silence can be seen as a default for agreement. With so much unrest, shifting political landscapes, and the access to so much information about just about anything, having conversations about the things that matter is important, I think.

I personally struggle with this a lot. I have strong views on lots of things, and find it difficult when confronted with mis-information, myths, and the latest form of -ism going around (racism, sexism, etc). I try to be curious, to find out where other people get their information, how they formed their views, but it can be hard, especially if it’s something I am particularly passionate about. Becoming more comfortable on unknown ground – having bolder conversations – is about practice. Even the skill of having a conversation can be easily lost.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately by Richard Fidler. He asks great questions, he knows how to have a great conversation. One day, when I have nothing better to do, I’m going to go through a whole stack of his interviews and try and figure out how he does it, analyse his questions. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn by listening, and by osmosis – maybe I’ll soak up some of his approaches!

I also went to an improv class with Gary Schwartz. Apart from all of his other brilliance, he’s a great improv coach. My key message from his workshop was about slowing down. I think this works with having bolder conversations too. If we rush, we miss too much. Slowing down enables us to connect more deeply.

One of the joys of travel and reconnecting with friends is that I can indulge in lots of conversations. Johnnie and I will also be sharing some of our techniques for having bolder conversations at our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2.

Staying Alive


July 19th, 2016

StayingAliveI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive

To continue doing what you have always done is the easy part, it’s when you want to try something new, something fresh, maybe even unproven, that we enter tricky territory. This is really important for me when I’m facilitating. I have many approaches that work, and I’m not about to throw them out. But sometimes it’s good to try something new, to refresh. The only way I’ve found to discover if something works is to try it. And here’s the rub. Not everything works. Not the first time, not every time.

Trying new things, even when I don’t know how to do them, is how I learn new things, and discover stuff about myself. It helps keep my work fresh and interesting, for me, and for others.

Taming the voice in your own head telling you not to try something new or different is hard enough, imagine what it’s like to try and encourage others? It can be a real nightmare, knowing how far to push – too little and there’s not enough challenge or encouragement; too much and people are frightened off.

I’m looking forward to discovering new ways of staying alive when I’m in UK this August, especially at our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2.

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.

 

Taming self talk


May 21st, 2016

Sometimes, when talking with someone, it’s obvious that they are elsewhere. They have gone into their head. While we can’t know what the other person is thinking, it’s usually pretty obvious that they are not listening to us, maybe even no longer aware that we are there.

It can range from slightly annoying to downright rude. And we know what it feels like from both sides – sometimes we’re on the receiving end of inattention, sometimes we’re guilty of drifting away.

It’s not something to fix. It is something to notice. When we notice when we do this we can then choose to follow our thoughts, wherever they are taking us, or bring our attention back to the person or task at hand.

Taming this form of self talk can help us be better listeners, better companions, and better work colleagues.

There’s another form of self talk that I’ve been experiencing a lot lately. It’s the voice that hovers like a huge question mark, it’s the voice of indecision. “Do this! No, don’t do that, do this instead! Are you crazy, do this!” Now there’s an insight into my head that you probably never needed to know.

I am learning to tame this voice. It’s another voice that says: “Just do what you know. And if you don’t know what to do, just do something.”

It’s good advice, that voice. One worth listening to.

A morning with David Whyte


May 1st, 2016

Rock balancing MongoliaFirst, two confessions. I’d never read, or listened to any of David Whyte’s work. And I didn’t know what genius loci meant. Nor did I know to what extent both might influence me.

After yesterday morning, neither is no longer true.

I was impressed with the rhythm of David’s performance, the strength, and loudness, of the silences, and the way he would regale his audience with story, to slip seamlessly into poetry, and whammo – reveal a line that connects the story and asks a question that “is an invitation to the imagination that the strategic mind doesn’t know what to do with.”

Repetition. Repetition, I now know, is not a part of his written work, but is certainly a huge part of his performance. And it’s very effective.

Gesture. David Whyte gestures a lot. He points and waves and pokes and prods and underlines his words with gestures.

Silence. The silences would begin as short, two-beat silences, and gradually increase to ten times as long. Powerful. And loud!

And then there’s his use of language. Not surprisingly, I’ve been a fan, a student, a user, and sometimes, an abuser, of language. Not surprisingly, a poet uses language well. The work that Johnnie and I are immersed in right now is also imbued with language – trying to find just the right word, getting rid of jargon and meaningless adjectives – trying to use language to explain the unexplainable.

Here’s some of the memorable lines from my morning with David Whyte:

“The ground makes no sense without an horizon. An horizon may also be internal.”

“Poetry is language against which you have no defences.”

“Be impatient with easy explanations.”

“When you show up you can be seen, you can be found, you can be touched. And when you can be seen, you can be hurt. So we create abstractions to avoid being seen.”

“I don’t have to have all the conversation at once. Just begin.”

