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.


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.

Serendipity and discovery

February 1st, 2016

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s hard to get back into work mode after the holidays. It’s tempting to put off the inevitable, but today I had a couple of meetings to go to in Melbourne with some spare time to wander the streets. A bookshop beckoned. There’s not many bookshops around these days, so I was tempted. I never really wanted to be a librarian, as much as I admire their work, but libraries. I could lose myself in a library, making  discoveries. I’d sit on the floor, surrounded by books, lost for hours.

I’ve been tinkering with a taxonomy of improvisation. I thought it would be straightforward. It isn’t. I was thinking about this as I perused the cookbook section of this large bookstore, as I tried to work out how they organised the books. Was it by author, or by cuisine, or by course (entree, main, dessert)? As it turned out, yes. All of the above. It was slightly logical, in a confusing sort of way. I haven’t bought any cookbooks for years – there’s enough already on my shelves and Mr Google is my friend when I need instant inspiration. Nonetheless, I walked out with two books, and it was only through a great deal of restraint that I didn’t walk out with an armful. They are so beautiful to hold, to flip through. There’s always that potential for serendipity and discovery.

When I’m in a new city, or even one I know quite well, like Melbourne, I like to search out street art. The pic accompanying this post is from Lisbon, found in a very obscure, out-of-the way part of this great city. Serendipity and discovery.

Back in my office, I was searching through piles of old notes looking for something. I found myself reminiscing as I’d look at some notes and instantly recall the moment I was taking them – the ICA course I took in Toronto, Canada; the Casuarina Project I was delivering here in my own back yard. I even found an activity, long forgotten, that would explore this whole taxonomy business. The point is, if I did have everything ordered in a way that I could immediately put a finger on what I wanted, (and it’s effectiveness would depend a lot on my memory and my system of cataloguing) I might indeed gain some time but at the loss of serendipity and discovery.

Search engines, taxonomies, train time-tables, indexes – I love them all. And possibly, I love serendipity and discovery even more.


Bring your meetings to life in 2016 – February workshop dates announced

January 20th, 2016

VivCrouchingIt’s a whole new year, and a great opportunity to come to one of my Creative Facilitation workshops – still at 2015 prices. 

Where? Parkville, Melbourne.

When? February 25 and 26

How much? $440 per person for two days (if you book 3 or more people) or $700 for a single registration

How many people? Maximum of 18

Beyond the traditional ‘facilitator’ role – What does leading a meeting mean in today’s workplaces? How to avoid the mistakes that traditional education teaches us about how people share, learn and interact.

Participatory approaches – Ways of sharing information, gathering ideas, and making decisions that helps a group connect and engage with the content. How to create an environment of open-ness and trust, and getting people to work together.

Beyond words – How to get beyond wordy, and worthy, sometimes meaningless, words to unearth what’s really going on – using photos, action and story.

Bravo! You as a performer – While the group, and the processes you use, are important, what about you? How do you deal with challenges, stage fright, a crisis of confidence? The second day of this workshop focuses on YOU and gives you tips and tools to manage yourself, especially when things go wrong.

More information? Click on this link

Some musings on facilitating open space

November 11th, 2015

While open space has been part of my facilitation DNA for 25+ years, I don’t always have opportunities to facilitate open space events. That’s changed this past few weeks with two quite different events. The first was for a group of 40 humanitarian workers from the Pacific Region. They meet regularly, but this was the first time they had done so using open space. The second was with around 200 people, many with an engineering background,  from a state government organisation.

The first I facilitated alone, the second, I co-faciltated.

Given the choice, I would always choose to co-facilitate. It’s just not possible to have the sort of conversations I like to have with a co-facilltator (Should we or shouldn’t we do this or that? What if we…? How about trying…?) with my client. For one, it would probably freak them out to have too much of an insight into how my brain thinks up, considers, rejects, and eventually, after a circuitous route, lands on a course of action. Or not!

There’s a rhythm to an open space event, especially if people are new to the process. They arrive and view the circle with some suspicion, or at least apprehension. There’s nowhere to hide. It warms up slowly. Even if it’s a short open space, I like to include at least one sleep. People come back different after their subconscious has had a chance to process the experience of open space. Different how, you ask? More relaxed, more confident, willing to jump in – I’m not sure, but you can feel the different energy.

On the whole, I like big open space events better than smaller ones. There’s a buzz, an excitement around being able to get hundreds of people self-organising. It just seems to flow. As we know it always does. For me, it’s more evident when there’s lots of people.

I also love the way people are surprised by how useful it is just to talk with each other. Sure, there’s always someone who is a bit bored, or wants to move along at a faster pace, but generally the feedback is about the joy of actually sitting down and talking about what matters with other people who also care.

My favourite moment in open space is when people reconvene in the circle. I learnt from my friend and mentor, Brian Bainbridge, to sit in the circle and gently ring the bells till everyone comes and sits down. It may take a while, but eventually they do come. And with a large group, there’s also a lot of chatter. I absolutely love that moment, when ringing the bells, and all the chatter has stopped and there’s pretty much complete silence. It’s a moment you can practically touch. I find it deeply satisfying. A bit like open space itself.

Open Space on Open Space, Melbourne Dec 10

November 11th, 2015

IMG_7806I’ve just completed two days facilitating open space. And I’m exhausted. Why is facilitating open space – a process where it looks like the facilitator is doing not very much at all – so exhausting?

If you’re interested in this question and others about open space come along to our Open Space on Open Space in Melbourne on December 10. It’s for anyone who uses open space, has been a participant in an open space event and wants to know more, or is simply curious. It’s not a training (there’s one of those happening the following day, on December 11) – it’s more an opportunity to experience and share experiences of open space and deepen our understanding. Plus it will be fun to hang out.

What is Creative facilitation?

November 11th, 2015

And how does it differ from any other sorts of facilitation?

It took me a long time – literally years of trial and error – to find my own style of facilitation. It was helpful to see how other people facilitated and I would learn lots from them. But I was not other people. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say there were two huge influences on my facilitation: open space technology and applied improvisation. In-between I learnt lots of processes and techniques, useful of course to have many of these to draw upon, but alone, not enough.

Open space technology and applied improvisation provided a way of being a facilitator,not just doing facilitation. Eh? Does that sound a bit weird? Even if I am not specifically using open space or applied improv, the principles behind these approaches are always a part of how I facilitate.

For example, from open space I learnt to hand over responsibility to the participants, to step out of the limelight, to let people get on with it.

From applied improv I learnt to let go, to trust (both others, and myself), to commit, and how to perform as a facilitator.

Importantly, from both of these practices I learnt these things both cognitively and physically. Letting go is not just an abstract idea, it is a physical process.

Fast forward to 2010 when Johnnie Moore and I co-founded Creative Facilitation. Creative Facilitation embodies (literally) the best of open space and applied improvisation, and importantly, is based on this premise: that the participants in any workshop are creative, intelligent and want to succeed. With that in mind, we facilitate with people, not for people. It’s nuanced, and for me, it’s pivotal.