“The person you are just about to become is a stranger to you.” I’ve just finished reading Cathy Salit’s book Performance Breakthrough. She writes about her experiences of using performance and skills from theatre directing to help people discover parts of themselves they never knew could, or would, ever exist. “The person you are about to become is a stranger to you.”

“Stay in this place until the current of the story is strong enough to float you out.” Johnnie hosts Unhurried Conversations, an approach that explores a different way of being in conversation with others. “Stay in this place until the current of the story is strong enough to float you out.” 

“What would it be like to be the ancestor of our own future happiness?” Indeed.

And genius loci? Genius loci is the spirit of a place – the type of conversation held there is shaped by place. I’ve always known this. Even before I knew it.

Assumptions and revelations – a book review of Letters Left Unsent


March 24th, 2016

61hN+CdeyVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There’s an activity I did once at an applied improvisation conference about the assumptions we make about other nationalities. We were a large, mixed group from a dozen or so different countries. The Dutch amongst the group sat out and watched as the rest of us mimed and charaded our interpretations of Dutch culture. There was the inevitable bicycle riding, cheese eating, and tall, loud men shouting. The Dutch then responded with what they thought we had got right and what was wrong, or left out. Inevitably, there was a LOT left out. Despite our cumulative knowledge of Dutch culture, our views were narrow and stereotypical.

This came to mind as I was reading “Letters Left Unsent” – a compilation of essays drawn from blog posts written over the years by J, a career humanitarian. Ask anyone outside of the aid industry what aid workers do and there will be the inevitable responses of providing emergency assistance after disasters, building schools and health clinics, working with the poor and disenfranchised, and travelling to places most of us have never heard of. All of this is true, of course, and also narrow and stereotypical, just as our interpretation of our friends’ Dutch culture.

Aid, development work, humanitarian work, disaster response are all a part of it – and so is sitting in front of a computer screen, drafting grant applications, entering data into spreadsheets, answering emails, and having Skype meetings with colleagues at all times of the day and night. And, working out of Geneva, or Washington, or Nairobi. Humanitarians also struggle with conflicting demands – the demands of the job, the demands of friends, and of family, as J. writes in one of the more personal essays: Never Here.

J. also touches on some of the everyday dilemmas of doing humanitarian work as perceived by others: the glamour of travel (versus the reality of dingy airports, dodgy planes, and inevitable queues) and the wide-eyed interest in your latest deployment, that is soon replaced by glazed looks as you try and explain where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing, especially when that work and those places are far removed from the everyday reality of suburban life in a high-income country.

As interesting as these stories and insights are, it’s the description of the differences between good and bad aid that, I think, is the power of this book, especially for any readers outside of the aid industry. Or for anyone contemplating an aid project, or starting their own NGO, or even considering a career in aid. These insights are invaluable, especially in understanding why it’s not good aid to collect used bicycles and ship them off to a poor community somewhere in the world.

The essays in this book will enlighten, they will make you cringe, sometimes cry, laugh out loud, wish for a career in aid, and be thankful you don’t have a career in aid. That’s quite an accomplishment. It is testament to J’s writing and storytelling skills, and deep understanding of the aid industry and what it means to be a humanitarian.

Disclosure: I once had a beer with the author and asked many of the dumb questions he mentions in the book. He graciously answered my questions, without making me feel at all dumb, or stupid for asking what, for him, must have felt like, “Oh, not again!”

Disclosure 2: I once subjected the author to my facilitation in one of the many Very Important Meetings that he has to attend.

Fractals


February 17th, 2016

GobiSanddunesHave you ever been to an event that is talking about being one thing while being something else?

For example, a conference about innovation that uses well-established, mainstream and predictable processes? Or more specifically, focusing on creativity, for example, while sitting in ferried rows listening to an ‘expert’ speaker using poor powerpoint slides? With questions, taken in threes, at the end? Where did that custom of taking questions in threes come from? But I digress.

It’s easy to think about being different, much harder to do. I can think about being fitter, it doesn’t make me fitter. I can think about being creative, it doesn’t make me creative. I’m not advocating not thinking. Heaven forbid, I spend more time in my head than many, I suspect. And inspiring speakers can sometimes inspire us to action. Sometimes.

I was at such an event recently. I started thinking (yes, indeed) how easy it is to slip into talking about being one thing while being something else – to talk about creativity, innovation and change while reinforcing existing norms. Which got me thinking about fractals.

Here’s an explanation of fractals, according to the Fractal Foundation,

“A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Fractal patterns are extremely familiar, since nature is full of fractals. For instance: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc.”

What if our organisations, our communities, our cities, our countries, are also fractal? What if what we do at the smallest scale is representative of what happens at a larger scale? What if we want to transform our company or our community, we start with transforming the way we even talk about that transformation?

What if we started acting our way into a new way of being instead of thinking our way into a new way of being?

 

The artefacts of organisational culture


February 17th, 2016

The Senior Citizen’s Clubrooms where I was running a workshop seemed to have every nook and cranny plastered with small, and some not so small, laminated signs issuing instructions of what NOT to do or specifically how to act. It struck me at the time, as the sort of club I would want to avoid. The signs seemed, to me, to indicate a culture of control and mistrust.

A colleague used to say that he could tell a lot about an organisation’s culture simply by visiting the tea-room and seeing what artefacts were present. Like the signs in the clubrooms, tearooms are a microcosm of the broader organisational culture: signs about how to act, notices about social events, what’s stuck on the fridge, newspapers or magazines. Is the space dedicated as a tearoom? Is it a quasi storage area, stacked with boxes of documents that no-one wants to throw out? Fascinating places, tearooms.

I asked the LinkedIn Creative Facilitation group what other indicators there were of organisational culture. Here’s a summary of the responses.

  • What’s displayed on office walls, including motivational posters and the like, organisational statements, and awards
  • Conversations outside of meeting rooms – and people talking to each other, or not, outside of scheduled meetings
  • Personal items – photos, mementos etc
  • Nature – plants
  • How people greet each other, and how they greet strangers
  • How people make decisions, and presumable, how they enact those decisions
  • Staff amenities and how they are used

One reason I’m interested in this is the sometimes apparent mismatch between what an organisation espouses its values to be (often posted on the walls) and what values are actually played out. It’s hard to know what people are thinking – it’s easier to see how they are acting, either directly through their behaviour, or indirectly, through the artefacts present or missing. Of course, it’s all assumed, but I think organisational artefacts provide an interesting starting point for any exploration of organisational culture, especially if there’s a desire to change that culture in some way.

Becoming who we are not


February 11th, 2016

ImprovNotebookMy photocopier is broken. I’ve been searching for the manual. I haven’t found it yet. However, I did find a yellow notepad that I paid US1.49 for at the San Francisco Marriot in 2004. The price sticker is still on the back. I remember buying this notepad in the hotel gift shop. I remember walking along the waterfront, in the sunshine, trying to will jetlag away, and watching the planes land at San Francisco airport. I remember feeling like a fish out of water. Mainly because I was.

It’s hardly fathomable that 12 years have passed since then. My yellow notepad, foolscap of course – after all this is an American notepad – is well thumbed, but it’s years since I’ve looked at it. Possibly because many of the highlighted notes or margin annotations are now part of me. I no longer feel like a fish out of water.

Here’s some of my notes:

“Great exercise! Lots of applications.”

“Your job as a facilitator is to reconcile paradoxes, not to solve problems.” – Thiagi

“Performing is a creative activity. You build something new with others. Behaviour is following the rules, eg, stopping at a red light.” – Cathy Salit

“People who say they can’t tell stories really mean they won’t.” – Kat Koppett

This notepad is full of notes, activities that I experienced for the first time, connections to my existing work. I was a sponge, soaking up all the newness and the goodness. It was my first Applied Improvisation Conference, organised and hosted by Alain Rostain. I was in awe of most people. Actually, I was in awe of everyone, so I laid low. It changed my life.

Within months I was extolling the virtues of applied improvisation to my facilitation colleagues, or to anyone who would listen. They probably thought it was a fad. It wasn’t.

I returned the following year to New York, again jetlagged, awake at 3 am, seriously fading by 3 pm. Izzy Gessel and I were always the first at breakfast. I’d ask him to explain stuff to me, to help me build my improv vocab. He patiently obliged. I learnt. I played. I kept notes. I watched. I’d jump in – sometimes.

Embracing applied improvisation is still the best professional development decision I’ve made. Fast forward and applied improv has given me friends, inspiration, business opportunities, fun, games, trouble. Did I mention friends?

A few days ago Johnnie Moore recorded a pod-cast interview with Cathy Salit inspired by her work with Performance of a Lifetime and her imminent book Performance Breakthrough. It’s well worth a listen, if only to hear Johnnie and Cathy riff off each other’s ideas. Listen here. 

It also explains why applied improv opened up a whole new world for me during those few days in August, 2004. A world that I’m still exploring, still discovering, and still learning from – to continue to become who I am not.

Change your meetings, change your culture


February 1st, 2016

Beach1st of February – it’s when the new year ‘really’ starts here in Australia. The kids are back at school, most people are back at work, we’re all planning our next holiday…the weather is great. It really does feel like the new work year has properly begun.

And you’re stuck in a meeting!

Johnnie Moore and I are working on some great new stuff, building on our Creative Facilitation work of recent years. People often tell us how much they dread meetings. If our meetings are uninspiring, then so is our organisation. We believe that it’s in our meetings that we create our culture. Is it possible to set a different standard, and create meetings in which we are challenged, surprised and engaged?

I’ll be exploring this in some detail at my next public Creative Facilitation workshop in Melbourne on February 25/26.